Prairie

On the High Plains of Wyoming

by
Cole Parker

The high plains of Wyoming are a special place. They aren’t for everyone. Majestic in their grandeur, there is also a stark and empty loneliness to them. Their spectacle is no less impressive or affecting because of that. The broad prairies, mountain foothills and valleys, the mountains themselves, the lakes and streams, forests mainly consisting of tall pines—these combine to create a vast panorama.

But the high plains are more than simply a panoramic vista. In the winter they’re cold. Cold becomes the norm, a cold that is both invasive and pervasive, a cold you start to think will never abate. When you are on the high plains in winter with the wind sweeping over the dead grass and cutting through what clothing you’re wearing, the cold can become the totality of your environment and warmth becomes a distant thought, a figment, a dream.

In the summer, though, the plains are glorious. When the days are warm; when the grasses are thick and waving in the winds; when the birds sing; when the creeks run clear and cold; when the lakes glisten in the sun, frequently erupting with the splash of fish; you can lose yourself in the feel and taste and freedom, the sheer majesty of the great Wyoming wilderness.

The plains can be beautiful, but they are also a lonely place. Very lonely. You and your horse can amble across the vastness of Wyoming for days without seeing another person. You’ll see animals—elk, coyotes, deer, bear, maybe even wolves. But another person? Not likely, once you’re away from the few scattered towns and outside the fenced ranches.

There is another thing never to be forgotten about this land: it is dangerous. When you are by yourself, any mishap can be deadly, for if there is no help available when you need it, all that loneliness, all those vast empty acres, can kill you with the same unfeeling insensitivity a bullet will. Except that end will probably take longer to come.

You have to respect that landscape, respect those high plains. Respect that they are what they are—lacking in compassion, there to be enjoyed by those who know how, know their way, know what they are doing. And aware of the danger always waiting. If you venture forth into that territory alone, you have to be pretty sure of yourself. You have to have some sense of who you are, too, and have a self-sufficiency, determination and maturity that is best gained through experience. You have to be aware. If you don’t respect the land, its emptiness and cruel indifference, its survival-of-the-fittest primacy that is a sobering presence on the land, it can end you.

But there is that majesty to behold, and it isn’t only in the spectacle the land provides. It is in that very emptiness, too. A lonely majesty that speaks to me.

My mom worried the first time I went, and probably a lot of times after that, too, but I still ventured out to experience that emptiness, to feel the enormity of it, to see it, to revel in it. I always came home. I simply hoped she didn’t worry so much any longer, now that I’d been doing it for a couple of years. Even if she did, I still rode out into that wild country, alone, when I needed to. Wyoming teaches you independence. I didn’t like my mom worrying, but I needed to listen to my own feelings.

I always came home.

- Riding Out -

I tightened my saddlebags on Jesse. She stood still with her natural patience, but she was eager to go. I sensed it. We knew each other pretty well. I could tell by the shivers in her withers, by the way she’d lift a back hoof and set it back down, by the way she bent her neck to watch me when I went to get a bedroll, saddle blanket or canteen.

I finished packing her out. I was planning to be gone for four days and three nights. I had food for both of us for that time, although more for me than her. I wasn’t able to live off the prairie grasses like she could. I had the clothes I’d need, the first-aid kit Mom always made me take but which I’d never needed, a spare blanket, some miscellaneous things I’d learned made life easier, and of course my rifle.

We didn’t have much, my mom and me. But I did have my rifle. My dad had had it when he was alive, and now it was mine. It was a hell of a rifle, a Weatherby Mark V with a 4.5 to 18 power Leupold scope. It took Weatherby 300 cartridges, which I hand-loaded. I was good with it. I’d done a lot of practicing, learning how, and because I had the patience and mindset needed to be accurate, and the time and motivation to become good, I was now what I’d set out to become: someone capable of hitting what he shot at. Last year I’d got an elk at just under 600 yards. Not everyone can do that. Of course, most people don’t have a rifle like mine, either, and most people don’t put in the extra work that being accurate at that distance demands. Maybe I’m bragging a little. I shouldn’t do that.

I wasn’t going hunting, though. It wasn’t even hunting season, as school had just let out and the days were warming up. I was just going out on the plains to be alone, just me and Jesse. Getting away from here. I did it often. Taking the rifle along was simply something I did. I practiced with it when I could because I enjoyed it, and practicing was necessary to keep my accuracy at the level that I wanted.

Those plains are big, lonely places. The rifle, besides being fun, made me feel safer.

We set out about mid-morning. I gave Jesse her head, and she started at an easy canter. We’d walk, mostly, out there, but she was eager; running was fun. We’d get away from things faster this way, and I was all for that.

It was a beautiful summer day. It would be warm, something we didn’t always get here. I lived in the western part of the state, where the elevation was generally between 5,000 and 10,000 feet. This was why it was so cold in the winter, and why warm summer days were such a treat.

I had a general idea where I was headed. There was a lake I wanted to check out, one I hadn’t explored before. But that just gave me a place to head for and wasn’t really the reason I was heading out. My main purpose wasn’t where I was going, it was more just that I was going. That was the point.

Where we lived, there was a small town and quite a few ranches. Everyone knew everyone else. I went to the local central high school. Town kids and ranch kids attended; there were about an equal number of both.

I lived on one of the ranches, but close to town. For school, there was the bus, but it was easy for me to get to town whenever I wanted to. It was just a short ride on Jesse, or I could walk. It would have been easy to have a bunch of town kids for friends. Logistically, I mean. But there were a couple of things against that.

One was that we didn’t have much money. Poor kids, whether they’re living in Wyoming or New York City, have a harder time of it socially than middle-class kids. You just can’t do the same things. Movies, video games, eating out, fashionable clothes, playing pool, going bowling—all those things cost money. If you don’t have it, you’re limited.

I’d had a good childhood, up until I was nine and Dad died. Then things changed. We went from being a solidly middle-class family to one where we were living on his life insurance, and it wasn’t enough to live on without Mom going to work. She did, and was really lucky to find a job as a clerk for an accounting business in town. It didn’t pay much, but between it and the insurance, we could get by. Just not very well.

The insurance paid off the mortgage on the ranch, so we could hold on to that. There were still taxes to pay on our land. To pay them, Mom leased the grazing rights to one of the ranchers in the area. We didn’t clear much profit but the income did pay off most of the taxes so we didn’t have to sell the property. We both wanted to hang on to the ranch, although practically we might well have been better off selling and moving into town.

But we didn’t have much money, and almost none for buying extra stuff we didn’t need or for wasting on fun in town. We had to prioritize. So that was one reason I wasn’t running into town whenever I had the chance. The other was probably more matter of fact.

I’d grown up around all the kids my age who lived in the area, gone to school with them, socialized with them, the whole enchilada. Everything was fine until just a few years ago. Then everything changed. It isn’t good to be gay in Wyoming. It’s especially not good to be gay in small town, conservative Wyoming when other people know about it.

Just about the time I was getting used to not having a father and all that that meant, just about when Mom had been looking for and finding a job and then being gone working at it—both things that changed my life in fundamental ways any boy of nine would have to struggle with—I was beginning to learn something about myself. I was in the first stages of learning who I was.

About a year later, I made a mistake. Kids make mistakes. I confided in my best friend what I was feeling. He told his parents. He didn’t know he shouldn’t or what problems it would cause. He really wasn’t mean; he just made a mistake like I did. I shouldn’t have told him. He shouldn’t have told his father. That’s the way life is, I guess. People make mistakes.

So everything changed. That’s when I learned just how bad it is to be gay in Wyoming.

I got teased a lot, and boys learned if they were friends with me, they got picked on and teased too. Now, I was the odd man out. I became a pariah. Just something else to deal with.

I didn’t get beat up much. Any fights I got in, someone else started them, and I stood up for myself. I could handle myself pretty well. When kids knew I’d fight back, not many of them tested me. The remarks, though, the put downs, the ostracism—those were pretty constant. So I did what I had to do. I simply withdrew from everyone. Everyone except my mom. But when you’re a boy, growing up, going from ten to fifteen, having no one to confide in or do things with other than your mom, well, it’s pretty rough. It changes you. I’d been an outgoing boy when I was young. Then I became the object of scorn and isolation. You either learn to survive on your own, to become very independent and emotionally equipped to be alone, learn not to need people, or you go crazy.

I’m pretty sane. I’m also much harder now. More self-contained. Less sense of humor, sense of fun. But sane. I’m comfortable in who I am, the person I’ve become.

I spent a lot of time on my own, growing up. But Wyoming is one hell of a big back yard. I spent a lot of time there. Also reading. Books, my mom, my rifle, Jesse, and Wyoming—those were my life.

Mom didn’t want me to go on this camping trip.

“Mase,” she said, “Please? This is special. You don’t turn 16 every day. I sure wish you’d stay home and celebrate it with me.” And she looked at me with those eyes. I didn’t budge though. I was going to celebrate it out in the high country, Jesse and me. I don’t know. It seemed appropriate, somehow. That’s how I lived my life now. Spending my birthday that way too, well, yeah. That was the right word: appropriate.

Day 1

I’d been looking forward to the camping trip for the last month. Some kids threw big end-of-school parties. I wasn’t invited to any of them. I could have sat around the house and moped, but I’d stopped that sort of thing long ago. Instead, while everyone else was talking about what party they were going to and who they were going with and boasting about what they expected to do after, I was quietly planning my camping trip. I’d decided to spend the first day heading northwest, a gentle climb most of the way. There were some pine forests in that direction, and I made one of them my target for the first day. I preferred camping overnight with the tall trees as company rather than out in the open.

I knew about a lake that lay in the direction I was riding, one I’d only seen from a distance and on my map. That was going to be my ultimate objective. I’d ride up and check it out on the second day, traveling up its western side to the top of the lake, then along the top and down the eastern side a ways. This would all be new country for me, so I was looking forward to exploring. My plan was to find a place to spend my second night near the lake.

The third day, I was going begin the ride back, but going easy, taking my time, just enjoying being out there. I was going to try to get more than halfway home before setting up camp. That way I’d have an easy ride home the next day. I figured there’d be some place suitable for a camp. If I had to, I could simply set up out in the open. I’d done it before. I didn’t like to, however. It somehow felt too exposed.

After an easy canter, I gentled Jesse into a walk. We ambled along. I soaked up the endlessness of the surroundings. The wind was light today, which I appreciated. I had my jacket on, but I knew by the feel of the air that I’d be able to take it off in an hour or two.

I had Jesse heading north, then west, then north again as the ground rose and fell. There was a vast, slowly rising plain in front of us, and off to the west I could just make out the face of a forest. I turned my body slightly to the left and touched Jesse with my left knee, which was all it took for her to change direction. In another couple of hours, we would be approaching the trees.

I let my thoughts drift. All the tensions of school, all the eyes there weighing on me, all the remarks meant to sting, all the loneliness of being among people who kept you apart from them, all the derisive laughter meant to diminish and cut and isolate—all the effects of that slowly began seeping out of me. This land was too big for such things to matter. I could feel the weight of all that slowly easing. Such stuff wasn’t something to care about, not here. Coming alive to my senses, feeling the rhythms of land, welcoming the smell of the air, marveling at the harmonious waving of the grasses and how they all shifted together as the breeze changed, acting as though closely orchestrated by an unseen hand, the movement of the clouds—that’s where I was mentally. I needed this. I needed it badly. It felt like salvation.

We entered the pine forest late in the afternoon. I began immediately scouting out a campsite. I didn’t want to leave that chore till it was too late. When dark came, it could come fast, and oftentimes it was absolute.

I found a place near the edge of the forest. I turned Jesse out on the plain without her bit to graze while I gathered kindling. I used my hatchet to cut dry fallen branches into the right size for my fire. I couldn’t find many stones where I was, so I scooped out some of the loose soil and cleared any brush away, then laid my fire. I didn’t need a big one. I’d light it later.

I set up my bedroll right on the edge of the forest. I liked feeling I was sleeping on the plains. I liked seeing the stars at night. And more than either of those, I liked the security of the forest close at my back.

I cooked three hot dogs for dinner, not feeling like troubling with more elaborate cooking that first night out. Jesse got some oats I’d brought for her. When it was dark, I lay on my blankets, breathed the cooling night air, and watched the universe above me. With such a sight commanding my attention, it was difficult to be too concerned at a name someone had called me last week or the disgust I’d seen in some kid’s eyes just before he’d turned his back on me. A few years ago, the kid had been at my eighth birthday party. I fell asleep without disgust but instead with the heavens in my eyes, and those heavens were working their way into my soul.

Day 2

I made bacon and eggs for breakfast. Coffee, too. I’d brought two small frying pans and had packed the eggs very carefully. They’d survived. I didn’t need a hot breakfast, but being able to have one kept my spirits high. I knew I was self-sufficient; every now and then I liked to prove it.

It was cold, but scurrying around, making breakfast, cleaning up, breaking down the camp, I didn’t notice it too much. Part of being independent was putting up with things you couldn’t do anything about.

After my camp was cleaned up so no one would know anyone had ever been there, I repacked Jesse and we rode out. It was going to be another glorious early-summer day. I knew I’d be shedding the jacket soon. The nippy air and being out on the prairie had Jesse feeling frisky. I let her run some. Heading north mostly.

We made the lake a little before noon. The water was so blue you’d have thought it was dyed. Clear, too. Because it was fed by mountain springs and snowmelt, it was clean and cold.

I started riding up the shore, staying outside the forest that bordered it. Where the trees, a mix of mostly pines and aspens, grew right up to the lake, we went into the water. Where the lake was too deep, we entered the forest and made our way forward, keeping as close to the water as we could.

I stopped soon after noon. We were back on the shore, a grassy strip about fifty feet wide at that point. I broke out some sandwiches for lunch. Jesse dined on the grass and took a long drink from the lake.

I’d taken off my jacket some time ago. It was in the mid-70s now. Heaven. I finished lunch, then lay on my back in the grass and simply soaked up the atmosphere. I was lying there when the corner of my eye caught something moving. I slowly raised my head and looked. About one hundred yards south of us, a bear and two cubs had come out of the forest and were drinking from the lake. Jesse hadn’t caught their scent as the wind was coming from the north.

I lay still and watched them. Soon, the mother bear stood on her hind legs and scanned the area. Bears don’t see too well. They do have wonderful noses, however, and with the wind blowing as it was and them being downwind from us, she’d probably picked up our scent. She kept staring in our direction, but I was pretty sure from where she was looking she couldn’t make us out, especially against the trees that were behind us. Eventually she dropped down onto all four legs again, took another drink, then turned and ambled back into the forest. The cubs were playing and didn’t seem to notice, but a few seconds after mama had disappeared, they took off after her.

I decided it was time to move on. I wanted to see how big the lake was, partly. The other part wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before. I mounted Jesse and we set off again. Mostly we were able to stay right beside the lake. It was easy going. The day began to warm up even more. By mid-afternoon, I was sweating. I pulled Jesse up and took off my shirt. It was plenty warm enough for that now. Riding slowly up the lake, the air caressing my skin, alone with my horse, in beautiful country—it would have been hard to think of anything better.

We stopped for a rest a little later. We weren’t in any hurry. Jesse got another drink, and I decided to do the same. I filled my canteen and dropped a purifying pill in it. I didn’t think that was necessary, but it came down to that being-independent thing. Part of being independent was making smart decisions. Part of why my mom let me come out here alone was because she knew I made good decisions. So I filled the canteen, dropped in a pill, and let it dissolve before drinking.

While I waited for the pill to dissolve I watched Jesse drinking, and then decided the water just looked too tempting. I stripped off my clothes and stood at the water’s edge. I’d dipped my canteen in it so knew how cold that water was. But what the hell—you only live once—and I was going to do it. The water was a couple of feet deep right at the edge and the bottom sloped sharply downward. I stepped back about ten yards and before I could change my mind, raced toward the water and leaped out as far as I could.

I’d been right. That water was damned cold! It was shocking, sinking into it. I came up splashing and laughing. I thrashed around, dived under and came up and dived under again, and gradually it didn’t seem quite so cold. I swam around a bit but got out after about five minutes. That was plenty long enough to cool me down.

I had a towel in my bedroll but I wasn’t going to take the trouble to get it out. Instead, I stood shivering on the bank and brushed as much water off me as I could reach. Then I sat down, hugged my knees to my chest and just allowed the sun to play on what was left.

I enjoyed the feeling of being naked outside. It was surprising to me how natural it felt. There was an erotic quality to it, but that was very much secondary to feeling unencumbered and free. Eventually, I stood up and just kind of existed, naked and alive, feeling the sun on my skin and the joy of being at one with nature.

It was time to move on. I dressed again. Jesse had been looking around with her ears up. She seemed nervous. I didn’t know if she saw, smelled or merely sensed something. I didn’t share her nervousness at all. I didn’t sense any danger nearby. Whatever it was she was sensing, I wasn’t concerned. It could be anything. The one thing I doubted was that whatever it was, it was human. I was quite sure I was the only one around for miles and miles. When I was ready, I mounted up and we started off again. Still moving north.

We reached the northernmost side of the lake in the late afternoon. I knew the shape of the lake by a map I had. I hadn’t been there before, however, and didn’t know what the land looked like. What it looked like was pretty much the same as the country I’d been riding through: trees and prairie, mountains off in the distance. Not a great surprise, that.

The map showed several feeder creeks I’d have to cross to get around the top end of the lake, but I didn’t know how big they’d be till I saw them. I’d wanted to ride to the top of the lake and then across the top and down the other side a ways. I knew I couldn’t go far, riding south along the eastern edge of the lake, as it soon became thick forest with some sharp drop offs. It would take me days to work my way back home along with much walking through the forest if I tried to go that way. I was planning to just see what everything looked like, then backtrack to get home.

I rode along the top of the lake and came to the first of the creeks I’d seen on the map. Its bed was about twenty-yards wide and about half of that had water in it, water that was moving lazily. It was easily fordable, only about a foot deep. Jesse didn’t mind getting her feet wet.

