> 1 <
Moses told Cal that Mrs. Hanson was in the living room. Ren was right next to Cal when they entered the room, where they found Mrs. Hanson and Hec watching TV.
“Hello, Julia,” Cal said. “Sorry to barge in on you, but I’ve learned why Ren went missing yesterday, and Ren felt it best if it was discussed right away.”
Mrs. Hanson stood up, and Hec, after glancing at Ren, did, too.
Ren was scared. This was it. How he behaved now was important; Cal had made that clear. But Ren had never been one to seek out confrontations. He’d avoided them—had done so all his life. He’d been browbeaten by his mother and whipped by her boyfriend. He’d avoided fights at school and didn’t even like heated arguments. He realized now, from what his dad had said, he’d never stood up for himself before—really stood up. Now, he was facing Hec for the first time since what had happened the day before. If he failed now, he’d not only continue down the path he’d walked all his life, but he’d disappoint his father. That was something he just refused to do.
So what he did was entirely out of character for him, entirely unprecedented, entirely un-Ren-like. His mind was fuzzy when he did it, like it wasn’t involved in this at all. Ren stepped forward the several steps it took him to reach Hec, and then he swung his fist and caught the unsuspecting Hec on the side of his face.
Hec saw it coming at the last instant and was pulling his face back when he was hit, and Ren didn’t have much power behind it anyway as he’d no idea how to stand or use his body as he punched. He hit Hec, but barely hard enough to do anything but show that he was mad and had the starch to do it.
“Hey! What the—” Hec jumped back, tripping against the couch he’d been sitting on and falling onto it. Ren just stood there, both hands in fists but his arms hanging at his sides. Then he felt Cal’s comforting hands on his shoulders.
“Let’s all sit down,” Cal said, and led Ren to a sofa, across from the one Hec was on. Mrs. Hanson looked surprised, but quickly followed, sitting in a chair set at right angles to the couch. Hec was now glaring at Ren, but Ren, meeting the boy’s eyes, could see uncertainty.
“Stay where you are, Hec.” This came from Cal, and Cal’s voice left little doubt that he expected Hec to obey.
“Go ahead, Ren,” Cal said softly.
Ren turned slightly so he was facing Mrs. Hanson directly. He wanted to start out by apologizing, to say something to get her on his side, but before he could get a word out, he realized that would be counterproductive. What he needed to do was show some inner strength. That was hard for him. But he knew that it was necessary.
“Mrs. Hanson, I was outside of our house yesterday when Hec met me and told me he’d like me to go for a ride with him so we could get to know each other better and I could see some of the ranchland, what it was like.
“I was happy to go. I told him I wasn’t much of a rider, and he said we’d ride easy. So we rode out, just in a walk so I’d feel comfortable. We got far enough out so I couldn’t see the houses any longer, and where all the countryside seemed the same—pretty flat and grassy. That was when I began to feel a little uncomfortable.”
Ren stopped and Mrs. Hanson asked, “Why was that, Ren?”
“Because I heard other horses, and then two other boys rode up, and Hec had a big grin on his face, and they all high-fived each other, and no one was paying any attention to me, so suddenly it seemed I was an outsider. Also, Hec’s older than I am, and these two were, also.
“I didn’t say anything; I don’t know what I could have said. But they started off again, moving farther out into the prairie, and I went with them, not with them but following behind. They were talking and laughing, and I wasn’t included. Eventually we came to a lake. They rode faster when it came into sight, and I got there after they’d already dismounted and were undressing.
Mrs. Hanson had been occasionally glancing at Hec as Ren was talking. Hec had been watching Ren with no expression at all on his face.
“Hec jumped in the lake,” Ren continued, “but when I was naked and ready to join in, he had his friend Paul stop me. Hec said I had to kiss his… his penis, that that was an initiation all the boys here are made to do, and I would be left there at the lake, alone and naked, unless I did it.”
Mrs. Hanson’s face went cold. She turned to look at Hec directly this time and saw Hec shaking his head.
“That’s the craziest story I’ve ever heard,” he said. He relaxed back into the couch cushions. “I don’t know where that’s coming from, but it’s all wrong. Nothing like that happened. I didn’t even see him yesterday. I was with Paul and Ray all day. Just us three. Ask them if you don’t believe me.”
Mrs. Hanson stared at the boy a moment longer, then turned to Cal. “Cal?”
Cal grimaced, but said, “You probably should do that, Julia. When I found Ren, he was at the lake, and he was naked with no horse or clothing. How in the world could you explain that? I had no idea how that happened, and then Ren told me. What he said explained what I saw when I found him. That’s only one of the reasons why I believe he’s telling the truth. I believe Hec did what Ren says he did, and that Hec is now lying about it. I know you’ve had trouble with lies he’s told before. I know the atmosphere among the kids in the compound changes whenever Hec walks out there and then changes back when he leaves, and I’ve never known why.
“But I know this whole thing puts you in a horrible situation and I’m sorry about that. I think you ought to get the other two boys here, and maybe we can see what they have to say.”
Mrs. Hanson nodded. “Paul will be easy to get. Ray, well, you know how Pedro is. You know how he is with Ray.”
She turned to Ren to explain. “When Ray gives his father any attitude or doesn’t do his chores on time or screws up in any other way in Mr. Gonzales’s opinion, he gets sent to his room and he stays there until his father feels his point has been made. Yesterday, the three of these guys came back late; Graciela—Mrs. Gonzales—had been worried. When Pedro called him on that, Ray said something, and Pedro sent him to his room. That’s what Pedro does. Ray was grounded, and when Pedro grounds someone, he marches them to their room and locks them in. Pedro doesn’t let them out to eat or wash or even go to the bathroom; he has a bucket in his room for that! Whoever is being punished has to stay there by himself, no TV or anything, just thinking about what they did wrong, which in this case was getting home late and worrying his mother and then being disrespectful. Graciela bought him some bread and a glass of water and that was it. Ray’s still in his room now. Graciela says Pedro will let him out tomorrow. I’ll have to ask Pedro for permission for Ray to come here.”
Cal grinned, though his eyes were still serious. “Pedro loves you, Julia. He’ll do anything you ask him to. You ask for Ray to be sent here, he’ll walk him over here himself just so you won’t have to wait for him.”
Mrs. Hanson, staring at Cal, finally nodded. “I’ll have both boys come here now.” She stood up and walked over to a telephone on the other side of the room. Hec was glaring at Ren. Ren looked at him, at his expression, then looked back at Cal. Cal was watching the two of them. No one spoke.
When Julia returned to the table, and the silence continued, Cal finally spoke. “Hec,” he said, staring the boy in the face, “I know you think you’re in the clear here. You think the two boys will back you and that will be that. But it won’t be. See, there’s no reason for Ren to have been by that pond by himself like that. He’d never have gone off riding all by himself in the first place, and secondly, he’d not have ridden that far if he had. And then being naked—even if his horse had run off on him, he’d have still had his clothes. No one would undress and then tie their clothes to their horse. So there has to be some reason I found him where he was—and for his being naked. The story he tells explains it. It makes sense. Your only story is that you didn’t do it.”
Cal was glaring at Hec. Hec was returning his stare with nonchalance.
Cal shook his head, observing the boy’s attitude. “It won’t work. Maybe you haven’t figured that out yet, but it won’t. But, let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about what you did. You left a kid new to the ranch out in the middle of nowhere, naked, in the hot sun. The only reason he survived, the only one, is because of how smart and courageous he is.” Cal stopped and turned to look at Ren. Ren was looking at the floor. He hated being the center of attention.
Cal turned back to Hec. “Ren didn’t do the things some kids would have done. He didn’t start walking, trying to find his way back. If he had, he’d almost certainly be dead by now. He didn’t spend all his time in the water, staying cool. If he had, the sun would have baked him and he’d not even have known it till it was too late. The water would have cooled the sun’s effect, but he’d have been burned up anyway. No, he figured out how to cover himself, how to protect himself from the sun. I’m not sure even I would have been that smart. But because he was, you’re not going to be held on criminal charges. You might think about that.”
Mrs. Hanson was looking at Hec with a sad expression. Cal noticed that and said, “I’m almost done here, Julia, but he has to hear this.”
He then returned to Hec. “Ren spent a night all alone out among who knows how many predators. He had to have been scared to death. And hungry. But he had the character not to give up. He didn’t, and he survived. And because of that, you won’t go to jail. Because you would have. What you did was a cruel, heartless, horrible thing. You didn’t care at all about what would happen to Ren out there.”
He stopped to calm down. He’d been letting his emotions get the better of him, something that Cal almost never did. When he continued, it was in a softer voice.
“I want to think what you did was what some teens do. They don’t think of consequences. They just do what they do at the time. I don’t think you’d thought that Ren might have died out there. I believe you thought only of yourself and what you wanted from him, and you thought leaving him out there was a suitable punishment for his not obeying you. I want to think that, because otherwise I have to think you have no conscience at all, and that would make you unredeemable.
