Ren

~    P a r t   1    ~

Chapter 5

> 1 <

When Cal hung up the phone, Ren was grinning so hard his face hurt, and his eyes were wide open in amazement. “Bitch! You called her a bitch! I could never have done that!”

“I hope you’ll never have to deal with her again, Ren. At least not till you’re much older and can face her as an equal. But I think we’ll see your stuff tomorrow or the next day at the latest. She may be mean, but she’s not stupid. My threats will work. You’ll get your stuff.”

Ren walked over and hugged his father. He now had an adult on his side. An adult who could do amazing things, like win a battle of wits with his mother. It was an incredible feeling.

> 2 <

Ren picked the dishes up off the counter and walked to the front door on his way to taking them to the Riveras. Then he stood looking at the door, his hands full of dishes, unable to turn the door knob. He shook his head and looked for where he could set the dishes down. There wasn’t room on the closest table. Finally, he just carefully set them down on the floor next to him. As he was doing so, there was a knock on the door.

He straightened up and opened the door only to find he’d put the dishes too close to it for it to open. Grunting to himself in exasperation, he leaned down to slide them out of the way, then stood up and opened the door to find a boy standing there. The boy was looking at him curiously, not saying anything at all. Ren took the opportunity to stare back. The boy had very black hair cut short and combed, light-brown skin, and handsome features all on a well-shaped head and face as round as his own was angular. Black eyes with long lashes. Ears close-set to his head. He was about Ren’s size, which meant he was short for his age—if he was Ren’s age—and he was slim. He was wearing a plain white tee shirt, and his arms didn’t take up much room in the sleeves. His jeans looked clean but well-worn. Dirty sneakers completed the outfit.

Ren saw the boy appraising him just as he himself was doing and decided now was the time to begin trying out the new Ren, the improved version of the Ren from Jackson. That meant coming out of his shell, being more assertive, meeting life instead of shrinking away from it. And so, before the boy could say anything, Ren did.

“Hi, I’m Ren. I’ve just moved here to live with my dad. Cal. Cal Thomas. Heh, heh, I guess you know him and know he lives here. Well, I’m his son. I live here now. I’m 13. Oh, come on inside. Sorry not to invite you in sooner. Did you just come to say hello, or were you looking for my dad? He’s gone out already. Or did you come to meet me? What’s your name, by the way? I’m Ren.”

Ren stopped, out of breath, realizing the improved version still needed a whole lot of work—an embarrassingly large amount of work—and stepped back so the boy could enter. The boy wrinkled his brow and didn’t answer the question, but entered the house. Then he stopped and looked at the dishes piled on the floor in front of him.

Ren saw him looking down and blushed. “Oh, I was just going to take these to the Rivera house. Lu brought them over. She brings us breakfast. I’m taking them back. It’s now my job to return them.” Ren was going to go on blathering, and he was a bit nervous for some reason but finally stopped himself, forcing himself to notice the boy staring at him like he was a lunatic. Well, maybe he was. He was talking nonstop and fast, saying absolutely nothing that needed to be said. OK, so maybe he was more than just a tiny bit nervous.

He managed to take a deep breath. And another, all the time being watched by the boy, who hadn’t said a word. Then, more quietly and slower, with an embarrassed grin on his face, he said, “Hi, I’m Ren. What’s your name?”

The boy looked into his face, appearing puzzled. He frowned, then smiled brightly. It transfigured his face, and Ren was startled to see just how handsome the boy was. After smiling, his eyes now sparkling, the boy pointed at Ren and said, “Ren?” Then he pointed at himself and said, “Mi nombre es Leandro.”

Ren was taken aback. He knew very little Spanish, but he was certain that was what the boy was using. And suddenly, he realized everything he’d said, all the nervous chatter he’d embarrassed himself with, had gone right over this kid’s head. He mentally sighed in relief.

This kid’s name was Leandro. Ren had understood that much at least.

But talking to him would be difficult. Still, Leandro was the first boy he’d met here. He didn’t want the kid to just go away.

