by Sihaya Black
Disclaimer: Well, considering that all of the following are dead: C.S. Forester, John Huston, and Humphrey Bogart, I'm sure they wouldn't give a toss what I've done with the story. Nor would Katherine Hepburn. As for the Pauls, who can say?
Author's Notes: Many, many thanks to Nancy, Kit, resonant, anne, Beth, and LaT for their help and encouragement. And for assuring me that it wasn't a stupid idea in the first place. All mistakes are my own fault and are usually due to the fact that I'm too stubborn to take advice, except where the correct usage of 'lay' and 'lie' are concerned.
Story Notes: AU alert.
Saturday, September 19, 1914
Thank you for your latest letter, dated June 17th. I am pleased to hear that you and Mackenzie are well, and that you plan to return to the cabin for the summer. Or should I say 'have returned?' I fear that I am still having difficulty adjusting to the notion that several months have elapsed from the time you set pen to paper until your letter is delivered to me. I do not know why this is so, for I have successfully managed to accept many of the other changes required of me. Regardless, I am glad that you and Mackenzie will be, or should I say, were, able to enjoy the time away from the bustle of town, and I hope that some time spent in the wild has cured, or at least reduced, Mackenzie's taste for pastries. Your tacit encouragement of his sweet tooth has long been a source of concern to me, and I doubt I will ever understand your enjoyment at feeding a half wolf clairs and cream puffs. Yes, I agree with you: I shall simply have to include that with the many other things I do not understand, and endeavor not to dwell upon it.
The mission continues to grow, and Uncle appears pleased with what he has wrought over the past twenty years. The new church building was finished in July, and we welcomed our congregation into its relatively spacious confines with splendid ceremony. Uncle preached a rousing sermon that seemed, in his words, 'to light the fire of the spirit' within the congregants, and I played and sang a few of his favourite hymns. Uncle decided to incorporate elements of the harvest festival into the ceremony, but unfortunately it was difficult to keep the animals away from the offerings, and one of the chickens pecked a gaping hole into the cabbage that Uncle had grown especially for the dedication. He was terribly disappointed, for you have no idea how difficult it is to grow a cabbage in this climate. It bolts quickly, and instead of the expected tightly packed globe, it usually results in a tall, stringy stalk with a few pathetic leaves and a tiny crop of yellow buds. One could view this as an allegory of the difficulties inherent in Uncle's mission; I, however, shall refrain from doing so. I am sure that my restraint in this matter will please you.
Our days pass quickly, and it hardly seems two years since I last saw snow and felt a chill wind against my face. I wish you to understand that this is not a plea for sympathy. I am fully cognizant of the fact that I chose to join Uncle, for reasons that even now are good and sufficient to me. I know you disapprove of my choice, and I do not wish to reopen old wounds or revisit old arguments. Please know that I am content here, glad to be doing useful work.
If I am fortunate, I will be able to send this letter to Limbazi within the next few weeks, and you should receive it by Christmas. It is indeed strange to celebrate the holiday in an atmosphere of oppressive heat, rather than the cold, crisp air of home, with luxuriant greenery and fragrant blossoms, rather than the astringent scent of pine. I remember your reaction to my last description of our holiday meal, so I shall forebear to include another one. Fortunately, both Uncle and I have excellent digestions. We certainly have cause to be thankful for that fact here. In answer to your question, I have indeed lost weight, although that is not a cause for concern. The heat affects one's appetite, that is all. I have managed to alter my clothing sufficiently to avoid embarrassment; your instruction in tent-mending and leather-working has certainly proved useful.
Wishing you the best of health, I am
Your dutiful son,
The din was earsplitting. Voices were raised in a long, wordless cry, throbbing between the mud walls and thatched roof. The smell... He was growing used to the smell of warm bodies, rotting vegetation, and the sharp odor left behind by the chicken that insisted on roosting behind the pedals of the pump organ. Ignoring the sweat that trickled down his temples and made his shirt cling to his back beneath his linen jacket, he took a deep breath, struck the next chord, and sang, his voice disappearing into the maelstrom of sound.
"God, Our Savior, God, Our Savior,
We will come to Thee..."
During a brief pause in the clamor, a thin, high-pitched whistle sounded from the river. He looked out over the dark faces of the suddenly restless congregation. A few heads were turning toward the door.
He played louder.
Although he could not hear them over the tumult, he was aware of every shriek of the whistle. At each sound, a tremor ran through the congregation, bodies turned, mouths closed. He sped up his playing, his feet pumping as fast as the organ's bellows would permit.
They were halfway through the last verse when he became aware of the man leaning against the doorjamb. As usual, his striped shirt was rumpled and his face unshaven. With a grin, he took the partially smoked cigar from his lips and tossed it behind him.
Turning his attention away from the man in the doorway, he continued to play, sweat dampening his collar and stinging his eyes.
The congregation, although visibly impatient to leave, was well-mannered enough to wait until he played the final chords and sang "Amen," before bolting for the doors.
He stilled his feet, heaved a sigh, and wiped the sweat from his face with a clean but well-worn handkerchief. Another Sunday service finished. Another penance completed.
"Benton, it's Mr. Kowalski." The Reverend Tiberius Fraser closed his hymnal.
Benton Fraser slid off the bench and followed his uncle to the door, handing him his hat and donning his own.
"Morning, Reverend, Mr. Fraser." Kowalski grinned at them, handing a packet of letters to Tiberius. "Here's your mail. Sorry I'm late, but one thing and another kept me at Limbazi. You know how it is..." He smiled broadly at Fraser, bright blue eyes flickering over his body. He winked. "Or maybe you don't."
"Good morning, Mr. Kowalski." Fraser nodded at him, his face growing even warmer, and suppressed his answering smile.
"And," Kowalski took a parcel from the crook of his arm and held it out to the Reverend, "the seeds you ordered, Reverend."
"Thank you, Mr. Kowalski." Tiberius took the package, smiling in delight. His lean, weathered face framed clear, gray eyes. "A new variety of cabbage, Benton," he leaned confidentially toward Fraser. "It should be more heat-tolerant than the others."
"Wonderful, Uncle." Fraser kept the exasperation from his voice. As if they needed more cabbage...
"You'll stay for tea?" Tiberius glanced up from his mail and raised an enquiring eyebrow at Kowalski.
"Sure. I could use something in my condition." Kowalski hitched up his trousers and walked with Tiberius toward the house. Fraser followed them. "I'm in for a going over when I get back to the mine," Kowalski confided with a grin. "Those Belgians call me all the names they can think of. But I don't mind being cussed out in a foreign language. They won't fire me. Isn't anybody in Africa, 'cept yours truly, can get up a good head of steam on the ol' African Queen."
Tea was set out in the dining room. There wasn't much furniture in the bungalow, but the rooms were as clean as Fraser and his native help could make them. Tiberius, his nose buried in a newspaper, waved Kowalski into a chair, and Fraser took his usual seat at the table. Kowalski pulled off his cap and stuffed it into the back pocket of his grubby trousers, then rubbed his fingers through his blond hair until it stood on end. It should have looked ridiculous, but somehow didn't.
"You take sugar, Mr. Kowalski?" Fraser lifted the teapot.
"That's right, Mr. Fraser. A couple of spoonfuls." Kowalski's eyes darted around the room and he shifted in his chair. He seemed uncomfortable, but, then again, he always seemed uncomfortable when he accepted their invitation for tea. Fraser picked up the creamer and briefly wondered why Kowalski had agreed to the invitation in the first place.
"That's right." A smile flashed quickly, and he took the cup, holding it gingerly in both hands.
"Bread and butter?" Fraser held out the plate.
"Thanks." Kowalski carefully set the cup in the saucer and took the plate.
"Thank you," murmured Tiberius, still buried in his newspaper, as Fraser passed him a cup. "Young Frobisher's been made a bishop. You remember Frobisher? Buck, I believe his name is. Ridiculous. What were his parents thinking?" He frowned and looked up. "And such a windbag. Younger than me. Your father's age. In fact, I believe they know each other."
"Yes, they are friends." Fraser lifted his eyes from where they were fixed on Kowalski's hands and nodded. "Father often told me about Mr. Frobisher's culinary skills."
"A bishop. And so young." Tiberius pursed his lips and gazed thoughtfully at his teacup. "He must have some influence. Didn't I hear that he married well? The daughter of an industrialist, someone influential. That would explain it."
"I didn't think he had married," Fraser said carefully and turned to Kowalski, who was tugging on the bandanna around his neck. The plate of bread and butter was empty. "More tea?"
"I'm delighted for him, of course," continued Tiberius, looking mournful. "Delighted. Buck Frobisher, a bishop..." He shook his head.
Kowalski grinned and pushed his cup forward. "Thanks." His bright eyes met Fraser's and he jerked his head toward Tiberius and shrugged. Fraser pressed his lips together. It was not seemly to mock his uncle, although the impulse was difficult to control at times. Tiberius could be very trying, but he was a penance, after all.
Kowalski's smile faltered, his eyes fell. Draining the cup quickly, he pushed back his chair and rose.
"Reckon I'd better be shoving off. I want to get back to the mine before tomorrow night."
Fraser stood. "Don't hurry, Mr. Kowalski," he said quickly.
"Do stay for dinner." Tiberius reluctantly lay down his paper and rose.
Kowalski stepped onto the veranda and put on his cap, squinting in the sunlight. "Thanks all the same. I probably won't be coming around this way for a couple of months."
Tiberius' eyebrows rose. "Really? But what about our mail?"
"Doesn't look like there's going to be any mail for a while." He scratched the back of his neck and frowned.
Fraser stepped out into the blazing sun. He would never become accustomed to the heat. Never. "Why not?"
"Germans'll hold it up."
"Why, in heaven's name!" Tiberius' voice rose, and his face flushed. A faint sheen of sweat covered his brow.
Kowalski shrugged, looking disgusted. "On account of the war."
"War?" Fraser repeated, not at all convinced he had heard him correctly. "Where, Mr. Kowalski?"
"Indeed, between whom?" Tiberius barked.
Kowalski blinked. "Germany. England."
"England?" Fraser glanced at his uncle and felt a chill race down his spine, despite the heat.
"You really mean war?" Fraser asked bluntly, then regretted his brusqueness.
"That's what they tell me." Kowalski didn't look offended. "The Germans claim the British started it, and the British claim it was the Germans." One of Kowalski's lightning smiles flashed across his face and disappeared.
"But what do you know about it? What's happened?" Fraser pressed.
"Lessee, that's all I can remember." His hand darted out, circling broadly. "Oh, yeah, the French are in it and all them little countries: Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Spain. I forget who's with who."
Tiberius glared at him. "Is that all you can tell us?"
"Well, that's all I know." He shrugged and pushed back his cap. "I'll see what I can find out when I get to Limbazi."
Fraser walked to the rail of the veranda and looked at the village. It had been his home for the past two years, and he had expected to live out his life and die here. Perhaps he had been mistaken. "I wonder what our position will be - enemy aliens."
Kowalski snorted. "Well, what harm could anyone do the Germans in this God-forsaken place?"
Fraser privately agreed with him, but that was not the point. "I would not call it that, Mr. Kowalski. My uncle is working hard to bring God's word to the villagers."
"Oh, no offense, Mr. Fraser." Kowalski looked startled and tilted his head to one side, gazing at Fraser thoughtfully. Fraser felt himself color at that steady regard.
"War," Tiberius said heavily.
"Yeah, it looks like it." Kowalski opened his mouth, then shrugged again and clattered down the steps. "Well, I'll be shoving off. Thanks for the tea. Take care of yourselves."
"Goodbye, thank you." Fraser watched him walk down to the river, his hands in his pockets, the seat of his stained trousers pulled taut. Kowalski spoke to several of the villagers as he went, and Fraser envied his ease among the natives.
"Wretched little man." Tiberius' voice was harsh. "What indifference! He's a Canadian. Doesn't he realize that we're in this too?"
Fraser watched the distant figure board the boat and cast off the moorings. A puff of steam signaled the boat's departure. He stifled an insane urge to call out, or wave, or somehow make Kowalski look back. "Shouldn't we try to get to Limbazi while we can?"
His uncle spoke gravely. "A good shepherd doesn't desert his flock when the wolves are prowling." They watched the trail of steam disappear upriver. "We must ask the Almighty to bless the arms of England and carry her to her hour of triumph."
Stifling the urge to reply that there were more tangible ways to assist England than prayer, and that there were no guarantees of her triumph just yet, Fraser knelt beside his Uncle and folded his hands. Penance. He must remember that.
"Bwana!" Suddenly, one of the men from the village rounded the side of the bungalow, yelling. "Bwana!"
Fraser scrambled to his feet and leaned over the veranda railing. The man was shouting something about strangers coming, strangers with guns. Fraser willed himself to concentrate on the tumble of words, to focus-
The clatter of booted feet sent the man running, and Fraser turned. Two uniformed white men, one tall and lean, one short with a round face, emerged from the trees, followed by a dozen uniformed natives. They all had rifles.
His hands were clammy and he wiped them absently on his trousers. He was vaguely aware of his uncle standing beside him, but he did not look away from the soldiers. The tall man, an officer, said something to the native soldiers and waved his arm. They ran into the village, ducking into the huts. Suddenly there were screams and shouts as the villagers erupted from their homes, streaming out, only to be stopped by other soldiers and corralled into a tight knot.
He could not believe his eyes and stood, stupefied, for a long moment. They would not, they could not... But they were.
Before Fraser could move, Tiberius launched himself down the steps, practically barreling into the tall officer.
"What is the meaning of this outrage?" Tiberius shouted into the man's impassive face, the villagers still running and screaming before them. "How dare you!"
The man looked at him coolly, his eyes flicking over to Fraser, who had joined him. "Sprechen Sie Deutsch, bitte."
"You- You-" Tiberius snarled, his face flushed. He raised his hands and shoved the officer, sending him staggering back several paces.
"No!" Fraser grabbed Tiberius before he could go after the man again. A flash at the corner of his eye, and the other German was there, his rifle raised...
"No!" he shouted again, turning to shield Tiberius before-
Pain erupted in his head and screamed up his arm. Fraser stopped and blinked, trying to clear his eyes, and swayed where he stood. His right hand blazed in agony. Tiberius lay still on the ground before him, a bloody welt on his temple, his silver hair turning rusty red from the copper-colored soil.
The round-faced German was raising the butt of his gun, aiming at Tiberius' head. Fraser could see the dark stain on the stock. He made a sound deep in his throat and took a step toward him, raising his left hand to-
He heard a thump and doubled over, the pain more than he could bear. Slowly, slowly, he fell to his knees, then onto his hands, panting harshly, smelling the sharp tang of blood and choking on smoke.
The ground rushed up to meet him.
He shifted his arms and tried to raise his head, biting back a curse as he put weight on his right hand; the pain slicing up his arm and down into his fingers made him queasy, and he rested his head on the ground again, trying desperately not to succumb.
After a few minutes, he was able to roll to his side and lever himself to a sitting position. His head swam, and he cradled his aching hand in his lap. His stomach roiled. God, he hurt everywhere.
The Germans... The villagers...
He slowly raised his head, squinting in the harsh sunlight. Tiberius was sitting on the bottom step, looking blankly at the village. Or what was left of the village. Fraser surveyed the blackened heaps of still smoldering straw and mud brick that had once housed families and his stomach turned. Desolation. Destruction.
"Uncle?" he croaked, his throat burning. "Uncle, did they hurt you?"
Tiberius did not look at him, but passed a shaking hand over his face. "Armageddon," he murmured, his eyes still fixed on the wreckage.
Fraser clambered unsteadily to his feet, supporting his right hand with his left. He hoped that it was not broken. His head felt clearer, but he wondered vaguely if he had a concussion.
"Uncle, come into the bungalow," he said, taking a step and wincing as the movement jarred his hand. "We must get out of the sun."
He stood before Tiberius, whose slack face slowly tilted up. Light blue eyes searched his face, and Tiberius looked puzzled.
"Bob?" he said. "Bob, what happened? What are you doing home from school?"
Fraser stared at him a moment, his heart sinking.
He slipped the sling over his head and carefully threaded his right arm into the folded cotton. His hand still hurt where the German had struck it, but he had strapped it tightly for support, and that seemed to help. He didn't think it was broken. Closing his eyes for a moment, Fraser willed himself to move. It was time to start dinner, a long, tedious task, even if he were not working alone and one-handed.
When he looked up, he was alone in the room.
"Good God," he muttered, wincing as he rose. He rather thought at least one of his ribs was cracked or badly bruised.
Fraser searched the bungalow in vain. Passing a window, movement outside, over by the village, caught his eye. A hatless, frail figure jabbed a hoe into the hard, dry earth. He sighed as he clapped his own hat on his head and picked up his uncle's hat. He was increasingly worried by Tiberius' behavior. The blow to his temple had obviously caused more damage than Fraser had originally thought.
"Uncle!" He waited until he was close to Tiberius and spoke gently, looking for a flash of recognition in that altered face. "Here you are, and without your hat on. Didn't you hear me calling you?"
Tiberius leaned on the hoe, his face shiny with perspiration, his tall, lean figure stooped and round-shouldered. He ignored the hat that Fraser held out. "Yes, but I must get the seeds in now. It's late: August."
Stifling his worry, Fraser took Tiberius' arm and started back toward the bungalow. "But you know it doesn't matter when one plants in Central Africa."
"Africa?" The child-like bewilderment in that voice caused an ache in his chest.
"Uncle, you're not at all well."
It took a while, but after much murmured cajoling and tugging and firm directing, they were in the blessed shade and coolness of the bungalow. Fraser led Tiberius into his small, plain room, the cross above the bed its only decoration.
Tiberius' eyes swept the room and he turned to Fraser. "Africa?" There was an edge to his voice that Fraser hadn't heard before, and he tensed.
"I'll help you off with your things."
Shaking his head, Tiberius clasped Fraser's shoulder and pushed him toward the door. Fraser stumbled and caught himself, hissing as his injured hand twisted in the sling, and stepped out of the room. There was certainly nothing wrong with his uncle's physical strength. The door closed in his face.
He stood for a moment, irresolute, and swallowed hard. He was parched, and Tiberius was probably even thirstier. He would bring his uncle a glass of cold tea, and then-
The thud from inside the room was not loud, nor was the accompanying moan, but together they set his heart racing as he burst through the door.
Tiberius, half-dressed, lay on the floor, his head lolling horribly.
"Uncle!" Fraser knelt beside Tiberius, sliding his left arm beneath his head and lifting him slightly. "Uncle!" Tiberius blinked and stirred, his face expressionless, his eyes blank. He glanced at Fraser and then away, his gaze wandering around the room.
Tiberius suddenly sat up. "Smite the Amorites, oh Lord. Smite them, let them die!"
By dint of pushing with his good hand and nudging with his right shoulder, Fraser urged him into the bed. Tiberius sat on the mattress, shivering, and he pressed him back into the pillows, then covered him with the light blanket.
"Cold," Tiberius murmured, closing his eyes. "Foggy." He sat up quickly, but sank back against the cushions again. Sweat broke out on his forehead, and he shifted restlessly. "Where's Bob? Bob? Are you there? Bring me a nice, hot cup of tea."
"I'm here, Uncle, beside you." Fraser turned to the washbasin and dampened the cloth, wiping Tiberius' flushed face. Oh, God, help him.
"I've tried so hard, you've noticed." Tiberius rolled his head from side to side and continued, speaking softly, rapidly. "Hebrew, Greek. I've got no facility. But I shall volunteer, as a missionary." Fraser wet the cloth again, and awkwardly wrung it out one-handed. He wiped his uncle's face, and Tiberius looked up at him, his brows drawn together in a frown. "Benton can join me, assist me in doing the Lord's work. He has grievously sinned, but he, too, can be a servant in the house of the Lord. Even for such as he, God has a goodly purpose."
Sinned. For such as he. The words hurt. Oh, God, they hurt more than his throbbing hand. Fraser squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth and desperately tried to accept, to endure, as he had promised himself he would, a promise made two years ago. Unfortunately, he was as far from that goal now as he had been then, acceptance beyond him, endurance all he could offer. He opened his eyes and wiped the moisture from his cheeks with a shaky hand, before wetting the cloth again and laying it on Tiberius' crimson forehead.
"I'm going to put my books away," Tiberius continued, relaxing back into the pillows. "I'm not going to work any more. God has other work for me. Thy will be done."
Fraser murmured "Amen," as he continued his ministrations.
"But oh, Lord," Tiberius burst out suddenly, his voice strong, and he snatched the cloth off his forehead and threw it to the floor, "if it be Thy will, let me distinguish myself. Give me a call, here, in Canada, at home. Mother would be so proud. Oh Lord, I've tried so hard..."
Fraser set his jaw and picked up the cloth. He could endure. He had to.
He rubbed his eyes and sighed, remembering his exertions of the previous night and early that morning. Penance, indeed. More was being required of him than the bargain he had initially offered. A life of servitude in a country antithetical to his nature. It was not good enough. His sins required more.
He was so tired. Fraser sat on the shady verandah, staring out at the desolate ruins of the village, too tired to move, too tired to do what needed to be done.
But it would have to be done soon. While there was still enough daylight-
A whistle shrilled from the river.
