There’s a place up round near Bighorn where the little streams all crisscross each other like a handful of grass tossed down onto hot summer pavement. You can walk alongside the water in places where boots and hooves and moccasins and bare feet and whatever other goddamn footwear there is have been trampling for hundreds of years, and nobody pays you no congratulations for finding those paths.
You just find them, and you walk, and you pitch up your tent and whiskey where the endless rocky green evens out flat for a stretch and you’re high enough to see any coyote coming at you from the tree line.
I can still see it all like it’s playing right in front of my eyes, like my body done near vanished into the air and took me back up there to live it all again afresh. Except I’m not living it all fresh. I know exactly what will happen – up there on Baker Mountain.
I’m driving in my dark green Ford pickup with the squeaky brakes and the gearshift that groans and cries whenever I shove it into third. The great boundless plains speed by the dirty windshield too open, too empty. This was my daddy’s work truck, before him and ma ran off the road and missed the only damn curve in fifty miles of straight gravel just off the 294 highway, when I was too old to cry about it and too young to do without ‘em.
Harry took the truck after that. He drove me in it to the bus station three years ago in ’62, me all done up in my pressed army greens that matched the Ford’s peeling paint. My dog tags had hung clean and gleaming on my hairless chest, not a scratch on ‘em, and the engraving round my name looked fresh like you could still smell the burning metal from the etching factory. My last unfinished homework assignment from my second year of high school still lay on the kitchen table with the sharpened pencil next to it. I’d been held back twice.
That Ford truck was waiting for me when I came home from ‘Nam. It was covered in near three year’s worth of leaves and dirt, parked next to the little hole in the ground where I guess a neighbor or someone must’ve buried Harry after he put a hole in his own head. The keys were in the glove box, and a can of old gasoline was hidin’ in the weeds. I’d been hitchhiking home all day, from the airport to the bus station to the endless trail of little identical towns that look like a string of beads done broke off a necklace chain that your ma’s had round her neck since before you were born and scattered in a perfect line across the Wyoming horizon.
I came home and didn’t even go inside the old house I’d spent every day of my life in before that drive with Harry to the bus stop – just took one last look around the empty farm, grabbed those keys and hopped in the Ford and drove and drove, until I ran out of gas near Garland and had to walk eight miles to a gas station. My army boots sounded strange crunching through the Wyoming grass and rocks after years of trudging through the hot, wet, stained red jungle mud.
And now, after spending a few weeks kipping in towns and running through the pocketful of cash I’d grabbed from the secret slat in the old family barn, I’m racing down the vein of road that leads to the blood soaked sun hanging full in the distance. I hear there’s sheep herdin’ jobs for the summer along the Bighorn mountain range that pierces the dripping sky in front of me like nails, and I’m fixing to get me anything that means a place to sleep and a can of beans to eat and the thick silence that comes after hearin’ two years of screaming.
I stop every couple hours to get out and stretch my shoulder. My mind always imagines it can hear the skin tearing open when I move it round in slow circles. I hear the army hospital doctors in my head, with their quick New York accents and un-calloused hands gripping at my chest and thigh as if their touch alone could heal me. “Rotate the arm like this, son. Just a few more weeks, old boy. That’s a mark of bravery you have there, Private. You should be proud.”
I’m not proud. My dog tags are bent slightly. They cause my thin white t-shirt to peak over them, revealing their secret beneath. I wish I could wear my tags above my shirt so that everyone would know I didn’t get this limp and this nearly dead arm from being some ninny hidin’ back on his daddy’s ranch. I wish I could wear them so deep inside my chest that nobody knows that I went over to ‘Nam and got shipped back for failin’ to duck in time.
I sleep on the torn leather seat of the truck down the road from the white trailers that hold the ranch offices. There’s a warm beer tucked between the seats and half a loaf of bread and a can of tuna I picked up at the last gas station for supper.
I don’t sleep. Maybe I never will again. When the sun laps its hot blue tongue up over the edges of the mountains I shave with my pocketknife looking in the rearview mirror and slip on an old button down denim shirt that used to be Harry’s and a tanned leather jacket I’ve always had from who knows where. I was bigger than Harry before I left. He was always a beanpole. Now I can only wear his clothes.
Without takin’ time to think about it I hop out the truck and plop a tan felt hat over my roughed up military cut. I catch a glimpse of myself in the truck mirror and damn near piss myself. I’m my daddy reincarnate – just missing the little ‘un by my side with the big welt on its cheek from my hand that morning. The boy looking back at me in the tinted window will never be a soldier – not anymore. Just a cowboy begging for work scraps so that he can get away with only talkin’ to sheep for a summer and save up to buy bottles for a baby that don’t exist yet.
Someone’s already there waiting outside the trailer when I walk up the cool gravel. He’s leanin’ against his own white truck with one leg bent back and his booted foot against the shining clean door, a dark felt hat brim covering half his face in grey shadow. I can see his breath fog in the cold like cigarette smoke. Son of a bitch is half a head taller than me – I can tell from clear across the lot. Makes me want to puff up my chest and walk taller in my boots until I remember that that’s the way the Generals walked through the jungles in ‘Nam and oftentimes that made them the first to get shot through the head.
I hook my thumbs through my belt loops and shuffle my lazy feet along and hate myself for looking just like all the thousands of other dumb cowboys that done came before me. Damn good a trip halfway cross the world did me – I look like I never even left far enough away as Laramie or Cheyenne. The other man keeps looking down at the gravel ‘til I stop on the other side of the white trailer door, then he peers up from under the brim of his hat and stairs at me straight for a whole damn minute like someone straight out the loony bin. I let him look. I have nothing to hide. Just a cowboy looking for work, same as him.
That first meeting with Aguirre is one of the parts I can’t replay perfectly in my head. I’m just standing there tryin’ so damn hard not to limp or tremor. I remember keeping a careful five feet between me and the stranger. He don’t look at me again once. Don’t speak to Aguirre not one word – just grunts.
I think that maybe he ain’t developed right in the head, and he keeps his hat brim down so low it’s hard to believe he can even see straight. I think maybe he went and dropped out of high school like me, and maybe his eyes is even crossed, and that’s why he’s begging for work at dawn with nothing to his name but a Ford truck – we’re each of us two sides of the same coin.
Aguirre keeps talking. One of us to tend the sheep, one of us to tend the camp. Aguirre wants to sneak around the Forest Service and keep his losses low, so one of us will sleep in a pup tent with the sheep and trudge back to main camp each morning and night for food. Leave no trace and the rangers won’t see us breaking the rules. He takes one look at my face and clothes and throws an old watch at me, winding it first. It silently marks me as the one to stay at camp. “Be down at the main river fork Fridays at noon, I said noon, that’s the twelve on the watch.”
I nod as if I can’t read time. As if I hadn’t had to read much more than time when bullets were sailing over my head and bloody maps were clenched in my sweaty palms. As if I hadn’t had to read and sign a sheet of paper that landed me on a bus headin’ clear across the world leaving little old Ralston behind in the rearview mirror. I notice the man next to me twitch his face towards me, under the brim.
“You give your order for next week’s supplies and load up the mule. I don’t want no funny business from you with the camp ordering, you hear? That’s your only job, keeping the two of you alive. Don’t fuck it up.”
I see Aguirre glance to the center of my chest and I can’t breathe. I think he can see everything – that he knows my dog tags are bent from the explosion, and that my chest is a gnarled fist of ash. But he doesn’t know. He just sees a dumb cowboy who ain’t even been to Laramie, or Cheyenne, and he responds accordingly.
We tip our hats and leave when he goes back to his paperwork. The sound of the gravel crunching under our shoes feels like 4th of July fireworks scattering cross the virgin morning air. I look at the man as he walks towards his Ford. Underneath a wool jacket his shirt is dark and checkered. Crisp. Ironed. Perfectly tucked into a pair of Levi’s that hug his thighs and taper into his boots like they’re being sucked down by a Hoover. The Levi’s make me want to pick up a handful of gravel and crush it in my palms. They’re thick and worn. They carry years of work the way the rest of him don’t show a trace of ever liftin’ a finger.
I rub my palm on my own jeans. They sag off my legs like empty space. I hold out my hand to him, even though he’s looking straight down the road to the sun backed mountains. Towards Baker.
“John Watson,” I say. My voice lilts like my daddy’s. I’m no longer a soldier.
He turns and reaches up long fingers to push the hat up off his forehead. I can see his eyes. They’re little pools – the palm-fulls of rationed water that were handed to me in the screaming damp heat of the jungle. He looks at me. His fingers twitch against the denim on his thighs like a rattler’s tail.
“Your daddy’s watch is in the glove box of your truck,” he says. He plucks the watch from Aguirre out of my frozen fingers. “I’ll take this.”
He steps up in his truck and his stiff Levi’s crunch. The whole ordeal only takes him one graceful movement of his body, and then he peels away. He swerves around me and disappears down the road, leavin’ a dirt cloud that swallows up the Ford’s bumper. I don’t allow myself to finally limp ‘til he’s far out of sight, just a speck of dust on the clear horizon.
The next morning is the exact same goddamn routine. His hat is pulled low over his eyes as we step up into my pickup. We’re both in the same clothes. I don’t know why we choose my truck – he seems to choose without me knowing. He don’t say a word to me, not even a hello. The two-hour drive down to the sheep pens and the horses feels like two days. Feels longer than the army marches. He smokes only one cigarette on the drive – nurses it like a baby and drags it so slow I’m afraid it’ll fall right out his mouth onto his lap.
“You got a spare?” I say. It’s the first thing I’ve said to him since “John Watson.”
He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out another one, strikes a match against his Levi’s to light it. He puffs it twice, looks out the window at the sharp green and grey passing by as he holds it out to me on two steady fingers. I put it between my lips and feel that the paper is already moist from his mouth.
We’re almost to the campsite – it’s been three hours on horseback leadin’ the sheep across the rolling mist. We still haven’t spoken. Haven’t needed to. Like a magic man he anticipates what I’m about to say. “Go up the left side, watch that there boulder on the cliff, have ‘em veer right so we miss the rocks, call the sheepdog to go and chase after that lil’ runt.”
All things a dumb cowboy would say. He makes it so I don’t even need to say ‘em, and I can’t figure out whether I’m grateful or downright irritated. I think a lot on that ride as I watch him fight with his horse. It has a low startle point. I told him that when we was down waiting for the sheep to be let out their corrals but he just stood and stared at the horse for a full two minutes then jumped on without hardly a problem at all.
I’m young – impossibly so. It’s outrageous that I’ve already done had a job that almost killed me. That I’ve already traveled clear across the opposite side of the world from the farm I grew up on and came back to find it empty. I’m only twenty-two.
I can’t tell whether the stranger is years younger or years older. I still don’t know his name. His back is fluid in the saddle, like a stalk of wheat connected to the soil. Like dust that knows exactly where to fall. The sheep move around us like a white cloud, twisting like knuckles in a bar fight and making everything quiet.
Nobody screams, and it’s the most goddamn wonderful thing.
“Shut up,” he says. His voice is a rumble. I can barely hear it over the chorus of hooves.
“I ain’t talkin’,” I say.
He pulls his horse over towards me, one graceful motion from his fingertips to his hips to his heels. He clicks his horse forward to keep pace with mine. It sounds like a gun cocking.
“You’re thinkin’,” he accuses.
I huff and look out over the Bighorn mountains beside us. I can’t believe my dumb luck. Out of all the other barely literate, poor as hell ranch hands to get stuck with over this summer, I get stuck with this one – who won’t say his name, and looks at me queer like he’s staring through me. Who reads my mind without my meanin’ to let him and won’t let me open my mouth to say a word back.
I think that I’m completely fucked.
I can feel my body go all tense like a steel rod. I’m holding my breath in my chest, solid as iron, and then I see a hawk take off from a nearby fir. It soars over us and the sheep like we’re nothing but boulders and grass. I feel my muscles go lax like warm water, shuddering once with the cold and then sinking into the familiar saddle beneath me. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed a saddle in ‘Nam.
He’s watching me. I can feel it.
“You didn’t even realize ‘till this here trip how much you missed the feel of a horse when you was off hunting the Viet Cong,” he says, all casual and matter of fact. His voice is low and smooth, the familiar Wyoming lilt covered in amber honey and dark rum.
It’s the most he’s ever said to me. It knocks the wind out of me, makes me feel like a sheared calf in a strong wind. With a hot look I hope he feels even through those thick Levi’s I spur my horse forward and take the other side of the herd. I don’t realize at the time that that’s the last we’ll talk for two days.
I’m not sure exactly how we manage to herd all the sheep up to the pasture and then make our way back to set up camp without saying a word, but we do. The stranger keeps his hat down low and lets his spine sway gently with the horse beneath him. He pulls a packet of sunflower seeds out his jacket pocket once we start pitchin’ the tent by the stream and building the fire, and he spits out the seeds every fifteen seconds on the dot. I stay as far away from him as is damn near possible.
He leaves on his horse to go sleep with the sheep before I’ve even opened a can of anything for supper. Just pulls his hat farther down over his eyes and leaps up into the saddle like he’s a bird with wings on his back. He strokes the horse’s mane low and slow while it turns and twitches beneath him, lets his fingers run out the tangles ‘til she settles, and then he’s gone.
He don’t come back for two nights and a day.
When I finally do see him coming clear over the crystal horizon my lungs give a sigh of relief – whether because he’s alive or because he ain’t quit the job on me and left the sheep I don’t know. I haven’t thought about much since he’s been gone – just let my bones and body meld in time with the mountains around me, breathing in the icy green and lettin’ the ribbons of pollen and campfire ash wrap themselves through the threads of my clothes. I’m pissed off now that he’s here. Only a day and a half and I’d grown mighty used to being well and truly alone. It makes a dark part of me glad to see the dark circles under his eyes, like he ain’t slept a wink either night he was gone.
It’s past breakfast time, but I hand him a leftover drop biscuit, cup of black gritty coffee, and a can of peaches after he’s done stoking up the fire. He plops down next to me on the hard dirt and leans back against our pile of bags with a long sigh. I watch out the corner of my eye as he stretches his mile long legs to the fire, letting the rivets on his Levi’s grow hot in the flames. He eats faster than a starving horse and then melts his long rope of a body into the ground and closes his eyes.
“Thank you,” he whispers, and then he puts his hat over his face and sleeps the whole day away.
I pass the time fixin’ up a rope haul to hang our food and gear up in the trees away from the animals. I get lost in the work – in chopping up a pile of wood, swinging my arms over and over like the little hand on a clock and knowin’ that nobody screaming is gonna interrupt me. At one point I raise the axe and feel a prickle up my spine like I’m being watched, but when I turn back towards the fire the stranger’s still dead asleep with his brimmed hat covering his face.
The next time I look back towards the camp he’s up with a full pot of weak stew and some scrambled eggs simmering over the fire. I glance up shocked at the sky, looking at how low the heavy sun is hanging, like the little ropes tethering it to the great vast blue above are just about fixing to break. I come over and drench my face with a cup of freezing water, letting it run down my scalp in little beads, then he hands me a bowl and spoon and sets a whiskey in between us. He don’t eat, just smokes his way through a pack of Marlboro’s.
I can’t keep my boiling hot curiosity down for another second. I take a breath to go and ask him his name again.
“Scott,” he says, as he leans back on one elbow and looks out over the steel mist.
Goddamn bastard’s read my mind again.
“How’d you know about the watch?” I ask.
His lips quirk up just at the corner. They’re full and pink and just a little bit chapped, wrapping around his cigarette and glistening in the firelight. I remember how the cigarette he handed me in the truck was damp from his mouth, and then I wonder why I’m even remembering.
He doesn’t look at me. “Simple enough,” he says. “Little dent and the tan on your right wrist there tells me you’ve had a watch on in the last couple days. Probably ‘cus you been hitchhiking your way back from the army to wherever little farm that Ford was waitin’ for you and you felt safer having something pricey like that on your body than in your bag where it could get stolen. Fact that no one picked you up from the bus station though tells me you ain’t got no family left, so he’s obviously dead and that was his watch. Can’t be your brother’s since it’s not that new. If it were somehow yours you’d still been wearing it in Aguirre’s office. Clothes on your back are your brother’s - that much is obvious from the age of the fabric. You don’t mind keeping his stuff with you and making it your own, but your daddy’s watch ain’t something you wanna keep with you, even though you need it for Friday’s up here. You don’t want to get rid of it because it’s worth too much, but you’re keeping it down in your truck and half hoping it gets stolen out the glove box over the summer while we’re up here so that you don’t have to look at it when we get back.”
