Marsh Madness

by PJ


Wes watched as his partner paced the office, listening to the voice on the phone. From what he could hear, whoever it was sounded almost hysterical. He wondered if they were going to have to postpone again.

Link stopped pacing the worn pine floor and returned the phone to the cradle on his desk. "Babe, I need to leave for an hour or so. I'm sorry, but there's a problem over at the high school. That was one of the students from the agriculture department. She's pretty upset about someone letting the animals out. I need to go check it out."

"It's OK, T-Man." Wes didn't feel like it was OK. He had been looking forward to them spending this day together. He was finally going to get to do some exploring on the marsh. Damn, first that freak rain storm and now this. "Can we still go out when you get back?"

"Sure, this shouldn't take long." Link turned and picked up his pack. "Kyle's out back. Maybe you can help him till I get back." He squeezed Wes's neck as he walked him to the back door.

Wes leaned in for a quick hug and kiss before they stepped through the door. "Hmmmm, gonna miss you."

"Me too, babe. I'll hurry." Wes followed his partner onto the back porch. Kyle was cleaning the last of the holding pens. "Hey, Kyle, I just got called out. Wes is going to stay here and keep you company, OK?"

"Sure, Link, no problem." He grinned back at Link. "I'm sure we can find something to keep us busy." He winked at Wes.

"I don't want to come back here and find all the cages empty again." Wes heard the tone deepen. "Kyle, I'm serious."

Kyle came to attention. "Yes, sir. All the animals stay in the cages, sir.

Wes couldn't help laughing when Kyle saluted. He was trying to hold the salute but he started laughing too.

Link crossed his arms over his massive chest. Wes stopped laughing when he cleared his throat and glanced at him. Wes saw the twinkle in his partner's eyes and couldn't control the grin. He watched as Link turned back to the young man. "Kyle."

"Ah gee, Link, I was kidding. Nothing's gonna happen."

Link relaxed his stance. "I know nothing`s going to happen, Kyle." Wes followed him as he headed down the steps toward Kyle. "I need you to stay here till Bret gets back in case any calls come in."

"Sure, Link, I just need to call Shannon and let her know I might be late for our date." Kyle answered as he ran up the steps and vanished into the office.

Link pulled his lover into his arms. "I'm sorry, honey. I'll get back as fast as I can." Wes raised his chin demanding a final kiss.

Wes was still staring down the long black driveway when Kyle bounced down the steps. "Hey, bro, it's not the end of the world. Bret should be back in a few minutes and then we can have some fun." Kyle jerked his head toward the holding area. "I need to put the tools away. He should be here by then." Together they made short work of cleaning up.

They were waiting on the wooden steps leading to the office when Bret, the director of the wildlife center, pulled up a few minutes later. "Hey, guys," he shouted as he stepped out of his truck. "Thanks for sticking around." Wes watched as Bret walked across the yard then leaned against the porch. "Wes, I just got a call from Link. He said to tell you he was sorry but it looks like it's going to take another couple of hours before he gets back."

Wes frowned at the news. He jumped off the steps briskly walking toward the water. "Shit, I knew our plans for today were ruined when Link had to leave."

Bret's hand was on his shoulder. He hadn't even heard the director follow him. "Wes, calm down. Link didn't know there would be a problem at the high school when you two made your plans. I'm sure he would rather be here with you."

"Yeah, I guess." He felt the heat crawl up his face. "I'm sorry, I know he would rather be here." He sighed. "Maybe we can go out tomorrow."

"That a boy, Wes. Tomorrow's another day." Wes was relieved hearing Bret's cell sound. "Hey honey, hold on a sec." He lowered the phone. "Wes, it's my wife. I need to get this. You OK?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. You don't need to stay with me," he snapped back at the director. Wes was sorry as soon as the words left his mouth.

"Wes, take is easy."

"I'm sorry, Bret." He was flushing with embarrassment. "Really, I'm good. Go talk to your wife."

"OK." Bret put his phone up to his ear but turned back before he said anything to his wife. "If you two take off come tell me."

