> 1 <
Since Hec had left, Cal and Ren had taken to accepting dinner invitations at the Hanson House about once a week. Ren had been thinking, at first, that perhaps now that Hec was gone, Mrs. Hanson might simply be lonely and Cal was trying to help, just being nice. Then he got a different impression after they’d gone the first few times. He asked Cal about it when they’d returned home one evening.
There was something about Ren’s tone that made Cal more alert than usual. He put down the magazine he’d just picked up and looked at the boy. “Yes, Ren?”
Ren was smiling at him. “Are you and Mrs. Hanson… well, I think she likes you. Do you like her?”
Cal scowled. “That’s none of your business,” he declared.
Ren laughed. He’d been with his dad long enough now to know what the man’s tone of voice meant. When Cal was mad about something, he didn’t get louder; his voice became softer, yet developed a steely edge. Ren didn’t know how he accomplished that tone, but he’d witnessed it a couple of times. This wasn’t one of those times. Cal wasn’t mad even if he was trying to sound like it.
“Sure it’s my business! I live with you in this house. It isn’t a very big house. If you’re getting comfy with Mrs. Hanson, then I could start thinking about having a much larger room, and so I’d need to start planning what new stuff I’d have to buy and how to set it up. I’d have to get a new wardrobe, of course, because I’d be expected to dress better when we were rich. I’d probably have much more closet space, so I’d have to double or triple my threads, and I should start looking into what the current fashions are for handsome, rich, and humble Texas cowboy youth.”
Cal was looking at him and working to restrain a smirk just as Ren was trying to look serious. Cal looked Ren up and down, then surprised the boy. “You know, Ren, seriously, I’ve been noticing. You’ve only been here a short while, but in just a few months you’ve grown. The stuff you have is getting to be too small. I think you’re going to start or have already started a growth spurt. At your age, that happens.”
Ren felt a little uncertain talking about this. He’d realized he was growing. His legs had been sore off and on, and he knew his jeans weren’t reaching as low on his ankles as they had before. But he also didn’t want to cost Cal money for clothes, clothes he might well grow out of shortly after he bought them if it was a spurt.
Cal was tall, over six feet, and Ren thought if he himself was going to grow that tall, then there’d be many sets of clothes between then and now. And that made him uncomfortable. He didn’t like the fact that Cal would have to keep buying him clothes.
He didn’t want to talk about spending money, but he did feel the need to reflect on part of what he was thinking. “I’ve always wanted to be taller. Bigger and stronger. Seemed the kids back in Jackson were all growing and I was stuck with how big I was. Now that I’m here, I’m growing. I don’t get why coming here makes such a difference.”
“Well, perhaps it’s just your time,” Cal suggested. “Or maybe it’s something else. I’ll bet that living where you were, with how things were for you there, you were kinda on edge all the time, worried or even scared. That’s stressful, and stress might have delayed puberty for you. Here, you’re surrounded by happiness and activities and, well, security and love. Maybe that’s made a difference.”
Ren got up and moved to where his dad was sitting and sat down next to him, reached out, and hugged the man—hard. He held it awhile, too.
It wasn’t until he was in bed that night that he realized he hadn’t got a response to his query about Cal and Mrs. Hanson.
> 2 <
“An important person is coming to the ranch today, and Mrs. Hanson wants us to come to her house for dinner to meet him,” Cal told Ren one day the following week.
Ren was washing the morning dishes. He’d taken to fixing breakfast for the two of them when Cal didn’t have to make an early exit. “Who is it?” he asked while scrubbing the frying pan.
“The man’s name is Frederick Turner. He’s part-owner of the ranch. I mentioned him when I was driving you here. Mr. Hanson split the stock in the family corporation, gave some to his daughter, some to Hec, and some to Mr. Turner, who provided part of the original money as a personal investment so that Mr. Hanson could purchase the ranch land. Mr. Hanson split the stock so that the Hanson-family members could have majority control on any issues being voted on by the board. Mr. Turner, as well as being a major stockholder and a member of the ranch board, also takes care of the business side of the ranch, even though he lives in San Francisco. He’s a lawyer.”
“OK. What time?”
