Mike and Danny: Forever
Note that these stories, including this one, are not an endorsement of unsafe sex. They take place many years before the appearance of AIDS and before it was standard practice to use condoms to reduce the risk of infection from sexually transmitted diseases. Remember always: that was then, this is now. Sex is precious, and so are life and health.
Randy had an idea. He changed the bandage on his butt and then went up to the house to find Chad. They'd take one of the trucks into town and do some Christmas shopping.
"Christmas shopping?" Chad said.
"Yeah, you know, for presents." Payday had come early, and money was burning a hole in his pocket.
"I'm supposed to be here to answer the phone."
"Just a couple hours. How often does anyone call here anyway?"
"More'n once a day?"
"So, long shot, maybe you miss a call. They'll call back, won't they?"
"What if it's Don?" He wasn't about to be easily persuaded.
"OK, forget it," Randy said. "It was just an idea."
With a day off from work, he could still take a drive into Hyannis by himself for a look around. And he wouldn't hurry back, maybe take his supper at the restaurant in the hotel and have a couple beers there in the bar. But he hadn't given up on Chad just yet.
He had been sitting at the kitchen table when Randy walked in, drawing with a pencil on a big sheet of brown wrapping paper. He put his arms over it as the two of them talked, but from what Randy could see, it seemed to be a picture of a cowboy standing next to a long, sleek convertible. Hitched to the back of it was the start of what looked like a horse trailer.
"What's that you're doin' there?" he said. "Didn't know you could draw."
"I can't," Chad said and lifted his arms, as if to prove his point.
"Who's that supposed to be?"
"Just a cowboy."
"No, it ain't," Chad said and put a big X through it.
"What'd you do that for? I'da took it if you didn't want it."
"I wouldn't of give it to you."
"Do it over again and make it the way you want. Then let me have it."
"If I made one that good, I'd keep it for myself."
Randy, favoring his butt, had stayed standing. Now he pulled a chair away from the table and gingerly sat down on it. The sore under the bandage made only a small complaint. "You don't think much of me, do you?" he said.
Chad fixed him with a look. "Why do you say that?"
"I'm just noticin'."
"Nothin' to notice."
"Maybe you just don't know me."
"Well, I don't much."
"What would you like to know?"
Chad shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "You tell me."
So he did. He told Chad of his life in Nevada, ranching with his old uncle, who seemed to have outlived the rest of his family and everybody else he'd ever known. And when Chad didn't ask how Randy came to be in Nebraska, he told that story, too. That he had a partner, Wallace, who'd planned to ranch with him some daya place for gentling wild ponies, so they wouldn't get slaughtered and turned into pet food.
He waited for a flicker of interest to show on Chad's face, but he simply listened and said nothing. Then he told of how Wallace had done time in the state pen in Lincoln for stealing a car and was out on parole now, but had decided to settle down with a girl he'd met and not go back to Nevada.
"I'm really going to miss him," Randy said. "He was my buddy."
This softened the expression on Chad's face. "So where does that leave you?"
"Up shit creek, I guess," Randy said and laughed. "What's your story?"
Chad shrugged again. "I grew up. Went to school. Here I am."
"Gotta be more to it than that. I heard you rodeo."
Randy had known cowboys who spent words like they were five-dollar bills, but Chad seemed to spend them like twenties.
"You more talkative when you ain't laid up?" Randy said.
"I guess I've been known to run off at the mouth when I'm in the right mood." Chad smiled a little at this, and the smile sent a wave of warm feeling through Randy. He realized that his dick was getting stiff in his jeans.
"Sure I can't change your mind about goin' with me into town?" he said. "Cooped up like this, you must just be itchin' to get out."
Chad thought a moment and glanced up at the clock on the wall. "I was just down to North Platte this morning. But I dunno," he said, like he might be wavering. "The old cabin fever has been gettin' the best of me."
"Slim'll let us borrow his pickup, if I promise to fill it up at the gas station."