My jaw is hanging open on a broken hinge. It’s more than I was expectin’ him to ever say for the whole damn summer. He hunches his shoulders and looks down at hisself like he’s surprised he even talked that long. Then he just looks straight ahead, out over the licking flames at the slowly crumbling mountain sky.
“What about ‘Nam, then?” I ask.
“Easy. Your haircut, little peak under your shirt where your dog tags are. They ain’t layin’ flat, they’re all bent up and crooked - so something must’ve happened to bring you back here, especially now that they need recruits like nothing else. You got a slight limp, and you don’t sit straight in the saddle even though you spent your whole life on the back of a horse like me. So you was out there hunting down the Viet Cong until you done nearly got yourself blown up and shipped back here to bumfuck nowhere. You were ridin’ that horse up the trail here probably thinking some ridiculous thing about how your combat boots sounded different walking through the jungle than your ranching boots sound out here, and that’s when you realized that you were mighty grateful to have a smooth horse beneath you.”
I’m staring at him from a foot away. I can see his jaw clench and flutter like he’s nervous. Waiting for a punch.
“That’s fucking amazing,” I breathe.
That changes everything. His whole body settles, like a block of ice melting down into warm, warm water.
“You know, I’ve gotten damn good at blocking a punch over the years,” he says. I laugh because I can sure as hell believe he’s had a few punches thrown at him.
“You sayin’ I should go ahead and still punch you now for the practice?”
I hear a low rumble next to me, and when he laughs his face becomes a different person. A part of my chest that’s been tight unclenches. He looks over at me like he can’t believe he’s having a good time, and then he passes me the cigarette from his lips and takes a long swig of whiskey.
“You often give whole speeches like that when you just met a person?” I ask.
He shakes his head slowly and leans back farther on his elbow. “Hell, that’s the most words I said out loud in a year.”
We trade back and forth long into the night. We talk about everything and nothing. He asks me about the insects in the jungles, and he tells me everything there is to know about sheep and ropin’ and the plants up on Baker. He tells me bout these funny little houses called igloos and teepees, and the best way to oil a saddle, and how to predict how many seconds ‘til a bull rider flies off before they even get on the damn thing. He tells me about a book they done found buried out in the desert halfway ‘round the world in Egypt, and what are the notes on a harmonica, and all the little secrets he could tell about Aguirre just from the way he was dressed and sat in his office chair.
It blows me away, and I drink up his words like the whiskey settling low in my belly. His voice mixes with the soft, deep crackles of the fire embers and fills the whole black velvet Wyoming sky above us. He’s the smartest bastard I ever met in my whole life, and I tell him that more than once. I don’t share barely nothing about my life, and he don’t reveal anything more than that his name is Scott, but still he talks for hours and I drink and drink and drink up the sounds. When the whiskey runs low and the fire’s barely bigger than a palm print he shoots me a look so soft and trembling it makes me have to clear my throat and look away. My body feels too hot, and I go off into the trees to take a piss and listen to the silence. When I come back he’s already gone.
It goes like that for three weeks. Most times he stays away with the sheep for two nights at a time, his bag filled with barely a half-day’s worth of food. Then he comes back hungrier’n hell for breakfast, and sleeps half the day in the middle of camp, and cooks up a supper for both of us years better than I could ever manage and that he only eats a bite of. Then he cups his palms and holds the world in his hands and passes it over to me bit by bit, lookin’ at me wide eyed like he can’t believe I want to take all the pieces from him.
Sometimes I say or do somethin’ round the camp that makes him laugh so hard he’s got tears in his eyes, and I count the times this happens in my head since something deep in my gut tells me that nobody else is ever gonna find me as funny as him. When his little bastard of a horse finally goes and throws him off one day, and Scott comes back covered in dirt with a bruise the size of a watermelon on his thigh, he goes and pouts by the fire not lookin’ at me ‘til I rope him with his rodeo lasso from across the flames.
Sometimes he plays his harmonica, and he’s damn good at it. We let the edges of our boots tangle together by the embers while he plays his tunes and I smoke a cigarette, letting the tobacco air puff up my lungs the same way his words make me feel. I listen to him play the slow, haunting melodies he always chooses, and the coyotes far off in the mist raise up their voices to join him, and I feel in my bones the way they echo and vibrate through the canyon like a groan. I want to reach up and just punch the moon because I can’t believe that finally, in all the years of my rough life, I’m actually havin’ a good time.
His ma brought them up Pentecostal, he says, and that’s why the only tunes he knows sound like the dead are singing ‘em straight from their coffins in the cold hard ground. It’s the first thing I ever learn about him. Sometimes when he’s talking he’ll stop in the middle of a word and look over at me from where we’re leanin’ next to each other, tangled up in the shared breath of our lungs. It always makes my skin itch when he does that, like a piece of my clothing is bring stripped away except I don’t know whether it’s coming from my jeans or my shirt or my socks and I know there’s no tailor in the world who can ever come and patch it back up.
I always go and break the spell when he does that. I cough, or I stand up and move away, or I talk about some dumb cowboy shit like what price we think the sheep’s coats’ll get. I can’t never stop myself from doing it even though it never fails to make him quietly gather up hisself and leave to go back to the sheep before I can even blink ten times.
I can see him sometimes out there, when the curtain of mist clears up enough. He’s just a dark figure moving out all alone across the sea of blue-green fog. Sometimes I imagine he looks up and sees me as a little spark of warm fire – the promise of food and hot leather boots to come slowly make his way back to when the loneliness has seeped into his skin and made him feel like wet brown paper. I can’t tell who would benefit more from him feeling that way.
After the first week I decide it’s time to fully wash myself, and I leave Scott puttering round the main camp and grab a bucket of water and a little bar of lye soap. I don’t go far, just round the other side of the tent. I strip down and shiver against the icy air – let it rock through my body in a great crash and revel in the way it makes my bullet scars ache because it reminds me I still got the limbs. I squat and wash up between my legs, lettin’ the water wash away the old dried cum at the base of my prick from when I tried to pleasure myself the other night over dreams of Alma back in high school. It hadn’t worked quite right, and I’d come in my hand just watching the tanned callouses of my fingers rub and rough over myself, bunching up the silken skin hard enough to leave a burn. I feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and I turn my head to the side just in time to see Scott moving back into the trees quick as lightning and quieter’n a cat. My prick feels heavy and hot in my hand and it takes the rest of the cold water just to make me right and decent to dress again.
One night at the end of those three weeks, just about the time he would normally get up and leave camp, Scott turns to me and says, “I reckon I want more than anything to be a rodeo champion.”
He has so many ideas, so many grand plans that fill up the words coming out his mouth like honey and gold, but this one sounds more ridiculous than them all.
“Brain like yours and all you wanna do is ride a bull and rope a calf real quick?” I say. I hide my smile behind the back of my hand that he’s finally tellin’ me something bout himself.
The corner of his mouth twitches. He leans back his head and lets the bright stars in the sky shine off the tips of his eyelashes.
“S’more than that. You seen how I think – I can reason out the whole thing, perfect every little move and event. It’s all the danger and all the money you could ever want and I’ve got the means to master it. Why do somethin’ else?”
I grimace. His words feel sour on the back of my tongue. “You oughta be in some ivory tower on the coast with all your learnin’ – the way you can look at people and know everything about them. Make money runnin’ one of them big New York companies where you’s the smartest one in the room. Why the hell you wanna stay way out in the middle of nowhere for?”
It makes me angry to think about it. If I were a tenth as smart as him I’d be outta sight of farms and cow and calf operations and little no-name towns faster than you could say my own name.
He hums softly. “Guess I prefer readin’ animals to people, is all.”
We’re quiet for a long time. I don’t know what to say to that. He should’ve left over an hour ago to get back to the sheep for the night, but I’m sure as hell not going to say anything. The rhythm of his breathing helps mine stay steady. If I hear him breathing then I’m not gonna hear anyone scream.
“Was it bullets got you or shrapnel from something else?” he asks into the silence. He nods his head towards my body. I swore to myself the day I set foot out the hospital that I’d never breathe a word of it all to anybody, but I start answering his question before I can even think of what the hospital had been called.
“Two bullets. Was a trap laying for us out in the thickest part of the jungle. I don’t even remember feelin’ getting hit. Just hear the sound of the rescue helicopter in my head over the sounds of . . . everything else.”
He’s still looking over at me, his eyes tracing up my thigh, but he says nothing.
“How the hell did they miss snatching you up for the draft?” I ask. “You’re smarter than any general or lieutenant I ever met out there by half – coulda ended the whole damn mess by now if you was leading it all, I reckon.”
He tries to smile, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “They did draft me,” he says. His voice is low, flat and dead like one of them robots from the science fiction pictures.
I look over at him confused. “So you did go over there, then?”
His eyes see through me. He lets each word drip out of his mouth slow and heavy like lead. “No, I didn’t,” he says.
I immediately understand, and it settles over me like a blanket of cold fists, like little slaps of facts slotting into place against my cold cheeks. “You’re a draft dodger, then,” I say. “That’s why you’re out here herdin’ sheep in the middle of summer even though you could do it in your sleep?” I say it casual, like I just learned that the price of a can of beans is half off on Tuesdays.
He looks at me in shock, his eyes wide and squinty at the same time. I think he was maybe expecting a yellin’ at – a good kick to the ribs and a motherfucker or two. But he forgets I’m the one sitting there broken and living off the scraps of a job because no one else’ll hire me, and no amount of good ol’ round the world army adventure is ever gonna make up for that. I went because my name was on a piece of paper. That’s all.
He settles down further into the pile of blankets behind us, and his body seeps closer to mine. “John Watson, you’re one hell of a goddamn unpredictable man,” he says, and I can hear in his voice the awe that he ain’t currently spitting up blood from the other end of my closed fist.
I see now that that’s why he didn’t talk to me for near three days straight when we first met. Suddenly I want to tell him something – tell the friend beside me a little piece of my own world to make up for the fact that he was hidin’ terrified of a beating from a soldier all this time we’ve been trapped together up on the mountain.
I can’t think of a single thing to say. Instead my mouth says, “you best be gettin’ back to them sheep.”
Scott scoffs. “Aguirre got no right making us do this. I’m traveling back and forth four hours a day on the days I come back here for food, and when I’m up there I don’t sleep for shit spending all night chasin’ away coyotes and dodging early morning Forest Service checks.”
I grunt in agreement. I sound just like my daddy at the dinner table.
“It’s too late for me to go back to them sheep,” Scott says as he stretches out his legs with his arms above his head. “I’m sleeping right here on this very spot and they can sure enough wait ‘til first light.”
I rise and get to my feet, hold down a hand to lift him up. I sway a little bit from the blood rushin’ down my legs. “You’ll freeze your balls off out here,” I say.
He looks at my hand and turns over on the ground. “I’m right as rain right here next to this fire. Just let me get some winks and I’ll be outta your hair.”
I don’t know how to tell him that he’s not in my hair at all. He don’t really sound like he means it anyways. I tell him one last time that he’ll freeze outside the tent before stepping inside and zipping it up, shoving my body down under the sleeping bag and shuddering my bones as hard as I can to try and make some heat. I’m asleep before I can finish trying to picture Scott ridin’ a bull for the perfect eight seconds.
I’m awake in an hour. I can hear his straight white teeth chattering from outside the tent and his Levi’s rubbing ruts into the dirt tryin’ to get warm. I unzip a corner of the tent and peek out my fingertips.
“Get your ass in here and stop your goddamn shivering,” I groan. He’s up quicker than lightning with the blanket still wrapped round his shoulders and in the tent before I can roll back over. I scoot over as far as I can to make room, but even so the tent barely fits us both in there. His body is pressed against the back of mine from neck to toe while he looks up at the tent ceiling. His shuddering has stopped, but his breath sounds like a saw moving quickly back and forth over dry wood.
The next time I open my eyes I can feel Alma’s little body wrapped in my arms. She feels different, more firm. It shames me to realize how much muscle I must’ve lost when I was in the army hospital. I pull her closer into myself, pressing my cheek into the nape of her neck and running my hand up and down over her breast. She hums and grabs my hand in hers. She moves it down her stomach and places it over the firm erection in between her legs.
I whip my hand away like I’ve been burned and gasp. I can feel Scott’s spine go hard as steel against me, his breathing barely moving his ribs against mine. It’s dead silent in the tent. I can hear an owl cry out in the woods, and the hissing wind rustle through the firs. My mouth waters. My body’s shaking, and my muscles feel hot as coals. I’m terrified in the dark. My stomach roils like I’m fixin’ to vomit, but my fingers twitch to get their hold back on the warm, gentle body laying against mine.
It’s been so long.
I swallow down my cottonmouth and place my hand back between Scott’s legs and press. He’s hard as steel. A sound escapes his throat, soft and broken. I’m done for.
All the breath in my lungs rushes out as I manhandle him up onto all fours, both of us racing against the other to pull down our own pants past our hips. I see fireworks blazing in front of my eyes, bouncing off the miles of pale skin in front of me and fizzling into the thick black velvet air. I don’t need no manual to do what we do. My head brushes against the side of the tent as I palm myself with my shaking hand, watching as he licks his fingers in his wet, hot mouth and shoves them up his ass, one after another. The sound of his saliva on those long, calloused fingers is deafening. I can hear the zipper of my jeans shaking like a bell.
He grunts and lowers his head down onto his forearms, and I spit on my own throbbing dick and grab his hips harder than I ever grabbed anything in my life. When I push into him we both cry out, high and breathless. I pump into him hard and fast, shovin’ the knees of his thick Levi’s deeper into the dirt. I grab a handful of his dark curls and yank, closing my eyes so I can try hard as hell to imagine I’ve got long blonde hair clutched between my fingers instead. I’m grunting like an animal, ears tingling as my balls slap against the back of his thighs, and then I see he’s got his own fingers pulling on his dick, and he keens as he comes all over his gigantic hand, and I’m up and over the edge before I can even take a full breath.
When it’s over we both collapse onto our backs, chests heaving. Scott reaches for my forearm and I swat him away. Alma would never have rough fingers like that – his touch makes it too hard to pretend. Neither of us pulls our jeans back up over our hips. I’m out of breath.
“You ever done that before?” I ask. My voice sounds too loud, too thick.
He’s shaking like he’s cold. “No.”
I don’t know why I keep talking. “Feels mighty different than a girl, don’t it?”
He’s silent for a moment. “I wouldn’t know.”
I don’t know what the hell to say to that, so I turn over and fall back asleep before I’m even done exhaling the shaky breath in my lungs.
I wake up with my pants still down around my thighs. I look over at Scott sleeping next to me. A handful of curls is down over his eyes and his face looks peaceful like them angels hanging up in the church hall. His prick is soft and exposed, and it near burns my eyes to look at it like that in the morning light. I curse under my breath remembering the sheep. Suddenly I can’t breath in the tent – my eyes might roll back in my head and never come out again. I pull up my pants and slip on my jacket as quiet as I can manage, one foot out the tent flap. I slip a can of beans and the rest of his Marlboro’s into my pocket and fetch the horse to make my way down to the pasture, wincing at the deep ache in between my legs against the smooth, worn leather of the saddle.
Our nightly talks by the fire are over. By unspoken agreement after that morning we’ve switched roles – me traveling out and back for the sheep and him stayin’ in the camp. I come back every morning for breakfast and every night for supper and find some sort of food set out for me with Scott nowhere to be seen. There’s evidence of him moving bout the camp when I’m gone. Papers covered in scribbles so tiny I can barely read ‘em are strewn about weighted down under rocks. Sometimes I’ll come back to find lined up drying on a log of all different types of grasses, or little bundles of different animal fur. I know there ain’t nothing to do out here on the mountain at night other than look out at the scenery with a drinkin’ buddy, and so for some reason it makes me so sad it’s damn near unbearable to think of him out in the trees being all scholarly by himself with no one to tell him that what he thinks is genius, knowing that I’m back at the camp eatin’ the food he cooked by an empty fire.
After almost a week of this I can’t barely stand it no longer. I think of our first few days up on Baker when I was high as a kite to be away from him and on my own at the camp, and it makes me want to kick an empty can as far and as hard as I can just to hear it cling against my boot. It’s lonely as hell up on the bluff in the little pup tent with the sheep, and my hand strays in between my legs in the choking black of night more times than I care to admit.
One night I’m out way past dark tryna find a runaway runt that got stuck down in a ravine. I cut my hand on a thorn mighty bad draggin’ it out, and by the time the whole ordeal is over my stomach is screaming for food and my hand is bleedin’ so bad I know I won’t make it through the night up in that field without going back to camp. A lifetime of cowboyin’ tells me that that same runt is gonna end up back in the ditch during the night if I leave and sleep back at the camp, but my belly feels hot and empty and the whipping air is turning the blood dripping down my palm into an ice slick, so I pack up the pup tent and saddle up my horse to return.