"Sure thing, Bret." Kyle grinned. As soon as Bret was out of sight Kyle motioned for Wes to follow him. "Come on, Wes, let's go have some fun." Wes followed his friend around the office, past the holding area and into the storage shed near the lagoon.

Wes caught the orange life vest when Kyle tossed to him. "Hey, what's this for?" he asked as he flipped the bulky vest over. "Are you going out on the water?"

"No. We are going out on the water." He grinned, "Are you up for a little kayak ride down one of the channels?"

Warning bells were sounding in his head. "Yeah, I'm up for it but Link warned me about going into the marsh by myself."

"But you won't be alone, Wes. We won't go far. I just want to show you around a little."

Wes could see the excitement on his friend's face. "OK, but only for a little while."

"Great, get the paddles," he said, pointing to the rack across the shed. "I'll go tell Bret we're leaving."

Wes got two of the double paddles and waited for Kyle to come back. Together they carried the kayaks to the edge of the water. "Have you ever been in a kayak, bro?"

"No, Link was going to show me today. He said I would pick it up fast."

"OK, well, we are going to wear the life vests and helmets. Can't be too safe. There are emergency packs in the fore and aft holds." Wes frowned. "Don't worry we aren't going anywhere we'd need them. We always carry them in case someone needs help. It'll be smooth as glass out today. No motor boats where we are going."

"If it's so safe why do we need the vests and helmets?"

"Because Bret and Link and then Ken would kick my ass if we go out on the water without them."

"Ken?"

"Yeah, Ken O`Dell. He owns a cabinet shop in town. He helped me get this job." Kyle hesitated, "He's a great guy."

Wes chuckled. "Yeah he is. He's also my boss." He smiled at his friend not letting on that he knew about Ken helping kids that are at risk. Link had told him that Kyle was working part time at the center because Ken had recommended him. "OK, Life vests and helmets, what else?"

"Well, seeing how this is new to you, let's go over a few things." They turned towards the kayaks. "We can just get in and slide into the water because the beach is sandy. You're about the same height as Bret so the foot pegs should fit you. Brace your feet on them and see how they feel."

Wes slipped into the cockpit settling himself. "Yeah they feel good. But what do I do if I turn over?"

"It's really hard to turn over in calm water, bro." Kyle laughed. "Just don`t make any sudden moves."

"OK, no sudden moves." Wes chuckled. "I'll try to remember that. What`s next?"

The younger man handed him his paddle. "Hold it like this." Wes watched carefully, following the instructions. They quickly ran through the basics of kayaking. "OK, let's go have some fun." Kyle pushed Wes's kayak off the sandy beach. Then slipped into his own cockpit and followed the other kayak. After a few minutes adjusting to the feel of his body on the water Wes was following Kyle as they both sliced through the murky water.

"Wow, I love this." Wes was grinning like a little kid. He felt so free skimming across the smooth surface of the little lagoon, quietly slipping past the office.

After a few minutes, Kyle angled his kayak toward one of the side channels. Wes hesitated and after carefully looking around followed. The channel was close to 20 feet wide. Long thin tules were lining the banks. The gray green stalks reaching well over eight feet above them. It was eerily quiet once they entered the channel. Wes realized that they were whispering. He watched in awe as an American Kestrel hovered overhead then fell from the sky scooping up a dragonfly that had been skimming across the water a few seconds before. The small falcon with its prize clutched in its powerful talons flew to perch on an old abandoned fence post.

Kyle held his kayak still until Wes came up beside him. Wes looked over at his friend a bit confused. Then saw him point down the channel. They watched as a majestic gray bird fed close to the bank. At first Wes thought it was a stork until he heard "Blue Heron" whispered from beside him. The big bird stood over four feet tall and Wes had never been this close to one in the wild. It saw them and just rose straight up into the sky. Wes's mouth dropped open in wonder. Kyle tapped Wes with his paddle, "Come on, bro, there's something else I want to show you."

"Hey, shouldn't we be heading back?" Wes wanted to be back at the center before Link got there, he was sure his lover wouldn't like him being on the water without him even if he wasn't alone.