Relief flooded through him. Kowalski. He had returned, and Fraser was not alone, not yet. If there was a God, He had tempered penance with kindness, and Fraser felt ridiculously grateful.
Kowalski walked slowly through the blackened remains of huts, past the charred husk of what had been the First Methodist Church of Kungdu, to where Fraser sat. He barely looked at Fraser. His eyes were riveted on the devastation around them.
"So they've been here too, eh?" He leaned back against the railing and pulled off his cap, ruffling his hair. The sunlight glinted through it, haloing his head. "When I left the other day, the drums started in the forest. Pretty soon my crew was whisperin' and lookin' scared. I asked 'em what the trouble was, and they told me the drums said the soldiers was rounding up their people and marching them off and burning their villages so they wouldn't have no homes to come back to." Kowalski shook his head and pulled on his cap, continuing. "Sure enough, when I got to the mine, everything was a shambles. My crew took one look and bolted into the forest." He shook his head again and turned, resting his arms on the top rail. "The way I look at it, they plan to make soldiers of the natives and take over all Africa..." His voice trailed off as he looked at Fraser. "What happened to you?"
Fraser's face grew warm and he stared down at his bandaged hand and the sling around his arm. "The soldiers."
"You didn't try to stop 'em, did you?" Kowalski sounded astonished, and Fraser did not answer. "Where's the Reverend?" he snapped.
"He's in there." Fraser took a breath and steadied his voice. "He's dead."
"That's awful." Kowalski frowned, his face pale. "If they'd up and shoot a Reverend, who couldn't do 'em a bit of harm, well, then nobody's safe." He glanced over his shoulder.
"They didn't shoot him, Mr. Kowalski, but they may as well have done." He didn't try to temper his anger.
"That's certainly too bad, Mr. Fraser, that's all I can say," he said quietly, and his sympathy was almost more than Fraser could bear with equanimity. Kowalski rubbed his chin and looked up at the sun. "When did he die?"
"He died early this morning."
"Well, excuse me, Mr. Fraser," he said, looking uncomfortable. "What I mean to say is, what with the climate and all, the quicker we get him under the ground, the better. If you don't mind my saying so." He paused, tilting his head to one side. "You got a spade?"
"I can bury him myself." He set his jaw and met Kowalski's eyes.
"Not with your arm in a sling, you can't. And from the way you're sitting, I'd say you got hit in the ribs, too." He squinted at Fraser. "You don't look too good, neither. Why, I've seen more color in a piece of bleached sailcloth." The corner of his mouth lifted. "It isn't a crime to accept help when it's offered, Mr. Fraser."
Heat rushed into his face and he nodded slowly. "Understood."
"Now, where's your spade?"
"Behind the bungalow."
"I expect he'd like to be buried in the shade." The simple words almost undid him, and Fraser had to turn his head and blink quickly. "Tell you what," Kowalski continued, as if he hadn't noticed Fraser's reaction. "While I'm digging the grave, you get your things together, all the things you want to carry, then we can clear out in a hurry. The Germans might come back any time."
"Why should they?" Fraser looked around. Hadn't they done enough?
"Oh, they'll be back, all right. Looking for the African Queen." There was a note of satisfaction in his voice. "They'd give a lot to get their hands on her, you bet. And what's in her, too. Blasting gelatin, tinned grub, cylinders of oxygen, hydrogen. Heaps of things them Germans could use, you can trust 'em for that."
"The Germans." He almost spat the words.
Kowalski flashed an understanding look and nodded. "See, I figure we can go somewheres behind an island where it's quiet and we can talk about what to do."
Fraser stood carefully, schooling the wince of pain from his face. "I'll get ready."
"Fine," Kowalski said, rocking back on his heels. "I'll be as quick as I can."
He had managed to cobble together a cross out of a few of the timbers from the church that had been only slightly charred. The words 'Tiberius Fraser' listed crookedly along the horizontal arm, and Fraser frowned at them. He needed more time to prepare a fitting memorial, but time was a luxury they didn't have. He slung his pack over his left shoulder and, cradling the cross in his left arm, walked quickly to where Kowalski was standing, leaning on the spade and wiping his damp face with a grubby handkerchief. The mounded earth looked too small to contain a man his uncle's size, but he had helped Kowalski lay the body into the hole. It had fitted like a glove.
Without a word, he held the cross at the head of the grave, and Kowalski pounded it into the ground with the back of the spade. Fraser took a step back and bowed his head.
If Kowalski thought he was praying, Fraser wasn't going to correct him.
After a minute or two, Kowalski put on his cap and squinted at the sun. "Let's go, Mr. Fraser. Let's go while the going's good."
He didn't respond; he simply put on his hat and followed the other man down to the riverbank and onto the boat. His injury put him off balance as he stepped off the bank, and he accepted the strong support of Kowalski's lean hand as he boarded. He shrugged off his pack and set it in a corner, then looked around at the mess of crates, ropes and tools, hiding his expression of disgust with difficulty. The man had no pride, no discipline, no sense of order or method. Picking his way over the mess, Fraser cleared a small space beneath the awning in the stern and sat.
What on earth was he doing here?
Kowalski was over by the engine, bending over and peering at something that Fraser couldn't see. He grinned a little as he straightened up and twisted a valve, using a bit of filthy cloth to shield his fingers. The valve hissed, steam escaping, and suddenly there was a tremendous clattering racket as the engine engaged. Fraser winced. If he had to endure that for long he'd go mad, if he didn't go deaf first.
Kowalski didn't seem to mind the din. He ran to the stern, jumping nimbly over crates and tangled nests of rope, and grabbed the tiller, steering the boat into the center of the channel.
They chugged along without speaking, the unbroken green of the jungle hugging close to either side of the river, and gradually the tension in Fraser's shoulders and neck began to ease. Space. Air. For the first time in months, he did not feel the oppressive presence of trees crowding him. Even the clamor of the engine became bearable, part of the background noise. He closed his eyes, enjoying the breeze on his face. It wasn't bad, after all.
"Mind taking the tiller?" He opened his eyes at Kowalski's shouted question and looked at him blankly. "Come on."
He shifted to the other side of the tiller and took it in his left hand, despite his protest - "But I can't steer." Paddling or ruddering a kayak or canoe was nothing like steering a launch. Before Fraser could explain, Kowalski nodded and smiled encouragingly as he made his way forward to the engine.
"A little to the starboard," Kowalski yelled, gesturing to the right side of the boat. Fraser swung the tiller to the right, and Kowalski shook his head and gestured more broadly as the boat headed to the left. "No, the other way."
Fraser swung the tiller to the left and the boat came around and headed for the bank. Ah. Of course. He should have realized.
Kowalski tied a loose knot around a branch and whipped around to close the steam valve, cursing softly as the rag slipped. He blew on his fingers and then wiped his forehead with his sleeve. The din stopped, and Fraser sighed in relief.
"Well, so far, so good." Kowalski smiled again and looked around. "Here were are, safe and sound, as you might say. The question is, what next?"
Fraser nodded, trying not to look as lost as he felt. What next, indeed.
"We got heaps of grub here, so we're all right as far as that goes. Two thousand cigarettes, two cases of gin." Kowalski pulled a box of cigarettes from his trouser pocket and slid one out, lighting it carefully, his fingers cupped around the flame. For an instant, Fraser could see the ruby glow of fire through flesh, then Kowalski flicked the match over the side. "We could stay here for months if we wanted to." He hitched himself onto the gunwale, leaning his elbows on his knees and tilting his head, fixing bright eyes on Fraser. "Not a bad place to sit out a war, now is it? All the comforts of home, including running water." He grinned.
Fraser took a deep breath and rubbed his thumb over his eyebrow. The air had grown close and warm again when they stopped, and he took off his hat and fanned himself with it. "We simply can't remain here in this backwater until the war is over, Mr. Kowalski."
"Can't we, Mr. Fraser?" Kowalski nodded at a large sheet of paper near the tiller. "There's the map. Show me a way out, and I'll take it."
"The British will certainly launch an attack." Fraser replaced his hat and picked up the map, studying it quickly. "The only question is, which way will they come?"
"Maybe from the sea, up the railway to Limbazi, but that would put the Germans between us and them." Kowalski sounded dubious.
There was a large red area on the map, located to their east, and Fraser looked up hopefully. "Mightn't our soldiers come in from British east, Mr. Kowalski?"
Kowalski chuckled drily. "Yeah, they might, but the war in Europe would be over before they ever hacked their way through that forest." He slid off the gunwale and stood beside Fraser, leaning over the map. "No, we're in a bit of a fix, no matter which way you look at it. There's one thing's certain, they won't come up from the Congo, not even if they wanted to." His finger jabbed at the oval of blue on the map. "They gotta cross that lake, and nothing's gonna cross that lake while the Luisa's there. "
"The Luisa?" Fraser looked up, frowning at his own ignorance.
"A one hundred ton steamer." Kowalski pulled off his cap and rubbed his head, grudgingly admiring. "The Germans brought her overland in sections. She's the boss of the lake, because she's got a six pounder."
"A six pounder?" he repeated, startled at the size of her armament.
"A gun." Kowalski looked at him as if he were an idiot. "The biggest gun in Central Africa."
"I know what a six pounder is," Fraser replied, wincing at the defensive note in his voice. "I have fired one, if you must know. A ceremonial canon, which-"
"Yeah. All right." Kowalski interrupted with a shrug. "If it wasn't for the Luisa, there wouldn't be nothing to it. The Germans wouldn't last a month if our men could get across the lake." He inhaled on his cigarette. "But all that doesn't get us any closer to home, does it?"
Fraser barely heard him. He stared at the cargo littering the forward end of the boat for a long moment, then turned his eyes to the map. It might be possible... "This river, the Ulanga, runs into the lake, doesn't it, Mr. Kowalski?"
"Yes, it does." Kowalski glanced at the map and narrowed his eyes. "But if you've got any ideas about going down to the lake in this launch, you better get rid of them." His voice was flat.
"Well, first off, there's Shona." He pointed at the map, where the river curved in a gentle arc. "The Germans have a fort there, overlooking the river. If we tried to pass under their guns, they'd blow us right out of the water." Fraser opened his mouth, but Kowalski raised his hand and continued. "And then after that there's the rapids, a hundred miles of water like it was coming out of a fire hose, and then after that, why, the river's even got a different name." He put the cigarette to his lips. The end glowed red. "It's called the Bora. That just goes to show you, they didn't even know it was the same river until this fellow Spengler got-"
"He got down it, I remember," Fraser interrupted.
"Well, yes, in a dugout canoe," Kowalski said grudgingly. "Had a half a dozen Swahili paddlers. Mapmaking, he was. That's his map you're lookin' at." He flicked the end of his cigarette over the side of the boat and leaned against the gunwale.
Fraser stood slowly, hardly feeling the pain in his ribs. It might... it must be possible. He could pay for his sins... "Mr. Kowalski, what did you say was in these boxes with the red lines on them?"
"Oh, them? Well, that's blasting gelatin."
"I assume it is safety gelatin?" His eyes traveled over the other cargo.
"That's right." Kowalski pushed away from the gunwale and stood beside him. "You can get it wet and it don't do it any harm, you can set fire to it and it just burns. You can hit it with a hammer and it won't go off, at least, I don't think it will." He chuckled and turned to Fraser. "It takes a detonator to set it off. I'll put it over the side, though, if it worries you."
His mind racing, Fraser ignored Kowalski's misplaced solicitude. "No, we may want it. Mr. Kowalski?"
"Yes, Mr. Fraser?" Kowalski lit another cigarette.
"What is in the metal cylinders?" He pointed at the pile of three or four cylinders, half-buried beneath boxes and rope.
"Oxygen and hydrogen."
He took off his hat and fanned his face, trying to temper his growing excitement with practical considerations. Yes, it was true that he would, in all likelihood, die, but wasn't that preferable to living as he had been for the past two years? "Mr. Kowalski?"
"I'm still right here, Mr. Fraser." Kowalski's voice held a mixture of irritation and amusement as he continued. "There isn't much of any other place I could be on a thirty-foot boat."
"You're a machinist, aren't you?" Fraser clapped on his hat and turned, smiling. "I mean, wasn't that your position at the mine?"
Kowalski shrugged and grinned shyly in response. "Yes, kind of a fix-it, jack of all trades and master of none, like they say." He ran a finger under the bandanna at his throat and stuck his cigarette in his mouth.
Fraser's smile broadened. "Could you make a torpedo?"
The cigarette went flying over the gunwale and Kowalski coughed, bending over and thumping his chest until the worst was over. "How's that, Mr. Fraser?" he wheezed, blinking hard. His eyelashes were damp and glittered in a stray beam of sunlight. He rubbed them with the back of his hand.
"Could you make a torpedo?" Fraser repeated patiently, ignoring the tightness in his chest.
"A torpedo?" Kowalski laughed and pulled off his cap. "Ask me to make a dreadnought and do it up right." He shook his head and sat down in the stern, leaning back and resting his arm along the tiller. "A torpedo, Mr. Fraser? You don't really know what you're asking. Y'see, there isn't anything so complicated as the insides of a torpedo. It's got gyroscopes, compressed air chambers, compensating cylinders..."
Fraser frowned. "But the gyroscopes and compensating cylinders and all, they're only to make it go, aren't they?"
"Yeah." Kowalski nodded. "Yeah, go, and hit what it's aimed at."
"Well." Fraser turned in a slow circle, his excitement building. "We've got the African Queen."
"How's that, Mr. Fraser?"
"If we were to fill those cylinders with that blasting gelatin," he said, pointing at the cylinders and crates, "and then fix them so that they would stick out over the end of the boat and then run the boat into the side of a ship, they would go off, just like a torpedo, wouldn't they?" He looked at Kowalski for confirmation.
"Yeah." Kowalski frowned, tilting his head. "If they had detonators in the end."
"We could get a good head of steam up and then point the launch toward a ship and just before she hit, we could dive off, couldn't we?" Fraser met Kowalski's eyes. He was a fellow Canadian. Surely he would understand, would support this...
"Why, sure. Sure, absolutely." Kowalski's smile looked pasted on, and he sounded as if he were humoring Fraser. "There's only one little thing wrong with your idea. There isn't anything to torpedo."
"Oh, yes there is." Fraser smiled broadly.
"Something to torpedo."
"What's that?" Kowalski raised an eyebrow.
"The Luisa?" Gaping at him for a moment, Kowalski leapt to his feet and made his way to where Fraser stood. "Oh, now, don't talk stupid, Mr. Fraser! We can't do that, honest we can't. Like I told you before, we can't get down the Ulanga." He shook his head and gestured wildly at the river.
"Spengler did," Fraser said quietly.
"Well, in a canoe-" he shrugged.
Fraser looked at him levelly. "If the Germans did it, we can do it too."
"Not in a launch," he snapped, color flooding his face.
"How do you know? You've never tried it."
"I never tried kickin' myself in the head, neither." Kowalski took a deep breath and shook his head indulgently. "The trouble with you, Mr. Fraser, is that you don't know anything about boats."
Don't know anything... Fraser opened his mouth to rebut Kowalski's words and then reconsidered. Ultimately, this was not about him. "Knowledge of boats isn't necessary, Mr. Kowalski," he said. "What is important is to assist, in any way possible, the efforts of our soldiers."
Kowalski snorted. "I don't stick my neck out for anybody."
Fraser narrowed his eyes and looked coolly at Kowalski. "In other words," he said slowly, "you are refusing to help your country in her hour of need, Mr. Kowalski?"
Kowalski raised his hands and turned pink. "I wouldn't put it that way."
"Just how would you put it, Mr. Kowalski?" His voice was ice.
Kowalski's eyes widened and his head jerked up. He stepped back, knees bent, weight on both feet, hands clenched. Fraser tensed, waiting for a fist to be raised. He would defend himself one-handed, if necessary, but only if Kowalski struck first. His tongue ran along the top of his lower lip, and he forced himself to remain silent.
After a moment, Kowalski's eyes lit on the map, and he suddenly relaxed and grinned. He pulled off his cap and rubbed his head. His hair glowed gold in the sunlight. "All right, Mr. Fraser, have it your own way. But don't blame me for what happens."
With a sigh of relief, Fraser passed Kowalski and sat at the tiller. His fingers tingled, and he adjusted his sling. "Very well then. Let's get started."
Kowalski stared at him. "What, now?"
Glancing at the sky, Kowalski frowned. "Well, there aren't two hours of daylight left."
"We can go a long way in two hours, Mr. Kowalski."
"Ah." His frown deepening, Kowalski dragged on his cap. "Well, I have to get the old kettle to boiling and..." He shrugged, hesitating.
"Well?" Fraser grabbed the tiller and raised an eyebrow. "Go ahead, Mr. Kowalski."
With a glare, Kowalski turned and picked his way over to the boiler, squatting beside it, his back to Fraser. Fraser heard the clank of the boiler door being flung open, and then the muffled thunk of wood being thrown inside.
"Could you make a torpedo?" The words were muttered, but he could just make them out above the sound of wood hitting the inside of the boiler. "Why do so, Mr. Kowalski..."
Fraser smiled. He was right; he could feel it in his bones. Kowalski would help. His plan would work, and the British would be able to cross the lake and push back the Germans. His smile faded. His uncle had not died in vain. And he, a voice whispered in his mind, would be able to do his duty...
The sun had dipped below the treetops, and the river lay in shadows. Fraser shifted on the hard seat and the boat drifted toward the left bank.
"A little to starboard, Mr. Fraser." Kowalski was leaning against the gunwale, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He took a last, long drag on his cigarette and flicked it over the side. "That's right. Eh, you're doing fine," he shouted. His smile was broad and warm, his eyes sparkled, and Fraser's breath caught in his chest.
"It's really quite easy, isn't it, Mr. Kowalski." He was pleased that his voice was steady, despite having to yell over the sound of the engine, and he hoped that the dusk hid his unfortunate tendency to flush.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Kowalski jerked his head downstream. "Ah, you've got to learn to read the river."
"Read the river?" Fraser nodded. "Yes. Of course."
"Yeah, you see that long thing over there?" Kowalski pointed to a disturbance in the water by the right bank. "Look kind of like a V? That means a snag."
"Indeed." Fraser gestured to the left, awkwardly holding the tiller for a minute with his injured hand, before bringing it under control again. "That choppy water over there, that means shallows, doesn't it?"
"That's right." Kowalski gave him an approving nod. "The Queen doesn't draw much water, so we can go right over 'em. Most boats would get their bottoms torn out."
They continued on for a few minutes, then Fraser called out.
"When it's smooth and flat, like that over there, that means a rock, Mr. Kowalski."
Kowalski grinned. "A rock or a hippo, Mr. Fraser. But don't go bumping into a hippo. Makes 'em awful mad." He winked so fast that Fraser almost missed it. "This boat's only big enough for the two of us." Laughing, he suddenly cocked his head to one side, as if he were listening to...
Fraser had no idea. How could he hear anything over the noise of the engine?
Still chuckling, Kowalski darted off to the boiler, hitching himself up on the gunwale, raising his rubber-shod feet and... Fraser stared at him, bewildered. He was kicking the boiler, grinning broadly, pounding it with his feet. After a dozen or so kicks, steam hissed from one of the pipes and Kowalski lowered his feet. He grabbed a valve and jerked his hand away with a curse. Snatching up a rag, he turned the valve and appeared satisfied.
Fraser was halfway out of his seat. "What was the matter, Mr. Kowalski?"
"Feed pump's full of scum and rust." He wiped his hands with the rag and smiled fondly at the boiler. "She gets clogged up. Kickin' her starts her to working again. I gotta act fast, 'cause one of my crew dropped a screwdriver down the safety valve."
Fraser looked dubiously at the boiler. "What would happen if you didn't kick her?"
Kowalski laughed again. "Whole boiler'd blow up." His hands and arms made an all too eloquent gesture.
"But if we're going downstream, Mr. Kowalski," asked Fraser, "why do we need the engine at all? Canoes and kayaks don't require-"
"Not the same thing," he replied with a shake of his head, pulling out his box of cigarettes. "A boat's gotta go faster than the water, or you can't steer. If I were to let the engine die going down the rapids, we'd be goners."
Fraser pondered his words for a moment, automatically correcting the course of the boat around a snag. "Mr. Kowalski?"
"Yes, Mr. Fraser?" The glowing end of the cigarette was a beacon in the growing dusk.
"Why don't you dismantle the safety valve and remove the screwdriver?"
"You know, I'm going to do that one of these days." Kowalski bent his head back, looking at the sky, the long line of his throat pale against the shadows of the trees. "The only reason I haven't done it up to now is, 'cause I kinda like kickin' her. She's all I've got, since..." He sounded wistful. His half-smoked cigarette arced over the side of the boat and he gestured toward the right bank. "Bring her around, Mr. Fraser. We've gone far enough for tonight."
Fraser steered the boat into a calm side water, and Kowalski cut the engine and dropped the anchor over the side. He turned to Fraser, wiping his damp face with his handkerchief.
"Ah, it's kinda hot work, isn't it, Mr. Fraser?" He smiled and picked his way over to where Fraser was sitting. "I could do with a drink. Excuse me." Leaning over Fraser, he opened one of the crates stacked up beside the tiller and pulled out a bottle.
