Mike and Danny: Stuff Happens
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.
By all rights, they should have got to the ranch by nightfall. Don would have been expecting them, earlier if possible, to get back to work in the calving barn. But by the time they got to North Platte and headed north on the two-lane, the sky was turning slate gray and it looked like a storm was on the way. The few brief days of spring weather suddenly over and done with. Back to winter.
As the road began rising steadily into the first ridges of the sandhills, the sky darkened and began to spit rain. Within an hour, the rain had turned to sleet, rattling as it flew against the windshield, the wipers starting to build up with ice and feebly moving back and forth over the glass. His feet got cold in his boots, because he'd had to put the defroster on full blast.
Dark came early, and the snow started now, slanting across the road in the headlights. He'd had to slow down sometimes because the road was slick, or they'd had to follow some driver just creeping along, who wouldn't pull over to let them pass until Kirk had flashed his lights and honked his horn several times.
By the time they got to Hyannis, he was creeping along, too, not even sure where the road was under the cover of fallen snow. The town looked deserted as they drove through it, like it had been abandoned.
Virgil had been asleep much of the way, slumped against the door, arms folded across himself, the collar of the denim jacket Kirk had loaned him pulled up around his ears, his hat pulled down to the bridge of his nose. He had been silent and unhappy after leaving Kearney though not until Kirk had told him to stop worrying about the guy he'd punched.
"All's I gave him was a nosebleed," Kirk had said. "He coulda got a lot worse."
But it was like Virgil had taken the punch himself. He acted stunned, like he'd never been in a fistfight. Then, after they'd passed a couple more exits on the interstate, Kirk had looked over and seen that Virgil had gone to sleep.
After a while, he had turned on the radio, finding nothing but some gospel preacher encouraging him to repent.
"Like hell," he'd muttered, and turned it off again, letting his thoughts drift over what he remembered of the night before, how he had put Virgil on his back to fuck him, so he could kiss him if he wanted. And he'd wanted to.
He'd looked over at Virgil as he slept now, thinking of his naked body as he stood in the middle of his room getting his hard-on, the morning light falling all around him. There inside his jeans was the smooth skin he had stroked and behind the folds of the denim in his crotch the balls that had struck him suddenly as a perfectly matched pair, hanging there together, almost hairless, between his thighs. It had made him laugh then, and he chuckled to himself again now.
He'd never thought much about other men's balls before, except when they were odd and out of the ordinary. Or why a man should have two of themor for that matter why they have to hang there in the open, almost twisting in the wind and so tender that a guy no matter how tough can be on the ground and doubled over in agony with just one well placed kick.
You said of a real, tough man that he had balls, but they were the easiest part of him to hurt and hurt bad. A busted nose was nothing.
Virgil woke now as Kirk pulled off the pavement and the tires hit the uneven surface of the country road that would take them out to the ranch.
"It's snowing," Virgil said.
"Is it getting late?"
"Maybe yes, maybe no. Either way, Don's gonna chew our asses when we get there," Kirk said. "And everybody else'll be pissed off, too. When the weather gets like this, it's fuckin' all hands on deck."
There was double the risk for newborn calves in freezing rain and snow. Cold and wet, they could catch pneumonia or just plain perish from exposure. It took all the men watching the herd with their eyes wide openno sleeping tonightand still they could lose some.
Kirk kept the truck to what seemed like the middle of the road. There was no swerving from side to side as they raced along singing at the top of their lungs, like the night before. After a long time, he finally saw the ranch gate ahead of them, and he turned in, the snow-covered cattle guard softly thrumming under the tires as they crossed it.
From here on, he wasn't sure what lay under the snow. The road was little more than a winding lane over open pastureland. Don hadn't got around yet to having it graded and graveled, and the fuel truck and cattle transport drivers had to maneuver around the boggy parts that showed up in the spring and during wet spells.
Kirk remembered dodging around a couple of these the night before, but he wasn't sure where they were. They wouldn't have frozen over yet, and with the sleet and rain they'd probably only be worse. He figured the best bet was to keep up his speed and then gun it if he felt the truck slipping into a soft spot.
This worked for the first one, but not for the second. The rear end of the truck whipped around like it had been shoved broadside by an eighteen-wheeler, and after Kirk steered into the skid, one way and then the other, the truck veered off the side and came to a stop.
He rocked the truck backward and forward, but it only seemed to get them in deeper.
"Want me to get out and push?" Virgil volunteered when Kirk had finished cussing his luck, the road, the truck, the weather, and everything else he could think of.
"No, I believe we're good and stuck this time. We're gonna need a pull."
"We probably can walk to the ranch from here," Virgil said. "I can see lights up ahead. Can't be far."
"That ain't right," Kirk said, peering through the windshield. He knew from many nights of returning late from town that the only lights on the ranchif anyone had left them onweren't where you could see them until you were almost there.
But sure enough, he could see a pair of them up ahead. And as he watched, he realized they were movingeerily in the blowing snow. Suddenly he thought of how ranchers out here liked to talk of seeing UFOs, and a funny chill went through him.
"Those lights are coming this way," Virgil said.
He'd even heard stories of alien abductions. Though he always figured it was just people disappearing who wanted to. Anyone could have their reasons.
Virgil cranked down his window and leaned his head out into the wind and falling snow.
"I can hear something," he said. "Someone's coming to get us."
Then Kirk could hear it too. He laughed. It was the grumble and whine of the John Deere tractor driving slowly up the lane from the ranch, its headlights growing brighter as it came.
"How about that?" Virgil grinned.
When it got to them, the figure that stepped down from the tractor's cab turned out to be George. He was dressed in quilted coveralls and insulated boots, with his black hat on his head, white flakes of snow now gathering on it, the brim lifting in the wind.
"Get stuck?" he said, standing at the window, his voice muffled by the wool scarf tied around his face.
"What's it look like?" Virgil said.
"Looks like you got stuck," George said.
And Virgil got out as George turned the tractor around and backed up to the pickup. He took the heavy chain and hooked up the two, disappearing for a while under the front end of the truck to get to the frame. When he stood again in the glare of the headlights, wet snow and mud fell from where he had been stretched out on the ground.
He waited until George had pulled ahead enough to take the slack out of the chain, then he jumped back in the truck.
"How did he know we were out here?" he said, wondering.
Kirk felt the easy tug of the tractor as it began to pull them forward. "You'd have to ask George," he said. "I sure as hell couldn't tell you."
The storm lasted for most of three days, and the temperatures dropped down past nut-freezing. The nights seemed longer than the days, but finally it was all the same thing, grabbing a few hours of sleep when they could, sleeping in their clothes, sometimes never leaving the barn, just stretching out for a while on some grain sacks in the feed room.
Slim kept them fed and brought out a big thermos jug filled with hot coffee.
They brought the herd of pregnant cows in close to the barn, where one or two of the men checked every few hours for the ones about to drop their calves, bringing them inside. The cows with calves already were in a separate pasture, and someone went regularly round there in a pickup, bringing in the calves that had got too cold, so they could get warmed up.
Don worked steadily with all of them, barking orders and never seeming to sleep at all, keeping the operation going, whileout of Don's hearingthey all cursed the fucking snow, the fucking cold, and the cows themselves for all the fucking aggravation of picking a fucking storm to have their calves, and needing to be fucking fed and fucking watched to make sure they didn't fucking freeze to fucking death. And in spite of all that, some of them fucking did anyway.
Kirk and Virgil seldom had the chance to talk. If they happened to be working together, there was too much to be doing. And the night of being naked together in a real bed, the smell of Virgil in the unwashed sheets, the warmth of each other's bodies, and the sexthe memories of that faded quickly. Sometimes standing in the clothes he'd worn for days, snow blowing in his face, his ass nearly frozen from driving loads of piss-and-shit soaked straw from the pens out to the dump in the truck with the busted heater, it was like that night had never been real at all.
He saw Don once walk over to Virgil and pat him on the shoulder of his big coat and tell him what a good job he was doing. And when Virgil's eyes lifted to Don's, the expression on his tired face was one of pure and simple pleasure, like if Don had turned and walked straight into hell itself, Virgil would have followed without so much as a pause.
Not to say that the heat of hellfire wouldn't have been welcome for a while, but there was no question that Virgil had been doing a man's workand morelike the rest of them. He still had a lot to learn, but he had proved himself. And Kirk realized that he was proud of him.
"When you come down off that cloud," he'd told him, "you can grab a pitch fork and start helping me clean the shit out of these pens."
Then after the storm broke and there was just the cold that followed the days of blowing snow, they started what seemed to be a normal morning for a change, gathered around the table in the ranch house kitchen, eating Slim's breakfast, when Don broke the news that Virgil was leaving.
"We're going to miss you, boy," he said. "I've hardly ever seen a new man work hard as you've been working. I know the rest of the boys here feel the same way."
Slim stood at the stove with his back turned to them, nodding. And George glanced up from his plate, with that expression of his that simply said he didn't disagree.
Kirk looked at Virgil, surprised and trying not to show it.