While Ren was thinking about this, the boy pointed at the dishes sitting by his feet and said, rapidly enough that to Ren all the words ran together into one massive monolith of sound, “¿Por qué mantener nuestro mejor china en el suelo junto a la puerta? ¿Estás tratando de que alguien viaje?” [Why are you keeping our best china on the floor by the door? Are you trying to trip someone?]Then he smiled winningly at Ren.

Ren didn’t understand the words, but was sure they had to do with the dishes because of the pointing. Speaking slowly and enunciating clearly, he said, “I need to take these to the Rivera house. Rivera.” Then he added a word he’d heard on TV, “Comprenday?” and smiled.

Leandro’s eyes lit up again. “Rivera? Si, si. ¿Quieres que te lleve allí?” [“Rivera? Yes, yes. Do you want me to take you there?”]

Ren didn’t get that one at all, but smiled anyway. He leaned over and picked up the dishes, then said, “Rivera,” and nodded at the door.

Leandro looked confused for a moment, then said, “¡Ah! Usted desea que abra la puerta para ti, porque tienes las manos ocupadas, pero eres demasiado tonto para saber cómo hacerlo. Si?” [“Ah! You wish me to open the door for you because your hands are full, but you’re too dumb to know how to ask. Si?”] He nodded toward the door. Again, it all sounded like one long word to Ren, but the nodding toward the door seemed a good sign. “Oh, yes! Si. Yes,” said Ren, happy they were communicating so well. It was too bad the boy didn’t speak English, but Ren felt he himself could probably learn Spanish pretty quickly if all the kids here spoke it. He’d never been averse to learning, and knowing a second language would be great. Hopefully, some of the kids here spoke English; Lu certainly did. He didn’t know about Izzy; she hadn’t said a word. Perhaps this was why she hadn’t.

This boy looked friendly enough. Ren hoped they could spend some time together, maybe teaching each other their languages.

They left the house, Ren carrying the dishes and Leandro closing the door behind them.

Ren only took a few steps, then stopped. He looked around, getting his first picture of what his new world looked like in the daylight.

The back of the huge Hanson home was off to his right. Directly in front of him was a large open lawn area, the one he’d seen in the dark last night and thought might be covered with grass. Now he saw that it was, and it was indeed mowed. What he hadn’t seen before were the flower beds along the edges. The crushed-stone driveway, a bright slash of white in the sun, ran along both long sides of the lawn, and flowers bordered most all of it with gaps here and there that Ren guessed were points to allow access to the lawn.

Across the mowed grass he saw four large buildings. There was no way to tell from looking at them what their purposes were, but two of them were two stories tall. He wished for a moment he could ask Leandro what they were used for, but how could he make that question understood? He’d simply have to wait to find out what their purpose was till he was with someone who knew English.

To his left he could see several houses more or less like his own. The houses were of various sizes, and all were stuccoed. One of them had a second floor—the one in the middle of the row—and the rest were single story houses. Each one had its own front yard; a couple had low, attractive white fences separating them from their neighbors.

Ren saw that each of these front yards was well-tended and mowed and knew without thinking what his next assigned chore would be. He smiled. Of the chores he’d had at home, mowing the grass and raking leaves were both more fun for him than work. Maybe that was because no one at home had really cared and hadn’t seen any reason to boss him about the job. He’d done it as he liked, and as it turned out, he’d taken pride in both jobs. He hadn’t been praised, of course. But he’d felt a quiet satisfaction in doing both jobs well.

There were no trees here, so there’d be no leaves to rake. There were some flower beds and low bushes in front of the houses, and the general appearance of the compound was inviting—homey, even.

“¿Quiere que le muestre?” [“You want me to show you around?”]

Ren had no idea what Leandro had just said, but knew it was a question. He shook his head, frowned, then smiled. “Rivera?” he asked.

“Si.”

Ren frowned again. This was frustrating. “Rivera. Can you take me there.” He thought a moment, then brightened. “Rivera casa?”

“Oh, si, si!” The boy looked delighted and then pointed down the row of houses. “Es por este camino, tonto.” [“It is this way, silly.”] And he smiled brightly.