It was a familiar shape, full of clear liquid.
Fraser held his breath and could not take his eyes from the bottle.
Kowalski grabbed a glass from their meager store of dinnerware and poured himself a generous portion. Raising his glass, he drank half of it straight off, then turned to Fraser.
"You gonna have one, Mr. Fraser?"
Fraser shook his head, eyes not leaving the bottle. He could not read the label. "What is it?" His voice was hoarse.
"Gin." Kowalski's eyes flicked over his face, and he tilted his head to one side. "Something the matter, Mr. Fraser?"
Forcing himself to respond, Fraser shook his head. "No."
With a tentative grin, Kowalski jerked his head toward the kettle sitting against the right gunwale. "How'd you like a nice cuppa tea?"
Fraser nodded, running his tongue over his lip. He swallowed hard. "I'd like a cup of tea."
Kowalski put down the bottle and glass and picked up the kettle. He opened another chest and took out a tin, opening it carefully, and spooning tea into the kettle. Replacing everything neatly, he turned back to the boiler. Fraser took a deep breath as Kowalski filled the kettle from one of the pipes leading from the boiler.
"Course, it'll taste a little rusty," he said, returning with the kettle, and sitting on a crate in front of Fraser, "but then, we can't have everything, can we?" His grin was so infectious that Fraser responded without thinking, and Kowalski's smile broadened. Kowalski poured the tea into a thick mug with as much care as if he had been using the finest Spode, and handed it to Fraser. "There you are. I'll get this out of your way." Leaning over Fraser again, he lifted the tiller out of the brackets and set it to one side. "Sugar, Mr. Fraser?" At Fraser's nod, he opened another tin and spooned sugar into the mug.
Fraser held the mug as if it were his salvation. "Thank you." He did not allow his eyes to stray to the gin bottle.
"Don't mention it." Kowalski leaned back and picked up his half-finished glass, downing the remainder in one swallow. He wiped his face again. "Have a bit of supper, Mr. Fraser?"
Shaking his head, Fraser took off his hat and fanned his face. "It's too hot to eat."
They were silent for a few minutes, and Fraser enjoyed the relative stillness. Although he had become accustomed to the racket of the engine, it was a relief when it ended. The usual dusk noises were strangely comforting, a small point of familiarity in the midst of upheaval.
Kowalski shifted on his seat, stretching his legs out. "How long you been out here, Mr. Fraser?"
Fraser stiffened, then forced himself to relax. It was a harmless question. "Almost two years."
"And the Reverend? I thought he'd been here longer'n that."
"Yes. My uncle is..." He caught himself. Dear Lord, had it only been this morning? "He had been a missionary here for over twenty years."
Kowalski winced and looked away, as if he regretted his question. His right leg jittered, and he leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees.
"What part of Canada do you come from?"
Fraser's mouth dried even as he chastised himself for his reaction. "The Territories."
"Ah." Kowalski nodded. "Cold. Lots of open space. Not too many people, right?" he added, as if that explained something.
"Yes, that about sums it up." A sudden wave of homesickness crashed over him. Oh, God, what was he doing here? He wanted, no, needed the cold, the open spaces, the solitude...
"Ever get homesick?" Kowalski asked and Fraser started, staring at him.
"Yes," he said reluctantly. "I miss the solitude. The cold, the snow..."
"Yeah," Kowalski laughed. "I haven't seen snow in, four, five years."
"What brought you to Africa, Mr. Kowalski?" he asked, surprised to find that he was actually interested in Kowalski's answer. And if asking questions helped divert attention from his own vague answers, so much the better.
"The Zambezi bridge." Kowalski grinned and pulled off his cap, wiping his forehead with the back of his forearm. "A whole boatload of us Canucks came over to work on it. Don't know yet what they wanted a bridge for, both sides of the river being the same, but," he shrugged and laughed, "why does the chicken cross the road?"
Fraser stared at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"Nothing, Mr. Fraser," Kowalski replied, rubbing his head. It seems to be a habit, Fraser decided, and it made his hair stand on end in a most interesting fashion. Kowalski ran his finger inside the bandanna tied around his neck and stared at the treetops. "Ah, sometimes I wish I was back, rubbin' elbows, as they say. You know, there's nothing like the jostling, the noise, and the music of a Saturday night for cheerin' a fella up. The rest of the week I'd be taking orders from somebody." He lowered his gaze and winked at Fraser. "Out here, I'm my own boss. Anyway, I was until..." He stood up suddenly and peered over the side. "Hey, you didn't see any crocodiles in this arm, did you, Mr. Fraser?"
"Crocodiles?" Bewildered, Fraser looked around the boat. "No."
Kowalski nodded. "Ah, there's no shallows for 'em. The current's too swift." He turned to Fraser, unbuttoning his shirt. "I could do with a bath before I turn in."
Fraser blinked. "A bath?"
"Yeah." Kowalski pulled off his shirt, and toed off his shoes. "It'll cool you down so you can have some grub and then get to sleep."
"Yes. Of course..." Fraser slowly ducked his head through the loop of the sling, and shrugged off his linen jacket. A bath did sound wonderful. He stood and turned toward the stern.
He started on his shirt buttons, fumbling a little with his injured hand, when a grunt from Kowalski caught his attention and he turned back.
Kowalski was bent over, his back to Fraser, pulling his underwear down over his... Oh, dear Lord. Fraser stared, transfixed, by the long, lean back, the pale buttocks, and the strong thighs that were slowly exposed. Kowalski stepped out of the knit underwear and dropped them to the deck, raising his arms and stretching languidly, unselfconsciously graceful, his back and neck arching, his buttocks tightening...
Fraser could hardly breathe, and his trousers suddenly became uncomfortably taut across his groin.
Kowalski shook his head and shoulders and then untied the bandanna around his neck, dropping it onto the rest of his clothes. He glanced around at Fraser and grinned.
"Hurry up and get your clothes off or it'll be too dark to swim."
He could not help it, he had to look. His eyes flickered down Kowalski's body: the surprisingly broad chest, the flat stomach, the tangle of hair surrounding lax genitals...
His face burned, and he spun around, hoping against hope that Kowalski hadn't noticed his regard. His hands shook, and he briefly considered staying in the boat and having a sponge bath. However the coolness of the water would quench his arousal. And God knew the sight of Kowalski's naked body had aroused him more than he ever would have guessed.
A splash behind him allowed him to relax a little. At least he was alone on the boat. Fraser tugged off his shoes and socks gratefully, and stripped off his shirt and trousers. He wiggled his toes and reached for the buttons on his underwear, his hands stilling as he undid the first one.
He could not swim naked with Kowalski. It was too dangerous. If Kowalski noticed... He took a deep breath and refastened the top button. His underwear would not hide everything, but would hopefully disguise the extent of his arousal. Fraser stepped to the opposite side of the boat and sat on the gunwale, swinging his legs over the side and dropping into the water.
The chill was shocking.
His flesh contracted in the cool water, and he shivered. He took a huge breath, ducking beneath the water and then surfacing with a gasp. It was wonderful.
He heard Kowalski humming and splashing on the other side of the boat, and was tempted to peer around the stern, but no. He resolutely remained where he was, enjoying the feel of the water and the chill that crept up his spine. For the first time in two years, he was not uncomfortably aware of the heat.
A little later, he heard Kowalski heave himself into the boat. A vivid image of that long, lean body, dripping and slick with water, stirred him again. The coolness of the water, however, kept him from becoming fully aroused. Good.
He ducked under the water again, and then paddled to the stern of the boat. He could lean over the gunwale and grab his shirt, preventing any unintended glimpses.
His left hand slipped on the rudder, and when he reached out with his right, a sharp pain made him hiss. Damn. He had forgotten his injury. Perhaps if he could find a foothold...
Five minutes later, Fraser paddled, grim-faced, to the starboard side of the boat.
"Yeah?" A tousled head peered down at him. His mouth went dry, and his arousal... Oh, dear Lord.
"I forgot about my wrist," he said, swallowing hard and raising his hand out of the water. The bruising was visible even in the dim light. "I can't get back into the boat. Do you have a ladder?"
"I don't have anything like that, Mr. Fraser. I'll have to give you a hand." Kowalski's voice was matter-of-fact.
Fraser ran his tongue behind his lower lip and paddled in place. Surely there was another way.
"C'mon, Mr. Fraser." Kowalski sounded impatient. "I'll help you."
He nodded. There was nothing for it, but he could prevent Kowalski from noticing... "Close your eyes."
"Close your eyes, please!" He spoke firmly, using the voice of authority. Once, he had been proficient at it, and he hoped he had not lost the ability to summon it at will, even after two long years of disuse. "Mr. Kowalski?"
Kowalski sighed. "Yeah. Fine."
A hand reached down from the boat, and Fraser grabbed it, gasping at the warmth, the feel of strong bones and callused flesh. It was an awkward business with his useless wrist and sore ribs, but he finally managed to slip over the gunwale and stood for a moment on the deck, underwear dripping, his arms and legs shaking from exertion. Exertion, and, if he were brutally honest with himself, desire, burning deep in his belly.
Kowalski had kept his eyes closed - Fraser had made sure of that - and now he stood with his back to Fraser, shifting from side to side. He had not put on his shirt, and his thin cotton vest displayed the rangy muscles and smooth skin of his back and arms clearly. He slid his hands into his trouser pockets, and the seat of his pants pulled tight across his-
Pressing his lips together to stifle the sound that tried to emerge, Fraser rushed to the stern and threw on his shirt, buttoning it with trembling fingers. He must control his responses to Kowalski, cover them with shallow social niceties and pretend that his nerves weren't being scraped raw by the sight of his body, by his very closeness.
That one syllable, not even a word, struck him like a blow. He whipped around. Kowalski was intently studying the forest off the starboard side of the boat.
"Yes, Mr. Kowalski?" His voice was deep and rough, and he blushed.
"It's not a good idea to wear wet things in this climate, Mr. Fraser," he said to the trees. "There's all kinds of..." His voice trailed off and he winced. "Well, it isn't good. Anyways, I'm going to clear a space up in the bow for me to sleep, and you can have the stern. So you can do whatever you need to, and I... won't see anything," he finished, shrugging.
Fraser's blush deepened. "That won't be necessary," he said. "I'll sleep in the bow."
"Nah." He could see the corner of Kowalski's mouth curl. "I've done it plenty of times. There's blankets under the seat, so's you can dry off and make yourself comfortable."
Kowalski turned and walked toward the bow.
Fraser watched him for a moment, then turned and stripped off his soaking underwear, laying it over the rail to dry. He had clean clothes in his valise, and once he was clad in trousers and shirt, his panic receded. The blankets were where Kowalski had said, and he made a pallet on the deck beneath the canopy.
He expected he would find it difficult to sleep, but his eyes closed as soon as his head hit the blankets, and he knew no more.
Someone was drumming loudly. Fraser shivered, clutching his blanket close. A shadowy, indistinct figure beckoned, its face and form blurred, as if half hidden behind a rain-streaked windowpane.
The pounding increased.
He moaned, and the form made a familiar gesture. He shook his head, but slowly, reluctantly turned onto his stomach, pillowing his head in his arms, spreading his legs.
A thud, a sharp crash, and a hand grabbed his leg.
"No!" He jerked his leg away, rolling onto his back and gasping at the lance of pain through his side. "No, Mark!"
"It's me," said a husky voice. "Kowalski."
"Oh." His heart still pounding, Fraser swallowed and blinked, rubbing his eyes. Where was he? The floor rocked gently. Ah. Of course. He raised his head and peered into the dimness. "What is it?"
The huddled figure before him shifted. "It's raining."
And then the sounds made sense. The rain was drumming on the canopy overhead. Kowalski had been sleeping in the open in the bow, and was probably soaked.
"Come in, then." Gritting his teeth at the ache in his side, Fraser slid to one side, dragging his blankets with him. Kowalski, draped in a sodden blanket, sidled in and sat in the far corner.
"Sorry I gave you such a turn." Kowalski sneezed and drew the blanket closer.
"That's quite all right," replied Fraser. He hesitated. Wisps of memories, of rough hands and demanding lips, clung to him. "Mr. Kowalski, your blanket is soaked. Put it outside and take one of mine." He dragged one of the blankets from his pallet and held it out.
With a murmur of thanks, Kowalski took it. With a sigh and another sneeze, he curled into a ball in the corner. Fraser shifted on his pallet. Under the circumstances, it would be entirely understandable if he offered to share his bed with Kowalski... His stomach tightened and his groin stirred. Face flaming at the thought, he ruthlessly stamped on the idea. After a few minutes, Fraser heard soft snoring and laid down his head.
He listened to the sound of the rain thrumming against the canopy for a long time.
Fraser sat in the stern, his hand on the tiller. The stretch of water ahead was wide and clear, and he tilted his head back for a moment, watching a cacophonous, violently colored flock of birds settle high in the treetops, setting the slender branches swaying as they called and bickered. The day had dawned bright and clear, despite the previous night's downpour, and they had made good time.
Lowering his eyes, he smiled. Kowalski stood beside the engine, adjusting a valve, his head cocked to one side, frowning in concentration. Fraser pulled his eyes back to the river, gauging their speed against landmarks on the shore, as Kowalski had shown him that morning. He pursed his lips after his first count, then counted again, his gaze fixed on the rock downstream that was his landmark. One. Two. Three. Four. Five...
"Mr. Kowalski?" he called, leaning forward and cupping his hand around his mouth.
"Yeah?" Kowalski's frown disappeared. He wiped his hands on a rag and ambled to the stern.
"The current's quite strong, here, isn't it?"
Kowalski grinned and jerked his head toward the bow. "Yes. We're getting near the rapids."
A prickle of anxiety settled in his gut. "Really? So soon?"
"Just around that bend." Kowalski's grin broadened. "Kinda dangerous. Better let me take over."
Fraser held onto the tiller until Kowalski took it firmly. He glanced over at Fraser, his teeth bared in a smile, his eyes bright. "Hang on tight."
Gripping the gunwale with his good hand, Fraser braced himself as they rounded the bend. He didn't need to count to tell that they were speeding up, and under the clatter of the engine, he thought he could hear a bass rumble...
Another turn, and he peered ahead, his mouth suddenly dry. The river in front of them was boiling, churning around enormous boulders, curling back on itself in huge waves, pouring through narrow gullies. He had seen the like before, cascading down granite-walled mountains, but only from the stable safety of the shore. The wildness, the sheer ferocity of the water before him made his breath catch in his throat. He turned dumbly to Kowalski, his mouth open, his eyes wide.
Kowalski was still smiling, and as he caught Fraser's glance, he laughed.
And then they were in the torrent, immediately soaked and buffeted by the waves that broke over the sides. Fraser braced himself more firmly, torn between watching Kowalski fight with the tiller and watching the narrow channel ahead, bordered by huge rocks. The boat started to turn, the stern swinging around to the left, and Fraser knew with sickening assurance that they would be forced sideways, swamped by the waves and dashed against the rocks.
Kowalski yelled something that was lost in the din, his face red with exertion, the tendons in his neck standing out like rope, his narrow hands clasped hard on the tiller, his sodden shirt plastered over the bulging muscles of his arms...
A wave slapped Fraser's face, and he clutched at his hat, watching the boat straighten, the bow heading toward the gap in the rocks like an arrow into a bull's-eye.
There was the blur of the passing rock face, a nauseating jolt as the boat dropped precipitously, and then, suddenly, wonderfully, they were clattering along a quiet stretch of water.
Fraser gasped, panting, his limbs tingling and his vision somehow far brighter and clearer than ever.
"Here y'are, Mr. Fraser."
His head jerked around when Kowalski pushed the tiller at him and he grasped it automatically. Kowalski rolled his neck and shoulders and then stretched his arms over his head, groaning a little.
He turned to Fraser and laughed. "Well, Mr. Fraser?"
Fraser had trouble catching his breath, and it was a moment before he could answer. "Yes, Mr. Kowalski?"
"How'd you like it?"
"Like it?" He watched the river ahead, his skin sensitive to every brush of clothing, every whisper of air.
Another laugh. "White water, rapids?"
"I..." He swallowed, the words slipping beyond his reach.
"I don't blame you for being scared, Mr. Fraser," Kowalski said, sounding strangely satisfied. "Not one little bit. No person in their right mind isn't scared of white water."
Fraser turned to him, his face warm and every nerve in his body alive and dancing. "I had forgotten how... stimulating such danger could be," he confessed, meeting Kowalski's smile with his own.
Peering at him, Kowalski scratched behind his ear. "How's that?"
"It's been so long since I experienced such peril, that I had forgotten the accompanying physical responses." He wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve and ran his tongue along his bottom lip. "It was delightful."
"You mean," Kowalski said, his face puckering up, "you want to go on?"
There was something in his voice... Confused, Fraser met his eyes. "Naturally."
"Mr. Fraser, you're unhinged!" he erupted, flinging up his arms.
Fraser leaned back. "I beg your pardon?"
Kowalski glared at him, shoulders cocked. "You know what woulda happened if we'd come up against one of those rocks?"
"But we didn't," he replied, trying to remain reasonable in the face of Kowalski's excitement.
"Lemme tell you something." Kowalski narrowed his eyes and jabbed a finger at him. "Those rapids aren't anything to what's out in front of us. On second thoughts, I wouldn't call 'em rapids at all."
Fraser smiled. He was being given a chance, a chance to do his duty, regardless of the danger. "I can hardly wait." He took off his hat and loosened the top button on his shirt. Those badges of civilization would have to give slightly in the face of the primal elements...
"But, Mr. Fraser." Kowalski's brow furrowed, and his eyes fell. The Adam's apple in his smooth, pale throat bobbed once.
"Yes, Mr. Kowalski?" Fraser sat up straighter, his eyes scanning the water ahead, his hand resting lightly on the tiller.
With a curt gesture and a thunderous look Kowalski directed them toward the shore. They moored in a small, sheltered cove, and he tossed the anchor over the side with a tremendous splash.
Making an odd noise in the back of his throat, Kowalski grabbed the kettle. He flung open the stores locker and spooned tea into the kettle, frowning. He made his way to the boiler, returning in a few minutes with the steaming kettle. Fraser accepted the mug Kowalski handed him with a nod, but his eyes flickered to the water and back when Kowalski took out a glass and opened a bottle of gin.
By the time Fraser had finished his tea, Kowalski was sprawled on a coil of rope on the deck, leaning back against a stack of crates. His long legs were stretched out before him, and he was staring moodily at the empty glass in his hand. The bottle at his side was half full.
Fraser hesitated. "Is something the matter, Mr. Kowalski?"
"Nothing," he mumbled, his head lolling forward. "Nothing you'd understand."
"I can't imagine what could be the matter." Fraser glanced at the darkening sky, at the placid water, and pressed on. "It's been such a pleasant day. What is it?"
Kowalski raised reddened eyes to meet his. His lips curled unpleasantly. "All this foolish talk about the Luisa," he said, holding the glass between his knees and opening the bottle. "Going down the river." He carelessly filled the glass, splashing gin on his trousers, then capped the bottle and put it to one side.
Fraser shifted under his gaze. "What do you mean?"
Kowalski tilted back his head and gulped the gin, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I mean," he said belligerently, "we aren't gonna do anything of the sort."
"Of course we are." Fraser's eyes returned to the river.
"Of course we are," Kowalski parroted, his voice mocking. Fraser's face grew warm. Kowalski's head suddenly lolled forward, and the rest of his torso followed, until he was sitting up, legs splayed, the glass positioned on the deck between them. "Mr. Fraser, you're unhinged."
Fraser took a deep breath and looked away from Kowalski's loose-limbed form. "Just why don't you want to go on, Mr. Kowalski?"
Scrambling to his knees, Kowalski swayed, steadying himself with a hand on the crates. "The river. At Shona." He slowly got to his feet, one hand still clutching his glass.
"Shona?" Fraser frowned.
"You're darn right, at Shona." He lifted the glass, splashing more gin on his hand and sleeve, and gestured toward the bow of the boat. "All it would take would be one bullet in the blasting gelatin and," he lifted his arms and then let them flop to his sides, spilling more gin on the deck, "we'd be in little bits and pieces." His voice rose and he squinted at Fraser.
"Then we'll go by night." He kept his voice calm, although his heart was beginning to race.
"Oh no, we won't." Kowalski shook his head and staggered. "After Shona there's the rapids, and nobody in their might rind would tackle the rapids at night." He nodded once and leaned back against the hull, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Then," replied Fraser, his jaw tight and his voice hard, "we'll do it in the daylight. We'll go on the far side of the river from Shona just as fast as we can."
Kowalski shook his head again. "Oh no, we won't."
"You agreed to go." Fraser looked him full in the eye. How could he consider abandoning their quest? After what the Germans did to his uncle and the village? After they had wrecked the mine and forced them both to run? He must do this. He could redeem himself...
Kowalski's head tilted back, and he met Fraser's gaze through the thick curtain of his lashes. "I never did. I never agreed to nothing."
Hiding his shock at Kowalski's words, Fraser stood, shoulders back, spine straight, one hand on the tiller. "You are a coward, Mr. Kowalski." He enjoyed Kowalski's flinch.
