> 1 <
“What the hell…?”
Ren turned so quickly that the skin on his back was stretched, and his gasp matched the one his father had just expressed. His father was staring at him, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
Ren felt tears forming in his eyes. He hadn’t wanted the man to know. He really hadn’t wanted him to know.
The man took a faltering step into the room, and Ren, angrily wiping the tears from his eyes, yelled, “Don’t!” His voice was vicious.
“But Ren…” His father stopped and actually took a step backwards.
“Don’t! Leave me alone!” Ren, standing his ground, his posture defensive, turned to face the man.
His dad didn’t move, and Ren could see the confusion and horror in his eyes, replaced by awareness and then compassion. The two of them stood that way for several moments, both eying the other before the man said, “OK. I’ll go. We’ll talk when you’re ready. Uh, just one thing. Wait a sec. I’ll be right back.”
Ren did as he was told, and in less than a minute his dad was back, bringing not just the glass of water but two Advil tablets as well. He offered both the glass and the pills to Ren. Ren hesitated, then took both and, looking into his father’s eyes, said, so softly it was barely heard, “Thanks.”
His father nodded, then turned, and facing away from his son, said, “If those pills aren’t enough, come get me.” Without another word he went out and gently closed the door.
Ren looked at the pills in his hand, then quickly put them in his mouth and downed them with a large swallow of water. In less than two minutes he was in bed and fast asleep.
> 2 <
Bright sunlight streaming into the room woke Ren. He started to stretch but quickly felt a tug against his welts and stopped. He was surprised he’d slept as well as he had, considering how much pain he’d endured in the train and even riding in his father’s truck. The pills and his overall exhaustion must have been why he slept so soundly, he decided.
He noted he was much less sore this morning. Maybe he wouldn’t have that to be thinking about that so much today. Either way, sore or better, there was nothing he could do to change it.
He got out of bed, knowing the bathroom was the first place he needed to go. He opened the door cautiously and, seeing the hallway empty, trotted across the hall and through the door, closing it behind him.
After using the toilet, he tried to use the mirror on the medicine cabinet to see his back but wasn’t very successful. He saw a toothbrush that was still sealed in its package lying on the sink and realized it almost certainly was for him. He brushed his teeth, then thought about a shower. Would it hurt his back? He thought it probably would and so decided to just wash himself without that. Using a washcloth and soap and water from the sink, he did the best he could, leaving his back to take care of itself.
He peeked out the door when he was finished and saw the hall was still empty. Back in his room, he dressed, made his bed, then ventured out to the kitchen, where he found his dad drinking a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.
“Morning, son,” his dad said, putting down the paper he’d been reading. “Hope you’re feeling better today. I went out earlier. Bought some things for breakfast. Milk, cereal, eggs, bacon, and some sweet rolls. Tell me what you’d like and I’ll see what I can do, although cooking isn’t a talent I can profess to.”
Ren smiled. It would have been hard not to, hearing that voiced so cheerfully. “Uh…” he said. A little shyness, a little of the uncertainty he’d felt yesterday seeped back into him. He really didn’t know this man.
“Come on, Ren. I can’t guess. Here I might go and whip up a big mess of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, and you might not like any of that. Then where would we be?”
His dad was grinning at him, and Ren couldn’t help but grin back. “I don’t like coffee,” he ventured.
“Don’t blame you. I hated the stuff when I was your age. Smelled good but was entirely too bitter. Uggggh.”
He made a face and Ren found himself laughing. “I guess I like the rest of it, though,” Ren said, still smiling.
“Right you are! Sit down and I’ll get busy.” The man stood up and moved to the refrigerator. Ren wasn’t sure if he should try to help or not. The kitchen was small, and they’d certainly bump into each other, and Ren didn’t know where anything was anyway.
He sat at the table, taking a different chair from the one his father had been using. His father’s spoke while his head was still in the refrigerator, but Ren had no difficulty hearing what he said.
“I want to hear about your back. When you’re ready.” He extricated himself and swung the door closed with a carton of eggs and an unopened package of bacon in his hands. He took a glance at Ren, then moved to a counter, where his back was to the boy.
Ren spoke up. “I’m not ready.”