We came to two more creeks emptying into the lake from the north. They were just as easy to cross as the first had been. Earlier in the spring, or maybe even just two or three weeks ago, I’d probably have had to consider how badly I wanted to cross them.

By the time I got to the northeast corner of the lake, the sun was low in the sky, and I knew I had to make camp soon. Where I was right then was wide prairie extending away from the lake to the north and east, but I could see where the forest came to the edge of the lake about a mile south of me. I thought I’d ride to the forest and make my camp on the edge of it. Probably superstition, maybe just my cautious nature, but I didn’t see the harm in allowing my urge to avoid camping in the open to have its way with me.

We arrived at the edge of the forest and I found a good spot to build my fire. Jesse was content to graze. I gathered some wood and then, because it was still light enough, I thought I’d see if there was anything in the lake. I had a collapsible fishing pole with me. It didn’t take me long to dig up some worms and bait my hook. I found a place where a tree with spreading branches was hanging over the lake, shading the water beneath.

That night, I cleaned and cooked the fish I’d caught after sprinkling on a little salt and pepper and rolling them in the cornmeal I’d brought along just for that purpose. I fried them in some of the bacon fat I’d saved from breakfast. The smell of them cooking almost drove me insane and made my stomach churn, but I knew how long they had to cook and I was patient. Doing things right was something that was part of me. I had a strong sense of who and what I was, possibly because of what I’d had to endure at school. I’d learned how to do things that were important to me and I took pride in doing them right, even when they took patience. That was a part of the discipline I demanded of myself. Part of the reason I was felt good about myself, too.

Jesse seemed nervous again. Everything appeared to be OK to me. Perhaps there were wolves in the area. We certainly were a long way from civilization. I gave her a good rubdown and talked to her as soothingly as I could and after a while she resumed grazing.

It didn’t seem as cold that night as the previous one. Perhaps it was because I was closer to the lake. The stars were just as bright, filling the sky. I had no trouble dropping off to sleep.

Day 3

I had to start back. After breakfast I mounted Jesse and headed back the way I’d come. As I rode, I kept checking the face of the forest. I hadn’t ridden long before I found what I was looking for.

Right on the edge of the forest there was a large boulder. I could guess that a glacier had cut the lakebed and when it had retreated, the boulder had been left behind. It may have been in the lake originally, but if so, over the years the lake had shrunk and the rock was now on the border of where the forest had grown. It was perfect for me.

I hadn’t ridden far from where I’d camped, and it only took moments to return and unbury my campfire. I took one of the partly burned sticks and rode back to my rock. There, I used the stick to charcoal a square about a foot on each side. The boulder was much larger than my square. Behind it was dense forest. As I said, perfect.

I got back up on Jesse and rode for a ways, what I figured was probably half a mile. There, I dismounted and pulled my rifle out of its scabbard and took my laser range finder out of my saddlebags. I looked back for the boulder, and while I could find it, I had a problem seeing the square I’d drawn. I sat down on the ground and used the scope to locate, then to home in on the target I’d made.

Using my laser range finder, I figured out I was 780 yards from the rock. I used my drop chart to figure how much elevation compensation I’d need for that distance. My rifle was very powerful, and I used cartridges that I loaded myself because they were a lot cheaper that way and I wanted them to be as consistent as I could make them. If you’re interested in accuracy over long distances, controlling the exact weight of the powder in a cartridge is vital, as is knowing all of them are exactly the same as each other. You can’t shoot consistently unless your cartridges are consistent.

My rifle and the ammo I was using resulted in a very high muzzle velocity. But I was still 780 yards out. My muzzle velocity was a little over 3,000 feet per second. So at my current distance, it would take almost a second for my bullet to strike the target. Gravity would be tugging at the bullet that entire time. I had a chart that showed just how much compensation I had to click into my scope based on velocity and distance. I used the chart, then set my scope.

I got into my prone firing position. I put one cartridge in the chamber and locked it, adjusted the view on my scope so the target filled the eyepiece, compensated for wind the best I knew how from experience, supported the rifle on its stand, then controlled my breathing while I was taking the safety off and steadying the crosshairs on the middle of the target I’d drawn on the boulder.

Very slowly, I began to put pressure on the trigger, let out about half the breath I’d just taken and held the rest. I continued slowly squeezing the trigger.

I think the sound of my rifle with my own cartridges is distinctive, a sound produced only by powerful rifles. I’ve stood with other shooters and heard the sound of their rifles. Maybe it’s just my imagination but it seems to me that only the ones like mine, using ammo like I use, have that special sharp crack, one that affects me deep in my gut. Once heard, it’s remembered.

I kept my scope on the target when I shot; I was able to see dust and rock chips fly with the hit. I’d hit just below the very top of the square and a few inches to the left of center. I was delighted. The first shot is always a test shot to see if the wind had been read correctly. I’d done a pretty good job of gauging it right.

I readjusted my scope and then spent a few more minutes practicing. I put four cartridges in the rifle, all it could hold, and tried shooting them as quickly as possible while retaining accuracy. When I was done, I practiced reloading as quickly as possible. I fired those off as fast as accuracy would allow, then reloaded at maximum speed. I didn’t have any reason to do this other than it was a skill to practice. I liked handling the rifle and becoming proficient in everything about it. Shooting well was a challenge. It was almost impossible to become perfect at it, there were just too many variables to control, but trying to improve meant learning to control everything I could, and that was what I was trying to do.

In all I fired at that square on that rock nine times and found when I went back and checked that I’d hit it seven. I felt that was pretty good from the distance I was from the target. One of the misses I knew was because I was rushing and jerked the trigger too fast, moving the barrel slightly. At nearly a half a mile, the barest movement of the barrel can end up with the shot missing by several feet. I had tried different trigger-pull weights while I was learning to shoot and had it set on my rifle at a pretty low weight, about two and a half pounds. I was most comfortable and accurate that way. Pulling too fast was due to my not being steady enough, being too much in a hurry. That miss was entirely my own fault. Of course, this was why I practiced. It taught me to pay attention as well as to get my technique grooved so I could depend on my shooting.

The other miss I attributed to the wind. Most any change from what I’d adjusted the scope for would result in a missed target at that range. I felt very good about hitting that small target more than 75% of the shots I’d taken.

It was time to start working my way back. There was more wind today, and it picked up a little as I moved away from the forest. It was coming from the north and it was chilly. I had a warm jacket and was used to the wind, which was a near constant presence on the plains.

We rode steadily, crossed the creeks and kept going. I thought it would be a good idea to make decent time that morning. That would set us up to get far enough today so we’d have an easy walk back home tomorrow. It was too chilly for swimming again, so all I had on the agenda was lunch, making camp tonight, dinner, and then sleep. Home tomorrow, relaxed and happy.

Jesse was feeling good and wanting to run. I didn’t know how I knew that, but I knew it. So, I let her go, and she took off at a brisk canter. She kept it up for fifteen minutes before slowing down. She shook her head a few times after the canter. I think she was pleased with herself.

We rode down the west shore of the lake, heading south. I ate lunch on its bank. While there, I caught a couple of good-sized fish I thought would be fine for dinner. I cleaned them and put them in a plastic storage bag and wrapped them up in some of my spare clothes to insulate them and keep them cold. They’d keep fine for a few hours. I had enough food without them, but these would be better than the beans I was planning to have. I filled my canteen again, too.

I’d been making good time and it was still early afternoon when I passed where I’d camped the first night. Now I had a decision to make. From here to home, which would be about a ten-hour ride if we walked most of the way, was pretty much just open prairie. There were a few stands of trees scattered over the plains between where I was and where I was going, but not many. So, I could camp here for the night, which was still a few hours off, or I could ride on and take the chance of having to spend the night with nothing around me but grass and more grass. I’d have nothing to make a fire with, and it wasn’t safe to make one anyway. But it wasn’t only that. I somehow felt unprotected, lying in the open. Silly, but that’s what it was.

I didn’t want to stop. So, what I decided was, I’d keep going but try to find one of those few stands of trees and camp there.

I rode as far as I could staying with the forest close by. Eventually, I’d have to ride out onto the empty plain, but I liked staying with the forest on my right as long as I could. I was scanning the plain for some stands of trees as I rode. I saw a small grove a few minutes after setting out again, but it would still be too soon to stop if I rode to those trees. I kept going.

It was after another hour, when I was about to leave the forest behind, that I spotted another grove. It was about a quarter-mile ahead, perhaps a little farther, and it looked to have more trees than the last one I’d seen. If I slept there, I’d have about five or six hours to ride in the morning if we ran some of the way. That seemed to be about what I was looking for. I decided to head for that grove.

I was just thinking that when Jesse jerked her head up and lifted her ears.

She’d been more nervous than usual off and on during this trip. I’d been ignoring it, but this was a bigger reaction to whatever it was than I’d seen before. I pulled her to a stop and sat still. I looked around behind me. All I could see there was the edge of the forest. Nothing to the right, nothing to the left. Straight ahead, something less than a half-mile away, was the small grove. I stared at it. That’s where Jesse’s ears were pointing. I stared, and saw movement.

There was nothing to be alarmed about. Movement could be anything. Still, I moved my hips and tugged lightly on the reins, and Jesse backed up. It was about twenty yards to the edge of the tall pines. I kept her going back till I was in the first trees. I dismounted and pulled her into the trees a little farther, then tied her so she’d stay in the forest. I petted her face and smooth-talked her. When she was calm, I got to my business.

I took out my rifle because I needed to use the scope. Staying back in the trees a yard or so, I started checking out the grove.

I guess it’s fair to say that I’m cautious, perhaps more than most boys my age. There’s the fact I haven’t been treated very well the past few years. I’ve been jumped a couple of times where fighting back didn’t do any good. The guys didn’t do much, no more than a few punches and kicks, but not being able to get away meant I had to listen to them saying things, things I would have walked away from if I could. That wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t the worst. The worst was what I felt inside, knowing there’d been nothing I could do about any of it. They were in control, not me. I didn’t like that.

That was part of it. There was another part, too. I’m alone most of the time now, and being alone, I’ve developed a sense of awareness and caution. It’s simply part of me now. I’m still a boy, and not a big one at that. I feel I can take care of myself OK if I’m confronted by another boy my age. Often I can handle even two. But I couldn’t do much if I were confronted by a man, not out on the prairie. I know that. And I had no idea who I might meet out there. There, where I only had myself to rely on, I had to be careful. You had no idea what the person or persons you met might want, or might try to do. Most probably, they’d be friendly. But, if they weren’t? So that was the other reason for my caution. I’d promised my mom I’d take care. That’s what I was doing. But it was for me as much as for my promise. This was simply the way I was, the way I’d become.

I probably had no reason at all to be so careful about what was in that grove that had caught Jesse’s attention, but my own innate feelings of caution were working now, and it certainly didn’t do any harm to check the lay of the land before moving on.

I could see the grove very well through the scope. It didn’t take any time at all to discover why I’d seen movement. There were two people there. I knew one of them. He was a boy my age. His name was Elam Turner. His ranch was next to ours, and his father was the rancher who leased our land. Elam had been my best friend; he was the one I’d told about some of the feelings I’d been confused about a few years ago. He’d been the one who had told his parents about what I’d said. They’d insisted we no longer spend time together. When people at school asked him why he wasn’t hanging with me like he used to, he told them that his parents wouldn’t let him. Well, kids being kids, they poked and prodded at that until he told them why. It’s really hard for kids to keep things private. I didn’t hold it against him, after thinking it over. If anyone was to blame, I was, I guessed. I brooded about it a lot at first. Then, I just came to think that it was one of those things that happen.

Elam was in the grove with a man I didn’t know. The man was holding a rifle.

The grove wasn’t like the forest. It was probably fifteen, maybe twenty trees, all young aspens. They weren’t growing tightly together but spaced far enough apart that Elam and the man had plenty of room, and far enough apart that I could see what was happening.

The man had his rifle in his left hand and was holding on to Elam’s arm with his right hand. He was pushing him farther into the grove, pushing roughly enough that Elam was stumbling a bit. When he had Elam where he wanted him, he pushed him down to the ground, then stayed standing over him. The man’s back was to me, but I guessed he was talking because Elam was looking up at him. The expression on Elam’s face made me take in a quick breath. He was scared.

The man’s neck looked hard, the tendons under the skin moving, and I had the feeling maybe he was yelling at Elam. I was too far away to hear anything. I saw Elam shake his head, and the man leaned down and slapped him. Then he did it again. I saw Elam start to cry.

What should I do? I didn’t know! The man had a rifle. If I rode over there, would the man simply take me like he apparently had Elam? Was Elam really in trouble, or was the man simply angry at him for some reason? Would he just slap him a couple of times and then let him go? I didn’t have any answers, and even if I did, I didn’t know what I could do.

I kept watching, feeling very nervous. The man stood back up. Elam looked down at the ground. He was still crying. He shook his head again. The man grabbed his arm and yanked him to his feet, then turned him around and pushed the arm he was holding up behind him. I could almost feel the pain of that myself. There was a pause, and then Elam put his other arm behind him, which must have been what the man was telling him to do because he eased off the pressure on the first arm. He held both wrists in one hand, then reached around Elam and fumbled for a moment or two before tugging, and then Elam’s belt came loose from his Levis. The man used it to strap Elam’s hands together. Then he shoved Elam down on the ground and raised the rifle, pointing it at him.

I was terrified. But what could I do? I didn’t think I could just shoot the man. I couldn’t do that. Maybe if he shot Elam I could, maybe if I knew ahead of time he was going to shoot him I could, but I simply couldn’t with him just standing there and me not sure what it was all about.

I lowered my rifle and forced myself to think. It didn’t make sense that the man was going to shoot Elam. If he was, he didn’t need to tie his hands first. He could have just shot Elam as he was sitting on the ground crying.

I took another look through the scope. The man had walked away from Elam. I scanned the grove and found two horses on the far side from where I was standing. Elam’s horse, Turnip, was tied to a tree alongside the man’s horse. The man was with them, poking through Elam’s and then his own saddlebags.

He found what he wanted. I saw it was a length of rope. He walked back to where Elam was on the ground, then knelt down next to him, pushed him over, untied the belt and replaced it with the rope. He took his time, then stood up again.

He pulled Elam to his feet. He kept one hand on his arm, making sure he didn’t move, I guess, then with the other opened Elam’s Levi’s and pushed them down. That was followed quickly with his boxers. Elam was standing there naked from his waist down.

Shit! I could guess what was about to happen! What could I do? God, what could I do?

I again forced myself to think rather than panic, even though I knew whatever I did, I had to do it fast. But I had to figure it out!

If I shot my rifle, the man would know I was there. What would he do? He’d probably walk to the edge of the grove, dragging Elam with him for protection. He wouldn’t be able to see me, but he’d look for a while, and then what? I could only guess, but if he was the type that was going to rape a kid he’d come across out on the prairie, which I guessed is what had happened to end up with the two of them in the grove, he probably was the sort that was either pretty confident or not very bright. I thought about it and decided he wasn’t going to be put off by hearing a rifle shot. He might just start in on Elam, and there’d be nothing I could do. And I’d have lost one big advantage I had. Right then, he didn’t know I was there.

Could I sneak up on him? No. There was over a quarter-mile of prairie between him and me, and Turnip was likely to make some noise when she saw Jesse. Then I’d be out in the open on my horse and he had a rifle. I had no doubt he’d shoot me. If he was going to rape Elam, he was already committing a serious crime. It made sense that he probably was thinking of raping Elam and then shooting him. Why not? It would be safer for him. So, if I rode toward him, he’d shoot me, too.

I didn’t want to shoot him. With the rifle and ammo I used, I knew I could. But when you hit something with that rifle, you pretty much killed it. It was a devastating weapon to use on a human. I didn’t want to shoot him. But, I started thinking, could I just let him rape and shoot Elam? I had to shoot him, didn’t I?

Was there any choice? What else could I do?

I considered just shooting close to him, but I didn’t know what the outcome of that would be. It was too complicated a situation and I didn’t have enough time to think it through. I could immediately see too many things that might happen, and they’d all be in his hands. No, whatever I did, I had to take control of the situation, and I wanted to use surprise as part of that. The less time he had to think, the better off I’d be getting him to do what I wanted him to do.

I didn’t have a lot of time to think, but I did come up with an idea. It was risky. But I knew one thing for sure. I was a damned good shot. That was about the only thing I was. So if I was going to get out of this, get Elam out of it, without either of us dead, that and surprise were the only things I had working for us.

If it didn’t work. . .well, I just wasn’t going to think of that. If it didn’t work, I’d deal with that when it happened.

I was going to try to prevent Elam from getting raped if I could, but more important than that, I was going to try to prevent him from getting dead. The best and safest way I could think to do that was to take away the man’s options and scare him off.

It had only taken me about a minute to figure this out. What I was going to do, if I could, was destroy his rifle. I couldn’t do it if it wasn’t where I could see it, or if it was where my shot would also hit either of them.

Nervously, with a racing heart, fighting time, I checked with the scope again. And almost dropped the gun.

The man had Elam on the ground on his face, his knees tucked under him, his arms still tied behind his back. He was kneeling behind him, and he’d taken his own pants off. He was rubbing himself, getting himself ready! It was all happening too fast! I wasn’t going to be able to stop it!

I tried to recompose myself as best I could while looking for the man’s rifle. I couldn’t do anything if I was panicking. Maybe I couldn’t stop the rape, but I still had time to keep him alive. If the man was thinking of shooting Elam afterwards, I had to stop that. I scanned the grove, feeling a little sick inside and trying to control my panic, looking for the rifle. Come on! Time was going by! Then, I spotted it. It was propped against a tree, but it was right in line with where I was and where Elam was crouched. I was too far away to hit such a small target anyway. Shit!

I had to move, and had to do it quickly. I knew I’d run out of time to stop the rape. I still had time to save Elam’s life. I was going to shoot at the rifle. I had to be closer, much closer than I was now, and I needed a clear shot. I didn’t know how much time I had, but it didn’t seem enough.

