Mike and Danny: In Love
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.
"We got ourselves a little problem," Baxter said, when he found Owen coming in from the Henderson pasture, where he'd driven out that morning to check on the herd and found them on the wrong side of a fence.
A couple saddle horses and another cowboy would have made the job of rounding them up easier, but he'd gone out by himself in his pickup. Then he'd taken some skin off his knuckles patching up the barb wire fence the cows had knocked down.
Now he was back again, hours later, hot, hungry, and sweaty. He was not in much of a mood for another problem.
"What's up?" he wanted to know.
"Kid showed up here. Knows Lonnie," Baxter started to explain.
"Lookin' for work?" Owen said, impatient. "We got all the help around here we need." He was walking to an old hand pump by the house where he could get a drink of cold water. It stood on a worn wooden platform in the shade of a cottonwood tree.
"No, nothing like that," Baxter said, like he was trying to describe something too hard to put into words.
"He's run away from home I think. Came here clear from Ohio."
"You mean a little kid? How old is he?"
"Fourteen, fifteen maybe."
Owen yanked the pump handle several times when he got there and reached for a tin cup, filling it in the flow of water that splashed from the spout. He took a long drink that washed the dust from his mouth and then spilled down the back of his throat and into his parched insides.
He looked across the place and saw a black pickup parked near the barns.
"That how he got here?"
Owen took off his straw hat and set it on the pump. He gave the handle a few more yanks and bent down to put his head under the water. Ice cold, it felt like getting hit in the back of the neck with a two-by-four.
He held himself there as the water soaked through his hair and poured onto the ground. Then he splashed it onto his face with both hands. When he stood up again, it ran down into his shirt.
"What do you want me to do about it?" he said.
"Figure this thing out," Baxter said. "His folks have gotta be lookin' for him, and there's that truck. It sure don't belong here either."
"Call the sheriff," Owen said.
"I dunno, Owen, you sure that's the right thing to do?" Baxter was looking away like he hated to be the one to disagree with anybody.
"If he stole a truck and run away from home, there's probably some goddam law he's broke somewhere," Owen said.
"He's just a kid. Maybe he's in enough trouble already."
"Aw, hell, Baxter. My old man and the sheriff go way back. There wouldn't be any more trouble."
"His folks, though. We don't know what they're like." Baxter looked him square in the eye now. "Maybe he had good reason to run off."
Owen considered Baxter, a worried expression on his face, and he wondered what was going through his mind. Baxter's father had been such an easy-going guy, he couldn't know what it was like being raised by a real sonofabitch like Owen's old man.
Just because he'd taken a stick to Owenwho usually deserved itthere was never good reason to run away. It just made you tougher to stick it out and finally one day stand up to the bastard, which is what he wanted anywayshow you're man enough to be his son.
"Where is he now?" Owen said. He ran his hand back through his wet hair and then put his hat on his head again.
"Over in the horse barn with Lonnie."
"Let's go have a talk with him," Owen said and began walking across the place. "What's he got to do with Lonnie anyway?"
"Lonnie says they're kind of brothers."
"They've been in foster homes."
Owen didn't know much about that, or what it could mean. What he did know about kids was having his own, too young for anything like this and living with their mother in Ogallala, the ink still hardly dry on the divorce papers.
"What's Lonnie got to say?" he asked.
Baxter didn't answer right away. "He doesn't seem all that happy to see him" he finally said.
When they got to the barn, they found Lonnie and the boy standing apart and not talking.
"OK, what's this all about?" Owen said, figuring a couple of questions would clear it all up and then he'd make a call to the sheriff.
"Kevin," Baxter said to the boy, "this is Owen. He's the foreman here."
"Baxter tells me you run away from home," he said.
The boy fixed him with a look that was supposed to be hard as nails but didn't fool Owen. The kid was scared and hurt, like a rabbit chased down by one of the dogs.