“OK,” said his dad, not turning around. “When you are. I won’t push. But Ren, you have nothing to be ashamed of. If that happened, you couldn’t have stopped it. So don’t get the feeling I’ll think less of you because you allowed it to happen.”
He set a frying pan on the stove and turned on the burner. Then he began opening the package of bacon. Ren watched him, realizing the whipping wasn’t what he was worried about his dad knowing, wasn’t the thing to be embarrassed about. Neither of them spoke, but the silence didn’t feel uncomfortable at all now. Nothing like the truck rides had.
When Ren was eating—and he quickly realized he was so starved he had to force himself not to shovel everything into his mouth—his father refreshed his coffee cup, sat back down and picked up the paper. He let Ren eat without making conversation. Ren liked that. He was deciding his father might not be a difficult man to live with. He was obviously considerate of whom he was with. Last night, and right then, too. Of course, he didn’t know yet why Ren was here. When he did….
Ren carried his dishes to the sink after eating. He was sure his dad would ask again about his back, and it would all have to come out, but he was surprised the man didn’t say another word about it. Instead, he called Ren back to the table and talked about something else entirely.
“I need to tell you about where we’re going to live, but first, I just thought of something. I told you my name was Cal. I didn’t say what my last name was. Didn’t see any reason to. But then, while you were eating, I thought of something. I don’t know what you think your last name is. When I left, did she change your name to hers? I don’t know. And I want to. So, what’s your name?”
Ren looked at him in surprise. “Ren Walker.”
Cal shook his head. “Well, it isn’t. Unless she went to court, and I doubt she did that. Your name is Lawrence Thomas. That’s the name on your birth certificate. Walker was your mother’s last name. I’m Cal Thomas, and you’re my son Lawrence. Now Ren. Ren Thomas.”
Ren felt a little stunned. He had no idea Walker was his mother’s name; he hadn’t known before yesterday that his parents were never married, either. He wrinkled his eyebrow. “So I’m not who I thought I was? And what do you mean about telling me about where we’re going to live? Aren’t we living here? Isn’t this your house?” Ren stopped. His whole world had changed the day before. Now it was changing even more. He sat down quickly.
His dad shook his head. “No. This is just a house any of us use when we have to come to town and it’s too late to drive back.”
The man laughed, and Ren blushed. “That’s what I’m going to talk to you about.” He took that opportunity to get another cup of coffee, letting Ren’s embarrassment subside. When he was again seated, he continued.
“Ren, when I left your mother I sort of poked around, doing this and that. No college degree, even though I had learned quite a bit about accounting, so about the only jobs open to me were laboring jobs. I found out really quick that I didn’t like working in a warehouse, stocking shelves in a grocery store, selling men’s shirts, laying pipe. All those are decent jobs for someone, but they all had something in common I hated. Can you guess what that was?”
Ren thought for a moment, then smiled. “Yeah, they all had bosses telling you what to do and how to do it and when to do it.”
His dad laughed again. “Right on the nose! You were listening! But yes, that’s what I hated. I couldn’t stand that. I realized I needed to be doing something where maybe an objective was given for me to accomplish, but how I did it would be left up to me, and no one would be looking over my shoulder—telling me to work faster. Telling me I wasn’t doing it right, telling me I wasn’t worth much and I’d better shape up if I wanted to keep the job, that there were other people looking for work who’d do it better than I was and wouldn’t cost as much.
“So, that meant a lot of job hopping, a lot of moving around, looking for the right job. I spent about a year doing that and then happened on one that fit me like a glove.”
He paused, and Ren, caught up, couldn’t help himself. “And what job was that?”
His dad wasn’t going to be rushed. He ignored the question and soldiered on at his own pace. “I’d left your mother in Mississippi and traveled east, then north, getting any number of jobs in many states, jobs that only lasted a few weeks, usually. I was learning who I was, what I liked and didn’t, and what the world was like. Then I moved west and worked my way south again. It was when I was here, in Texas, that I saw a sign in a feed-and-grain store—Help Wanted, it said—and a phone number. I called and was told about a job on a ranch and that someone would be coming into town the next day and I could interview then if I was interested. I was, and I hung around town.
