> 1 <
At one of their increasingly frequent dinners at the Hanson House, Mrs. Hanson asked Cal what improvements he’d like to see at the ranch.
Cal, as usual, thought a bit before answering. Ren watched him mull over the question. Usually, Ren was the one who carried the conversation at these dinners. He noticed Cal was even more quiet than usual around Mrs. Hanson. Was there something going on he wasn’t aware of?
Whatever it was, if Ren didn’t speak to Mrs. Hanson, the meal could have become almost embarrassingly quiet.
Now, answering this simple question, Cal deliberated to the point of Ren’s annoyance, then finally said, “I like how things are now. Sure, you could make changes. Add a swimming pool for the kids. Maybe have all the houses painted; some of them are looking like they’ll need it soon. Is that the sort of thing you had in mind?”
Mrs. Hanson smiled. “Well, not really. I was more thinking that, well, could we run more steers, do you think?”
Cal nodded. “Sure. You’ve got the land. Depending on how many you’re talking about, we might get by with the hands we have now, or we might need to hire more.”
Mrs. Hanson was watching him closely. She waited for something more, but Cal had answered and didn’t seem inclined to say anything else. He seemed unusually interested in his salad.
“Hmmph!” she finally said. “You know, Cal, sometimes I have to drag things out of you.” Then she laughed.
Ren did, too. “Exactly!” he said. “I keep telling him that. If you catch him at the right time, he’ll do fine. But he’s often like this. If you want to know something, it’s best to ask him directly, not just nudge him in a certain direction and expect him to do the rest.”
“Hey, I’m sitting right here! At the very least, they usually administer anesthetic before the dissection begins!”
Mrs. Hanson ignored him and looked at Ren. “So he will speak if you catch him in the right mood? Sometimes?”
“Yes, ma’am, if the subject matter interests him. Tell me what you want to know, and I’ll see if I can help.”
She laughed again. “Well, maybe I’ll take the bull by the horns and ask him myself.” She turned to Cal. “We aren’t making the profit this year we should be; there’s a short-term cash-flow problem, and I was wondering what your opinion would be about increasing the herd to improve our bottom line.”
“Really?” Cal asked, sitting up straighter. “Beef prices are up from last year, and our costs are just the same, maybe even lower since we cut back on purchased hay. I’m surprised.”
“Well, it’s true. You know I leave that stuff all to Fred Turner, but the income statements are showing a decline, and the ranch’s balance sheet is worsening.”
“Have you asked Mr. Turner about it?”
“Yes. He says it’s just a normal, cyclical drop, and he expects things to improve—maybe next year.”
Cal looked at her without responding, and Ren was about to fill in the silence when Cal finally said, “You know I got my degree in accounting. If you’d like me to look at the books and see if there’s anything that pops up, I’d be happy to.”
“Oh, yes! Please. That would be wonderful. I’m sure Fred’s doing everything he can. He’s always been very good. But I agree that it seems we should be doing better right now than we are. And another thing: the papers I asked him to send me about the history of the ranch and all that. Nothing’s come. If you end up calling him with any questions, could you mention that?”
“Sure, but I doubt I’ll need to talk to him. I can start looking at what you have tomorrow if you’d like. You get copies of everything that goes to him, don’t you?”
“Yes, all sales of beef, all invoices for what we purchase, wage records, taxes, everything.”
“OK, I’ll come after breakfast. It’ll take awhile, but if there’s anything there, I can probably spot it.”
Ren looked back and forth between the two of them. He felt very proud of his dad. He saw the look Mrs. Hanson had on her face, and it wasn’t pride he saw there; it was something else. Something more empathetic. It was something like the look she’d had when she was teasing him about being as reserved as he was. Except then her eyes were twinkling. Now, they just seemed to be warm.
Thinking about it, he realized it was the same look he caught in Andy’s eyes occasionally. It was difficult to read just what it was.
> 2 <
Thanksgiving came, warm and sunny. Mrs. Hanson had provided 18- to 25-pound turkeys to each of the families, and several for the cowboys’ dinner, enough so they’d have plenty for sandwiches later. Ren and Cal ate with Mrs. Hanson, she telling Cal that it made no sense for them to try to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner for two, and that she’d be lonely eating the meal by herself in any event.
Ren was used to Thanksgiving being just another day. His mother had never been much of a cook and hadn’t bothered with a turkey or anything else to celebrate. It was all too much work for her. For the first time, he had a Thanksgiving meal to remember.
