Mike and Danny: Big Hopes
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.
He couldn't remember how it had happened. He'd been hurrying to hammer down the last sheet of plywood on the shed roof, thinking he'd worked in all kinds of weather and he wasn't going to let some spitting rain slow him down. And next thing he knew he was lying there ass over pump handle in some hay bales on the ground, the wind knocked out of him.
Now here he was feeling like a fool, unable to walk, the pain shooting up his leg from his ankle if he tried to take a step. He'd taken a flying fall off a bull at the Burwell Rodeo that had done this to him once before. He'd limped out of the arena that time, his head held high and ignoring the agony, until he got behind the chutes where the crowd couldn't see him and then sank to his knees.
"A little late for prayin'," one of the other riders had joked.
"No, it ain't," Chad had said, breathing hard through his teeth.
He'd eventually walked away from that. But not this time. He hoped to hell he hadn't broken something. It was a badge of honor to break a bone riding rodeo rough stock, but not from falling off a goddam roof.
Shit, he kept thinking. This was a godalmighty embarrassment. And more than half of what made it so embarrassing was the stupid-ass fact that it had happened here working for Don.
He'd admired Don from the day they'd first got to know each other. Something about the man just made him want to do anything to please him. When Don came by and asked if he could help round up a couple of his bulls that had run off, Chad had felt his chest fill with excitement. This was a chance to show the man how good a cowboy he was.
And the day had gone well. They'd got lucky and the bulls, once they found them, had cooperated, like they realized they were no match for Chad and his horsethough the truth of the matter was they were probably just tired of wandering around the countryside and ready to go back home.
He found himself growing fond of these old Charolais cattle of Don's. They were beautiful and showed some smarts like you didn't always get with Angus and Herefords. And he thought Don showed some smarts himself as a rancher and breeder. A herd of his mamas and their calves grazing on the grassy hills you could sometimes see from the road by his ranch were the investment of a forward- thinking man.
Hell, he liked almost everything about Don. He was handsome, too, built for a long hard day's work, with a ready smile and always in a good mood. If he got pissed off about something, it was for a reason.
He'd tried to pay Chad for helping out that day, and though he needed the money, it meant more to him to just spend the time with Don. And he took it only after Don agreed to hire him again when he needed an extra hand.
Put in plain, simple words, he loved Don. His fingers, as he slipped the twenty into Chad's shirt pocket, had brushed over his nipple inside his shirt, and the pleasure of that touch had lingered with him for the rest of the day. Lying in his bunk that night, an image of Don's smiling face in his mind's eye, he had put one hand there on his naked skin, as he jerked off with the other.
Working on the shed roof that day, he'd seen Don and Slim come riding in from the north pastures, pushing three old horses ahead of them along a fence line. For a moment he'd stopped to watch them, Slim in his yellow slicker and Don riding deep in his saddle, his long legs nudging his horse along as a gust of wind at their backs brought down more rain.
Chad was eager for Don to see how much they'd accomplished while he was gone. He was hoping for a smile and a good word, but he was far from expecting what happened instead. Don had jumped off his horse and come running as soon as he saw Chad on the ground, and when it was clear Chad wasn't going to be walking again anytime soon, he'd taken him to the ranch house.
Chad could have hopped along on one foot, with Don and George on either side of him, but instead Don had swept him up in his arms and carried him there like a calf. George had come along behind, holding Chad's boot.
"I'm sorry, sir," Chad had said. "I don't know what happened."
But Don was scolding George for trying to work on a roof in weather like this. What the hell was he thinking?
"It's not George's fault," Chad kept trying to say, but the pain was getting worse and it was hard enough just to keep from bawling. For a while, he didn't know if he was going to swoon away from that or the amazement of being held in Don's arms.
Don had called Chad's boss at the Rocking T to say he wouldn't be back for at least a day, and if he was missing any work to be done there, he'd be more than happy to send a man over. From the sound of the conversation, Chad figured his boss was putting up some kind of fuss. Just about anything he didn't expect would set him off.