They started down the driveway, walking in the direction away from the big white house, Ren still carrying the dishes. As they passed the next house, he saw two boys in the front yard, sitting cross-legged on the grass. They had a jackknife and were playing some game with it, trying various ways of throwing it, trying to get it to stick in the ground. They both had medium-dark skin and black hair, and both looked a year or more younger than he was. As he passed, one looked up, saw him, and poked the other. Then they were both looking at him.

Leandro saw Ren peering at them and called out, saying, “Hey, JJ, José. Este es el hijo del Senor Thomas. Le estoy mostrando a su alrededor. Lo traeré de vuelta y presentarle a usted más tarde.” [“Hey, JJ, Jose. This is Mr. Thomas’s son. I’m showing him around. I’ll bring him back and introduce him to you later.”] Then he kept walking.

Ren stopped, and so after a couple of more steps, Leandro did, too. Ren looked at the boys, then at Leandro, then said to the boys, speaking slowly, “English? Do you speak any English?” Then, remembering the very limited Spanish he’d picked up watching TV, appended, “¿Hablo en-gless?”

The two boys looked at each other. Then the older one said, “Si,” and the younger one, looking confused, nodded.

Leandro put his hand on Ren’s arm, trying to move him on, but Ren had no intention of leaving right then. These boys spoke English! They could interpret for him, and so he could use them to help him talk to Leandro!

“I’m Ren,” he said, smiling at them. “I just moved in next door. This boy, Leandro”—and he nodded at the boy next to him—“is showing me where the Rivera house is. It’s great you speak English. It’s difficult with Leandro because I don’t speak Spanish. What are your names?”

“I’m JJ, and this is José,” said the boy who appeared to be the older of the two. Except for his pronunciation of José’s name, his English was spoken without any trace of a Mexican accent. “My last name is Mendoza, and José’s is Gonzales. He lives next door.” Then he looked at Leandro, who was standing a little behind Ren now and shaking his head vigorously while frowning. “We both speak English. But,” JJ continued, turning back to Ren and ignoring the other boy, “so does Andy, uh, Leandro. Everyone here speaks English, except maybe a couple of the cowboys.”

Ren turned, saw Leandro—Andy—looking back at him, giving him the same puzzled frown he’d worn earlier. Then, suddenly, the boy burst out laughing. Ren stared at him for a moment, then looked back at JJ and José, who were both smiling. JJ said to Ren, using a pretend whisper that everyone could hear, “Andy has a funny sense of humor and jokes around all the time. You just have to get to know him. I know him and still don’t know why he’s laughing half the time. But he loves to tease people. And to laugh. That’s just him.”

Ren’s immediate reaction was anger. Leandro—no, Andy—had played a trick on him, and in one sense it was sort of mean. It made Ren look foolish, and this was his first day here, a time when everyone should realize he’d be nervous and feeling very tentative. Back in Jackson, if someone had done something like this, he’d have sulked and gone off by himself. The urge to do that now was strong. To just leave the dishes on the ground, turn around, and walk back to his house, except he knew he had to deliver the dishes to the Riveras, not just walk away from them.

Still, the urge was strong. It was how he’d handled his problems in the past. But he stopped himself. Wasn’t he supposed to be starting over? This was his first chance, his first opportunity to be the new-and-improved Ren. Should he allow some misplaced sense of pride and offended dignity to get in his way?

He’d spent a lot of time the last two days thinking about that, about how he’d like to be rather than how he had been. Maybe he could look at this as a test of his resolve to change.

And maybe, to pass the test, he should do what he’d seen other boys back home do—just put his hurt feelings aside, just accept the teasing with good humor without letting himself be bothered by it. He’d seen boys in his situation, and he’d seen the best way to handle it. They’d laughed along with the others. They’d laughed at themselves, and that had seemed to make all the difference.

He was mad at what Andy had done, but maybe Andy hadn’t meant to be mean. Maybe he had just been teasing, as JJ had suggested, and doing so in a light-hearted way.