"We can take my truck," Chad said.
Something had made him change his mind about going, and he was roughly folding the paper with the drawing and getting up to shove it into the waste basket beside Don's desk. As he bent over it, Randy watched his backside in his jeans. The cowboy was cute, he thought. There was no other word for it.
Chad didn't really like Randy. For one thing, he talked too much, and sometimes you couldn't believe everything he said. But he wasn't bad company either, just someone you wouldn't go out of your way to hang around.
They walked out to Chad's truck, and as they drove off Randy had him go past the calving shed so he could run inside and tell Slim and George where they were going. When he got back in the cab, he sort of eased himself onto the seat, like he'd hurt himself somehow.
"You do something to your back?" Chad asked him.
"Kinda like that," Randy said but offered nothing more to explain.
"Tail bone?" Chad said. He'd got thrown from a bull last summer at the Alliance rodeo and landed hard on his butt. The ache he got from that didn't go away for weeks.
"Yeah, in that neighborhood." For someone who could talk as much as Randy, he was oddly tightlipped on this subject.
They drove on into town, Chad slowing over the frozen washboard and stopping for the stop sign at the highway. Fifteen minutes later, they were crossing the railroad tracks and pulling into town. Chad parked near the hotel, and they agreed to meet there later.
Chad wanted to get Don a bottle of bourbon, but he wasn't old enough to buy anything in the liquor store, so he'd asked Randy to do it for him. "Make sure it's Wild Turkey," he said. He knew that was Don's favorite kind.
"Don't know about this. Buying booze for a minor," Randy said and shook his head. "Could get me in a bucket of trouble." Then he laughed and took the money Chad handed to him.
Chad's first stop was the feed and tack store, where he found a new pocket knife for Slim, who'd worn his down to almost nothing always sharpening it razor thin on his whetting stone. Then he bought some spur straps for George with fancy leatherwork.
"Now when'll I ever wear these," George would say, happy with the plain blood-cowshit-and-urine stained ones he'd worn since God was a boy, as he liked to say about nearly everything he owned.
"You'll wear 'em every day," Chad would tell him. "And throw them other ones away." What he'd like to say was George oughtta be wearing something as handsome as he was, for he'd always thought of George that way, with his dark skin and eyes. And maybe Chad would say it anyway.
That left Randy, and there he was stumped for a while. He finally settled on a big red bandana, just so Randy wouldn't feel left out. And as the sales clerk was ringing it all up, Chad took a store calendar for 1973 from a pile by the cash register. On each page, there was a picture of a beautiful horse. It would look good on the wall by Don's desk.
Walking out to the street afterwards into the late afternoon sun, he held the bag with what he'd bought under one arm and felt a warm affection for the men at the ranch. Most of them he'd hardly known a year ago, and he felt thankful to have them now in his lifeespecially Don. The good Lord had been good to him.
What, he wondered, would another year bring?
He went to his truck, slid the bag behind the seat, and then walked up and down the main street, looking in the shop windows at the Christmas lights and the decorations. Next to a grocery store, there was a barber with a striped pole out front, and he stepped inside from the cold to treat himself to a real haircut.
Later he went to the hotel, where he walked through the bar, expecting to see Randy, but at this hour of the day it was still empty, so he walked through to the restaurant and sat at a table, where he could sit drinking a coke and get the waitress to bring him a plate of French fries from the kitchen.
"Chicken fried steak tonight," she said. "You gonna be here for that?"
It sounded good and he nodded at her.
Someone had left a newspaper on the table and he read as he ate. The world outside may have been going up in smoke, but there was little mention of it. The pages were full of local news, town meetings, police reports, and obituaries. In the letters to the editor, there was a long one from a rancher he used to work for about how nuclear testing in Russia was to blame for the weather.
After an hour, Chad got to wondering about Randy and he checked the bar again, where there was no sign of him. By now three old geezers were sitting at a table by the window playing backgammon, one of them punching pegs furiously into a board and dealing another hand of cards.