"Well, I think I went and lost you your job," Don said when he put down the phone. "Your boss says not to hurry back."
"It's OK, sir. He was fixin to let me go for the winter anyway."
"The man ought to know when he's got a good worker and hang onto him."
"I'm not much good for anything now, sir."
It hurt him to say this. He felt foolish and helpless here in Don's kitchen, his ass in a big old chair and his leg propped up, his naked toes sticking out from the towel wrapped around an ice pack.
"You OK like that?" Don wanted to know. "You need anything?"
Chad shook his head.
Yeah, it hurt like hell, but a man's gotta cowboy up. Chad shook his head again.
Slim and George had come in for supper, and Don had fed them all. It wasn't unusual for a man to be doing the cooking. Some didn't have a wife around to look after that. Not a lot of them were much good at it, but Don wasn't one of those. He wrapped a cook's apron around himself and made it seem like he enjoyed taking care of his men.
The kitchen had filled with the smell of hot food, and Slim had brought Chad a serving of chili so thick you could eat it off a plate. There was steaming cornbread , too, and coffee. Next to the Rocking T, the mood was so different in this house. The men hardly said much, but they were so at ease with their boss it felt like a family.
"Didn't tell you boys," Don said, sitting down with them. "We got company comin'."
Neither of the men looked up, but you could almost hear them listening.
"My brother Kenneth," he said. "You remember him?"
"Sure do," Slim said, and George may have nodded.
"Might get here yet tonight," Don said. "He's on his way home from Montana. Been up there with our uncle."
"It'll be good to see him again," Slim said. "He's a good lad."
"Not much of a cowman, though," Don said, but Slim had said all he was going to say. George remained silent.
They'd sat up together after the men left for the bunkhouse, Don working on something at his roll-top desk and Chad still in his chair, getting sleepy in the warmth from the stove and sipping on a glass of Jim Beam Don had given him for the pain.
In the silence of the kitchen, a clock ticking loudly on a shelf, Chad let himself imagine what it would be like spending the end of every day like this, with Don just a few steps away. It was a kind of cowboy heaven, he thought, to have these quiet hours so near the man you admired.
Finally, when he could hold it no longer, he'd told Don he needed to take a piss, and Don had helped him to the bathroom, one arm around him as he stood at the toilet and opened his fly. Pressed against his body by Don's strong embrace, Chad felt his dick getting stiff and he hoped Don didn't notice.
Then when a clock somewhere in the house had chimed half past eight, Don stood and walked to the window to look out. A car was coming along the ranch road.
"He's here," he said.
After a round of whisky to celebrate the arrival of the visitors, Don had dished up more chili and cornbread for them, and as they sat at the kitchen table eating, Chad had been able to get a good look at them.
Kenneth, with his long blond hair, was so different from Don, they hardly seemed like brothers. Deacon, who looked older than all of them, was hard to figure out since he hardly ever cracked a smile and said very little, just sat there taking it all in.
An hour went by, as the two brothers talked, and the warmth of the room and the whisky he'd been drinking was making Chad sleepy. He tried to stay awake, but Don finally noticed he'd been nodding off.
"What do you say we put you to bed, cowboy," he said, getting up, and he helped Chad onto his feet.
"Need a hand?" Deacon said, starting to get up, too.
"Naw, he's all muscle but light as a feather," Don said. "Look at this." And before Chad could object, he'd lifted him into his arms. As Don turned to head for the door, Chad felt his head swim and the room seemed to spin around them.
Don carried him like that to his bedroom, putting him down on the bed, real easy like he was already asleep.
"You gonna want some help gettin' undressed?" he said.
"No, sir," Chad said. He wasn't wearing any underwear, and even if he wasn't embarrassed about being seen naked, there was this little problem of his dick, which was half-hard again and getting harder.
"Get those jeans off anyway," Don said. "I want to take a good look at what you've done to your ankle."