I grabbed what I needed and ran about a hundred yards toward the grove, trying not to make noise but not worrying about it, not worrying either about being spotted because the man’s back was to me and he was fully engaged in what he was doing. I could feel the time passing. When I thought I was close enough, I sank to my knees and looked again. I now had a shot at the rifle without anyone in the background, but just barely. I still wasn’t close enough. I jumped up and ran another fifty yards, running diagonally to change my shooting background, feeling the time getting away from me every step. How long did I have? I had to get this done before the man was finished with Elam. If he was going to shoot Elam, he’d do it then. And I was pretty sure he would shoot him. There’d be no witnesses that way, no descriptions that could be given. The man might let Elam dig his own grave first, or he might not have a shovel, and he might not bother. Too many unknowns! When he took off, he’d probably take Turnip with him, maybe with Elam’s body draped over her. Take the body into the forest and dump it there to be taken care of by scavengers. Then he could go on his way, taking Turnip with him so no one searching would see the horse and check for Elam. It could be a long time before anyone found Elam, even if he wasn’t buried.

How long does it take to rape someone? I had no idea. I just knew I had to hurry, that Elam’s life almost certainly depended on it.

When I thought I’d run far enough, I sank down into my prone firing position again, and heart pounding, checked with the scope. I had a clear background now. I moved my rifle slightly and could see the man was on Elam. I set the rifle on the ground on its bipod and used the range finder. 435 yards. Just under a quarter-mile. Over four football fields.

It was a very small target I wanted to hit. I wasn’t going to aim for the stock, which would be difficult enough to hit. I aimed for a smaller target, the area in the middle of the rifle where the breech, magazine and trigger assembly were. Hitting the rifle there would destroy it, would prevent it from being fired.

As quickly as I possibly could, I set up for the shot. First the range finder, then a glance at my drop chart, a few clicks for elevation, a couple more for the small amount of wind there was and I was ready. I was trying to keep my nerves at bay. This would be the most important shot I’d ever taken and I was acutely aware of that. At least it wasn’t an impossible distance. I could see the target cleanly. I was lucky there was almost no wind. I hated I wouldn’t have a practice shot, but I simply didn’t. Even with it, I guessed I had a 50% chance at best of making the shot if I did everything right.

I looked at the man one last time. He was still on Elam and seemed to be moving faster. I guessed what that meant. Moving rapidly, I loaded the gun with four cartridges and then laid four more on my handkerchief next to the rifle. I quickly reestablished the target, then slowed my breathing, which was very hard to do. I’d practiced it so many times, however, that I was able to force it. Without more thought, I focused on the target, slipped off the safety, and slowly squeezed the trigger.

The man’s rifle seemed to explode. Perhaps it did. Perhaps some of its ammo detonated even though that seemed unlikely. I hadn’t even considered that might happen. I raised the scope to see the man. He was standing up, and there was no question what he’d just been doing. He was looking my way, toward where the sound had come from. I doubted he could see me, lying in the grass as far away as I was. I now had to continue with my plan without delay. I wanted him away from Elam, and the way to accomplish that was to convince him that whoever had taken that shot could hit anything he aimed at, and to make it clear that the only chance he had would be to do whatever the shooter wanted him to do. All I had to do was let him know what I wanted.

If you’d just heard the crack of a powerful rifle firing in your general direction, if your weapon had just about disintegrated ten feet from you, you’d be very much in survival mode. That’s how I would have reacted in that situation, and that’s what I was counting on. If surviving meant doing what the shooter wanted, I guessed the man would be very willing to oblige.

It took me almost no time at all to line up my next shot as my scope was already set. The man was standing about two feet from Elam, looking my way. I was careful but wasted no time, and having an easier target this time helped. I put a shot into the ground between him and Elam.

The man jumped, then took a quick step even farther away from Elam and the bullet. Hah! He’d figured it out. I’d thought he would.

I quickly put another shot into the ground about six inches from his foot, again between him and Elam. The man took off running then, running toward the horses, not having given any thought to recovering his pants. I had to make sure he left Turnip where she was. I didn’t think that would be hard. It wasn’t. When he’d untied his horse and jumped into his saddle, he leaned over and reached for Turnip’s rein. I’d been waiting, already aiming. I squeezed the trigger and the bullet kicked up dirt close to his horse’s front hoof. The man jerked straight up in the saddle as the horse skittered away. Then he crouched over his horse’s neck and took off at a gallop, heading out onto the plain, away from me, and thankfully away from the trees where Jesse was.

I stood up and quickly reloaded with the waiting ammo, but I didn’t need it. The man was galloping away as fast as he could. He glanced back once, and I’m sure he saw me standing there watching him, but he didn’t slow down. I had no idea what the man was going to do without pants. But I wasn’t going to worry about it.

I gave him about a half minute, watching him get smaller and smaller. When he was a long way off, I jumped up and raced back to the forest, slipped the rifle into its scabbard and everything else into my saddlebag, then took off for the grove, kicking Jesse into a gallop.

When I reached the grove, I walked Jesse in among the trees. I figured I’d need some of the stuff she carried. When I approached Elam, I jumped off Jesse and stood for a moment, just looking. He was still there where I’d last seen him but wasn’t on his knees with his butt raised any longer. He’d managed to roll onto his side. His hands were still tied behind his back; he was still naked from the waist down. His eyes were closed.

“Elam!” I said as I walked to him. I wanted him to know it was me, not worried that the man might have returned.

His eyes flickered open. He looked awful. The side of his face was scraped and bruised where it had been forced into the ground when the man had been on him. Tears had streaked it, too. His eyes were red, and I could read pain in them.

“I’ll get your hands loose first,” I said, mostly to be saying something. I didn’t know what to say, how to comfort him. He didn’t speak at all.

I looked at the knot and tried untying it, but quickly saw that would take a long time if I could do it at all. The rope was so tight that his hands had gone white, and I could see where it was cutting into the skin on his wrists.

I had my jackknife, a Swiss army knife that I kept razor sharp. I found a place where I could cut one winding of rope and not risk cutting him. I sawed on it and though it was tough rope, my knife made short work of it.

When it was cut through, I unwound the rope. His arms sank away from his back, and he groaned. A moment later, he cried out when blood began moving through his hands and fingers again.

I wasn’t sure what to do next. There was blood on his bottom as well as his wrists. I wanted him to sit up, but that would mean putting pressure on his butt, and if it was already bleeding, was that the right thing to do? I hated that I felt so helpless. I liked knowing how to do things. I felt comfortable being alone in the Wyoming wilds. I knew how to act there, what to do, how to take care of myself. I’d learned what I needed to know and took pride in my independence, in my knowledge, in my skills. Now I was facing something I’d never dealt with before; I felt totally inadequate.

I didn’t know if Elam was in shock but thought he might be. I knew you should make sure shock victims were warm. I could do that. I could also tend to his bottom, which I didn’t want to do but had to do anyway.

I got my bedroll down from Jesse, then had another thought. I told Elam I’d be right back, I was just getting Turnip, then walked to where she was standing, untied her and brought her into the grove. I tied her up next to Jesse. The two horses knew and got along with each other, so there was no problem. I was hoping Elam had a bedroll, and he did. I untied it and took it over to where he was lying.

I spread it out on the ground next to him, making sure the ground was flat and free of stones, protruding roots or twigs. He had three thin blankets. I put two on the ground, folded so they acted like four. Then I knelt next to Elam.

“You have to move over to the blankets,” I told him, trying to sound like I knew what I was doing. If I sounded confident, he’d be more likely to trust me. “I want you to lie on your side, just like you are now, but on the blanket. I’ll help you up.”

I reached for and took his hand. His eyes were open and looking into mine. I looked back. I tried to keep my eyes expressionless. I thought if I looked too compassionate, or showed him pity, he might fall apart. I could commiserate with him later, if at all.

I wasn’t sure whether he’d cooperate or not. I wasn’t sure how aware he was of anything. I stood holding his hand with him on the ground looking at me for maybe fifteen seconds. Then he grasped my hand, hard, and started to try to struggle to his feet.

I held his hand, grasped his forearm with my other hand, and pulled him up. He almost collapsed, but I let go of his hand and threw my arm around his back, steadying him. We took the two steps needed to get to the blankets I’d laid out, and I helped him down on them, telling him again to lie on his side. He did, and I quickly covered him with the other blanket. He closed his eyes again.

“Would you like a drink of water?” I asked. “You’ve lost some blood. You need to stay hydrated.”

He blinked his eyes open again, stared into my face a moment, then nodded. I felt really good that he responded. I wasn’t sure what I’d have done if he was semi-comatose.

I smiled at him and got his canteen. I held it for him and he managed to raise his upper body enough to drink some.

He lay back down, and I said, “I have to dress your wrists. I’ve got a first-aid kit. Hold on.”

I got the kit and opened it, the first time I’d done so since my mom had given it to me. I saw a lot of stuff in there. What I didn’t see was soap. Luckily, I’d brought some for myself. I got it out, along with the things I’d need from the kit.

I washed his wrists with my soap and water from my canteen. I dried them using cotton balls from the kit. I pressed the cotton balls onto the places that were still oozing blood and held them till the bleeding was stopped. Then I dabbed some Neosporin ointment on the cuts, wrapped them in the gauze bandages, and taped them up.

He watched me intently while I was doing this. I decided he wasn’t in shock. He seemed too alert. But he wasn’t speaking. I thought maybe if he wasn’t, I should. He had to be feeling strange or awkward or something emotional about what had happened to him and feeling strange that I knew about it. I could imagine all sorts of thoughts going through his head. Being reluctant to speak made lots of sense to me. I needed to break the ice.

“There. The cuts don’t look too bad. They’ll be sore, but I think they’ll heal fine. The bleeding stopped, so that’s good. Your hands feeling better?”

He looked at me, looked in my eyes, and I wasn’t sure at first if he’d answer, but then he did. “Still tingling, but the pain’s about gone.”

“Good. Now for the hard part. You probably don’t want me doing this, but I promise you, I don’t want to do it any more than you don’t want me to. It has to be done, though. I’ve got to check up on your butt, and probably treat it. You’re not going to kick up a fuss, are you?”

I looked at him, making my face as normal looking as I could. I knew he was hurting, and not just physically. By keeping everything I said and did as light and ordinary as I could, I hoped to ease the tension. Maybe it was the wrong thing to do. Maybe he’d think I was being insensitive. I just didn’t know. But I had to do something, and light and ordinary was the best I could think to do.

He shut his eyes and laid his head back down. I took that to mean he wasn’t going to object. He also didn’t want to talk about it. That was fine. Neither did I.

I moved behind him, knelt down and pulled the blanket off where it was covering his rear. There was fresh blood in his crack and dripping down his cheek onto the blanket. I wondered what I should do next. I had no clue. I gritted my teeth and decided I’d simply do the best I could.

I put my hand on his upper cheek and said, “You’re bleeding a little. I’m going to take a look. I’ll be as gentle as I can.”

He didn’t reply. I pressed upward on the cheek and opened him up a little. Not enough. I pressed a little harder, and I could see his anus. It looked red and probably swollen, and there was blood coming from it. Not much, just a small oozing, but it was coming steadily.

I slowly let him close up again, then spoke to him. “I think this would work better if you were on your stomach. There’s still a little blood coming from inside you. I’m going to try to see where it’s coming from. If it’s near the surface, I can probably stop it. If not, well . . . let’s worry about that after I see what’s what. Can you roll onto your stomach?”

He did, and while he was doing it I got some thicker cotton bandages out of the kit. There was probably a name for them, but I didn’t know what it was. They were 6” by 4” and about a quarter inch thick. When he was on his stomach, I crouched next to him and spread his cheeks again, a little more confident now that I’d done it already. I took one of the thick pad of absorbent cotton and as gently as possible mopped up all the blood I could. That allowed me to see a lot better. I didn’t see anything but blood oozing near the bottom of his anus.

I spread his cheeks a bit farther apart, opening his anus just a bit by doing so. I could see a tear now. It didn’t look too big, but blood was coming from it about an inch into his anus.

I took a cotton pad, smeared some Neosporin on it, and pressed it against the tear. I could feel Elam wince, and told him I was sorry, but I held it steady with moderate pressure for about a minute. Then I lifted it and looked. The tear started oozing again, but much slower now.

I got another cotton ball and the Neosporin and repeated the process. I held it for two minutes this time. Then, without releasing it, I said to Elam, “I think I’ve got the bleeding about stopped. What I’d like to do is let this sit here for a few more minutes. I’m going to leave the cotton pad I’m using in place. I think it’ll hold itself in place if I let go of you. Here goes.” I slowly released the hand that was holding his cheeks apart, keeping pressure on the pad as I did so. I felt it being gripped without my holding it, so let go. I rocked back on my heels and stood up. I took a deep breath and let it out.

“If you can, I think you should just lie there like that for a few minutes. When I think it’s been long enough, I’ll have you turn over and I’ll tend to your face. It’s scraped up a little and needs to be washed and probably have some disinfectant on it.”

He didn’t speak. He simply lay there. I covered him with the blanket again, then took what I’d need for his face from the first-aid kit. After that, I just looked at him for a moment before telling him I’d be back in a few minutes. I turned and walked to the edge of the grove where I looked out over the plains, simply breathing, trying to regain some of the deep quietude they usually granted me.

After about five minutes, I returned. Elam hadn’t moved.

“You OK, Elam? Are you hurting anywhere other than your wrists, face and butt? I should have asked before. I’ve never done any of this before.”

He opened his eyes. I could still see pain in them. “I hurt, but I’ll live. I don’t want to move. Just let me lie here. My butt hurts like hell. I hurt somewhere deep inside, too. You don’t have any aspirin or stuff like that, do you?”

“There’s some aspirin in the kit, but doesn’t it thin your blood?” I knew it did, but really wanted him to make the decision not to take any. I didn’t want to refuse him if he really wanted it.

“Yeah, I think so.” He started to roll over, groaned a little, then kept going so he was on his side. Then he rolled over on his back. “I guess I can stand it.”

“I need to work on your face.” He grimaced, but I didn’t let it stop me. “You don’t want to get an infection. I’ll be real careful, but I need to wash where it was jammed into the dirt, then treat it. If I hurt you, just scream.” I smiled at him, and he almost grinned. I could see it in his eyes. “Or you can pound me when you get better.”

I probably shouldn’t have said that. I saw his eyes change. His face did, too. I hadn’t meant to, but I think I made him remember. Remember how I’d been beaten a couple of times. He’d never joined in, but I knew he’d seen it. Seen it and not tried to stop it.

“Sorry,” I said. “I was trying to be funny. Let me get the soap again.”

I got what I needed. I washed his face as gently as I could, but some of the dirt had been ground in, and I had to hurt him getting it cleaned up. He bore it stoically. When there was no more dirt, it was bleeding from three or four places— just small leaks, really. I dried him with another of the sterile, thick cotton pads, then used a fresh one to apply pressure to the cuts. They stopped bleeding pretty quickly, and I dabbed him with Neosporin.

I stood up and gathered all the cotton I’d used into a plastic trash bag. While I was glancing around for more trash to dispose of, I saw the man’s pants where he’d dropped them. I thought I should bag them up as well because they might help identify who he was. Just picking up the pants was distasteful; I didn’t go through the pockets at all. I just grabbed the pants and stuffed them in the trash bag.

I walked back over to Elam. “Hey, we have two choices, and I opt for the first. What do you think? We can stay here for the night, camp here I mean, and then ride back home real slow tomorrow. Or we can leave now, and get back pretty late tonight. Tomorrow morning early, really. There’ll be some moon later on, and we both know the way, and so do the horses. So if you really need to, I think we’d make it fine. But I don’t think you’re up to riding tonight, and I think you’ll feel a lot better in the morning. It’ll be safer for us to ride then, too. You’re the one who should decide.”

“I sure don’t feel like riding anywhere. I’m not sure I could.” I could hear the stress in his voice.

“We’ll stay here tonight then. Good. Well then, I’m going to leave you for a few minutes. I’m going to go back into the forest and gather some wood for a fire, then I’ll come back and make dinner. It’s getting toward that time. So, you’ll be OK, won’t you?”

“Yeah. I’ll try to fall asleep. That way I’ll stop hurting.”

I smiled at him, hoping he’d see it for a friendly one. He looked at me and closed his eyes.

I got back about twenty minutes later. I had an armful of wood and I’d stuck some more in Jesse’s saddlebags; I’d emptied them before riding out.

Elam’s eyes were closed, and I didn’t talk to him. If he was asleep, I didn’t want to disturb him. I set about getting the cooking fire laid and lit it. I liked to use hardwood and burn it down so I’d have a good bed of coals, then cook on those. The flames didn’t get in your way and the heat was more even, doing it like that. It took a little time for the wood to burn down, but I always did it that way if I could and there was no rush right then.

I added more wood to the fire every now and then as it was needed, thickening my bed of embers. In the meantime, I prepared the fish. I rinsed and dried them off, salted and peppered them and used what was left of my cornmeal, just like I had the other time. I didn’t have any bacon grease left, but I did have a little container of cooking oil I’d packed.

I wanted something with the fish, and decided to fix the beans I’d brought. Beans aren’t my favorite food but they’re good substantial fare. I had another thought, too. They’re high in fiber, and at some point Elam was going to have to go. Maybe beans would make it easier for him. It was probably going to hurt like hell no matter what, but any little bit of help would be good.

When the fire had burned down and the thick bed of hot coals was ready, I poured some canteen water into one of my two frying pans and added some beans. They had to cook for a long time to be good. To add flavor, I cut up some beef jerky and the three hot dogs I had left and threw them in the pan, too, then put the cover on. I checked in a couple of minutes; the beans were boiling. I moved the pan to a cooler place on the coals so the water wouldn’t cook away too fast.

While the beans were cooking, I set up my bedroll next to Elam’s. I sat down on it and thought about the day, about everything that had happened. I pondered on it a good while. Eventually, I checked the beans, and they were about ready. It was time to fry the fish. I moved the pan of beans to make room for the other frying pan, moved it so the beans would stay warm and finish cooking, then put the other pan on the hot coals. I gave it a few minutes, then poured in the oil. I let that sit, then tried sprinkling in a few drops of water from my canteen. They popped as soon as they hit the oil. The pan was ready.

