> 1 <
“But how did those boys all get away from the guys controlling them? And stay away without raising suspicion? And get up on the roofs with rifles? And know just what you wanted them to do and when to do it?” Cal was shaking his head. The more he heard of the plan, the more amazed he was that any of them had survived.
Ren smiled, and Andy and Izzy both laughed. They were in the Hanson House and were still a bit light-headed and unsettled after encountering the things that had occurred and the speed with which their situation had changed from dire to triumphant. Julia Hanson was there with them. Everyone was filling in the blanks for each other. All the kids’ shakiness was being soothed by their effusive talking.
“Andy told you about the rifles and Ryan’s part. But the boys getting loose and away from the Mexican guys they were with, that was Ren’s idea,” Izzy said. “Actually, everything was Ren’s idea.” She turned to Ren. “Why do you have to be gay?” she said with a mock moan.
Andy moved closer to Ren on the couch. Actually, he couldn’t move closer; he was already up against him, but he tried.
“So,” asked Cal, impatiently, turning to Ren, “how did you manage that?”
“The boys were good actors, as most boys can be.” Ren was smiling, thinking about it. “They learn that skill when trying to fool their parents. I told them they had to act worried, but they already were, so it wasn’t hard for them to do that.
“I didn’t have much time to tell them anything while we were eating; that was one of the hardest things; there wasn’t enough time. But I told them that at 4 PM sharp, they should all get an attack of the runs. Tell the man in the house with them that the tacos they’d had for lunch must have been off and being scared just made things worse. They were to hold their stomachs and moan, then they run for the bathrooms. All the bathrooms in these houses are in the back. They went in, locked the doors, and were immediately out the windows and up on the roofs with the rifles we’d laid out for them. Everyone had an assigned man or two to keep covered, the one they’d been with in their house and the one closest to him. I told them, if anyone pulled a gun, shoot him. But the three best shots, Izzy, Gus and Gordo, were the ones chosen to shoot the hats when they were thrown onto the lawn. Just the brims.
“I had Izzy cover Mesa. She’s the best shot on the ranch. And one of the ones with the most courage. I knew she’d do her best to keep me from dying.”
“She’d better have!” said Andy.
Izzy stuck out her tongue at him. Then Andy got up and hugged her, whispering his thanks in her ear.
“So how’d you get out of the closet they had you locked in?” Ren asked Cal.
“It was bad in there. Didn’t seem to be enough air, and it was dark. A couple of the guys said we should break down the door and rush them. I said if we tried to break out, they’d just start shooting through the door and walls.” That stopped that talk, but it made me think. What if we did get them to shoot through the walls and door? Wouldn’t they be curious to see what had happened? What if they shot and there were no sounds coming back? What would they think? Had we found a way out? Were we still there? Were we all dead?
“So, when we heard two of them leave to get food, telling the other they’d relieve him after they’d had their supper, I got all the guys to lie on the floor. I was going to make a noise at the door, like I was breaking out, but if I did it lying on the floor, it would sound like it was coming from down there and they’d probably shoot there. So I climbed up on the shelves, as high as I could get, and then threw a couple of heavy boxes at the middle of the door.
“That resulted in the door cracking and three shots being fired. All were fired about chest high, so no one was hit. Two went through the walls and one through the door. I’d told the men to be silent after we were shot at, and we all were. We all waited, letting the tension build, then I took the heaviest thing I could find, an old TV from one of the shelves, and threw it at where the shot had cracked the door. That TV set just crashed right through the door, leaving it wide open. So, I dropped off the shelf and ran out. There was only one guy there, as expected, and he sort of stumbled backwards when he saw me rushing him, but then the rest of the guys were coming, too, and he tried to get a snap shot off at me—I was in front—but he was stumbling back by then and scared and turning to run off, and the shot went up into the ceiling, and then I was on him.”
Cal stopped. He didn’t say what had happened to the man who’d shot at them after that. But he did say his men had gone out the back door and tried to make sense of what they were seeing out on the lawn.
“I was scared to death, seeing you facing off against Mesa. It’s a good thing you yelled at me. I’d have screwed everything up by rushing out to you.”