"Coward yourself!" Kowalski replied, sliding his back down the hull until he was sitting, his knees drawn up. He reached over and snatched up the bottle, slopping more gin into his glass. "You aren't a gentleman, no sir, that's what my poor old mother would say to you." He took a drink and looked around. "Whose boat is this anyway? I asked you on board 'cause I was sorry for you, on account of you losing your uncle and all." His lips stuck out and he rested his head on his knee. "That's what you get for feeling sorry for people. Well," he raised his head and snarled, "I'm not sorry any more, you unhinged, organ-playing, soft..."
Fraser sat down hard as his voice trailed off. He was numb. Their duty, their mission, in shambles because...
"For just one time," Kowalski sang, his voice wavering as he leaned over and plucked another bottle from the crate, "I would take the North West passage..."
Eyes narrowing as Kowalski opened the bottle and took a drink, raising it in a mock salute, he continued. "To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea..."
Fraser turned away and began to plan.
Kowalski was curled up on the coil of rope, head tilted back, mouth open, snoring softly, as Fraser rose from his pallet. It was still early, the sun filtering through the broad leaves of the forest, dappling the deck and glinting off the boiler. Birds were calling, their voices sounding harsh in the soft morning air. Sparing a long glance at Kowalski's uncomfortable position, Fraser sighed and tidied away his blankets, then washed and dressed, not troubling to be quiet. He was pleased that his ribs and wrist were healing well, although they still ached when he moved incautiously.
He felt better with his shirt neatly buttoned and his hat on, a man who knew his duty and responsibilities, a man who could not be deterred or deflected from his objective. Before he had fallen asleep the night before, he had mapped out a series of steps to achieve his goal. With another glance at Kowalski, he turned to begin the first step.
The crates containing the gin were marked, and he shoved them to the starboard side of the boat. It was awkward to open the bottle with his injured hand, but he managed, emptying it over the side and dropping it into the water. He had wrestled with the possibility of damage to the aquatic population, but had finally decided that the contents of two cases of gin would hardly be noticeable in the huge volume of water that made up the river. And besides, if his plan worked, the African Queen and all its contents would be blown up in the lake, taking the Luisa with it. Better to dispose of it now and prevent Kowalski from succumbing to temptation again.
He was halfway through the second case when a pitiful groan signaled that Kowalski was awake. Ignoring him, Fraser emptied another bottle, tossing it into the water with a splash.
"Mr. Fraser?" Kowalski's voice was muffled and rusty, and out of the corner of his eye, Fraser could see him rub his face and scramble to sit up. "Have pity, Mr. Fraser!" he pleaded, as Fraser opened another bottle and tilted it over the water. The gin glugged as it poured out. "You don't know what you're doing! I'll perish without the hair of the dog." The bottle landed in the water, and Fraser picked up another. Kowalski slid to his knees, swayed for a moment, and then sat back down with a grunt. "It isn't your property!" he snarled, breaking off suddenly and rubbing his forehead. "My head."
When Fraser finished the case, he wiped his hands with his handkerchief and sat beside the tiller. He opened his valise and took out the book he had been reading two days ago, opening it at the marker and settling back.
He kept his eyes on the page as Kowalski stumbled to his feet, muttering darkly. Despite intriguing clattering, thumping, and an occasional curse, Fraser did not look up.
Over an hour later, he heard Kowalski start to hum, then sing.
"...reaching for the Beaufort Sea,
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage..."
Glancing up, he suppressed a smile. Kowalski had been busy. The clutter and mess on the deck was gone, tidied into neat piles. The boiler shone, and Kowalski stood before it, his face lathered, cutthroat razor sliding under his jaw.
Fraser held his breath until the razor glided around his chin and up over his cheek. Kowalski wiped the blade, raising his eyes. Fraser quickly returned his attention to his book.
"Ah, it's a great thing to have someone aboard with clean habits," Kowalski said ingratiatingly. "Sets a good example. A man alone, he gets to living like a hog." He paused, but Fraser kept his eyes on the page. "Then too, with me, it's always put things off. Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow. But with you, business before pleasure, every time." He paused again, and cleared his throat before continuing. "I tell you it's a model, like an inspiration. Why, I haven't had this old engine so clean in years, inside and out. Just look at her, Mr. Fraser. See how she practically sparkles. Myself, too."
From beneath his lashes, Fraser could see Kowalski put away his shaving kit, and run the palm of his hand over his jaw. Kowalski scrubbed his hand through his hair before pulling on his cap, and shoved both hands into his trouser pockets. "Guess you never had a look at me without my whiskers and all cleaned up. I bet you wouldn't hardly recognize me, it works that much of a change."
Fraser turned the page, although he couldn't remember what it said, and Kowalski sidled closer, resting his hip on the gunwale and stretching out his long legs.
"How's the book, Mr. Fraser? Well, not that I haven't read it," he continued, before Fraser could answer. "That is to say, my poor old mum used to read me stories out of it. How's about reading it out loud? I could sure do with a little spiritual comfort, myself."
Fraser suppressed a laugh at Kowalski's words. Him, reading the Bible? Of course he had read it, years ago, but it was no solace now, and not even the burden of his guilt demanded a penance that great. No, "Ian of the Orcades" was certainly not the Bible. Wilfred Campbell might even find it amusing that his novel was mistaken for the Good Book. With an ostentatious sigh, he lowered his eyes to the printed page.
"And you call yourself a Christian!" Kowalski spat, leaning forward. "D'you hear me? Don't you? Don't you?" The last question echoed unexpectedly. Across the river, a flock of birds soared with raucous cries.
Fraser pressed his lips together and kept his eyes on the page. A Christian? He didn't know what the word meant anymore. But he knew his duty, and that was enough. It would have to be enough.
Kowalski turned and looked out over the water. His shoulders slumped. "What're you being so mean for, Mr. Fraser? A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it's only human nature."
The words struck home and he flinched, the familiar taste of bile painting the back of his throat. Oh, yes, he knew about those men who drank too much, about the frailties of human nature. All too well. And because of his own frailty, his neglect of his duty, five innocent people were decaying in the cold ground. "Human nature," Fraser said harshly, the words torn from him, "is no excuse for neglecting one's duty."
Kowalski was staring at him, wide-eyed. "Mr. Fraser, I'm sorry. I apologize." He paused, but Fraser could not speak, his throat raw, as if he had swallowed glass. Closing his book, Fraser put it aside with a shaking hand. Kowalski shrugged again, sighing. "What more can a man do than say he's sorry? You paid me back, Mr. Fraser. You didn't even leave me a drop."
He stared at Kowalski, struggling to hold on to his composure. Duty. His duty. Their duty. The words echoed in his mind, a litany that held memory at bay. He would do his duty. He must.
Kowalski frowned. "Mr. Fraser, have a heart! Fair's fair. You gotta say something. I don't care what it is, but you gotta say something." His narrow hands swept through the air. "I'll be honest with you. I can't stand no more of this. I'm not used to it."
"So," Fraser said softly, "you think I minded your drunkenness."
Tilting his head, Kowalski looked puzzled. "Well, what else?"
"You promised you'd go down the river."
With a deep breath, Kowalski stood. "Listen to me, and try to understand." He spoke slowly and carefully, as if to a child. "There's death a dozen times over down the river. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but don't blame me, blame the Ulanga."
Fraser set his jaw. He had to do this. It was imperative. "You have a duty, and you promised."
"Well, I'm taking my promise back!" Kowalski threw up his hands and walked to the bow, looking out over the river. He stood there for a long moment, his hands in his pockets, his spine stiff. Glancing back at Fraser, he turned and grasped the rail, looking up at the sky. "Unhinged," he murmured, shaking his head. "A torpedo..."
He waited breathlessly, watching Kowalski.
Suddenly Kowalski's shoulders slumped and he bowed his head. "All right, Mr. Fraser, you win." He turned and gave Fraser a lopsided smile. "As the crocodiles will be glad to hear. Down the river we go."
Fraser let out his breath in an explosive whoosh. "Have some breakfast, Mr. Kowalski." He grabbed the kettle.
"Well, thanks for asking," he snorted, picking up a rag and giving the boiler a wipe. "Don't mind if I do, 'cause we'll be at Shona by late this afternoon, so it'll be my last."
"Or, no." Fraser set down the kettle and picked up his hat, clapping it onto his head. "Get up steam. Breakfast can wait."
With a muttered curse, Kowalski threw the rag into the corner and glared at him.
The stretch of river ahead was broad and quiet, and Fraser glanced up. The sun was brushing the treetops, and it would be dusk in another two hours. He squinted; the flashes of reflected light on the rippling water were blinding.
They passed a low, muddy bank, and several large shapes slid heavily into the water. Crocodiles. Fraser licked his lips nervously and looked over at Kowalski, who was grinning at him.
Kowalski jerked his head toward the crocodiles. "Waiting for their supper, Mr. Fraser." He sounded strangely pleased.
Fraser steered the boat into the center of the river and glanced at the sun again. "Which side of the river is Shona on?"
Cupping his hand around his ear, Kowalski shouted. "How's that?"
Fraser leaned forward and yelled. "Which bank is Shona on?"
"Over to starboard."
"Good." He sat back and nodded. "Then the sun will be in their eyes."
"Huh?" With another glance at the shore, Kowalski hitched himself up on the gunwale and kicked the boiler. Fraser frowned. The boiler seemed to be working fine, and the steam releasing as necessary. There was no reason for Kowalski to kick it at the moment. Kowalski wiped his forehead and the back of his neck for the third time in as many minutes, and damp patches grew under his arms and down his back.
"I say the sun will be in their eyes," repeated Fraser, enunciating as clearly as possible whilst shouting.
Kowalski shrugged, peering at the pressure gauge. He tapped it, frowning at the result, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Out of the corner of his eye, Fraser saw another half-dozen crocodiles enter the water.
"Don't be worried, Mr. Kowalski."
"Oh, I'm not worried, Mr. Fraser." Kowalski gave him a half-hearted grin and wiped his hands on a rag. "Gave myself up for dead back where we started."
They rounded another curve, and the tree-lined shore on the right suddenly gave way to a tall cliff, sparsely covered with scrub bushes. At the top were a series of dun-colored walls that blended into the cliff face, surrounding a massive building of the same hue. The German flag hung limply above it all.
"Mr. Kowalski!" Fraser pointed to the fort and then quickly assessed the river. If he steered a course along the bank opposite the fort, they would be slightly farther away, but the river wasn't very wide at this point, and with the curve, it would take them much longer to pass by. He grasped the tiller tightly and pointed the bow to starboard. Better a fast run under their noses than to linger any longer than necessary. The skin along his neck and the back of his shoulders tingled, and he felt the corners of his mouth turn up.
Kowalski nodded as he noted Fraser's course, and Fraser's smile broadened. Glancing at the fort with a frown, Kowalski turned back to the boiler. "Better get down, Mr. Fraser."
Of course. Fraser took a moment to check for snags or obstructions ahead, and to sight a few landmarks. He then slid from the bench onto the deck. He could just manage to see a little in front of the bow if he craned his head over the port gunwale. It was almost steering blind, but there wasn't much else he could do.
Kowalski stood by the boiler, twisting valves and adjusting the stopcock carefully. There was the crack of a rifle, and he quickly dropped into a crouch behind the boiler. His face was pale, but there was a little half-smile on his face. He caught Fraser's eye and winked.
It was suddenly very warm in the boat.
There was another crack, then several more. Fraser heard the thunk of bullets hitting the hull and deck, and saw small splintered craters appear in the wood. He leaned up, trying to sight one of the landmarks he had noted earlier.
Scowling, Kowalski shouted, "Get down lower, Mr. Fraser." A piece of the rail not far from his face splintered, and he ducked down again, his blood pounding in his ears.
A sudden fusillade of bullets sent them both crouching lower. The bright sound of metal striking metal worried him for a moment, but the boiler appeared unharmed. At least it didn't explode. His mouth twisted wryly at the thought. He had never been one for gallows humor, but it certainly was appropriate at the moment.
Another round sent pieces of packing cases flying in the bow. Kowalski scuttled back like he was being chased by demons. It was a moment before Fraser remembered: the blasting gelatin. Good Lord. If that was ignited by a spark, or the pressure from the passage of a bullet...
The boiler rang like a bell as more bullets struck. A sudden spurt of steam at the top made Kowalski rise to his knees, and he mouthed a word that Fraser couldn't hear. The engine sounded different, the clattering less rapid, and Fraser glanced at the belts that connected to the drive shaft. They were not spinning as quickly as usual.
Damn. A bullet must have nicked one of the hoses that connected the boiler to the engine. He craned his neck again. They were almost directly in front of the fort. Glancing at the boiler, his heart sank as the small jet of steam grew and the engine slowed further. Kowalski was still crouched behind the boiler, staring fiercely at the hose, as if he could will it to work.
There was a hissing pop, and steam jetted from the top of the boiler. The harsh smell of rust was strong in the humid air, and Fraser frowned as the engine slowed and stopped. The hose had separated completely from its coupling, and no steam at all was getting to the engine. Fraser swung the tiller around - the boat did not respond. He could not steer.
His eyes immediately moved to Kowalski. He turned to Fraser, his face pale, but calm.
"Nothing to do but let her drift, Mr. Fraser," he said, shaking his head. His lips twisted, and Fraser wondered if he was trying to smile.
Another barrage sent more splintered shards of packing cases flying at the bow, and Fraser started. The bullets were hitting the blasting gelatin. He sat up suddenly and bit back a shout. Kowalski was standing, his body partially shielded by the boiler, but his head and shoulders were dreadfully exposed. Picking up the hose between his thumb and forefinger, he carefully slipped the hose back onto the coupling, tying it in place with a piece of rag. The engine groaned, then slowly came to life as the pressure built. Fraser had never heard such a beautiful sound.
They both flinched as shots peppered the boat, and Fraser could not tear his eyes from the lean form. He wanted to shout to Kowalski to get back down, that the engine was working, but held his tongue. Kowalski had enough on his mind without Fraser distracting him.
Gingerly feeling around the pipes, Kowalski pulled out a roll of black sealing tape, and wound it around the rag, holding the mend firm. Several shots rang out. Out of the corner of his eye, Fraser saw a quick flash from the cliff face in front of the fort, as if the sun had glinted off a reflective surface. Kowalski finally ducked back down, leaving the roll of tape dangling from the mend.
Fraser opened his mouth and sucked in a huge lungful of air. He had forgotten to breathe while Kowalski was in such danger.
He looked up at the fort as they rounded the curve in the river. It disappeared from view, and Fraser breathed a sigh of relief. They were safe, hidden by the cliff and the trees. Thank God. With a wince, he scrambled back onto the bench at the stern. "Are you all right, Mr. Kowalski?"
Kowalski stood and grinned at him, although his face was still pale. "Oh yes, I'm all right. If we can keep steam up, and the boiler doesn't bust, and that mend holds." He jerked his head toward the boiler, and his eyes suddenly grew so wide they looked comical. The muscles of his throat worked and he pointed straight ahead. "And we don't pile up on those rocks..."
There was only time to grasp the tiller tightly before the entire bow of the boat dropped. Heart pounding, Fraser braced his right foot against a rib of the hull - otherwise, he would have been thrown forward into the engine. Spray blinded him, dripping off the brim of his hat, and the boat creaked and groaned as it was tossed from wave to wave down the rapids.
The force of the water threatened to snatch the tiller from his grasp, and Fraser struggled to hold fast. The fingers of his injured right hand slipped from the slick wood and he could not steer. The tiller jerked so much in his hands that they felt numb. The bow tilted again and Fraser gasped as they hurled toward the huge boulders at the foot of the rapids.
Suddenly Kowalski was beside him, his strong grip steadying the tiller until Fraser was able to get a better grasp on the handle. Fraser absently nodded his thanks, peering into the mist-shrouded maelstrom ahead of them, trying to see a clear path.
Kowalski staggered toward the boiler. The boat heaved, and Fraser's heart was suddenly in his mouth as Kowalski was almost tossed overboard. Only his desperate hold on the gunwale saved him. His face grim, Kowalski turned and braced himself against the hull, then bared his teeth and kicked the boiler until a jet of steam signaled that the feed line was clear again.
Getting to his knees, Kowalski grabbed a spanner and tightened the nuts on the engine casing. Eyes and arms aching with strain, Fraser steered around two large boulders and pushed the tiller over to avoid a third. There was a crack, and one of the wooden supports for the canvas awning snapped, dropping the heavy, sodden canvas right onto him.
He fought with the musty-smelling material while trying to maintain his hold on the tiller, trying to remember what was right in front of them before he was blinded. The boat dipped again and Fraser fought more desperately. Hands ran over his head and down his arm, wrapping around his fingers on the tiller, and the canvas was torn away. Kowalski held the tiller and his hand for a moment longer, until Fraser nodded, and then he reeled back toward the boiler.
Another stomach-lurching dip, another soaking spray of water, and then they were out of the rapids, clattering along a blessedly flat stretch of river.
Fraser panted as he steered them into a calm side channel. His flesh was tingling, his heart was pounding, and he ran his tongue across his lower lip. Kowalski skittered across the deck, grabbed the mooring line and quickly tied it around a sturdy branch. He disengaged the engine and turned to Fraser, his face alight. He pulled off his cap and ran his hand through his hair, ruffling it into damp spikes.
Fraser stood, his smile so wide that he felt as if his face would break.
Kowalski dropped his cap on the deck and took a step toward him; Fraser reached out, grabbing his arms tightly. "We made it," he breathed, his hands quivering.
"We made it!" echoed Kowalski, clasping his hands around Fraser's upper arms and pulling him close. He pivoted, turning them, and Fraser followed willingly.
They grinned at each other, and Fraser let his head fall back. "Hooray!" he shouted. The sky rotated as they described a tight circle, and he laughed.
Kowalski's eyes shone. "Oh, we sure put one over on 'em that time, didn't we, Mr. Fraser!" He laughed, too, his hands moving up to Fraser's shoulders, cupping them firmly.
Fraser's fingers dug into Kowalski's muscles, pulling him closer. Every inch of his body sang, resonating wildly. "I had forgotten what it felt like to have people shooting at me," he gasped.
"They were so surprised to see the African Queen that they didn't start shooting until we were past!" Kowalski's voice was triumphant, his hands and body were warm against Fraser's shoulders and chest.
"And they kept missing, again and again!" Fraser took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
Their turns slowed. "They didn't believe we would try to go down the gorge."
"They didn't think we could!" Soft, dry touches landed on his jaw and cheeks, and he opened his eyes.
Kowalski grinned. "They didn't think anybody could."
"I felt like laughing at them."
"Well, we showed 'em." Kowalski suddenly snatched off Fraser's hat and tossed it in the air. "Hooray!"
His hand came down on the back of Fraser's neck, and their eyes met for one dizzying, terrifying moment. Before he could think, before his mind could caution his body to calmness, their mouths pressed together, and Fraser knew he had come home.
Soft, warm lips slid enthusiastically over his, and he groaned, pulling Kowalski closer. The bashful tickle of Kowalski's tongue against his lips dragged another groan from him, and he opened his mouth eagerly. Hands slipped across his shoulders and down his back, and he shuddered, heat pooling in his gut. He could not help... He must... His hips jerked forward.
Kowalski grunted, and pulled his mouth away. Blushing, Fraser cursed his impatience, his forwardness. He squeezed his eyes shut and licked his lips, shivering as he tasted Kowalski. Please, God, don't let my damnable impatience ruin this, too.
A hand slid across his back, and then a finger gently touched his lower lip. Fraser kissed the finger, a dry, chaste kiss, and was so suddenly pulled against Kowalski's body that he opened his eyes, startled.
Kowalski stared at him, his face flushed, his wet lips parted. Fraser could feel his panting breaths and the press of the hard body against his. Warm blue eyes searched his face for a long moment, and then the small crease between Kowalski's eyebrows smoothed out. The corners of Kowalski's mouth lifted, and Fraser swallowed hard, the sharp ache in his groin almost painful.
"I..." he began, but Kowalski silenced him with another kiss. Fraser closed his eyes, grateful, for he had no idea what he was going to say.
He was dizzy by the time they parted again.
Kowalski's hands slipped down his arms, fingers tangling briefly with his, and then the fingers moved, fumbling at the buttons of his shirt. Dear God, he was burning up, despite the brush of cooler air over the base of his throat as his shirt was parted. Warm lips traced his collarbone, and he shivered as Kowalski tugged his shirt from the confining trousers and slid it over his shoulders and down his arms. After a brief struggle with the cuffs, Fraser let it drop to the deck. His undershirt followed, pulled over his head by impatient hands. Kowalski's fingers brushed over his chest and he murmured something, but Fraser could not open his eyes, could not look at what was happening. Not yet.
He groaned as Kowalski's lips trailed slowly down his chest, and Kowalski's hands gently unfastened his trousers, avoiding his hard groin. A nudge and a gentle shove pushed him back, until the backs of his legs hit the edge of the bench in the stern. Fraser started to sit, but a peremptory hand on his back stayed him.