His companion didn't stop. "It's just around the next bend. Then we'll head back. The tide will be going out soon so we need to hurry." As they rounded the bend, Wes saw a muddy beach. "There, " Kyle pointed. "Beach your kayak close to the side so you can pull yourself out using the tules."

It was a struggle but Wes managed to get out of his kayak without falling in the mud. He pulled the kayak further up the bank and followed Kyle down a narrow path. "Where are we going, Kyle?" he whispered as they walked.

Suddenly Kyle ducked behind a clump of cat tails and motioned for him to follow suit. Gently parting the stems he peeked out to see a family of river otters playing in the water. Wes didn't know how long he watched the otters. He was mesmerized by their fluid movement as they slipped in and out of the water. The otters darted away to safety when Wes jumped because he felt Kyle's hand on his shoulder. "Crap, I scared them." Wes whispered.

"Come on, bro, we better head back," Kyle looked worried. "It's getting late."

Wes lead the way back to the little muddy beach and stopped dead in his tracks. "SHIT!" One of the kayaks was missing.

Kyle bolted past him, slipping on the wet pickle weed growing along the edge of the trail. Wes tried to grab him but missed. Kyle didn't stop until he was fully submerged in what was left of the mucky water. He surfaced spitting mud. "Damn it, Wes. We're in deep shit now. The tide took my kayak."

Wes bent some tules over so his soggy friend could reach them and watched as he pulled himself up the bank. "Here, give me your hand." Once they were both safely away from the water Wes pulled his cell phone out but couldn't get a signal. He was worried but didn't want to show his concern to the younger man.

"I'm sorry, bro, I didn't mean for this to happen. We're in real trouble."

"Hey, calm down. They'll start looking for us soon. We just have to wait it out."

"But they don't know we're out on the water, Wes."

Wes stared at the muddy man before him. "What do you mean they don't know we are on the water? You said you were going to tell Bret we were leaving."

Kyle didn't look at Wes. "Yeah, I told him we were leaving but I didn't tell him where we were going. Link is going to kill me for bring you out here."

Wes laughed. " I think you might have to stand in line, buddy. I never should have left dry land." His stomach was doing somersaults. He shook his head. "I knew better."

Kyle was starting to shiver.

"Get those clothes off before you get chilled." He pulled the remaining kayak further up the bank. "What's in the emergency packs, Kyle?"

"Um, first aid kit, water, solar blanket, knife, flashlight, matches."

Wes pulled off his flannel shirt and handed it to Kyle. "Put that on while I check it out." He checked both compartments, pulling the packs back up the bank with him. "OK, first we need to get you dry. Sit on the kayak so you're off the mud."

***

The call to the high school turned out to last longer than Link thought. Someone had got into the Future Farmer's livestock area and let the animals loose. It took a couple of hours to round them up and secure the area. By the time he finally got back to the office, Bret was the only one there.

"Hey, Link, you look beat. Take a load off." Link flopped down in his office chair. Bret tossed him a bottle of water. "Any idea who let the critters out?"

"No, but when I find out who's to blame there's going to be hell to pay." He looked around. "Where are the guys?"

"Kyle came in a couple of hours ago and said they were taking off for a while." He checked his watch and shook his head. "I expected them back by now." He walked across the room, stopping at the back door. "Kyle's motorcycle is out back. Maybe, they're down on the dock."

Link slowly rose to his full height. "They better not be out on the water." He crossed the room and followed Bret out the door and down the wood steps. Reaching the dock, there was no sign of the two young men. Not on the dock and not in the lagoon. But two kayaks were missing.

They turned when they heard a car door slam. Ken had arrived and was hauling a rough looking teen by the back of his shirt. "I heard Austin bragging to his friends that he'd let the animals loose over at the school." Ken dwarfed the teenager as he pulled him up short. "Something you want to tell Ranger Walker, son?"

"I ain't your son." Austin started to shout but stopped when he saw the look on Ken's face. "I didn`t hurt anything. I was just looking around and things got crazy."