“The next day, I showed up early for the interview, right in this house. The person who was interviewing me was a pretty young woman. That set me back a bit. I’d spoken to a man on the phone. But the woman said she was the one I needed to talk to, and so we talked. We talked quite a while, and she asked me a lot of questions, and when she left I left with her and rode with her back to where you and I will be going today.”
He stopped and drank some coffee, and Ren started fidgeting. Finally, some exasperation showing in his voice, Ren said, “And…?”
His dad grinned at him. “And that’s how I became a cowpoke.”
“A cowpoke? That’s like a cowboy? You’re a cowboy?”
“More or less. I work on a cattle ranch. A big one. Thousands of acres, thousands of head of cattle. I like the work. And they like me OK. I had a lot to learn, but I don’t mind learning. Being taught, being shown the ropes, isn’t the same as being bossed. Oh, I guess it can be, but I’ve found most cowboys are better at showing you something than bossing you. Lots of cowboys are kinda like me; they work better than they talk and keep their opinions to themselves. Worked out pretty well.”
Ren sat back in his seat, just imagining it.
> 3 <
Cal had said it would take much of the day to get where they were going. Ren had asked what the name of the city was, and his dad had laughed.
Ren watched the miles of open prairie slide past the window of the old truck. They hadn’t said much. His dad didn’t seem to go in for idle chatter. If he had something to say, he said it. If not, he was very comfortable with silence.
But Ren was curious, and his dad didn’t seem to mind questions.
“Can you tell me something about where we’re going?”
“Sure. Sorry for not just telling you. I guess you’ll have to get used to that. Well, there’s the main house. It’s a big, sprawling place. The woman who interviewed me owns it. It was built by her father. He died a few years ago—before I was hired. I never met him. His wife died before he did. So when he died, the whole place was left to her, his only child. She’s about my age. She lives there in the huge house pretty much alone. She has a son, a little older than you, and has a housekeeper and cook. They all live there, but most of the house isn’t used at all.”
“Her husband doesn’t live there?”
“There isn’t one there. I don’t know if she’s still married or not. She doesn’t talk about a husband. At all. I assume she had one ’cause she has the kid, but I don’t know for sure. I guess I’ve got a kid and never had a wife; that could be her situation, too.” He took a quick glance at Ren to see how he reacted to that. He knew there were times when he said things without thinking them through first. It was one reason he’d found it better if he was economical with his speech.
Ren didn’t react. He was used to not having a father and hadn’t given him much thought for years. When he’d found out yesterday that his father and mother hadn’t been married, it hadn’t meant anything to him. What difference did it make to him now?
“So it’s really just her and her son and the house staff?”
“Yeah, pretty much. Her dad had a business partner. He still owns a part of the business. I don’t know how much. When he died, her dad willed him some shares in the family corporation. He runs the business end of things, and is there occasionally. When he visits, he stays at the house, too. But he’s not there much. A couple times a year for just a few days is what he seems comfortable with.”
They rode in silence for a couple of miles, and then Ren asked, “What’re their names?”
“The woman is Mrs. Hanson. Julia Hanson. It’s funny. I don’t know if that’s really her name. Hanson was the name of her father. If she was married, her last name would be different, you’d think. So maybe she wasn’t married, but added the Mrs. because of the son. You know, you don’t ask things like that when you’re the hired help. Not in Texas, at least. And the other men there, they don’t talk about her much at all.”
He stopped, and Ren got the impression he’d have to be prodded to say more, maybe every time he stopped. He was getting more comfortable with doing the prodding because Cal didn’t seem to mind at all. “Do you like her? And the son—what’s his name? What’s he like?”
His dad didn’t answer right away. Then he turned to look at Ren briefly before looking back at the road. “His name is Hector, if you can believe that. Who’d name a kid Hector these days? But everyone calls him Hec. What’s he like? Well, you know, it might be better if I let you form your own judgment about that. The men who work there sort of associate with each other or their wives and don’t mingle much with the kids. I guess I need to explain that a little. There’re three groups of people at the ranch. Well, four. There’s Mrs. Hanson and the people in her house, then the ranch hands who live in their own houses with their families, and the hands who aren’t married and live together in what I guess you could call a bunkhouse.
“You said ‘families’. Does that mean there’re other kids?” Ren perked up a little. Before, he’d thought he’d be the only kid for miles around. He’d never thought about being a cowboy. He’d never been on a horse; he wasn’t very strong or outdoorsy, wasn’t into sports. What he did mostly was read and play video games, and of course he did all the chores his mother had assigned him. But having other kids around would be good; if there were none, he’d be bored out of his gourd. He’d been resigned to that eventuality ever since his dad had said they were going to live on a ranch that was miles and miles from anywhere. But this news was scary, too. Would he fit in? But then he thought of something else. “And do you live in the bunkhouse. Will I be there, too?”
His dad smiled. “Yeah, there are other kids. I would have had to figure something else out if there weren’t. But you’ll have kids there to make friends with. A lot of the workers there are about my age, some a little older, quite a few younger. The married ones have their wives there with them, and all of them have kids.”
Ren thought about that. He’d be the new kid. The one without a Texas accent, the one who couldn’t ride a horse, didn’t even have western boots, the one who didn’t know anyone, while they all knew each other. He’d be the one who liked to read books. He felt a twinge in his stomach.
He also thought about the fact his dad hadn’t answered his question about liking Mrs. Hanson. Maybe he’d forgotten. Or maybe he hadn’t wanted to answer. He was going to ask again and then remembered that his father hadn’t asked him again about his back.
He thought about that and about being 13 and growing up into a world he didn’t know much about, and he kept his mouth shut. Kept it shut and just thought about what he’d heard. And a question popped into his head. “You said four groups and you only mentioned three: the Hansons, the married men, and the unmarried hands. That’s only three. What’s the fourth?”
His dad smiled. “You and me,” he answered.
> 4 <
“How much farther do we have to go?” Ren asked some miles farther down the road.
“A few more hours. We’re getting there. We’ll be driving through Hanson land for over an hour before we see the house.”
“Really? It really is thousands of acres?”
“Yep. Thousands and thousands.”
“You didn’t say much about the big house and Julia and Hec.”
“You don’t call her Julia! You call her Mrs. Hanson if you speak to her at all, and if you speak about her to anyone else! Some things like that are kind of formal in Texas. How kids speak to adults is one of those things.”
“Why? Is she mean?”
“No, she’s not mean, but you don’t call any adults by their first names, do you? It’s even more important in Texas than in Mississippi not to do that.”
Ren grinned. “I was just teasing you. But what do you do? And where do you live?”
“Yeah, I kinda stopped before getting that far, didn’t I? Well, Mrs. Hanson and Hec live in the big house. The other families…well, see, some of the men have been there a long time and some of them have a wife and kids, and they have their own houses. They’re ranch hands, but they have the more responsible jobs that go with running a large number of cattle. Old Mr. Hanson took real good care of his workers. He knew if he wanted to run a lot of cows, he needed good men, trustworthy men, to work the place, and the way to get and keep good men was to treat them right. So, he had houses built for the men with families to encourage them to stay on. The men without families live together in the bunk house. It’d divided into sections, one for the younger cowboys, and one for older single men who don’t like to have to listen to all the lies and commotion the young guys make.”
They drove a while in silence after that, and Ren was getting frustrated. It was like pulling teeth, getting anything out of his father without asking specific questions. He let his frustration show when he said, “DAD!”
His father laughed. “You’re not the only one who can tease! OK, OK, I’ll keep going. There are six families that have houses. Five of them are Mexican families. There are lots of Mexicans in this part of the world; they’re good ranch hands. It’d be hard to find better workers—or better people, if it comes to that. Do you want their names?”
“OK. But let me say something first. This is Texas. Some things are more important here than elsewhere. One of them is how you behave. You’re 13. I know, I know: almost 14. That’s important at your age, and I’m not forgetting it. But, you’re 13. One thing you’re going to have to remember is, when you speak to the men, the older men, you call them ‘sir.’ When one asks you a question, you don’t say, ‘Yeah.’ You say, ‘Yes, sir.’ You don’t have to use that when we’re alone, but if other people are around, I’d even appreciate it if you could remember to call me sir, too. People are going to be judging you, and they’ll get a much better impression of you if you show some manners. This is Texas. Manners, kid’s manners, mean something here.”
“I’ll try to remember.”
Ren said it sort of sarcastically, still pissed that he had to keep prompting his dad. The man turned to look at him, and Ren didn’t turn to look back at him, but he was well aware he was being stared at.
It looked like the man wasn’t going to speak again, and Ren decided it might not be in his best interest to use sarcasm on him again. When he’d figured that out, it was like a little voice in his head was saying, ‘Yeah, this is Texas, remember?’ So when he said, “Their names?” he said it very civilly.
His dad didn’t seem to hold a grudge, because he answered right away. “I think it would be better if we waited till I introduce you. There are so many that you’ll need to put a face to a name to remember them. People won’t be surprised if you don’t remember all their names at first. But I can tell you the names of the families with kids. Their last names are Gonzales, Mendoza, Vargas, Rivera and Aguilar.”
“And the other one?”
“What other one?”
“Those are the five Mexican families. You said there were six people with houses. Who’s the other one?”
“Oh! His name is Masters. He’s a vet.”
“OK, I guess. How many kids are there?
His dad laughed. “A lot! You’ll see.”
“Where are we going to live? You said the married men have houses, and you’re not married, are you?”
“No, not me!” His father chuckled. “I think your mother scared me away from that. No, I’m not married, but I do have a house. A small one, but a house. I didn’t need a bigger one, because I came without any kids. The family men had small houses at first, too, but as they had kids, their houses were expanded. So, you can tell how big a family a man has by how big a house he lives in. Mexican men, some of them, try to show how macho they are by how many kids they have. Some of them want the biggest house of all the working men; they think that makes them the biggest stud of the lot. Never insult a Mexican man’s pride. There are things you can’t tease them about. They’re wonderful people, but their culture isn’t the same as ours.”
Ren wasn’t interested in the cultural aspects of all this. “So how come you have a house?”
Ren had gotten used to silences before his father spoke. The man seemed to need time to mull over how to answer questions. This gave Ren more time to think about what he’d just heard. He’d be entering some sort of closed society where he’d be the newcomer. Not only new, but not of Mexican heritage like the rest of the kids. Well, most of them. There was Hec, and Hanson didn’t sound like a Mexican name any more than Julia did. And maybe the vet had kids, too; they might not be Mexican, either.
Then he wondered if these were racist thoughts. He decided they weren’t; they were newcomer thoughts and fears most any kid would have trying to fit in when coming to a new place. Just thinking of that without the racial overtones was disturbing, and he felt himself getting more nervous than he had been, his mood getting darker. He knew he wasn’t going to fit in. And then what could he do? Stuck miles from anything in the middle of Texas?
His father finally answered. “I have a house because it’s traditional there. See, I’m not just a cowpoke. Not any more. Now, I’m the foreman of the ranch. That’s a pretty important position. And the guy with that job gets a house because he can’t be living in the bunk houses with the other workers.”
“So we’ll have our own house?”
They rode in silence then for some time. Ren had a lot to think about. He thought about his dad not asking about his back. He knew the man must be curious; he seemed to be respecting Ren’s feelings, waiting for him to speak about it when he was ready. Ren considered that and ended up realizing how appreciative he was his dad was handling it that way. It seemed the man respected him. He wasn’t at all used to respect and especially not from an authority figure.
He thought about being a young gay boy in the middle of Texas, in a part of Texas sequestered from other people. He thought about a man he didn’t know at all being his father, being a big wheel in a society of mostly men—hard men, he was sure, men who probably didn’t tolerate homosexuality.
He thought of the kids he’d be meeting, how they’d have their own culture, their own rules, their own cliques, and how he probably wouldn’t fit in even if he weren’t gay. But he was gay. And his dad didn’t know anything about that. What would the man think? Would he accept it?
Just thinking these thoughts, Ren was getting more and more scared. What if his dad hated gays—and Ren was stuck living with him in the middle of nowhere?
The more he thought about it, the worse he felt, but he also realized if his father was intolerant, the very best thing he could do was tell him—and tell him now. He could turn the truck around and head back to Ashville. Put him on the train. Either back to Jackson or anywhere else.
If the man did that, Ren had nowhere to go, and there was no one who wanted him.
He sunk lower in his seat.
He just couldn’t imagine how anything would be worse than living on a ranch in the middle of Texas, where all the adults hated him, and all the kids made fun of him.
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