I laid the fish in the oil and they started sizzling. I cooked them six minutes, then turned them over to cook another six.

Either Elam hadn’t been asleep or the aroma woke him because when I stood up after turning the fish I glanced in his direction and saw he was up on one elbow, watching me.

“That smells fantastic. I didn’t know you could cook.”

I smiled. “I couldn’t when we were together. I’ve learned a lot, these last few years.” I saw his face fall again, and I hurried on. “Damn, I keep saying things without thinking. Look, I’m not mad at you, Elam. I don’t hold anything against you. I’ve simply done a lot of camping, and I really like it. I’ve learned how to take care of myself, and that includes cooking. It’s about ready. How you want to eat? Do you think you can sit up? I can feed you if you need to be lying down.”

He put both hands on the bottom blanket and pushed himself up so his entire upper body was lifted off the blanket and he was sitting on his butt. When he did, he grimaced, then slowly let himself back down. “That hurts,” he said. “I don’t think I can sit up.”

“I’ll feed you then. No problem. Look, I didn’t bring any plates. I always just eat out of the frying pan. We were going to have to do that anyway. Also, I only have one fork. So we’ll have to share. Unless you have one in your stuff?” He shook his head. “OK, we’ll share. You don’t have cooties, do you?” I laughed, showing him I was joking.

He started to laugh, too, and then suddenly looked shocked.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Shit, Mase. He didn’t use anything. He just rammed into me. And I was bleeding. What if he has AIDS?!”

Shit was right! Wow! I hadn’t thought of that, either. Elam was looking devastated. I had to do something.

I sat down next to him and put one hand on his shoulder, looking down into his eyes. “Hey, guy. Listen. You don’t know. You can worry yourself to death about this, but you don’t know. Best wait with the worry till we get back and you get tested. Chances are, you’re OK. We live where there’s the lowest incidence of AIDS in the country. And there’s something else, too. This is awkward, talking about it, but we’re both grown up. And it should make you feel better. I cleaned you up. There was lots of blood, both fresh and dried. I cleaned it all off. Elam, I didn’t see anything but blood. I wasn’t really looking, I didn’t think of it, but I’d have seen it if it was there. There wasn’t any semen. I think I interrupted him. . .before. . . you know? I’d have seen evidence. So I think that makes it even more unlikely you’d have caught anything. And the odds are he didn’t have HIV, anyway.

“Look, you’re not going to help yourself by worrying. Try to forget it. When you get home, get checked. But chances are, you’re going to be fine.”

I was still holding his shoulders, still looking him in his eyes, wanting him to see my sincerity. He kept staring back, and I saw tears come to his eyes.

I figured he wouldn’t want me to be seeing that, so I stood up. “Got to take up the fish, or we’ll have it blackened in a way that wasn’t intended.”

I took both pans off the fire and carried them over to his bedroll. I set them on the ground next to him. Scared as he was, worried as he was, the smell had roused his appetite. He wiped his tears away, and I smiled at him. “Ready?”

He gave me a small, forced smile. “Ready.”

I took a forkful of beans and blew on them, then tried them. They were fine, not too hot with the blowing, cooked enough, and even tasty if you liked beans and Slim Jim. I took another forkful, blew on it like before, and was about to lower it to his lips. I had to look at him then and saw how defeated he was. So, hoping for the best, as I brought the fork of beans to his mouth, I said, “Here comes the little choo-choo, open up the tunnel.” I was rewarded by a small grin, and he opened his mouth. I forked the beans in, he closed his lips, and I pulled the fork out.

He chewed, smiled, and said, “Good!”

“Wait’ll you try the fish,” I said, and laughed.

We alternated bites, and there wasn’t any fish left when we were finished. We did run out of appetite before we ran out of beans. I gave him his canteen and he took a good drink. “That was great,” he said. “You really do know how to cook!” His tone of voice was brighter than it had been, and his eyes didn’t look so defeated. The food seemed to have revived his spirits.

“We’re not done yet,” I answered.

“We’re not?”

“Nope. One more thing. Hold on.”

I went to where I’d emptied my saddlebags, which was close to the fire pit, and picked up a small plastic storage container. I turned so he couldn’t see what I was doing. Then I fussed a bit, put my hands behind my back, and walked back over to him.

“Ready?” I asked for the second time that evening.

“For what?” he asked back.

“This,” I said, and brought my hands from behind my back. I was holding a cupcake, and in it was a lit candle. While he watched, I started singing. “Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday dear Mason, Happy Birthday to me!”

He was laughing by the time I was finished. “I’d forgotten. It is your birthday, isn’t it?”

“Yep. 16 today. I hadn’t expected to have to share this huge birthday cake, but fair’s fair.” I blew out the candle, plucked it from the cupcake, then tore the paper off, broke the thing in two, and handed him his half.

He took it, smiled at me, and said, “Happy birthday, Mason.”

I cleaned everything up, then walked over to where the blankets were laid out. “I think we should turn in. It’s been a long day for both of us, and I’d like to leave early enough tomorrow so we can go real slow. That OK with you?”

He looked really tired and rather than answering, just nodded. I got into my blankets, said good night, and rolled over so my back was to him. I stayed still for about ten minutes, then carefully rolled over and looked at him. He appeared sound asleep. He was breathing deeply and slowly. His face was relaxed.

I scrunched up so I was sitting. I was tired, maybe even exhausted, but I wasn’t planning to sleep.

All that thinking I’d done earlier was about the things that had happened. And what might happen next. I’d thought about that man riding away, naked from his waist down. Where would he go? What would he do? And mostly, what would he be thinking? I hadn’t liked the conclusions I’d come to.

These were the facts. He’d raped Elam. That would bring him a long, long jail term if he was caught. That was one thing. The other was that no one knew about it but a couple of teenagers. And one of them wasn’t in any condition to ride out from where he was.

So that man would be pretty sure that kid would still be there in the grove, all night long. The kid who, if he talked, could get him locked up in a cage for who knew how long.

Now he might wonder, probably would wonder, would the guy who’d shot at him ride off to get help and leave the other kid alone? If he did ride off, it would be awfully easy for the man to come after Elam and make him simply disappear. And then, what if that kid who was with Elam didn’t go for help and stayed there to take care of Elam? What then? Would the man think perhaps the risk of coming after both of us would be worth it? We were two kids, one with a rifle. Kids would fall asleep, wouldn’t they? Those kids had just seen the man run off and they might not even think of him again. He might decide he’d have a chance to come back and help his situation out a whole lot.

I kind of figured the man would be thinking like that. It made sense to me. Because I’d looked at it another way, too. The man had ridden off without his pants. Where was he going to go without pants? Perhaps he had more in his saddlebags, but it didn’t seem likely. Men might carry an extra shirt or jacket with them, maybe extra socks and underwear, but pants? Mostly they just lived in one pair till they were off the prairie. So, he didn’t have pants, and he’d have to get some. It seemed likely to me that meant he’d have to end up somewhere without pants but with some explanation he’d worked out why he didn’t have any.

Well, that wasn’t going to work. It wouldn’t because by tomorrow we’d be back home and the sheriff would know that a man who’d raped a kid was somewhere on the prairie without pants, and that piece of news would be broadcast to every law-enforcement man within miles. Anyone showing up anywhere bare-assed handing out some story to explain his situation was going to be caught, and if not right then, well, he would when whoever had supplied him some pants got to talking. A man riding in bare in the saddle, something like that, people were going to talk.

With an ounce of thought, the man would figure this out. So he’d have even more incentive to come back. The more I thought, the surer I was we’d have company during the night.

Would he do it? Come after us? I couldn’t know for certain. But I thought probably he would, and it was worth it to lose a night of sleep to be sure he wouldn’t be successful, should he indeed try.

I didn’t want to tell Elam what I was thinking. He’d just worry more, and he needed a night of sleep. I wasn’t sure how well he’d be able to ride tomorrow, but I did know he’d have a better chance after a good sleep and having had some time to heal. If I told him my thoughts, besides worrying, he’d want to share watches. So, I didn’t tell him.

I stood up and walked over to where Jesse was grazing. I’d hobbled her and Turnip so they could graze as much as they wanted during the night but couldn’t wander very far. I petted her and talked softly to her for a while, just to have the company more than anything else. I didn’t know if the man could sneak up on us without the horses giving him away, but did know they’d sleep on their feet during the night. I didn’t trust them as sentries.

I walked back into the grove and looked around. The trees weren’t very large in diameter. I couldn’t effectively hide anywhere in the grove. I also didn’t know from which direction he’d come, if he did come.

I looked up into the trees, but there weren’t any low branches to begin climbing, and the branches that were up higher didn’t look strong enough to hold me anyway.

I sat down again and leaned back against one of the trees. I had to do more thinking. I had to figure out how best to protect Elam and myself.

I simply didn’t know enough to make a good decision! That became clear the harder I tried to decide what to do. One thought was, I could build up the fire, making us an oasis of light in the blackness of the nighttime prairie. I could walk around the grove, a dark silhouette against the firelight. I could carry my rifle, and anyone within a half-mile or so would see me. They’d know Elam was being guarded. They’d stay well away.

Or would they? If there was a fire burning brightly, they could certainly see me, but I’d never see them. The fire would ruin my night vision and keep anything outside the grove invisible to me. So that plan would work, but only if the man who I’d decided would be likely to attack us didn’t have a weapon. But what if he had a handgun in his saddlebags? He could easily work his way up to the grove, take aim and simply shoot me. I’d never see him.

So it made no sense at all to keep a fire burning. I couldn’t risk that he might have a weapon.

No fire, then. So where did that leave me?

The man could attack us from any direction, and my chances of successfully guarding a three-hundred and sixty degree perimeter in almost complete darkness seemed impossible.

I felt like giving up. It was too hard. I just didn’t know how to do this. I didn’t know if he was coming, if he had a weapon, or if he did come, where he’d come from. I didn’t know how to set up to be able to stop him!

I got back up again and began to pace. It was dark now, very dark. Hell, the man could already be on his way! I circled the grove. It wasn’t very large, and it didn’t take more than a couple of minutes to walk all the way around it. I did so, looking outward. I didn’t see anything. Only darkness.

I kept going, slowly pacing, carrying my rifle. I slowed down to a very slow walk and listened hard. I didn’t hear anything.

I started to think again, pushing my defeated thoughts away. They wouldn’t help at all.

What would I do if I were that man? Say I’d decided I was going to attack those kids? How would I do it?

He’d have to think it over, make a plan, wouldn’t he? Yeah, he would. So what would he think? How would I do it, if our positions were reversed? I let my mind drift, trying to think like I imagined he would.

I need to get those kids. Get ‘em and shut ‘em up. Good thing I have a gun, my old Colt .45. They don’t know that, neither. So I can surprise ‘em with it. I’m not a great shot with a handgun, but from 25, 30 feet or so I can certainly hit someone. Might not even need to shoot from that far. Might just aim at them and say, “Drop that rifle,” and the kid will. Might be that easy.

But that’s not the way to do it. No sir. They’ll prolly be asleep. If I just get close and shoot, I’ll kill one of ‘em, but the other’n’ll wake up, and if he rolls fast, maybe I’ll miss him. If he has that rifle . . . no, I don’t want any part of that. No, the way to do it is, sneak up on ‘em late at night, get ‘em when they’re asleep, get up close and hit the first one I come to on the head with my gun, not much noise, then get the other one. That’s the way to do it.

OK, that’ll work. Prolly will. They won’t be expecting me. But what if they’re not both asleep? I need something else, sorta a backup plan. Hey, I know! I sneak up on ‘em. I know I can get close in the dark. They won’t see me, even if they are awake, with all that high grass. They think I hightailed it out and prolly have forgotten all about me. So I can get right up on ‘em. I do that, and see they’re awake. Then what. Well, I don’t even need to hit ‘em over the head. I just walk in on ‘em with the gun drawn. I find out where that rifle is first. If it’s agin a tree or something, I just go for it. The kid tries to get to it first, I shoot him. If he’s got it with him where he’s sleeping, it’ll be outside the blankets so he can point it easily. If I see he’s holding it, ready-like, I just shoot him. The trick is to just get into the grove with them not expecting me. Should be easy, late at night. Once I’m there, I can see what to do.

So, am I forgetting anything? Oh, yeah! The horses! If they get restless or start making noise, it might alert the kids. So I need to go in late when they and the kids will be asleep, and I have to go in downwind of the horses. Leave my horse behind and go in low and quiet.

I stopped and looked around where I was. I felt the breeze. It was coming from the north. He’d ridden away to the north. It would probably occur to him that if we were watching for him, we’d be looking to the north, expecting him to come from there, from where he’d gone. So he had two reasons to approach us from the south. The horses wouldn’t smell him if he came from that direction, and we wouldn’t be expecting it.

The horses were both grazing to the west of the grove. So he wouldn’t come from that direction no matter what he was thinking, and north just seemed improbable if he was clever at all. That left east and south, and south made a lot more sense.

So I’d cut the three-sixty down to one-eighty, and probably only ninety. I smiled. I realized I never would know for sure what was coming, but at least I’d done my best to figure it out. That was better than feeling defeated and giving up.

All right, then. I was going to assume he’d come in sneaking through the grass from the south. South of the grove there was tall grass, taller than in the other directions. He’d have more cover.

I checked my watch. It was only 10:40. I thought if he did come, it would be more like 2:30 or 3:00. 4:00 at the very outside. I had some time yet.

I thought about how I might set things up a little better. The grove was simply a couple of dozen, more-or-less, spaced-out small trees. Elam was sleeping near the middle. When I was outside the grove, I couldn’t see him because he was flat on the ground and it was so dark. When I was inside the grove, among the trees, I could make out his shape.

I walked over to him. My blankets were still lying next to him. I went and got some of the sticks I hadn’t burned, the ones I was planning to use for a breakfast fire. I brought them back to my blankets and set them down, then spread the blankets over them. Stepping back, I was pleased. Elam’s sleeping figure and my blanketed branches looked very much the same. As a crowning touch, I removed the Stetson I always wore when I went out on Jesse and laid it at the top of my blankets, hoping it looked like I’d gone to sleep with it covering my face.

I walked back to the fire pit and pulled out a partly-burned stick from near the edge. I doused it with water from my canteen, and when it was cool enough, I rubbed my hands on it. They came away black. I rubbed them on my face and neck, then on the backs of my hands.

I wondered where I should sit? Should I keep moving, or try to hide somewhere? I had a collapsible trenching tool. I could dig a depression to lie in.

That seemed wrong, somehow. It seemed too confining. If for any reason I had to move fast, being in a ditch of some kind would be too restrictive. So that wouldn’t work. What would? Sitting with my back against a tree seemed best. Not perfect. Nothing was perfect.

I kept thinking, and smiled. I thought I’d read about this somewhere, or maybe seen it in a movie, but couldn’t really remember. I went and got some of the sticks that were still next to the fire pit, then got out my hatchet and my pocket knife. I cut the sticks so I had pieces about ten inches long. I sharpened both ends, one roughly, one to a really sharp point. I made about sixty of them. I had the time, it kept me busy and awake, and I kept smiling all the time I was doing it.

When I was done, I picked up my rifle and carefully surveyed the prairie to the south. I didn’t see anything. It was very dark, and I doubted I could be seen unless the man was up close, and I didn’t think he would be yet. I couldn’t be sure, but I was willing to take the chance.

I crouched low and scuttled out into the tall grass, grass that came up to my waist. I moved out about ten yards, then started hammering the pegs into the ground, leaving the sharp ends sticking up about two inches out of the ground. I put them about a foot apart, maybe a little less. When I was done, I had a row about thirty feet wide of pegs, and another row spaced out the same less than a foot behind the first one, staggered so the points in that row were between the points of the first one.

I figured the man might try to walk to within a quarter mile or so of the grove, but then would come on his hands and knees, staying below the top of the grass. That meant his hands and knees would be exposed to those pegs. He might miss them all. He might not even come from the south. But if he did what was likely, and came from the south and headed for the middle of the grove, which seemed what he’d head for in the black of night, he’d pass over those pegs.

It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t foolproof, but it was something, and it was what I was capable of doing.

I needed a place to wait for him, a place that gave me the best view. I walked around the grove, checking the entire place. I found a tree across the grove from Elam where the ground rose as it surrounded the trunk. When I sat down and leaned against it, I was elevated just enough that I could see across the top of the high grass to the south. I decided this was where I would wait.

I tried to sit still, thinking if I wasn’t moving and the man was sneaking up on us, he might have a harder time seeing where I was. I had to keep turning my head, however. I was pretty sure he’d come from the south, but I didn’t ignore the other directions. I could see to the east and west without turning anything but my head. Every now and then I’d shift my entire upper body, doing it slowly, and peer to the north.

I checked my watch. It was 1:47. I figured if he came, it would be in the next two hours. I needed to stay awake but didn’t want to move. The more I sat still, however, the drowsier I felt. Another thing to figure out.

I sat, looked, sat, and felt my head nodding. This wasn’t good. I had to stay awake. It had been a long, eventful day, and I was tired. I had to do something. There were almost no night noises, the moon was only a sliver crescent and low in the sky, not illuminating much of anything. There were stars, abundant stars, and they cast a weird, silvery luminescence over the entire landscape but didn’t really illuminate it. My eyes were fully dilated but I still couldn’t see as much as I’d have liked. The chilly, pervasive breeze that was ever-present seemed the only thing moving. The temperature had dropped in the past hour, and I hugged my arms around me to keep warm. I wondered if the man without pants was chilly.

And it suddenly occurred to me how to stay awake. I unzipped my jacket, then pulled my tee shirt up, exposing my stomach. That certainly woke me up. I looked at my stomach, and quickly started rubbing my hands over it, trying to hide the splash of white. I rubbed the back of my neck to get more soot. When I was done it wasn’t perfect but I didn’t think it would give me away.

Having that breeze blow cold air over me got me shivering but kept me alert. I thought about it and pulled my jacket back around me. If I was shivering too much, I wouldn’t be able to shoot straight.

