The road home was less auspicious than I thought it would be. Traffic slowed to a bare crawl outside Las Cruces, and the overheated bus had started to smell.
Just like on every bus, everywhere in the world, people were packed in tight. They stared ahead expressionlessly, as if that cramped, anonymous ride was the best they could expect because it probably was.
All four westbound lanes had been forced into one until at last we reached what seemed like a flare-lit city of fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances. Uniforms covered the highway like ants at a picnic.
When I saw the wreck, my heart gave a lurch. An old yellow school bus with “Iglesias Angelica Bautista” written on the side had been hit head-on by a double tractor-trailer truck. The impact had scattered debris all over both sides of the highway.
A single battered high-top sneaker lay in the middle of the street, blood-spattered and abandoned. I couldn’t take my eyes off it as we drove past.
The front of the wrecked school bus was crushed like an accordion. No way the driver survived the crash. There were others lying still and lifeless beneath sad yellow tarps. EMTs raced between people lying side by side in a makeshift triage area.
I tried to make myself do the deep breathing the army shrinks taught me. I thought about trying the other bullshit stopgap measures I was supposed to deploy before going to the little pills they gave me for anxiety, which I’d thrown away anyway. I tried repeating nonsense rhymes and visualizing my happy place, but the fact is, if you’ve been in a sniper’s crosshairs long enough, it’s hard to convince yourself there’s nobody trying to kill you anymore.
I was home, goddamnit. I wasn’t in danger. Except . . . we’re all in danger all the time. We just don’t know it.
As we inched past the wreck, even I—with the knowledge of how random and tragic fate could be—shook with shock. I couldn’t take my eyes off that shoe lying by itself in the street because my brother used to wear those same Converse high-tops when he was about five. Chucks. I got annoyed every time I heard his little feet padding after me as I tried to run away and play with my “big kid” friends.
Wish I had that now.
Wish I had time to play with him and a chance to know him, now that we were both out from under our father’s thumb, but while I’d been deployed to the valley CNN once called the most dangerous place on earth, my brother got killed on the I-10, exactly like the poor bastard who was driving that bus.
The stifling heat made the Greyhound nearly unbearable. A woman on the seat behind me cried out to Jesus, starting a prayer that three or four of the other passengers echoed. Instinct, still honed to razor-sharp readiness, lifted me to my feet, even though the bus was moving.
“Sit down,” said the old man next to me, whose skin was gray with age and probably cigarettes. Tattoos littered his forearms, including one I recognized, the Devil Dog. Marines. “What do you think you’re going to do out there they aren’t already doing?”
I shrugged and sat.
He studied me. “Just get back?”
That got a laugh. “I thought so. You look it.”
He just stared at me then, and something passed between us. Anxiety and fatigue and that indefinable pinch of pain, as if our lives were too small now, and it hurt to walk around in them.
“Yeah.” I glanced away.
I sat still, even though every cell in my body was telling me I should do something. It was both my nature and, up until recently, my job to keep order. Yet now my TOS was up, and I was going home.
In spite of everything, I stayed still.
It seemed like it took forever to pass the accident.
“Lordy, Lordy.” The woman behind me cried softly. “Sweet Jesus, help your children in their hour of need.”
I let my old, cold friend discipline flow through my heart and I looked away.
Maybe I’d built up this illusion that home was a place made of safety and order, but that goddamn shoe told me different.
Anyhow, that’s why I was late getting into Deming.
I scanned every face on the street, looking for my mother, when I got off the bus. I don’t know why I thought she might come. She was afraid to drive the single mile to church. Venturing as far as Deming was probably more than she could take.
After Dad landed himself in prison, I hoped she’d start going out again, just to the grocery store if she needed to. I guessed she didn’t, because she wasn’t waiting for me.
The dirty, gray bus station emptied out quickly. It was little more than a stop off the I-10 in a hot, dry collection of buildings generosity made me call a city. Deming had little going for it besides its proximity to the highway.
I’d hiked my duffel over my shoulder and was working out how I’d find my own way home, when somebody called my name.
I followed the sound and found a cowboy standing behind me. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t say why. “Who’s asking?”
“Jimmy Rafferty.” He held out his hand, but I let it hang there while I tried to process his face. His eyes narrowed. “From the J-Bar? Your mama called the ranch. I’m here to give you a ride.”
I hesitated before I gave him my hand to shake. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“This way, son. I need to pick up one of the hands from the ER in Silver City. He’s going to think I left him to find his way back by breadcrumbs or some such.”