Link stepped into Austin's personal space, towering over him. He took in the long greasy hair, acne marked face and dirty clothes. This boy looked to be trouble. "Boy, you're lucky I don't have time for you right now." He looked back at Bret and then to Ken. "Can you two handle this? Wes and Kyle are out on the water and I need to find them." He looked back toward the lagoon. "Tide's gone out. They're probably stranded up one of the channels."

"I've got this handled. Go find those boys. Don`t worry, they`ll be fine." Ken tried to reassure his friend. "They both have good heads on their shoulders." Ken turned back toward the car pulling Austin with him. "Call me if you need more help."

Link turned sharply back to the lagoon. He stood frozen to the spot when he saw Bob, the local Harbor Master sputtering up to the dock in his dingy. He was towing one of the missing kayaks behind him. "Hey, Link, you lose one of your kayaks?"

The spell broken, Link sprinted to the dock and squatted down grabbing the tie rope. "I'm afraid there was someone in this kayak when it left here, Bob. Where did you find it?"

"One of the guys found it at the mouth of 545. I just figured that kid Kyle didn`t secure it."

"Well, Kyle and Wes are missing and so were both kayaks. They did take the vests, so I'm going to assume they just lost this one. Your guy didn't see anything else?" Link was already mapping out the channel in his head.

"No, but it was just after low tide. He couldn't go up the channel. The tide is changing now, but won't be high enough to get back in there for a couple of hours at least."

Link stood. "Thanks Bob. I guess I better get ready then. They can't come out of there together in one kayak." Just then his cell phone buzzed with Wes's tone. "Wes where are you?...I know, babe...shh...calm down...we'll talk about it later...Stop...OK...are you both OK?...OK, just keep him warm...I can't get to you for a couple of hours...yes, but keep it small."

Bob was watching and waiting for an opening. "Are they OK?"

Link nodded. "OK, babe, I'll be there as soon as I can...NO you both stay together...I love you too, babe." He leaned over with his hands clutching the guardrail, taking a couple of calming breaths. "They're OK. That's Kyle's kayak. I guess they got out to watch some otters and when they came back the tide had taken the kayak. Kyle slipped into the muck and is wet but not hurt. Wes is going to start a small fire. They have the emergency packs from his kayak."

"Surprised he got through on his cell." Bob commented. "Getting a signal out there is iffy at best."

"Yeah, he said he tried a couple of times but couldn't get a signal until now."

"You need any help getting to them?"

"No, I'll have to wait for the tide to come back in then I'll go get them. Thanks for bringing the kayak back."

Bob shook his head. "I wonder if Kyle will ever learn. Seems like he did something similar a couple of months ago."

"Yeah, he did. I think it's time for a long talk with him. And maybe for Ken to step in and talk to him too. That kid needs to start thinking before he jumps in with both feet. Ken can help with that and I'll make sure Wes doesn't make a habit of following Kyle's lead." Link pushed the dingy off and watched as Bob sputtered back down toward the marina. He heard Bret walk up and said to him, "The guys are OK. Well, at least till I get my hands on them. Wes got a call through a few minutes ago."

"Good. Where are they? And is that one of the missing kayaks?"

"Yeah, Bob just brought it back. They're up 545. Stuck because the tide's still low." He started back toward the office. "This isn't the quiet day I planned for me and Wes." He chuckled. "How did things go so wrong?"

***

Wes put the phone back in the front pocket of his faded jeans. He had climbed higher up the bank to get a signal. He was wet from brushing against the tules but only on the surface, not drenched like Kyle. Thinking of his soggy friend, he started looking for dry fuel. Pulling his knife he shaved wood off the dry side of a couple of long abandoned fence posts. Wes worked his way back to the beach, picking up dry fuel as he went.

"Hey, buddy, how you doing?" Wes knelt down in front of Kyle.

"C..cold." His teeth were chattering.

Wes started working on the fire with the matches from the emergency pack. "I got through to Link. He knows where we are." He struck the match and the flame grew as it caught on the kindling. Soon the fire was warming his friend. "We're stuck here a couple more hours till the tide comes back in."