I was hoping I wouldn’t have to shoot. If I shot him, there was no doubt I’d kill him, and even with what he’d done to Elam, I didn’t want to do that. Not for his sake, but for mine. I didn’t want to go through life knowing I’d killed a man.

What if he forced me to? What if he walked up to the grove and I told him to stop and he didn’t? Could I shoot him? Would I? I thought I could. It was the only way I could protect Elam—and myself. I decided if I had to, I would, and it wouldn’t bother me. But a filament of doubt lingered.

I kept my jacket closed, then opened it briefly when I felt myself wanting to doze. It was the sitting still that was getting to me, but I knew I shouldn’t move. Sitting still, as dark as it was, I’d blend into the tree.

I was thinking about whether I should check Elam, thinking that maybe this whole thing about the man coming for us was only in my head, thinking other things, when I heard something. It wasn’t much, but it was a sound I hadn’t heard before, a sound out of place with the night noises of the prairie. Something different. In that moment, my heart began racing. I forced my mind to stay steady, not to panic; it took a lot of discipline. I picked up the rifle that was lying next to me and put it in my lap, keeping my movements slow and minimal. The sound had come from the south. I looked east and west to be sure there was nothing there, then refocused on the south. There was still nothing to see, but I kept staring anyway.

Then, about forty or fifty yards out from the grove, I thought I saw something. It was too dark to make out any detail at all at that distance, and at first I couldn’t see anything at all. But then, as I continued to look hard, I thought I saw a small section of grass that wasn’t moving like all the grass around it. It was the lack of motion I’d first noticed, and even that had been indistinct, almost imagined.

I brought my rifle up and looked through my scope at that spot. I had to scan carefully to find what I’d thought I’d seen. The breeze was moving the grass, and it all waved together. Then I found and zeroed in on one small spot where it didn’t seem to be moving at all. Looking out across the top of all that grass, the top being all I could see, I saw what looked like a place where there wasn’t anything at all. I could see the tips of the surrounding grass, and then what appeared like a place where those tips were missing—an empty area within the ocean of grass.

I started scuttling on my butt, slowly moving around behind the tree I was sitting against, staying as low as possible, thinking that while he had his head below the top of the grass, he couldn’t see me any better than I could see him. When I was on the north side of the tree, a tree only about a foot in diameter, I very slowly moved into a kneeling position. I didn’t want to try to confront anything at all from a sitting position. I couldn’t move fast if I were sitting.

I raised my rifle so I was aiming at the long grass between where it hadn’t been moving and where it stopped and turned into shorter scrub grass about ten feet from the grove. And waited.

My heart was racing. I took a quick glance behind me, to the north. Nothing. Back to the south. Nothing. I waited.

I thought I detected movement in the grass. Where the grass hadn’t been moving in concert with the other grass, it now looked the same as everywhere else. A little closer to the grove, it seemed the grass was acting irregularly. But I might have been making myself think that, projecting my imagination to fit what I thought was happening.

It happened suddenly. A scream pierced the night. Then another. What should I do? I guessed the man had been coming forward on his hands and knees and put his hand or knee on a sharp peg, then done the same thing again with another knee or hand. But I didn’t know! The last thing I wanted to do was go charging into that grass.

I heard a groan, then a sound like someone was in pain and trying to choke back a scream, trying not to make any noise.

The hell with it I thought. Without moving, staying behind my narrow shelter, I shouted, “I’ve got a rifle trained on you. I know exactly where you are. Stand up now, or I’m going to start firing!”

I stopped and waited. Nothing. No sounds at all.

“OK,” I said. “I’m not coming in there. Not without knowing if you’re just waiting for me, wanting me to do that. I’m going to start shooting now. You were warned.”

I aimed at the spot where I thought he was crouching, took the safety off, then moved the aim about three feet to the right and just over the top of the waving grass and squeezed the trigger.

The sharp crack of my rifle was shocking in the silent blackness. I called out, “That’s the only warning you’re getting.” I was about to move the aim just a little closer to where I thought the man was hiding and fire again when suddenly he stood up.

He was about 25 yards from me and a pathetic sight. Still no pants. He had his hands crossed over each other across his stomach. I saw a dark spot on his top hand I thought might be blood.

“You shot my hand,” he screamed. “You shot off two fingers. My hand! You shot my hand! I’m bleeding! Help me! I’m bleeding to death! Help! Please!” His voice sounded desperate.

I kept the rifle trained on him. I was very conscious of having three cartridges still in the rifle.

“Raise your hands. Stick them straight out from your body. I want to see both hands. Do it now!”

“Help me. It hurts. God, it hurts. Help me!” He started to waver, then said, “I can’t stand up. I’m dizzy.” He slumped back down, and then was below the top of the tall grass again.

I quickly took aim and fired again, very close to where I now knew he was. Before the echoing sound of the shot had faded away, I was speaking again. “Stand back up. I missed on purpose that time. Next shot, I won’t. You have two seconds, then I’m firing at you. One. . .t. . .”

He was back up, one hand still holding the other across his stomach, wavering, leaning a little forward as though the pain was more than he could stand.

“Stretch out your hands so I can see them.” My voice was hard, so hard it even surprised me. “No more warnings. You drop back in the grass again, I’ll kill you.”

Leaning over still further, he slowly separated his hands. As he did so, he twisted sideways suddenly, giving me a narrow profile view of him, and his right hand came up holding a large pistol. He snapped off a quick shot that missed. He was in the process of steadying the gun for a second shot when I squeezed my trigger, my sight aimed at the center of his body mass. The explosion of the shot coincided with him flying back into the grass, disappearing from my sight.

“Mase! Mase! What’s happening! Mase?!”

I stared at the black space where the man had been standing. That I’d hit him in the body was simply fact. I didn’t miss what I shot at from that distance. And he hadn’t fallen. It was like a great force had simply swept him away.

“MASE!”

I suddenly realized Elam had called before, the first time just after I’d taken my first warning shot, but I’d been so focused on the man, it hadn’t even registered till about the third time he’d called. Now I responded. “I’m OK, Elam. Everything’s OK.”

I felt shaky. I lowered the rifle, then sat down on the ground. I’d killed a man. He was dead because of me. The only saving grace was that it was self-defense. I’d waited till he shot first. Maybe that was stupid, because I could have fired before he did. I’d seen the gun coming up. I’d seen it was a large handgun, I knew how far away from him I was, that he could barely see me if he could see me at all, that I was partly protected by a tree trunk, and that he was scared. I had had time to rationally think about it. My only fear had been I was putting Elam’s life in danger by waiting before shooting, but I simply wasn’t going to shoot first.

“Mase?”

“OK. I’m coming.” I stood up and walked over to him. He was pushed up in his blankets, propped up on one arm. I crouched down and put one hand on his shoulder and indicated he should lie down again. “That man came back. I heard him coming. He took a shot at me. I’m sure he’s dead.”

“Dead?!”

“If I hadn’t shot him, he’d have shot both of us.”

He looked at me as though this was all too much for him to grasp. I stood back up and stepped over to my blankets. I removed the sticks, then started to lie down. I stopped. I really wanted to lie down, but common sense told me I should check the man first.

I didn’t like the idea, but I had to do it. I reloaded my rifle, got a flashlight from the pile of stuff I’d taken from my saddlebags, then took a somewhat circular route to where I was sure he’d be lying, being cautious, even while being certain I didn’t need to be.

He was there. I’d caught him in the side, and the bullet had passed through him. The side of his shirt was torn away and what I could see of his body with the flashlight looked like pulp. He was dead. OK, I thought, I’ll tend to him tomorrow. While my mind seemed very rational, my body was trembling, looking at him, knowing I’d done that.

I went back to camp, laid my rifle next to my bed, and lay down, pulling my blanket over me. I closed my eyes and tried to calm my breathing, but I couldn’t control the shaking. I didn’t know whether I’d sleep or not, but I felt totally physically exhausted and emotionally spent.

- Going Home -

Day 4

I was shaken awake in the morning. Elam was standing over me. His face looked a little better.

“Had to piss,” he said, and grinned.

“Someone’s feeling better,” I groaned.

“Some.” His grin disappeared. “I still hurt. I think I can ride.”

“I don’t suppose you made breakfast?” That was a joke. I didn’t think Elam knew the first thing about cooking. He was a rancher’s kid, but except for when he’d been with me, he’d hung with town kids. When our friendship had ended, the new friends he made then were all townies. He wasn’t a rough kid, to his father’s regret. We’d both had our horses, but I’d almost never seen him on Turnip after we went our own ways. I didn’t think camping out on the plains was something he did. Or cooking over a campfire.

He grinned again. “Nope. I was hoping you would.”

He didn’t say anything else. Just looked at me hopefully. I grinned back at him. Then I groaned again and shook the blanket off. He was watching me, and gauging from his eyes, probably checking if I needed to piss too. I did. Didn’t stop his grin any, either, watching me adjust myself, then make my way to the edge of the grove, where I turned my back on him.

When I came back, I checked my watch, then asked him if he was up to laying a fire. He grimaced, but said he guessed he was.

“Good,” I said. “I’ve got things to do and making a fire and letting it burn down would just take more time. I want to get out of here as soon as we can. We have a long way to go and we‘ll be starting later than I wanted to and riding slow. If you do the fire, I’ll get busy.”

He nodded. I walked out and found where Jesse and Turnip had wandered to, took the hobbles off and brought the two horses back to the grove. I tied Turnip up there, then secured my saddlebags back on Jesse after loading them up with what I’d need. Then I rode out to the south on Jesse. There was a horse tied out there someplace. I needed to find it.

It wasn’t difficult. I figured it would be on a pretty straight line extending from the grove to where the man’s body was and then beyond. I rode till I came to the forest, and there it was, a few yards back in the trees, tied up and very happy to see someone. I untied the reins and led the horse back to where the body was.

I stopped well short of there. I was aware of those pegs. Removing them was one of my chores.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to get that body onto the horse. I’d planned to do that. I wanted to bring it back with us. But first things first, I thought. I hobbled both horses. The man’s horse immediately dropped its head and started grazing.

I took my hatchet from the saddlebags and walked forward till I came to the peg line. I crouched down next to one and hit it a few sharp raps on its side with the side of the hatchet. Then a few raps the opposite direction. I felt it, and it wiggled but didn’t want to come out yet. I only had to hit it back and forth a few more times and work it with my fingers before it came out.

Only 59 to go.

At a minute a peg, this would take over an hour. It had taken me more than a minute to extract the first one. Shit.

For the next one, I thought I’d try it differently. I tried pounding it down. It shouldn’t have surprised me that it worked much better that way. It only took a few seconds to pound it entirely into the ground, then under the surface. That’s what I proceeded to do, walking down the line, pounding each one in.

I was back in camp twenty minutes later. The fire was hot coals, and Elam had the coffeepot sitting on them, filled with water from the jug I carried along with my canteen.

“Hey,” he said. He looked happy to see me. “I got the water on, and it’s hot, but I don’t know what to do next.”

I laughed. “Watch,” I said, and measured and poured some ground coffee into the pot. “We’ll let it boil for a couple of minutes, then strain it. Hope you drink it black. Carrying milk doesn’t work too well.”

“You got any sugar?” He was looking hopefully at me.

I grinned. “I guess I can scare up some.”

I put a frying pan on the hot embers and got out the last of my bacon. I fried it up, crumbled it still in the pan, then added the beans we hadn’t finished last night. I had some bread left, too, so got that out, and found some small branches that hadn’t been burned. I whittled the bark off two of them that had forks, sharpened the fork ends, then pushed a bread slice on each.

“Hold these over the hot embers and they’ll toast. Don’t get too close, and keep checking them.”

He carefully got down on his knees and held the bread out over the hot ashes. I stirred the beans, added some seasoning, then got out my mug and a small strainer. I always made coffee this way when camping. It was easier to simply bring a strainer than a bunch of other stuff.

I strained a cup of coffee and set it aside, then took the hot beans and bacon off the fire. “Toast ready yet?”

He checked it and said, “Yeah, it is!” He seemed both surprised and proud. I giggled at him.

We had to share the fork and cup for the coffee, but that was sort of fun, and we both enjoyed it. I didn’t much care for the sugared coffee. I only had sugar with me because I kept a bunch of cooking stuff pre-packed and ready to go for camping trips and sugar was included. I waited till he’d had a full cup of sweetened coffee before I strained one for myself.

After breakfast, he started cleaning and packing stuff away. I took the man’s horse back out to where the man’s body still lay. Some time between breakfast and right then I’d decided I wasn’t going to take it back with us. I hooked a piece of rope to his ankle, then to the saddle horn and had the horse drag the body back into the grove. When it was there, I took the man’s bedroll off his saddle, spread it over him and anchored it by making a few more pegs and pounding them into the ground through the blanket. The body would only have to be there for one day. This would have to do.

I was undecided about the man’s horse. I thought of hobbling it and leaving it behind, but it would be defenseless that way if there were any predators around. I also thought of tying its reins to one of our horses, but didn’t want to be burdened with that. In the end, what I did was leave its saddle and bridle on, but just let it go free. I thought it would stay with us as we walked. Turned out, that’s just what it did.

We ate, cleaned up camp, loaded the horses, and were set. I hadn’t wanted to bother Elam by continually asking him if he were up to riding home. It was ride out or stay there and wait for help. He wanted to ride if he could. I could understand that.

There was another dynamic going on, too. When we’d been friends, we’d been very much equals. Not all friends are that way, I’d come to understand. Sometimes there was a leader and a follower. We’d been equals.

Now, in the short time we’d been together, that had changed, and without my trying to change it. Already, I could see him leaning on me. It wasn’t just that he was hurting. I could see it in his eyes as he watched me do things. There was an acceptance there that I knew what I was doing. And that I was in charge.

I didn’t like it. I wished things were still the way they had been. I was comfortable with that. I’d loved our friendship. But I wasn’t about to lose any of the pride and confidence I’d gained over the past few years. I wanted us to still be equals; for that to happen, he’d have to gain some inner strength and resolve and capabilities. I had no idea if we’d be friends again, even if he wanted that, or if his parents had changed any in the past few years. I was wondering about all that. But if we could be friends again, I didn’t want to hamper that by either taking charge or by babying him.

I mounted and watched him. If he wanted help, I’d let him ask for it.

He cried out as he lowered himself onto the saddle.

OK. All my good intentions went out the window. I slid off Jesse and stepped over next to Turnip. “Here, dismount. Come down here.” I raised my arms, and he leaned over alongside his horse’s neck, carefully lifted his right leg out of the stirrup, drew it up and across Turnip’s rear, pivoting in his left stirrup while doing so, and started to come off the horse. I caught him when he was starting down and eased him into a standing position next to me.

I untied his bedroll from behind his saddle, opened it up and refolded it, then laid it on his saddle. “That padding may help. If it still hurts too bad, tell me.”

He looked at me and nodded. His eyes were still too docile, too accepting, but even if I wanted the old relationship of equals back, I couldn’t expect him to change that quickly. I stared back, and he turned away. He put his foot back in the stirrup. I wanted to help, but didn’t. He raised himself onto Turnip, then gently lowered himself till he was seated. He kept his face stoic. I only watched out of the corner of my eye. If I’d been hurting, I wouldn’t have wanted anyone witnessing it either.

I checked again that everything had been picked up and packed away, then got up on Jesse. She shook her head up and down a couple of times. She did that when she was ready to travel.

We started out at a slow walk. I figured that was about all he could manage. At that speed, it wouldn’t be till late that we got back, but I had enough food left for lunch, and we both had canteens. We wouldn’t be living high, but we’d get by.

Jesse knew the way back as well as I did. I let her know all I wanted was a slow walk, and even though she’d have liked to run, she settled in. I hung the reins on her saddle horn. Elam rode next to me. He didn’t seem to have anything to say, and that was all right with me. I wasn’t as talkative now as I had been as a kid. Back then, I’d have been talking a mile a minute. Now, quiet suited me fine.

Fairly soon we came to a small stream where we allowed the horses to water. Elam got down and it looked like he was in pain.

After the horses had drunk, and I’d refilled our canteens and dropped in the necessary pills, we started out again. The silence was comfortable. I could see Elam squirming a bit, trying to get comfortable. He didn’t appear to be succeeding.

To try to take his mind off it, and because I was curious, I asked him a question.

“So what happened, you and that guy? If you want to talk about it.”

He looked over at me, then dropped his eyes. We rode a few minutes in silence, and then he started speaking. “I was out chasing strays.” He averted his eyes from me. I understood. More than he wanted me to, maybe.

His father was an important man in our town, Elk River. He was a big-time rancher, and he was one of the selectman on the county land commission. That was an elected position, and he’d been being reelected to it since I could remember. He was a large man in stature and personality, gregarious, well-liked in the community. He also was a man’s man, bluff and sure of himself.

His son wasn’t. He wasn’t effeminate; he just was, well, soft, I guess. Non-assertive. He didn’t get involved in any school sports. He didn’t get in fights, backing down if that was what he had to do. He was small of stature and very easygoing, not too directed, just, well, just the kind of son that was an embarrassment to the kind of father he had.

His father had forever been trying to shape him into his own image. I’d always been a little surprised by this because Mr. Turner was more than anything else a smart man. You could tell that when you spoke to him, and I’d heard other men remark that if you entered into a business deal with him, you’d better be pretty sure what you were doing. Not that that meant he’d cheat anyone. He wasn’t dishonest. Just sharp, and if you were planning to have some wiggle room on your side of the deal, you’d learn pretty quickly that there wasn’t going to be any. He knew a lot, and could figure things out as well as any man I knew. He was quick-minded and insightful. That was why I was always so surprised at the way he treated Elam. He seemed to have a blind spot when it came to his son. He wanted his son to be someone Elam either couldn’t or wouldn’t be, and he kept pushing, hoping Elam would change.

Elam wouldn’t have anything to do with changing. Oh, he wasn’t defiant at all. He did what his father asked of him. He simply didn’t put his heart into it. He didn’t make waves; he simply tried to stay on top of the ones that were there and ride them to shore, as safely and easily as he could.