"I'm lookin' for someone," Chad asked the bartender, who he saw was the waitress from the restaurant. "There another bar in town?"
"Eagles up the street," she said, pointing with her thumb over her shoulder. "Riley's across from it. The Sundowner out on the highway." She pointed another direction. "We got anymore bars in this town?" she asked a man sitting at the bar with a bottle of beer. "Or is four enough?"
"You forgot Elsie's," he said.
"Oh, sure, like I'm gonna send this boy over there. What are you thinkin'?"
The guy laughed and lifted the beer to his lips. "Well, you was askin'."
"You ever been there?" She scoffed.
"Best place in town to see a good fight," he said. "Always somebody trying to clean the place outcowboys, truckers, bikers, Indians, you name it. You're OK at Elsie's, long as you're not outnumbered."
"Don't know why the sheriff don't close that place down."
"Heck, he's probably the best customer."
"I wouldn't put it past him."
Chad could hardly get a word in edgewise to say thanks, and he went outside, where it was already getting dark and there was the beginning of snow coming down in flurries on the wind. He saw the neon signs glowing over the two bars up the street and walked toward them.
A quick look around in both of them turned up a handful of customers in each place, but no Randy. So he went back to his truck and drove along the highway to the edge of town. Sundowners was a rambling building spruced up to look like an old-time saloon, with an entrance of weathered planks and a hanging lantern over the door.
Randy was not there either. That left one barElsie's.
He got back in his truck and drove to the other end of town, where a shapeless shed of a place was dimly visible at the back of a big gravel parking lot. A row of pickups was nosed up to the front door, where snowflakes danced in the weak glow of a single pole light.
He parked under the light, took a deep breath, and then walked to the door. A cloud of cigarette smoke met him as he stepped inside, and the sour smell of a beer-soaked floor. The place was so dark he could barely see where he was going. He couldn't imagine finding Randy even if he was there.
He turned as he heard the clack of balls on a pool table, and he watched as two men took turns with silent concentration, lining up shots with their pool cues and then reaching for their beers that sat on a ledge along the wall behind them.
When it got so he could make out the figures of other men sitting around in the half light, he peered into the gloom, looking for Randy's black hat. There were several black ones, but none of them belonged to Randy.
He was about to leave again, when there was a commotion coming from somewhere in the back, and suddenly a man came bursting into the room from a darkened hallway and headed for the front door, cursing in so drunken a drawl it was hard to make out what he was saying.
The sign on the wall where he'd emerged said "Men," and something gave Chad the idea that he hadn't yet found every black hat in the place. He hadn't thought to look in the restrooms at any of the bars he'd been to.
He followed the sign down a corridor to a door that was propped open, a bright light coming from inside, like the owner of the placeElsie herself maybedidn't want anyone pissing on the floor because they couldn't find the urinal.
A quick look around the room, and all he saw was a trough against the wall, a mirror over a chipped porcelain sink, and a prophylactic dispenser. Then as he was about to turn and go, he heard a low moan, and he realized there was someone in the toilet stall. Under the door he could see a pair of familiar boots.
"Randy?" he said.
There was a moan again, and now Chad was sure. He pushed on the stall door and it swung open. Inside was Randy, sitting on the toilet seat, eyes closed, rubbing his face.
"What happened?" Chad said.
Randy looked up at him and took away his hand so Chad could see a bruise turning red under his eye.
"Guy took a swing at me," he said.
"Didn't like my looks, I guess."
Chad bent closer to see if it was more than a bruise, but the skin on his cheek was not broken.
"He didn't get me real bad," Randy said. "I think he mostly missed and busted his fist on the wall."
Chad felt a cold grip of fear and had only one thought. "Let's get the hell outta here."
"I think he said he'll be waitin' for me outside."
"I can take him. He's so drunk he can hardly stand up."