I fell into step beside him, consciously matching my stride to his leggy, rolling gait. He was all cowboy, lean and rangy. He looked about forty or so. He wore some hard road on his face, but he was good-looking in his way.
“You know my mother?”
He stopped to look at me. Screwed up his face. “I can’t say I do.”
He was proving to be a bit of a character. “Then why are you here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how did you know to pick me up?”
He raised his brows. “Do you need a code word or something? I’m not here to kidnap you and sell you into white slavery or nothing. Nobody told me—”
“I mean”—heat suffused my face—“why are you here if you don’t know my mother?”
“Oh.” He grinned. “Boss asked me ’cause your mama and Emma Jenkins are friends. I guess she didn’t know about Emma not living at the J-Bar no more.”
“Ah.” The Jenkinses. Neighbors for as long as I could remember. Emma used to invite my family to the J-Bar on the Fourth of July. They always made a party of it, throwing a big barbecue and chili cook-off. I think a summer picnic at the J-Bar was where I first realized cowboys flipped my switch as opposed to . . . er . . . cowgirls.
I loved the J-Bar. I’d wanted to work there.
“How is everyone?”
“Crandall passed.” Jimmy informed me solemnly.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Crandall Jenkins was the kind of man whose loss would be felt keenly by everyone he ever came into contact with. “Emma didn’t sell up, did she?”
“Nah. She wanted to spend time with her girls and the grandkids. Speed Malloy and his partner Crispin are running the place now.”
I missed a step. Speed Malloy made my pants tight back in the day. I could barely be around him without sporting wood. “His partner?”
“His life partner.” Jimmy stopped and faced me, hands on his worn leather belt. “You got a problem with that? Get it out of your system.”
“No sir, not me.” I didn’t out myself there on the street, but I wasn’t going to let him think I was a homophobe. They probably got that shit a lot.
“Malloy told me to pick you up, on account of he talked to your mama. I’m just doing what I’m told.” He stopped beside a battered old crew-cab pickup truck. “Drop your bag in the back and we’ll be on our way.”
“Thank you.” I did as he asked and climbed into the cab beside him. After the hot, close quarters on the bus, it felt as nice as a limousine. Not that I knew what limousines were really like.
“You back for good?” he asked.
I nodded. “My mother needs me more than Uncle Sam does at this point.”
He peered at me like he was trying to see inside. “I guess things ain’t been too easy for her lately.”
“You know about my dad?” I asked.
Jimmy’s mouth tightened right up. “Some.”
My heart sank. “I’m nothing like him.”
He glanced away first. “Ain’t going to be easy to gain people’s trust after what him and his pals did.”
“I don’t need people’s trust.”
He keyed the ignition and the truck started up. “You will if you want to build a life here.”
Christ, what an awful thought. Building a life there. “I don’t know what I want, yet.”
He shot me a cryptic smile. “You’ll figure it out. You’re still young enough, Calvin.”
“‘Tripp,’” I corrected automatically. “People call me ‘Tripp.’”
“Okay, Tripp. Call me ‘Jimmy.’” He nodded before pulling out into the street.
The ride from Deming to Silver City takes a little under an hour. Because of the change in elevation, the desert, with its infrequent clusters of agave and cactus, gives way to a forest of junipers and piñon trees. No matter how many times I’d driven up that road I was always surprised by the change in landscape. It was stark and beautiful one minute, and lush green the next.
The area hadn’t changed much since the day I’d turned eighteen and left for good.
The afternoon shadows lengthened until I no longer needed my Oakleys. I pushed them onto the top of my head as we pulled up in front of the Regional Medical Center. A lone man rested on crutches out front—another cowboy, taller, broader, and darker than Jimmy, wearing a straw hat that shaded his face. He bent his leg at the knee, keeping his foot—which was encased in a sturdy black soft cast—from bearing his weight.
“Aw, shit. I was afraid that foot was busted.” Jimmy said, stopping the truck at the curb. “That’s Lucho. Go help him into the truck, will you?”
“Sure.” I jumped down from the passenger seat, leaving the door open so I could help the man in. “Front seat okay? Or would you be more comfortable in the back?”
“Back, please.” Polite.
Good-looking too. A sharp sizzle of awareness passed between us and I smiled as I opened the back door.
His eyebrow lifted.