"Was he mad?" Kyle looked close to tears. "I am in so much trouble bringing you out here. Link and Ken will both kill me. Do you think Bret will fire me?"

"Hey, don't worry about it now. You didn't kidnap me. I came with you. I`ll make sure they all know that." He looked into the fire. "I'm pretty sure we will both be in trouble." He dreaded seeing the look on his lover's face. He'd caused him to worry most of the afternoon.

"You'd do that for me?"

Wes laughed. "Sure it`s the truth. Hey, pull that blanket up over your head to help trap the heat." Wes stood up. "I'm gonna look for more fuel. Stay here and get warm."

"Where would I go?" He grinned. "I`m staying with the fire."

Wes found a twist of drift wood higher up the bank. He thought it must have been left there after an unusually high tide. Wes headed for the pile but stopped short. Looking back at him from the top of the pile was a pair of masked eyes. They stared at each other then the raccoon chattered at the man, almost scolding him. It turned and scampered off down the trail when it had its say. Wes stood and shook his head. "I guess I deserved that." He bent, picking up an arm full of dry wood and headed back to his partner in crime.

***

Link couldn't wait any longer. He needed to go get his lover. He knew the young men were safe but he needed Wes in his arms. And he was sure his lover needed to be in his arms. To be comforted. To know he was loved no matter what. And to be held accountable for making bad choices.

"You taking the kayak or the skiff?" Bret dropped an arm load of dry clothes on the dock.

"The skiff." He grabbed the clothes tossing them into the small flat bottomed boat. "It shouldn't be a problem getting down the channel with it and I want to get there as fast as I can."

"Good idea. Good luck and call me when you have them."

The skiff skimmed across the surface of the lagoon. In a few minutes Link was turning down the channel. "OK, Link, go slow." He cautioned himself. Moving slowly down the channel he had to stop and wait for the tide to catch up. When he moved forward again he could smell smoke and knew he was close. Rounding the next bend he saw the kayak. Someone, probably Kyle, was wrapped in blanket in front of a small fire. "WES! WES WHERE ARE YOU?" The blanket moved and Kyle sat up. Link ran the skiff up the beach. He was beside the young man in an instant. "Easy Kyle, you OK?"

"Yeah, um, yes sir, just wet and cold." He couldn't look at the older man staring at him. "It was my fault, Link. I didn't pull my kayak far enough up the beach."

Link pulled the shivering young man to his feet. "There's more to this than you not pulling the boat up, Kyle. We`ll talk about it later. First we need to get the two of you home." He walked the shivering young man to the skiff. "Put some dry clothes on and stay here." He looked around. "Did you see which way Wes went?"

"No, but he found dry wood over that way." Kyle pointed up the slope.

Link followed the trail his wayward lover had taken. He stopped when he saw the younger man on the trail in front of him. Wes had an arm full of branches but dropped them when he saw Link. He didn't move. "Come here, babe." Link held his arms out and Wes ran to him.

Strong arms engulfed him. "I'm sorry, Link."

"Shhh, quiet babe." He tilted his lovers chin up demanding a kiss. "Let's go home."

When they got back to the beach Kyle had policed the area and Wes's kayak was secured to the skiff. The ride back to the office was quiet. Both young men huddled against the cold. It hadn't taken much for Link to convince them to don the dry clothes. Kyle sat with his head down but Wes kept eye contact with his lover most of the trip.

Bret was there ready to catch the skiff when Link guided it next to the dock. "Give me your hand Kyle," he said, holding his hand out to steady the quiet young man. "Shannon's waiting for you in the office. She came down when you didn't show for your date."

"Kyle, we'll talk about this on Monday. Understand?" Link's tone was dead serious.

"Yes sir." He started up the gravel path to the office. Then turned back. "I'm sorry for all the trouble, Link."

"I know. Go home, we'll talk Monday." Link turned his attention back to Bret. "Thanks for the help today, Bret. Go on home, we'll lock up."

Bret looked at Wes then Link. "OK, bro. Glad you're OK, Wes. Talk to you two later." He turned and followed the same gravel path Kyle had taken.