Ren stood still, holding the plates, and made a decision, even while still feeling some anger and hurt. He decided that Andy had just seen an opportunity to have some fun, and that there probably hadn’t been any meanness in it. Maybe what it had been was merely a reaction to Ren’s blathering, which he now remembered distinctly. He’d blathered, and Andy had blathered back, expect in Spanish. Yeah, he supposed he could see some humor in that.

Later, much later, Ren would think about that initial meeting with Andy and see a side of it he hadn’t considered earlier. When Ren was running on and on, his words tumbling over each other to cover his nervousness at finding a boy at the door, it would have been easy for Andy to embarrass him for it. Doing what he’d done, Andy had actually made sure Ren wouldn’t be embarrassed. Ren wondered if Andy had really meant it that way, if Andy was really that smart and sensitive.

That realization would come later, however. Right then, Ren was making the decision to accept the incident as fun, to accept Andy as just being funny. He could always change his mind later if he saw he’d been wrong about him.

He turned to Andy. “Good one,” he said, then added, “dumbass!” And though it was hard, he grinned.

Andy finally stopped laughing. “I’m sorry,” he said, and Ren was surprised to hear he too had no accent at all. “You looked so strange, standing over a pile of our dishes, and then you started talking a mile a minute, and, well, I just thought I’d speak in Spanish to keep the weirdness going. Hope you’re not mad.”

“No, but I owe you one! But you just said ‘our dishes.’ Does that mean you’re a Rivera, too?”

“Yeah, Lu’s my sister.”

> 3 <

They first went to the Rivera house, Ren carrying the dishes. He was greeted warmly by Mrs. Rivera, a medium-height, slender, friendly, middle-aged woman who quite obviously wasn’t of Mexican ancestry but likewise was obviously responsible for Andy’s infectious smile. After just a few minutes with her, Ren was sure she was also the source of Andy’s roguish sense of humor. Standing in her shadow was a young girl, and Andy told Ren her name was Lavina, that she was seven, and that he also had a brother named Lucero that everyone called Luke. Luke was 16.

Then they started Ren’s tour of his new surroundings. Andy asked Ren questions about himself as they walked, and Ren asked some of his own.

The Rivera house was the fifth one down the line of houses from the Hanson House, the next to the last one. Andy led them past the last house, the sixth one, informing Ren that the Aguilars lived there. “The Aguilars have two girls and three boys. Ernesto is our age. We call him Ernie.”

They kept going, following the 90-degree right turn in the driveway, which led them in front of the large building which was at the far end of the length of lawn area, its front facing the back of the Hanson House.

Ren was thinking of the names he’d heard of the people who lived in the houses. So far he’d heard Rivera, Mendoza and Aguilar. He asked Andy, “Does everyone here have a Mexican name? You didn’t say who lived in the other houses?”

“Yeah. Next to the Mendoza house is the Gonzales family and next to them, which is also next to our house, is where the Vargas family lives. They all have kids. The boys who are about our age are Ernie Aguilar, Rocky Gonzales and Gordo Vargas.”

“That sounds funny, those first names with the last ones. Gordo Vargas?” Ren smiled at the strangeness.

“The kids all want to be recognized as Americans, so they adopt American nicknames. Not all the parents are happy with that, and some don’t use those names for their kids, but among us, we all have American nicknames. Gordo is really Edgardo, and Rocky is really Rocio. Rocky hates that name. The problem there is that Mr. Gonzales is a very proud man, very proud of his Mexican ancestry and heritage, and he hates the name Rocky. Rocky’s grandfather was named Rocio, so when Mr. Gonzales hears his son called Rocky, he can get mad. When he’s around, it’s better to call Rocky Rocio. Better having a kid that’s 13 mad at you than his father!”

Ren was shaking his head. “How many kids are there? I’ll never remember all these names.”

Andy stopped walking. “I’ll have to count them. Let’s see. Counting by families, there are six Mendoza kids, five Gonzales kids, seven Vargas kids, four of us Riveras and five Aguilars. How many does that make?”

Ren had been adding. “That’s 27 kids!”

“Mexicans like big families,” Andy laughed. “The kids were all born here. Some of the parents weren’t. We all speak both Spanish and English. Some of the parents try to keep their cultural traditions going, some don’t, but kids learn languages easily, so even if their parents speak English in their homes, the kids still learn Spanish.”