When I’m finally in view of the main camp I see Scott look up at me from where he sits scrunched down in front of the fire. He leaps up to his feet with wide eyes. He’s been waitin’ for me.
“John?” he says. It’s the second time he’s ever said my name. He stands frozen by the fire, eyes rakin’ over my body and hand, and I know he’s reading every damn thing that done happened to me over the last week in just a glance. It makes me wanna scream.
“Don’t ask,” I say as I hiss my teeth and rinse my hand out in the freezing water. “Any supper left?”
He’s still staring at me something fierce, but he wordlessly hands me a bowl full of stew. I notice he’s kept the bowl warm. I collapse down by the fire against one of the thick logs and let out a groan. I eat my supper too fast, keeping my mouth full of food so I don’t have to say anything to him across the dying flames, and he leans over his drawn up knees and draws scribbles in the dirt with a stick. My hand starts to bleed again, running down the spoon and dripping onto the denim covering my legs in thick, black drops, and before I can even set my bowl down Scott is reachin’ across and handing me a clean strip of bandage from our rough first aid kit. My throat won’t work to say anything, so I take it and wrap it over the gash in my palm without lookin’ anywhere but straight down. He picks up his harmonica and starts to play. I want to grab him by the collar of his shirt and yell in his face how in hell he knows that the hymn he’s playin’ is my favorite one, Water-Walking Jesus.
I watch him play for a long time, peeking up under the brim of my hat. Once the last glowing embers fade away into the dollop of clean mountain air surrounding us, Scott stands up and brushes the dirt of his legs, stokes the fire back up into a steady crackle, and walks slowly into the tent, leaving the door half zipped behind him. I desperately want to turn my head to look, but I force myself to stare at the swirl of creamy orange flames licking up into the dark sky. I can hear him slipping off his wool jacket, undoing each of the buttons on his shirt, pushing the boots off his feet and reaching out to crack his toes. I can see it all in my mind, but I won’t be caught dead looking.
Suddenly the night air feels twenty degrees cooler against my skin. The place on the other side of the fire from me looks extra black against the rest of the sky, as if when Scott stood up and walked away it left a permanent imprint of his back in the oxygen. I wonder if the sky in that there spot would feel warmer, softer against my cut up palm. My heart’s racin’ like I just run a race up the mountain, and I can feel the blood tingling through the tips of my fingers. I hear him hunker down on top of the blankets. Out the corner of my eye I see the deep brown shadow of his form stretched out across the canvas. I realize that when I was lyin’ bleeding to death in a muddy hole in a jungle clear across the world from where I was born and raised, and I knew that no living family would even be at my funeral, I didn’t feel as alone as I did right then sitting ten feet away from the cowboy goin’ to sleep inside that tent.
I rise to my feet on shaky legs, and take off my hat to hold it against my chest like I’m steppin’ inside to church. Through the slip in the tent door I can see a sliver of his bare chest rising and falling, slowly, then faster. It looks nothing like any of the skin on little Alma.
My fingers are shaking when I pull aside the canvas, making the fabric ripple in the silence. I crouch down just inside staring at the toes of my boots, and Scott rises up to sit. I clutch my hat in the hazy air between us. It helps block my view of the firelight pouring over the muscles of his chest like golden water. He puts his hand on my wrist, fingers steady, and rubs his warm thumb once across until I let him take the hat from my fingers. I can’t look up. Can’t breathe.
His large hand is on the side of my face, tethering me to earth so I don’t vanish up into the black heavens. He holds me closer to him, eyes pouring over every inch of my face, and a lock of curls falls down across his forehead. My eyes fight with me to look up. I feel his shaky breath across my face, drowning out the low crackle of the fire just outside the tent. He slowly brings his mouth to mine, and I fight him, pulling back like my lips are being stung. He grabs the front of my shirt with his other hand while I struggle against his grip. His palm rubs the stubble on my cheek.
“It’s alright,” he whispers. “It’s alright.”
I feel trapped by my own body. His lips caress mine again and I’m lost, eyes closed and heart hammerin’ as he gently kisses my lips, kisses just under my mouth, holding me there with him so I don’t fly away. I feel my body start to crumble, and he pulls me down on top of his chest like I weigh nothing at all. He holds me, caresses me. I ain’t never been held like that before in my life. His long fingers are in my hair, up my spine and the back of my neck, down the strip of skin behind my ear. I see my own hand stroking his cheek, his chest, the hair down the center of his stomach.
I can’t stand it no more, denying myself the right taste his mouth and breathe his air. My body moves without me, binding me to him from lips to knees. Suddenly he moves. I can feel the muscles ripple in his back underneath my sweating hands, and he’s on top of me, pressing me down into the earth with the solid weight of him. I feel drunk even though I ain’t had a sip of beer or whiskey. His tongue is inside my mouth, stroking across mine. My lips are on fire. Burning. He groans into my mouth, and it sends a shiver of heat from my throat down to my groin.
I feel consumed, his giant, rough hands cupping either side of my face like he’s scared I’m gonna break apart if he lets go. I’ve only ever done this twice with Alma back in high school in the rafters of the barn in summertime, but she never held me down against the mountains with glistening arms, or rubbed a hot and pulsing hardness into the top of my thigh, or kissed me so deep into my mouth that I could barely breathe, stubble and callouses leaving tiny marks all over my cheeks and neck.
When I take him that night from behind, we move together for a very long time. He lets me reach around and grab his prick in my own hand as I drape across him like a blanket, and when he comes I hear my own name being called into the hot, sticky air of the tent.
Somehow we both know that this is how things are gonna go for the summer. We trade off every couple days who has to go and be with the sheep. Those days apart feel longer’n hell. Every night we sit leaning against each other by the fire and tell each other the days of our lives one by one, tradin’ stories and barbs, smokes and alcohol. He’s a wild one. He leaps cross all different conversation topics, and jumps up in the middle of me talkin’ to go run into the trees and investigate something or other, tells me I’m an idiot and a genius all in the same breath. He’s a rude little bastard when he puts his mind to it, but then I remember that I can be a prickly, closed off son of a bitch with a bullet scar on my chest, and I feel bad for ever thinking he ain’t the greatest friend I ever had.
We never talk about the sex. I want to say it happens every night, because that would make it like a routine thing we both just need in order to sleep through the long, cold dark. But some nights we just drape our bodies across each other and hold on for dear life, brushing the hairs on each other’s chests across our chapped lips. When we do go all the way, though, I always take him from behind. We don’t do no face to face bullshit like it means anything more than a dick stuck in a warm, tight place. I need it to be that way, stay that way. We never talk at the end of it. Just one of us sighs a little extra loud and that gets the other one to crawl up outta the tent and mount the horse back to those goddamn sheep up in the meadow.
The first night we ever both take all our clothes off, Scott’s eyelashes turn wet at the tips, and he kisses the scar on my chest over and over again and whispers “thank God, thank God.”
Sometimes we find ourselves caught under the spell right in the light of day, laughing and falling onto each other right out there under the burstin’ blue sky and letting the skin on our backs strain green with the grass.
Sometimes he puts his hand on my thigh when we’re sittin’ by the river in silence, and I’m leanin’ over the water washing out our dishes from dinner, and I take an extra five minutes to clean and scrape the plates just so I won’t have to go and move.
The nausea is always there though, right at the back of my throat. Because that’s what all this is – just a mean little spell come to mess with me and drag me down under. I’m thinking bout this as we sit up on a hill looking over a wash of blue-capped mountains and gnarled white rocks. We had met halfway between the sheep and the camp on account of Scott don’t eat damn near enough when he’s the one out there on the pasture, and so I’d brought him an extra pack of Marlboro’s and a sleeve of saltine crackers.
He sits next to me leanin’ back on one elbow like he always does, holding the cigarette so perfectly still in his hand that he looks like a statue surrounded by rippling grass and drifting ribbons of smoke. I can smell him – that deep scent of him that fills up the whole tent like there’s no real air left to breath that’s not got Scott’s own body somehow mixed up in it. I grit my teeth when my fingers want to reach out and touch his arm. It’s ridiculous. He’s just my damn herdin’ partner for a summer job, not little Alma come to sit next to me at home on the couch after a long day’s work out on the ranch.
The fear grips me tight in my throat, and I need to tell him. To tell myself.
“I ain’t no queer,” I say out to the open sky.
Scott shifts his legs just barely over the grass. I can see him out the corner of my eye.
“Me neither,” he says. His eyes flick quick sideways to look at me.
I want him to look away. “This a one-shot thing we got goin’ on here,” I say.
He takes another long drag of his cigarette and hunches in over himself. He talks to the grass beneath him.
“Ain’t nobody’s business but ours,” he says.
I sit there thinking how can he be so damn smart and also so clueless. It’s everybody’s business, this thing right here. It’s a curse that’ll kill us dead if we ever see each other somewhere other than this goddamn mountain. Then I realize that that won’t even be a problem, seein’ as how he’ll go his way and I’ll go mine once the summer’s done and the sheep are all back down from the sloping sides of Baker. The thought makes me wanna hit something hard. I leave Scott with a grunt and pull myself back up on my horse. I can feel his pale eyes watching me as I swing my legs over the saddle. When I get back to camp I chop up enough firewood that we could be up there for a whole winter too and probably never run outta wood.
Scott comes back a day and a night later. He looks so young, emerging out of the darkness into the firelight exhausted with a handful of twigs and leaves sticking out the side of his hair and a purple bruise just starting to come in under his left eye.
“Something done you in?” I ask.
He looks at me like he’s startled I even talked to him. The corner of his mouth quirks up in that way it does.
“Little bear cub. Goddamn horse spooks so easily I thought we was gonna be bear food before the night was over.”
He says it joking as he cracks off the top of a warm Budweiser and takes a long swig. I watch his throat move with his swallow and close my eyes shut tight against the thought of that neck torn open by a bear claw.
He sits next to me by the fire like our conversation the other day didn’t even happen. I can’t help it. I reach up without even thinking and brush the leaves out of his hair, lettin’ my fingers trail through the tangles in his curls. I pull my hand back when I realize what I’ve just done, stare straight at the fire until the flames begin to hurt my eyes. He wraps his elbows round his knees and takes another long drink. He shakes his head and gives a little huff of a laugh.
“Little darlin’,” he says to me, his voice low and open like the wonder you feel at the bottom of a vast mountain valley. My skin starts to itch that way it does whenever his eyes go all soft, muscles twitching to move out from his gaze. I steal his beer from his hand and down the rest of it in one long gulp, then tackle him unawares from the side ‘til we’re both wrestling breathless in the dirt, smiling with grit in our teeth until he lets me pin him down and ruck up his shirt so that I can feel his tight little nipples under my dry lips.
The first Friday of August is when we find out about the storm coming. Aguirre wants to move the sheep down off the mountain four weeks early on account of it. Scott hears this when he goes to pick up our supplies down by the main river fork, Aguirre’s old watch in his pocket, and I know something’s up when he gets back from the trip and looks like hell raised over. I don’t say hello to him – we usually don’t. But he don’t even look at me resting up against a tree with some whittling in my lap. Just picks up a firewood log and chucks it as hard as he can out into the trees, then tells me he’ll go ahead and sleep with the goddamn sheep that night and he’s off on his horse before I even know what’s hit me.
The next night when he comes back to camp is when I hear the news.
“Aguirre done wants us to move the sheep down in three days,” he says. He’s sitting across from me with the soles of his boots up against my thigh. “Storm comin’, apparently. A bad one.”
My stomach feels oily and hot. “Bastard’s cheatin’ us out of a month’s wages,” I say back, pushing my thigh back against his feet. Scott just hums, and that’s the end of that conversation.
We don’t have sex again. Those last three nights we just lay together for fifteen minutes side by side in silence before one of us leaves to go be with the sheep. One night it’s me. Two nights it’s him. My last night out in the pup tent I have my first real dream of war. I’m runnin’ through the jungle, but the mud keeps sucking me down. There’s bloody arms and legs flyin’ at my face and slipping out the grasp of my fingers, and I can feel the wind from the helicopter over my head but it’s just out of reach, just out of reach, just out of reach.
I wake up screaming and drenched in sweat. I force my body to get up and move. If I stay in the tent I’ll stay frozen in that huddled up position forever. I walk back and forth cross the dark meadow clutching a blanket round my shoulders like a ghost. Five minutes later I hear the faintest whisper of the harmonica driftin’ down to me through the pass. It’s Water-Walking Jesus.
Our last morning on Baker we take down the main camp and then ride alongside each other to go and fetch the sheep. We don’t say a word – it’s just what we do. I feel lightheaded and shaky like I done drank too much the night before, except I know I only shared half a beer with Scott while we sat silently gazing at the dying flames. I feel like I’m goin’ back in time – rounding up the sheep with Scott and not having to say a word. Except that first time I was righteous angry at him for making it so all I had to do was sit there and shut up, and now I’m grateful that I don’t have to force my closed up throat to push out any words.
We stop for a rest halfway back down the mountain, letting the sheep graze on a flattened out meadow. We sit a couple feet apart up on a hill and watch.
“What do you reckon you’ll do once you get back?” he asks. His voice is careful, flat.
I don’t want to talk about this. “Had a girl I was going steady with before I left for ‘Nam. Name was Alma – said she’d wait for me. Reckon I oughta go find her and get myself a ranch job back near Signal or something.”
Scott is silent.
He tenses up like a coyote bout to strike. “Rodeo circuit down in Texas is pretty fine even in the winter, I hear. Might test my luck.”
My voice sounds tight. “Texas, then?”
I’m fixin’ to stand up and make my way back to the horses when Scott clears his throat, looking straight ahead.
“Everybody calls me Scott, but that ain’t really my name,” he says. When he sees that I’ve stayed sitting he goes on. “Got an old family name – I reckon nobody thought when I was a baby that I’d live up to it so they never even tried.” He pauses.
“It’s Sherlock Holmes.”
I can feel the anger flare up inside me. I don’t even know what I’m angry at. I’m angry at the mountain beneath us for tapering off the lower down the trail we get, and I’m angry at the sky for lookin’ different up here than it does down in the little hopeless towns we both came from, and I’m angry as hell that my friend’s been lyin’ his face off to me all summer. That he’s had his tongue in my mouth and not thought I needed to even know his real name in return, “everybody calls me Scott,” be damned.
I look at him over my shoulder. “That’s the stupidest fucking name I ever heard,” I say.
I hear the deep rumble of his laugh next to me, and suddenly I’m angry at that too.
“You know, you just might have a point there, friend. You’s smarter than you look.”
Something snaps in me. Scott whatever the hell his name is Holmes is still looking over at me with a humor in his eye when I leap up and grab him by the shirt collar, dragging him across the grass.
He yelps. “What in hell, John, I was only messin’!”
All I can see is red. He struggles to his feet and starts to fight back against me. His tall frame is threatening to topple me over on to the grass, and suddenly I’m furious at the fact that I desperately, desperately want him to do just that. I reach back my fist and slug him hard and good right across the nose, just like he thought I was going to that very first time he told me how he knew my daddy’s watch was in the glove box of my truck.
He reels and falls to his knees, clutching at his face with both hands. “Jesus Christ, John!”
I regret it instantly. I yank the denim outer shirt I’m wearin’ off my back and move to hold it up to his face. He shoves me away hard, eyes wide with fear. I approach him slow like I’d walk up to a scared animal, hand held out still and steady ‘til he lets me put my palm on the side of his face. I mop up the blood gushing from his nose with my shirt in silence. Suddenly he clutches at my shoulders with his hands, leaning forward on his knees until his face is buried in the crook of my neck. I grab on to the back of his wool jacket and hold on for dear life, so tight my knuckles turn numb and white. It’s a blur how and when we make it up off the grass and back to our horses. Sherlock has a trail of blood still smeared across his upper lip, and I bite my tongue from wanting to walk up to him and lick it right off.
There’s a quick meeting with Aguirre back in the white metal trailer when we get back. He ain’t happy about the loss numbers, but considering we is right pissed about losin’ a month of work we all seem to call it even. He gives Sherlock a long hard look through the slits of his eyes before we both walk out, and something deep in my chest starts thumpin’ like mad thinking that maybe Aguirre knows something he oughtn’t to.
Suddenly we’re back in the gravel lot, our trucks both covered in a thick layer of dirt. Sherlock swings his canvas bag into the bed of his Ford and turns back to me, hooking his thumbs through his belt loops just like I did that first day. His hat is pushed back far enough that I can see his clear eyes. He looks odd, like he ain’t sure of his body.