Chad grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to his feet. "Forget that. Let's just go."
Randy seemed to be in no hurry, but he got up and let Chad lead him back out into the bar. It took Chad a moment to find the front door, then he pulled Randy after him until they were outside, a gust of wind blowing a dusting of snow into their faces.
"I don't see him anywhere," Chad said. But as they hurried to Chad's pickup, they found the man, bent over and hanging with one bleeding hand onto the tailgate of somebody's F-150, puking his guts out in the frozen dirt. He didn't seem interested in a fight.
"What were you doin' in this place anyway?" Chad said as they got into his truck. "Lookin' for trouble?"
"I wasn't lookin' for anything. Just thought Elsie's sounded nice and friendlymaybe make a friend there." He laughed a little sadly, touching his fingers to the bruise on his cheek.
Chad was already driving across the parking lot, out to the highway. "Godamighty, what kind of friend?" he said. "That place gave me the willies."
"It warn't so bad once you got used to it."
"I'm going straight to the ranch. I thought we'd be back there by now. You do all your shopping?"
"Stop at the liquor store, and I'll get your bottle of Wild Turkey."
"You didn't do that yet?"
"It'll just take me a minute."
And Chad waited outside the store as Randy went in, ducking his head into the collar of his coat as a swirl of falling snowflakes swept around him. Sitting in the cab and watching him inside through the plate glass window, Chad tried to make sense of this man. There was surely more to him than he'd ever let on, and maybe his way of always talking was supposed to keep another man from finding out.
When Randy came outside again, he had the bottle, wrapped up tight in a paper bag, and a six-pack of Budweiser. He put the bottle on the seat between them and then opened one of the beers, handing it to Chad.
"No, thanks," Chad said, waving it away.
"Take it. For your trouble back there."
"You don't owe me anything for that."
"Then take it because I like you," Randy said, still holding out the beer. "And I want you to like me."
Chad took the beer then and put it between his legs, where it was cold against his crotch. "I'll have it when I get back," he said. It wasn't that he hadn't had a beer or two while driving before. He just didn't feel like being Randy's drinking partner. Which seemed to be what he wanted. There was a kind of misery about him that begged for company.
"Well, don't leave it there," Randy said, pulling the beer from between his legs. "It'll get all warm." And he began drinking it himself.
"I mean it," he said after a while. "I want you to like me."
This talk made Chad uncomfortable. "I woulda left you there tonight if I didn't like you," he said.
"No, you wouldn't have. That's not the kind of man you are."
"And what makes you so sure?"
"I've known a lot of men. Ain't many come like you."
"I don't know why not."
"Good lord gave you a heart of gold, that's why."
Chad wondered how much Randy'd had to drink already. It sounded a lot like drunk talk to him.
"Slim and George are gonna be wonderin' what happened to us," Chad said, changing the subject.
"No they won't. I told them we wouldn't be back till late."
"Why'd you tell 'em that? We was only gonna be gone a couple hours."
"You never know when something's gonna come along and change your plans."
"Looks to me like maybe you had different plans from the start."
Randy laughed a little. "I don't do much makin' plans these days. I found out it don't do you much good."
In the silence that fell after that, Chad sensed that Randy wasn't thinking anymore about the day in town. What he'd said had to do with the partner who'd left him, the guy whose name was Wallace.
It was a funny thing about cowboying, as Chad had already begun to learn. A man did it to be on his own, work outdoors and away from people always wanting to complicate his life, but sometimeseven with a good horseit was also the loneliest job in the world.
It put religion into some cowboys, because a man gets to needing another person to talk to, and aside from yourselfwhich can get to be a pretty tiresome conversation, unless you never weary of the sound of your own voicethere's only God left to listen. That's normally a one-sided conversation, as well, but you choose your words more carefully, which tends to raise the level of discussion and even uplift the man himself.