"I don't think we need to do that, sir. It's feelin' better already."
"Bullshit. That sounds like the Jim Beam talking."
"Yes, sir," Chad said and unbuckled his belt, then leaned back on a pillow to unzip his fly, pushing his shirt tail down between his legs to cover himself as Don tugged on the cuffs. Then he lifted his butt to let Don pull the jeans off him.
"That's a mean-lookin' shade of purple," Don said, studying Chad's ankle and shaking his head. "Someone's takin' you into the doc tomorrow for sure."
"Oh, no, sir. You don't have to do that."
"Did I ask for your opinion?" Don said and pressed the swelling with his finger. The dagger of pain that shot up Chad's leg knocked him back into the pillow.
"No, sir, you didn't," Chad said through clenched teeth.
"I'm sorry as all hell this happened, and I'm going to make it right, you hear?"
"Yes, sir." Chad felt a tear streak down the side of his face.
"You sleep as late as you want tomorrow morning, and then you're goin' down to the clinic in Ogallala. Get x-rayed and everything."
"Want some help gettin' that shirt off?"
"No, sir." Chad was still hugging the shirt into his crotch with both hands, his dick fully hard now despite the pain in his ankle.
"You need any helpgoin' to the bathroom, brushin' your teeth, whatever you got to dojust holler."
Don got the covers pulled back so Chad could get under them, and he put a pillow under his ankle, explaining that it would keep the swelling from getting worse.
"You want me to leave the light on?" he said now, standing at the bedroom door.
Don switched off the light. "You get some sleep," he said and he was gone.
But sleep did not come. Not in the first few minutes, like he was used to, and still not what seemed like hours later when Don crept quietly into the room, undressed in the dark, and crawled into the bed.
As he lay naked between the sheets, with Don there beside him, his skin felt on fireevery nerve on endlike he was being touched all over by soft caressing fingers. And his dick was so hard it ached.
When Don had been asleep for a while, Chad reached over to him until he found his arm and slowly, carefully traced the length of it until he found his hand, softly touching it and finally lacing their fingers together. Then with his other hand holding his hard-on, he felt a wave of wonderful fatigue settle over him and he slipped inch by easy inch into a deep, warm sleep.
Not long after daybreak, which had seemed to come shortly after he'd closed his eyes for the night, Kenneth was awakened by Don, shaking him. "Get your ass outta bed," he was saying. "You're taking Chad to the clinic in Ogallala this morning,"
"I asked you last night."
"Didn't I say no?"
"Yeah, but I go stuff I gotta do around here and you're doin' nothin'."
Besides the comments about the length of his hair, Don had been on his best behavior all night, all friendly and glad to see him. This morning was more like the brother he remembered.
"You want me to go now?" Kenneth said.
"No, when he wakes up."
So he'd got dressed and sat in the kitchen drinking coffee as the sun came up and a bright day dawned outside. He stepped onto the porch, his breath visible for a moment on the cold air.
Ice from last night's storm glistened in the bare branches of the shrubs planted along the yard fence, and he stood there in his shirt sleeves looking out to the barns and beyond them to the open pastureland, where he saw a herd of Don's cows the color of creamy café au lait under the November sky. Today it was a piercing blue with floating broken clouds.
A whistle came from out by one of the barns, and one of the cowboys who worked for Don appeared from behind a stack of hay bales carrying a feed bucket. He walked through a gate into a corral where three horses stood together watching him, and he emptied the bucket into a trough, patting their necks and talking to them as they nosed up around him to eat.
Kenneth tried to imagine living out here month after month, miles from anywhere, through the blistering hot summers and the bone-chilling long winters. It was a life only for men like Don's cow handsdead set against anything like the modern world.
They'd been born at least two or three generations too late. They belonged a hundred years ago, when all the work was done with horses and there was no electricity. And there was no driving a hurt cowboy down a smooth highway at sixty-five miles an hour to a place with doctors and nurses where modern medicine could fix him up and put him back in the saddle again, good as new.