Amelia Fairchild, Moses’s wife, did a fantastic job with the turkey, sage dressing, mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, yams with marshmallows, string beans en casserole, cranberry sauce, pecan and pumpkin pies with enough whipped cream to drown them in. Ren had asked her if he could help, and to his surprise, she’d smiled and said yes, and he’d pitched in. She talked him through the things he hadn’t done before, and the two of them had a great time putting it all together. By the time they were finished, Ren had made a very good friend and bonded with the woman. Additionally, Ren now knew how to make a great pie crust.
After struggling to push his chair back from the table following the meal, Ren didn’t think he’d be able to move for a month. Especially after that last bite of pie. He now understood why it was a tradition to watch TV after the meal. Anything that involved moving around was out of the question.
He spent the rest of the weekend with Andy. It would have been better, he realized belatedly, if he had been able to spend it with Andy alone, but along with Andy, the other members of the social-studies project were involved, all preparing for their presentation, which was scheduled for the Monday following the four-day Thanksgiving holiday.
They were all enthusiastic about their presentation. Even the normally stoic Gordo was into it. They were ready; they had been ready for a week but practiced again over the weekend just to still the butterflies and reassure themselves they were all set to go.
They had the first presentation of any of the groups. Ren had asked Mrs. Rivera if they could go first. He figured that way they wouldn’t have to sit through the other kids’ presentations, getting more and more nervous as they waited. She’d been happy that they were so eager and readily agreed to let theirs be the group that would lead off.
First thing Monday morning all the kids were gathered in the schoolroom, and Mrs. Rivera announced that the 8th grade students were going to give their presentation on the Texas state government.
Anna had been assigned to speak for the group, so she got up first with her introductory remarks. “We’re going to show how the state government works with an original play, written mostly by Ren, though he insisted I say we all wrote it. You are about to witness a State of Texas cabinet meeting. I would like now to introduce our players. First, the Governor of Texas, the honorable Gordo Vargas.”
Gordo got up from the audience and moved to a table which had been set in front of the audience. He was wearing a suit and tie. Before sitting down on a chair at the end of the table, facing the audience, he raised his arms like many a victorious politician did after being announced an election winner
Anna then introduced the members of Gordo’s cabinet: the Secretary of Justice, Andy; Education, Rocky; Treasury, Ren; Agriculture, Ernie; and finally State, herself. As they were named, they all took their places at the table.
Gordo led the meeting, calling on his staff to talk about what was happening in their
spheres of influence. The secretaries responded in a way that defined their jobs, what
authority they had and how the system worked. Ren, with Andy’s help, had had fun writing
the script. Andy had injected some humor into each of their speeches which kept the
audience interested and frequently laughing.
The play took 42 minutes. It ended with the governor blaming Rocky for students in Texas having test scores that had fallen below the national average. Rocky said it was the fault of lazy students, claiming that kids in Texas were all lazy. So the governor fired him and replaced him with his own pet dog, saying now he’d get some obedience. There was an enthusiastic round of applause when they were done.
Mrs. Rivera told them how pleased she was. She got with Ren alone after the school day was over.
“That was wonderful, Ren. And you guys kept it a secret! I guess you wrote the script? And also did the research on the various segments of state government?”
Ren shook his head. “I did my part. They all pitched in. We all added to the script. The dog was Rocky’s idea.”
She smiled, nodding. “I thought so,” she said. “It seemed like something he’d come up with.”
That night, Cal told Ren he’d watched the performance. He’d known about it in advance because most of the rehearsing had been done at their house. He hadn’t told Ren he’d be able to attend the school session and see the performance—not wanting to put pressure on the boy—but had slipped in unnoticed and watched.
“That was pretty amazing stuff. I know Mrs. Rivera has had problems getting both Gordo and Rocky to work in school. They’re just not interested in that stuff; they’re outdoor boys. But they were sure into this. I have a guess. That was because of you, right?”
Ren didn’t like being put in the spotlight, and he was never sure how to take credit for anything. Now, he simply said, “We all contributed.”
“But it was because you got them involved and excited, wasn’t it?”
Ren looked down. “Maybe,” he acknowledged.
Cal laughed. “I overheard Mrs. Vargas telling Mrs. Rivera that she’s never seen Gordo so interested in any schoolwork. She said every time you came over to talk to him about it, whether it was helping him do the research or helping him learn his lines or whatever, the boy was almost glowing when you left and just threw himself into the project. Mrs. Rivera told her that you seemed to have natural leadership talent and that the other kids just followed your lead without reservation.”
He stopped and waited till Ren looked up at him. “You know what, Ren? I agree with her. When I’ve seen you with the other kids, they look up to you. I think it’s instinctive with you. You make them feel good about themselves. You have a talent for that. And you lead them in a way that they often don’t even recognize they’re being led.”
Ren didn’t reply. He was embarrassed. His dad got up and ruffled Ren’s hair, saying, “Anyway, the play was great, and really showed how our government works. You—and they, if you insist—did a great job.”
> 3 <
Ren had a problem. He was almost 14, and his hormones were working overtime; everything and everyone he saw made him think of sex.
His problem was that he didn’t know what to do about it. No one on the ranch spoke about sex. He knew boys this age frequently experimented with each other. Online, he read stories about boys in boarding schools in England who were his age and seemed to be jumping into bed with each other all the time. Yet here he was, ready as he could possibly be, and his bed had only one occupant night after night.
He just didn’t have the courage to approach any of the several boys he found very attractive and talk about getting together in the way he wanted to—to hook up. This was a close-knit community, and he didn’t want to chance scorn or ridicule or even just pitying looks. What was he supposed to do?
He could ask his dad about it. Cal had made it clear he was always there for him for anything he needed help with. But this just seemed to be something for him to deal with, and as great as his dad was, it would be too embarrassing to speak about this with him. And, frankly, Ren just didn’t have the courage to do so.
There was something else, too. He realized, day after day, he was getting more and more attracted to Andy. Andy was far and away his best friend. They spent a lot of time together. And Andy seemed to drop hints now and then that girls just weren’t all that interesting to him. That indeed he might have the same interest in boys that Ren had. But they were always just hints. Nothing specific. And unfortunately, even if Andy had suggested he might—only might—be gay, he hadn’t given any hints that he might be interested in Ren if Ren was also that way. Oh, he’d acted jealous a couple of times, but it seemed to Ren that was directed more at Ren spending time with other kids than it was anything else.
Ren figured maybe the thing to do was find a way to talk to Andy about this without giving anything away. And thinking about it as hard as he did, he came up with what seemed yet another sure-fire way of learning something more specific about Andy.
The two of them frequently went out on their horses together. Just them. They’d mostly just keep their horses at a walk while they chatted, or even rode silently. Just being alone together was something they both felt very good about. When it was a weekend and they had time, they would occasionally end up at one of the lakes where the ranch kids swam. Southwest Texas was often very pleasant in the fall of the year; they actually could swim much of the year at the ranch.
Ren noticed that when swimming was on the agenda and the two of them were alone together, Andy usually took him to a lake that was deserted. This was the sort of thing that made Ren wonder. Did Andy want to be alone and naked with him? Yet when they were swimming, Andy never seemed to be flirting or even paying much attention to Ren’s naked, wet body. When they swam alone together, nothing happened.
Ren decided being naked would be the best time to use his newly decided plan to test Andy’s preference. And that Saturday turned out to be perfect. It was in the mid-80° range, unusually warm for December, sunny and windless, and going swimming during their ride was a very natural thing to suggest. And so suggest he did.
“I’m too hot,” Ren said, removing his cowboy hat to wipe the sweat off his face. “That pond we swam in last time isn’t far, is it? Just over there?” He pointed in the direction he thought was right. He was getting very good at orienting himself on the prairie now.
“Race you there,” said Andy, and took off toward where Ren was pointing.
Midnight was one of the fastest horses on the ranch, and Ren’s riding was getting much better. He had no problem galloping now. Ren caught up with Andy easily, then just rode with him. Sometimes Andy sulked when beaten at something, and this wasn’t a day he wanted to be with a moping boy.
They dropped the reins and let both horses drink while they were shedding clothes. That was one thing Andy was very good at. He always beat Ren stripping. When he was bare, he ran for the water. Ren sighed. If the boy was gay and liked him, wouldn’t he stick around and watch Ren? He sure liked watching Andy undressing.
They paddled around in the lake, cooling off, enjoying the water. Then Ren got out, retrieved a soft blanket from his saddle bags, and spread it out near the water. He lay down on his back and closed his eyes. The sun was no longer a problem for him. He was getting tan all over now, and in any case, he’d used sunscreen.
Very soon he was joined by Andy. Andy lay down next to him.
“This is pretty nice, isn’t it?” Ren asked without opening his eyes.
“Yeah,” Andy said, and yawned.
How to get the conversation going in the right direction, Ren wondered. He knew what he wanted to talk about. Getting it going so it didn’t seem forced—that was the problem.
And then Andy solved it for him. “What’d you want to do tonight?”
Ren smiled and hoped Andy’s eyes were still closed, too, and didn’t see it. “I
dunno. Maybe watch TV. You know what I feel like? Maybe a few of those old
westerns that used to run as serials on TV. We can find some of them on Netflix. I
like Maverick a lot, at least the ones with James Garner in them. And Have Gun — Will
Travel was great, too. Which ones do you like?”
