by Cole Parker

~    P a r t   1    ~

Chapter 8

Escaping one problem only to find others, a boy can find unexpected courage when pushed to his limits.

> 1 <

The first thing Ren did was race to the water and leap in. The water was cold, and it felt wonderful on his hot, bright pink shoulders.

He stayed in the water for a few minutes, but he was thinking hard. He was scared but told himself that he had to stay calm. That was difficult. He was 13 and all alone.

He forced himself to calm down, at which he was only marginally successful, and forced himself to think. One of the things he thought of was a lesson he’d learned at the municipal swimming pool he’d visited in the summer in Jackson. There, he’d found that you can get just as bad a sunburn in the water as you can when dry, or maybe worse because you don’t notice it happening.

His problem was, without clothes, without shade, what was he supposed to do? The thought was unnerving, frightening, and he began to feel real fear.

His heart began beating faster, he began shaking, but then, somehow, by force of will, he managed to calm himself a little. He realized giving in to his emotions was the same as giving up. He had to stop his emotions from overpowering him.

Ren had experience with not giving in easily. Dealing with his mother and her boyfriend all those years had taught him determination when facing hard times. Instead of giving in to defeat, even though doing so was a powerfully seductive urge, he forced himself to consider his situation: to think.

First things first. Was there some way to get out of the sun? Well, yes. Just one occurred to him; it was staring him in the face. He could pull up some of the long grass and cover himself with it. That was the only idea he had, the only thing he could think of, but it was better than doing nothing. Once covered, he’d be unable to move around because the grass would simply fall off. But then, he didn’t have any place to go anyway.

He knew he couldn’t try to walk back to the ranch compound. He didn’t know in what direction to walk, and alone on the prairie, with grass coming almost up to his waist, he’d be practically invisible to anyone searching for him.

He wanted to be where he could be found. That he knew was his best hope. He thought it possible the boys were just trying to scare him and would be back soon, but even if that wasn’t the case, the lake would be one of the places a search party would come to look for him. And he knew that would happen. When he didn’t show up for dinner, his father would start asking questions and find out why he wasn’t there, and no matter what Hec said, the troops would be gathered and sent out looking, and someone would find him. As long as he wasn’t wandering aimlessly on the prairie.

He hated the idea of covering himself in grass. It would probably be itchy, it might well contain all sorts of bugs, there were often sharp edges and pulling it up would probably cut his hands, inviting more bugs, but it was better than being burned to a crisp.

He started slogging out of the water to the bank, and was half way there when he smiled. He wasn’t going to have to cover himself in grass after all.

Close to the bank, where the water was shallow, he knelt down and began digging with his hands into the muddy bottom of the lake. The sun was hot on his exposed back, but he knew this wouldn’t take long. He pulled up handfuls of mud and piled them on the bank. When he was sure he had enough, he climbed out, wiped as much water as he could off his body, arms and legs, then started the process of plastering himself with mud.

It was cool and provided a wonderful feeling. He wasn’t sure what it would feel like when it dried and hardened, and maybe it would bake in the sun and be hotter than without the covering, but he wasn’t worried. If that happened, all he’d have to do is get back in the water, let it soak off, then repeat the process.

He thought about covering his back and finally decided the way to do it was make a mud pile and lie down on it, back first. Then wriggle a bit. It worked! He covered the rest of himself, including his face, by smearing on the mud with his hands.

All the time doing this, he felt good. He’d beaten one of his problems, perhaps the most serious one—certainly the most immediate one. He was worried about being alone, but much of the sickening fear had left him when he’d become involved with solving his problem with the sun. Thinking rationally, he didn’t doubt he’d eventually be found. He had absolute faith in his father. There was even an ironic twist that he found somewhat amusing; he decided that the longer he was missing, the harsher the punishment Hec would almost certainly receive.

He quickly realized he was thirsty. The lake was there, but he didn’t know whether it was a good idea to drink from it. He thought about it, thought about how thirsty he was and how long it might be before he was rescued, and decided that he was going to take the chance. He knew the lake had to be spring-fed: there were no creeks or surface trickles he could see. The water feeding it had to come from below ground. Plus, the lake water wouldn't be nearly as cold as it was if it was surface-fed.

He’d just covered himself with mud, but that was no problem. Soaking and then scraping off the mud gave him something to occupy his time and thoughts. So he got back into the lake, and staying close to shore, got as low in the water as he could and let the mud soften until most of it came off easily.