A chill breeze starting up from the north swept around him and he stepped back inside the house. By the kitchen clock it was just after seven. After another cup of coffee, he decided to look in on Chad.
He walked through Don's sparsely furnished living room, with its sagging leather couch set facing an unused fireplace. The door to the bedroom was on the far wall, and Kenneth's stocking feet padded softly across the polished hardwood floor. The door was ajar, and he pushed it open slowly until he could see inside.
There in the bed, Chad lay sound asleep. On top of him, he'd wrapped both arms around Don's pillow, his face pressed into it.
Chad had been surprised when he got dressed and found Kenneth in the kitchen waiting to drive him to the doctor. He'd thought all along it would be Don taking him.
The ankle felt a little better, but he'd quickly found out there was no way to get his boot on over it, and Kenneth had helped him out to the GTO after putting one of Don's socks on his naked foot.
"You OK?" Kenneth asked him more than once as they left the house, and Chad recognized a tone of concern in his voice that was like his brotherconcern and something else, too.
Kenneth opened the car door for him, and when Chad paused, figuring out how to favor the injured ankle as he got inside, Kenneth said, "Just sit sideways first, and then we'll lift this bad leg in."
And that had worked, Kenneth's gentle hands supporting his knee and his foot. Being touched with such care was something he wasn't used to, and though it felt strange, it made up a little for getting busted up like this in the first place.
Kenneth got in behind the wheel and started the car, turning on the heater then reaching across to the glove compartment to take out an ice scraper. Chad watched, the heater blowing cold air on his legs, as Kenneth went around the car scraping the frost from the windows.
They'd been on the road for a while, driving along in silence when Kenneth said, "You're kinda fond of my brother, aren't you?"
"I like him, yeah."
"When I looked in on you this morning, I couldn't help noticing you were givin' his pillow a good hug."
"Oh, that," Chad said and laughed a little like it was nothing. But he flushed with embarrassment, wondering what else Kenneth had seen.
When he'd awakened and found Don already up and gone from his side of the bed, Chad had lain there for a while remembering the night before, the way his feelings had been swimming around in him and his skin alive and tingling.
Without thinking, he turned to stroke the sheet where Don had beenthen his pillow, burying his nose in it to breathe in deeply the smell of him. Then he had pulled the pillow on top of him, imagining Don holding him tight in his arms, saying sweet things close to his ear.
Chad just sat there now, staring at the road ahead. He had no idea what to say to Kenneth.
"It's OK," Kenneth said, like he understood something that he wasn't saying. "A man's got the right to feel any way he wants to about another man."
Chad nodded, not sure what he was agreeing with.
"And I can tell Don is fond of you, too," Kenneth said.
Chad felt a rush of warmth surge through him. "I hope he is."
"But I'll tell you something about Don you should know," Kenneth said. "He'll draw the line at whatever it is I think you've got in mind."
What did Kenneth think he had in mind? He just wanted to be Don's friendto let Chad love him. And maybe, just maybe, to love him a little in return.
"Don is strictly a ladies' man," Kenneth said. "Always has been."
"I know that," Chad said, though in fact he never thought of Don this waynever really wanted to.
"For one thing, he's married. You know that, too."
"Yes." It was easy to put that out of mind, since Don and his wife didn't live together.
"And I'll bet you anything there's at least one or two other women he's chasin' around here somewhere."
Chad tugged on his hat and cleared his throat. "I wouldn't know anything about that."
"Well, believe me. He may not let on, but that's what he's like."
Chad swallowed hard and stared at his hands.
"I'm telling you this for your own good," Kenneth said. "I saw what was going on last night. It was written all over you. My friend Deacon said the same thing. Don's the only one who can't see it."
Chad felt himself go cold inside. He didn't want to believe this.