“It’s also a good thing you didn’t get shot by that guy in the building,” said Ren.
“We were all going to die anyway if we didn’t do something,” said Cal.
Ren looked at Izzy, now sitting calmly in her chair. “Does it bother you, Iz, that you shot and killed Mesa?” he asked.
She looked at him for a moment, thinking. “Not really. Maybe later when I think back on it it’ll hit me. But I knew we were all going to die if those guys won. So shooting him to help prevent that felt like self-defense. And I wasn’t going to let him shoot you. No, I don’t think it bothers me. But I’m still shaking a little. I think everyone is.”
> 2 <
The sheriff eventually arrived with two vans, enough to cart away all the invaders who remained alive and the dead ones, too. Everyone had to give statements that were recorded, typed up and then signed. But the sheriff said right off that anyone who shot one of the bad guys was acting in self-defense, just as Izzy had said. He said the fact anyone on the ranch had survived was a miracle.
Everyone made a big fuss over Ren. He hated it. He didn’t feel like a hero. He’d been as scared as it was possible to be. He’d only done what he’d had to do to try to save people. And he didn’t know how to react to everyone telling him how wonderful he was. He wished it would stop.
He told everyone he could that he’d only done part of it. If Ryan hadn’t found and shown Andy and him the rifles weeks earlier, if the kids hadn’t been great shots or lacked the nerve to climb up on those roofs, if Andy hadn’t been brave enough to run from the corral to the storage building completely uncovered—there were lots and lots of heroes, and they were all as worthy of being called that as he was.
He left and went back into his house as quickly as he could, which wasn’t nearly soon enough to suit him. Everyone on the ranch seemed to want to praise him, even the cowboys. And many of the girls and women had insisted on kissing him!
Of course, it helped that Andy wouldn’t leave his side. They held hands much of the time. No one seemed to have anything to say about that other than Rocky. He pointed at their hands, wiggled his eyebrows and asked, “Are Ren and Andy randy?” Then laughed and hugged them both. He whispered in Andy’s ear, “You lucky dog!”
When the two of them finally escaped the crowd, the first thing they did with Ren’s door closed behind them was kiss again. Ren could hardly believe how good it felt having Andy’s arms around him and Andy’s warm lips pressed against his own.
“I’ve wanted to do this for so long,” he breathed into Andy’s ear when he had the chance.
“Mmmmm,” Andy replied, kissing him again. “I just want to hold you. I’m still shaking, just like Izzy said. Hey! Now I know why you didn’t fall for her!”
They were still standing by the door and in each other’s arms. Ren tightened his around Andy. “I don’t want to talk. I just want to hold you. I’m still scared. I’d convinced myself I would be dead. I was sure of it. But I’m still alive, and it takes some time to decompress after it’s all over, I guess.”
“Hold on to me as long as you want,” Andy said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
A little later, when they’d finally moved to the couch and kissed some more, Ren asked, “Are we the only gay boys here?”
“The only ones who’ve admitted it,” Andy answered. “Now that we’re out, I wonder if anyone else will admit it?”
“I don’t care if they all do,” said Ren. “If there are some others, I’ve still got the best one, and there’s no way I’m ever letting go.”
> 3 <
Cal had come to get them and take them to the Hanson House. Mrs. Hanson had spoken to everyone on the ranch, comforting and consoling them. Many of the kids and even a few of the adults were still shaken and some time would be needed for them to get over what had happened. Julia talked to Mrs. Rivera and she was looking into bringing some professional counselors to the ranch to speak to those who could benefit from their help. Now Julia wanted to talk to Ren and Cal. She’d asked Cal to bring Ren, and of course Andy had come, too, accompanied by Izzy who’d been standing outside the Hanson House as they were approaching. Ren had reached out and taken her hand, and with him in the middle and those two friends on either side of him, they entered the Hanson House hand in hand.
“I’d like to understand exactly what happened,” Julia told the kids when they were seated. The three kids looked at each other, and almost by instinct, the other two looked at Ren, leaving it up to him.