Once he was free of it, he swam out to the middle of the lake, thinking the water had to be cleaner there. He didn’t know where the spring entered the lake, but as he couldn’t see any water rippling near the shoreline, he figured it was probably in the middle somewhere, and so the water might be fresher there.

He was a good swimmer and easily reached a place near the middle where the water felt colder, then dogpaddled as he tasted the water. It seemed very fresh with very little taste. He drank several mouthfuls, then returned to where he’d been and repeated his mudding-up process.

Now all he had to do was wait. He recognized he was getting hungry but knew he could go a day without eating. He’d done it before, most recently on his last day in Jackson. He’d needed something to drink then but had gone with little or no food. He could easily survive without eating, even if uncomfortably.

He spent most of his time out of the water because when the mud washed off in the water, he was again exposed to the sun. He wanted to minimize that. So he stayed mud-covered and on land, and he explored. He walked around the lake, looking at it from all sides. There were a few cattails, and he was surprised to see a couple of turtles sunning themselves on the far side from where the boys had entered the lake. Maybe he wouldn’t have to starve if he fancied raw turtle meat. He shuddered and kept exploring.

> 2 <

He spent a restless night by the lake. There was no shelter, no trees to sleep under, no rocks to climb into—just grass. He did use the grass to build a softer mattress than the hard ground provided. He found the mud a good protective covering from marauding mosquitoes. He was hungry and had to admit to himself that he was scared, but he accepted that he’d be alone all night, that once it got dark no one would be coming for him. Searching in the dark would have been pointless. Anyone searching then would have to be nuts. This was way too vast a country for him to be found when the searchers’ visions would be limited by darkness.

The night was mentally challenging and physically arduous. He was scared, lonely and anxious. Sounds he couldn’t identify were worrisome. Coyotes, thankfully in the distance, sang to each other, and he couldn’t help think they might come closer. He didn’t know what he’d do if that happened. He was surprised at how noisy the night was. Bugs made strange chirping sounds; there was rustling in the grass that was probably from small rodents or even snakes, fish or frogs or who knew what else; there were also frequent splashes. Several times, just as he was falling asleep, he was jerked awake by sounds close by, ones he didn’t know the source of. Then he’d be wide awake again and go through the process of listening closely to identify whatever he could around him.

He felt like he didn’t sleep at all, but when he came awake in the morning, the sun was well above the horizon, and as he hadn’t seen it come up, he knew he must have slept at least a little.

He arose and, first thing, soaked the mud off himself. It felt good to be rid of it. He’d needed it to keep the mosquitoes at bay, but as it dried it itched and made lying still almost impossible. It had hardened overnight, and he was glad he’d slept very close to the water. He only had to roll to the edge and into the water and wait as the mud softened.

He was now ravenous but drank more water to fill his empty stomach and steeled himself to continue waiting. It was hard, and he was scared. Thinking about being hungry made his hunger worse. He tried not to think of it but couldn’t stop. He scouted around the lake again, looking for anything edible or that might even be considered edible, but found nothing. He knew there were turtles in the lake and fish and frogs as well. But though he was hungry, he wasn’t ready to try eating any of those creatures without them being cooked, and he had no way to cook them.

He tried to put off thoughts of food by thinking about being found. Common sense told him that he’d be rescued before noon. He told himself that was simple common sense, gave himself a pep talk to that extent—he’s certainly be found by then. There were lots of people at the ranch, and the fact he’d gone missing would be a cause for panic. He hoped it would cause panic. They all knew he had no experience here, that it would be easy for him to get lost. They might think he was stupid enough to go out on the prairie by himself, but he didn’t care if they thought he was stupid or not. He just wanted them to think he was out here alone and that they’d respond by sending search parties out after him. They’d have to do that. Wouldn't they?

Yes, they would. He forced himself to believe it.

He thought of the cowboys he’d been told worked there. They’d certainly all be looking for him. Then he thought of all the land they’d have to cover. There was so much of it. The prairie extended for miles in every direction. What if they all went looking, and the day grew long, and they didn’t find him? When would they give up? At nightfall, certainly. Maybe some even before that.

What if they all just gave up?