"Is that true?" Owen said, since he didn't get an answer.
"Yes, it's true," Lonnie said.
"What's he doing here?" Owen said, talking now to Lonnie.
Lonnie, he realized, was acting like a hunted animal himself. A raccoon up a tree, looking down, fierce and angry, into the bright glare of flashlights.
"He don't know," Lonnie said.
"I do, too," the boy said. "I came here to see him." And he pointed at Lonnie.
"Well, you've seen him," Owen said. "Now it's time for you to go back where you come from."
Baxter raised his hand like this was a meeting with rules of order. "Maybe it would help if Kevin told us his side of the story."
Owen had things to do and he didn't want to have to deal with complications, but he let Baxter talk.
"Did something happen back there that made you leave?" he asked Kevin.
"I got a letter from Lonnie. He said he was here."
"I didn't tell him I was here, sir," Lonnie said.
Why did that matter? Owen wondered, but let it go.
"It wasn't hard to figure out," Kevin said. "He told me about the ranch and the river, and he told me about you." Now he looked straight at Baxter. "He told me a lot about you."
Owen saw Lonnie's eyes shift to Baxter, but the man kept watching Kevin.
"I got to a town out here and started asking around, and somebody knew how to find you."
"How come nobody's found you by now?" Owen said. "That truck ain't yours, right? The cops gotta be on the lookout for it."
"The people I live with, they went off for a few days. Soon as they was gone, I lit out."
It was like talking to Huckleberry Finn, Owen thought, the only book he'd ever read cover to cover in school.
"These folks of yours gotta be worried about you," Owen said. "Don't you think it's time we give 'em a call and let them know where you are?"
"That's what I been tellin' him," Lonnie said.
"Do you know his folks?" Owen asked him. "Can you call them?"
"If it's all right, sir," Lonnie said. "I don't want to talk to them."
"How come?" Baxter said. "Is this the man you told me about last night?"
Owen looked at both of them, and figured they were talking about something they didn't want him to know about.
"No, it's not him," Lonnie said. "Do you think I'd leave Kevin behind with someone like that?"
"OK, enough of this," Owen said, raising both hands, putting a stop to it. They weren't getting anywhere. "This is what we're gonna do."
And he explained to them that Kevin was going to have to get used to the idea of going back to where he belonged. They'd call the sheriff, and that would be thatno more discussion. If Kevin didn't cooperate, he'd have the law to deal with.
"Please, let me stay here," Kevin said, giving him a pleading look.
"Well, you can't, and that's all there is to it," Owen said.
"Just a few days."
"The sheriff's the one who'll decide that."
And Owen walked out of the barn, stopping at the black pickup to take the keys and shove them in his back pocket. If Kevin was going to take to the road again, he'd have to hitchhike.
Sheriff Wexler had laughed a little when Owen finally got him on the phone and spilled out the story to him. He made a joke about the general competence of the Staties, who had somehow let an under-age driver slip unnoticed most of the way across the state.
"You know, they never found Charlie Starkweather either, and they were actually looking for him," Wexler said. "That boy got clean to Wyoming."
The deal was that one of his deputies would call Kevin's folks in Ohio and let them know he'd been found. Then there'd be arrangements for getting him back thereput him on the next bus if necessary. Sooner or later, someone would have to come for the truck.
"Might as well let him stay out there at the ranch till we know what's what," the sheriff said. "Just keep an eye on him. Don't want him disappearing again."
And that was that. All pretty simple.
When the end of the day came, they'd decided that Kevin would spend the night down the road at the double-wide with Owen and Kirk. He could sleep in one of the bunk beds in the room that had belonged to Owen's kids when he was married.
Owen picked up Kevin where he'd been hanging out with Lonnie in the horse barn. The two of them had not changed their attitude much. Lonnie seemed glad to see Owen take the boy off his hands.
"You come a long way to see someone who don't seem all that glad to see you," Owen said as he started up the truck.