“You were lucky, because if Ren had died, the other kids here would have spoken up. I think even Ray would have. Ray has a conscience. He’s easily misled, but he’s savable. If you have a conscience, you were ignoring it; Paul was too, if indeed he has one. But Ray’s different. He’d probably have talked about what happened. And I think some of the other kids would have told about your dick-kissing tradition. I guess that’s how you show them how omnipotent you are and scare them into believing their parents will get kicked off the ranch if they tell. That would never happen; your mom would never allow that to happen. But they didn’t know that. They would, however, once this story was told. They’d see that what you said to make them do what you did was simply lies.”
He stopped and shook his head again. “Hec, when these boys come, Ren is going to try to prove his story was true and that you’re lying, and I think he will because he’s smart. I’m proud of him. When he does prove it, I don’t know what Julia will do, but she’s your mother and you’re underage, so her decisions will determine what happens to you.”
Hec had been getting red as Cal had been speaking. Ren had seen his anger building, and now he was seething. Hec wasn’t accustomed to any of the people on the ranch other than his mother talking down to him, and Cal had been going on and on. Now, when Cal stopped, Hec had had enough. He stood up and said loudly, “You can’t talk to me like that. I’m a Hanson and you’re nothing. I’m in charge here and you’re a hired hand. Well, not any more. You’re fired. Get out! Get off my ranch! And take this kid with you!”
Cal just looked at him without moving. Mrs. Hanson said, “Hec, sit down. You’re not the boss of anything. You’re a boy—and a misguided one. Sit down. Now!”
Hec hesitated, then slowly reclaimed his seat. His eyes looked wild. Ren thought he was realizing for the first time that maybe this was something he’d not be able to swagger his way out of.
Hec had just sat down when Ray and Paul came in. Cal had been right: Pedro Gonzales was holding Ray’s arm. Paul sauntered in by himself.
With the boys there, there were six people, and Mrs. Hanson had them all move into the dining room where they all found places around the dining-room table. Julia was sitting at one end, Cal and Ren were on one side, Hec was at the other end and Ray Gonzales and Paul Aguilar sat across from the Thomases.
Pedro Gonzales had marched Ray over as Cal had predicted, holding his arm in a way that looked painful. He’d asked if Mrs. Hanson wanted him to stay, and she’d smiled at him, thanked him and said she could handle it herself. He’d left, and then they were six.
With everyone at the table silent, Mrs. Hanson looked at Cal and asked, “What now?”
Cal looked at Ren, and then back at Mrs. Hanson. “I think Ren needs to talk to these boys, and you and I need to listen.” Then he turned to Ren. “Go ahead, son.”
Ren looked at both Paul and Ray. He could see right away, Paul was going to be useless. Ray, on the other hand, wasn’t meeting his gaze. He was staring at the table, very much appearing to wish he were somewhere else. He was dirty and sweaty and even across the table, Ren could smell him. He could picture Ray sitting in his room all day and almost felt sorry for him. Ray had said little yesterday. He’d merely gone along with the other two. Paul and Hec had been the ones doing all the laughing, doing all the talking.
Ren turned to Paul, an idea beginning in his head. Maybe his dad had been right about using the assets he had.
“Paul, where were you yesterday?”
Paul smirked. “Me and Hec and Ray rode out to check on the herds. We were out all day. Didn’t see you at all.” Then he looked over at Hec and grinned.
“So you didn’t go swimming at all?”
Paul shook his head and wrinkled his face. “Nope. We were working, actually, making sure the herds were together, no strays wandering off.”
“So that means you must have run into a few of the cowboys.”
Paul looked very relaxed. He seemed to be seeing that he had nothing to worry about from Ren’s questions. “No, we went where they weren’t. No point in helping them. We went where we could help with any strays they’d missed.”
Ren turned to Hec. “Is that right? You were on your horses all day, no one saw you, and you were simply working the cattle?”
“That’s right. And I don’t like you pretending all that other stuff happened. I don’t know what’s wrong with you. I don’t even know why you’re here. But maybe it was because you got thrown out of where you were before for lying.”
Ren kept his eyes fixed on Hec but found it really hard doing that. He knew, though, if he looked away, it would be obvious Hec had scored a point off him. So, he kept staring at Hec. Hec simply stared back, a small, smug grin on his lips.
“You didn’t go swimming?” Ren finally asked.
“None of you went swimming?”
“None of us.”
Ren watched him a moment longer, then turned to Ray. “How about you, Ray? You were with these two all day? Did you go a lake to go swimming? They said they didn’t. How about you?”
Ray glanced up at Ren briefly, then back down. “What they said,” was all he managed.
Ren stopped. The idea he’d had earlier was looking more feasible, but what if he wasn’t right? He’d look like a fool if he proceeded with it and it didn’t work out. It was a long shot at best.