Hands slid inside his trousers and beneath his underwear and he gasped as strong fingers gently kneaded his flesh. Slowly, so slowly, his trousers and underwear were carefully pushed down, exposing him, baring him to the soft breeze. Goosebumps marched up his spine, and he let his head fall back, eyes still squeezed shut.
"Look at you," Kowalski murmured. "Just look at you."
Hands guided him down to the bench and coaxed his knees apart. His trousers were shoved down to his ankles. He started as fingers traced the soft flesh of his inner thighs, and then lips brushed his, giving him a moment's warning before his mouth was taken in an eager kiss. Long fingers wrapped around his erection, stroking him, and he groaned into Kowalski's mouth.
When they parted, Kowalski's harsh panting echoed his own raspy breaths. The strong fingers abandoned him, and he protested with an anxious grunt, his hips lifting from the bench, seeking the warmth that had surrounded him.
Kowalski chuckled, still sounding breathless. Fraser's knees were nudged farther apart, his hips pulled forward until he was half-off the bench, his arms draped across the gunwale.
Kisses and gentle nips trailed up his inner thighs, and he let out a yelp when one testicle was enveloped in moist warmth. Hands soothed down his thighs, and he gripped the gunwale with aching fingers.
Oh, God, never had he... Mark had not... It was so good.
His testicle was released and the other one taken, and he groaned at the contrast: one hot, one cool. He could feel the loose skin pucker and contract, and his legs quivered.
That one was released, and... Oh, please God, please... Warmth, no, scalding heat enveloped him, surrounded him and pressed against him. His hips jerked uncontrollably, but strong hands held him still. The mouth moved, sliding up his erection, kissing the tip, and then engulfing him again. Fraser groaned, his head lolling back, his neck suddenly too weak to bear the weight of his skull.
A flick of Kowalski's tongue decided him. He must see. Must know what Kowalski looked like then, at that moment, his lips... Oh, God, quickly.
With an Herculean effort, Fraser raised his head and opened his eyes. Blond hair unkempt, Kowalski's eyes were lowered, his expression intent. His nostrils flared as he breathed, and Fraser could feel the warm flow of air on his stomach and groin. Wet, shiny lips were stretched around his erection. Kowalski's cheeks hollowed as he sucked.
Fraser lifted an arm that felt as heavy as lead, resting his hand gently on Kowalski's tousled hair. It was soft and damp, and he let his fingers rake through it.
Kowalski raised his eyes. They were dark and demanding, and Fraser could not look away. Slowly Kowalski pulled back, his mouth sliding up Fraser's glistening erection. He paused at the tip and his tongue flickered around the head, poking along the fold of foreskin.
Fraser gritted his teeth and held on.
He groaned when Kowalski released him. His penis bobbed as he breathed, cool in the evening air, and he groaned again as Kowalski stuck a finger in his mouth and sucked.
He spread his legs farther apart when Kowalski pulled out his finger, his hips canted forward, begging, pleading. He had no shame any more. All Fraser wanted was Kowalski's mouth on him again.
Kowalski grinned, still holding his eyes, and slowly lowered his head. He kissed the tip, and Fraser grunted, closing his eyes and letting his head fall back again.
It had been so long since anyone had touched him.
His body burned. Tingling waves of warmth flooded down his limbs, along his torso, deep into his belly. Kowalski sucked him in, scraping his nerves raw with the pleasure of it.
Then a wet finger slipped between his legs, under him, and, in one inexorable movement, slid deep inside. He cried out as it twisted, sending his whole body shaking. Another twist, another cry wrung from him. The world contracted to the heat and pressure in his groin and gut, the pounding of the blood in his veins, and his own harsh gasps.
The finger pushed in farther, the mouth sucked harder, and his world suddenly shattered, blasting his body, mind, and soul into a million sharp fragments. They scattered, slowly falling into darkness.
He groaned when he slipped from the warmth of Kowalski's mouth, and again as the finger was pulled out, leaving behind a delicious ache. Hands stroked his quivering thighs, but he was too limp to do anything but breathe and enjoy the warmth bubbling in his veins. It was delightful.
Muffled sounds finally roused him, and he raised his head and blinked blearily. Kowalski was squatting on the deck, smoothing out a pile of blankets. He looked up and smiled broadly, and Fraser felt his face split into a grin.
"Let's get you comfortable," Kowalski said gently, gesturing at the blankets. "C'mon." He knelt in front of Fraser and, lifting one foot onto his knee, slipped off Fraser's shoe and sock. He did the same for the other foot, and then tugged off Fraser's trousers and underwear, tossing them onto a crate. He guided Fraser onto the pallet, urging him over onto his stomach, his head pillowed on his folded arms. Warm hands smoothed down the length of his back and over his flanks.
God, had he ever felt this good? Had anyone ever given him such pleasure? Ever made him feel so cherished? It would be appropriate for him to reciprocate, Fraser thought muzzily. Allow Kowalski to take what he wanted.
Surely he could do that.
Fraser slowly spread his legs and canted his hips in invitation. Kowalski gasped.
A line of dry kisses marched down his spine, and he could not help it - his thighs and buttocks tensed. The lips left immediately, replaced by a hand that rubbed across his shoulders and stroked down his back, stopping at his waist.
"Relax," Kowalski murmured. "I not gonna do anything you don't want."
Fraser sighed and felt the tension bleed from his shoulders and jaw. A choice. He was being given a choice.
Blinking hard, he shifted his hips. "Go ahead."
Kowalski snorted, and the hand stilled in the center of his back. "Nah. Not now."
"It's all right." He turned his head and peered, one-eyed, at Kowalski, his damp lashes sticking together. Kowalski knelt beside him, the hand that was not resting on Fraser's back rubbing his own forehead. His hand fell and his eyes met Fraser's. Fraser's tongue was suddenly too big for his mouth.
Leaning forward, Kowalski peered at him intently. His face looked oddly crumpled, his eyes dark and gentle. "Can I kiss you?"
He could hardly speak. "Yes."
Soft lips on his forehead, cheek, around the edge of his ear and down his jaw. He closed his eyes and sighed.
The hand on his back slid down to his waist and stilled. "Can I touch you there?" The words were barely a whisper.
He nodded. "Yes."
Gentle pressure stroked down his flanks and over his buttocks, soft, soothing, never ending, never demanding. He sank into the blankets, his muscles relaxing, his breath deepening. He felt as if his bones had dissolved, trickling through his skin, dripping between the boards of the deck and into the river in thick, fat drops.
Fingers softly stroked the tender skin beneath the curve of his buttocks and curled lightly into the crease. "Can I kiss you there?" Kowalski's voice was rough.
A tiny spark of flame winked into life in his groin. God. "Yes."
The hand continued to move, joined now by small blooms of warmth on each cheek and up the small of his back. The spark inside him spread and grew, and Fraser shifted again to accommodate his swelling erection. Kowalski murmured unintelligibly, his kisses raining faster, peppering Fraser's backside.
Hand and mouth stilled. Fraser opened his eyes and grinned. Still on his knees, Kowalski was fumbling with his trousers, his shaking hands scrabbling futilely at the tented cloth.
Raising himself carefully, uncomfortably aware of his aching wrist and ribs, Fraser knelt and gently batted away Kowalski's hands.
"Let me." Urging Kowalski to kneel up, Fraser bit his lower lip as he unfastened the damp trousers and slid them down over lean hips. Kowalski's underwear was damp, too, but the obvious wet patch immediately below his waist testified to the state of his arousal and pleased Fraser immensely.
He carefully pulled the elastic over Kowalski's erection and caught his breath at the sight of the flushed flesh. He licked his lips and Kowalski groaned. Fraser looked up and smiled, reaching out. He paused, his hand hovering over Kowalski's erection.
Kowalski squeezed his eyes shut for a second, as if he were in pain, and then opened them and chuckled softly. "Wait. I want to..." He pushed his trousers and underwear down to his knees, then sat down and tugged off his shoes, kicking off the trousers and underwear quickly. Lying down on his back, his erection swaying like a standard, he gestured to Fraser. "C'mere."
Fraser crawled over to him and bent down to kiss Kowalski's erection, but hands pulled at him, urging him around and over. It wasn't until he was straddling Kowalski's chest, facing his feet, that the penny dropped and he understood what Kowalski wanted. Of course.
He groaned when Kowalski resumed kissing his thighs and backside, hands smoothing and caressing the tender skin. Fraser leaned forward, shivering a little at the thought of how exposed he was, how vulnerable, but Kowalski's murmurs and kisses and exploring fingers soon made him shiver for another reason entirely.
Fraser shifted around until he found a comfortable position, quickly forgetting his tender ribs and wrist. He reveled in the feel of that taut, hot skin against his lips, in the bitter taste flooding his mouth, in the dark, rich scent that made him dizzy and exultant and oh, so hungry. He sucked and licked and nibbled eagerly, urging Kowalski to yield, demanding that Kowalski give this to him.
His backside burned, his erection throbbed - he was so close. He vowed that Kowalski would succumb first, however. He slid a finger into his mouth alongside Kowalski's erection, slicking it quickly. Without a pause, he slipped it between Kowalski's quivering thighs and pushed it deep inside.
Kowalski groaned, and groaned again as Fraser twisted his hand. A long pull, a quick suction, and then Kowalski stiffened for a moment before erupting into Fraser's mouth.
He choked a little, but managed to swallow most of it before Kowalski wrapped a hand around Fraser's erection and, with two hard strokes, tossed him over the edge. He sank quickly into darkness.
He stirred reluctantly.
Strong hands pulled at his thigh and he moved obediently, lifting his leg and turning around on the pallet. He chuckled groggily, reminded of how Mackenzie would move as he settled before the fire. Warm arms circled his chest, holding him tightly.
He was vaguely surprised to find that the expected bone-deep ache of homesickness was only a quick pang. Nothing more.
He opened his eyes with an effort. It was growing dark, the shadows gathering in the trees. He turned his head and peered blearily at Kowalski.
Kowalski's face split into a smile. "Nothing." His arms tightened. "Just wanted to say your name. I like it. Benton."
"I like the way you say it." He turned until they were face to face, but Kowalski did not loosen his grip.
"Yeah?" Kowalski winked.
"Yeah." Fraser's heart sang.
"Guess I'll have to say it a lot then, eh, Benton?"
Fraser grinned. Their conversation was utterly fatuous and idiotic, and he loved every minute of it. "I guess you will-" He frowned.
"What is it?" Kowalski's smile dissolved.
"Ah." Fraser swallowed hard and squinted into the dusk. "I don't know your given name."
"Oh!" With a laugh, Kowalski squeezed him. "It's Ray."
He nodded. "Ray."
"Ray." Fraser rolled the word around his mouth consideringly. "Ray." He glanced at Kowalski, whose smile was fading again, and winked. "I like saying it, too. Ray."
Kowalski snorted, but he looked pleased. A low growl suddenly broke the silence, and Kowalski stared at him, wide-eyed. Fraser felt as if he'd been dipped in boiling water, and the growl sounded again. Oh, dear God. It was his stomach. Kowalski blinked, and then broke into hoots of laughter.
"I'd better feed you," he chuckled, brushing a kiss on Fraser's cheek before unwrapping his arms and sitting up. "Can't let you die of starvation, can I?"
Slipping on his trousers and undershirt, Kowalski lit the lantern and set it in the bow, so that they would not be bothered by insects attracted to the light. Fraser was still trying to untangle his trousers when Kowalski looked up from where he was crouched by the supplies.
"Benton..." It was barely a whisper, and the expression on his face...
Fraser felt his penis stir and he blushed, holding his knotted trousers in front of his groin. Oh, God, what this man did to him.
Kowalski's face reddened and he lowered his head with a muttered "Sorry."
Fraser dressed quickly.
They had finished their dinner and were sitting side by side on the pallet, their fingers barely touching. Kowalski had turned out the lantern, and they rested their heads against the bench, looking up at the stars, hazy in the heat and humidity.
Letting his eyes fall shut, Fraser breathed deeply. He hadn't felt this comfortable, this contented for... Well, for over two years, he realized with a pang.
His life was passing, and what did he have to show for it? Nothing.
Save, possibly, Ray.
As if he could read Fraser's thoughts, Kowalski lifted his hand, resting it on top of Fraser's. His palm was warm and slightly damp, and he rubbed his fingertips over Fraser's fingers, long, smooth strokes that soothed and aroused simultaneously. Fraser turned his hand and let their fingers twine loosely together.
Kowalski shifted and his fingers tightened.
"Did he hurt you?" he asked, his voice soft but matter-of-fact.
Fraser lifted his head - it unaccountably seemed to weigh a ton - and squinted at the dark form beside him. "Pardon?"
Kowalski sighed. "Mark. Did he-"
Fraser was up like a shot, leaning heavily against the gunwale, his hand aching from where he had wrenched it from Kowalski's clasp. Oh, God. He squeezed his eyes shut and gripped the rail tightly. He wanted to leap over the side and disappear into the darkness, wanted to run and run and keep on running...
"Benton." One word. Low and gentle and concerned. He could feel the warmth of Ray's body behind him, and a hand rested on the rail next to his, a pale shape in the gathering dark. Not touching, just there.
Fraser blinked, then wiped his eyes with the back of his aching hand. So this was to be taken from him, as well. He should have expected it.
He rubbed his eyebrow with his thumb, and then drew a deep breath. "How did you know?" he asked, staring out at the encroaching blackness.
Kowalski cleared his throat. "You, uh, said something the night it rained." He stepped closer and tentatively touched Fraser's shoulder. Fraser bowed his head, wondering vaguely why he didn't just jump over the side. "And then earlier, when I was gonna..." Kowalski sighed, and his fingers pressed into the flesh and muscles, kneading. "I kinda put two and two together. Course, I could've come up with five, but I don't think so."
His hand moved, covering Fraser's, and he pressed his body close.
"No," Fraser said, his voice harsh. "No, he did not hurt me. At least," he amended, biting off the words one by one, "no more than he had to."
"Son of a-" Kowalski began roughly, and his hands shook. He inhaled noisily and let out his breath with a whoosh, ruffling Fraser's hair and tickling his neck. "I'd like to-"
Fraser peered into the darkness, his eyes burning. "He told me he loved me." His throat felt raw, like he was swallowing ground glass. "He said... He said that if I loved him, I wouldn't mind the pain." Kowalski's hand slid across his shoulders, pressing flat against his chest. His arms tensed, and he held Fraser tightly against him. "I didn't love him," Fraser whispered, "but I wanted so much to be loved."
With a sigh, Kowalski rested his chin on Fraser's shoulder, his arms encircling Fraser's chest. They stood, silent, in the darkness. Slowly, so slowly Fraser could not remember when it began, they stared to move. Back and forth. Side to side. Rocking, swaying, shifting their combined weight from foot to foot.
Somehow, he ended up facing Kowalski, mirroring his position: arms wrapped around each other, their chins resting on the other's shoulder. He belonged here. It felt good. Right.
Kowalski began to hum.
They woke at sunrise, their legs and arms tangled together, but did nothing more than share a slow kiss before they rose. Underway quickly, they made good time. Fraser felt... Well, he couldn't exactly identify how he felt, but every time he looked at Kowalski he knew his face broke into a smile.
"What's the matter with you?" Kowalski asked as he walked back to the stern, wiping his hands on a rag. He sat down at the tiller beside Fraser and nudged his shoulder. "You look like the cat who's swallowed the cream."
Fraser remembered the previous night, remembered holding Kowalski's erection in his mouth, swallowing the warm thickness that spurted from it, and cleared his throat. "Well, yes, you could say that." His face burned.
Kowalski eyed him suspiciously for a moment. Then his eyes widened in comic surprise, and he let out a bark of laughter. "Benton Fraser! Are you making a dirty joke?"
He pressed his lips together, trying to suppress a chuckle. "Yes, Ray, I believe I am."
Leering, Kowalski leaned over and gently bit Fraser's earlobe. "Good. I like that in a man." His hand stroked Fraser's thigh, kneading the muscles.
With a groan, Fraser shifted, keeping his hand on the tiller and his eyes on the river ahead. His penis stirred, reaching out toward Kowalski's hand. "Ray. Ray. Ray." Fraser brushed away the questing hand and took a deep breath.
Kowalski grinned and licked Fraser's jaw.
"If you'll make lunch, Ray, we won't have to stop until dusk."
Sitting back, Kowalski tilted his head and looked at him solemnly. "You trying to tell me something, Benton?"
Fraser met his gaze steadily. "Only that I'm hungry." His voice, and his blush, deepened.
Kowalski's eyebrows lifted almost to his hairline. "For... food?"
Feeling the same sense of stomach-dropping dizziness that he once felt as he leapt off a fifty-foot cliff, Fraser leaned forward. "No. But if we stop now, I can assure you that we won't set off again until morning."
Kowalski's mouth hung open for a moment before he chuckled. "Guess I'd better make some grub, then." He stood, looking down at Fraser, and his face grew solemn. "But we're stopping before sundown, Benton Fraser. Well before sundown."
Kowalski was true to his word, and he waved at Fraser to bring them in to the bank when the sun had just dipped below the treetops. Fraser waited until Kowalski set out the anchor and disengaged the engine, and then he pounced.
They did not speak as they kicked off shoes and peeled away clothing, for their mouths were occupied. Fraser knew he was making soft, hungry sounds, like a starving man gorging himself at a banquet, but he did not care. Kowalski made the same noises, and he didn't seem to care either.
Hands caressed and clasped, mouths licked and sucked, hips jerked and thrust. It was not long before they arched their backs and moaned, adding to the dampness between their bodies.
"Aw, Christ, Benton, you're gonna kill me," Kowalski murmured as he flopped over onto his back, shading his eyes with his arm.
Fraser murmured agreement as he melted into the blankets that formed their pallet.
"Oh. Um. Sorry about that."
Blinking sleepily, Fraser turned his head and peered at Kowalski. "About what?"
Frowning, Kowalski lay on his side, his head propped on his hand. "About saying 'Christ.'"
Fraser raised an eyebrow in confusion. "Why should I care if you say that, Ray?"
Kowalski pressed his lips together and squinted at his feet. "Cause, you're a missionary and a Christian and all."
Chuckling, Fraser rolled onto his side, facing Kowalski. "Ray, I'm not a missionary. I'm not even sure I'm a Christian."
"Then why the hell are you here?" Kowalski jabbed a finger at Fraser. "Your uncle was a missionary, right?"
"Yes, he was." Fraser rolled onto his back and stared at the sky overhead. "But I am not."
"So what're you doing in Africa?"
His gut clenched and he felt faintly nauseated, a familiar feeling whenever he thought about... He opened his mouth to speak, but the words were strangled and buried deep in his chest. He closed his mouth and stared at the sky until his eyes watered.
Kowalski sighed after a few minutes and got to his feet. "I'm going for a swim," he said casually, grimacing at the sticky patches on his stomach and chest. "You look like you could use one, too," he added with a grin, holding out his hand. "C'mon. Upsy daisy."
Fraser took Kowalski's hand, grateful that he had changed the subject. Kowalski pulled him up and directly into his arms, dropping small kisses over Fraser's shoulder and neck and jaw.
Fraser relaxed and tilted his head for easier access, but Kowalski pulled away, grinning manically. With a slap to Fraser's rear, he shouted "Tag, Benton," and tore down the deck, cackling with laughter. When he reached the bow, he climbed to the prow and balanced on the rail for a moment, arms outstretched.
"Lookit me!" he shouted, and then fell backward into the river with a massive splash.
"Ray!" Fraser ran to the rail and peered over. A sleek blond head popped out of the water near the anchor chain, spluttering. "Ray, are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Benton." He ducked beneath the water and resurfaced nearer, wiping his eyes. "Water feels good."
"Ray." Fraser smiled down at him. He could see his reflection, dim and broken in the water beside Kowalski's grinning face. "Ray."
"Jeez, Benton. What's a guy gotta do to get you to join him?"
"I don't know, Ray. Ask?"
Kowalski rolled his eyes and snorted. "All right. Benton Fraser, will you please join me in the river?"
"Of course, Ray." And with a banshee yell, he vaulted the rail and dropped like a stone into the water.
Stifling a belch, Fraser dried the plate and stacked it with the others. "Ray, if I'm not being too inquisitive, where did you learn your culinary skills?"
Kowalski paused, his hands submerged in the bucket of soapy water, and looked suspiciously at Fraser. "You saying I don't cook so good?"
"No, actually," admitted Fraser. "Your meals are surprisingly tasty, given the paucity of ingredients and the primitive conditions."
With a snort, Kowalski finished scouring out the pot and handed it to Fraser. "Thanks. I think. But my mum insisted that I learn to cook basic, everyday meals. After Stella left, I got a lot of practice."
Fraser carefully set down the pot and looked at Kowalski. He was staring into the bucket of water, his hands still, shoulders hunched. "Stella?" Fraser kept his tone light.
His head jerking back as if he'd been struck, Fraser bit his lip to stifle his exclamation. "Your wife?"
"Yeah." He looked up at Fraser and shrugged. "She decided that I wasn't good enough for her, so she up and left. She's in Toronto studying law, last I heard." He tilted his head and squinted.
Fraser took a careful breath. Ray had a wife. Ray liked women. Fraser knew that if he moved too quickly, moved without thought and care and caution, he might just crumble into dust.