"I'm going in to town," Don said. "I'll be giving Virgil a ride that far." It was his way of saying that if anybody had any goodbyes, they'd better say them.
Kirk, not so sure how he felt about this, said nothing then, but when he saw Virgil sitting in Don's pickup later that morning, waiting for Don to come out of the ranch house, he walked over to him and stood by the window until Virgil rolled it down.
"So you're goin'," was all he could think of to say.
"I thought you might be stayin'."
"Better I go back to school. I been thinking I's just runnin' away from it, and runnin's no good."
Kirk pulled his tin of Copenhagen from his shirt pocket and took some. Then he offered it to Virgil, who shook his head.
"You ever comin' back?" Kirk said. And in the corner of his eye, he saw Don emerge from the side door of the house. He was dressed in his talk-to-the-banker clothes and a clean silver-gray Stetson.
Kirk had the sudden feeling that he might be looking at Virgil for the last time. In his gut, something stirred, steely cold.
He swallowed hard. "Kinda hopin' I'd see you again." The words were like rocks in his mouth.
Virgil shrugged once more, looking away.
Now Kirk recognized the feeling in him. It was anger.
"Well, that's the way it goes sometimes," he said and stepped back from the truck.
Don was opening the door on his side and getting in behind the wheel. "Kirk," he was saying, "I want you to change the oil in the dump truck, it's way overdue, and check the tires. Clean it up, too. I know it's a dump truck, but it don't have to look like shit."
"Yessir," Kirk said.
Don started the engine. "And see if you can figure out what's wrong with the goddam heater," he said.
Kirk looked at Virgil, wanting to say one last thing, but unable to find the words. And before Don put the truck in gear and drove off, he was already walking away.
The days afterwards passed in a kind of fog, and he did what he could to forget about Virgil. Even the empty chair beside him at the kitchen table became after a while no more than just thatan empty chair. Some new guy would be sitting there before long, as Don hired on another ranch hand or two for the summer.
And the cot had disappeared from the bunkhouse. So when he went to bed and got up again, there was nothing but an empty place in the corner where he'd gotten used to seeing Virgil buried under his covers, always having to shake him in the morning to wake him.
As was usually the case, no one spoke of Virgil after he was gone, and in time it was as though he had never been there.
Spring weather returned, and the sky for a while became a babbling chorus of sandhill cranes headed north. Fixing fence one day with Slim, who was feeling better and wanted his old job back, he watched a flock of them flying over and remembered the day of the sun dog as he stood with his arms around Virgil.
"Fuck that shit," he had muttered finally, ready to let the memory go.
"What'd you say?" Slim had asked him.
"Aw, nothin'," he'd said.
But Slim had stopped what he was doing and studied him, finally saying, "You been awful quiet lately, son."
He hated when Slim called him "son," like they were somehow family, but he let it pass this time.
"So what?" he said.
"And before that, it was a different kind of quiet."
"I don't know what the fuck you're talking about," Kirk said, figuring he knew what Slim was driving at, but wanting him to just leave the subject alone.
Slim went back to work but Kirk could tell he was still thinking.
"Sometimes another personanother mancan have an effect on you," he finally said. "Fill a place that's been empty inside you."
"I have no fuckin' idea what you're talking about," Kirk said.
Slim went on. "And when they're gonehand me that claw hammer there behind youit can feel a lot like hell."
It irritated him to think that Slim, of all people, had seen everything so clearly about him and Virgil. He wondered if George had told him about finding the two of them in the hay barn.
"I'd give you some old-fashioned advice," Slim said, "if I thought you'd take it."
"I don't want your advice."
Slim looked at him again, several fencing staples now in the corner of his mouth. "It's no good a man livin' his life alone." He took one of the staples and hammered a strand of barb wire in place. "Hell, that's even in the Bible."
Kirk wanted to tell him to mind his own goddam business, but he let it drop, and so did Slim. He'd said what he had to say on the subject. Whatever Kirk did was now up to him.
First chance he had for a Saturday night in town, Kirk took it. He washed up and changed clothes before supperSlim had a pot of beef stew that had simmered on the stove all afternoon, which he ate steaming hot and hardly tastedand he headed for town in his truck, going straight to the tavern and drinking two bottles of beer, one right after the other.
He took the third and walked into a back room where there was a row of tables along one side, and some cowboys he didn't know were playing pool. He leaned against the wall watching and feeling the alcohol gradually take effect.