While he was thinking, Mrs. Hanson was watching him. “Ren?” she finally asked. Her voice was softer than when speaking to Hec, and it sounded sympathetic to Ren. “Did anyone see you ride out with Hec? See the other boys join you?”
“No, ma’am. We were alone when Hec and I rode out, and the other two joined us later, like I said.”
“So there’s no one who can back up your story?”
Ren looked down at the table. This was where he’d always folded in the past, when he
met the first setback. He knew he had to stop doing that. He had to keep
fighting. And maybe he could. After all, he’d somehow managed to survive a night
alone in the dark, hadn’t he? He’d figured out a way to do that, hadn’t he? His dad
had said it would come to this, him standing up for himself. He had an inkling of a way
to do that. He simply needed to find the courage to take the risk to prove it, even if he
ended up looking like an idiot if it didn’t work out.
He looked away from Mrs. Hanson at the boy down the table from him who wouldn’t meet his eyes. Then he looked back at Mrs. Hanson. He was silent for a moment, then said, “Maybe. Maybe I can prove my story.”
Mrs. Hanson didn’t speak, just kept looking at him. He liked her eyes. They weren’t accusatory at all, surprising him.
He turned back to Ray. When he spoke to him, he did so as if it was just the two of them in the room. He made eye contact and then held it by speaking softly, like one friend to another. “I heard you were grounded when you got home. That happened to me a lot where I used to live. And man, were those people strict. I only had some bread to eat and a glass of milk for an entire day. They even brought a pail in for me to use for, well, you know.”
Ray’s face showed surprise. That’s what Ren had wanted, to have Ray concentrating on him rather than Hec or anyone else. Ren had said what he did merely to set a friendly tone, hoping to establish a sociable relationship, not really expecting to get a response out of Ray. Ren was startled when the boy spoke. And when the boy did, Ren discovered Ray wasn’t the sharpest kid going.
“Yeah? Me too! They locked me in. They always do that. My old man was on my case, yellin’ at me, and my old lady was no better. Just cause I didn’t tell ’em where I was goin’. Just because I got back after dark. I come into the house; Dad grabbed me and shoved me right into my room. No shower, no dinner, no TV, no nothin’. Nothin’ to eat at all, then just a piece of toast for breakfast this morning. Only one little glass of water all that time. I’m thirsty and starving! Just ’cause I never told ’em where I was goin’!”
Ren nodded. “I get that,” he said in a very soft voice. “I didn’t have anything at all to eat, either, last night or this morning. I did drink some lake water, though. I needed it, out there naked in the hot sun all day.”
That startled Ray, and he suddenly dropped his eyes. Ren knew he was remembering. Everyone at the table saw how he reacted when he was thought about what had happened to Ren.
“So tell me, Ray, what did you and Hec and Paul do yesterday?”
“They already said.”
Ren nodded, then said, “Yeah, they did, but I didn’t hear you say anything, and you probably remember things they don’t. You remember where you ate lunch and what you talked about and all sorts of stuff. Don’t you?”
Ren asked the question very innocently, not like he was asking for anything more important than what day it was.
But Ray was suddenly looking very unsure of himself. “Uh, well, Hec said…”
He stopped when Hec suddenly made a face at him and shook his head. Mrs. Hanson scowled at him and said, “Hec, if you say anything, if you make any more gestures like that, you’re going to your room, and I’ll lock you in if I need to. Understand?”
“Hey,” said Hec. “I can do what I want. You’re not my boss. I can sit here as long as I like.” He sat back in his chair and glared at her.
Next to him, Cal rose, too. He towered over the boy and stared at him. Hec saw his glare and slowly his posture softened.
“Not one word or gesture,” Mrs. Hanson repeated. Then she turned to Ren. “Go ahead.”
“OK, Ray. Just what you remember about yesterday. Anything at all.”
But Ray had seen Hec’s reaction to that and knew what to say. “Uh, well, I don’t really remember. Just we were together, mostly. Just talkin’. Didn’t do nothing much.”
Ren watched Ray for a moment and then suddenly grinned. He settled back in his chair. He relaxed. He’d become more sure that what he was trying to do would work and knew how to get where he wanted to go. When he spoke again his voice was friendly and light.
“So you guys just rode around. You didn’t go near any of the lakes?”
“Uh, I don’t think so. Just rode around is all I remember.”
“Ray, this was only yesterday. You’ve been in your room since then. How hard can it be to remember?”
“Well, I don’t. I just don’t.” He said it stubbornly, defiantly
“You’re Hec’s friend, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, me’n him and Paul, we hang together.”