No. No! He couldn’t think that way. He had to stay positive. But what was there to feel positive about? He was alone in a hostile place, and no one knew where he was except Hec and his two buddies, and they wouldn't tell because it would get them in trouble.

Would they say nothing at all if he wasn’t found within a day or two? That took some thinking. He didn’t know any of them very well. But he remembered the look in Paul’s eyes—and in Hec’s. Those boys, he thought, wouldn’t say anything at all, even if they knew he was dying. They wouldn’t care. Ray? He seemed different. Not necessarily friendlier, but of a less-rigid mindset. He might break if Hec and Paul weren’t with him, but they probably would be. They’d be sticking close together, and the older two would be leaning on Ray to keep quiet.

Thinking that made him realize how silly it had been of him to become infatuated with Hec just because he was good-looking. Now, he realized, that infatuation was gone. Now that he knew what the boy was like—an egotistical bully with a sociopathic unconcern for others—he only felt dislike for the boy. It was stronger than that, even. He hated him. He now knew what Hec was like. The boy only cared about himself and reveled in having power over all the kids on the ranch. He’d used that power to humiliate them.

Ren should have been smarter. He knew that now. But it was knowledge that had come too late.

Ren looked up at the sky. The sun was high, but not directly overhead yet. That meant it wasn’t noon yet. Ren decided to still believe he’d be rescued before noon. It gave him something to hope for, something to quell the unease that had been growing ever since he’d awakened that morning. Every minute that passed meant another minute that he hadn’t been found. And it seemed to him that every minute he wasn’t found made it more likely that he would never be found.

That made him think of something else. If he did die, the coyotes would certainly find him. Or the buzzards, but he hadn’t seen any sign of buzzards. He checked the sky again and saw no birds at all. But there were coyotes. He’d heard them. And they’d find him by the smell when he died, and they’d eat him and probably carry away his bones while doing so. It was possible no one would ever know what had happened to him.

Hec would probably tell everyone Ren had simply not liked the ranch and had run away. He might even tell people Ren had told him he was going to do so and Hec had tried to talk him out of it. Tell them he thought he had convinced him to stay and so hadn’t told anyone of Ren’s plan because of that, and so had been surprised when Ren had turned up missing.

What Ren needed to do, he decided, was somehow leave a message here that this was all Hec’s doing. But where would he write it? The grass grew right up to the edge of the lake. There was no muddy bank or shore he could use as a tablet. And other than writing in mud, there was no other way.

He figured that out pretty quickly. He walked back to the lake and began scooping out handfuls of mud and laying them on the grass close to the lake. This gave him something to do at least, and it kept him from thinking other dire thoughts.

He ended up with a large rectangle of mud which he then flattened so he’d have a smooth surface to write on. When he then tried writing ‘Hec did this’ on it, though, he found the mud slowly oozed back into the letters. He’d have to wait till it hardened a little.

By the time he was done with this, the sun was directly overhead. Noon. And he hadn’t been rescued.

He was hot and thirsty, and he decided it was time to drink again. He soaked off his mud coating, then swam to the middle of the lake. Doing this tired him out, much more than it had before. He realized that going this long without food was weakening him. He drank and swam back to the shore but was exhausted when he arrived. He hardly had the energy to recoat himself with mud. He had to, however, or he’d be burned to a crisp. So he slowly dug more mud, and slowly covered himself again, then slumped onto the ground to rest. Doing so, he looked up at the sky and saw it was now well past noon.

His spirits were reaching rock bottom. They fell even further when he was rested enough to write his message on his mud tablet. When he moved to it, he found it had dried solid and was full of cracks. He couldn’t write on it at all. And the thought of all the trips he’d need to make to the water and back, carrying small handfuls of water to soften the surface, made him too tired to do anything but sit where he was, exhausted, both physically and mentally.

That was where he was, sitting next to his cracked clay tablet, hot, hope lost, lightheaded, starving and weak, with the sun continuing its descent, when he heard the sound of a horse.

He raised his head, then slowly made his way onto his feet and turned toward the sound. It took a couple of minutes, and then he saw his father riding over the hill.

Cal was looking toward the lake as he crested the rise and saw a figure entirely coated in mud, naked, staring back at him. Cal’s heart moved back into his chest, and he broke into a gallop, grinning like a madman.