Okay. So I checked him out. I was guilty as charged. He eyed me appreciatively in return. He had dark hair, tan skin. Coca-Cola eyes that watched my every move from beneath lashes thick as a doll’s. That dark gaze lingered on my package before traveling slowly upwards. His brief quirk of a smile sent the unmistakable message that he liked what he saw.
Message received and noted.
I held my hand out, so he handed over his crutches without taking his eyes off mine. I put my arm around his waist to steady him and pretty much lifted him into the truck so he didn’t have to put his weight on his foot.
Was it my imagination? Or did he lean into me a little more than necessary? I caught him closing his eyes.
“No.” He shook his head. “You smell good.”
Breathless, I let him go, but it was like I was in some kind of trance. My reluctance to end contact came from pure biological imperative. He felt so good. He smelled like sage and horse and the sick sweat of pain, but his muscles were solid and his body lean and strong. His was the first man’s body I’d held close in so long.
I did not want to let go and he didn’t want me to. We stayed there, looking into each other’s eyes until I heard Jimmy clear his throat.
Startled, I stepped back. Lucho gave me a playful push and another long, slow perusal that felt exactly like a juicy lick up my dick. I shook myself out of my stupor and gave up a huff of embarrassed laughter before I stepped away.
I’d never come on to anyone that hard in my life.
It must have been the timing. Everything was out of whack with me coming back home like that. With the accident and the apprehension of what I’d find when I saw my ma again.
With strangers picking me up when it should have been family.
I put my hand out to shake. “Folks call me ‘Tripp.’”
Instantly, he lost all warmth. “You’re Calvin Tripplehorn’s son?” His voice was dangerously soft.
“Not so’s you’d know it.” I’d meant the words as a joke. He didn’t take it that way. The fire in his eyes simply died and he let my hand hang there, untouched until I drew it back.
He nodded and removed his hat. Without it I could see his lean, fierce face was etched with shadows and pain. I stood there too long, staring. Cataloguing tan skin, high cheekbones, a chin with more than a day’s growth of beard.
He had a long, straight nose that made him masculine and beautiful at the same time. Stark and lovely, like New Mexico itself.
His expression and gone from interest to disdain in the space of a second, and I guessed I knew why. The Tripplehorn name probably came with a warning label around these parts. “Okay to close the door?”
“It’s fine.” His eyes had narrowed with suspicion, but he had lips like a kid’s, soft as Cinnamon Bears, and I was heartsick that I’d probably never get to taste them. That was the kind of immediate effect Lucho had on me. Desire and despair, all at once.
As he ran the fingers of one hand over the soul patch on his chin I asked, “Need anything else?”
He shook his head sharply and then looked away. “Not from you, Tripplehorn.”
My dad’s name, his goddamn shadow, loomed over me, though I hadn’t even gotten home yet.
“Be nice, Lucho.” Jimmy’s bark was a warning, like we were kids in the backseat and he was going to say, Don’t make me stop this car.
“Give me a break, Rafferty,” Lucho growled. “I don’t gotta be nice to Calvin Tripplehorn’s kid.”
Closing the door between us, I hesitated before getting back into the truck. How had I forgotten the gut-churning taste of shame?
Old memories came back to me with a violent shove. I was “crazy Cal’s” kid.
Pretty soon I’d forget what it was like to be decorated army sergeant Tripplehorn—to earn respect by following orders and keeping a professional attitude and working my ass off. Nobody around these parts was going to give me that chance.
“C’mon kid,” Jimmy coaxed.
A ride was a ride. As soon as I’d climbed up into the passenger seat, Jimmy cranked up the radio and took off again.
Nobody talked until my family’s place came into view, and even then, I simply stared. It was hard to sort out what I was seeing. The manufactured house was still there, but the screen door hung askew. Out front, weeds choked what was once a pretty garden. The chicken coop had fallen down. There was no sign of life anywhere.
“Man.” Jimmy frowned at a dust devil blowing across the packed dirt of what used to be an exercise ring for horses. “Your brother really let the place go.”
“Ya think?” I said sourly. Concern for me shadowed his eyes as he framed his next, careful question. “You planning on fixing the place up?”
I felt exhausted already. “If my mother doesn’t want to leave, I guess I’ll have to.”
I’d thought Lucho was asleep, but he snorted derisively from the back seat. “Maybe you ought to just burn it down. You Tripplehorn motherfuckers got a lot of experience with arson, after all.”
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Copyright 2014, Z.A. Maxfield