I could pretty easily figure out why he’d been out by himself trying to round up any cattle that had gotten off the ranch. The fences were always failing for one reason or another. Ranch hands were constantly repairing them. And a few cattle were always escaping before the wire was restrung. Chasing down those strays was a job usually given to the hands, guys who had the skills for it and were accustomed to living rough on the land, sleeping out on the prairie and riding all over hell’s half acre looking for escapees. To them, it was a sort of holiday.

It wasn’t for Elam. But it was the sort of thing his father would have him do, trying to make him into the sort of man he could be proud of. The fact that Elam was ill-equipped to do the job and hadn’t the stomach for it didn’t enter into the equation. Mr. Turner tended not to see what he didn’t want to see when it came to Elam.

“You find any?” I asked.

“Nope. But I was supposed to take a few days looking, so I was doing that. I had gear and grub for that time. But I really didn’t expect to find any stock, and if I had, I’m not sure how I’d have got them to come back if they didn’t want to. So I rode out and had a compass so I could get back. Ride north for a couple of days, then ride back south.”

I grinned at him. He took a quick glance and saw me grinning. He started to frown, maybe thinking I was being disparaging, but then evidently decided I wasn’t, and grinned, too. I knew that grin well.

“Well, I was on my way back. I saw that grove where you found me and headed for it, thinking I could rest there and decide if I wanted to go back right then or not. Except that man was there. I didn’t see him till I’d ridden up and was starting to dismount. He came out of the grove, and was holding his rifle. He asked me who I was riding with, looking around as he asked, and I said I was alone. Then he grabbed me. He told me what he was going to do, and if I cooperated, he’d let me go after. But the way he said it, it really scared me. I didn’t believe him.”

He stopped, remembering. I saw him shudder. When he spoke again, his voice was a little rougher. “I guess you must have seen us. I couldn’t believe it when I heard your shot, and he jumped off me.”

He still wasn’t looking at me. I supposed he felt some shame, but he didn’t need to. There was nothing he could have done differently I could think of, other than trying to fight the man, and that would have gotten him hurt even worse. If anyone could feel any shame, it was me.

“Elam, I’m really sorry I couldn’t have done what I did sooner. I tried. I really did, but I had to do it right, and it just took too much time. I wanted to prevent him from doing you like he did, but I thought like you did, thought about what he’d do after, and so I knew I couldn’t afford to screw up. I wanted to stop him, but mostly I didn’t want him to be able to use his rifle any more. I wanted to destroy his rifle and then get him to leave. I did that, but it took too much time. I’m sorry I couldn’t have done it faster.” I stopped and took a deep breath. “But, we’re both still alive. I guess we can be glad of that, even if I didn’t stop him before he did what he did.”

He looked up at me then, and his words were sincere. “Mase, I’m sure he would have killed me. I didn’t see how he’d let me live. You have nothing at all to regret. You’re a hero.”

I grunted. “I’m no hero. Just did what I could. And anyway, it’s over. I’m sorry I had to kill him. But he shot at me. I didn’t have any choice.”

Neither of us spoke for a while after that. We were thinking our own thoughts. Both of us had a lot to think about. One long ride home wouldn’t be long enough, either.

The horses had been walking for about an hour after our talk when he said, “Can we stop? I need a break.”

I told Jesse to stop, then dismounted. Elam stayed on Turnip. He was grimacing. I asked him, “Need help?”

He didn’t reply right away. He seemed to be well into himself. I waited. Finally, he looked at me. “Yeah. I do.”

“Come on, then.” I stood next to him like I had earlier, and with a groan he slid off Turnip and I was suddenly holding him up. He didn’t seem able to stand and I eased him down onto the ground.

He lay on his side. Where we were just then, the terrain was pretty much open plain with grassy cover, some as tall as my knees, some shorter. Right where Elam was there was a patch of Buffalo grass, shorter than the cheatgrass that was taking over, and he lay there for a bit.

“You want your bedroll blanket? It’d be softer to rest on.”

“No, this is OK. Just give me a bit. Uh, well, could you do something for me? Something else, I mean.”

“Something else?” I wasn’t sure what that meant.

“You’re already being nice. Helping.”

“Oh, that.” I knew what he meant. He hadn’t been my friend the last few years. “I did what anyone would,” I said. “What do you need?”

“Uh, it’s embarrassing.”

I looked down at him, then sunk to my knees next to him so I’d be closer. “Can’t be more than it was yesterday. Just tell me.”

He looked at me, then turned his head so he was looking away. I could see him trying to figure out how to say whatever it was.

“I’m sorry, Mase, but, could you, like, check me out again? I’m pretty sure I’m bleeding again. What I don’t know is how bad.”

Now it was my turn to grimace, but I didn’t. Even though he wasn’t looking at me, I didn’t think it would be right to do that. Instead, I just said, “Slip down your jeans.” Then I stood up and walked behind him before crouching down again.

He worked his belt, then started trying to tug his pants down. I helped as much as I could. Finally, the top of them was down by his knees.

He was a mess. His boxers were stained a dark red color and wet. I winced, then asked, “You in a lot of pain?”

“Some.”

“We got to take care of this. You’re bleeding like you thought. I don’t know how you got this far. Should have said something.”

He wrinkled his lips and frowned. “Didn’t want to be a nuisance.”

I stood up, then continued talking, saying, “I’ll get the bedroll. Can’t work on the ground like this.”

I took the folded blanket off Turnip’s saddle. It was bloody, too, but just a little, nothing like the boxers. I shook it out, then doubled it over lengthwise. I spread it on the ground next to him. “Scrunch over onto that. Then we got to get your pants off. Boxers, too.”

He looked up at me and nodded, then turned away. He got on the blanket. I helped him get his jeans and boxers off. He was on his side, wearing only his shirt.

I stepped over to Jesse and removed my saddlebags. I brought them over to the blanket and dropped them next to Elam. I unbuckled one, rummaged around inside, and pulled out the first aid kit. There was an old shirt in there and I got that, too.

“I’ve got to clean you up. I can’t even see what the problem is for the blood. Didn’t you notice you were bleeding, like before?”

He sounded embarrassed when he answered. “I didn’t want to say anything. I thought it would stop. Then it started to feel sort of, well, I guess I knew I should see how bad it was.”

“OK,” I said. I swallowed. “What I’m going to do is clean up the blood, the best I can. It’s all over the place back here. Then maybe I can see what’s what. I’ll be as gentle as I can. But I don’t have any more of those cotton pad. I’ll have to use this shirt, best I can.”

“Go ahead,” he said, sounding resigned. I didn’t blame him. I felt the same way, and it wasn’t even me on the receiving end.

I tore the shirt into wide strips, then used one to blot up the blood that was smeared all over his butt. I then used a couple more. He was bleeding more than he had been the day before.

“I’ve got to stop the bleeding. Just like yesterday. I think you might have made that tear bigger with the riding.” I opened him up and saw the same tear. I couldn’t tell if it was bigger, but it was oozing blood steadily, faster than yesterday. I made a small pad from the shirt, squeezed more Neosporin on it, and pressed it against the tear.

I held it for several minutes, keeping pressure on it. Neither of us spoke.

When I checked, the bleeding had stopped.

“That’s stopped it,” I told him. “I think I need to put something on it like we did with the cotton pads yesterday. It might be more uncomfortable to ride that way, but if there’s constant pressure on it, it might keep the blood stopped. I don’t know much about this, but I think some added discomfort is better than keeping on losing blood.”

I fixed him up. He didn’t have another pair of clean boxers but I did, and I had him change into them. I bagged up everything I’d used and his bloody shorts. I had him drink some water, and when we were done, we were on our way again.

We stopped for lunch an hour later. I didn’t have much, but he had sandwiches. He said his mom had made a bunch of them for him, and that’s all he’d had while he’d been out. When we’d eaten, he didn’t seem to want to get back on Turnip again, I could see it in his face, but he didn’t say anything, got on, and we were off again.

We still had several hours to go at the slow pace we were going. Elam seemed to be doing all right. He was hanging tough. I admired the way he wasn’t complaining. I knew he was hurting, and maybe he was even a little lightheaded from the blood he’d lost. He didn’t say anything, however. Some guys would have been bitching or moaning all along. He hadn’t. That said something to me.

We were riding mostly in silence. I’d become good at not talking much. He might have been saving his strength.

It had been a couple of hours since either of us had said anything. We still had a long way to go. I wanted to reach home before nightfall. We might make it if we kept pushing. I looked over at Elam, saw how he was riding, and instead of suggesting we speed up, asked, “You want to rest a spell?”

He seemed to come out of a trance he’d been in. He raised his head, looked around, then at me. “Maybe in a bit.”

I nodded and looked back ahead.

We’d ridden another few minutes when he spoke to me. “Mase?”

“Yeah.”

He didn’t speak again, so I turned to look at him. When he had my eyes, he said, “Thank you.”

“Sure.”

“No, I mean for everything. You saved my life back there, and now you’re doing all this. So thank you for that, and I’m sorry for the way I’ve been. I mean since, well, you know.”

I didn’t reply, and he didn’t say anything else. I thought about it, though. I thought a while on that. Then I had to ask, to make sure I knew what he was saying.

“You’re talking about school, right?”

He nodded, then said, “Yeah. About everything, and my part in it. I wasn’t nice. And we’d been friends.”

I wondered if I should be honest. I usually didn’t say much at all about it. What would happen if I opened up a little? Maybe I shouldn’t. My dad had always said it was hard to get in trouble keeping your mouth shut, and I’d always thought that was good advice. I’d seen a lot of kids have problems simply because they didn’t follow it.

But as we walked along, and I thought some more, I realized something. I’d only ever talked to my mom about how I felt, and not even to her about it lately. I wanted someone to know. I’d been really close to Elam once. I wanted him to know.

“Elam?”

“Yeah?”

“It hurt, you know? All those years. Being left out of everything? Being treated wrong? All those years. It hurt. I got used to it, but it never did stop hurting.”

I looked at him when I said it. He dropped his eyes from mine, and then his head sagged.

We rode in silence some more. The sun was getting low on our right when we spoke again. There were only a couple more hours of light left. Maybe three more hours till we got home. We could ride in the dark. It wasn’t the best thing to do, but we could. The dark on the high plains, before the moon rose, wasn’t like dark in the city. It was almost as if the darkness had a texture to it, it was so thick. Riding when you couldn’t see where you were going was stupid. You were asking for trouble. And Elam was already hurting. But the horses knew the way. I did, too. And you’d get so you could see a little, unless the sky was overcast. It wasn’t now, and I hoped it wouldn’t be later.

I was thinking about this, and whether maybe we could pick up the pace, when he spoke again. “Why, Mase? Why didn’t you change?”

“Change?” But I knew what he meant.

“Yeah. People were calling you names. I wasn’t, but I never tried to stop them. I’m sorry now. But I don’t get it. Why’d you like boys, anyway? And why not just start dating girls? You’d have stopped the teasing, doing that. My dad would have let us be friends again.”

I wondered if I could pick up the pace and he’d follow. He might think I was trying to get away from him, though. I couldn’t do that. So, instead of answering, I ignored his question and asked him, “Can we go a little faster? Can your bottom take it? We can make it back before dark if we can go a little faster? This way, we might have to camp again tonight.”

“Can’t trot,” he said. “Could probably walk faster.”

I had Jesse pick up the pace. Turnip stayed with her. After a couple minutes like that, when we’d settled in, I had the feeling we might make it now. If we were close, we could. I wouldn’t mind walking in the dark if we were close. I could risk riding the last few miles where I knew the land well even if I couldn’t see much.

“Why, Mase?”

I looked over at him. He was looking at me, and I could see he wanted an answer. Well, what harm was there in talking to him about it?

“You like girls, don’t you, Elam? I mean, you aren’t going with anyone that I know of, but I see you looking at Tess Brucker a lot.”

“I did take her to the movies once. Yeah, I like her.”

“Probably gets you hot and bothered, thinking about her. Huh?”

He was quiet, but then giggled. “Yeah.”

“Well, what if someone told you you shouldn’t do that? It wasn’t right, you liking girls like that. You think you could decide you didn’t like her? You think them telling you that would make it so you didn’t get excited, thinking about her?”

“That’s silly. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s normal.”

I didn’t answer, trying to think how to explain. Then I had an idea.

“You’re left-handed, aren’t you? I remember you writing like that. Looked sort of funny to me.”

“Yeah, I’m left-handed; so what?” He was looking confused. Good.

“You don’t think it’s wrong, being left-handed? Most everyone else is right-handed. So it must be wrong, doing it that way when most folks don’t. Don’t you think?”

“No, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just the way I am.”

I smiled at him. “Ever try to write with your right hand?”

“Yeah. Lots of times. Didn’t work for shit.”

I laughed, and he did too, briefly. He was looking pale and a little sickly. I knew he was hurting. Maybe he’d forgotten about it, just for a moment. I was glad he could laugh.

Then I got back into it again. “So if you were told you had to write with only your right hand, you wouldn’t have liked it? What if everyone teased you because you wrote left-handed? Made fun of you. Even beat you up. How’d that make you feel? Would you have tried your best to write right-handed? Stopped writing left-handed?”

He knew what I was saying now. But he didn’t want to admit it, or give in. “But that’s not the same.”

“Tell me, Elam. Tell me. How is it different?”

He was silent. At least he was thinking about it.

Finally he said, “It’s different. Everyone says it’s wrong. Everyone.” Then in a smaller voice, he said, “My dad says it’s wrong.”

“Huh!” I said, letting my disgust come through. “And he’s always right about things? He’s right about you chasing down strays when you don’t know how and don’t want to and could get in serious trouble doing it?”

That got no response but him hanging his head again. He did eventually answer, though. Sounding defensive, he said, “Preacher says it’s wrong, and that you can change.”

“Think about your right hand again. Preacher don’t know shit.” He’d made me angry, and he could hear it. He knew what I’d gone through, suffered, from that preacher. I was angry enough that I moved Jesse up into a canter. I only did that for about a minute, then slowed back to the pace we’d been at. I rode alone then for about an hour. The sun was on the horizon now. Looked huge. I turned and looked over my shoulder. He was still back there. His head was drooping, and it looked to me as if Turnip had slowed down. He was farther back than I’d thought he’d be.

I stopped. Waited.

When he’d come up to me, we rode silently, maybe another mile, before I spoke again. “You know,” I said calmly, no longer angry, “they used to say that about being left-handed, too. ‘It’s wrong. Everyone knows it’s wrong,’ they said. And some of the preachers they had back then agreed with them, said that writing left-handed was the work of the devil. And people believed it, because the preachers said it.

“Funny thing, though. Some smart people who weren’t preachers did some studies and decided there was nothing wrong with writing left-handed, that the kids that did it were born that way, born left-handed. And all the teachers and parents that had been punishing and trying to change their kids all those years were dead wrong. Those preachers saying it was the work of the devil were all wrong, too.”

He looked over at me, not showing much on his face. I looked back, no expression at all on mine.

After another silence, I said, “Funny thing is, they felt the same way about homosexuality. Everyone said it was wrong. Everyone. And now scientists are saying people are born that way. They have scientific evidence. It’s normal for some people. They can’t change, it’s who they are.”

I didn’t look at him then. Just kept riding.

Then I spoke again. It was as if this stuff had been bottled up in me and I hadn’t known it. Of course, Elam was the first kid my age I’d talked to so freely in a long, long time. “You don’t think I wanted to be like everyone else?” I asked him. “I did try not being me.” I spoke softly. He could hear me, though. “I tried to change, just like you asked. I couldn’t, though. I wanted to. No one wants to be separate. Left out. But I found out, it was no use. So I accepted who I was and got on with it. I stopped feeling there was something wrong with me and accepted who I am. No one else seemed able to do that, just accept me. I sure wished they could. But they couldn’t.”

He didn’t respond to that. He’d been one of the ones who wouldn’t accept me the way I was. His father had been the cause, but he didn’t fight his father. It was easier to agree with him, and Elam most always chose the easy way. Not responding was sort of an admission that he’d been wrong.

Or maybe he didn’t respond because he was hurting too badly.

I looked over at him and then stopped. Turnip came alongside and stopped too. “You OK?” I asked.

“Hurting. But we need to keep going. I can stand it.”

I moved Jesse ahead, picking up the pace to a brisk walk now, and Turnip kept with us. It was getting late and we still had maybe an hour and a half left to go at this pace. It would be full dark in half that time. But I didn’t want to camp again. I had no idea how much blood Elam had lost, but he still looked pale and even more sickly. I’d been having him drink water but didn’t know if that was good enough. He looked bad. The pain might be doing that, or it could be he was losing more blood. Or maybe the man who’d done him had hurt something inside him. We needed to get home. He needed a hospital. I wasn’t sure that he was OK inside. I did know he looked bad.

When he spoke again, it was soft enough that I had to lean toward him to make sure I heard him. I was staying close to him, anyway. I didn’t think he was about to fall off, but he was riding heavy in the saddle. Didn’t hurt to be near him at all. He said, “How come you never fought? Some of it would have stopped if you had. You must’ve known that.”

“I did, some.”

“Only when someone hit you, hit you first. Then you did. Kicked some ass, too. Surprised the kids who assumed you were afraid to fight. But all the names and teasing and dirty tricks and never letting you join in anything. You never did anything. You never said anything.”

I didn’t really want to talk about this, but talking seemed to be helping him. He wasn’t slumped over quite so much. Maybe talking made him forget the hurt a little.

So I answered. “That’s some people’s way, Elam. That’s not my way. I decided some time ago that things weren’t going to be easy for me. You guys taught me that real good. I had a lot of time to think. Didn’t have friends. You guys made sure of that, too. So I spent time alone, thinking. And one thing I decided was if I was going to be me, then I was. I wasn’t going to do anything just to make anyone else happy. I’d do what felt right to me. Because trying to please others wasn’t going to work, so why bother? And that’s what I’ve done. Fighting some kid because he’s an asshole wouldn’t help me any, and I didn’t want to do it. So I ignored it all, best I could. I told you it hurt, some of the stuff you guys did. I don’t think I’d be human if it didn’t. But hitting some kid because he said something to me? That’s not me, Elam. It’s not who I am. It just isn’t.”