Cal was pulling on his boots, ready to go out. “You mean for dinner? Six. We don’t have to dress up, just look good and not stink of horse sweat. What’re you up to today?”
“Andy ’n I are going to visit a little with Ryan. Then Gus said something about getting up a softball game, so we’ll probably end up doing that.”
Cal was at the door, cowboy hat in hand and ready to go out, but he paused. “How’s that going for you? You any good?”
Ren laughed. “I’m one of the worst, but no one makes anything out of it. We just have fun.”
Cal nodded. “OK. See you tonight. I won’t be here for lunch.”
Ren finished putting the dishes away, wiped the counter and table, then suddenly stopped and
looked around, and slowly, a smile crept over his face. He’d just realized he’d done
these same chores in his former home and had hated every minute of doing them. Here, he
did them with pride, and he knew why it was so different. Here, his dad had let him know
he was pitching in to make things better for both of them. He was doing his part, the
part he could do and do well. That had never been the case with his mother. She’d
had him work so she wouldn’t have to herself and frequently as a punishment. Funny, he
thought. He was doing the same exact work, but he had a much different attitude about
Wearing his usual ensemble, jean shorts and a tee shirt and sneakers—he only wore boots when he was going to ride—he left the house and made his way to Andy’s. Andy was into one of his assigned summer-reading books and gave a great sigh of relief when he saw Ren. “About time!” he said, sounding provoked and grinning at the same time.
“You ’bout ready to go? You read far enough?”
Andy closed the book with a thump. “Plenty far enough, for me. Maybe not for Mom. What I do is put the bookmark ahead of where I am. That satisfies her.”
“I didn’t hear that, did I?” came a woman’s voice from the next room.
“Just kidding, Mom. Knew you were listening. Come on, Ren. Let’s vamoose!”
It was warm and humid outside, and Ren was sweating when they were halfway to the stables. They walked inside and immediately felt cooler in the half-darkness they found there. Ren grabbed a couple of carrots from the bag and fed them to Midnight as they walked past her stall. She stuck her head out and watched them as they made their way out the back and headed for the vet’s house.
They found Ryan anxiously waiting for them. “What are we going to play today?” he
asked, bubbling with enthusiasm. “Hide and go seek?”
Ren always had to smile when they were with Ryan. The kid had the enthusiasm of a lively eight-year-old and was constantly happy. Quite often he was excited about something, which he just had to show to Andy, and now that they were friends, to Ren. He was especially fond of hiding and seeing if the other two could find him.
But not that day. They let Ryan pick out a board game to play, and he chose Careers. While Ryan was carefully laying out the game, Andy whispered in Ren’s ear, “His success formula will be all money. He always chooses that, even though I’ve explained to him why that isn’t the best way to win. But he’s stubborn. Just like you.” Then Andy laughed and pulled away as Ren tried to hit him on the shoulder.
After the game, which Ren and Andy had tacitly allowed Ryan to win, Ryan had news for them. “I have to show you something. It’s a secret that only the three of us will know. It’ll be our secret fort. Come on!”
He took them down into the basement, a dark place with only two windows which were below ground level and only permitted a small amount of light to enter. The basement was basically one large room with support pillars scattered around. Ren saw all sorts of what he could only think of as junk, the detritus of a vet’s life, along with discarded furniture, stacks of old magazines, broken toys and athletic equipment, and things Ren couldn’t begin to identify.
“Over here,” Ryan said, and walked to the side of the room. There were three old mattresses stacked against the cinderblock wall and two bookcases full of old textbooks.
“I found this when I was exploring. It’s way cool.” Ryan was almost jumping with excitement, wanting to show the other two boys what he’d found.
As Ren watched, Ryan pulled back the edge of the mattress closest to the wall. Two others were there as well, leaning against the one at the wall and making it difficult for Ryan to move the one in the back. Ryan managed to squirm his thin body between the wall and the mattress and pushed, making a little space for him to stand. “Come look!” he said.
Andy was closest to him and peered into the cramped place where Ryan stood. Set into the wall, normally hidden by the mattress, was a small door, about the size of a kitchen-cupboard door.
“Have you opened it to look inside?” Andy asked as Ren pushed in to see what they were talking about.