Kevin just glared out the bug-smeared windshield.
"What's he so pissed off about anyway?"
I dunno, sir, would have been more like it, Owen thought, but he let it pass. Kids from back east didn't seem to know how to show any respect.
"Lotta nerve for a little guy like you drivin' all the way out here from Ohio," Owen said. He had to hand it to the kid. It was something he could have done himself at that age. He'd been driving a pickup around the ranch before he was out of grade school.
"It wasn't nothin'."
"Where'd you learn to drive anyway?"
"That a friend of yours? Driver Ed?"
The boy gave him a sharp look, like he was in no mood to be amused.
"I don't know about Ohio, but around here you need a learner's permit for that, and you're not foolin' nobody you're old enough for one of them."
"I taught myself."
Owen laughed. The kid had balls. "I figured as much," he said and let the subject drop.
As they passed along the two and a half miles of road that took them to the double-wide, a plume of dust rose up behind the truck, hanging in a low cloud in the light of the setting sun.
Owen got to thinking about Kirk and wondering if he was back from haying, with supper on the stove. It wouldn't be more than corned beef hash and beans out of the can, maybe some eggs soft-cooked on top, but he didn't care.
The smell of just about anything cooking when he came in at the end of a day was enough to make him a happy man. All he'd have to do is get a cold beer out of the refrigerator and wait for his food to be servedrelaxing with his feet up on the railing around the back deck, the last of the day's light in the western sky.
Otherwise, he'd have to make a meal himself, and he didn't have the patience for that. Kirk could holler all he wanted about him being a lazy-ass sonofabitch, but it wouldn't do him any good. Owen was just hopeless in the kitchen.
Afterward, he'd make it up to Kirk in bed, which was where his talents were more inclined anyway. And Kirk never complained about that. The hollering got to be part of the deallike the wind-up before the pitch. They'd finally get to punching each other and laughing. They'd forget about being hungry, and pretty soon, after a couple beers, it would be lights out and tumbling into the sack together.
"We're in luck," he said as he turned off the road and headed along the track that led to the double-wide. Kirk's truck was parked beside it. "There'll be a hot meal for us tonight."
Kirk didn't seem too surprised when Owen walked in with Kevin and said, "We got company."
He'd already started eating his supperstanding there in his dusty work clothes and stocking feet. The kitchen table was too cluttered with unopened mail, unfinished paperwork, and new machine parts still in the box, for anyone to sit down at it.
He pointed with his fork to the stove where a couple of blackened pots sat on burners with a serving spoon in one of them. "Help yourself," he said. "Should be enough there for the two of you."
Owen took a bar of Lava soap and washed his hands at the sink, then wiped them on his jeans and took a plate from the dish drainer. There was a frying pan with hot dogs, a pot of what Kirk called his Texas goulash, and beans, as always.
"What brings you out to these parts?" Kirk asked the boy, small talking like he was trying to make him feel at home.
Kevin took a while to finally look at Kirk as if deciding whether the question deserved an answer. Then, maybe realizing he was stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with two men who were bigger and stronger than him, he seemed to get used to the idea of being there.
And he told Kirk more or less of his story. Listening to it this time, Owen allowed himself to wonder about Kevin and Lonnie. Until now, he'd just been thinking of the boy as a runawaya kid fed up with his folks and wanting more than anything else to make an escape.
Now he considered that maybe he wasn't a runaway after all. It was Lonnie, a long lost brother, he'd come traveling all these miles to see. Owen, who had no brothers of his own and figured he'd done just fine without them, couldn't imagine what that must feel like.
And his attention shifted to Kirk, the man he'd gone out to a bar one night and brought home. Kirk had dropped his empty plate in the sink and leaned now in a doorway, drinking his beer, listening as Kevin talked, keeping him going with more questions. He'd already found out more than Owen or Baxter had managed to get out of him.