Link reached for Wes and pulled him to him. He held his partner against his massive chest. They didn't say anything, just held each other. Link felt the other man's heart beat against him. Finally, they released their holds. "Come on babe, let's lock up and go home."

Wes just nodded.

Not much was said on the ride home. Link was lost in thought and was sure the man beside him was thinking too. His large hand held his lover's hand. `I need to make an impression,' Link thought. 'We've talked about Wes wandering off, and it makes no difference if he's on foot or in a kayak he knew he should've waited for me.'

He heard a soft voice ask, "Link, am I in a lot of trouble?"

"Honey, if you're asking I think you already know the answer."

"Yeah, I know."

The rest of the ride was in silence. When they reached the house Wes quietly followed Link into the living room. After settling on the sofa Link started the conversation. "So, tell me where it all went wrong."

"I guess I was mad because we couldn't go out on the water." He was rubbing his scar. "So, when Kyle wanted to go out I decided to go with him."

"Being mad doesn't excuse your poor choices, sweetheart. You didn't make the choice to get lost but you made the choice to get in that kayak. You knew I didn't want you out there without me, didn't you?"

"Yes, I knew."

"Look at me please." Link forced Wes's chin up. "I'm proud of you for the way you handled yourself out there. And for taking care of Kyle."

"Really?"

"Yes, really." He took his lovers hand in his forcing him to stop rubbing his shoulder. "You took control and kept both of you safe"

"Thanks."

"Do you remember the one thing I will always spank you for?"

"Putting myself in danger." Wes looked at Link. "Link, please, I d-don't know if I'm ready."

"I'd say you are more than ready, babe. You proved that today when you left the shore and got in that kayak." He watched his lover closely. "This wasn't my choice, honey. You made the choice knowing it was wrong, didn`t you?"

"Yes, I knew I wasn't supposed to leave."

"Do we need to talk about this anymore?"

Wes dropped his eyes and shook his head.

"Stand up honey." Link helped Wes to his feet and reached for his jeans. Slowly he pulled the faded jeans down and off. Next came his briefs. Then he guided his lover over his strong thighs. He could feel the tension as he slowly rubbed the white globes over his lap, holding him in place with his other arm.

Wes jumped when the hand landed the first swat. "Ah." Link slowly landed six firm swats on each cheek turning them a rosy red. Wes was softly crying when he added two more at the top of each thigh. Link softly rubbed circles on his lover's back soothing him. When Wes had calmed down he gently pulled him into his lap.

"I'm sorry Link. I won't put myself in danger again. I promise."

Link chuckled. "I hope not, sweetheart, but I won't be surprised if you do." He kissed Wes's sweaty forehead. "I love you, babe. I didn't like the thought I might have lost you today."

"I'm really sorry, Link. I didn't think about worrying you." His voice cracked. "Well, not until after we got stuck."

Link ran his hand up Wes's back entwining his fingers in his soft curls. "Shhh." He gently forced his lover's head down to his shoulder.

"Link, is Kyle going to be OK? He's worried that you won't want him to work there anymore."

Link smiled. "Yes, he will be OK. But we will be having a serious talk. This isn't the first time he's allowed fun to get in the way of common sense."

"Good, because I should have said no, then he wouldn't be in trouble."

"Babe, we handled your part in this, didn't we?" Link pulled on the honey colored curls. "If you need more I can oblige."

"No, I'm good T-Man."

"I thought you might be." He released his hold and Wes relaxed back onto the shoulder.

He held him until he heard a giggle. "Something funny about today, babe?"

"Yeah, kinda. I got told off by a raccoon when I was looking for fire wood. The little guy was really chattering at me."

"Maybe we'll see him tomorrow."

"What?" Wes lifted his head. "Why would we see him tomorrow?"

"Because I'm going to take you out on the water."

"Really?"

"Yes, really. But this time we are going together." Link captured Wes's mouth with his pulling him against his chest. Then he broke the kiss. "Come on, sweetheart, time for hot shower then bed, you've had a busy day."

~ PJ

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