The caked mud on Ren’s face broke apart as he smiled, and the feeling of relief so overcame him, he didn’t even feel the mud falling away. His heart began racing, and he felt like jumping for joy. But he was too weak to jump, too exhausted to shout or run. His legs started shaking, and when he took a step toward his father, he collapsed into the grass, but the grin never left his face.

> 3 <

“I knew you’d come. I knew it.”

The words were spoken into Cal’s chest. Cal finally loosened his arms. He too had tears on his face. “People are out searching. I was scared out of my mind. This land is so big, and we had no idea where to look, so people are riding in all directions. Where are your clothes, and horse? And why are you here? I don’t understand.” He again tightened his hug for a moment before releasing his son.

Ren stepped back, almost fell, then said, “Let me clean off. Do you have anything to eat? And I’ll need something to wear. Do you have anything… maybe a blanket?”

He made his way unsteadily back into the lake, let himself soak for a minute, and then, too impatient to wait any longer, scrubbed himself. He got out and then, only then, remembered to be embarrassed at his nudity. A little late, he thought, and decided not to let it bother him. If he didn’t act embarrassed, perhaps his dad wouldn’t, either.

While he’d been cleaning the mud off, his dad had been taking his own shirt off. He handed it to Ren. Ren looked at him and saw his torso was tanned. He figured some of the men must work shirtless at least part of the time when outside during the hot days, and that riding back to the ranch without a shirt would probably not result in his dad being sunburned, whereas it would for him.

Ren thanked him but didn’t slip into the shirt. He would wait till he was dry.

“Are you OK?” Cal asked. “You’re not hurt or sick or anything? Can you ride? Up behind me on the horse?”

“I’m fine, I guess. A little weak. I had water but no food. And I was getting depressed. Now that I know I’m going home, that’s gone, and I feel much better because of that. Better than fine with you here. And I’m ready to go. I haven’t eaten in about forever, and the sooner we’re back the sooner I can take care of that.”

Cal mounted, then swung Ren up onto the horse behind him. Figuring slow and steady was better than a canter or gallop, Ren not having a saddle or stirrups, Cal just eased the horse into a walk.

“It’ll take us some time. Why don’t you tell me what this was all about?”

It was a long ride back. When they arrived—Ren wearing a shirt that was big enough to cover what needed covering, sitting on the shirttail to be sure it stayed in place—they were met by kids and adults who all were excited and relieved to see him. Cal, taking charge, told them that Ren needed to get inside and they’d all talk later. He had a no-nonsense air about him, and they backed away, understanding, but still called out to Ren that they were happy to see he was OK. Andy looked upset and stayed with them as they dismounted. Cal asked him if he’d take care of his horse, and Andy nodded. When Cal and Ren went into their house, Ren waved to him, trying to smile, and Andy looked back wearing an expression on his face Ren couldn’t read.

During the ride home, Ren and Cal had talked about what had happened and what needed to be done about it. At first, Ren had said maybe it would be best to just forget about it, that Hec was a Hanson and making trouble might be bad for Cal.

At that time they’d been just cresting a low arroyo. Cal had stopped his horse. He’d helped Ren down, then dismounted and sat on the bare earth at the lip of the gulch. He patted the ground next to him, and Ren sat down as well.

When Cal spoke, it was in a serious voice, and Ren could feel his strength and determination.

“Ren, you need to decide what sort of man you’re going to be. If you decide to allow people to take advantage of you, to treat you badly and let them get away with it without doing anything about it, what that does is, it cuts into your own ego. It makes you feel kind of worthless. Do you want to go through life feeling that way about yourself?”

Ren was shaking his head. “No,” he said, “but—”

Cal interrupted him. “There aren’t any buts. For some things in this life, there aren’t any buts, there’s no leeway. There’s a line to be drawn you can’t allow anyone to cross. You have to stand up for yourself if you want anyone to respect you, but whether they respect you isn’t as important as whether you respect yourself. That’s what’s most important. If you let Hec get away with what he did, you’ll have no self-respect at all. He did something, and you have to stand up and make it clear you won’t accept that sort of treatment, that you’re worth more than that. You have to know you’re worth more than that.”

“But he owns the ranch! He can have you fired.”

“That doesn’t matter! Believe me, if you have to choose between your job and your self-respect, you have to understand that’s no choice at all. You can have many jobs, but how you feel about yourself is a constant. It shouldn’t change. Sometimes, you have to think about the consequences of what decisions you’re making, but giving up on yourself shouldn’t ever be part of that. What do you imagine is more important to me, the job I have or your self-worth?”