Kirk, he now remembered, had run away from home himself when he was still a kidall the way from Utah to his uncle Mike's farm in Nebraska. He'd been mostly on his own since then, and maybe them having this in common made him take an interest in Kevin.
This would be like Kirk. He was tough as rawhidethe top layer of him, and maybe a couple layers under that onebut once you really got to know him, there was a soft spot way inside somewhere that no one ever knew. It had taken Owen a long time to discover it.
It had popped out in an unexpected way. Owen had been riding a horse that got spooked by a rattlesnake and threw him hard, knocking the senses out of him for a while, and he lay out in a pasture while the horse ran back to the barn. Kirk, who had seen it happen from a hayfield a half mile away jumped in his truck and drove over to him.
"Jesus, don't die," Kirk was saying, as Owen came around, and he said a bunch of other things that he couldn't remember afterward. His memory of what had happened was fuzzythe image of the snake side-winding along the ground came floating back only laterbut those three words, pleading like a desperate prayer, stuck with him.
He'd sat up and determined that there'd been no broken bones, just bruises and a sprained ankle, and Kirk had finally helped him to his feet. By now a couple of the other cowboys had shown up, and all he had for their concern was his usual impatience.
"What the fuck are you all standing around here for?" he said. "You all got jobs to do."
But that night, as Kirk put lineament on Owen's sore muscles, he'd let Kirk say what was on his mind.
"All my life, I've just been living for myself," he said. "Never really cared much about anybody else."
Don't tell me this, Owen was thinking, but kept his mouth shut.
"When I saw you lying there, and you didn't move all the time I was jumping in my truck and driving over to you, all I kept thinking was, oh my god, what if he's dead?"
"Take more'n that to kill me," Owen scoffed and winced as Kirk massaged his swollen ankle.
"I been thinkin'," Kirk said, and then he waited a long while before he said what came next. "I don't know as I exactly love your sorry ass, but if that's not what I'm feelin', it's the damn nearest thing to it."
Owen had looked away, glad to feel the pain in his ankle, because it kept him from having to fully absorb what Kirk was saying.
"You better not die," Kirk said. "Cause it would sure as hell kill me."
And they hadn't spoken of it since, but what there was between them had changed after that in a way that Owen for one could hardly put into words. And when he admitted the truth to himself, he realized he felt the same way about Kirk.
Summer days were long and the nights short. Not as bad a calving in the late winter, when you were up almost around the clock, but there was still never time for enough sleep. You dropped into bed weary, and after your head hit the pillow, it was suddenly morning again.
Before it got much later, they'd made up one of the bunks for Kevin in the spare bedroom and wished him goodnight, leaving the Donald Duck nightlight glowing in a wall socket. The stuffed animalsfor when Owen's kids came for the dayhad been tossed onto the other bunk, and scattered across the floor was a collection of Tonka trucks and a Fisher-Price filling station that Owen pushed into the corner with his foot.
"You can play with these if you like," he said, trying to make a joke, but Kevin had said nothing, waiting until Owen left the room to get undressed and into the bed. As he left the room, Owen pulled the door shut tight behind him.
Before turning in himself, he stepped outside into the warm night and took the keys from both trucks. No sense in giving the boy an opportunity to take off again, if he happened to get any ideas like that during the night.
Back inside the house, he switched off the lights and went to the back bedroom, where he found Kirk undressing. The sight of him, almost naked, bending to pull his jeans from one foot gave Owen a familiar feeling, and after closing the door he walked over to him from behind to put his hands on his butt.
"I'm bone tired," he said, "but I'm so horny all I want to do is fuck you all night."
Kirk tossed his jeans on the floor and stood in his stocking feet, turning to Owen and reaching around him with both arms, hugging him hard. They kissed, Kirk's unshaven face and bristly mustache scratching his skin, his cock getting hard against the front of Owen's jeans.
"Get out of them duds," he said. "Put your money where your mouth is."