He talked for a long time about his plan and how it had been carried out, with Andy and Izzy jumping in with details now and then. At the end, Ren told them how uncomfortable he was with everyone praising him. Cal told him he understood, he was sort of that way himself, but accepting praise was just one more thing for Ren to learn to do and learn to do gracefully.
Julia had them all stay for dinner. Moses and Amelia had survived the raid of the ranch; Moses hadn’t even been taken into the bunkhouse with the other men, probably because the raiders had seen how old and feeble he was dismissed him as not posing a threat. Moses sort of resented that, even while being glad he hadn’t had to do anything to protect Amelia. But he was old, he knew it, and he was glad his life’s latest great adventure had ended so well.
Ren didn’t enjoy the discussion because every time something else was explained and discussed, his role in saving the ranch kept being highlighted, and he kept blushing and got quieter and quieter. Andy saw how uncomfortable he was and finally asked if they could take a break. They could, and Andy took Ren into the kitchen. They had their dessert in there, Izzy joining them when she figured out where they’d gone. They sat and talked with Moses and Amelia while Cal and Julia spent their time alone together in the dining room.
Ren really liked Amelia. Something about the two of them fit. He’d bonded with Julia Hanson, too, but found it much easier to confide in Amelia if it was something very private. She never had a critical word for him and understood him very well. She confided in him, too. At one point, she told him, sounding embarrassed, that she couldn’t read or write. Neither could Moses. They’d not had proper schooling growing up; a lot of rural black folk hadn’t. She said she’d never had time to learn how, either, working her entire life. Not that she minded. She had a good head and remembered the recipes she’d been taught without needing to have had them printed out. She loved cooking, and she loved Julia. And now, she whispered, she loved Ren.
Seemed like no matter what, Ren ended up blushing.
> 4 <
Things slowly returned to normal on the ranch. School was back in session. Ray Gonzales seemed to have matured rather suddenly, now that he felt he had to take his father’s place and be responsible for his family. His father had been the one who took care of the fences on the property. There were miles of fences. Mr. Gonzales had spent his days on horseback traveling the fence lines, making notes of where repairs were needed, then taking the help and supplies he needed to make the repairs. Often, one of his helpers had been Ray, and Ray had learned—reluctantly, but learned—the trade. Julia approached him a couple of days after his father’s funeral and asked him if he could take over the job. He was delighted with the offer and told her he’d do his very best and thanked her for believing in him and giving him this chance.
Andy and Ren were now committed boyfriends. Ren had turned 14 a few days after the ranch invasion, and as much as he’d wished the day would go unnoticed, Julia threw a major party for him at the Hanson House, and all the families were invited. It was another night of embarrassment for him, but he found out again how loved and respected he was. He was getting better at accepting the praise and love without losing his composure.
A month after that, Andy turned 14 as well. When that happened, they both came to Cal and asked if they could begin sharing a bedroom, could be together every night, and use Ren’s room as their bedroom. Ren was very clear: sex wasn’t the only reason they wanted to do this. Sure, there would be sex; sure, they’d certainly be learning what it was all about. But they wanted the room mostly just so they could be together. They’d had enough sleepovers together by now to know they really liked falling asleep holding each other and then waking up the same way. They just fit together so well.
Cal talked it over with Mrs. Rivera. Mrs. Rivera was a smart, down-to-earth woman. She mentioned that since Ren had come, Andy was doing much better in school than he’d ever done, and since Ren had mentioned to a few people that he’d be going off to college in a few years, Andy was now planning to go, too. It seemed likely that when Ren announced that he was planning on going to, say, Rice or Texas Tech or even a place like Berkeley or Stanford or UCLA, well, Andy might well end up talking about going there as well. It seemed to her that they were unlikely to split up, and perhaps if they got used to living together now, it wouldn’t be a distraction when they roomed together at college. And so, where was the harm in their beginning their life together now? Now, when they could be watched and counseled and guided into their late teen years.
Ren and Andy were pleasantly surprised when they got word back that it was fine with both Cal and Andy’s parents. There would be lots of envious teens on the ranch once word got out, and word would get out almost immediately in the tight-knit community of the ranch. But when people did learn what was going to happen, both boys were so well-liked that there was no animosity directed towards them. There were, however, several parents who wished their kids wouldn’t now have an example to use in their arguments for cohabitation.