They were then standing in front of the large building at the end of the lawn. Andy stated the obvious. “This is the stable. We have a lot of horses. Some stay in the corral, and some stay in here.”

“Do you ride? Does everyone ride?” Ren had never been on a horse in his life.

“Sure. Well, some of the older people don’t, but they all know how. All the kids ride—all the ones old enough. If you want to go anywhere, you have to ride. Everything’s too far, otherwise.”

“But couldn’t you have something like ATVs or golf carts instead? That would have to be easier.”

Andy laughed. “This is horse country. The cowboys would all laugh at you. Maybe not so you could see it—they all show respect to the kids—but they’d think it was silly. Besides, horses rarely break down like an ATV could, leaving you stranded. This is a big, big place, and an ATV wouldn’t be all that practical. A horse can take you anywhere you want to go, to see anything you want to see.”

“There are places to go?” Ren was surprised. It looked to him like there was this ranch compound of buildings and houses, and then there was just open, deserted prairie for miles and miles around.

“Sure. There are several ponds that we swim in; we sometimes go visit the cattle; there’s a place we can practice shooting; there’s a stream, or maybe you’d call it a creek, where we mess around building dams and building toy boats to race against each other. There’s a place we play soccer and softball. There’re some cactus plants that our mothers—well, some of our mothers—want us to harvest for their cooking. Besides which, if we stick around here, someone’s always coming up with chores to do.”

Ren heard that! “Yeah, I know all about chores just to keep you busy. I had that all the time back in Mississippi.”

Andy was silent then, and they walked into the stable, looking at the horses, who poked their heads out of their stalls. Andy picked up a bunch of carrots from a 50-pound bag and handed several to Ren. “You know how to feed a horse?” he asked.

“No. I’ve never been this close to one before.” Just looking at the size of them was making him nervous.

“Watch how I do it. They won’t bite you unless you’re real stupid.” He grinned and bumped his shoulder into Ren.

They moved down the line, handing out carrots. Ren started off scared of the large animals but calmed down as he saw how gentle they were and how large, expressive and intelligent their eyes seemed. Breaking into the silent rapport Ren had fallen into with the horses, Andy said out of the blue, “I don’t want to be nosy. But I’m curious, and the others will be, too. Why are you here? And how long will you be staying?”

Ren didn’t answer right away. He had a decision to make. He didn’t think his history reflected well on him. He wasn’t proud of it. It would take some time before he would realize he’d done well surviving his solitary home life before coming to the ranch, but he didn’t feel that then. What he felt, thinking of his life in Jackson, was shame.

But too, he remembered what his dad had said to him: that if you’re honest, you don’t have to remember what you told people, what lies you’d need to reinforce at a later time. That you should present people with who you are and let any adjusting to that be done by them, not you. That being honest gives you something to be proud of and builds character.

Here was a situation where he had just that sort of choice to make. And then there was the fact he’d resolved to do just what his father had suggested, something that at the time had sounded so right and so simple.

Well, it still sounded right.

He fed a carrot to a particularly striking horse as he was thinking. She was jet black without even a hint of a blaze on her forehead or hocks. Her coat shone, and she stood a bit taller than the others. Her eyes seemed much more alert, too.

“That’s Midnight,” Andy said, breaking into the silence. “She doesn’t have a rider right now. The boy who used to ride her ended up with a different horse. You could have Midnight if you wanted. You have to pick a horse for yourself.”

Ren tentatively reached up and stroked her long face, softly smoothing the hair on the flat area between her eyes. The horse lowered her head, making it easier for Ren, and then she whickered softly.

Andy laughed. “Looks to me like she’s chosen you.”

Ren fed her another carrot. While Midnight was crunching it, he said, “My mother and I had our problems, and she kicked me out. I’d never met my dad before. Well, I didn’t remember him at all. She sent me to live with him. And here I am.”

He said it softly. The emotions involved in what he said were still raw; they still affected him. Andy didn’t respond, just watched as Ren reached up and stroked the side of Midnight’s face. But the emotion in Ren’s voice was apparent. After a minute or two, Andy said, “Come on, there’s a lot more to see.”