"Tell you what," Owen said with a grin. "Put your mouth where my dick is, and you've got yourself a deal."
"How about I put my dick where your ass is? I'd like that even better."
"There'll be time for that," Owen said.
He laughed and began pulling off his clothes, kicking off his boots as he unbuckled his belt, while Kirk unsnapped his shirt, gliding his hands now over Owen's bare chest and touching his nipples.
When Owen had his clothes off, they stood together and kissed again. Pressed against Kirk's body, Owen inhaled deeply, breathing in the smell of him, sharp and fragrant with sweat from the day's work. He reached down to put his hand into the dampness between Kirk's legs, feeling his loose-hanging balls slip through his fingers, and then pressing his palm to his nose, breathed in again.
"My god, you smell good," he said.
"I was gonna take a shower," Kirk said.
"Not till I'm done with you."
He pushed Kirk back onto the bed and fell on top of him, wrestling against him, gliding over his body like a side-winding rattler.
It was still dark when Owen heard the kitchen phone ringing. He turned over and peered at the glowing face of his alarm clock. It was quarter to four.
"What the hell?" he muttered, and he got out of bed, stumbling in the pitch black until he found the wall switch and put on the light. Looking back, he saw Kirk lying naked on his stomach, unmoving, still sound asleep. He'd pulled a pillow over his head during the night, no doubt to shut out the sound of Owen's snoring.
"Shut the fuck up," Owen kept saying to the phone, as he walked into the darkened kitchen.
He jerked the receiver from the wall and said "What!" before he'd put it against his ear.
"He's here," he heard a voice say. It was Baxter.
Owen shook his head. "What are you talking about?"
"Kevin. He's here."
"What do you mean?"
"Kevin. He walked back to the ranch from your place," Baxter said. "I thought you'd want to know where he was."
"I didn't know the little bastard was even gone."
"He'll be OK here. You don't have to worry about him."
"Time somebody gave that kid a good talking to," Owen said, grumbling, and hung up the phone.
He walked to the other bedroom and looked in. The bed was empty. Like in a prison movie, the boy had shoved stuff under the sheet to make it look like he was curled up under it.
He went back to the kitchen and stood with his bare feet on the cool linoleum. Outside the open window over the sink, there were the sounds of the morning's first birds. He realized that there was no point going back to bed. He'd be up again in a half hour anyway.
So he got dressed, finding his clothes on the floor next to the bed where Kirk still slept, his long, lean back brown from the summer sun, his butt and legs still pale. Owen bent down before he left the room, his boots in one hand, and he lifted the pillow to touch his lips behind one ear.
In the heat of passion the night before, he'd pressed forward to kiss Kirk deeply in the last moments before coming inside him. "I love you," he'd said over and over.
"I do love you, you know," he whispered now. "So help me, I do."
Kirk, who would probably sleep through doom's day, did not stir.
Outside, he sat on the front steps to pull on his boots, and then he got in his Ford Ranger to drive over to the ranch.
"Dammit," he said when he reached for the keys in the ignition and remembered that he'd taken them all inside the night before. A whole lot of good that did.
He walked back into the kitchen and felt along the countertop where he'd left them in an empty cookie jar. They rattled loudly as he lifted them out, and he put Kirk's there where he'd find them.
His boot heels thumping on the kitchen floor and down the steps outside, he got into the truck again and was gone.
When he got to the ranch, he saw a light on at Baxter's trailer, and he drove over to it. Inside, he found Baxter drinking his morning coffee. Without talking, he poured one for Owen.
"Come in here," he said, beckoning Owen to the back room of the trailer.
Owen followed him, the cup of hot coffee steaming in his hand, and in the dim light from the hall he could make out what looked like two figures in one of the beds.
There was Lonnie, asleep, and in his arms was Kevin, his cheek pressed to Lonnie's chest.
"I think that boy is finally happy now," Baxter said.
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper