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.
Now George was gone, and he'd taken everything of his along with him, including his bedroll, like he might take a while to come backor maybe not come back at all. Henry knew from the few times they talked about it that the pull of the reservation was strong.
"My people," George would say wistfully, and then again, "My people," shaking his head like he was resisting every urge to return.
The nights without him now were long and felt empty. Henry would wake after midnight, restless, and get up and dress, walking over to the barn where Don would be checking on the cows, looking for signs that any of them was having trouble giving birth.
"Go get some sleep, boss," Henry would say. "I'll watch these mamas."
Don would lean back from the fence where he'd propped himself, half awake, and hand Henry the electric lantern. And Henry would promise to come over to the house and wake him if there was a problem and a calf needed help getting born.
"Just pound on the door," Don would say. "I'll come running." And he shuffled through the straw on the floor, like he could barely put one boot in front of the other.
Henry liked Don. He was a good man. He was tireless and always sure what he wanted to get done around the ranch. He could have let Henry go when the ranch changed hands, but he'd told Henry he needed himhe'd been working there so long he must know about every square acre of the place, in every season there was.
He said he figured Henry knew a damn sight more than Don, who'd never run a ranch before. He'd been honest about that, and though there was never any doubt about who was boss, he'd never let Henry feel his opinion didn't count. If he made a mistake, it wasn't because he hadn't let Henry have his say first.
One of those mistakes was giving a job to Kirk, who had a mean streak that was plain to see if you'd been around working men all your life as Henry had.
"Aw, Slim," Don had said, "he's a nephew of a old friend of mine. He's just out of the service."
"I dunno, boss," Henry had said, slipping back his hat to scratch his head.
"He was a bit of a hellion as a kid," Don said. "But Uncle Sam should've worked most of that outta him."
Henry scratched his head some more.
"He's tough and strong. Look at him," Don persisted. "He gets outta hand, you got my permission to kick his butt."
Henry set his hat on his head and nodded. "You're the boss," he said. And Kirk had moved into the bunkhouse.
Now, of course, he was due to return again. And while Henry wasn't looking forward to it, there was no denying another pair of hands and a strong back weren't needed. Don couldn't go on doing all the hard work by himself.
His wife wasn't even around to lend a hand. Henry had met Carol only once, and Don's three boys. She was a town girl. You could see that plain as day. No ranch wife, for sure.
Nice enough, but not likely to come anywhere near the barn where she might step in cow shit. He knew from seeing his share of ranch women over the years that they had to be born to it.
So Carol lived in Grand Island with the boys, and Don kept the ranch going, raising these big white cows from France, Charolais, building a purebred herd. Don and his father-in-law were in this together.
"I seen some of these before," Henry had told Don when the first ones arrived. There'd been cows like this when he was in France.
"You been to Europe?" Don had said, surprised.
"Yeah, courtesy of the United States Army. Back in 1944."
Times like this, he realized how little Don knew about much of anything. Even though he'd been to high school.
Then again, he couldn't match Don in other ways. He'd married and fathered kids. He'd ventured beyond the world of bachelor working men like Henry to accept a woman into his life and take on the job of raising a family.
Still, especially on quiet nights, Henry wondered how it must feel to Don sleeping alone, weeks at a time, in the ranch house. Lights would burn over there late, long after the men in the bunkhouse had gone to bed and the room was filled with the sound of snoring.
Stepping outside under the star-filled sky, Henry would stand in the shadows of a cottonwood, pissing into the grass as he looked over to the house, maybe one light still burning.
He'd imagine Don inside with his boots off and his feet up, a glass of whiskey at his side. Or just the bottle. Doing what? Maybe just staring at the wall. Did he miss his family?
One night, the light had switched off, and then Don had emerged from the house, got into his pickup and drove away. He hadn't returned until the next morning. It would have been too long a drive to Grand Island and back. Henry got to wondering if there was someone in Hyannis Don might have gone to for company.
He never mentioned it, even when it happened again. He knew that a man can have his private life. It was none of his business.
Eventually Kirk arrived. He hadn't changed a bit.
"Where's the redskin?" he'd said when he didn't see George.
And he'd brought along another young manjust a kid, reallylooking for a job.
Don had put them both to work feeding hay and cake to the cows in the calving pasture. Then he sent them out to bring back several heifers that had got separated from the herd they belonged to and were in a pasture somewhere on the other side of a ridge that ran across the far side of the ranch.
Kirk's friend, a boy named Virgil, didn't seem cut out for ranch work. Under his big coat, you couldn't tell if he was built for it, and he didn't have boots or even a hat.
Still, he seemed determined enough. Don pulled a cap from a peg on the wall, where they were all standing in the barn, knocked the dust off it and handed it to Virgil.
"Here," he said. "Let's see what you can do."
The two young men were then gone. Don and Henry looked at each other.
"What do you think, Slim?" Don asked. "You didn't say anything."
Henry shrugged. "You're the boss," he said.
Don brought blankets and sheets out to the bunkhouse. They were bunched up in his arms like he'd pulled them from a bed, and he told Henry to make up a place for Virgil to sleep.
Virgil had left his duffel bag on the bare springs of George's bed, but Henry had got an old Army surplus cot that was kept folded up in one corner. It hadn't been used in a long time and the canvas was starting to rot, but he wanted to keep George's bed for George.
He still hoped that George would be back, though as he moved Virgil's duffel bag to the cot, he realized that his hopes had started to fade.
There were now four of them, and Henry was weeks away from going back to workand ease into it, the doctor had said, don't think you have to make up for lost timeand though he'd never been a man to complain about pain, the sharp twinges and the dull grinding ache in his groin kept reminding him that this was different.
A concussion or a broken bone was one thingand he knew all about thembut this new thing was too close to his balls for comfort. In his bed at night he'd run his fingers over the brush of hair growing back between his legs, measuring its progress, his fingers tracing the rough tenderness of the scar forming above his penis, and he'd remember with a cold chill the flash of light reflecting from the razor in the soft hand of the young man who'd shaved him.
He had never been much of a cook, but he could see that feeding four men nowfive, he continued to hopewas too much for Don, especially when Henry wasn't pulling anything like his share. On a ranch, cooking was women's work, and this thought made him a little angry at Carol, who refused to do even that much.
But he knew from reading about the old days on the range that men used to do all the cooking. Some of them were damn good at it. And the cowboys respected and appreciated them. If they didn't, they'd go hungry.
So he said to Don that dayafter he'd made up Virgil's bed, dusted off a little mirror he'd found and hung it where Virgil could see himself, and laid out one of his own towels in case the boy didn't have onehe said to Don, "You need someone around here to do the cooking for you."
Don had brought a cow into the barn and was coaxing her to let her calf suck. It was a little male calf bawling with hunger, and his mama wasn't interested in standing still for him. Don shouldered her against the wall and pulled the calf to her udder. Then he stepped back as the calf got its mouth around one of the teats.
"Like who were you thinking?" Don wanted to know.
Eying him as he turned to Henry, the cow gave Don a swift kick, just below one of his back pockets. And he fell sideways against the wall, his hat knocked forward over one eye.
"Dammit to hell," he said, still standing and reaching around to his butt.
"Didn't I ever tell you not to turn your back on a mama cow with a calf?" Henry said, trying not to laugh.
"Dammit to hell," Don said again. He was massaging the back of his leg where there was a smear of dried manure from the cow's hoof.
"She nailed you good," Henry said.
Don hobbled over to the fence where Henry stood. They looked now at the cow, who bent her head round to sniff the calf, which bucked into her udder as it sucked and slobbered a drool of milk from the corner of its mouth.
"What's that you were saying?" Don said.
"I'm offering to be chief cook around here," Henry said, still grinning.
"Seein's how you ain't much good for anything but laughing at another man's misfortune," Don said, grimacing, "I accept your offer." He rubbed his backside some more. "When can you start?"
"You're on," Don said, lifting the latch on the pen to step out. "But don't expect any raise in pay."
"Wouldn't occur to me, boss," Henry said and walked out of the barn, still trying to recover a straight face.
He stopped for a while and watched Kirk and Virgil out in the pasture. Kirk was driving the pickup slowlywell, standing in the open door as the truck rolled forward in low gearyelling back at Virgil who stood in the flatbed trailer hitched behind, tossing out slabs of baled hay to a long row of cows following them.
"Come, boss. Come, boss," Kirk was calling.
"Come, boss, Come, boss," Virgil repeated in a high ringing voice, like he'd found the job he'd been looking for all his life.
Henry now wondered about those two. He'd never known Kirk to pal around with someonealways the loner, he was. And looking at Virgil, it was hard to imagine anyone like him wanting to be friends with anyone like Kirk.
They were an odd pair.
And what made Kirk think he could bring someone here who had no experience doing ranch work? It was just plain luck that Don was so short handed. Any other time that boy would have been sent packing.
Anyone could see Virgil was years younger than Kirk, and there was no mistaking that he looked up to Kirk and wanted to be around him. Kirk, in that regard, hadn't changed. Whatever his personal feelings might beif he had any that he didn't let onVirgil was just a kid tagging along after him. Kirk didn't know how to be a buddy. Henry was sure of that.
He turned now and walked to the house, remembering to hold himself straight, and feeling the little tug below his belt that spread out in tingling ripples, the bristly hair sprouting on his balls scratching the insides of his thighs.
"Well, Oakley," he said. "Looks like your old friend's got the kitchen detail." Oakley would have had a good laugh at that.
He stepped through the side door and went into the house. The kitchen was a big room with a big old table long enough to feed ten men, and probably did back in the old days. This is where the meals were served up for the ranch hands.
Against the walls were cupboards, sideboards, a big old stove, and a doorway into the pantry. And there was another door leading into the rest of the house, which he had never entered. It was a different world there, a home, where a working cowboy with his dusty, mud- and manure-covered boots had no place.
He took down a big pot, filled it with beans and water to soak overnight and spent a while studying the shelves in the pantry and opening Don's freezer, figuring out what to cook for supper.
That night he put out a spread of pan-fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, and tins of corn and tomatoes, with a jar of home-canned peaches he'd found for dessert. Kirk had complained that the potatoes were lumpy, but ate them anyway, and Don wondered that the peaches were still edible.
"They been in that pantry since I moved in here," he said.
"It's all real good," Virgil had said, beaming and cleaning his plate.
They washed it all down with a big pot of steaming, strong coffee.
Don had assigned barn duties to Kirk and Virgil until midnight. When they left, Henry began clearing the table.
"Want me to take a look where that mama cow kicked you, boss?" he said. "I noticed you kinda favoring that one haunch when you sat down."
Don stood up from the table and pulled at his belt buckle. "You bet, Slim," he said. "It's probably swole up and turned all colors by now."
"No, no, boss," Henry said, turning away. "I was only joshin' yuh." He could never bring himself to look at his boss with his pants down.
"Slim," Don laughed. "You take the prize."
Henry didn't want to know what prize he meant, but he could guess if he had to. He liked the company of men, but it was a whole lot easier when they kept their duds on.
Don wished him goodnight, got up stiffly from the table and left the kitchen.
After washing up the dishes, and the pots and pans, Henry sat paging through a dog-eared and stained cookbook he'd found, looking for how to make sourdough biscuits and bake pies. And he smiled when his eye fell on a favorite of Oakley'sblueberry buckle.
Much later, remembering he'd have to be up long before the others to make breakfast in the morning, he folded his reading glasses in a snap-shut case, turned out the kitchen light and walked through the frosty night to the bunkhouse. Over the ridge in the east, a bone-white moon was rising.
"Look at that old man in the moon, Oakley," he said. "Smiling down like he knows something."
A light was burning in the barn, glowing dimly in a window and through the crack of a door left unlatched. Henry walked over to see how the boys were doing before turning in for the night.
As he got to the door, he could see them inside, standing together and looking into a penthe one with the twin calves.
Kirk was holding the electric lantern up with one hand, and the otherHenry looked againthe other arm was hooked around Virgil's shoulders, pulling them close together as they stood side by side.
Then as Henry watched, Kirk turned to Virgil with a grin and said something in his ear. Virgil said nothing and only nodded, leaning a little into Kirk and slipping his hand inside Kirk's open jacket.
Henry stood, stunned, like an old, old wish had been suddenly fulfilleda wish he'd been unaware ofonly granted in this moment to someone else. He took a step back from the door and then walked into the night.
"Oakley," he said. "Did you see that?"
In the bunkhouse, he undressed in the dark and got into bed. The sheets were cold, and he lay on his side, knees pulled up and his fists pressed between his legs.
The image from the barn lingered in his mind, like a hot brand pressed to a calf's hide, the hair scorched and smoldering. And he understood how the two young menfor all their differences had been drawn together. They were buddies after all.
"Slim," he heard a whisper from across the room. "Slim," the voice said again.
For a moment he thought it was Oakley calling to him, and he lay startled and still as a stone.
Now he heard movement in one of the other beds and two feet touching the floor, then the sound of footsteps coming lightly to him in the darkness, the floor creaking.
"It's me, George," the voice said, and Henry felt a hand touching the blanket pulled over his shoulder.
"George?" he said.
"I came back."
Henry felt his heart pounding. "You scared the crap out of me," he said. "How'd you get here?"
"Walked in from the road." He'd been hitchhiking.
"I thought you were gone for good this time."
George was silent for a moment. "I thought so, too," he said.
"What changed your mind?"
George lifted his hand from Henry's shoulder and seemed to disappear into the darkness.
"I remembered that belt I gave you," he said. "Figured it was time to get it back."
Henry could tell from the deadpan flatness of George's voice that it was supposed to be a joke. "Well, I kept it for you," he said. "I never used it."
"Something wrong with it?"
"No, just savin' it."
George's hand came down again on his shoulder. "You want to know the real reason I came back?" he said. "My grandmother told me to."
"The boss said you went home for her funeral."
Henry was puzzled.
"Indian grandmothers don't run out of things to say just because they're dead," George said, like this was yet another thing white men would never understand.
"What did she tell you?" Henry finally asked.
"She said you're a good man, but kinda lonely, and you need someone to look after you," George said. "Not those words exactly, but that's what she meant."
"You believe that?" Henry said.
"I didn't at first," George said. "The guy's a white man, I told her."
This hadn't occurred to Henry. If he'd pictured the two of them together at all, it was like the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
"What did she say?" he asked. He'd talked to Oakley for years and would have given anything to hear his friend talk back, just once.
"She said, that's what he thinks." George was thoughtful for a moment. "There must be Indian somewhere in your family tree. Where are your people from?"
"Indian Territory. It figures. Chickasaw, I bet," George grunted. "Chickasaw'll fuck anybody."
Henry puzzled over this. He didn't know much about his family and never cared much to know.
"So I said to her," George went on, "Why does it have to be me?"
"What did she say?"
"She just said, shut up and do it."
"She talks like that?" Henry said. It didn't sound much like a grandmothereven an Indian grandmother.
"No. What she really said was that some day I'd understand why. In the meantime I didn't need a reason," George said. "Amounts to the same thing."
He patted Henry now several times on the shoulder and then a floorboard creaked under him as he went back across the room.
Neither of them spoke for a while as George settled into his bedroll, the springs stirring noisily.
"There was something my grandmother wanted me to tell you," he finally said.
"What was that?"
George didn't answer right away, like he was searching for the words.
"She said you need to look after me, too," he said. "Because I need it even more than you do. Can you believe that?"
Henry felt a wave of something he couldn't name go through him.
"I suppose I can," he said.
Warmer now, he brought his hands from between his legs and hugged his chest. He thought of Kirk and Virgil again in the barn, of Oakley and of his great uncle, and wished that he could walk over to George now and put his arms around him. But all this was going to take him some time getting used to.
"If that's the way it's gonna be," he said instead, "as soon as the calving's done, let's ask Don for a day off. Go over to Scottsbluff."
"And do what?" George said, like he was trying not to sound interested.
"I dunno," Henry said. "I haven't been to the movies in a long time." He liked the sound of that. "We could go see a movie."
George thought about this. "No cowboys and Indians, though," he said, like he'd seen enough of those. Then he added, "Unless it's Clint Eastwood."
Henry smiled in the dark. "You got yourself a deal."
He stretched out in his bed, warm now under his blankets. And it felt good.
Continued . . .