He turned and walked out of the stable. Ren stayed and gave Midnight another carrot, letting his emotions abate. When he felt calm again, he turned and walked to where Andy was waiting for him.

> 4 <

The buildings across from the houses turned out to be, in order from the stable back toward the Hanson ranch house, a two-story storehouse; a single-story structure with a kitchen, eating area and a first aid and convalescent area; a bunkhouse; and last, a schoolhouse that doubled as a meeting room for everyone at the ranch when needed. The storehouse was quite large and sat farther back from the driveway than the other buildings, making the access to the stable from that corner of the area wider and providing a better view of the corral behind and between it and the stable. Ren saw another building, taller than the others behind the stable, and Andy told him it was the barn where hay and other feed for the horses was stored and where the vet could treat sick or injured animals while keeping them separate from any others.

“Why do you need such a large storage building?” Ren asked when they’d turned the corner from the stable and were standing in front of it.

“We’re a long way from any town,” Andy answered, stopping to make talking easier. “It’s better if we have the things on hand we know we’ll need instead of having to wait while they’re shipped here.”

Andy took Ren inside, where he saw shelves of equipment, canned food, clothing, tools, and all sorts of miscellaneous items both for ranch use or family needs. They went up the stairs to the upper floor where it was less crowded. Besides the shelves that were along the walls, there were a couple of large closets taking up about a third of the floor area, one of them filled with boxes and the other currently empty. There was also some furniture in the large room: book shelves, easy chairs, kitchen tables, sofas, end tables and the like. Andy told Ren that when new stuff was bought, often what it was replacing was brought here rather than being thrown away if it still had life in it.

The next building down the line, walking out of the storage building and toward the Hanson House, was a single-story structure. Andy said it was mainly a kitchen and dining area for when everyone ate together, which they did several times a year. It also was where the meals for the unmarried ranch hands were prepared. Part of the building was partitioned off and had first-aid equipment and a nurse’s area where an ill or injured person could be tended to while he recovered, or he waited while a doctor or an ambulance was called.

The bunkhouse was also a two-story building. The lower floor was mostly partitioned off so each cowboy had a small space to himself with a bed, dresser, and a bedside table with a clock and lamp. There was a large communal bathroom with showers, toilets and sinks. The upper floor had several simple beds, looking rather like a dormitory for kids. Andy explained that it was generally empty but existed to house men hired for extra help during round-ups. Then those beds would be used.

Ren was looking around when he noticed something through one of the windows on the rear wall. “What’s that ladder for?” he asked.

Andy saw what he was pointing to. “We’re always worried about fire out here. No fire stations or fire trucks to come out and help; they’d never get here in time. So all the buildings that are more than one story have a fire escape going from the ground all the way to the roof. That way, anyone on an upper floor can escape, and anyone fighting the fire can climb as high as they need to. We have some hands trained as a volunteer fire brigade, and we have pumps and hoses and stuff. There’s a large water tank out behind the first-aid building.”

Andy then got a grin on his face that didn’t seem to have anything to do with putting out fires.

“What?” asked Ren.

“Oh, nothing.”

“Come on! What?”

Andy lowered his voice, although there was no one else around to overhear. “Sometimes a boy and girl, the older ones, will climb up on the flat roofs.” He giggled.

“Why?” Ren couldn’t understand what was so funny.

Andy rolled his eyes. “To make out! There isn’t much privacy here with all the little kids always around, and if they see any of the older kids kissing or even holding hands, they make a big deal out of it. So the few places the kids can go are pretty well-known. The roofs are one of them. When no one’s looking, the kids’ll go up there where they can’t be seen. Except, sometimes, people do see the two of them climbing up, and sometimes they’ll climb up on the roof of another building and watch.”

His eyes were sparkling now. Ren looked at him, then said, “You’re one of the ones who’s done that, huh? Sneaked up to watch?”

Andy’s smile grew wider. “Si!”

> 5 <

There was one more building along that row, the one next to the large Hanson House. It was only one story tall, but wide and long. Andy opened the front door, and they walked into a large room.