"I'm sorry about you and your friend not workin' out," Chad said. "Savin' wild horses is a good thing to be doin'. But it don't take two for that. You can still do that on your own."
"Won't be near as much fun."
"I reckon you'll find someone else."
"And I reckon you ain't had much experience with that."
"I dunno," Chad said. "I can think of examples." He was thinking of Don and himself. Their friendship had happened easily enough.
"It ain't like in the comic books," Randy said. "The Lone Ranger and Tonto. The Cisco Kid and Pancho. In the real world a man pretty much rides alone."
"Slim and George seem to get along good."
"I'll give you that one, all right," Randy laughed. "Those two are sure a pair."
Chad slowed, looking ahead for the turn-off to the ranch road. Threads of snow snaked along the surface of the highway in the wind. Then Don's sign for his Charolais herd appeared in the headlights.
"I hear them talkin' out in the shed when they forget I'm up on the roof workin'," Randy said. "They're like an old married couple."
"How long you think they've been together?"
"Dunno. George ain't that old neither. Not like Slim." Randy thought for a moment. "Makes you wonder what will happen to them, you know, years from now."
Chad thought of the years between himself and Don, maybe a dozen of them. Not too many. He liked it that Don was that much older. Taller, too, by maybe half a foot. Having him around was like having a big brother, a protector, someone to learn from and admire. He'd never be as tall as Don, but he hoped some day to be as much of a man. And for Don to be proud of him for it.
The ranch road was a thin blanket of white in the headlights of the truck. Though it led to two other ranches besides Don's, there were no tracks anywhere along ittheir own from this afternoon now buried under the new snow.
"I can't see them stickin' together more'n a few years longer," Randy said. He was still thinking of Slim and George. "Slim's already gettin' up there."
"Does that really matter if you care about somebody?"
"Could take a lotta carin'."
Chad pictured himself at Don's bedside in some distant future, holding his hand where it lay on a white hospital sheet, smoothing the hair from his forehead. Don would smile and look into his eyes, grateful for all the years Chad had been with him.
A rabbit suddenly darted across the road in front of the truck, disappearing again in the darkness beyond the headlights.
"Damn," Randy said. "I thought the coyotes had got all of those." He popped open another beer. "The rest of these are yours, my friend," he said and gave the half-empty six-pack a little shove toward Chad.
They rode along in silence for a while. Then Randy said, "Would you come to Nevada with me? You said you liked the idea of saving horses. I got a nice place there with my uncle. We could have a good life out there."
"I think you've had one too many of those beers." Chad couldn't think of what else to say.
"I mean it. You're a good man and a good cowboy. And like I said, I like you."
"Maybe the punch you took back there at the bar is affecting your thinking," Chad laughed.
"I'm not jokin'."
"I know you're not," Chad said, but he didn't know how to tell Randy that he didn't feel the same way about him. Besides, he had a place here where he was happy. Nevada might as well be the dark side of the moon.
They had turned onto the lane that was taking them now to Don's place, and Chad could feel the soft pull of the snow under the truck's tires.
"I'm gonna drop you off at the bunkhouse, and you go get yourself some shuteye. Tomorrow I'm guessin' you'll have second thoughts about this whole thingif you remember it at all."
"Believe me. I'm far from drunk and I'm in full possession of all my wits. A night's sleep ain't gonna change anything."
Chad said nothing now and just kept driving, finally seeing the lighted window of the bunkhouse ahead and heading towards it past the barns and the corrals.
"Got you back safe and sound," he said as they came to a stop at the bunkhouse.
Randy just sat there and didn't move. "You ever let a man give you a kiss?" he said.
"No," Chad laughed. "Never done that."
"Maybe it never was the right man."
"I don't think that's the reason," Chad laughed again.
Then Randy leaned across the seat, putting one hand over Chad's on the steering wheel, and ducking his head under the brim of Chad's hat kissed him softly on the mouth.
Continued . . .
© 2009 Rock Lane Cooper