"I'm sorry, Ray." The words were like ashes on his tongue, dark and bitter.
"Don't be, Benton." Kowalski lifted the bucket and tossed the water over the side. "I'm sorry enough for both of us." He leaned over the gunwale, hands clasped, staring out into the darkness that surrounded them.
A few feet away, Fraser mirrored his position. "Did you ever think of following her and asking her to come back?"
"Sure. Lots of times. In fact, once I got all the way to Montreal before I turned around. But what good would it do? You can't hold on to someone just because you love 'em. Not when they don't love you."
Fraser winced and let his head drop. A hit, right in the center of the target.
"You still love her." The words erupted from him before he had a chance to call them back.
Kowalski sighed. "Yeah, I suppose I still do. Or maybe I love the Stella she used to be, when we were kids." He turned and hitched a hip on the gunwale, crossing his arms over his chest. "But you know something funny? It don't matter anymore. She's not the one in the launch with me."
Fraser looked up and caught his wink. "No, she isn't," he said slowly, his heart lurching with hope. "She's in Toronto, and I'm here."
With a nod, Kowalski let his arms fall to his sides. "Yeah. You're here." His voice was husky. "I'm glad."
"As am I," Fraser replied hoarsely, the words almost unintelligible.
They each took a step and reached out, clasping arms and shoulders tightly. Kowalski pulled them together, and Fraser squeezed his eyes shut and held on.
"Benton." Kowalski canted his hips and Fraser felt the full length of his erection, hot against his stomach. "Benton." Kowalski reached around and dragged Fraser's hand from his shoulder, pressing it against his rear. "It doesn't have to hurt, Benton. I'll show you."
Fraser's erection throbbed, and he buried his head in Kowalski's shoulder for a moment. Long hands caressed his back and neck, ruffling his hair. Soft lips dotted him with kisses.
"It'll be good," Kowalski murmured, his buttocks tightening beneath Fraser's cupped hand. "You'll see. You'll slip inside of me like a hot knife through butter, and I won't feel any pain at all. Nosiree, not one little bit." He rubbed his erection against Fraser and grunted.
"Ray." Fraser's heart was pounding wildly, his throat was as dry as dust, and he could barely get out the words. "Ray. Show me this way." And he pulled Ray's hand down to cup his own rear. "Show me, Ray. Show me it doesn't have to hurt."
Kowalski sucked in a breath and grasped Fraser's chin, turning his face into the light. "You don't have to do this, Benton. Not yet. Not at all, if you don't want."
He shook his head. "I want to, Ray. Please. Show me."
With a groan that sounded ripped from his heart, Kowalski grabbed his head and kissed him, hard, claiming possession of his mouth and soul. Fraser broke away, gasping, his knees like water, his hands shaking.
"Now," he pleaded. "Now, Ray."
His fingers fumbled at his clothes, tugging and pulling. Kowalski, panting harshly, tried to help, but he kept kissing bits of skin as it was exposed, preventing Fraser from moving freely, and Fraser finally roughly pushed him away.
"Are you going to do this dressed?" he asked, pushing his underwear down over his hips.
Kowalski blinked at him blankly for a moment, and then chuckled. "I could do. Would you like that?"
Dragging his trousers and underwear off his feet, Fraser kept his head down. His face burned and he shook his head. "No." His voice was flat.
"Yes?" He picked up his trousers.
"Look at me."
Slowly, reluctantly, he raised his head. Ray stood before him, naked, his lean arms open, his glistening erection jutting from his body.
"I'm not him," he said softly, almost spitting out the last word. "I'm me. It's not going to be the same. Understand?"
Fraser's mouth was parched and his groin throbbed. "Understood."
Kowalski narrowed his eyes and looked at Fraser for a moment. Then he nodded. "Just a second," he said, turning and opening the chest where they stored their supplies. He grabbed a rectangular tin and gave Fraser a quick kiss, ending in a growl. "Christ, I want you, Benton."
It was like having the breath knocked out of him. Fraser shook and his knees gave way. Kowalski grabbed his arm and guided him onto his back, the blankets scratchy on his sensitive skin.
"Ray," he murmured, tugging Kowalski down for another kiss. His lips were bruised and slick.
When they parted, Fraser shivered and rolled onto his side. Kowalski held his hip and shook his head.
"Nah, on your back," he said, smoothing his hand down Fraser's flank. Fraser swallowed hard. "Raise your knees." Kowalski's breath was warm on his ear.
With a quick kiss to his jaw, Kowalski sat up and uncapped the tin.
"Cooking oil?" Fraser looked at him dubiously.
Kowalski chuckled. "Yeah. Pretty useful stuff. I've used it to grease the bearings in a pinch."
Fraser nodded as if he understood. Kowalski poured a little on his fingers and rubbed them together.
"Ray, why do you need to pour cooking oil on your fingers?"
With a grin, Kowalski held up his hand and wiggled his fingers. They glistened.
"To ease the way, Benton."
Fraser stared at Kowalski's hand, his mouth open. "You're going to-" He shifted his hips. His face burned.
Kowalski tilted his head to one side and regarded him thoughtfully. "Didn't you ever use anything?"
"Yes. If he remembered, if he wasn't too drunk, occasionally he would use saliva, if I was-" He shut his mouth, unable to finish the sentence.
"God damn idiot!" Kowalski shook his head. "Not you, Benton. Him. Listen. Spit's no good, not when you're using something that sure as hell better be bigger than a finger. You gotta use something better to cut down on the friction, like you'd use on a piston in a cylinder."
Fraser felt his lips twitch. "The principles are the same," he agreed gravely.
Raising his eyebrows, Kowalski nodded. "Yeah." He leaned forward and kissed Fraser, his oiled hand snaking between Fraser's legs. "But I promise you that no cylinder ever felt as good as you're gonna feel."
When Kowalski's finger touched him, he gasped. It was slippery and warm, and felt... He shivered and moaned when it slid into him as smoothly as the promised hot knife through butter. It was good.
His eyes closed as Kowalski continued to move his finger, and he could feel goosebumps marching over his chest and stomach. Another finger joined the first, but it slipped inside easily. Nothing caught, nothing grew dry. Trust Ray to know what to do. Fraser sighed as warmth flowed down his arms and legs.
"Benton." The fingers twisted and he arched his back and groaned. "Benton."
"Yes?" His eyelids were heavy, and he could not be bothered to open them.
"You doing okay?"
"Yes," he breathed, shifting his hips a little, grunting as a jolt of something... delicious passed through his body. "Ah..."
A kiss landed on his knee, and then a row was painted down the inside of his thigh. "Benton, are you ready for me?"
He nodded slowly. "I need," he murmured, "I need to turn over."
His knees were nudged toward his torso. "No. Lift up your legs. That's right."
He gasped as the fingers withdrew, and again when heat and slick hardness pressed against him. A hand smoothed down his calf, and he grabbed behind his knees and pulled his legs higher.
"Oh, God," Kowalski groaned. "Bear down, Benton. Hard."
He did, tensing his stomach muscles and pushing. Kowalski suddenly filled him and he moaned and shivered.
A hand rested on his abdomen. The fingers were slick. "Does it hurt?" Kowalski's voice was hoarse.
He shook his head. "No. It's good." He took a deep breath.
"Do it again."
This time Kowalski slid in farther, and Fraser panted, fast and shallow. He was stretched so far that his taut muscle burned a little, but it didn't hurt. No, it didn't hurt at all.
"One more time, Benton."
So he tensed and pushed, and suddenly felt Kowalski's hips pressed tightly against his rear.
"Ray," he murmured, clenching his muscles. Kowalski gasped and his hand clasped Fraser's knee.
"It doesn't hurt, Ray."
Kowalski grunted and began to move, slowly withdrawing until Fraser reached blindly for him. "Stay," he pleaded.
"Not going anywhere," Kowalski said breathlessly. "Not for a long time."
And then he pushed forward and Fraser was filled again. His flesh tingled, his heart pounded, and he wasn't sure he could take another breath. He had never felt this good in his life.
Kowalski pulled away and pushed back, flesh sliding slickly over flesh, and he felt even better.
Push, pull, over and over. His skin was both hot and cold, sensitive to every brush of Kowalski's body and breath. He shivered and groaned, almost drunk with the pleasure. When Kowalski shifted and clasped his erection, Fraser cried out and pumped into those strong fingers. A moment later, Kowalski grunted, his hips jerking. With a soft sigh, he collapsed onto Fraser, who wrapped his shaking arms tightly around Kowalski's damp back and held on for dear life.
Fraser awoke the next morning, his arms around Kowalski's chest, and his nose buried in the soft hair at the nape of his neck. Their legs were tangled together, their sticky skin clinging damply to each other. Fraser's rear ached, and he tensed his muscles, enjoying the throbbing deep inside.
Kowalski grunted as he pulled away, but then he rolled onto his stomach and continued to snore softly. Fraser looked longingly at Kowalski's firmly muscled rear and bent over, his hand hovering an inch over the smooth, pale skin. Ray had said, had offered... His chest felt too small for his pounding heart, and his morning erection was turning into something far more demanding.
Taking a deep breath, Fraser stood and turned away. He would not push, he would not coerce. No, he would wait until Ray mentioned the idea again.
He prayed it would be soon.
Fraser had washed and dressed and was finishing up breakfast preparations by the time Kowalski groaned and sat up, rubbing his face.
"Good morning, Ray." Fraser filled the kettle with hot water from the boiler and set it aside to steep.
"Mornin', Benton." Kowalski scrambled to his feet, picked up his trousers and smiled. "Boiler's hot, breakfast's ready - I'm going to get spoiled."
"Nonsense, Ray." Fraser suppressed his smile. "Now get dressed; breakfast will be ready in a minute."
They ate quickly and were back on the river within the hour. It had widened considerably, the broad expanse of water sparkling in the sunlight. Birds dove into the trees, bright flashes of color, and the occasional water snake undulated through the current. There were shallows where hippos grazed on water plants, their heads poking out of the water, ears twitching. Fraser looked for crocodiles, but the riverbanks were high, the water deep, and he didn't see any.
The sun was high when Fraser steered around a cluster of sandbanks. A herd of hippos snorted and shook their massive heads, disturbed by the clatter of the engine. Kowalski looked up and grinned, wrinkling his nose and pulling his upper lip above his teeth. He flapped his hands like twitching hippo ears, and snorted back, eyes gleaming.
Fraser burst out laughing.
His laughter seemed to egg Kowalski on, and he glanced at Fraser and began capering and hooting like a monkey. Fraser could not help it; he made his puffin face, the one that had amused a lost child once. Kowalski looked so ridiculously surprised that Fraser bent over, holding his stomach, his ribs aching, and laughed so hard that his lashes grew wet with tears.
Kowalski grinned, and then he was an elephant, ears flapping, trunk waving, and Fraser had to turn away, wiping his eyes. In front of him the river curved to the right, and he frowned and cocked his head. The banks were narrowing, and the current was picking up.
He turned back to Kowalski, who had lowered his arms and was staring downriver, a crease between his eyebrows.
"Ray, listen. Is that thunder?"
Kowalski glanced at him, his face stricken. "No." He dashed toward the engine as they rounded the curve, and the back of Fraser's mouth turned sour.
The water in front of them disappeared.
Fraser only had time to register Kowalski's look of horror before the bow of the boat pushed out into nothingness. Before he had time to do anything more than hang on, the rest of the boat followed.
The boat tilted, throwing the stern high into the air, and everything that was not tied down slid toward the bow, boxes crashing into boxes, metal clattering and clanking, and Kowalski cursing.
Fraser desperately clung to the tiller and gunwale. If he let go, he would slam into the engine's still-moving crankshaft and pistons, and then on into the boiler. His grip tightened as his feet dangled for a second over open air.
There was a crash, a screech, and a clank, and the deck slammed up to meet him, jarring his teeth and knocking the breath from him. Waves and spray soaked the deck, and Fraser wiped his eyes and peered at the jumble of items piled in the bow.
A curse floated back to him, and then he saw Kowalski lever himself from beneath a tangle of rope. He did not appear to be injured, and Fraser took a deep breath. Kowalski wiped his face with his shirtsleeve and motioned toward the shore. Fraser put the tiller over and frowned. Something was wrong. The boat was not steering as it should.
Kowalski cut the engine when they reached a small cove, and tossed the anchor over the side. He was drenched and his face was pale. He rubbed the back of his neck.
"We nearly done it that time, didn't we, Benton."
Fraser stood, his knees shaking. Water sloshed around his ankles. "I wonder how much damage we've done."
Kowalski nodded. "Let's get the water out and see." He rummaged through the heap at the front of the boat and handed Fraser an enameled cooking pot. He took another and they began to bail.
They stopped once to eat, and it was mid-afternoon by the time they had cleared the water from the deck. Fraser put away the pots and then watched as Kowalski pulled up a section of the deck, exposing another crankshaft and more pistons.
Kowalski glanced up at Fraser and smiled tightly. "Well, it's better than we could've hoped for. The skin seems tight enough. No water coming in."
Fraser nodded. "What was all that clattering, just before we stopped?" he asked.
With a sigh, Kowalski pulled off his cap and ran his fingers through his hair. "That's what we've got to find out, buddy."
"How are you going to do that, Ray?"
"Gotta go down underneath and take a look." Kowalski grimaced and started unbuttoning his shirt. Fraser nodded. Of course. He flushed as Kowalski toed off his shoes and began unfastening his trousers, ashamed of his physical response at such an inappropriate time. He began to straighten the mess in the bow. Kowalski pulled off his undershirt and underwear, wrapping his arms around his chest for a moment. "I hope there's no fancy currents down there. Well, here goes." And he slipped over the side of the boat.
Fraser leaned over the gunwale, narrowing his eyes and trying to peer through the glittering, shifting reflections on the surface of the river. He saw his face, broken, fragmented. Strange for him to look like that. He had never felt so... complete. Suddenly, Kowalski's head popped out of the water like a seal. He spluttered and coughed, pushing his hair away from his face. It fanned above his head like a cockatoo's crest.
"Could you see anything, Ray?" Fraser hurried to the stern.
Kowalski swam to the side. "Yeah. Shaft's twisted like a corkscrew, and there's a blade gone off the prop." Fraser reached down and took Kowalski's hand, hauling him over the side and into the boat. Water streamed from his pale body, and he shivered. Fraser grabbed a blanket from the storage locker beneath the seat - it was damp, but he wrapped it around Kowalski's shoulders.
"We'll have to mend it, then," he said, taking another blanket and dabbing at Kowalski's hair.
"Mend it?" Kowalski snorted and pulled the blanket close. "Fat chance."
"Why is that, Ray?" Fraser sat down, pulling Kowalski onto the seat next to him and draping an arm over his shoulder.
"Ah, I'll tell you," Kowalski snapped. "I'll tell you what we could do if we was back in the slip at Limbazi. We could pull this old tub out and take the shaft down and haul it over to the workshop and forge it straight again. And we could write to the makers for a new prop. We might even have one in stock, on account of how this boat's only thirty years old. And while we was waiting we could clean her bottom and paint her up." He laughed without humor. "Then we'd put the new shaft in and the new prop and go on our way as if nothing had happened. But this isn't Limbazi."
Fraser looked at Kowalski and then at the cove. "Couldn't you straighten the shaft without taking the boat onshore?"
"Uh, I dunno." Kowalski paused, frowning. "I might," he said slowly. "It means working underwater. Could be done, maybe." He shrugged.
"But if you could get the shaft up on shore, you could straighten it."
Kowalski met his eyes bleakly. "Well, I haven't got an anvil, I haven't got a hearth, I haven't got any coal, I haven't got anything." His jaw tightened, and he looked out into the trees.
"I saw a Masai native working once," Fraser replied thoughtfully. "Using charcoal on a big hollow stone. He had a boy to fan the charcoal."
"Oh, yeah, yeah." Kowalski turned to him and nodded. "I've seen that. I'd use a bellows, myself. Make one easy enough." He shifted on the seat, leaning against Fraser.
Fraser tightened his arm, holding him close. "Well, if you think that would be better."
"Lots and lots of firewood on the bank." Kowalski's voice was wistful.
Fraser ran his tongue across the back of his lip. "Why don't you try it?" he whispered.
"Nah." Kowalski sat up, pulling away. "It's no use, Benton. I was forgetting the prop. Blade's gone." His hands spread wide, and the corners of his mouth drooped.
Fraser nodded ruefully. He had forgotten the prop. "And we can't continue on the blades that are left."
"No, the prop would be out of balance. The shaft would be all twisted up like a corkscrew again." Kowalski sighed and slumped back.
"We'll have to make a new blade then." Fraser looked around the cluttered deck. "There is a lot of iron and other metal that you could use."
Kowalski threw back his head and laughed bitterly. "Yeah, yeah. Tie it on." He snorted.
"Wouldn't it be better to weld it on?" Fraser's voice was soft.
Kowalski twisted around to look at him. "You're a one, Benton, really you are," he said, shaking his head.
"Not at all, Ray." Fraser smiled warmly. "But don't you think welding would work?"
Looking thoughtful, Kowalski took a deep breath and nodded. "Oh. Yeah." His face broke into a smile.
Fraser shot to the surface and sucked in a huge lungful of air. Kowalski popped up next to him, coughing and gasping.
"Swallowed half the river, that time," Kowalski choked out, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
"You were down there a long time, Ray."
"So were you, Benton." Kowalski glared at him, but Fraser merely shrugged. Kowalski coughed again. "The shaft doesn't seem to want to come out. It's stuck, like."
"I know. Perhaps if I wielded the hammer..." Fraser's voice trailed off.
"Benton, are you cracked? Doesn't matter who uses the hammer. You can't get the leverage. It's hard enough to stay in one place. The currents down there are fierce."
"True, but I thought I could-"
"What about your wrist?"
"It's almost completely healed, Ray, and since I would be using my other hand-"
Kowalski frowned. "Fine. Wield the blasted hammer. C'mon." He took a deep breath and plunged back into the river. Fraser followed.
Holding the hammer, Fraser smacked the shaft twice, and it suddenly came loose, dropping neatly into Kowalski's outstretched hands. Fraser grabbed the other end, and they hoisted it onto the bank.
With a glance at Kowalski, Fraser cleared his throat. "I'm sure that you had loosened it earlier, Ray. All I had to do was provide a small amount of additional force."
"Sure, Benton," Kowalski snorted, and gave him a black look. Then he quickly winked, and his lips curled up into a blinding smile.
They spent the rest of the afternoon collecting firewood, and Fraser located a stone that would make a suitable substitute anvil. As they ate their dinner, Fraser watched Kowalski, who was sprawled, shirtless, on the blankets, all long arms and legs and surprisingly broad chest. His body was interested in what he saw - very, very interested - but they were both too exhausted to even consider...
Kowalski set down his empty plate and jerked his head.
"C'mere, Benton." He held out his arms, and Fraser quickly stretched out beside him, wrapping his arms around Kowalski's lean torso. "That's better."
Hands and mouths replaced words, communicating want and need and tender regard. When Kowalski unfastened Fraser's trousers and took his erection into his mouth, Fraser decided that this was more than enough, and to wish for more was simply selfish.
And yet he did.
The coals blazed, dark red shot with yellow, and Fraser pumped the bellows again. Sweat dripped into his eyes, stinging, but he blinked and continued to pump. Kowalski lifted the end of the glowing shaft and set it on the stone. The gleaming muscles on his arm were defined by soot and sweat as he pounded the hot metal with the hammer.
Kowalski shook his head, drops of perspiration flying off his drenched face, glanced at Fraser and grinned. "If my old dad had put me to blacksmithing when I was a kid, I don't think I shoulda ever come to Africa. I might've..." He winked. "But then I'd never have met you, Benton." He looked assessingly at the shaft, then picked up the calipers, running them along the metal. They moved smoothly the length of the shaft. Kowalski nodded. "Ah, now, that's about as good as I can get it. Isn't so wrong, neither. Blade'll be a different thing. I gotta make that."
"When I was straightening up the supplies, I found a piece of iron that might be suitable." Fraser sat back, wiping his dripping face with a rag. "It's about the right thickness, and won't need much shaping."
"Good." Kowalski hunched his shoulders and rolled his head. He glanced up at the sky and frowned. "It's too late to start on it today. We'll get to it first thing tomorrow." Rubbing the back of his neck, he stood with a groan and stretched his arms above his head. Rubbing his sooty chest, he grimaced. "I could use a bath."
Knees popping, Fraser stood and nodded. "Agreed, Ray. I'll just douse the fire and-"
But Kowalski was already squatting by the bank, dipping the bucket in the water. He turned, eyes gleaming, and lifted the bucket. "Don't move."
"Ray." Fraser took a step backward. Kowalski took a step forward. Water sloshed over the side of the bucket. "Ray?" Fraser took another step backward and stumbled. With a yell, Kowalski raised the bucket and threw the water full in Fraser's face.
Spluttering, Fraser wiped his eyes and looked solemnly at Kowalski.
With a laugh, Kowalski shrugged. "Sorry, Benton."
"Oh, no." Fraser shook his head. "I don't think you're at all sorry, Ray." He took a step forward, and let the corners of his mouth curl up. "But you will be."