Ryan nodded and said, “That’s what’s so so cool. Come on, I’ll show you.” He wedged enough room for himself to pull open the door.
On the other side, there was an empty space—a very dark empty space. From what Ren could see from where he was standing in the ill-lit basement, there wasn’t any discernable size to the space. He could only see black—no sidewalls, no top or bottom.
Neither Andy nor Ren spoke for a moment, and then Andy whispered, a whisper seeming the right way to address what they were looking at. “What is it?”
“Come on in. I’ll show you!” Ryan’s excitement was reaching a peak.
“In? Go in there? No way! I can’t see any floor. It might be a huge pit!” Andy was backing out and away from the mattresses, not wanting any part of it.
Ren was still there, looking at the black void. “You went in there, Ryan? Really? How did you have the courage to do that?”
Ryan giggled. “I wasn’t that brave. I got a flashlight and saw there was a floor. It’s just below us, and sitting right there was a lantern. I grabbed the handle and lifted it out. I don’t know how long it had been there, but it still had kerosene in it. I got some matches upstairs and came back and lit it. It’s not that scary when you have light.”
Andy had inched his was back. Now he asked, “How do you know about lanterns, Ryan?”
“One time, I found an old one in the barn when I was exploring in there. I showed it to Dad, and he showed me how to work it. Like how to light it and how to adjust the wick to get more or less light. I just lit this one like I did that one.”
Ren didn’t care about the lantern. He was curious about the opening. “You went in there. What’s in it?”
“It’s really neat. Come on, I’ll show you.” Ryan stepped into the blackness and disappeared from sight. The boys, startled, waited, their anxiety mounting, and then a match flared, and very soon the soft glow of a lantern changed the blackness into what appeared to be a tunnel.
“This way,” Ryan said, and his voice was already fading as he moved away from them.
The two boys looked at each other. Ren could see Andy’s uncertainty. Perhaps he’s claustrophobic, Ren thought. Ren wasn’t claustrophobic, he knew Ryan had already searched wherever he now was, and so he felt safe entering the black void. He did so, leaving Andy to decide for himself.
Ren thought the tunnel would only be a few feet long, but it was much longer. It had a hard dirt floor, and the earthen ceiling and walls were supported with wooden planks every few feet. It wasn’t all that high a ceiling. He and the other two boys could walk upright, but he guessed adults would have to stoop some. Ren had to walk briskly to keep from losing the light as Ryan was moving forward with the confidence of someone who’d been here before and was rushing in his eagerness to show his friends what he’d discovered.
“Slow down,” Ren heard from behind him, causing him to smile. Andy’s curiosity had overcome his reluctance and discomfort, and he was following.
They walked for what Ren felt must have been 25 or 30 yards. Ryan had finally relented and slowed down when he’d realized the other two boys weren’t right behind him. They’d all walked the final few yards together to where the tunnel ended. There they found another door, closed tight.
Ryan looked at his friends, a huge smile on his face. “This is it,” he said. “See what I found!”
He opened the door. Inside was a room, fairly good sized, cool and musty-smelling, and Ren figured out right away what it was. The room held bunk beds against three of the walls. The fourth was covered in shelves, shelves containing the supplies people would need for survival. There were more lanterns with cans of kerosene to fuel them, tins of food, barrels of water.
“I bet I know where we are,” said Andy, still not looking happy being where he was. “There’s a place back from the barn where rocks and stuff were piled up when the foundations for the buildings were dug. See, look.” He pointed to the ceiling in one corner where a grating was attached. Andy raised his hand near it and said, “Yeah, I can feel air. There has to be an air shaft that ends in that pile of rocks and rubble. That’s why I’ve never seen it. This has to have been built as a storm shelter when they were building the compound.”
Ryan wasn’t concerned with the history of the place. He was excited to have a special, secret place for the boys to call their own. Too, he wanted to show the other two some of the things he’d found stored there.
“Look!” he said, and showed them a shelf containing games, children’s books, dolls and other things to occupy children.
Andy and Ren started poking around, seeing what else they could find. Ren came upon a whole crate of Winchester rifles and ammunition for them. They were the same type as the ones they used for target practice and appeared never to have been used. Then they found another crate that contained all sorts of seeds for flowers, vegetables and even grass. Andy found clothes that were well out-of-date and would make great dress-up playthings for some of the younger girls on the ranch. They also found old tools, cooking utensils, and some mechanical things that neither boy could figure out a purpose for.
“I’ve never heard anyone mention this place,” Andy said. “I’ll bet people have forgotten about it. It probably was never used. We don’t get many tornadoes here. We’re a long way from where they have those.”
“Yeah,” Ren agreed, “and maybe then they found this was a good place for storing stuff no longer needed but that they hated to throw away, and that’s why all this other stuff is here. It was probably built when there weren’t that many folks living on the ranch, before the storage facility we have now was built. This was probably one of the first things they built way back then, back when they weren’t sure about storms yet, especially if they came from East Texas or Oklahoma where they had tornados.”
Ryan was still looking at the toys and games. He brought one of the old board games over to the other two and said, “This looks good. Can you show me how to play? We can take it back with us. But this can be our secret place. Just us three!”
Ren smiled and patted his back. “OK, Ryan. Our special place. Now, let’s go back. I can tell Andy isn’t real happy underground, particularly with only one way out.”
Andy smiled, too. “You can tell, huh?”
Ren said, “Yeah, your white face and the sweat on your forehead gave you away.”
> 3 <
Twelve kids were playing softball. Eddie Mendoza and Luke Rivera were the oldest at 16 and Jose Gonzales the youngest at 11. There were eleven boys and one girl: Izzy.
Ren had played once before here and been surprised how much fun it had been. Whenever he’d played at school in Jackson, the two kids chosen as captains alternated picking players for their teams, and there’d been a feeling of competition right from when the selecting had started. Because Ren wasn’t very athletic and was small, he was generally one of the last to be picked and had not only been embarrassed watching everyone else be chosen before he was, but also had had to listen to the groans from the guys on his team when his name eventually was called. Then during the games themselves, Ren was put in right field where he’d be involved in as little of the action as possible, which he didn’t mind, but he had to bat, and that was when everyone on both teams made sarcastic, belittling remarks at his attempts to hit the balls pitched to him.
Ren had learned to hate softball.
So, the first time Andy told him that was what they were all going to play, Ren had begged off. Andy, being the happy kid with a perpetual smile and unremitting optimism, hadn’t put up with that. He’d ignored Ren’s protests and almost physically dragged him to the game.
They played on a field that had been marked out for them not far from the compound. The outer edge of the outfield hay bales rather than fences. Both outfield and infield were mown grass except for the base paths, which were dirt, showing the effect of boys constantly running on them. There was a backstop; there were three bases; and two benches had been placed on each side of the field close to home plate for the players whose team was batting and for anyone who just wanted to sit and watch.
That first time for Ren had been an eye-opener. There hadn’t been two teams; there weren’t enough kids playing that day to have two sides. Instead, it was what Gus told him they called a workup game; kids took turns hitting and playing the defensive positions, changing position as every batter rotated in and out. Instead of jeers when someone didn’t field a ball cleanly, there were shouts of encouragement, and the older kids took the time to show the younger ones how to position themselves and their gloves to do better defensively.
When Ren had come up to bat, he’d been nervous. Gus was pitching at the time and saw how Ren looked. He’d walked in from the pitching area to home plate.
“Don’t be scared, Ren. Everyone wants to see you do well. Look, your hands are separated on the bat, which makes it hard to swing smoothly. Slide them together, like this.” He showed Ren how to hold the bat and had him choke up. “The bat’s much easier to control if you hold it with your hands up the handle some instead of against the knob on the very end.”
Then Gus went back to pitch and tossed the ball softly to the plate. Ren shut his eyes and swung and missed by two feet. Then he waited for the laughter, which never came.
Gus walked in again. “You’ve got to watch the ball to hit it. Next time, just hold the bat up but don’t swing. Watch the ball. Watch the arc it makes. Watch where it crosses the plate. Then, on the next pitch, watch it again and see if you can just meet it with the bat. Don’t try to hit it hard. Just try to meet it.”