“Mine? Not yours?” Ren thought Cal had misspoken.

“No, your own feeling of self-worth. If I have to give up this job so you realize how important you are to me, I’ll do it in an instant. A father is supposed to teach that to his son, how valuable the son is, by the love and encouragement he gives him. I never did that for you; I wasn’t there. And the men who were there did the opposite for you. So I understand you haven’t learned self-respect. But you have to start developing it, and I have to show you that you’re worthy of it.

“You have to feel that about yourself, too. And this is a perfect opportunity for you to begin. Yeah, telling Mrs. Hanson what Hec did is difficult, embarrassing and scary, but after you’ve done it, you’ll feel a sense of personal pride that you may never have felt before. That, Ren, is more important than any job.”

Ren had to think about that. He couldn’t really imagine that his father thought Ren was more important than the life Cal had built for himself. But Cal seemed to be saying that. No, he was saying it, and emphatically.

Ren looked down, letting what he was hearing and all the implications of it sink in. When he looked up, he had tears in his eyes. No one had ever told him he had any worth at all. “You mean,” he stuttered, “you really mean that? That you’d sacrifice your job for me?”

“In an instant, Ren,” Cal repeated. “Without a regret in the world. The point is, you have to value yourself more than a job, more than anything. Your life isn’t worth much if you don’t value yourself. That’s what you need to learn from this. That your worth is something not to be taken lightly. And as your father, I need to reinforce that. I have to show you that through my actions.”

Ren felt the tears in his eyes start to fall. He turned his head away, not wanting his dad to see.

Cal continued speaking, pretending not to notice Ren’s emotional turmoil. “What this means, now, is that you have to stand up to Hec. Maybe not physically. He’s bigger than you, and trying to fight him would only serve to get you hurt. No, you have to look at the tools you have to fight him with and use them. What do you have that’s better than what he has? What do you have in your arsenal that will allow you to whip his butt?”

Ren had no answer to that, so Cal supplied him with one. “You can whip his butt by showing him that you’re not to be taken as lightly as he already did. You just have to stand up and let him know you won’t put up with what he did. Now, how can you do that?”

Ren had thought about his dad’s words, and they’d talked some more while on the horse, and Ren had had a new perspective about himself when they’d ridden back into the compound. Just knowing how his dad felt about him had made him sit up straighter on the horse.

Not long after their return to the compound, after Ren was fed and dressed, even with Cal thinking he should rest and do this tomorrow, Ren was adamant. It should be right then. No waiting.

As they left their house, Cal had one final reminder for Ren. “This is going to be up to you. I’ll be there, but all I want is to be supportive—a supportive and involved father. You were there, and it’s up to you to convince Mrs. Hanson of what happened, what they did, and not back down when Hec denies it. You know what he’ll say. You know he’ll claim it didn’t happen. He’ll get his two buddies to come, and they’ll back him up. They’ll say they didn’t do it, that they never even saw you yesterday. That you’re making it all up for some reason, maybe to make yourself a big shot on the ranch.”

Cal put his hand on Ren’s shoulder, squeezing it gently, his touch giving Ren tactile proof he was on his side. “You want to find some way to show that they’re guilty and that they’re lying. You just have to listen and watch and figure out what to do. This is one of those times when you have to use your best asset—what we talked about—that head on your shoulders. But underneath all that, just know you’ve already done the most important part simply by walking in there with your head high and telling what happened. That makes you someone to reckon with. Someone who won’t let himself be pushed around no matter what. You’ll be telling Hec that, but more importantly, you’ll be proving it to yourself.”

Ren nodded. He didn’t know how he would prove anything to Mrs. Hanson, but he liked the fact his dad was going to be next to him. He also knew from what Hec had said to him and how he’d said it that Hec was not the brightest kid in the world; he had an ego that wouldn’t quit, and Ren had seen he was quick to anger, so perhaps Hec could be goaded into making a mistake. Ren thought the chances were pretty good that he could make Mrs. Hanson believe him—or at least to doubt Hec. And he couldn’t lose even if he couldn’t convince her, because, according to Cal, he was winning just by going into battle.

They took the short walk to the Hanson House, Cal knocked, and when Moses answered the door, they walked in.

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