It had been getting dark, and now it was. My eyes had adjusted as much as they were going to. I could see a little. I hoped Jesse could see a little better than I could. The prairie stretched out in front of me. I wished I could see some ranch lights in front of us, but I couldn’t. I was pretty sure it was still at least an hour before we’d be back.

We rode in silence again. I kept glancing at him. He never met my eyes. He was calling up reserves of strength to keep going. I was going to ask if he wanted another break, but I remembered how he’d gotten back in the saddle the last time. I was afraid if we stopped, he wouldn’t be able to ride again. I didn’t know what his loss of blood was doing to him, or if his problem was the combined effect of blood loss and pain and maybe shock, or if it was even something more serious. It seemed to me, however, that if he could keep going, it would be best. It was simply another of those things I didn’t know, and was hoping I was making the right decision.

It seemed like forever, but I finally saw a light way in the distance. I knew what it was. His dad’s ranch would be what we’d come to first, riding in the direction we were. He had one of those really bright lights, mercury-vapor ones, mounted on a pole out by their barn, back of the house a ways. I knew this country. That’s what I was seeing.

I looked over at Elam. He hadn’t said a word for a while. His shoulders were sagging. I wasn’t sure he was entirely conscious. I didn’t speak to him. Whatever state he was in, it seemed best to leave him in it.

The spare horse picked up her head. She was smelling something. Possibly the other horses ahead of us.

It had started to seem like we’d never get there, but we did. There was a gate into their pasture, and that was the quickest way to go. I jumped down and opened it and then led Jesse through. When the other horses followed, I shut it.

I thought of riding on ahead and getting help, but thought if I did that, the other horses would follow my lead, and I was afraid if Turnip started to run, Elam would fall off. So I just kept it steady.

We finally got to the gate from the pasture that led to their back property and barn. Turnip whinnied, glad to be home and with her buds. The idea of food was probably in her head as well.

I jumped down, and then started to ease Elam off his horse. He came awake, or conscious, or whatever, and let me take his weight. He basically fell off Turnip into my arms. He was too heavy for me to do much else but lay him gently on the grass.

Mr. Turner must have heard the whinny. The back door of the house opened, he saw Elam on the ground, and then he was running toward us. When he got to us, he looked down at Elam, then at me.

“What happened?” he asked.

“He ran into trouble,” I answered. “He needs a doctor. Can you call an ambulance? He needs one.”

“But . . .”

“I’ll tell you about it, but the ambulance first.”

He looked at Elam again, then me, and pulled out his phone and called. While he was talking, Elam reached up and grabbed a handful of my pants.

I crouched down.

He stared at me a moment without speaking. Then he said, “Thanks, Mase. I wouldn’t have made it alone.”

“You’ll be OK now, Elam. The ambulance will be here soon. I’ll let you tell your father what happened. It’ll be best that way.”

He looked like he wanted to argue. He didn’t want to tell his dad, and I didn’t blame him, but he needed to. Both for him and his father.

I started to stand back up, but he held on, so I waited.

“I’ve missed you, Mase. We had something that I haven’t had with anyone else. I could tell you things I can’t tell other people. You never judged me. You liked me just as I was.”

He stopped then, and so I said what I felt. “I’ve missed you, too. You were my best friend. With what happened with me, in all of it, the thing that hurt most was I’d lost you.”

“You’re so strong, though, Mase. You were strong when we were friends, but you’re a lot stronger now.” He looked up at me, and in the harsh brilliant glare of the overhead light I could see emotion in his face. “I wish I were stronger. I wish I were more like you, Mase. I wish we were still friends.” He closed his eyes then.

His father had ended his call and was watching, listening. I nodded to him, then said, “Elam will tell you about it.” Then I turned and walked back to Jesse.

After mounting, I walked up to Mr. Turner and said, “Could you take care of this extra horse till it’s decided what to do with it?”

“Sure. But where are you going? Don’t you want to ride to the hospital with Elam?”

I looked at him without speaking for a moment, thinking what that meant, then shook my head. “I’ll call tomorrow.” Then I started the ride back home. I was tired, dead tired, but I still needed to call the sheriff.

- Aftermath -

The next day

I got a phone call the next morning. It was from Elam’s father. I asked about Elam right off, and he told me the doctors said was going to be OK, but he’d been in rough shape when he’d been admitted and they were keeping him a bit just for observation. He told me that and then surprised me.

“Mason, I’d appreciate it—take it as a personal favor—if we could sit down and talk to each other. Could you find time to come over here today?”

I hesitated. Last night’s few brief words were the most Mr. Turner and I had spoken in years. I’d liked him OK when Elam and I hung out, and I’d even gotten attached to him right after my father died even though the two men were much different, but when he’d learned from Elam I was attracted to boys, his attitude towards me changed. He made sure I’d have no more contact with his son, and when he and I saw each other in town, he never smiled or waved or did anything but look right through me as if I didn’t even exist. I didn’t feel all that comfortable, going to his house. Perhaps he blamed me for what had happened. Maybe he didn’t even believe Elam and thought I was somehow involved in the attack.

He didn’t sound that way on the phone, though. I wasn’t sure how he sounded, exactly, but it wasn’t mad. And the way he asked me to come for a talk, he sounded very sincere.

“Uh, sure. I can come right now if you want. You can’t just say what you want on the phone?”

“No, I’d rather sit down and talk together. Now would be fine. I’ll be waiting for you. Thanks.”

“OK. Just let me let my mom know where I’m going, and I’ll come right over.”

As I said, I’m cautious.

I walked over to Elam’s house and rang the bell. His dad opened the door for me. I didn’t see anything but concern and weariness on his face.

We went into the den. I’d always liked that room. It had paneled walls, leather covered chairs and couch, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves against one wall, and a panoramic view showing the distant mountains out a huge window on the north side of the room. He closed the door and motioned me to a chair. He sat down on the couch, close by.

I waited, and he began.

“Mason, thanks for coming. I can imagine you don’t like me much, and I know you’re doing me a favor, agreeing to meet me like this. But you saved Elam, who you probably don’t care that much for either after the way things have gone, and you gave me my son back, and I wanted to thank you—and talk to you.”

I started to answer, but he raised his hand. “Mason, Elam was in some pain last night, and they’d given him a sedative by the time I got in to see him, so he couldn’t talk long. But we did talk some, and he gave me a brief idea of what happened. He said a couple other things, too, but I’ll get to them later. First, I wanted to tell you how much you did means to me, and truly express my gratitude for that in person. There’s no question in my mind, you saved his life.”

He stopped, but never took his eyes off me. He was looking at me so intently I felt the need to drop my eyes. I didn’t, though. He spoke again.

“Mason, I could hardly believe some of the things he told me, and I’m wondering if the drugs they gave him made him delusional. But I know part of what happened—the assault, I mean—was very real, and the fact he’s still alive seems to support at least some of what he told me.”

He paused, and it was a lengthy pause, but I could see he wasn’t finished, so I simply waited. When he continued, his tone had changed. There was a plea in his voice now. “What I want is for you to tell me everything that happened. It’s eating me up, not knowing just what happened. If I just have to imagine it, that’ll be more painful than knowing the facts. I think I can deal with the facts. I’m sure what I’d imagine would be worse, and the not-knowing would be terrible. So I need to know. I have to be able to put this all behind me. Elam will be able to tell me more when he’s awake and lucid, but he might not be willing to say much, and even then, he only knows his part of it, which isn’t much. Will you help me, tell me what happened? How you were able to save him from that man? How you happened to be there? What you were thinking? Just, well, everything?”

He dropped his head before saying, “I know better than anyone else that I have no right to ask you for any sort of a favor.”

When he raised his head, I saw the emotion and stress in his eyes. I’d never seen him like this. He’d always been so strong, so full of himself. I wondered if some of what I was seeing came from the fact he was having to ask something from someone he’d had his son shun for five years. He was sensitive enough to realize what he was doing. Then I decided that wasn’t a very nice thing to think, and pushed the thought from my mind.

“Mr. Turner, I’ll tell you. Maybe it’ll help me, too, to tell it all again, because I’m having problems dealing with some of it. I killed a man. That’s what I told the sheriff, along with why. When he heard my story, he said he’d collect the body and if Elam backed up my story and if the details of the investigation were consistent with what I’d said, then what I’d done would be seen as justified. He said he personally thought what I’d done was not only justified, but good and proper, too. But I’m having a hard time accepting it. I keep wondering if I could have done something different. Telling someone exactly what I did, all of it, what I was thinking, why I did it, well, it might help. Maybe you can give me a different perspective, though I don’t see how. I know what I did.”

I stopped and swallowed. Then I said, “Before I start, though, I have to say something else. You said I probably didn’t like you much, or Elam, either. That isn’t true. I don’t think you treated me very fairly, and it hurt me that you stopped Elam and me from being friends, but I don’t hold any grudges. I just want you to know that before I begin.”

“You aren’t mad at me?” I could read his surprise.

“No. I got over that a long time ago.”

He continued to look surprised, but I didn’t really want to go into it. So, I started in, telling him how I’d been on a camping trip by myself, exploring the land, doing some target shooting, soaking up the peace and serenity of the high plains. This was all long before Elam entered the picture, but I wanted him to feel what had happened, my part of it, in the proper context. I began by telling him how my time on the plains restored me, how it always restored me. I didn’t tell him why I needed that restoration so much. He was smart. He could figure that out on his own if he thought about it.

I told him in detail about my first day, what I’d seen and felt on the plains, about setting up camp, why I’d done it where I had, everything I could remember. But, when I started in on the second day and knew I’d be soon be getting to the part where I first saw Elam, I found myself getting nervous and starting to skip over things. I didn’t tell him about getting naked by the lake and how that made me feel. I didn’t go into much detail about my shooting practice, either. I began just racing through great swaths of time, and I saw him start to fidget.

“Mason?” He interrupted me. “Can . . . well, will you tell me everything you can remember? You said it might help you to tell it all. You started out that way. Now you’re starting to skip things. You were giving me details and your thinking and feelings when you started. Can you keep doing that? Please? I want to understand what you did and why you did it, but right now you’ve begun only telling me the ‘what’ and not the ‘why’. This way, I won’t really know what I want to know. Just hearing what Elam said, I don’t understand how you could do some of what he said you did. Yet here you both are, and you both could have died, and, well, I want to know everything about it that you can put into words. So it makes sense to me. Will you do that for me?”

He was looking at me, and I could see pain and confusion in his eyes. He didn’t sound like I’d ever heard him sound before, either. He’d always been one of the larger-than-life men we all meet occasionally, confident and sure of themselves. That wasn’t the man sitting in front of me. Elam’s father looked tired, and I wondered if he’d had any sleep.

It was a long story, telling it the way he wanted me to, but I didn’t see why I should hold anything back. So I didn’t. I backed up and told him about shooting at that rock, and what I was thinking when I did it, and about trying to improve my accuracy, and even some of why I wanted to do that. I told him everything. What I did, how I thought and felt about it, why I’d made the decisions I had.

I’m usually pretty reserved. This seemed strange, talking like this, but I discovered I didn’t mind doing it, and as I went forward, I kept adding more detail. I also found relating it all was having a surprising effect on me. It was both liberating and illuminating, putting what had happened into specific words in my mind, then voicing it. I saw things in the telling I hadn’t thought about in the doing. It surprised me that I wasn’t embarrassed, telling him my feelings, my doubts, what I’d accomplished; but they were all part of it and as I went along, I sort of forgot I was talking to an adult, and one who disapproved of me.

When I finished, he sat there looking at me for a few moments, seeming uncertain what to say.

When he did speak, what he said surprised me. It wasn’t about what had happened at all. He said, “You’ve changed, Mason. You’ve matured. You’re a lot more sure of yourself. Elam hasn’t changed much at all. He’s still much the kid he was when you two were together. You’ve grown up. I have a better idea now why you were able to do what you did.”

I didn’t respond. There wasn’t much I could say to that.

So, in the silence, he asked a question. “But, back to what happened, how did you know how to do all the things you did? You’re just sixteen. You had to be scared, even though you didn’t say you were. But you had to be, yet you took your time, figured things out, and made all the right decisions. I don’t know how you were able to do that. How you could be so right about so many things when it was all new and scary and so sudden?”

I thought about that for a moment before responding. Then I said, “It’s funny, because while it was happening, I was doing a lot of just that, wishing I knew more than I did, wishing I had something to help me decide things. I was doubting myself a lot. I felt defeated several times, ready to give up. But I could see that giving up wouldn’t help, and just stopped myself from thinking that way.

“I realized real quick that I only knew what I knew, and that I had to do something. So I used what knowledge and experience I had, thought about it, and did what seemed best. And for the most part, things worked out.”

I stopped and looked down, not really embarrassed, but not wanting to talk about this any longer. Talking about my self-doubts wasn’t much fun and wouldn’t help anything.

He shook his head as though what I’d done was difficult to believe. He even had some of that disbelief in his voice when he continued.

“But some of the stuff you did. Like shooting at a rifle, a target that small, from a quarter of a mile away. That’s fantastic. But you did it. Hard to believe.” Then, he asked a question that could have put me on the defensive, but he didn’t sound a bit judgmental. He merely sounded curious. “What would have happened if you’d missed that shot? You must have known there was a good chance of that.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I gave myself a 50-50 chance of success. But I thought of it as a win-win situation. If I hit the rifle where I was aiming, I immediately got control of the situation. He would be standing there in the grove without a rifle and knowing someone was close by who was a pretty good shot. I could pretty much control the situation then. If I missed, I’d still get him to stop what he was doing with Elam, and what would he do then? If he ran toward the rifle, he’d have to know there was a decent chance I would shoot him. He didn’t know if I’d be squeamish about that or not. So he might well have reacted just the same way as if I’d hit the rifle. I thought the odds were in my favor that I’d get control of the situation either way, but I was very certain I’d have that control if I destroyed his rifle.”

He thought about that for a moment. Then he said, “You trusted yourself, Mason. You trusted that you could do what was needed.”

I had to say something then because he was looking at me, expecting a response. So I did, and I forced myself to look at him when I said it. “I’ve had to learn to depend on myself, to trust my judgment. I knew I had to do something, that not doing anything would be disastrous for Elam. Being able to trust my judgment and do what I decided to do probably was the difference between us surviving out there or not.”

He gave a slight nod, then asked, “How’d you learn to shoot so well?”

“Practice. I’ve had a lot of time, and when I do things, I like to do them well. My dad had a good rifle and was a terrific shot. The rifle was mine after he died, and I started working with it. I got fascinated with long-distance accuracy. There’s an awful lot to it. If you want to be an expert, you really need a marksman’s rifle, which is a lot different than my sporting rifle, so I knew I’d never get as good as some guys are, but I wanted to get as good as I could with what I had to work with. It surprised me how much there was to learn. You have to control yourself and learn how to work within the environment you’re shooting in. Shooting has a lot of technical elements to it, but if you’re interested in it, learning them is just part of the fun. I spent the time learning, and I still spend as much time practicing as I can. You can’t control everything when you shoot. A gust of wind that you haven’t compensated for, just a small one, can occur when you’re squeezing the trigger, and you’ll miss badly because of it. So what you have to do is control everything you can control as much as humanly possible, to really have much of a chance.”

He was watching me closely as I spoke, and I could see curiosity in his eyes. Then he masked them, as people do. Most people don’t want others to know what they’re thinking.

He settled back in his chair then, and smiled. It was a weary smile. I realized he was now asking questions not just to know what happened to Elam but in an effort to know me better as well.

“Can I ask you something else, Mason? Something different?” He went on without waiting for an answer. “You say you don’t hold any hard feelings for me, or for Elam. Why is that? We didn’t treat you very well. I know you haven’t been treated well the past few years. It would be natural for you to feel some anger or animosity over that.”

I looked up at him, held him with my eyes. “I don’t blame anyone.” I stopped for a moment before explaining. “I feel funny talking about this. I know I’m still a kid and don’t know all that much about anything, and so explaining this feels really awkward and arrogant.”

“No, please, tell me. I want to know.”

He sounded sincere, so I decided to tell him what he was asking. “To me, life is what it is. You deal with it. If you feel abused, or like you’re not getting treated fairly, you deal with it the best you can. What I did, since I couldn’t change what other people were doing or thinking, was get away from them so I wouldn’t have to interact with them. As much as possible, I ignored them and began to do things where they wouldn’t be involved. That way I could forget them.”

I thought that might be enough to say about that, but he was looking at me like I should go on. So, I did, even though I was uncomfortable doing so.

“If you let stuff that you have no control over bother you, you’ll always be upset. When Elam told you what I’d said to him, and you separated us, and then it came out at school, I ended up hurting inside, and was resentful for a time. That’s no way to be. You can’t be happy, thinking about that, hashing it over in your mind. I wanted to get on with things, and feeling bad or hating people wasn’t going to change other people, but it was going to make me hurt even worse than I already was. I had to stop that.”

I tried to think of the best way to say this, to say what I’d been feeling since I was ten. “I did a lot of thinking. I decided most people are good. They’re trying their best to do what’s right. What happened to me, what the kids at school were doing, was what they thought was right. At least they didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. But kids don’t give a lot of thought to what they’re doing or whether it’s right or what the consequences might be. Adults should know better, but when they have choices to make, they prioritize.”

I paused, looked at him, and waited till he met my gaze. “You did what you thought was best for Elam. You felt it was your job to protect him, so that’s what you were trying to do.”

I stopped then because just remembering all that had happened always brought back some of the emotions I’d felt at the time, even though I’d tried as hard as I could to put them behind me.

He was watching me, and I could feel the weight of his eyes. When he spoke, it was very softly. “I really hurt you, didn’t I, Mason?”

I didn’t trust my voice right then. I wasn’t usually this emotional. Perhaps the last few days, and the lack of sleep I’d had, were catching up to me. I simply nodded.