Kenneth reached across to him and put his hand on his thigh, and there was that caring touch again. Only the caring this time was not for the pain in his ankle, but the pain that was creeping into his chest.
"Don't go lovin' someone who'll never love you back," he said. "They'll just break your heart."
Chad shook his head. He realized he was willing to go on like this, being close as he could to Don, even if this was as close as he'd ever get.
"He don't need to know how I feel," he said.
"That'll work fine for him. But what's in it for you?"
"Plenty. I just wanna be where he is. I never liked anybody much as I like him."
Kenneth thought about this, and when he spoke, his voice had turned harder. "Don can be a jerk. You're wasting your time if you think he's a better man than that."
"I don't care. Anything you say, it ain't gonna change my mind."
Kenneth sighed. "Guess I may as well shut up then."
May as well, Chad wanted to say, but he knew it would be impolite.
And they drove the rest of the way in silence.
"I can't find any broken bones," the doc said after he looked at the x-rays, "but it's gotta be the worst sprain I've ever seen. Did you ever injure that ankle before?" he wanted to know. He was wrapping up Chad's ankle with a long strip of elastic bandage.
"You sure? Not some fool thing like rodeo?"
"Look, son, you gotta stay off this ankle till it heals, or you'll be limping around the rest of your life like Chester on Gunsmoke."
"Three weeks should do it. I'll send you home with a pair of crutches. Make sure you use them."
The doctor wrote out a prescription, tore it off the pad, and handed it to Chad. "This is for the pain. You can take one every four hours."
"I won't be needin' them, sir."
"Let's say you do. And if you run out, there's a refill."
Chad took the prescription and stuffed it in his shirt pocket.
"Any questions?" the doc said.
How'm I supposed to finish Don's roof now, he wondered, but the doc wouldn't know the answer to that one.
When he came out into the waiting room, he was hobbling along on the crutches, a nurse at his back saying, "There, you're getting the hang of it."
Kenneth stood and put down the magazine he'd been reading. There was the bill to be paid, and he wrote out a blank check Don had given him. Then they stepped outdoors and Chad waited on his crutches while Kenneth went out to the parking lot to bring around the GTO.
Once again he helped Chad into the seat. And once again Chad felt glad for the comforting touch of a helping hand.
"That a prescription?" Kenneth said, noticing the slip of paper sticking out of his shirt pocket.
"Yes, it is."
"What's it for?"
"Pain killers. But I don't need 'em ."
"Give it here," Kenneth said, holding out his hand.
Chad handed him the prescription, and they drove to a Rexall's where Kenneth went inside to get it filled. When he came back a while later, he popped the top off the pill bottle and shook out a capsule.
"Open," he said, holding the capsule in front of Chad's mouth until his lips parted and he stuck out his tongue. Then he handed him a can of coke he'd bought to wash it down.
On the road out of town, headed back to the ranch, Kenneth said, "I'm sorry about what I said before. I was a little hard on you."
"That's OK," Chad said, waiting for the pill to take effect.
"No, it's not. I'm just feelin' a little sorry for myself. You might say I'm kinda sensitive on the subject of heartbreak."
"Did something happen to you?"
"Something, yeah. Someone."
"Too bad there's not a pill for that," Chad said.
Kenneth laughed. "No shit."
The road curved up out of the valley and into the hills. The sunlight poured in through the windows and warmed Chad. He felt his body relaxing, and he was beginning to feel drowsy.
"Don't tell Don what I said, OK?" he said.
"I won't. I just wish you'd fallen for someone who could love you better'n Don ever will."
Chad wasn't sure he could imagine anything better. "What more could there be?" he wondered out loud.
"Sex, for one thing. You ever do that with another guy?"
"You mean like a circle jerk?"
"I was thinking more like a fuck buddy."
"Never tried it. Don't know if I even believe in that."
"Well, there we got something in common. I'm not sure what I believe in anymore either."
And they drove on into the hills and the late autumn sunshine.
Continued . . .
© 2008 Rock Lane Cooper