“You fixin’ to do this again next summer?” he asks. I can hear how hard he’s trying to keep his voice natural.
I grunt, willing my throat to start working. “Maybe,” I say, looking mostly at the ground. “Wanna find something steady that pays good, though. Reckon this’ll be a last resort for me and Alma.”
Sherlock’s eyes look pale and empty. I kick my boot haphazardly at the tire of my truck and shove my hands in my pockets. He’s watchin’ me, waiting for something.
I look down once more at the bag at my feet and realize I’m missing something.
“Aw shit, you seen my denim shirt? Just had it on this morning.”
He shrugs, looks back up towards the mountains behind me.
“I ain’t seen it. Must’ve left it back up on Baker,” he says.
I’m just stalling now, for what, I don’t know. I clear my throat and pick up my bag to swing it onto the passenger seat of the Ford. I look just over his left shoulder, missing his eyes.
“Well, see you around I guess,” I mumble.
“Yeah, see you around,” he says.
I hop up in my truck and peel out the gravel lot before my body can start to protest. I feel sick something awful. I make it a few miles down the two lane road before the pain in my gut gets so bad I know I’m gonna be sick. I tell myself I must’ve eaten something rotten on the way down, but a secret part of me knows that all I had since waking up was a cup of black coffee and a can of peaches that had a good ‘nother five years on it before it went bad.
I leap out the truck and duck in between two buildings off the main road. I sink to my knees and plant my hands up against the dirty cement wall to vomit into the dirt. My fist punches the wall hard enough to draw blood, and just when my eyes cloud up with tears I notice a man walking down the sidewalk looking at me like I’m havin’ a fit.
“The fuck are you lookin’ at,” I hiss at him, but my voice comes out raw and desperate.
It takes me almost two full years to look back on that day and admit to myself that me throwin’ up in that alley had absolutely jack shit to do with anything I ate. It had to do with something I left behind in the gravel.
I marry Alma four months later in a little white chapel on the edge of Signal, Wyoming. Alma wears the prettiest little white lace dress with a handful of yellow daisies. Her ma and daddy sit in the second to last row of the church. They’ve never really liked me much, especially now that I went and near got myself blown up on the other side of the world, but I said I’d come back to her and I did, in some form or another, and so they’re here to be the witnesses.
That night’s the first time we do anything together since we felt under each other’s clothes and I unzipped the front of my pants back in the barn loft in high school. When I pull off my t-shirt and walk towards her in the little lamp lit hotel room, Alma gasps. She don’t touch the scar, just shuts her mouth tight and keeps on like we was doing like nothing even happened.
I don’t blame her as I lay down on top of her on the little rickety mattress. I wouldn’t want to see a scar like that either if I were a primped up little girl on my wedding night. All at once my skin remembers the touch of Sherlock’s lips on the gnarled flesh of my chest, the puffs of warm air comin’ from his mouth as he whispered “thank God, thank God,” in the dim firelight of the tent.
I realize then that it’s damn near essential I never think of Sherlock Holmes again. And so I don’t.
We go sleddin’ up in the snow and then see drive-in movie over in Lovell for our honeymoon. I never let my eyes seek out Baker among the Bighorn peaks at our backs as we rush down on the sled, Alma’s laugh filling up the sky. I know the mountain’s there, though. Waitin’ for me to never return.
Ten months later brings a little girl in my arms – Alma Jr. A year and a half after that, it’s Francine. I hop between ranch hand jobs from season to season, always within driving distance of our little wooden house that sits twenty miles outside the center of town with a long line of laundry always blowin’ out in the yard.
One night with Francine screamin’ in the background and Alma Jr. humming to herself over her crayons, Alma takes me by the hands and leads me into our room with the lights off. She takes my rough fingers and places them up under her shirt over her little round breasts.
“Be with me, John,” she says. I moan. I bury my nose in the scent of her golden hair and press her down flat onto the bed. I reach for her hips and go to turn her over onto her hands and knees – bein’ with her like that never fails to make me hard as rock. She grabs my wrists and pulls me down on top of her face to face instead.
“Let’s us be like this, yeah?” she whispers, her voice high and false.
I kiss her mouth, lick up the sides of her neck, but nothing I do can get my dick hard and ready. It lays there soft in between my legs. Finally Alma looks up at me through the dark with pity in her shining eyes, tryin’ to tell me it’s ok and that we’ll just lie together. I feel like I can’t breathe in the room. My chest is heaving something fierce. There’s sweat in between my thighs. I flee from the bedroom and button up my shirt crooked as I walk. I look in on my girls in the sitting room and blow them a kiss before running out in the yard where I can smash something made of glass without Alma Jr. or Francine hearing. I hate myself that I don’t really care whether Alma can hear it or not.
Next morning Alma hands me a classified page of the paper with some pen marks on it. “Let’s get us a place in town, John,” she says. “It’s lonelier than the moon being out here all day just me and the girls.”
I don’t have enough fight in me to argue with her bout the cost of rent. We find a new little place above the laundromat in town and move in before the month is over.
Two days after Alma Jr.’s fourth birthday I run into the post office to see if an old check from a ranching job from last season done arrived yet. Our grocery bill is counting on it, and I want to slam my palms through the panes of glass in the post office windows when I see that the damn check ain’t there. I almost leave when I realize that there’s a tiny slip of paper stuck to the wooden sides of our post box. I pull out a postcard with a sweeping landscape on it, “Texas” in big red letters in the bottom right hand corner with a green cactus instead of the “T.”
My heart does a strange flip in my chest when I turn it over.
Friend, I believe this postcard is long overdue. I’m fixin to be up near you for a rodeo circuit come near end of March. Figure you’ll let me buy you a beer. Should be in Signal round bout the 26th. Let me know. – S
I feel as if I’ve used up all the oxygen in the tiny post office just standing there reading the postcard in my hands. I slam the postcard down on the nearest table to stop people from seeing my hand shaking. With tunnel vision I pick up a blank card and copy the return address to send a reply.
I can feel the sweat prickling under my arms as I slip it into the mailbox and shuffle out the door, convincin’ myself that every cowboy and housewife around me out in the street don’t know the truth of who I was just correspondin’ with while Sherlock’s postcard burns a hole in my front shirt pocket. Danger zips up my spine like a lick of flame, and I want to whistle as loud as I can so even the sky up over Baker can hear me.
The 26th comes and feels like a death bell tolling down in the pit of my chest. I have one of my black nights the night before – that’s what Alma calls them. I wake up covered in sweat and clinging to the wooden bed frame for dear life while Alma yells at me scared from the far corner of the room. For a second I think I’m outta my mind still screaming while I’m awake, then I realize it’s Francine in the next room wailin’ on her little lungs.
“Good Lord, John,” Alma whispers. Her hair is scrunched up on one side of her head. She tiptoes out the room and I can hear her fussin’ over Francine in the girls’ room, humming her a hymn. A sharp, black part of me wishes she were humming Water-Walking Jesus, except I know she don’t know that one ever since I asked her if we could sing it in the truck on the way to Alma Jr.’s christening at the chapel and she done looked over at me cross the front seat like I grew a second head.
I stumble out into the moonlit kitchen on watery legs and lean over the sink, tryin’ to catch my breath. There’s a little patter of feet behind me, then a warm, sticky hand reaching up for my waist. Alma Jr. always comes to stand with me in the kitchen on the black nights. She’ll stand and stand there for near two hours in silence until I finally feel as I can pick her up and hold her without my brain thinking she’s a mud covered enemy needin’ to get shot through the chest.
The night before the 26th of March is no different. I smile in the dark thinking she deserves a little medal pinned to her baby pink pajama top.
I don’t return to bed that night. I kiss little Alma Jr. and Francine on the forehead, kiss Alma on the side of her cheek even though I was aimin’ for her lips, and then I’m out in the grey dawn air walking nowhere even though it’s my day off. I walk for a long time. My mind starts thinkin’ of things I haven’t let it think about for years. I think of Sherlock Holmes swaying in a saddle ahead of me, his steady back covered in a dark blue checkered shirt and framed by half the snow-capped peaks of Bighorn, moving the earth aside in great green waves to make way for the brown brimmed hat perched atop his curls.
I think of how some days he’d reach down to me from up on his horse, off to see the sheep, and he’d rustle my hair once over like I was just a kid and say, “tonight, John.” And then he’d not come riding back to me through the pass until near two days had come and gone.
By late afternoon I’m wound tighter than a drum, sitting bouncin’ my knee in our little doily sitting room and gazing out the window over the laundry parking lot with an empty can of Schmidt in my hand. The night Alma Jr. had been born I’d been nearly too drunk to make it to the nursing room and hold her, and one long look from Alma with our little girl in her arms had kept me well and good away from drinking more than one or two at a time unless the black spell got me extra good and dragged me down to hell for a night. I find holding the empty bottle in my hand does half the work for me anyways, and so I sit there on the fading flower print chair and clutch the thin aluminum until my handprint damn near fuses with the can.
I’m staring out the window so hard I imagine I can see each little piece of gravel move and shake in the prairie wind. I hear Alma behind me gettin’ the girls to finish supper. It feels like it’s been five minutes and five days since she’s been sitting at that same table tryin’ to get them to eat lunch.
“Maybe we oughta get a sitter,” she says through the thin walls. “Take your friend to the Knife and Fork.”
I think of a half eaten bag of saltine crackers sitting alongside thick Levi’s in the dirt.
“Scott ain’t really the restaurant type,” I say to the window. “Figure we’s just gonna go out and talk cowboyin’.”
I know that Alma notices I left out going to a bar.
I want to yell out and squeeze my lungs when I see a bright gleaming white truck pull into the parking lot just ridin’ on sunset. I run up to our windowsill to see a brown brimmed hat duck to make its way out the truck door.
Five years. Five goddamn years.
My legs are numb. I grunt out something to Alma as I trip over myself out onto the top of the stairs. The screen door slamming behind me sounds like the way Sherlock’s harmonica would rattle against the loose coins in his pocket. He’s wearing a dark red wool vest over his grey flannel shirt. It’s the brightest color I’ve seen in years.
“Sherlock fucking Holmes,” I breathe. My voice sounds brittle like glass. He blinks hard – he can’t believe I didn’t just call him Scott. His eyes roam over me in that way of his, readin’ everything I’ve done since we said “see you around” and opening me up page by page like a book. The dumb cowboy in me wants to call down to him “What do you see? What do you see?” like a little kid tryin’ to catch a glimpse of the Christmas parade through the crowd.
He breathes a deep sigh and his shoulders melt as he smiles up at me. I run down the stairs three at a time and crash into his arms like my body won’t stand up another second without him. He holds me so tight I can feel it underneath my ribs.
“Son of a bitch,” he whispers.
It’s the first time we’ve ever hugged. First time touching face-to-face and upright. My cheek fits perfectly in the crook of his neck. When I finally pull back for air my nose brushes against his. He’s leanin’ down over me to hold me, to get closer, like I’ll fit right neat inside his body if he could just wrap his hands around me tight enough. The spell grabs me with both fiery hot hands and yanks me down to the deepest pit of hell. I look out over the empty parking lot and grab him by the front of his vest, forcing him backwards and steppin’ on his toes until I have him pressed up against the wall of the little walkway to the trash bins. I kiss him so hard I can feel his teeth cutting into my lips. He gives a little cry in the back of his throat, and I can taste it coming off his tongue. My palms glide across the stubble on his cheeks and his body melts against me until we’re one like braided rope. He pulls my face back away from his and I let myself look straight into his eyes, glittering diamond pools blown wide and shining over with water.
“John,” he says, looking at me like he never woulda thought in a thousand years that I’d run down my front steps above the laundry in little Signal, Wyoming and let myself be held in his arms and kiss him so fiercely that neither of us could breathe.
I press my shaking hands up against his heaving chest. “Please let’s get out of here.”
He nods, prying my fingers off the front of his shirt so he can smooth down my collar from where he’s gripped it. I don’t want to leave his air. I grab the side of his long neck and run my nose cross his cheek once before pulling myself away, lookin’ out over my shoulder at the empty street as I move back towards the stairs, tucking in my shirt where he’d rucked it up in the back. I’m only three steps away from him and already I can’t breathe right.
Alma’s standing next to the kitchen table starin’ at the wall. She looks like she seen a ghost, and I feel guilt punch in my gut knowing I kept her up all night with the blackness getting to me. I don’t realize at the time how wrong it is I don’t feel any guilt at all for kissing someone else not twenty feet from our front door.
“Alma, this here’s Scott,” I say. I can feel Sherlock standing in the doorway as close to my back as he can get while still being proper. My lungs fight to breathe in time with his. The mountain air still clings to his bones, and it rushes over me in waves ‘til I think I’m gonna choke with one foot inside my kitchen.
He tips the front of his hat down with long, steady fingers. “Howdy, ma’am,” he says.
Alma smiles barely and nods, smoothing down the front of her dress with her hands. I hate seeing how exhausted she is. She looks to me and opens her mouth to say something when Sherlock leans forward and beats her to it.
“I see the hair salon finally got in them special dyes you ordered – the ones that don’t go and rub off on your dress collars,” he says, serious as if he was readin’ a will.
Alma stares at him, mouth fixin’ to catch a fly it’s open in such a perfect little “oh.” I want to crawl out the second story window and jump.
“You two been correspondin’ all this time?” she asks, voice wary. “Thought you hadn’t seen each other since you cowboy’d together after he got back from ‘Nam, least that’s what John’s been tellin’ me.”
I can feel Sherlock tense up next to me. Alma’s eyes are wide with fear, lookin’ at him like he’s the devil come walking into her kitchen, all his black magic in tow. He’s scrambling for what to say back when Alma Jr. laughs from the girls’ room.
“You got a kid?” Sherlock looks at me shocked. I can’t believe he didn’t figure it out until now.
“Two little girls,” I say. “Love ‘em to death.” My hands are shoved deep in my pockets where the two of us are still crowded in the little doorway. Alma looks pale as a sheet. I start to back up towards the door, and I see a little bit of her face crumble like she’ll die if I step out through the screen. It leaves me unsettled, off kilter. Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be standing in my kitchen in little Signal havin’ to talk about hair dye and daughters and dinner plans.
Alma’s pulling a dollar out of her pocket. She’s gonna ask me to get her a pack of smokes, I know it.
“Probably won’t be back ‘til morning,” I say. “Once we get to talkin’ and all.”
I near trip over Sherlock as he reaches forward and wordlessly places a pack of Marlboro’s on the kitchen table. I’m scared Alma might faint onto the linoleum as she stares down at the cigarettes. We’re down the stairs and in his truck in less than half a minute, speedin’ down the main street of town at twice the speed limit going who knows where.
I have absolutely no idea what to say. I can still taste him on my lips, warm and smoky, the feeling of hot grass on your back and an ice cube in your mouth in the late heat of summer.
“I feel as if I done something wrong,” Sherlock says. His eyes are fixed on the road, one hand clenched in a fist in front of his mouth. It startles me to hear his voice so close next to me – my body thought it would never hear that sound again.
“Reckon you scared Alma with your people guessin’ and all,” I say.
He breathes quick out his nose like he’s mad at himself. It’s quiet for a couple miles, the dense packed streets of town slowly spacing out to lone apartment blocks and ranch houses scattered across the lonely plains.
“I’m sorry,” he finally says. “Don’t have much experience bein’ round wives, I guess.”
I turn sideways to look at him. The sun is setting cross the horizon out his side of the window, framing his hat with gold.
“You ain’t married?”
He silently lifts the back of his left hand for me to see it. It’s bare. It makes a part of me feel hot and stranded and I have no idea why or how.
Suddenly I feel a laugh bubbling up from down in my chest. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Sherlock fucking Holmes comes barreling in from absolute nowhere and walks into my kitchen after five years of nothing and looks at my wife and congratulates her on her hair dye. I start to chuckle, starin’ out the window as the familiar road changes to unfamiliar, speeding towards the next town over and the one after that.
Sherlock eyes me out the corner of his eye as I laugh. His jaw is clenched.
“Hell you laughin’ for?” he grumbles.
I can’t help it. I let myself smile and run a warm hand over my face to try and pull myself together. I have no idea who I am anymore sitting in Sherlock Holmes’ truck barreling away fast as possible from Signal.
“Near first thing I hear you say after five years is about ladies’ hair dye.”
He looks back ahead and after a minute one corner of his lips quirks up into a grin. It makes me breathless and shaky.
An hour later Sherlock pulls us up at a rundown motel two towns over with a flickerin’ neon sign of a red cowboy boot. He tosses me the keys to the Ford and starts walkin’ cross the street to a convenience store. He don’t have to tell me anything. I get a room for $8 and sit on the edge of the thin and sticky quilt staring straight at the wall in front of me, thinking bout nothing and everything all at once ‘til half of me wants to run outside and jump in the white Ford and hightail it back to the little room above the laundromat before he walks back in that door.