“Are you all right?” He sounded concerned.

“I’m sorry. I’m usually in better control of myself.” And then I had a thought and surprised myself by voicing it. “I told you, I’m having some problems dealing with what happened. I can’t stop thinking about that man, lying there, what my bullet did to him. Maybe I didn’t have to shoot him. Maybe I could have found some other way to stop him.” I closed my eyes and shook my head. I was close to breaking down. I could feel it.

We were both silent then. He stood up and left the room. A few minutes later, he was back. He set a glass of coke on the table next to me, the ice making a soft rattling sound as he set it down. Then he took his own seat again.

“Mason, I want to say something. Maybe it’ll help. I hope it will.”

I looked up at him, hoping my eyes were all right, that they didn’t show any of what I was feeling.

“Thanks for telling me what I asked you to. It helps more than you can know. I can see what happened is troubling you, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t, but the fact it is says something about you, and it’s something you should be proud of. Killing someone should be something that affects you. No matter the reason you did it, it shouldn’t be something trivial, something that’s easy to overlook. That it’s bothering you means you’re a sensitive young man who cares about other people and how you deal with them. You’re right to feel what you’re feeling. But you have to realize, what happened was at his volition, not yours. He caused it. You had a right, even a responsibility, to protect yourself, and incidentally to protect Elam. Had you not done what you did, you’d both be dead. He was coming at you with a gun in his hand. Obviously, he meant to kill you both. You didn’t have the time or experience to figure out some alternate way of stopping him. Don’t beat yourself up over that. You did what had to be done, because he forced you to.”

He hesitated for a moment before continuing. In a softer voice, he said, “I didn’t know, before talking to you today, how you could have done what you did. I was thinking you were still like Elam. You’re not. You’re much stronger, more self-confident. More capable, too.” He stopped, looking like he was trying to gather his thoughts. There was a different tone in his voice when he continued, a more intellectual sound to his words. “Do you realize you’ve used the word ‘control’ several times today, both in talking about what happened and in talking about yourself? I don’t think that’s an accident. I think control is important to you. I think the fact you need to have control is part of why you could do what you did.

“Think about it. You chose to get involved with shooting when you could have chosen all sorts of things to do. That tells me something. Shooting is something you do by yourself. Oh, you can join a club, or shoot with buddies at competitions, but learning how, practicing, loading your own cartridges—that’s all stuff you do alone. Whether you become proficient is entirely on you. Just you. Hunting can be a team effort, but practicing long-distance shooting for accuracy is very much a one-man endeavor. I don’t know how much your getting into it was due to your finding you liked it or because your dad did it, or whether it was because it was something you could do alone. But once you began, you became absorbed in it.

“There’s something else about it, too. Shooting, as you said, takes great control of a number of things. Did that fact interest you? Camping, too, the way you do it, you have complete control of everything. I think that’s very important to you.

“I can guess why, and that’s what shames me.”

I wasn’t sure where he as going with this. However, I did understand that what he was saying felt true, and it seemed to be leading somewhere.

He continued, looking me in the eye.

“Having some control over situations that involve us is important to everyone. But I think it’s even more so for you. About five years ago, you lost a lot of control over what was happening to you, about how the people around you were treating you. So you took steps to get some control back. You couldn’t do much about how you were being treated, so you did something else. You substituted controlling things you can control for the control you’d lost. You chose something that you didn’t have much control over when you started, something that’s terribly difficult to control—distance shooting—and then worked hard to gain control over it. I think you did this for a very good reason, one you might not even be aware of. I think you lost something precious when everyone turned against you. I think you lost your feeling of self-worth, lost your pride in yourself. Learning to control something that few other people can control as well as you can was your way of recovering that pride. And I think you have.

“You found you could discipline yourself to shoot well and that expanded to other things. In the end you gained the confidence to become what you’ve become. I look at you and see a young man who knows who he is and likes what he is, a young man who’s in charge of himself.”

I didn’t know what to say. I felt a little like he had just undressed me. How did he see all this? I knew he was smart. I shouldn’t have been that surprised. What did surprise me, however, was the way he was speaking to me. I was used to adults talking to me like they did to most teens. Instead of that, he was talking to me like I was an adult, and an adult he admired. He was talking to me with respect.

I felt uncomfortable. I’d think about this when I was alone. Right then, I wanted to change the subject. I knew how to do it. After he’d stopped, I said, “Mr. Turner, you said you felt ashamed. I don’t understand that, or what it has to do with this.”

He looked away from me for a moment, but then turned back to me, looking like he was forcing himself to do so. I read that to mean he wasn’t going to hide from whatever it was that was awkward for him to say.

“You’ve done some remarkable growing up, Mason. Learning, taking charge of things. You’ve developed a way of holding yourself, a reserve and inner strength that makes you look almost, well, noble is the best word I can think of to describe it.”

He stopped and shook his head. “But back to why I’m ashamed. Most kids your age wouldn’t come close to doing what you’ve done successfully. I think you’ve lost some of your childhood doing this, and I think it’s my fault. You were right, I was trying to protect Elam, but I should have seen what it was doing to you. I wasn’t concerned about that, and that shames me. I should have been concerned. I was dead wrong in what I did. I can apologize, but no matter what I say, I’ve been partly responsible for those years being taken from you when you could have still been a youngster. I did that through my own arrogance and insensitivity. That isn’t who I am, at least not who I want to be. I made a mistake. I want you to know I’m aware of that, and ashamed of myself. You were right. I was worried about Elam.”

He sighed and I could hear the frustration in his voice as he continued. “I’ve never known how to get through to him. He doesn’t seem to have any direction, any motivation. I guess, if I have to say it, five years ago I was worried he was gay, or might be, and once I knew you were gay I thought being with you might influence him in that direction.”

I had a decision to make now. I’d come here, accepted Mr. Turner’s invitation, because there were some things I wanted to say, some things I thought he needed to hear. I didn’t have to say them. I could get up now and simply leave. That would have been the easiest thing to do, and part of me was pulling in that direction.

But I wasn’t going to do that. That really wasn’t who I was now. I didn’t take the easy path when it didn’t lead to where I wanted to go. I’d come here for two good reasons, and I was going to get them done. He thought I’d changed. Well, I had. I was stronger now, more focused and certain of myself than when he’d last known me, and he was going to see how much. I might not get what I wanted—I sure was going to go about getting it in a strange way—but I was going to try. I was going to say what I felt should be said.

I felt like I was standing on the edge of that lake again, naked, knowing that jumping into that water was going to be shocking. Just like then, I wasn’t going to inch my way in, little by little. Instead, I got ready, then leaped, prepared to fully accept whatever was going to come.

“Mr. Turner, I’m sure you were scared he’d be like me, that if we were together he’d be gay, too. He’s not. I know he’s not growing up like you want him to, either, and I think that bothers you, but just because he’s a little passive doesn’t mean he’s gay. He’s what he was born to be, just like I am. I’m gay and he’s straight. If we’d been friends all this time, that would still be true. He’d still be straight. That’s who he is, how he was born.”

I was looking him in the eye, and as I spoke my voice kept getting harder. I’d only have one chance to say this, and I was going to do it as well as I could. For Elam. “I know why you’ve treated Elam the way you have. You wanted him to be like you. You were trying to mold him. And in doing so, you almost got him killed. He isn’t like you. You’ve been trying for years to make him that way. You don’t like him the way he is and want to change him. Tell me something. Why? Why isn’t he good enough just like he is?”

He hadn’t been expecting this. He looked taken aback, and then his lips thinned. He took his eyes from mine, and his face got a little redder. I knew I’d make him mad, saying this. I just hoped he’d also think about what I was saying.

He said, “You’re being damned rude, aren’t you?” It wasn’t posed as a question I was supposed to answer.

I answered it anyway, speaking with force. “I’m not trying to be. I’m being honest. These last five years have taught me to look at things as they are and accept them. I think that’s why I like being out alone on the prairie. Everything there is pure. When you’re there, you see things as they are, hard and clean, honest and real. No personalities, no feelings involved, just life as it is, and how you do there is based on your own intelligence and competence. Everything is up to you. You depend on yourself.”

I looked him in the eye, forcing him to look back at me. “Spending time on the prairie, by yourself, forces you to acknowledge the truth of things. You can’t live in a fantasy world there. Not and survive. You learn to deal with things as they are, not as you’d like them to be. You learn to separate real from imagined. And that’s what I am going to do now, speak about reality. I’m not going to worry about whether it hurts your feelings or not. I’m going to tell you the truth, and I want you to listen to it. I’m trying to get you to look at what is.” I stopped for a breath, and to see if he’d balk at the hard tone I was taking. He just kept looking at me, so I continued.

“You think Elam’s weak and an embarrassment. You think he isn’t motivated and will never become the man you want him to be.”

He started to answer that, but I didn’t let him. He had to hear this. I continued, talking over his attempted interruption, raising my voice to do so. “If you’re honest and fair, you’ll think about this. Think about who he is, and what you’ve been trying to make him. I’m not trying to be rude. I’m trying to get you to open your eyes! Not for me, but for you and for Elam. Because what I’m doing here is trying to save Elam again. From you this time.”

He did speak then. He spoke even louder than I was. “From me! I’m not trying to hurt him!”

“No, you’re not. No more than you were trying to hurt me. But you did. I was an unintentional victim. Elam is, too. If I hadn’t shown up out on that prairie when I did, in what was probably a one-in-a-million chance, he’d probably be dead now. The man who raped him would have killed him, and he’d have been responsible, but you would have shared the responsibility.”

He stood up at that. He was seething. I sat still and watched him. I was suddenly glad I’d told my mother where I was going. I knew there was a possibility we’d get to this point. I was being me when I’d told her, being cautious.

Or, come to think of it, maybe I’d been doing what I could to allow myself to remain in control of what was to come.

He tightened his fists and glared at me. He weighed twice what I did. I kept my emotions in check and looked back at him, a neutral, non-confrontational expression on my face. While he was standing there, I continued, softening my voice so he’d have to pay attention to hear me.

“Let me tell you some things about your son, the one you don’t approve of, the one you’re trying to change. For one, he believes you entirely and loves you. I don’t know if you give him credit for that, or even realize it, or if it’s enough for you, but it’s true. We talked some on the ride back. He thought gay men could be straight if they tried, and he believed it mostly because you told him it was so. Why do you think he keeps doing all the things you tell him to do when he hates them? It’s because he doesn’t want to disappoint you. Why do you think he doesn’t rebel like most kids his age? It’s because he loves you and wants to please you. Think about it. You keep pushing him to do more and more things that he hates and can’t do well, and he just goes along with it. That’s him, trying to please you. This time, it almost got him killed.”

He was still glaring at me and telling him he’d almost got Elam killed almost put him over the top. I simply sat and watched. He seethed, his anger a viable presence in the room and very intimidating, but I never moved. Slowly, I saw his anger fade and his eyes change. As they did, he backed up, then sat back down on the couch.

“You think your son is weak,” I continued, my voice strengthening. “Let me tell you about how weak he is. He rode back here, miles and miles on horseback, hurting like I never have, hurting deep inside him. Every step his horse took, he could feel. I could see it in his face. He was almost unconscious when we got back. You know how often he complained? Never. Not once. He didn’t complain once.

“He did need help, and I helped him. You’re a man, Mr. Turner, and I’m sure there’ve been times you’ve been hurt and needed help from another man. You must have. Tell me, did you ask for it?”

He looked a little startled, then thought about that and got an embarrassed look about it on his face. “A man doesn’t like to do that.”

“That’s your pride. We all have it. I’m the same way. The last thing I ever want to do is ask for help. Your son needed help, and he asked for it. He put away his embarrassment and asked. Do you know how hard that is? He asked me to clean and look at his bottom. Could you have asked anyone to do that?”

I went on, not waiting for an answer. “Your son has strength and character you’ve never seen because it isn’t your strength, isn’t your kind of character. You think he lacks motivation. When have you given him the chance to do what he wants? He may not even know what that is. But if someone is doing things he’s forced to do and hates doing, he’s sure not going to show any eagerness or motivation.”

I saw recognition in his eyes. I softened my tone still further.

“I know you, Mr. Turner. You’re strong and smart and caring. But you’ve asked him to live your life to win your approval, and he’s made a mess of it. If you give him a chance to live his life, and give him your approval and encouragement when he makes decisions that might not be yours but are what he wants, you might well see him do what I’ve done, what I’ve been forced to do. You might see him grow and mature right before your eyes. And if you do that, and he does mature, I think you’ll be proud of him. Even if he decides he wants to take up modern dance, or write computer programs, or become a librarian or a teacher or an architect. Because he will find out what he wants to do, given the chance. He’ll find a job he likes. It won’t be ranching. He doesn’t like that.”

I let that painful truth sink in for a moment. He suddenly stood, then walked to the window and faced it, looked outward, staring across the plains at the mountains in the distance, not saying anything. I let him stand in silence for a few moments, and then, when he didn’t speak, I went on, my voice still hard. “He needs to hear from you that you’ll stand behind him in whatever it is he chooses and that he’ll please you just by being himself. He needs to hear that you love him. And after that, you have to stop forcing him to do things he hates. That’ll make a world of difference to him. It’ll change him. He doesn’t have that now. He wants you to be proud of him. He knows you aren’t.”

Mr. Turner turned and returned to the couch then. He didn’t meet my eyes when he sat. He was no longer bright red. He was thinking about what I’d said. I stopped talking then and just sat there, letting him think.

I did have something else to say, the main reason I’d come to talk with him in fact, but I felt the thinking he was doing right now was more important. Important to Elam.

When he looked up again, his anger was gone. He didn’t say anything right away. When he did, it was a question. “What you said, do you really believe that?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered, speaking softly and less confrontationally. “I’ve watched Elam for five years. He seems to be floundering. He isn’t grounded. I think he’s afraid to try anything he’d like to try because you wouldn’t approve of it. He needs to feel he’s loved and supported. He needs that desperately. I don’t have a father, my mother and I don’t have much money, but what I do have is love and support. I might have no friends, I might be alone most of the time, but I have more than Elam does.”

Mr. Turner slowly shook his head. I didn’t think he was disagreeing with what I’d said. I thought he was seeing the truth in it and shaking his head in wonder at how he could have been as blind as he’d been. At least I wanted to think that was what it meant.

He finally spoke to me again. “Mason, do you have any idea what an impressive young man you are?”

Of all the things I’d thought he might say, that one had never entered my mind. There was nothing I could say to that, so I kept quiet.

He thought some more. He got up and paced, then sat down again. He looked at me, then away. When he finally spoke, the note of respect he’d had earlier was back in his voice.

“Mason, I wanted you to come over today so I could find out what had happened and how it had happened, with Elam. But there was more than that. I also wanted to thank you for saving my son, and to apologize for the hurt I caused you. And there was something else, too.”

He paused, and I waited.

“Elam said something last night. He said he missed you and wanted to be allowed to be with you again—as friends. I wasn’t sure. I didn’t sleep much last night, worrying about Elam, thinking about what had happened, thinking about you. I wanted to meet you and talk to you and get a chance to see who you are.”

Suddenly my heart started beating faster. Could he be going where I thought he was?

“Mason, I’m a pretty good judge of character, and what I see in you is what I wish I could see in Elam. I see now that separating you two was a mistake. I want you to be friends again, if you can do that. You have my blessing. I know I hurt you, and he did too, but if you’re being honest when you say you don’t hold that against either of us, then maybe you could do this? I’d like to see you get back with him again, you two friends again. He wants that. He told me last night.”

I was speechless for a moment. I came to talk to Mr. Turner wanting to accomplish two things. I wanted to tell him he had to let Elam be Elam. That was the main thing. Then, after that I was going to ask him to let us be friends again. I’d learned you didn’t get much of anything you wanted without fighting for it. I was planning to fight for this.

And then he’d beaten me to the punch! Incredible.

I think my smile must have told him how I felt about what he’d said, but I felt the need to respond. “Sir,” I said, “I hadn’t really known this before, hadn’t realized it till I was on this camping trip. During these last few days I learned just how lonely I’ve been. I’ve really missed Elam. I didn’t realize how much I missed him till we were together again. Being able to talk to him, to listen to him, being able to help him, just the two of us being together—it made me feel whole. As much as I’ve learned to get by without others, I don’t think that’s the way people are meant to be. Eating by a campfire with Elam, coming home with him, riding next to him even knowing he was hurting, riding next to him and simply talking—well, I felt better than I have for years.

“I think I’ve been compensating for being alone by keeping busy doing all the things I do. But I’ve been fooling myself thinking I’ve been doing just fine by myself. It took being with Elam again to see that wasn’t true, to see how much I’ve been missing. I need Elam. I need other people in my life. So your telling me it’s OK if we’re friends again, that just means the world to me.”

I stopped, just letting that sink in for a moment. My smile got broader, and it started feeling like a weight had been lifted from my chest. Impulsively, I stood up and approached him. He stood up, and I opened my arms and hugged him. He sort of hesitated, then hugged me back. I held the hug for a second or two before letting him go. I stepped back, still smiling and feeling a lightness and joy that I hadn’t felt in years.

When I could speak with my voice steady, I said, “Maybe you think us being together again will help Elam. But he’s not the only one that this will help. This will change everything for me. Elam is friends with everyone. If he’s talking to me, hanging with me, others will do the same thing. I won’t be so alone. Not anymore. I’ll be included in things again.” My eyes were starting to water as I thought about just what this would mean. “Thank you, sir,” I said, the emotion in my voice distorting it. “You can’t imagine how this will change things for me.”

Walking home afterwards, I had a lot to think about. Things wouldn’t be the same as they had been. These last few days were going to make profound changes in my life. My thoughts, however, were focused on looking ahead. I was going to have friends again, and I’d be getting back together with Elam. As I walked home, my smile just wouldn’t stop.

- The End –

A word of thanks:

My several editors have again assisted me nobly through this effort, and I give them my profound thanks: the story is better because of you all. In addition, for this story I had the help of several technical experts. They advised me well; any mistakes are mine, not theirs; I can be a stubborn cuss to work with.

C