Ren listened, and the yells being aimed at him were supportive rather than sarcastic and cutting, and that made a big difference. He started to make contact, and by the time he’d had his ten swings, he’d actually hit the ball several times—once out of the infield. He left the plate actually feeling bigger than he had earlier, eager to have his next turn batting, things he’d never felt before.
Today, they were having a real game. Two sides. But it still was fun, not fiercely competitive. There was some trash-talking, but it was hilarious rather than snide. When JJ swung at a pitch over his head and missed it badly, instead of being called an idiot, Rocky yelled, “Wait a second and I’ll go find you a step ladder.”
Ren played and enjoyed himself. He got two hits and didn’t strike out even once. He’d never done anything but strike out in Jackson. But, perhaps even better than playing the game and having fun doing so, his greatest joy came from the acceptance he felt from the other kids. No question about it: he was one of them now.
> 4 <
Everyone went swimming afterwards. They rode their horses to the pond where they usually swam. All the boys stripped naked and were in the lake almost before their horses had stopped galloping. Izzy was the only one with anything on, and she only wore panties. She didn’t seem to find anything odd about this, and the boys didn’t treat her any differently than they treated each other. Ren found this remarkable. The older boys all had pubic hair and their penises were larger, but they didn’t seem modest at all. They’d all grown up together, Ren realized, and somehow the fact that Izzy had been with them when they were still little boys seemed to mitigate against any feelings of impropriety or embarrassment; they simply swam without inhibitions.
When Ren spoke to Andy about it later, remembering Andy had told him the older boys went to a different part of the pond to swim when Izzy was around, Andy told him he’d only been talking about Hec, Ray and Paul. Then he said something that Ren had to think about. “I overheard Gus and Gordo sort of wondering about those three. Gus thought they might be gay and wanted to fool around while they were swimming. Myself, I don’t think so—at least not all of them. Hec might have been. And maybe Paul. Paul’s sort of strange. I think Ray just did what they did. He was a follower. But I don’t think he was gay. He didn’t give off those vibes.”
Ren so wanted to ask about that, about gay vibes. But he didn’t dare.
> 5 <
Cal and Ren were in the Hanson House for dinner that night and to meet Frederick Turner, who, Cal reminded Ren, was part-owner of the ranch. He handled the ranch’s finances, business affairs and any legal matters that arose.
Ren shook hands with Mr. Turner, a plumpish, 60ish, reddish-faced man who seemed to smile a lot. They all had dinner together, and Mr. Turner turned out to be an animated guest, one who kept the conversation going. He regaled them with stories of life in San Francisco where he lived, and, to Ren’s disappointment, sometimes cast aspersions on the gay lifestyle so prevalent there.
When she was finally able to get a word in, which came when Mr. Turner was actually chewing something, Mrs. Hanson spoke up.
“Fred, you know I have lots of time on my hands here. Well, believe it or not, Mrs. Rivera, one of the ladies here, has suggested I write a book about the ranch, our life here, how we do things with all the kids and cowboys and all—you know the sort of thing. I want to write about how it all got started, how Grandpa Hanson got hold of the land and the early days here, and you have all that paperwork in San Francisco. Could I ask you to bring it with you the next time you’re coming out? Hard to do research without it.” She laughed.
“Sure thing, sweetie. I’ll be happy to help any way I can.” And then he launched into a story about being swamped with paperwork at his office. Ren was finished with dinner long before Mr. Turner had even begun on his salad.
Walking home, Ren asked Cal, “Did you ever meet Mr. Turner before this?”
“Sure, he comes out maybe twice a year. The ranch is actually a private corporation, so they have board meetings. As far as I know, the only people attending them have been Mrs. Hanson, Hec and Mr. Turner. I think together they own all the stock. Mrs. Hanson introduced me to Mr. Turner after she appointed me foreman.”
“What do you think of him?”
Cal didn’t answer till they were inside. Then he asked, “Why?
“I didn’t like him,” Ren said. “I didn’t like his eyes. He smiled a lot, but his eyes were always looking around, watching everyone and how they were reacting to what he was saying. His eyes didn’t smile at all.”
Cal laughed. “You’re pretty observant, you know that? Pretty smart, too.”
With that, he went off to bed. Ren soon followed.