When Sherlock knocks softly and sneaks inside ten minutes later he’s got a bag full of what smells like ham sandwiches. I notice he didn’t get any alcohol. He must’ve read that on me in the five seconds I stood dumbfounded on the stairwell landing. He sees me looking at the bag and tosses it down on the little wooden side table without a glance. In five seconds he dead bolts the door and throws the blinds shut tight.
Then he takes two steps forward and lets out all the air in his lungs in a great sigh, grabs my face hard with both large hands and leans down to kiss me so deeply I don’t know where my mouth ends and his begins. It happens so fast I can’t breathe, can’t do nothing but reach up and grab two fistfuls of his soft flannel shirt and yank him down on top of me like he don’t weigh a thing. He moans high and soft into my mouth like he’s fallin’ apart, rippin’ at the seams. I push him back up onto his knees so I can sit up and yank my shirt over my head. My mouth waters as I watch him rip his clothes off his pale skin. I’m already throbbing and wet between my legs and I ain’t even touched him yet. He shoves me back onto the bed hard with a grunt and licks into my mouth, taking all the air in my lungs and biting my lips between his teeth. His nipples rub against mine and I press up into him, gasping for air and hatin’ every little bit of oxygen that’s separating his skin from mine. I clutch and scratch at his back with my hands, feeling his thick muscles clench and quiver under my palms. I grab his ass through his jeans and grind him down onto me, the sharp thrill of feeling his cold belt buckle rub up against the lowest part of my belly, dragging across the hairs leading down between my aching legs.
He grabs a fistful of my hair and gasps as he rubs his cheek across mine. “God damn, John,” he breathes into my skin. His voice is deep and rough like rocks fallin’ into a quarry. “John.”
I can’t say anything back. My whole body’s trembling beneath him like a leaf in a strong wind. His steady fingers flick open my belt and zipper, and he pulls. He groans deep in his throat when he sees my dick full and hot by his hips. I try to reach up and get his Levi’s off but I can’t. My fingers tangle up over each other into knots and I can’t catch a full breath to save my life. I realize I ain’t never taken off someone else’s jeans before, not even his.
He rolls onto his back to kick his off in a frenzy and then pulls me on top of him. I feel every inch of his warm, hard body pressed against mine. The hair on his thighs, the muscles in his chest, the scars along his forearms and the little flecks of dirt and straw hidden in his curls. I need to let it out, this bursting firework raisin’ hot and fast inside me, and he lets me grab him by the shoulders and shove him down hard into the mattress with a grunt. I feel his calloused fingers knead into my ass and he slaps me till I’m stinging and writhing on the firm strength of his body.
He licks into my ear and I have to bite my lips to keep from cryin’ out. I’ve never felt that before in my life. I can feel his prick hot and hard at the top of my thigh. I realize suddenly that I’ve never looked at it since that first early morning in the freezing tent, never seen it out of the shadows. I can’t look now or I’ll never look away.
Sherlock’s lookin’ up at me like I’m the sun, eyes watering and wide. He starts to turn under me, moving to get on his hands and knees and whispering “please, sweet Lord please.”
I don’t know why I do it. I grab his hip with my hand hard and press him back down onto his back. We both go still. I force myself to look at him, look at his eyelashes and the curve of his swollen lips and the way his sharp jaw dips into his neck under a carpet of short brown stubble. He’s red around the mouth where I’ve rubbed him. His chest is shaking something fierce.
My voice is gone. I can barely get out the words. “Let me see you.”
He sucks in a breath and nods. I stare at his face and barely blink as he licks his fingers and reaches down underneath his heavy prick. I watch his eyes almost flicker shut like a dying light as he enters himself. I keep my lips inches from his as he rocks on his own fingers. I’m drownin’ in the sight of him. This is Sherlock beneath me. Sherlock’s breath and Sherlock’s eyes and Sherlock’s chest. Sherlock’s dick.
I look down.
I see him long and thick, dripping from the tip and pressing up into my hip from a mess of dark brown curls. I shut my eyes tight and bite my tongue. I’m fucked. Ruined.
I feel his hand on the side of my face, his thumb swiping over my eyelid. We stare at each other as I finally enter him. He keeps my gaze as he holds the back of my neck and lets me rock him slowly, deeply, slower than we’ve ever done it before. I can’t stop myself from moaning at the feel of him hot and tight around me, and he watches me so steady and solemn it’s like he fears I’ll float away if he blinks, if he breathes too hard, if he closes his eyes. I can’t look away from him, cursin’ the spell that pulls me under ‘til my lungs turn inside out and my body turns into somebody else’s, and I’m entering his body and it’s wrong and it’s heaven and it’s in and in and in.
It’s been so long.
He lays back stark naked on the sheets after we’re done and holds me against him in his arms. I lay my head back on his chest as he breathes. He lights a cigarette and passes it back and forth to me, and suddenly the little dingy motel room opens up to the vast night sky, clearin’ the air of all the city filth and rushing in grass and moonlight and fresh smoke from a fire. I can smell our cum and sweat in the air. It mixes with the scent of his skin behind me, the sweet grass and the amber tobacco. The rushing cold of the mountain.
A part of me is grateful that I don’t have to look at him sittin’ this way, that I’m not the one looking down at my own arms wrapped around his bare chest. It’s too much as it is.
He presses his nose into my hair and inhales. “Told myself the whole way here we wasn’t gonna get into this again,” he says low. His breath moves soft against my scalp.
I hum. I don’t believe him for a second – steppin’ out of his gleaming white Ford back in Signal with his best shirt on and his curls all combed lookin’ up at me like he just took a breath after five years of holding it.
I know because I did the same.
He knows what I’m thinking. “Aw shit, John, I red-lined it the whole drive here.” He tightens his arms around me and brushes his cheek against my ear. I feel him chuckle against my back. “Couldn’t get here fast enough.”
His words rumble deep into my bones. It sounds like the open sky throwing wind against the boulders up on Baker, rattling the thin walls of the tent with the rushing force of the mountain.
My voice sounds too calm, too flat. I’m tryin’ hard as hell to keep it from breaking. “Five years – figured you’d gone and gave up on me. Still sore about that punch,” I say.
Sherlock reaches around and cups my cheek with his hand, brings my face around so his lips can reach me. He kisses me softly, gentle. I can feel it spread through my body like warm honey, up each bone in my spine and through all the muddled up muscles in my neck. It feels like a Baker sunrise, raisin’ up its warm hands over our bodies on the precious few mornings we slept together long enough to see it. I can’t believe all that even happened to me and not to somebody else.
It’s when he kisses me then, gently brushing across my mouth, that I realize we have a situation. I pull back from his lips to breathe. My chest feels like a knot in a rope that’s only gettin’ tighter the more you try to squeeze it loose.
“Where the hell you been these years? I’m not you – can’t figure it out in two seconds like some loony bin son of a bitch,” I say.
I can feel his smile in my hair. “Done did what I said I would. Been rodeoin’ down cross Texas mostly. Won myself a nice little purse over the years. Got real good at calf ropin’ once I could afford the horse. It’s all just geometry, see. Physics with the rope, calculatin’ the perfect force and angle to throw it, the speed of the calf, the angles it’s turning in the dirt, how hard the wind’s pushing back at you.” He sighs and stays quiet for a long moment. I want to tell him to keep telling me about the rodeo, about the physics and the wind pushing and the calf turnin’ angles in the dirt. I can hear him swallow hard. “Reckon this one up here over in Montana’ll be my last one. Wanna get out while I can still walk straight. This one’s the only rodeo I ever entered’s taken me this far up north. When I saw the route I’d be drivin’ I figured . . .” He shrugs and brushes his lips cross the side of my forehead.
I picture Sherlock racing through a rodeo ring on a jet black horse, mind going crazy doing all his calculations and bullshit and the crowd going wild, the lights flashing and his Stetson shining and the sweat rolling down his forehead into his eyes. I picture him pocketing his prize money with a firm handshake and walking away from all the crowds and flashing lights, going back to whatever hotel he’s crouchin’ in in bumfuck nowhere with nothin’ to do but sit all alone until he’s back up on a horse for the next night. No one to tell him he was a goddamn genius, not just some failed cowboy who got lucky with a length of rope.
He senses where my thoughts have gone. “Ain’t gotta be alone no more,” he says. His hand strokes up my collarbone, rests over my scar. “Now I know I have you back again.”
I light up a new cigarette and pass it back to him, shaking my head against his chest. “You’ve always had me, Sherlock Holmes,” I say, and I don’t think I’m gonna say it until I do.
Sherlock holds me from behind while we sleep. I blink awake in the darkness and hear his voice whisper into the back of my neck, soft as silk. “Come to the mountains with me, John.”
I’ll have to take two days off work, and seein’ as how there’s no such thing as vacation days workin’ ranch hand jobs I’ll probably lose it. I’ll have to leave Alma alone with the girls tryin’ to find a babysitter when she picks up her shifts at the grocery mart. I’ll have to load up the horse trailer even though it ain’t been used in months and pack up all our supplies.
I don’t answer him, but I know he knows in the stifled black night that I’m sayin’ yes. Please.
Alma flinches when I kiss her back at home and tell her I’m goin’ fishing for a couple nights with Scott. She’s always nervy round me like a skittish colt days after I have a black night. I never know how to tell her I can’t help it. That I wish as bad as her that they would just vanish into the clear open sky and float on back to the jungles and leave me be. Alma Jr. begs me to bring her back a big ol’ trout for barbequing when I’m halfway out the screen door, and I don’t have the heart to tell her there ain’t gonna be a single fish caught on this fishing trip.
I forget about the little home above the Signal laundromat before we’ve even made it to the end of the street. I wonder the whole way in the truck whether Sherlock’s been up into whatever mountains they must have in Texas. I ain’t been back since I took Alma to go sleddin’ in the snow before the little ones, watching her laugh as I brushed the powder from her face. Francine don’t like the cold, bunches up her lungs so she can’t breathe right, so we take the girls out to the lake every 4th of July where the summer heat traps you in the air like a furnace.
“Ain’t no mountains like this in Texas,” he says over the low hum of the engine.
It’s amazing how we fall back in step with each other the second we’re side by side on horses, the velvet purple mountains at our backs. It’s like the whole earth went and spun the wrong way to rewind five years and let us live it all again. I can see his chest moving as he breathes underneath his checkered flannel shirt. The horse he’s on startles at near everything, just like all those years ago, and he rides it perfect just like he’s back at the rodeo. Competent, calm as still water, draining the energy from the horse’s legs up into his own body without barely moving his own head. I see the little thrill in his eyes when the horse starts to buck and rear. I know then that I’d’ve sold everything in my house to watch Sherlock win a rodeo. I’ll face the fact that means I’m likely going straight to hell later.
We don’t talk. Don’t need to. Both of us knows the other is seeing colors for the first time since that parking lot out front Aguirre’s trailer, and no words is ever gonna be better than that. Sherlock keeps looking over at me real quick, like he got lost in his head and had to check to make sure I was still there, that he wasn’t dreamin’ it all up out his head in the middle of a lonely walk home after a rodeo.
When the sun dips below the mountain peaks and drags the rays of light down with it one by one we’re already sittin’ by a fire and stream. I watch the licking flames swallow up the shine on his boots, the metal rivets on his Levi’s, his brassy belt buckle. I can smell him on every breath of air, like the mountains done kept his scent safe and secret in the trunks of the firs and released it back out in the air when it saw us ridin’ up over the hilltop again, coming back.
I can feel him watching me. His left ankle drapes across my shin.
“What’s going on up in that head of yours?” he asks. “Look like you tryin’ to solve world peace.”
I laugh. I realize my laugh sounds different with him. It’s low and easy, warm mud sliding off a horse’s back into clear, cool water.
“I’m just sending up a prayer of thanks, is all,” I say.
His eyes follow a little swallow taking flight from a branch and disappearing into the fog of clouds. He hums. “For what?”
I want to say a lot of things. They rush up into my throat and get stuck at the back of my tongue. Instead, I say, “Thankful you ain’t gone and broken your legs ridin’ bulls and horses for money, ‘cus I sure as hell wouldn’t have carried you up here.”
He smiles sad. He doesn’t know I know that his last rodeo up in Montana would’ve been happening tonight, right this moment. The forest suddenly feels vast and empty at our backs, a faceless black where before there were ghosts of our younger selves roaming about in the warm mists. His mood is shifting, bracing.
“You know, it could be like this,” he says. “Always.” His voice is brittle and soft, like if tissue paper was made of thin, thin glass. I can feel him holding himself steady in the air, like if he moves a muscle I’ll leap up and run. “You and me together. Could get one of them ranches out off the beaten path, have ourselves a little cow and calf operation.” He looks over at me out the corner of his eyes. His fingers are tapping something wild on his thighs. “Would be a real sweet life.”
I don’t know what to say. I’m so angry at him I want to clamp my hand over his mouth and suck his words back out of the air as if they never happened. The earth feels deadly silent, holding its breath waitin’ for me to answer.
I rub a hand over the back of my neck, cursing the ground we can’t go back to three minutes ago and start over. “Sherlock, I made myself a life here. I’m stuck on my own track, ain’t no gettin’ out of it now.”
His fists clench, and his grey eyes look at me hard as diamonds. His body is dangerously still. “You telling me you’re happy? Birthin’ calves in the middle of the night or shoveling asphalt all summer just so you can buy diapers and lace curtains and a family dinner out at whatever shit local restaurant you got once a month?”
I snap at him. “You leave the girls out of this, man. This ain’t their fault.”
I see his eyes flick to the wedding band on my finger. I fight the urge to take it off and hurl it into the darkness. A coyote howls in the distance. Reminds me of when they would sing along with Sherlock’s harmonica with the promise of layin’ blissful in each other’s arms in the warm tent only an hour off.
“This thing we got going on here,” I say. “If it . . . grabs a hold of us like it done back in Signal, and we’s in the wrong place, at the wrong time, we’re dead men. Can’t go courtin’ it even more living in the same place.”
Sherlock looks up at the sky and sighs. His eyes look wet, and he sounds exhausted. “John, it’s not some disease that’s got hold of your brain. Not gonna rot you from the insides.” He looks straight at me. “Look, all I’m sayin’ is, we could be happy. Ain’t no reason it can’t be like this. People divorce, people move to new places, people –“
I cut him off. “Sherlock, I don’t wanna be like them guys you see around. Don’t wanna be dead. Tell you what, there was two guys ranched together back home. Names was Earl and Rich. Tough old birds but they was the joke of the town. One day my daddy takes me and Harry by the shoulders and drags us down the road to the middle of nowhere. Holds us by our necks and makes sure we seen what was in the ditch. Was Earl all beaten to death by a tire iron with his dick done cut off and layin’ next to his foot. For all I know my daddy’s the one who done the job.”
I haven’t thought about that memory at all, not even the first night Sherlock Holmes placed my hand between his legs. Now it’s all I can see, blacking out Sherlock’s white face in the firelight with a cold, dead body covered in dirt and blood.
I don’t want to keep talking, but my mouth goes and does anyway. “Two guys livin’ together? No way. We can get together every once in a while way out here but—“
“Once in a while?” he cuts in. “Every five fucking years?”
My chest hurts like it’s being crushed. I can barely hear my own voice. “Don’t have to be that long but . . .reckon there’s nothing else we can do. We’s stuck in our own loops, you and me.”
He leans back further up towards the black sky and lights a cigarette on steady fingers. Five minutes go by. He don’t ever pass it to me.
“Let me cut you out your loop, John,” he says. He looks vulnerable splayed out underneath the stars. I want to cover him with my body and press him deep into the mountain where it’s safe.
My lips tremble when I speak. “Nothing to cut, Sherlock. There’s no reins on this one.”
I feel his palm on my cheek, steady and cold from the air. It’s like fine silk that’s been sittin’ in a trunk in the attic over winter. Like the way the sleepin’ pad Aguirre done loaned us felt against my face whenever I rolled over and smelled his scent in the tent mixing with the fire embers and sheep’s wool.
He covers me with his body that night in the tent, letting me feel the full weight of him on my skin. It’s slow from the start. Slow as he takes off my clothes layer by layer, as he lifts my bent dog tags and kisses the spot on my chest where they lay, as he wraps his fingers round the low of my back and holds me firm in his arms, caught between the earth below me and my world above me and breathing off the words from his lips. He leaves wet, open kisses down my chest, down my stomach, down through my hair. He holds me by the hips and takes me into his mouth and hums. Nobody ever done that to me before. I ride up to my peak feeling his shoulders between my thighs and his sweat damp curls in my rough fingers. It’s the first time I’ve ever called out his name – called out anyone’s name.