There was a jukebox and a small patch of floor where a few couples could dance, and a guy in a pair of black stovepipe jeans and a black cowboy hat was picking out songs, punching in the buttons on the front, while a Merle Haggard song had already started up.
turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried
He leaned over the jukebox, studying the song titles as smoke drifted from a cigarette hanging from his mouth, all his weight on one leg and his butt angled off to one side. When he punched in the last song, he turned slowly and took a drink from a bottle of beer he'd been holding by the neck in one hand, and after glancing quickly around the room, let his gaze settle on the men playing pool.
Kirk couldn't tell if the guy knew he was watching him. Their eyes never met. Or never seemed to.
The barmaid walked into the room now and then, hustling drinks at the tables, and while the guy grinned and flirted with her as she brought him another beer, the smile faded as soon as she stepped away. He stood, barely moving, one thumb stuck in a front pocket, just drinking his beer and talking to no one, and no one in the room seemed to know him. Or wanted to.
Except maybe Kirk. He followed him into the men's room and just stood a long time at the mirror over the sink, briefly running cold water over his hands and face and watching the back of the guy as he stood at one of the two urinals. An old duffer was parked at the other one, taking a long time and not getting much results from the sound of it.
Then the guy stepped away, punching the flusher, stuffing himself into his jeans and zipping up. He walked past Kirk and out the door without looking at him, as Kirk took his place at the urinal.
The tavern got crowded, louder and noisier as the night got later, and a few couples starting dancing as the jukebox played. He went out to the bar and a couple cowboys he knew from the ranch up the road from Don's felt like talking to him and bought him a beer. He leaned against the bar with them and talked about calving and the weather and hunting and if it was going to be another dry summer.
It was dumb cowboy talk, but as he got drunker, he forgot about what he came there that night to forgetwhatever it was. And he'd stopped thinking about the guy in the black jeans until he went to the men's room again, and found him there once more, taking another long piss.
A couple young guys were putting quarters in a condom machine and complaining that they didn't get anything for their money.
"Aw, that's just one of the management's revenue streams," a big gray-haired man in a white shirt and string tie laughed. "You gotta go out front and complain if you want your money back."
The two boys huffed and stomped out, their boots thumping on the tile floor.
"Course nobody ever does," the man said, turning to Kirk and winking.
While this was going on, the guy in the black jeans finished and was gone again. And when Kirk came out a couple minutes later, he had disappeared into the crowd.
Through the smoky haze, he could see by a dimly lighted clock on the wall that it was going on midnight. He decided he'd think about heading back to the ranch after a couple more beers, and he leaned against the bar again, smoking cigarettes and letting himself slip farther into the dull glow that radiated through his blood stream.
Hot and sweating, he finally stepped outside into the cool night air. Away from the noisy crowd, and walking into the parking lot, he began to feel alone like he hadn't for a long time. Slim's words came back to him, and a sadness came over him that meant he hadn't drunk enough.
He stopped short of admitting that what he was missing was Virgil's company, which would have been a solace in this darkening Nebraska night, where the smell of raw, thawing earth was heavy in the air. Just for tonight, he thought instead, anyone would do. And he'd be himself again in the morning.
"What does a guy have to do to get laid in this town?" someone said behind him.
Kirk was leaning against the side of his truck, looking out into the darkness behind the tavernlooking at nothing. He turned and saw a man a few steps away from him. It was the guy in the black jeans.
"Depends on what you got in mind," Kirk said. The guy stopped and stood just looking at him, a thumb again in his front pocket. "I hear the barmaid can be friendly," Kirk told him. "Her name's Charlotte."
"You ever had her?" the guy said.
Kirk laughed and said, "Can't say that I have."
"I thought so," said the guy.
He still hadn't moved from where he was standing. The pole light for the parking lot was straight over them. His eyes were in the shadow of his hat brim, and it was hard to tell exactly what he was getting at. If he was drunk, he sounded cold sober.
There'd been nights when Kirk didn't leave town without a fight of some kind. This was quickly getting to feel like one of those.
He kept weighing the guy's remark. "What did you mean by that?" he said.
"You followed me into the can twice," the guy said.
"So what. I needed a piss."
The guy laughed a little. "Tell you what," he said. "That's my Ranger over there." He pointed with his thumb in the direction of a new tan and white truck parked on the street. "I'm leaving. You can follow me if you want."
He turned then, without looking back, and walked away. When he got to his truck, he climbed inside, swinging his butt up onto the seat and slamming the door shut.
When Kirk pulled out of the parking lot, he found the guy waiting for him at a stop sign, ready to turn onto the highway through town. As Kirk slowly nosed up behind him, the Ranger suddenly swung to the right, tires spinning in the dirt, sand and gravel pinging against Kirk's front bumper and fenders.
For a moment, Kirk watched the taillights, heading east out of town.
Then he followed them.
Continued . . .