Andy decided to move all his clothes to Ren’s house. There wasn’t room for Ren in the Rivera house. They already had too many kids there, and the story Andy had told him kept coming back to Ren, the one about Andy running to the bathroom in the morning with his morning projection leading the way and his sisters and brother all enjoying the spectacle and commenting inappropriately. There was no way he wanted any part of that.
The problem was, Ren’s room was his dad’s old den, and it was barely large enough for Ren. Andy and Ren carried some of Andy’s clothes from one house to another, having to put up with Rocky’s and Jose’s and JJ’s comically rude comments on the way. Their friends followed along, not offering to help, but full of suggestions about what was going to happen that night. Ren would have been embarrassed, except Andy started laughing and joking back at them, and his way of making it all fun rubbed off on Ren. Ren still had a way of taking everything too seriously, but he was getting better. Andy was very good at putting things in perspective and deflecting barbs, and Ren was learning from him.
He realized, later, that the fact the boys could make crude jokes about the two of them together meant they totally accepted Ren and Andy as a couple and had no reservations or uncertainties about them and their partnership at all.
When they arrived at Ren’s house, they realized what they were up against.
“There’s no room!” Andy said, still holding a pile of clothes.
There wasn’t. Ren had one small dresser, and it was crammed with his stuff. There was no closet; this hadn’t been meant to be a bedroom. Instead, in one corner of the room Cal had fitted a closet rod between the two adjoining walls and that’s where Ren hung his clothes that wouldn’t go in the dresser. But the closet rod was mostly full, too.
“We need a bigger room. A bigger house.” Ren had put his items on the bed and was turning around. Even the bed would be a tight fit for them. Of course, they were planning to enjoy that, but Ren was practical enough to see that sometimes, a little space between them might be desirable.
Cal had wandered in to see what was going on while they were talking. Now he spoke up. “There’s only one solution. Pretty obvious, actually. I’ll move in here, and you guys get my room. I have a double bed, I have a closet and a bigger dresser, and I don’t need all that space. We’ll just switch.”
“But Dad! We can’t…” Ren trailed off. He realized that that was a perfect solution to their problem. But he felt bad about displacing his father.
“Yes, you can.” Cal looked around the room. “This is plenty big enough for me. I only sleep and dress in my bedroom, and this room will work as well as the other for me. Really. I’ll start gathering my stuff, and you can start gathering yours, and we’ll just make this moving day.”
It took less time than Ren expected, because neither Ren nor Cal had a huge amount of stuff to move. Ren’s books took the longest time. There was plenty of room in what was now the boys’ bedroom for both Ren’s and Andy’s things. Andy plopped down on the bed, a huge smile on his face. “This feels great. Better than my old mattress. Come here.”
Ren saw his grin, stopped to shut the door, and obeyed.
Ren had been surprised when he was first intimate with Andy. He’d done some things with Bobby, and he knew how exciting that had been. He thought it would be the same with Andy. It wasn’t. It was so much better, lying naked next to and, variously, on top of and under a very naked Andy. It felt so different. The things they did while learning what each other liked, what they themselves liked, were so incredible, so unexpected, that Ren could hardly believe them. Ren decided the difference between now and before with Bobby was that he’d never been in love with Bobby. They’d been two curious and horny boys. With Andy, it was two young boys in love with each other, and while what Ren felt from what Andy was doing to him was amazing, part of what made it all so much better was the time he spent trying to make Andy feel as good as possible. That made the excitement and feelings twice as thrilling. Hearing Andy gasp and groan, pant and purr just increased his own pleasure. Now, there wasn’t the same feeling of being naughty, being dirty, and especially of being rushed to do what they were doing. Now, there was time to enjoy everything they did, there was no rush at all, and they took full advantage of that.
They learned to please each other and did so very, very well.
Cal saw how happy the boys were. He saw them at night, he saw them in the morning, and their happiness made him begin to think about the time that was passing. He realized he was missing out on the kind of joy they were experiencing.