“I always liked both of those, and Gunsmoke, too. Did you ever see The Cisco Kid? That was good. I liked Pancho. Oh, and don’t forget The Rifleman.”
Ren’s heart started beating faster. Would it be this easy? “I like that one, too. It might even be my favorite. What do you think of Johnny Crawford?”
There was a moment of silence, and then Andy said, “Uh, what about you?”
“Hey, no fair! I asked you first.”
“What unfair! No way it’s unfair. You asked, and I counter-asked. So you go first!”
“Oh no you don’t.”
“I do, too.” And then Andy rolled over on top of Ren, and Ren, not expecting that, froze for a second, then rolled himself, and the two were suddenly wrestling.
Wrestling in the nude had the effect anyone who’s been a young male teenager would expect it to have. Additionally they were both still a little wet and a little slippery, and in no time at all they mutually decided that swimming, while less exciting, would be less embarrassing. Ren did get to see Andy hard and vice versa. But then they were in the lake and laughing, and Ren never did get to learn what Andy thought of Johnny Crawford. Bringing the question up again would be some of that ‘forcing the issue’ problem he wanted to avoid.
Ren did have a visual image to fall asleep to at night now. A very stimulating and beautiful visual image that he thought of most every night: Andy, hard and wet, just before he raced to the lake.
> 4 <
They were at the Hanson House again for dinner. Ren and Mrs. Hanson were good buddies by now. He really liked her. She’d replaced Bobby’s mother as the ideal mother figure to him. The other kids went to Mrs. Vargas for extra mothering when they felt the need. Though Ren didn’t feel that need much now—he’d become a lot more independent and self-confident—he at least thought of Julia Hanson as the one to go to if he ever needed that sort of attention.
So he’d not felt a bit embarrassed when he’d asked her if he could bring Andy along for dinner this time. He couldn’t even decide exactly why he wanted to do that, but he did. And so he asked, and tonight, Andy was there, too.
They’d all been chatting over the meal, and now Mrs. Hanson asked Cal, “Have you found anything in all that paper you’ve been looking through?”
Cal nodded. “I’ve found some things to ask Mr. Turner about. I’d like to talk to you about them after dinner if you’ve got the time.”
“Sure. That’d be fine.” She turned to Ren. “Maybe you boys would like to go help Amelia in the kitchen. She is going to make a special dessert and could probably use some help, even if it’s just to oooh and aaah over what she’s doing. Cal and I can talk now, and we’ll have the dessert later.”
That was what they did. Ren and Andy got to watch as Amelia cooked up a crème brûlée, and then they both got a turn at torching the brown sugar to melt and caramelize it. There was lots of laughing and kibitzing while they worked.
When they walked home, Ren and Andy stayed outside after Cal went in. Ren felt strong emotions, more than usual, and Andy looked like he wanted to say something. They looked at each other, and Ren was on the brink of what he was afraid might be a big mistake when JJ came outside from next door, waved at them and came over to see what was going on. What was going on was Andy trudging home and Ren going inside to a very empty bed.
> 5 <
Ren was disgusted with himself. He should be able to do this. He and Andy were out on their horses. Alone. They’d left early, just before breakfast. He’d been sure he could do this. He could tell Andy he liked him, he was gay, and ask him if he was, and if he shared Ren’s feelings. And if he didn’t, he hoped they could still be friends. How hard was that, really?
Yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to speak.
OK, he decided. They’d been out here for hours, and it was getting towards lunchtime. They were headed back. So, he’d do it before they got back to the ranch. That was the line he was drawing in the sand. He hadn’t been able to do it yet, but he was going to. Dammit, he was going to. Before they got back. The deadline would force him to speak. OK, not just anytime before they got back. That was too vague. He had to make it more definite than that.
OK, when he first sighted the ranch buildings. They were coming in from behind, so the first thing they’d see was the back of the barn. When he first saw the back of the barn, that’s when he’d do it. For real this time.
They were moving toward the barn. He’d see it in a minute or so. His throat was dry. His hands were almost shaking. Maybe they actually were just a little. He looked ahead. Was that the barn?
That was when they saw the two men on horses. The two men saw them, too, and rode toward them, coming up on them from the direction of the ranch. Riding hard.
Andy pulled his horse up, and Ren did the same with Midnight. It was coming up on noon, the sun directly above them. As they watched, the riders approached. Both strangers. Both wearing side arms and holsters. The men appeared to be Mexicans. They both looked very unfriendly. They looked fierce.They rode up to the boys and stopped right beside them. They didn’t speak. One of them grabbed the reins from both boys. Then the other maneuvered his horse so he was behind the boys, and the one in front turned and began riding back toward the ranch. The other followed. As a group, with the boys in the middle, the four of them headed back to the ranch.