Kowalski gaped at him for a second, then dropped the bucket and ran.
First things first. Fraser made sure that the fire was completely out before pursuing Kowalski. It did not take Fraser long to catch him - he could run remarkably fast when required - and then it was a simple matter of stripping off Kowalski's trousers, throwing him over his shoulder, walking to the riverbank, and tossing him in.
Fraser pulled off his own trousers and, grinning madly, jumped in as well.
Clean and dry and refreshed, they ate their dinner in companionable silence. When they had cleaned up, Kowalski sat in the stern and looked up at Fraser.
"So, where's this piece of iron you found?"
Fraser retrieved the metal and handed it to Kowalski, sitting down beside him. Kowalski turned it over, running his hands over the smooth surface.
"This might do," he said, nodding. "I'll need to take off these corners," his finger outlined curves, "and cut back the flange, but yeah, I think it'll do." He smiled at Fraser, and put the piece to one side. "So." He leaned back and propped his elbows on the gunwale and smiled. "What do you want to do now, Benton?"
Fraser's face burned, and his erection stirred in his trousers. He stared at the trees and swallowed. "I don't know, Ray. What would you like to do?"
Kowalski leaned over and murmured into his ear. "I showed you that it didn't hurt, didn't I?"
Fraser nodded. His mouth was too dry to speak.
Kowalski's hand traveled down his upper arm, resting on his elbow. Fraser shivered, and Kowalski licked the rim of his ear. "Now you can show me, eh?"
He closed his eyes. Oh, Lord. Ray wanted him to... "Yes, Ray," he whispered, his voice hoarse.
"Benton?" Kowalski's fingers tightened on his arm. "If you don't want to, or-"
"No!" He turned his head and met Kowalski's eyes. "I want to, Ray. Very much."
Kowalski's lips thinned. "You've never- He never let you..." His voice trailed off and he raised his eyebrows.
Fraser shook his head. "No. Not... Mark. But I-" His face felt so hot he wondered if it glowed in the dusk. "That is." He cleared his throat. "I-" He gave Kowalski a pleading look.
"You've done it with another man?" Fraser shook his head again and Kowalski's eyebrows rose another inch. "A woman?"
"Yes." He sighed in relief.
Kowalski smiled at him and winked. "Benton Fraser, you cad."
"It wasn't like that," he said quickly, and looked at the deck. "At least..." He winced.
"Forget I said anything." Kowalski's hand slid up and down his arm and he shivered. "It doesn't matter. Not now."
Ray was right. It didn't.
With a gentle smile, Kowalski leaned forward and kissed him. "Benton," he murmured, "show me. Now."
With a groan, Fraser slid them both down onto the blankets, his fingers scrabbling at the fastening of Kowalski's trousers. With a chuckle, Kowalski pushed his hands away, unfastened his own trousers, and pushed them over his hips, kicking them off into a heap. His erection bobbed gently as he panted, and he propped himself up on his elbows, glaring at Fraser.
"You waiting for an invitation or something?"
Gulping, Fraser nodded, then shook his head. "No, Ray. I just-"
"Benton." Kowalski grinned. "Shut up."
Fraser stripped off quickly and stretched out beside Kowalski, opening his arms.
"Better," Kowalski muttered before rolling on top of Fraser and kissing him hard. Fraser grunted in agreement, and wrapped his arms around Kowalski. He spread his legs, groaning as Kowalski's damp erection rubbed against his. With a gasp, Kowalski broke their kiss, arching his back and shifting his hips.
"Oil," he panted, rolling off Fraser and scrambling over to the supply chest. He was back in a moment, holding the tin, and Fraser snatched it from his fingers, setting it to one side and pulling him down onto his back in one fluid movement.
"Ray," he murmured, stroking and nibbling and licking, until Kowalski writhed on the blankets.
"God." His voice was harsh. "Now." Kowalski rolled onto his side and bent his leg, his hands clenched into fists. "Please."
His heart pounding so loud it sounded like signal drums booming in his ears, Fraser knelt and poured a little oil over his fingers. He rubbed them together, his other hand smoothing over the lean muscles of Kowalski's buttocks.
Shifting his hips and spreading his legs wider, Kowalski turned his head. "Dammit, Benton!" he snapped. "Get a move on. You trying to make me die of waiting?"
Fraser leaned forward and kissed one pale cheek. "Good things come to those who wait, Ray," he murmured, suppressing a smile. He rather enjoyed the fact that Ray was so... anxious.
"Benton, I'll wallop you one, if you don't- Ahhhh..."
Pushing his oiled finger in deeper, Fraser took a deep breath and willed himself to calm. Ray was unexpectedly hot, the soft flesh inside him burning like fire. Fraser watched, fascinated, as goosebumps washed across Kowalski's buttocks and thighs every time he moved his finger. This was how it could have been, how it was supposed to be. No pain, just bone-deep pleasure.
He felt absurdly grateful to Ray for showing him.
Kowalski grunted and panted harshly as Fraser worked, oiling and stretching the muscle. Adding a second finger brought a full body shudder, a hiss and a cry, quickly cut off. Sweat dampened Kowalski's skin, and he struggled to his elbows and knees, Fraser's fingers still deep inside. Fraser's erection jerked and dripped.
"Now," Kowalski groaned, his muscles squeezing Fraser's fingers. "Can't... Not much longer..."
Dropping a kiss to his gleaming back, Fraser gently withdrew his fingers and oiled his erection. Kowalski canted his hips and spread his legs, his erection hanging heavy between his quivering thighs.
Fraser pressed the tip of his erection against Kowalski's greased muscle. Kowalski tensed, and slowly, so slowly, Fraser pushed.
He gasped, shocked at the heat, the pressure. He had never thought, never realized... Oh, God, it felt so good. He stared at the place where they were joined, dumbfounded at the sheer power of the sight. Sucking in a lungful of air, he flexed his fingers, loosening their rigid hold on Kowalski's hips.
"Oh, Ray..." He blinked, and could not continue.
Kowalski grunted and tensed again. He pushed back hard, and Fraser felt the rest of his erection slide inside that pliant body. Kowalski shivered, panting harshly, and Fraser stroked his back and flanks with shaking hands. His own back ached as he struggled to hold his hips still. He wanted to push, to pump, to bury himself so deep that their flesh would melt and mix...
"Oh, Christ." Kowalski's voice broke. "Benton..."
That was all he needed. Fraser moved, slipping in, out, over and over, until Kowalski's cries ran together like warm honey, and he had risen to his hands, head flung back, mouth open. The heat pooled in Fraser's groin spread, trickling down the back of his thighs and up his abdomen, and his hips jerked and thrust. He shook, stuttered, lost the rhythm, then caught it again as Kowalski rocked back against him.
With a galvanic shudder, Kowalski roared, pumping onto the blankets. Fraser ignited like flashpowder and plunged as deep as he could, releasing inside Kowalski in hard, wrenching spurts.
Kowalski collapsed onto the blankets, pulling free with a groan. Fraser toppled to the side, panting, and gathered Kowalski to him, burying his face in soft, drenched hair.
God, how he loved this man.
They dozed, clinging stickily to each other, until Fraser stirred, disturbed by a full bladder. When he returned, carrying a damp cloth, Kowalski lay on his side, head propped on his arm. His eyes glittered in the moonlight.
Fraser sat down and began to carefully wipe Kowalski's groin and rear. "Thank you, Ray," he murmured, setting aside the cloth and laying down again.
Kowalski chuckled. "'You're welcome' doesn't sound right, does it?" he said softly, his fingers creeping across the blankets, coming to rest on Fraser's chest.
"True." Fraser picked up his hand and kissed his fingers.
"Who was she?" he asked calmly.
Releasing Kowalski's hand, Fraser rolled onto his back and took a shuddering breath. What could he say?
"She was very beautiful, Ray," he whispered, his voice hoarse.
"Yeah." He sounded wistful. "How did you meet?"
"She came to town one day and I... She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen." His heart thudded painfully, and his throat felt as if he had swallowed sandpaper. "There was a town dance that Saturday, and we... we danced together almost every dance."
"What was her name?"
He had to clear his throat before he could speak. "Victoria."
"Pretty name. What happened?"
No. He couldn't-
He surged to his feet, moving blindly toward the bow. Strong arms wrapped around his chest and he was stopped short.
Warm lips pressed against his neck and shoulders, and warm hands urged him back. He sat on the bench, head bowed, body and heart so cold, yet burning with shame.
"Benton." Strong hands turned him, pulled him close. A warm arm draped over his shoulder, a warm body pressed against his chest and hip and thigh.
He was so cold.
Lips again, on cheek, chin, temple. Small blooms of warmth that slowly dissolved the cold. A hand chafed his arm, circled his wrist, tangled in his fingers.
"She let me kiss her," he whispered, and the fingers tightened on his. "She showed me-" His throat contracted and he shook his head, once. "We made love... I forgot-" His stomach roiled, lurching. He swallowed hard. "I was a constable of the Royal North West Mounted Police. I forgot my duty."
Another kiss on his temple. "Hey, it's all right."
"No, Ray. It isn't. It will never be." He sucked in a shuddering breath. "Five people died because I neglected my duty. I can never forget that."
The fingers on his arm tightened. "Tell me."
He covered his face with his hands.
"She had a cohort. They planned to rob the bank." He continued, ignoring Kowalski's gasp of surprise. "Victoria arrived in town early, with the express intention of... distracting me. She succeeded all too well." He took a deep breath and allowed himself to be pulled tight against Kowalski's side. "When they robbed the bank, I was waiting for her in the bed we had shared. They killed two tellers and three customers while I imagined her touch..." His face burned. "She shot Mackenzie..."
"Who's he, your partner?"
Fraser nodded. "Yes, and my closest companion, until..." He glanced at Kowalski and then squeezed his eyes shut. "He was trying to stop her without injuring her. He had set his teeth around her ankle, but hadn't actually..."
"Yes. Mackenzie is half wolf."
"You had a wolf for a partner?"
"He saved my life, Ray," Fraser said simply, looking at Kowalski.
"Okay. Okay." A kiss landed on his jaw. "What happened after that?"
"When the evidence pointed toward her involvement, I could not believe it. I did not begin pursuit until the weight of the evidence against them finally crushed my illusions. Twelve hours had passed before I set out, thereby reducing the chance of successfully locating them. My dereliction of duty..." He bowed his head, shaking it slowly.
Kowalski was silent, and Fraser waited, heart aching, for him to speak. To condemn. To reject.
With a sigh, Kowalski began to rub his back in long, slow strokes. "This is why you came to Africa?"
"Yes." He leaned back, drawn to the warmth of Kowalski's caress.
"So, you were discharged because they got away?"
"No. She and her accomplice were captured and convicted."
"Who captured them?"
He swallowed hard. "I did."
"And you were still dismissed?" He sounded surprised.
He rubbed his eyes and shook his head. "I was not dismissed. I resigned."
The hand on his back stilled. "Wait. Wait a minute. You resigned?"
"I had to, Ray."
Kowalski snorted, but his hand moved again, big, smooth circles across, down, over, up. "Why?"
"Because I failed in my duty, and five people were killed."
"Were you supposed to be on duty at the bank?"
He paused. "No."
"Then how could you have prevented their deaths?"
"I-" His hands shook, and he clasped them tightly.
Kowalski continued, implacable. "You tracked the robbers down and captured them, so how did you fail in your duty?"
"I allowed myself to become involved with a criminal, Ray. I put my own desires ahead of the well-being of those whom I am charged to protect."
"I still don't understand, Benton. How were you at fault?"
He stared at clenched fingers. The knuckles were white. "I should have known," he said hoarsely. "I should have seen." He took a deep breath. "I did see," he whispered.
"The darkness in her." He could barely force the words out. "I saw the darkness and it... intrigued me. Captivated me."
"But not enough to let her get away."
Fraser shook his head. "I couldn't, not after..."
"So," Kowalski said slowly, "you decided to leave your home and your job and come to Africa."
"You know, Benton." Kowalski gave his shoulders a little shake. "For a smart fellow, you're pretty stupid."
Fraser's head whipped around, and he glared at Kowalski. "I don't-"
"Yep. Pretty stupid," Kowalski continued, running his fingers up Fraser's neck and through his hair. "You blame yourself for not figuring out what they were up to, even though you sensed some of her darkness, and then you punish yourself 'cause you don't have second sight or something. Even though you caught 'em."
He looked away. "It's not that easy, Ray," he said coldly.
He sighed. Those were his father's words. He had had no answer to them when his father voiced them, over two years ago, and he had no answer to them now.
His throat was tight, his chest burned. He blinked, his vision blurring, and blinked again.
"Benton?" Hands tugged at him, and he followed them blindly. "C'mon. Lie down." Kowalski's voice was gentle, and Fraser allowed himself to be drawn into the embrace of strong arms.
For the first time since he had resigned from the job he loved, Fraser wept, long and hard.
Kowalski put down the hammer and wiped his dripping forehead with the back of his grimy hand. "There. That should do it." He picked up the bucket and quenched the glowing propeller.
Fraser dropped the bellows and nodded. "The weld looks sturdy, Ray." He stood, trying not to groan. His knees and back were stiff, and he ached inside. It was a good ache, and he suppressed a smile. After he had cried himself out last night, Ray had entered him, his strokes sure and deep, his words and hands comforting. Fraser felt... tender, like newly healed skin.
"Put out the fire, Benton. I'm going to fit the prop on." Kowalski pulled off his trousers and picked up the propeller, then waded noisily into the river.
Fraser quickly doused the fire and joined Kowalski underwater. He was pleased that the propeller slid on smoothly, and gave Kowalski a thumbs up once they had bolted it into place.
Back in the boat, Kowalski fired up the engine, and they leaded over the stern, watching the propeller churn up the quiet water.
"Ah, it turns right enough, but that doesn't mean anything." Kowalski frowned at the water, then straightened, rubbing his hand through his hair. "The question is, will she stand up under a full head of steam. We'll get the answer out there." He gestured toward the river and shook his head. "Well, Lord help us if it isn't the right one."
They set out early the next morning, and Fraser steered the boat into the center of the broad river. After giving the boiler a half-hearted kick and squinting at the engine, Kowalski sat down beside him, slinging his arm over Fraser's shoulders.
Kowalski grinned and winked. "Looks like this old river got tired of all the running and jumping she did and decided to lay down and rest for a while."
Fraser nodded and returned his smile. "I'll rather miss the rapids," he said wistfully, and Kowalski laughed. With a sigh, Fraser leaned against Kowalski. "This must be where the river changes her name from Ulanga to Bora."
Kowalski made a noncommittal noise, and, after peering ahead at the smooth, unbroken water, grabbed Fraser's chin and turn his head, meeting his lips in a long, gentle kiss.
Later that afternoon, Kowalski handed him a cup of tea, and Fraser tore his gaze from the shore. The banks had flattened, and the trees thinned. There were more sandbars to avoid, and the water looked thick with sediment. "How much further do you suppose it is to the lake, Ray?"
Kowalski's mouth quirked. "Oh, not so many miles as the crow flies, but there's no telling how many days. Depends on how much winding around this old river does."
"I hope it-" With a start, Fraser blushed and shut his mouth. He hadn't really wished that their journey would continue indefinitely. He... No, they had a duty to get to the lake as soon as possible and blow up the Luisa.
He pressed his lips together and stared at the shore. He was doing it again - allowing himself to be distracted by lust. No. He glanced at Kowalski, standing by the boiler, adjusting a valve. Not lust. Fraser shifted on the seat. Well, he could not deny that lust was involved, but no. No. It was love.
And they had so few days left together.
He would just have to make the most of them.
"Benton." Kowalski stretched his legs and grunted. "You're going to be the death of me," he said, but he smiled, a languid, sleepy smile and held out his arms. "But what a way to go. I'll have a smile on my face and your name on my lips."
Fraser settled next to him, panting lightly. "I can think of worse ways to die," he agreed, flinging his arm over Kowalski's sweaty chest and squeezing.
"Yeah." He rolled onto his side, pressing his back against Fraser's chest, and wriggling his damp rear against Fraser's lax groin.
Fraser groaned and wrapped his arms around Kowalski's chest. "Forget it, Ray. I have nothing more to give."
With a snort, Kowalski twined his fingers in Fraser's and brought their joined hands up for a kiss. "I'm disappointed in you, Benton. A young man like you, throwing in the towel after one round."
Fraser poked him. Hard. "One? Try three, Ray," he said severely, ignoring Kowalski's yelp, and grabbing both his hands.
"Must've lost count somewhere." Kowalski tried to free his hands, but Fraser held on tight. With a laugh, he relaxed against Fraser, his lean body warm, sweaty, and sticky in several places. "What a time we've had, Benton." He laughed and squirmed in Fraser's clasp. "What a time. We'll never lack for stories to tell in our old age, will we?"
"No, Ray, we won't," Fraser replied softly. No, he would never forget this journey, never forget Ray. No matter how many years passed, no matter where he found himself. Ray would always be with him in mind and heart, if not in body.
"That's right," Kowalski agreed. "And you know the funny thing?" He didn't wait for Fraser to answer. "We'll be old men, sitting there next to each other on the settee, telling the same story, and I'll bet you anything you want that we'll argue about what happened."
His breath caught. It sounded as if... Oh, God, did Ray mean... He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his lips to the nape of Kowalski's neck. "I don't bet, Ray."
"Not for money, no."
"Guess we'll have to bet something else, eh?" He wriggled around until he was facing Fraser. Narrowing his eyes, Kowalski slowly licked his lips. Fraser shivered, remembering what those lips had surrounded so recently. Kowalski grinned. "How about if I'm right and we argue, you take me, and if we don't, I take you?"
Fraser ran his tongue across the back of his lower lip. "That would be entirely satisfactory, Ray."
"Yeah. Thought so." And he dived in for a kiss.
Fraser shaded his eyes with his hand and squinted at Kowalski, perched at the top of the mast. Kowalski craned his neck, scanning the horizon as the boat circled, and then frowned down at him.
"Nothing but grass and papyrus as far as you can see."
Fraser sighed and swung the tiller over, sending the boat into an even tighter turn. "Which is the main channel?"
Kowalski scanned the horizon again, and then shook his head. "Doesn't look like there is one."
"What should we do, Ray?" He frowned at the walls of reeds that surrounded them.
"I don't know," Kowalski said as he slid down the mast to the deck.
"We can't just go in circles forever," Fraser pointed out, despite the fact that he knew the statement was obvious.
"Well, we get in there and the grass closes in back of the stern, there's no going back, Benton. Anything happens, we just sit there till we go off our heads with fever."
"I know it."
"All right." Kowalski shrugged. "You pays your money and you takes your choice."
Fraser looked at the narrow channels punctuating the reeds. He pointed. "That way."
Kowalski nodded and waved his hand. "Put 'er over."
Fraser wiped the stinging sweat from his eyes and shifted the long pole in his hands. Blood smeared the wood. His shoulders and back ached, and he glared at the mud that surrounded the hull. He was glad his wrist and ribs had healed, or he never would have been able to do this.
Kowalski grunted, his muddy shirt clinging to him as he pushed on his pole. His hands slipped on the wood, leaving behind a red streak. He straightened and groaned, pressing a hand to the small of his back. "We've come along by steam. We've paddled and pushed and pulled this old boat along with the hook. What we haven't done up to now is get out and carry her." He shook his head. "Looks like that'll come next."
Fraser took a deep breath. "It's hard to breathe, the air is so heavy."
"Yeah, you can't tell it from the water. Or the water from the land, for that matter." Kowalski picked at a blister on his hand and grimaced. He stared at the reeds, frowning. "All the channels we've lost, all the twisting and turning we've done. We may come out back where we've started, if we come out at all."
"But we've always followed the current, what little there is of it," Fraser pointed out.
"That doesn't mean anything with this river," Kowalski suddenly snarled, snatching up a cup and hurling it into the reeds. It disappeared without a trace. "This river's unhinged. As unhinged as I am," he panted.
"Ray." Fraser approached him slowly, his hands up. Kowalski stood, his chest heaving, his eyes showing their whites like a spooked horse. "Ray," he said softly.
Kowalski blinked and focused on him. Suddenly they were holding each other. "Sorry, buddy," Kowalski whispered, his arms tightening. He chuckled without humor. "The only thing that'll put the roses back in our cheeks is to get out of these reeds."
Fraser nodded and sighed, permitting himself one more moment of holding Kowalski's body before releasing him and returning to his pole.
Silently, Kowalski handed him rags to wrap around his hands.
The sun was high in the sky when Kowalski turned to him, shaking his head.
"What I said about having to get out and carry this old boat was meant to be a joke. Doesn't look like a joke now."
"I'll go, Ray."
"Don't worry, Benton. You'll get your turn." Kowalski's mouth thinned. "It isn't easy work. We'll have to spell each other."
He climbed stiffly over side, and Fraser threw down the mooring line from the bow. Kowalski winked at him and grabbed it, slinging it over his shoulder. Then he turned and trudged forward. Fraser picked up his pole and pushed hard, wincing at the pain in his hands.