“This is where we go to school,” Andy said. “The closest real one is too far away for busing every day. We all get laptops and work with our other grade-level kids with online classes. A couple of the moms watch us and help as needed, and we get some lectures that we all attend, about stuff that would be interesting to all of us, like about the buildings in Washington, D.C. or about the Vietnam War and the wars in the Middle East, or about other current events. Then some of the parents give talks. We even get homework assigned to us.”

“So you all get laptops? Can you get on the internet out here? And who buys the equipment?” Ren suddenly had a lot of questions. Could he actually get internet service here? But also, he couldn’t help thinking about how many kids there were, and that if each of them had a laptop computer, that meant a lot of bucks had been spent.

“Mrs. Hanson wants us all to be educated. She’s a nice lady and cares about all of us. She buys the computers for us.”

“Man, really? That’s…” Ren was surprised. Judging by the way his dad had been so reserved when talking about her, he realized he’d been thinking that maybe Mrs. Hanson was one of those hard lady bosses. But Andy liked her. Maybe, Ren thought, he should wait to meet her before forming an opinion.

They walked back outside again. “That’s about it,” Andy said.

“What do you do in the summer when there isn’t any school?” Ren asked.

“Actually, there’s a lot to do, because we have so many kids. Most of them are around our age, within a couple of years at least. Kids get up games of soccer and touch football and softball and kickball, and I already told you there are several ponds where we swim. Have you ever shot a rifle?”

“No. I’ve never even touched one.”

“Well, you’re a Texan now, and Texans can all shoot. Well, we can, at least. There are varmints to kill, game to hunt, and, well, we’re out in the middle of nowhere and there aren’t any police close by in case we need them, so our parents want us to be able to protect ourselves. We’ve never had to do that, but knowing how and being self-sufficient are part of who we are as ranch kids. So we have a rifle range where we all learned to shoot, and we all try to be the best shot. We all ride, too, and we each have our own horse. Some of the guys just like playing video games, and we have the computers for that…” He paused, then said, “You can even just read a book if none of that sounds good. Gus Mendoza does that a lot. It’s kind of up to you how you spend your time, whether you make friends and all that.”

They’d been walking slowly back toward the barn as they talked. Now Andy had stopped and was looking back toward the corral. Ren turned to look, too, and saw three boys on horses riding in from the prairie toward them. They came past the corral and onto the driveway, where they stopped near Ren and Andy. Two of the boys were of apparent Mexican ancestry. It was the third who drew Ren’s eyes. In fact, Ren couldn’t take his eyes off him. He had long, flowing yellow-blond hair and a regal-looking face that may have been as handsome as Ren had ever seen. His body was tall and looked fit, and he sat proudly and, to Ren, appeared magnificent in the saddle. His arms looked well-muscled for a boy his age, and his skin was bronzed from being in the sun.

All three of the boys were looking at Ren. It was the blond who spoke. “You must be Cal’s boy. Andy showing you around?”

Ren nodded, then, and came out of the stupor he seemed to have fallen into. “Yes,” he said and then blushed because his voice had cracked.

“Ah, a man of few words,” the blond boy said. “Well, welcome to my ranch.” Then he flipped his head to the other two, pulled on his rein and the horse turned and trotted into the stable, the other two following.

“Who was that?” Ren finally asked when they’d disappeared, still looking in the direction where the boys had gone.

Andy was looking at Ren and didn’t answer right away. Ren finally turned to look at him. Andy had noticed Ren’s rapt attention to the blond boy, and when Ren turned, he saw Andy’s frown.

“That was Hec. Hec Hanson. And his buddies, Paul Aguilar and Ray Gonzales.” Andy’s voice was flat, and his eyes were no longer twinkling. Ren turned back to look into the barn, unable to see much from where he was standing. He stared for a moment or two, then turned to ask Andy another question.

But Andy was gone. He was halfway across the lawn, his backside the only thing Ren could see. Ren glanced in his direction but didn’t go after him, and the fact that the boy had walked away barely registered. Instead, he turned back to stare at the barn.