> 5 <
They were having dinner with Julia when she dropped a bombshell. “I have something to tell you all. When school is done, I’ve asked Hec to come back.” She saw the look on Ren’s face and quickly continued. “It won’t be forever. In fact, it’ll only be for a week. He’s accepted life at the military school he’s attending in Virginia. I guess he needed the kind of discipline they instill. Rather than fighting it, he embraced what goes on there. He’s been doing well.
“They have a summer camp, and he’s looking forward to that. The camp is mandatory for all students. The administration gives the boys a week off after the end of term before camp so they can go home and see their parents. That’s when he’ll come here.”
She was looking at Ren and saw this was upsetting him. “Ren,” she said, her voice softer and warmer, “the boy has changed. I can tell from his letters and the few phone conversations we’ve had. He’s polite now and never took the trouble to do that before. He was indifferent about school before and now says he’s working hard, trying to get all A’s. He’s settled down and is fitting in with what goes on there and with the kids, too. I think if you give him a chance, you’ll see a different boy. But in any case, it’ll only be a week, and you can easily avoid him if you want.”
When they were back home, Ren sat on their bed. Andy stood in front of him, looking down. “You’re upset, huh? About Hec?” he asked.
“He almost killed me! And didn’t care! I don’t see how he can have changed that much. I can see how he might have people at that school fooled. He had his mother fooled all the time he was growing up! His own mother!”
Andy shook his head. “Those two didn’t really get along that well. I don’t think Mrs. Hanson has it in her to be hardnosed about anything, and Hec needed some of that. He seemed to ignore her. And you saw how she was at that meeting. She was fed up with him, tired of his arrogant attitude and disobedience. I don’t think he had her fooled. She just didn’t know how to handle him.”
Ren lay back flat on the bed. Andy, seeing his chance, got on the bed, too, on his side facing Ren. But he didn’t kiss him. Andy knew Ren a lot better now. Knew his moods. Knew Ren had to mentally work through this, that he’d be fully absorbed with the problem till he’d worked it out.
“Maybe,” Ren finally said.
“Maybe what?” Andy laughed. Ren could become quite absorbed with something and then talk as though everyone was bound to know what he’d been thinking. Andy loved Ren’s various eccentricities. They helped make him who he was.
“Maybe I should give him a chance. I mean, Mrs. Hanson has been so nice to us. She wants to try this. I doubt Hec has changed at all, but for her sake, I’m going to try to be nice to him. What about you? You always avoided him.”
Andy reached out and smoothed back a lock of hair that had fallen over Ren’s eyes. Ren had come to a decision. He’d be more open now to what Andy had to say, more reachable.
“I’ll go along with you. You know that.”
“You’re right about that.” Ren smiled and met Andy’s glance. “When I talk to him, you’re going to be with me. Otherwise, no deal.”
Andy leaned over so their lips were almost touching, then held back long enough to say, “OK.” After that, both their lips were fully engaged in activities where talking wasn’t involved.
> 6 <
Hec was due anytime now. Julia was anticipating his arrival with joy and dread. She’d missed him when he was gone but had seen how the atmosphere in the ranch compound was lighter, happier when the boys were outside, and in her own house as well. She knew what her son had done was reprehensible. She hadn’t been aware of it when it was happening, and that disturbed her. She felt she should have known.
Still, he was her son, her only child. She was feeling happy to see him again. And wishing as hard as she could that a different boy from the one who’d left months earlier would be walking into the house.
Would he be the same secretive, mendacious, rebellious boy? Or would the different setting have really changed him? She’d know anytime now. Cal had left early to pick him up at the station in Ashville. Julia had felt that drive back to the ranch together would be the acid test. Cal was a good judge of character, and he’d never been fooled by Hec. Cal hadn’t said anything to her about what he thought, because Hec was her son, the boss’s son. It wasn’t his place to say anything. She understood that but still wished he’d have confided his misgivings to her.
She wondered how that long drive was going. If it was dead silence, they’d both be edgy when they arrived. But that in itself would tell her something.
She heard a vehicle in the driveway, the stones making the soft, crunching sound they always made. She stood up and touched her hair without even realizing it, then tucked her blouse in again, though it didn’t need it. She walked to the door, then waited.
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