We see each other three times a year on the dot. Sometimes just two.
We always disappear up into Bighorn, cross the rises and falls of Baker tryin’ to find the little pockets of air that got preserved in the atmosphere from when we was first there six, nine, twelve years ago. Sherlock drives clear cross every state between us from wherever the hell he is that month without barely stoppin’ to eat or sleep on the way. He hugs me too close and whispers my name when he sees me. He moves his large hand to my neck, my cheek, the side of my forehead. I push his hand away if there’s a road anywhere in sight.
We ride and hunt, hike up past the snow line and down into canyons. He tells me everything he’s learned and done in four months, which takes up hours, whole days. I tell him what I done and learned and it takes up five minutes. Four of those minutes is spent on my daughters.
He grows a little thinner every year. I grow a little thicker. He never really tells me exactly what he does for a living now that he quit rodeo-in’ all those years back, just tells me what interstate he had to take to get to Wyoming. Seems like it’s ranch hand work, same as me, but Lord knows why he moves cities every time I seen him, or why he ain’t just taken himself to a big city and set up his life there, putting all that learning to good use ‘stead of branding cattle or rounding up horses. I never really ask. He never asks me neither, but he can read it on my skin all the same.
We fuck. Sometimes rough and fast, angry slaps on thighs and dirt smeared on skin and jeans left dangling round shaking hips. Sometimes slow and soft, his body draping over mine like a blanket and the heavens and the soil all at once. I never drape myself across him – not the way he does. Our bodies get older, more weathered by the wind and the vast plains. It takes the edges off, helps me feel the whole weight of him without feeling like my lungs is closed off from the air.
He tells me “let me cut you out, John,” when we stand at the doors of our trucks with our bags all zipped and packed, campsite cleared.
I tell him “see you in four months.”
He’ll send me a postcard with his new address in three months so’s I know where to send him my note with a date, time, and place.
I go home and yell at Alma until she finally yells at me back. Her raised voice soothes out the itch under my skin, makes me feel like my world ain’t weighted off kilter, evens everything out so I can stand with one foot in Signal and one back on Baker for just a little while longer, a little while longer. Two weeks after I come back from being up on Baker we go and have sex. It’s hit or miss whether I can finish. She never does.
The days I walk back through the screen door with my bag over my shoulder feelin’ like a ghost in a stranger’s life, Alma Jr. is at my feet wanting her fish. She’s done heard “no luck fishin’, Junior” more times than any other kid in Wyoming.
After two years, I first notice the marks on the inside of his arms. They’re dull and grey like a dirt clod frozen in fresh snow. He see me notice and looks at me with all the pain in the world. He lets me see everything, all the storms ragin’ behind his eyes and the great, choking blackness that leads to a needle in an alley and a handful of wadded up cash. He lets me see it all, and then he takes my face in his hands and says “let me cut you out, John,” and I say, “don’t you be lettin’ me see marks like that again, or I’ll come after you.”
I see them again, year after year. They get darker, deeper, more red and black. I never once come after him.
After three years, I run into the grocery mart with the girls in tow. They’re excited, all big smiles thinkin’ I’m taking them out on an adventure. I really just need Alma to watch ‘em so I can go help birth a calf through the night and pick up the extra pay. The money will sit in a tin can inside one of my old boots in the closet and then magically appear in Alma’s wallet the next time I leave on a fishin’ trip.
Alma’s leaning cross the front counter in her work apron talking with the manager. I’ve never given enough of a damn to remember his name. I see what’s going on plain as day. She’s givin’ him the smile she used to give me, and her hair’s all nice and neat in curls, and he’s drinking up every word she says like she’s the Pope. It’s been a long, long time since I listened to her like that.
I know I oughta be mad as hell seeing this. I should be stomping over to them in my ranchin’ boots and staring at this fella hard as steel and putting him back in his place, taking Alma by the hand and leading her out of there and back to our home, our place. But as I stand there in the entrance, with Alma Jr. looking up at me wide eyed and little Francine pulling as hard as she can against my grip to try and reach for the cardboard box of Broadway Rolls, I realize I ain’t even a little bit mad. I feel relieved, like the scales is even, and it makes me nauseous knowing that I have to put on a little charade now to blend in with all the other dumb cowboys. So no one can suspect.
Alma straightens up when she sees me. She looks scared. She always looks that way when she sees me these days. I glare at the manager to make my point, pass her the girls like they’re bags of groceries over the sound of her protesting, and then I’m outta there in less than a minute, already rollin’ up my sleeves as I step up into the dying green Ford and thinkin’ about the way Sherlock kisses each new callous and scrape on my fingers whenever I see him.
After four years, I let him enter me. I’m scared as hell.
We’re stayin’ in a cabin in the middle of January – buddy of mine from a job inherited it from his in-laws and thinks I’m using it with my family for the holiday. Sherlock brings a bottle of wine that probably costs more than my rent and all the fixings to make a late Christmas dinner. He always got more money than me, on account of not having any children or wife to pay for.
“How come all this time you ain’t found a girl to settle down with?” I ask him from the couch. It’s the first time we’ve ever stayed somewhere indoors together, discountin’ the motel that very first night. It feels odd to sit on a couch with him, a fire in the fireplace and the smell of wine and pot roast in the air ‘stead of dirt and tree bark and wet snow. I hold my breath so I don’t get too used to the smell.
I ask him that like I’m just teasin’ him, like he’s too picky or too strange to choose a woman and settle down and be a good upstanding man like me. Like I’m expecting him to say something like “well, actually, I’m putting the moves on a little girl down in Childress,” or something like that to ease the dark pit in my chest.
In reality, though, my stomach’s in knots thinkin’ about him sitting all alone in a trailer somewhere on Christmas, knowing he’s still got three weeks to wait until our trip up here and with nobody but the Formica table to talk to. I know he don’t see his family more than once a year on Easter – he’s told me. So now I’m stuck in a cabin where I should be happy as hell but feeling like my lungs are clogged with mud. And feeling that I’m black jealous of the fact he can go anywhere and do anything and afford a fancy bottle of wine ‘cus he ain’t just bought two brand new pink tricycles and a pair of earrings from the pawnshop.
He shrugs. He’s rubbing my bare feet with his hands. His long fingers feel rough and worn from working outside in the cold. He’s doing oil work for a season up in the Dakotas, he says. Got tired of the Texas and Oklahoma heat on his skin.
He looks over at me, and I want to look away. “Hard to meet a wife when you go months out on a job without seeing a woman,” he says.
“Probably could if you’d stay in one place for longer’n a job contract,” I say. “Why you still moving around so much after all this time?”
He moves his hand up my ankle, lets his fingers brush under the bottom of my jeans and rub across the hair on my legs. I want to close my eyes and moan it feels so good. Instead I look at him, letting him know I won’t let him out of the question for once.
“Just get bored, is all,” he says. His voice is so quiet it nearly blends in with the howling wind outside.
I want to ask him why he ain’t moved to a big city – why he stays in little towns with two restaurants or less and keeps ranch handin’ like it’s the only thing his little brain knows how to do. I want to ask him if he misses the rodeo, the thrill of tearin’ through a little dirt stadium on a horse and all the crowd holding their breath in the blinding white lights. I want to ask him how come he never gets bored of Baker. Of me.
Instead I stand up and hold out my hand to him. “Time for sleep, cowboy,” I say. I already know what I’m gonna do, even if my body won’t admit it to my brain. The wood walls of the cabin sigh around us under the weight of the snow, and the wind from all through the pass moans up against the windows, rattling them like little pebbles on the edges of a river tide.
He can tell something’s different. He’s watching me close, his clear eyes doin’ that thing of theirs where they see every inch of you at once, reading you up like the words on a page. I never instigate, never start nothing ‘til he puts his hands on me first. Tonight, though, I brush my nose against his as my shaking fingers reach for his shirt buttons, my bare feet gripping like hell to the rough wood floor. I run my palms up and over his lean chest, and he lets out little moans on the tips of his breaths as he watches me touch him. I could watch my hard, tanned fingers trail up and down his skin all night. I’ve never told him that, and most likely I never will.
I kiss a tiny freckle in the hollow of his throat.
When he drapes himself across me on the rickety little bed, I hold his hip and thigh and look up in his eyes and turn him over onto his back. I touch him. I hold him down. I cover his body with the weight of mine. After almost a decade of knowin’ what it’s like to have Sherlock Holmes’ fingers on my skin, I can’t try and pretend no more that I just lay there and let it happen – that I let him be the only one who wants this while I just let him because he happens to be there and warm in my tent.
I think of myself holding up little Alma Jr. and Francine to see the fireworks out in the park on New Years Eve, and meanwhile him in a dark trailer toasting to himself. And now I need him to feel me so badly I’d’ve driven clear across the country just to get to his body.
He’s breathing fast when I get on my hands and knees. I feel his hardness brush up against me all tentative, like he don’t know what to do from here. I look over my shoulder and nod my head. His eyes are half lidded.
I can’t stop myself from crying out when he pushes into me, his lips moaning into the back of my neck while shaking fingers clutch my hips and pull. It stings something fierce, and my body wants to throw him off and hide under blankets for cover. I feel exposed, like someone’s come along and lifted up the palm leaves I’m hidin’ under holding my breath in the middle of the jungle and pointed a knife clear at my throat. Then I feel his large hands reach up my back and press steady and warm against my shoulders, and suddenly I’m back on Baker, back under his thighs, back under the soft weight of my name fallin’ from his lips and dripping down my spine like honey.
I come with his cheek on my shoulder blade and his palm reaching around to cover my scar from the icy mountain cold, his warm body pumping into me until I’m so full with the weight of him I can’t feel where my body ends and his begins. When we’re done, he throws on jeans and a jacket and leaves out to the porch for a cigarette in the snow. When he comes back in ten minutes later his hair’s all wrangled like he done raked it through with his fingers and his eyes are puffy and wet. He climbs in beside me and wraps my body around him from behind. I fall asleep breathing in the smell of stars from his curls.
After six years, Alma divorces me. She tells me one night as I’m sittin’ slouched facing the television set and looking straight through it to the beige wall that we still have time to get dressed up and go to the church social seeing as how it’s a Saturday night. The girls look over at me all hopeful from their place on the rug with a magazine. I think they’ve read through the same one more’n ten times, either that or them covers all look exactly alike.
I hold an empty Budweiser in my hand. The bottle’s long grown hot under my fingers. My body feels coiled for a fight, like a horse’s back leg raised mid-air before he strikes.
“Fire and brimstone crowd? Can’t see how no social with them could ever be fun,” I say.
Alma clicks her knitting needles together so hard they ring through the whole apartment. “I think it could be nice,” she says to her lap.
Next night I come home late from a seventeen-hour shift and see a pile of bags by the door. The grocery mart manager is sittin’ at my dining room table with his hand on Alma’s wrist. I know exactly what’s about to happen, and I stand there watching it all like I’m watching someone else go through it on the TV, like I done left my body and became a horsefly on the wall.
There’s no tears or yelling. Just a silence so huge it could fill all the vast plains outside of town and still have some leftover for the meadows and valleys up through Bighorn. The girls don’t come out of their room ‘til after I’m gone. I see their heads poking through the window from the parking lot. I sleep in my truck for a week and a half until I cash in on some veteran’s benefit checks and manage to find a one room place on the outside of town that I can afford on top of the child support. I spend that whole week and a half convincin’ myself not to just turn on the engine and drive and drive until I’m clear out of Wyoming with all the cash I own in my shirt pocket and nothing on my horizon except being a free and faceless stranger.
Then I see in my mind Alma Jr. and Francine’s heads poking out through the curtains watching me drive away, and so I shave in the rearview mirror instead and crack my neck before heading back to work on aching legs.
Sherlock sends me his usual postcard with his new address – this time in Fleming, Colorado. It sits pinned to my fridge with a magnet for six months before I can force myself to write him a note with a date.
He don’t show up on that date. Instead he shows up a month and a half early. I have the girls for the weekend – I get one weekend a month. This weekend we’re drivin’ over to the new swimming pool in Lovell. They’re sittin’ squashed and drinking lukewarm boxes of Mott’s apple juice on the bench of my truck while I run back to the little trailer house for Francine’s jacket. A familiar white Ford pulls off the dirt highway and into the weeds in front of me. My whole body shudders and my heart feels like it’s right up in my throat threatenin’ to jump out and burst. I’m frozen.
Sherlock steps out and walks towards me with a warm smile on his face. He pulls me into his arms before I can react and holds me so tight it makes me realize I ain’t been touched or held at all like that in nearly seven months. A breeze rushes across my cheek that feels like it came all the way down from Baker just to say hello.
When I pull back Sherlock cups my cheek in his hand and moves forward to kiss me. My body pulls me in like a magnet before I can push him off me and step back to breathe. His eyes look hurt until he sees the truck behind me. Somehow he knows it’s not empty. I walk over to the rolled down window and hear him followin’ behind.
“Junior, Francine, this here’s Scott. Scott, the girls,” I say. My voice sounds like somebody else’s. I nearly stutter on the word Scott.
Sherlock tips his hat at them, and they force themselves to smile. They’re anxious to get on the road to the pool, and the truck seat is hot against their legs.
We step aside and Sherlock leans in to my space. “Found out about the divorce,” he says. His voice is cautious, tinged with a tiny bit of gold. I don’t even want to know how in hell he found out from clear across in Colorado. Then I realize he must have seen my new return address on the postcard. He can see these thoughts flick across my face and grins. “You’re learning,” he says.
My muscles feel exhausted. I can’t barely move my eyes away from the top button of his shirt. He grabs the top of my arm real firm and then lets go.
“Jumped in my truck the second I got your letter,” he says, his voice low and his eyes sparkling. “Drove here all night. Figured you’d wanna get out and. . .” He looks off behind me towards the mountain peaks.
I want the ground beneath me to vanish away and swallow me up. The ache in my chest is so sharp it feels like gettin’ kicked by a bull. He sees me hesitate, and I watch helpless as the light dies from his eyes.
“Jeez, Sherlock, you know I want to but . . .” I pass a hand over the back of my neck. My skin is hot and clammy. “I got the girls this weekend. I only get ‘em one weekend a month, and I missed last month on account of work, so. . .”
I want to scream. His eyes are blank, lifeless like lukewarm water in a glass.
“Right,” he says. His voice sounds like an old, crumbled up fall leaf laying flattened out on the pavement.
I reach forward for him but he steps back with a flinch. “I would if I could, you know that,” I say.
He closes his eyes for more than just a blink. When he opens them they’re wet. I feel a moan at the back of my throat watching him retreat back towards his truck like a frightened animal.
“See you in two months, then,” he says.
I fold my arms across my chest and squeeze tight as I can as I watch a single tear fall from his eyes.
“Sherlock,” I whisper, but he can’t hear me. He’s already in his truck pulling backwards out of the dirt and back onto the road, wheels revving up dust clouds into the bleak and airless sky as he drives back the same way he just came. It’s the only time he’s ever left me without saying “let me cut you out, John.”
The new pool in Lovell closes ten minutes after we get there.
Not a year later and Alma’s got married to Monroe. That’s the manager’s name, so Alma Jr. tells me. I find out from her a whole month after it happened.
After nine years, I get a postcard from Sherlock that’s tellin’ me he’s still at the same address as last time. It’s Bushland, just outside Amarillo, Texas. A voice in my head knows that he probably didn’t find a place in Amarillo proper just so he could be stubborn and ornery and continue to live in towns with two restaurants or less. I don’t ask him next time we see each other why he stayed. I’m terrified of the reason, and I ain’t got a clue as to why.
After ten years, I pull up just before sunset at the campsite we decided on with a grin threatenin’ to leap off my face, and Sherlock’s nowhere in sight. I double-check my map and my notes, thinkin’ maybe I got the wrong place. But I know the Bighorn Mountains like the back of my hand, and ain’t no doubt in my mind that I’m right.
I go ahead and set up camp. He’s never been late before, always here and settled in an hour before I even pull up, but it ain’t hard for me to see how he coulda been distracted by something or another on the drive here. I think back to when his young lean body would leap up from the campfire and burst off mid-sentence into the wilderness ‘cus he seen something he wants to check out closer, leavin’ me behind to shake my head and pass the time staring at the sky until he returns with a handful of owl pellets or bird feathers or rocks or some such nonsense.