The minutes and hours melted and ran together as he shoved the pole into the mud and pushed, muscles straining, lungs aching. When he pulled the pole up, there was a loud sucking sound, accompanied by the thick, pungent odor of decay. It was hard and disgusting work, but the boat inched forward. Fraser looked up, and the sun was well past its zenith. He put down the pole and hurried to the bow.
"Ray!" The hunched, muddy figure slowly turned and peered up at him. "It's time to rest."
Kowalski nodded and let the mooring line fall into the stagnant water. Fraser's heart ached as he watched Kowalski slowly make his way to the side of the boat, and he leaned precariously over the side to help him in.
With a groan, Kowalski slumped against the gunwale, his shirt and trousers dripping. Fraser poured him a cup of water and handed it to him, holding his shaking hands as he took a sip.
"Gimme a minute, Benton. I'll be fine." Kowalski smiled at him, but his face was pale, and lines of exhaustion were etched deeply into his face. He pushed away from the rail, and turned.
Fraser's eyes widened and his mouth went dry. "Ray!" His hand shook as he pointed to a rip in Kowalski's shirt.
Kowalski looked down and blenched. "Oh, the little beggars!" He reached for the thick, fat bodies clinging to his chest. "Pull 'em off me!" Fraser reached out and Kowalski's hands smacked his. "No, no, the heads stay in." Kowalski pulled off his shirt, revealing even more dark forms.
Fraser took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm, to think. "Salt. Salt." He ran to the supply chest and dug through it, pulling out the box of salt. Pouring a pile in his palm, Fraser sprinkled it over the pulsing shapes on Kowalski's chest, brushing gently at them until they dropped off. They left bloody, bruised spots on his damp flesh. "Your legs," Fraser said quickly. With an oath, Kowalski unfastened his trousers and pushed them down, stepping out of them quickly.
Swallowing the bile that painted bitterness over the back of his throat, Fraser cleaned them off Kowalski's legs and flanks.
Kowalski shuddered and ran a hand over his sweating face. "If there's anything in the world I hate, it's leeches. Filthy little devils." He pulled on his trousers, his breathing shallow and fast, and put his hands on the gunwale.
Fraser rubbed his neck and ran his thumb over his left eyebrow. "No, Ray. It's my turn."
"But, Benton..." Kowalski stared at him for a moment, then nodded slowly. He licked his lips and sighed. "I wish..."
With a nod, Fraser wrapped his arms around Kowalski for a moment, brushed his lips over his jaw, and slipped over the side.
They collapsed onto their pallet that night, too exhausted to do more than share a quick kiss.
The next morning found them both in the water, Kowalski hacking at the thick stands of reeds with bloody hands and arms, and Fraser pulling the boat, his feet slipping on the mud.
Suddenly, Fraser was face down in the muddy water, spluttering and choking. As he struggled to his feet, a strong hand gripped his arm and hauled him upright. He coughed, wiping his face and spitting out mud.
He blinked at Kowalski, who looked at him solemnly. "We'll both have to haul," Kowalski said quietly.
Fraser nodded, and handed Kowalski the end of the rope. He wrapped the rope around his hand and slung it over his shoulder, turned and leaned against the rope. Fraser grabbed farther up the rope, and pulled.
The hull slid slowly forward.
Fraser wrung out the rag over the basin and gently wiped Kowalski's face. Kowalski shifted restlessly on the pallet, his breathing harsh and shallow. He shivered and clenched his jaw, stifling a moan. Draping the rag over Kowalski's forehead, Fraser reached down and drew a blanket over his shuddering body.
He picked up a tin cup - there was only a scant inch of water in the bottom. "You must drink, Ray."
Shaking his head, Kowalski hunched his shoulders and drew the blanket close. "You drink it. It's the last of the water, and I'm not much use to us now."
Fraser swallowed the fear that rose in his throat. "No, it's yours. You need it to keep up your strength."
Kowalski laughed bitterly, his teeth chattering. "You want to know the truth, don't you? Even if we had all our strength, we'd never get her off this mud. We're finished."
"I know it," Fraser said quietly. He took the rag off Kowalski's forehead and leaned forward, dropping a kiss just below his hairline.
A shaking hand cupped his cheek. "But Benton, I'm not one bit sorry I came. What I mean is, it was worth it."
Placing his hand over Kowalski's, Fraser leaned into the caress. "It was indeed, Ray." He turned his head, kissing Kowalski's torn palm. "Sleep." Kowalski closed his eyes and his arm went limp. Grief already tearing at his heart, Fraser smoothed the blanket and sat back, staring at the man before him until his eyes blurred.
He thought about praying, but did not know the words to use, did not know if they would even be heard or acknowledged. His hand rested on the blanket, and he drew comfort from the slow rise and fall of Kowalski's chest.
There were heavy clouds in the east as the sun dipped below the tops of the reeds. He lay down, wrapping his arms around the man he would never leave.
Hands stroked his face and he murmured sleepily.
He shifted, shivering a little as the hands moved down his neck and over his shoulders.
Everything was moving, slowly rocking, so peaceful, so comfortable...
He mumbled a complaint as a hand shook his shoulder roughly.
"Benton, look. We're on the lake."
His eyes flew open. Kowalski peered down at him, his face creased in a manic grin. "The rain did it. It lifted the old Queen up, carried her over the mud. We couldn't have been over a hundred yards from it last night." He blinked as a hand pulled him upright, and he swayed, fisting his eyes like a child. Kowalski hugged him, and whispered in his ear. "Look, Benton."
He looked. Water surrounded them. The thick mat of reeds that had looked so impenetrable yesterday was now broken into large clumps by the river, and he could see...
Fraser turned and grasped Kowalski's shoulders. He kissed him hard, finally breaking free and gasping, "Let's build the fire and get the engine started and go right out into the middle, away from these reeds, where we can breathe."
Kowalski laughed. "Sure, sure. We'll be out of here in a jiffy."
Within half an hour they were out on the lake, leaving the reeds behind. Fraser stood in the stern, his face lifted to the breeze. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back, shivering at the cool tickle of wind on his throat.
"The air is wonderful, Ray."
Kowalski looked up from the engine. "Yeah. It's like... I know you don't approve, but it's like a shot of gin." He grinned. "It makes your blood race, your face numb, and your spirits soar."
Fraser looked at him. "I'm sorry I poured that gin out."
"Forget it, Benton. You can make it up to me," he added with a leer and a waggle of his eyebrows.
Fraser laughed and vowed to himself that he would indeed make it up to Ray...
"What's that?" He pointed to the small dark cloud that appeared on the horizon. Kowalski turned and followed his pointing finger.
"Is it?" he asked, as a boat appeared, stark white against the gray smoke.
Kowalski nodded. "Yes, it's the Luisa, and she's coming right towards us." He shook his head in wonder. "She must be doing a good twelve knots. We've got to make a run for it, back to the reeds."
They exchanged a wordless look as Fraser brought the boat around. Once they reached the reeds, Kowalski cut the engine and slid over the side. He began to push the boat into one of the little channels. Fraser dropped over the gunwale and joined him, setting his shoulder against the stern and pushing her into hiding.
Kowalski peered around a clump of reeds into the lake, watching the ship. Fraser joined him, and his fingers tightened on Kowalski's shoulders. "She's coming right toward us."
They watched, still and silent as the ship came nearer and nearer. Suddenly, she veered to starboard, following the shore.
Fraser let out his breath with a gasp. "I thought for a minute they'd seen us."
Kowalski looked at him, his face tight. "So did I." He jerked his head toward the boat, and they scrambled on board. Kowalski stripped off his shirt and wrung it out, continuing. "She'll probably anchor there for the night and leave in the morning." He laid his shirt over the gunwale and sat on the bench, running his fingers through his hair. "Don't you worry. They'll be back again. You know how the Germans are. They lay down systems and then they stick to them. Mondays they're one place, Tuesdays they're someplace else and Wednesday they'll be back here."
Fraser nodded and sat beside him, his mind racing. "How long will it take to get the torpedoes ready?"
"I don't know. It depends on the detonators. Gotta devise something." Kowalski raised his eyebrow and looked at him, resting his hand on Fraser's thigh. "I know what you're thinking, Benton. You're thinking of taking the Queen out at night when the Luisa comes back, aren't you?" He nodded and squeezed Fraser's thigh. "We ought to manage it."
Kowalski fitted the small circle of wood and nails into the hole in the top of the cylinder. "Ah, that ought to work." He carefully pulled it out and held it up before Fraser. "When we ram into her, the ends of these nails will hit the percussion caps and shoot the bullets into the gelatin."
"Excellent idea, Ray," Fraser said as he filled the other cylinder with sticks of blasting gelatin.
"Can't put 'em in the cylinders yet." Kowalski set it down gingerly. "They're pretty tricky. We'll put 'em in when we're ready to start."
Fraser looked over at him with a frown. "It will be dark by then. Do you think that you can do it in the dark?"
Quirking his mouth, Kowalski shrugged. "It's a case of have to."
Fraser stood and scanned the lake. "You're quite sure that they will come back with the Luisa?"
"Uh huh." Kowalski nodded and stood beside Fraser. "Dead sure. Lemme see. The lake's a hundred miles long and fifty miles wide. The Luisa does about twelve knots. That's 120 miles a day. Yep. She'll be back here tomorrow. When she comes, we'll be ready for her."
They cut the holes in the bow first thing that morning, and slid the cylinders full of blasting gelatin into the holes, so that the open ends were facing forward, waiting for the detonators.
Still kneeling, Kowalski turned to him and nudged his thigh. "Now all we've gotta do is wait."
"Wait, Ray?" Fraser nudged back.
"Yeah." Kowalski's hand ran up the back of his calf and rested behind his knee. It was becoming difficult to breathe.
"What shall we do while we wait?" Fraser licked his lips and gently touched Kowalski's hair.
"Hmmm..." Kowalski slowly unfastened Fraser's trousers. "I have a couple of ideas..."
Fraser leaned back against the gunwale and moaned.
The sun was setting in a ruddy blaze when Fraser shaded his eyes with his hand and looked out over the lake. Kowalski stood, hitching up his trousers and nodded.
"Here's the Luisa, right on time." He dropped over the side, and Fraser leaned down, handing him the detonators. Kowalski fitted them into place and climbed back in.
He looked at the reeds, bending in the freshening breeze, and frowned. "It's blowing up a bit. Better get started, all right?"
Fraser nodded and took his place at the tiller. By the time they were clear of the reeds, the lake was unexpectedly choppy, and Fraser did not like the thick, dark clouds that were building in the east.
Rain began a few minutes later, and the chop turned into whitecaps. The wind picked up, turning the rain and spray into needles stinging their faces and arms. Kowalski hovered over the boiler and engine, adjusting valves and tightening bolts with frantic haste. He glanced back at Fraser once, his face pale and his lips tight.
Fraser struggled with the tiller as the boat rolled and bucked on the waves. He could see the lights of the Luisa ahead, but the wind and waves kept pushing them to the right - they would miss her if he didn't correct their course immediately.
"Ray," he shouted, cupping his hand around his mouth. Kowalski staggered back to him, one hand clutching the rail to stay upright. "Ray, I can't steer."
Kowalski nodded. "Too much water in the bows. Rudder's outta the water half the time." He gestured toward the bow. "Gotta get her nose up, or we'll be in trouble."
He picked his way over the soaked deck to the bow, shoving boxes and barrels toward the stern. Fraser struggled with the tiller, but the boat turned. A wave struck the side of the boat, setting the deck awash, and Kowalski was thrown to his hands and knees. He held on fiercely as another wave broke, this one high enough to flood the deck and douse the fire in the boiler.
The engine slowed, then stopped, and they were tossed from side to side as the boat drifted.
Kowalski crawled toward him, spluttering as another wave hit. "Benton, we're sinking!" He grabbed the life preserver and pushed it into Fraser's hands as the boat tilted, jerked, and then, in one heart-stopping moment, tossed them into the churning water and rolled over.
He clutched the life preserver, thankful for its buoyancy. Wave after wave broke over his head, and he gasped for air. A cold hand grabbed his wrist and pulled him against a slippery wooden surface.
Clinging to the hull, Fraser could barely make out Kowalski's shape next to him.
"Ray!" he shouted as another wave smacked into him, loosening his chilled fingers. Another one slammed him into the wood, knocking the breath from his lungs, and then sucked him off his refuge and into the roiling lake.
"Ray!" He clung to the life preserver and shouted with all his might, but he did not hear any reply to his calls. His voice finally gave out, and he drifted on the wind-whipped water, aching for the man he had lost.
The storm eventually died down, and by the time dawn broke, the lake was calm again. The Luisa was visible in the distance, the sun glinting off her brass work. Too exhausted to do anything other than cling to the life preserver, Fraser watched a small launch skim back and forth over the water. It passed nearby, suddenly veering off course and approaching him quickly. He had been spotted.
Fraser considered letting go the life preserver and sinking slowly beneath the water.
The launch came up beside him and stopped, and two dark heads peered over the side.
"Guck mal! Da gibt's noch ein andere!" A sailor leaned over the side, extending a hook toward him. "Kletterm Sie ins Boot!"
Fraser looked at him blankly, but allowed himself to be towed closer and then pulled into the boat, along with the life preserver.
"Setzen Sie sich. Sie mssen mit dem Kapitn sofort sprechen."
He sat listlessly in the stern, shivering. One of the sailors tossed a blanket over his shoulders, but his fingers did not seem to work, and it slid off his back.
The sun and fresh air slowly revived him, and by the time they reached the side of the Luisa, Fraser craned his neck and looked up at the ship towering over him. They had been so close.
One of the sailors tossed the life preserver to another one on the deck and shouted something. The sailor on board ran up some stairs and stood at a doorway, speaking to someone inside.
Suddenly, Kowalski appeared in the doorway. "Benton!" he shouted, and Fraser could see his enormous smile. He abruptly disappeared back into the dark room.
He couldn't believe it. Ray. Ray was alive.
He stood up, waving his arms, heedless of the rocking boat. "Ray! Ray!" Hands pulled at him, forcing him to sit until they reached the boarding ladder. Fraser needed no urging to ascend.
He could hardly contain his joy.
Nipping at the heels of the sailor before him, Fraser quickly climbed to the doorway where he had seen Ray, and boldly walked in.
Ray was sitting on floor, rubbing his jaw.
"Ray." He squatted down beside him, his hand resting on Kowalski's shoulder.
"Who are you?" The heavily accented voice was sharp, demanding his attention. He stood and glanced up. Three men in white uniforms were sitting around a mahogany desk, staring at him. He squared his shoulders and raised his chin.
"Mr. Benton Fraser."
Three pair of suspicious eyes raked over him. "English?"
"Canadian." He turned back to Kowalski, who was slowly getting to his feet.
"What were you doing on the lake?"
Before he could speak, Kowalski turned to him. "I haven't told 'em anything, Benton."
"Silence!" Fraser looked over. The youngest officer was speaking. The other two were frowning at him, their faces dark with doubts. "What were you doing on the lake?" continued the officer.
"We were boating." Fraser turned back to Kowalski. A bruise was coming up on his cheek, and Fraser's jaw tightened.
"Last night, in such weather?" The officer sounded skeptical.
"We were not responsible for the weather," Fraser snapped.
The other officer looked at him coldly. "As your fellow prisoner has already learned, the penalty for not answering this court is death."
Fraser took a step toward the officer, his hands balled into fists. "You mean he..." He spun around, his heart pounding. "Ray?" A sailor grabbed his arm. "Stop that," he said, shaking off his grip.
"Order!" the captain bellowed.
Fraser did not look at him. His eyes were on Kowalski, who stood before him, his eyes on the deck. "Are they going to hang you, Ray?" he asked, his voice shaking.
"Herr Fraser, you will come to order and answer the questions of this court."
"Very well." He spun on his heel and faced the officers. "Ask your questions."
"What were you doing on the lake?"
He clasped his hands behind his back and looked straight ahead. "We came here to sink this ship, and we would have too, except that-"
"Benton!" Kowalski put a hand on his arm.
Fraser turned and smiled. "Let us at least have the pleasure of telling them about it, Ray."
Kowalski looked at him, wild-eyed. "Don't you believe him, your honor, he's touched." He gave the officers a sickly smile. "You know, fever."
"Stop it, Ray," he chided. "We both were involved, and there's no use pretending otherwise."
The captain tilted his head and looked at him curiously. "And just how, Herr Fraser, did you propose to sink the Koenigen Luisa?"
He suppressed a smile. "With torpedoes."
"Torpedoes?" The captain looked stunned. "Nein."
The young officer glanced at the captain and tugged at his collar. "Will you be so good as to tell us exactly where and how you acquired torpedoes?"
"Mr. Kowalski made them."
The officer chuckled. "How very interesting."
"You don't believe me, do you?" Fraser crossed his arms over his chest. "Ray, tell them how you made the torpedoes."
Kowalski shrugged. "Well, see, what I did, I took the heads off two cylinders of oxygen and I filled 'em up with live explosive, about two hundredweight. That was easy enough." He nodded and his eyes sparkled. "It was the detonators that took some doing. And you know what I used?" The officers shook their heads. "Cartridges and nails and blocks of soft wood. Then I took the two cylinders and I put 'em in the bows of the African Queen, right down near the water line so when we rammed you, boom!" He grinned at them, then turned and winked at Fraser.
"And where is the African Queen?"
Fraser frowned, his eyes on Kowalski. "She sank in the storm."
"But how did you get into the lake?"
"We came down the Ulanga," Fraser said. "The Bora, you call it down here."
The officers made noises of disbelief, and the youngest scoffed. "That's impossible."
Fraser shot him a cold look. "Nevertheless."
"But everyone knows the river's unnavigable."
"That may be." Fraser shrugged and put his hand on Kowalski's shoulder. "We came down it, though, didn't we, Ray. And in the African Queen."
Fraser and Kowalski walked out onto the deck, followed by the officers. Squinting in the sunlight, Kowalski took a deep breath and turned to the captain.
"Before you do this, Captain, I need to say something to Benton, here." The captain scowled, and Kowalski added, "It'll only take a second, honest."
Looking first at Kowalski, then at Fraser, the captain narrowed his eyes. Then he nodded once, sharply. "Quickly."
Fraser waited breathlessly as Kowalski, glancing to one side, stepped up to him. Clasping Fraser's arm, Kowalski leaned forward.
"Just wanted to say thank you, Benton." Fraser met his eyes, startled. "For everything. And," he leaned closer and his voice dropped to a whisper, "I love you."
Fraser blinked and swallowed hard. "Me, too, Ray." His hand lifted, his fingers touched Ray's warm arm. "Oh, God. Me, too."
"Proceed with the execution," the captain said, and hands clapped on their shoulders, pulling them apart. Fraser kept his eyes on Kowalski, and smiled when Kowalski grinned at him. His hands were pulled behind him as the noose dropped over his head.
The rope was wrapped around his wrists, and then there was a sudden boom, and the ship tilted to port. The hands released him, and the deck erupted in chaos. Another explosion rocked the ship. Officers and crew were shouting and running to the rails as the deck shifted, and they struggled to stay upright.
"Benton!" Kowalski pulled off the noose, and Fraser shook off the rope that had not yet been tied around his wrists and followed suit.
"This way," Fraser shouted, and they slipped and slid to the rail, ignored by the crew. They stood side by side for a moment, and then Kowalski nodded.
They hit the water together, surfacing with a whoop and a holler. Quickly striking out, they swam toward the shore. A large piece of wood floated toward them.
"What happened?" Kowalski turned and watched the ship roll over on its back. Men and debris littered the waters around the massive hull. There was a gaping hole at the waterline, the iron hull buckled and torn.
Fraser grabbed the floating wood and stared at it, stunned. "We did it, Ray, we did it!" It was a section from the hull of the African Queen.
Kowalski laughed. "She must've floated just under the surface," he said. "And when the Luisa ran into her... Boom! Just like I said."
Fraser grinned at him and scanned the lake. "I'm all twisted around, Ray. Which way is the east shore?"
Kowalski waved a hand. "The way we're swimming, Benton."
Saturday, December 21, 1918
Thank you for your latest letter, dated September 12th. I am pleased that you and Mackenzie remain well, and now that the hostilities have ceased, I hope that Ray and I will be able to book passage and join you by early summer.
I look forward to sharing the tales our adventures with you both. Ray insists that you will find our 'war stories' tedious and dull; however, I believe you will be interested in the creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness displayed by Ray, and, to a lesser extent, myself.
To answer your question: yes, I am happy. The war work we have been doing has been engrossing and satisfying, although we are, of course, delighted that peace has been negotiated. Ray and I have discussed our employment options once we return to Canada. I have been informed that I would be welcomed back into the fold of the RNWMP, and I shall give the matter serious consideration. Ray can turn his hand to anything mechanical, and I know that he will have no difficulty in finding employment. After the stresses and difficulties of the past four years, however, we do not plan to make any immediate employment commitments. I would like to show Ray some of the natural beauty of the Territories, and he has expressed an interest in exploring, in having 'an adventure,' as he calls it. I pointed out to him that the past four years of our lives could be considered 'an adventure,' but he insists that it is not the same, and I admit that I would enjoy becoming reacquainted with the Territories with Ray at my side.
I shall write again when I have further news about our plans.
Wishing you the best of health, I am,
Your exceedingly happy son,