“And you do what Hec tells you to, huh?
“Hec’s the boss.” Ray said it proudly.
“When did he tell you to say you can’t remember? On the ride back or when you were already here?”
“It was—” Ray got no further before Hec jumped up to protest. Cal was up just as fast and shoved Hec back into his chair, hard. The damage was done, however, as Ray saw what had happened. He turned back to Ren. “I don’t remember that at all,” he said.
Mrs. Hanson was looking at Hec now. “Ren’s story’s true, isn’t it, Hec? You’ve been covering it up, lying about it. Did you really make all those boys kiss…” She stopped, looking at her son in amazement and disappointment.
“No! We never did any of that. He has no proof at all. I just don’t like
Ray being upset like this. He gets confused. You know that. Leave him
Mrs. Hanson started to respond, but Ren interrupted. “Please, I’ve got this.” He turned to Ray. “You don’t remember anything, huh?” He made himself laugh. “At least we know that he told you to say that. You’ve made that clear. So we also know something did happen that you’re not supposed to talk about.” Then, losing the laugh and becoming more sober, he said, “But you do remember that you three didn’t go anywhere near a lake yesterday.”
Ray looked relieved. “Yeah, I remember that. We didn’t.”
“So you weren’t involved in leaving me there, taking my clothes, taking my horse, and riding off.”
“No, we never did that.”
“And you never went into the lake yesterday?”
“Well, let me tell you something. The only way I could keep from getting terribly sunburned yesterday was by covering myself with mud. I did that, then washed it off when it got too hot, then did it again. All day long. It was pretty easy washing it off because I’d simply soak in that lake. It took awhile, doing that, but eventually the mud would soften and come off. But, you know the place where the mud seemed the most stubborn? The place I never did get completely clean? You probably do know. Because you probably had the same problem. I need you to do something for me now, Ray. Would you take your boots off, please?”
“Your boots. Those leather things on your feet. Please take them off.
Ray looked like he thought Ren was crazy, and then his eyes changed. Everyone at the table could see that, too. He went from looking belligerent to being unsure of himself, to finally being worried. Then, he suddenly stood up. “I don’t have to do anything. I’m going home.”
He turned and headed for the door.
“I got him, Julia.” Cal reached Ray before he got to the door, grabbed him by the arm, and returned him to the table, this time into a chair back against the wall near to his own. “You need me to undress you, Ray, I will, and I won’t be the least bit gentle about it.” There was a significant threat in the way he spoke. “Take the boots off. Now.”
Looking very unhappy, Ray complied.
“Now the socks,” said Ren.
With his feet bare, the dried mud on his ankles and feet and especially between his toes was obvious. It looked like some of it had been picked off, but there was much dried residue still there. Especially between his toes. When Cal tipped one of the boots over, dried mud cascaded out onto the floor.
The room was quiet until Ren spoke. “I had a devil of a time getting the mud out from between my toes, too, even with water to help me. I didn’t think Ray could have done any better because he drank all the water he had access to.”
Cal suddenly spoke. “We want to hear the truth now, Ray. It’s about time. I think you’re capable of doing a better job of that than Hec or Paul. In fact, Ren, I’ll leave Ray here with Mrs. Hanson and you while I take the other two for a walk.” He got up, yanked Hec and Paul up by taking hold of one bicep of each, and marched them out the door.
> 2 <
Ray finally opened up when Mrs. Hanson told him the one who was in trouble was Hec, not him, that he’d just been doing what Hec had made him do. When it came out that all the boys at the ranch over 13 had had to do what Ren had refused to do and that not one of them had ever spoken of it because they felt they had to keep the secret to protect their parents, Mrs. Hanson’s face had fallen into her hands.
Later, leaving her house, Ren stopped and said to Mrs. Hanson, “Thanks for believing me. I had the impression you believed me even before I proved Ray was lying.”
She smiled her warm smile at him and her eyes were soft as they met his. “I did. I believed you right from the first.”
“You did? Why?”
“Because I didn’t think any boy who looked and acted like you do, polite and reserved and more timid than cocky, would have walked into my house and walked up to my son and hit him like you did unless you had a very good reason to.”
Ren laughed and shook his head. “I never thought of that,” he said.
When Ren and Cal returned to their house that night, the first thing Cal said was, “You hit him?!”
Ren grinned. “I hadn’t really thought about it before I did it. When I saw him, what you said about standing up for yourself when you’ve been wronged came back to me, and I just did it.”
“And then you used your head and proved they were all lying. I’m proud of you, Ren. Really proud.”
Ren smiled. “You know what? You were right—I’m proud of me, too.”