My body’s not what it used to be. I creak and groan as I go about pitchin’ the tent and hauling water, chopping up firewood for the weekend and stacking it the way I know Sherlock likes it. I’m thirty-eight years old, and I can feel every day of labor hanging round in my bones, sticking to my back and thighs like tar. Sherlock still moves exactly the same as he did fifteen years ago, that son of a bitch.
Hours pass, and the sky grows dark. I won’t admit it to myself but I’m worried as hell. All this time I thought I would finally be the one to fuck up and blow off a meeting for some reason or ‘nother. But not Sherlock, never him in a million years.
I know he ain’t coming the second I put out the campfire for the night. The thought washes over me and shuts me off from the mountain sky, trapping me in the air I dragged up with me from back in Signal. It’s too late to drive all the way back down the windy roads in the dark, no matter how many times I’ve driven ‘em before. I hunker down on the sleeping pad in the tent. The canvas feels too large around me, too empty and cold. Meaningless space. It’s the first time I’ve slept alone in a tent in fifteen years.
I pack up and leave at first light. I can hear him saying “let me cut you out, John” clear as day in my head as I step up into my truck and fight with the clutch to get it into first. I repainted it and put in a new engine myself two years ago. Ended up being only $50 cheaper than if I’d just bought myself a new one.
My mind goes empty on the drive back. Before I know it I’m pullin’ up outside Alma and Monroe’s place ‘stead of my little room back off the dirt highway. Who knows why my hands and feet take me there. They got themselves a nice little place in the new suburbs now – all white painted porches and shiny green lawn and a brand new Chevette parked out in the driveway. Before I can hightail it outta there Alma Jr. sees me from where she’s sittin’ staring at nothing on the porch railing and comes runnin’ down the grass in her wide leg jeans with flowers stitched onto the sides.
“Thought you was out fishin’ this week, daddy,” she says leaning in the truck window. Her voice sounds hoarse like she ain’t used it in days. She’s always been a quiet one. I wish she didn’t have to inherit that from me – not being able to ever say nothing when it matters.
I take a second to slip back into bein’ daddy, shed off the stranger I become when I’m up in the mountains with Sherlock and remember who Alma Jr. thinks I am.
“Change of plans, Junior,” I say. I hope she can’t see my never used fishin’ pole sitting dry in the truck bed. I realize then that she probably don’t wanna be called Junior no more, seeing as how she’s a young little lady herself now, but she only smiles at me in that way of hers that makes me feel like I can breathe the mountain air again, even if only for a minute.
Suddenly the thought of leavin’ her back on that porch feels like drowning. “You got school tomorrow?” I ask.
She gives me a look that tells me I done messed up. “It’s the middle of summer, daddy. Got no school for another month.”
I grunt to cover up the red I can feel climbing up my cheeks. “Leave your momma a note and get in, then,” I say.
She smiles so wide the little freckles on her cheeks threaten to jump off, then runs back in the house in her bare feet to go and grab her things.
She starts to unload the truck bed for me after we pull up at my place without a word and before I can stop her. She holds the unused fishin’ gear in her thin soft hands standing in the weeds and looks at me at me with the great heaving sadness of the plains written cross her face. It’s times like this I think she knows more than she says, and the fear grips my lungs like blue hot coals. Then I realize she’s only sad for me ‘cus she thinks I love fishin’ so much I’ll quit a ranch hand job just to hop in my truck and go three times a year. She puts the bags down in the corner of my closet where she somehow knows they go and makes me a pot of strong black coffee in sweet, sweet silence.
When I drop her off two days later she sits in the truck with me after I cut the engine for a long while. I watch out the corner of my eye as the breeze drifts through her long straight hair and blows it cross her neck. I can hear Francine and Alma laughing together inside the house, and I wonder whether Junior ever joins in with them.
“You know, daddy,” she says. “Your house is only a half mile walk from the school.” She stares straight ahead out the windshield. So do I. “Momma and Monroe’ve been gettin’ a lot stricter now what with the new baby coming. I thought . . . I was thinkin’ that maybe . . . I could come and live with you for a while. At your place.”
I think of her opening a kitchen drawer and finding the stack of all the postcards Sherlock’s ever sent me. I think of leavin’ her alone day after day when I’m out on the roundup down in the Tetons working twenty hours days with nobody to cook dinner for her or ask her how was school. I think of not knowin’ how to wash her little jeans and shirts without a washing machine the way her momma does it.
Goddamn but I wanna say yes.
I rub my hand across my mouth and she already knows my answer before I speak. “Aw, Junior, I got the roundup coming end of summer. Gonna be away all the time workin’. I’d never be home.”
Her lip trembles before she bites it. “It’s ok, daddy. I understand.” And she does. I know she really does.
“It’s not that I don’t want you to,” I say, and I hate the way my voice sounds lost.
She looks over at me and smiles. “I know, daddy. I know.”
I tell her “see you next month,” but she’s already up the porch steps with her bag slung over her shoulder, too far away to hear me.
Two weeks later I get a letter from Sherlock in the post. It’s the first full letter he’s ever sent me, and my hands shake as I open it. I brace myself to hear that he finally done followed my advice and found a wife, or moved clear away to a big city, or found himself a fancy job that pays well enough to get himself a house and a life far away from driving his white truck up through Bighorn just to sit beside a campfire with a washed up cowboy from Signal.
Instead he tells me he done went and solved a murder.
I read the letter every day for a month. I can hear his voice leap off the page, clear and vibrating with energy like it sounded that first summer up on Baker– how he came across the mounted Amarillo police when they was at the crime scene, how he saw all them clues they were missin’ and ran cross town for days getting all the answers for himself. How the police sheriff hated him at first and threatened to run him outta town before Sherlock turned up at his front door in the middle of the night with the bloody gloves and knife in a brown paper bag. How that same sheriff gave him a firm handshake and told him he’d call him up next time they had a case they couldn’t crack.
His words captivate me. Make me laugh to myself on the little wooden chair at my kitchen table when he calls the junior officer a “dunderhead who wouldn’t know the difference between cow shit and chocolate ice cream” and grip the paper with shaking hands when he sneaks around the murderer’s own damn backyard just to see if he owned a pair a Doc Martin’s.
He takes me along with him every time I read the letter – like I’m right there by his side watchin’ his mind shoot off little fireworks of genius into the sizzling hot Texas air. I know now that’s why he missed our last trip. He tells me in the last line of the letter that the only thing he regrets about the whole ordeal is that he ain’t had me by his side after he walked away empty handed from the sheriff’s house in the middle of the night, and that line makes my heart hurt so badly I only read it the once.
After twelve years, Alma and Monroe invite me to their Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. Monroe wears a suit and I feel like a child in my finest little button up white-checkered shirt. Alma Jr. helps me iron it real quick out on the back porch right after I get there. I bring a bowl of potato salad for some Godforsaken reason like I’m showin’ up at a July picnic ‘stead of a national holiday built round turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy. It sits untouched on the kitchen side table the whole night. I let them keep the bowl so’s I don’t have to watch Junior scoop out the potato salad into a Tupperware to keep in their fridge ‘til it goes bad.
Junior asks me at the dinner table to tell them all a story of my rodeo days. I think that Monroe must’ve convinced her I did that back in the day – he probably thinks every man who works out on the ranches did the rodeo at some point. I don’t know how to tell her that I ain’t never wore a fancy belt buckle and rode a bull under the hot summer lights like the cowboy shows on the television, that I only ever shoveled asphalt and did ranch labor all this time – that or run through a jungle bein’ shot at, but ain’t nobody wants to hear those stories.
I tell ‘em a story ‘bout Scott instead, real quick and vague. It gets Francine’s eyes all wide and starry thinkin’ bout the magic of racing on a horse through a fancy stadium, same way my eyes probably looked when I was her age hearing bout the wild wild West for the first time. Alma gets up and leaves for the bathroom when I’m halfway through.
I help Alma wash the dishes after dinner while Monroe watches the football game with the girls and their new little son, Nathan, in the sitting room.
“You oughta find someone to settle down with again,” she says, staring down at her hands wiping a plate. “The girls and I worry ‘bout you bein’ all alone in that place a yours out there.”
I grunt and shift my feet while I dry a fork on a little daisy dishtowel.
“Ain’t got the heart for it anymore, I guess,” I say. I see her slowly set the plate she’s holding down on the counter. She looks down at it and scrubs off an invisible piece of food so hard I can hear the sponge scratching echo cross the tile.
“You still go fishin’ with Scott Holmes?” she asks. Her voice is sharp, the fresh steel edge of a knife sittin’ on the counter and waiting to be picked up and used.
My blood runs cold. “Sometimes,” I say.
She keeps scrubbing that one spot. “You know, I used to wonder how come you never brought home any fish when you knew little Alma was waitin’ for some back at home. You’d tell us all bout the trout leapin’ out the river up on Baker and somehow never had no luck catchin’ one. So one year, I went into your tackle box with the price tag still on it, and I tied a little note to the end of your fishin’ line. It said ‘Dear John, Bring home a big fish for our Junior, love Alma.’ You come back a week later all sad and low in your boots. Took the first chance I got to go in there and look at your fishin’ line.” Her body starts to shake next to mine, and I feel the walls of the kitchen close in on me like the tiny little boxes they locked us in in the army for POW training.
“Note was still there just like I tied it. That line ain’t never touched water in its life,” she says down to the dish in her hands.
I clear my throat and try to breathe. Nathan starts screamin’ over in the next room, and I pray to God Alma’ll go in there to quiet him down. She stays.
“You think I’m blind, John? That I ain’t got no sense?” She looks up at me with angry hot tears in her eyes. Her mouth twists into a grimace. My palm clenches around the fork so the prongs near pierce my skin. Her whisper is deafening.
“Scott Holmes?” She sucks in a shaking breath and wipes the back of her hand under her wet nose. “Scott nasty. You been goin’ up there all these years with him to—“
I can’t take it. I grab her wrist and stop the words in her throat. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking bout,” I hiss at her. She looks terrified, trying to pull her wrist back against my grip. In my mind I see my daddy holding my ma the same way over the kitchen sink, and I want to lean down over the clean stack of dishes and vomit.
“I’ll scream for Monroe,” she says. “I will. I’ll scream for him to come in here and rip your hand off me.”
I drop her wrist like I been burned and run out of the kitchen. I hear her sobbing behind me as I grab my jacket and barrel through the screen door. I trip down the front steps and barely catch myself from fallin’ on the cement. I hear Alma Jr.’s voice calling out to me as my shaking hand reaches for my truck door, but I don’t look back. I hear her voice in my head sayin’ “please don’t leave yet, daddy,” for the whole next week.
When I meet up with Sherlock a month later he can tell instantly something happened. He holds me up against him when I step outta my truck at the campsite and keeps his hand on the back of my neck for a very long time whispering, “little darlin’, little darlin’ I’ve got you.”
I ask him later that night by the fire if he ever gets the sense walkin’ round the streets of Amarillo that people look at him and know – like they all see straight through him and see the marks of me left on his skin. He don’t answer, just puts his hand on my knee and then plays his harmonica while we share a joint in the cool, open darkness.
I ask him the next morning tangled up in the tent whether things is normal for him when he’s with women. I lay there thinking bout all the times I could never get it up with Alma, all the nights I left her cold and hangin’ alone on her side of the bed. I think about the few single nights I’ve had with little waitresses and ranch cooks since her and how they look at me with pity in their eyes when we’re done. I think of how I get hard back in Signal in my empty little house just thinkin’ of Sherlock’s hands sliding up my thighs.
Sherlock pulls my face closer to his chest and hums. “I wouldn’t know, John,” he says.
After fourteen years, Sherlock tells me as we’re riding our horses through the pass that that sheriff back in Amarillo’s said he’ll help him set up a business for hisself. Gonna be one of those people you call when you need a problem solved that ain’t big enough for the police – private detective, he calls it. He’s gonna have his own little office and a secretary that takes his calls and a business card that says “Endorsed by Sheriff Martinez of the Amarillo Sheriff Station.”
He’s like a different person the whole week, like all them long, hard years have shed off his body and left him young and new again. I try to remember the last time I was as happy and fresh as that. It must’ve been long before Harry drove me to that bus station.
We have a competition who can rope a little log out in the meadow from the farthest away. When I screw up and somehow rope my own arm Sherlock laughs so hard he goes and falls over in the long, dry grass with tears in his eyes. He pulls me down on top of him and wrestles with me like we did when we were just kids wearin’ grown up boots. My lungs gulp down the clean open air as I laugh and pin him down into the soft earth. He reaches up with both hands and grabs my face and kisses me breathless. I can feel the smile still on his lips as he laughs and sighs into my mouth. His huge hands cup my face, grab my ass and grind me down into him as his tongue traces over my swollen lips.
I pull back and look at him, and I feel like I’m lookin’ straight down at the sun. I feel like my heart is risin’ up out of my body and flying into the heavens above us. He gets a look in his wide blue eyes and tenses up his body before he flips me clear over onto my back. The strength of his lean arms on my body makes me instantly rock hard. I close my eyes and think of him gallopin’ a horse full speed across the open plain, his curls flyin’ in the wind and his muscled hips gripping the saddle like they was born to do it and I’m gasping beneath him as I feel his rough hand undo my zip and reach down into my jeans and grasp me hard and solid in his palm. I look up at the cloudless blue sky above me and feel the whole universe is sighing soft and slow at the feeling of Sherlock Holmes’ warm hand on my old and tired skin. He bites my bottom lip between his teeth and runs his tongue up my neck and let’s me fuck his hand while his lips kiss my ear whisperin’ “come on, baby, come on.”
That night by the fire he tells me in between sips of whiskey that the secretary in the Amarillo police station’s been pushin’ him to step out with her for months. I think of him – taller’n hell cowboy in a clean pressed dark shirt hugging his chest, lean legs in dark washed Levi’s, taking his hat off his silk curls and clear blue eyes sparkling as he steps into the police station and I don’t blame her for wantin’ that one bit.
I think of myself walking into the local diner in dirty, ripped up button-downs and unkempt hair and cow shit on my jeans with a limp in my step and suddenly wonder at how I ever got any woman to look at me twice.
“What are you keepin’ her in suspense for?” I ask.
He’s quiet a long time. His eyes roam out over the mountain pass beneath us as he breathes softly down into the earth.
“Tell you what,” he finally says. His lips quiver like he’s scared. I see his eyes flick back and forth in indecision. Finally he swallows and licks his lips. “Sometimes I miss you so much I can hardly stand it.”
He looks over at me like he’s afraid of what I’ll say. We ain’t never said anything like that to each other before – always kept it unspoken, under lock and key. Now he’s gone and said it and I find my mouth can’t push out any words back to him. I leave his words hangin’ in the air with no answer.
We don’t have sex that night. I hold him close against me and feel his spine melt into my tight chest in the warm darkness as he sleeps.
Next morning we done threw the last of our bags into our trucks when Sherlock turns to me with his hands in his back pockets. I know what he’s about to say, but I have something I need to tell him first.
“Look, there’s something I been meanin’ to tell you,” I say. I lean my shoulder against my truck bed like it’ll hold me upright. “Job I got goin’ on right now, it’s the best money I ever made in years. Foreman tells me he reckon’s I can’t get any time off ‘til November.”
Sherlock stares at me. “November,” he says back. He puts his hands on his hips and shakes his head. “What the hell ever happened to August?”
I feel defensive, caged in. I stand up straight from my truck and cross my arms. “You know how it is, Sherlock. Was hard enough even gettin’ this week out here without losing the job. The tradeoff was August.”
He looks at me and every muscle in his body goes deadly still. I feel his eyes bore through me like I’m invisible, like my skin’s been ripped clean off my bones and he can see through my chest to the grove of trees behind me.
Finally he looks away, out over the crystal blue mountain-backed lake we’re parked next to.
“You had a whole week to tell me this, John, and you choose right goddamn now before you can get in your truck and just drive away from it all.”
“You talk like you forget what it’s like to be broke all the time,” I cut back. “How was I supposed to tell you that when you’re all high as a kite the whole week off your fancy new job?”
I don’t mean that. I don’t mean it at all. But my lips push the words out of my mouth anyways. He looks back at me slowly, and his eyes are cold, hurt.
“You’re too much for me, John,” he says, and he turns his back on me to walk over to the water’s edge. I want to gasp at the outline of him against the vast lake and line of mountain peaks behind him. If he weren’t right furious at me right now I’d want to walk up behind him and hold him close and let the whole valley of Bighorn see my hands tight round his waist.
Instead I stay by the trucks. “You gotta better idea?” I yell out to him.
He looks out over the water for a long minute, then he speaks over his shoulder so soft I have to step forward to hear him.
“I did, once,” he says.
My fists clench. “Oh what, the lil’ fairytale ranch with calves and cows? Bluebirds and a whiskey spring? And nobody around to see us sleepin’ in the same damn bed?”
“Yes, exactly that!” he yells back. I’ve never seen his face so angry. “We coulda had a real sweet life together, John. A damn good life. But you didn’t want it. So now all we got, is fucking Baker mountain!”
His raised voice echoes out across the lake, filling every nook and cranny of Baker with his anger. I feel like I’m gonna pass out.
“That’s real rich comin’ from you lecturing me on not wantin’ things,” I say. My voice is shaking as I stalk towards him. “You been happy as a clam all week now that you got yourself a real job, and it only took you twenty goddamn years to finally follow my advice and use your brains for more than just a dumb trick to scare off strangers.”
He spits in the dirt and pushes his finger into my chest. “I swear to God, John. You ever wonder why it was I never moved to a big city by now? Why I ain’t found myself a steady job that ain’t rakin’ up horse shit or wrangling cows out on a ranch in the middle of nowhere? It’s because fancy jobs in big cities don’t let you quit at the drop of a hat to go up to the mountains whenever John Watson finds it’s convenient for him three fucking times a year.”
“Don’t you dare pin this on me,” I yell back. I grab his wrist and shove his finger off my chest. “How in hell is it my fault you done wasted the last twenty years of your life workin’ labor jobs and livin’ like a vagrant, huh? You tell me how that’s my fault.”
“Because I can’t breathe when I’m not with you!” he screams. I stand frozen as he turns back towards the lake, chest heaving through his thick flannel shirt. I walk up beside him and see his body flinch away from me.
“I’m not like you, John,” he says out to the water. “I can’t just turn it off once we drive off down the mountain after a horseback ride and a high-altitude fuck. You have no idea how bad it gets.” He turns to look at me with tears in his eyes.
The tears make me want to punch myself in the gut. “So shovin’ drugs up your arm, that’s my fault all these years too, huh? While I’ve been out tryin’ to live a decent life and you’re back in an alley with other boys like you?”
It’s a low blow. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever said to him.
His voice is calm, a viper before it strikes. “Boys like me, huh?”
I want to take it all back. I reach out my arms to touch him, but he pushes me away hard. His voice is a harsh whisper. “You look back on the damn short leash you’ve kept me on for twenty years while you been out livin’ your good and decent life, and then you stand up and judge me from the pulpit for needin’ the drugs to stop myself from wantin’ something I hardly never get.”
I want to ask him if the thing he wants and never gets is me, or just another naked man beside him, but my lungs are too empty. I watch stunned as he turns back towards the water and runs his hand through his curls.
“I wish I knew how to quit you,” he whispers.
It’s all over. I can see the mountains crumbling down around us, crushing the meadows and the firs and the streams in their rubble and leavin’ us with nothing but the Ford trucks at our backs and the electric sparks still hanging in the air from our words.
I realize I’ve sunk to my knees. My eyes fill with water until his form becomes a thick brown smudge against the blue sky. It’s the first time I’ve cried since I drove away from him back in Aguirre’s parking lot.
“Well why don’t you?” I choke out. My voice is breaking, and I don’t have a lick of energy left to care. I feel my bones sinking into the dirt, begging to be swallowed up. “It’s because of you I’m like this. Why can’t you just leave me be? Every town and job you’ve seen you get bored of, so why can’t you just get bored of me and go?”
He turns towards me, sees me crouching in the dirt with my arms tryin’ to cover the tears on my cheeks, and he lets out a long sigh.
“Oh, John,” he says. His voice is soft. He walks towards me and leans down to put his hands on my shoulders. His touch feels like fire. I shove him off of me, try to stand to run away and get in my truck and get the hell off of Baker, but my legs give out under me and I collapse into his arms instead. He sinks to his knees and holds me as I grip his sleeves and cry into the front of his jacket. Our touch feels violent, harsh and unsteady as we grip and tug at each other. I hear his voice whispering to me, low and warm, “it’s alright, you’re alright.”
I don’t know if I believe him.
On the drive home my mind replays the same memory over and over. It’s that first summer up on Baker, after we went and started everything, and I’m gearing up my horse to go and be with the sheep. I look over and see Sherlock standing in front of the fire looking down at the flames, swayin’ slightly like he’s got his eyes closed. Except I don’t know his name is Sherlock. Not yet. An urge comes over me, and I take my foot out the stirrup where it was waiting to push me up and walk up behind him instead. I step up on the little log behind his feet so my head is up higher than his, and then I wrap my arms tight around his chest.
“Sleepin’ on your feet like a horse,” I say in his ear. He hums and leans into me, lets his head rest back on my good shoulder.
I let my fingers stroke up and down the front of his wool jacket over his chest. We stand there together for a silent moment. I breathe in the scent of the campfire from his hair as I feel the solid weight of him in my arms.
“Time for bed, cowboy,” I say into his curls, and then I pat the front of his chest and run my nose across the side of his forehead before walkin’ back over to my horse. He turns his head to watch me disappear into the moonlit trail, and I feel the warmth of him up along my whole body all the way ‘til I get to the meadow.
Five months later I run into town for some groceries and a new pack of socks. Passin’ by the post office it occurs to me I ain’t got my receipt from the child support payment yet. I run inside and pull a handful of mostly junk mail and a bill or two from my post box, sort through them once I’m back out walking cross the hot pavement. I shuffle through to a postcard, and my heart beats in my chest like it always does when I get a card from Sherlock, ‘til I realize it’s my own writing on the card. It’s the one I done sent to him two weeks ago to let him know I definitely can’t get off work ‘til November.
I turn the card over in my hand, thinking maybe he just used the same card to write back to me, and then my entire world turns black.
Stamped across my lopsided handwriting in big red letters is one word: deceased.
I stand in the middle of the road starin’ at it until a truck honks at me to get outta the way of traffic. It startles me so bad I nearly trip backwards over my feet. I feel like I’m back in the war. My blood pumps through my body so hard I think it’s gonna start spilling out my mouth and eyes. I scan the street and spot a telephone box and run towards it, all the mail except the postcard left lying in the gutter by the post office.
The air feels thick and hot inside the box. The dirt and fingerprints all over the glass makes it look like the outside world is in a fog, a dreamland. Like none of this is real.
I sort through my wallet with shaking fingers until I find the business card. “Scott Holmes, Private Detective.” Sherlock sent me his first ever one in the mail weeks ago, right after he got ‘em printed. I have to steady one hand with the other as I dial the phone number printed in perfect black letters at the bottom of the card.
The voice that answers on the other line sounds crisp, the way a new vinyl tablecloth creases perfectly at the edges of the picnic table.
I can barely breathe. I lean my head on my arm against the wall of the phone box so I don’t fall over. My voice sounds like wet sandpaper.
“Yes, hi. This Sh – Scott Holmes’ secretary?”
There’s a pause at the other end of the line. I realize she probably thinks I’m callin’ for a service not realizing he’s gone.
He’s gone. Jesus Christ, he’s gone.
“Yes I am, or was, rather. Sorry to tell you he done passed away. Believe they’re gonna turn this office into something for real estate, sounds like. But listen I can refer you to someone else if you’ll be needin’ services –“
“No, no, ma’am. That won’t be necessary. See I’m a . . . was a friend of his. John Watson.”
I hear her click her tongue through the phone. Even clearing her throat sounds efficient.
“Oh right, you’re the fishin’ buddy. Mr. Holmes mentioned you once or twice. Granted I ain’t worked for him that long, but yours was the one name I managed to catch. Sorry for not lettin’ you know. Woulda tried to do him a last good secretary service and let his friends and family know but . . . for all I know he kept those peoples’ names and information all up in his head. Couldn’t find an address book nowhere.”
I want to smile thinkin’ that Sherlock kept a lot more than just addresses in his head, but the movement feels wrong on my lips. Like poison. I take a deep breath.
“Listen, I’m awful sorry to hear the news. Was hopin’ you could tell me what happened.”
She pauses so long I think the call dropped. When she finally speaks it sounds like she’s readin’ from a script. Her voice is flat and hollow like cardboard.
“Mr. Holmes was drivin’ into work – you know he still lived outside the city in one of them little towns – when his truck got a flat. He was out fixin’ the tire when the tire blew. The rim of the tire broke off and hit him in the face. Knocked him unconscious on his back. By the time someone come across him out on that old highway he’d drowned in his own blood. Sorry, it’s awful gruesome, sir, but you asked. . .”
I think of Sherlock lyin’ out in the hot lonely dirt on his back with blood gushin’ over his face and nobody to turn him over.
I think of how it sounded like she was readin’ prepared words off a page. I think of my daddy showing me Earl in a ditch. I think of the way somebody could pick up a tire iron and hit you cross the face so hard you’d collapse and drown in your own blood.
I gasp quietly and grip the phone hard. I swallow down a moan in my throat.
“His folks still up in Lightning Flat?”
She chuckles. It sounds sharp and empty. “From what he said I reckon’ they’ll be there ‘til the day they die. You know it’s strange, now I think about it. Not a week before it happened he done asked me to try and find out a legal question for him. Said he didn’t want his ashes buried in the family plot up in Wyoming whenever his time comes. Said he wanted his ashes scattered some place called Baker Mountain. I wasn’t sure where that was. He talked about so many fantastical places and things I thought maybe it was out in another country or some such, or from a book he read. You know sometimes he’d come into work lookin’ awful sickly and talkin’ like his head was in the clouds, with his eyes all red. Thought maybe he had a disease or somethin’. He talked about Baker a lot when he was in a state like that. Anyways so I just sent the ashes up to his folks, at the end of the day.”
I never want to hear her voice again. I clear my throat away from the receiver. “We herded sheep together up on Baker one summer back in ’65,” I say.
She hums, like I just gave her the answer she was missin’ to her crossword puzzle. “Well I reckon’ his folks would be glad if you wanted to carry out his wishes. ‘Bout the ashes I mean.”
I hang my head in my hand. “I’m awful grateful for you tellin’ me what happened, ma’am,” I say, and I hang up the phone before she can say another word.
A great, heaving wind rips across the empty plains and rattles up against the sides of the telephone box, drowning out the wheezing in my chest.
Two days later I pull up to a narrow dirt lane with a mailbox that says “Holmes” standing crooked at the entrance. I haven’t slept. The white washed two-story farmhouse is set a mile back from the main road, all alone on a wide flat plain dotted with old wooden tool sheds and barns. I can hear the grasses rustle all together like one big sigh.
An older woman, movin’ slowly like she’s been sick, stands out in the doorway. Somehow she knows who I am. I follow her in and sit down at a little wooden table and look at Sherlock’s parents. His daddy sits straight backed across from me at the table while his ma roots around in the kitchen slower’n a snail tryin’ to make coffee. I barely stop myself from staring. I don’t see a lick of Sherlock in either of ‘em.
His ma sets a cup of weak black coffee in front of me that we all know I won’t drink. She steps back to stand in the doorway of the old, drafty kitchen.
“So, you’s the fishin’ buddy,” his daddy says. He looks at me like he’s smellin’ something awful. Everything inside the little farmhouse is off-white.
“I’m awful sorry bout what happened,” I say. “Can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am. Came here to tell you I’d be happy to carry out his wishes ‘bout his ashes bein’ scattered up on Baker.”
He sniffs hard and leers at where his wife stands hunched over in the doorway.
“’John Watson,’ Scott used to say. Said every year at Easter that the next year you was gonna come up here with him and whip this ranch into shape. Try out all them silly ideas he had in his head for buildin’ new farming tools and fixin’ up the pipes and lights in this place. Like we live in a dump. Then couple years ago he sits here sayin’ he gonna move to the city in Texas and stay there. Ain’t got a reason no more to keep movin’ from place to place, stayin’ up here close to Wyoming, he says to me.”
I sit like a statue. I can feel his ma’s soft, watery eyes on me. Her gaze is weaker than the coffee in front of me. His daddy’s voice is icy. Makes the room seem ten degrees colder when he speaks. I remember how my own daddy’s voice was always hot like a furnace.
“Thinks he was too damn smart for us to be buried in the family plot. I says, look what all those smarts did for him in the end. Nothin’ but a washed out calf-roper for a son.”
He turns his gaze to me and peers through me. I recognize it as the only thing Sherlock inherited from either of his parents, and it makes my gut feel like it’s filled with acid.
“Tell you what, boy,” he says. “All the brains in the world ain’t do you no good if your soul’s black with rot. He’s stayin’ here in the family plot, like he’s meant to. Son of mine, or no.”
Suddenly I realize everything. They think it was the tire iron too.
His ma puts her clammy hand on my shoulder, and I nearly shrug it off.
“I’ve kept his room like he had it when he was a boy. I think he liked that. You’s welcome to go up and see,” she says. She looks like she might fall apart any second, crumpled into pieces on the cold wood floor. I nod and thank her. My legs feel thin and empty when I stand to go up the stairs, leavin’ Sherlock’s parents whispering together behind me.
His room is hot and tiny. There’s a little toy telescope with the lens missing sittin’ on his desk. I walk over to his bed and see where he done sawed off the footboard on account of bein’ too damn tall for his own good, and it’s the first time I smile in days. I look out the window over the lonely dirt lane leading out from their house and think about Sherlock sittin’ here as a kid with his arms wrapped round his knees dreaming of the whole world waitin’ for him at the end of that road. I think of him huddled under blankets with a flashlight at night teachin’ himself science and books and poetry where his folks couldn’t see.
My heavy feet take me over to the closet tucked away in a grey corner of the room. It’s mostly empty. I have to duck to fit inside and I think of Sherlock up here sweatin’ and miserable every Easter having to bend over in half just to get his jeans. Thinkin’ about me coming up there with him next year, or the next year, or the next year to watch him try out all his inventions.
I lean down to feel the old pair a rodeo boots sittin’ on the floor, rubbing the old worn leather cross my fingers and picturing how they’d look under the bright stadium lights, when I notice a little slot between the back of the closet and the wall. I reach my fingers into the dark slit and pull out a shirtsleeve. It’s a dark blue flannel. There’s blood on the sleeve. Something sparks in the back of my brain, and my chest starts heaving. The fabric feels heavy in my hands, and I peek inside the cuff to see there’s a whole ‘nother shirt tucked inside. I pull it out through the sleeve inch by inch, and my breath catches in my throat. There’s blood on this sleeve, too. It’s the denim shirt I thought I left up on Baker, tucked inside Sherlock’s own shirt like a second skin.
I rise on shaky knees and hold the shirts to my chest, to my nose, to my cheek. I can’t help the moan that escapes my lips. I been holdin’ it in for two days. I clutch at the fabric and breathe it in, tryin’ to find a rush of cold mountain, or a hint of campfire, or the dusky warm smell of Sherlock’s skin in the tent, but all I can smell is the musty draft of the closet.
When I come back downstairs Sherlock’s ma sees the shirts folded up in my hands and silently gets a brown paper bag to put ‘em in. I see her watch her husband out the corner of her eye like he’s a stranger just up and arrived in her sitting room. He don’t say a word to me. Hasn’t moved since I went upstairs.
Sherlock’s ma puts a frail, see-through hand on my wrist. “You come back and see us,” she says. We both know I won’t.
Driving back down the little dirt lane I pass by the family plot. There’s sagging crooked wood crosses all haphazard in the weedy dirt and fake plastic flowers bleached by the sun beneath each one. I think of Sherlock’s body lyin’ there lonely in the Godforsaken earth and choke back a sob.
I want to cut him loose, but I can’t. I’m too late.
In the summer of ’84 I’m out stickin’ the silver numbers on my new mailbox when I hear a car pull up behind me off the highway. I moved to the cheap little trailer over a month ago but never got around to putting the little #17 on the box until today. It’s even farther out of town than my last place. Group of sagging metal trailers dotting the flat open plain with plastic flamingos and cheap lawn chairs out front. Mine’s the plainest one, set out almost 200 yards from the rest like it accidentally rolled off the big delivery truck a couple minutes before they got to the right place for the little neighborhood.
Sherlock’s been dead thirteen months.
I turn around and see a bright red Dodge Challenger cuttin’ off its engine in a cloud of dust. I duck my head and see it’s Alma Jr. behind the wheel. She gets out lookin’ two feet taller than the last time I seen her and walks up to me like a little ball of fresh air.
She hugs my side, and I feel her hair whip against my cheek in the wind.
“Hi daddy,” she says.
I nod at the new used car in front of us. “What’s the occasion, Junior?”
I ain’t seen any of them since I took that trip to town and walked inside the post office.
She pulls her hair behind her ear against the wind and squints in the dust. “Like the ride? It’s Kurt’s,” she says.
I frown down at her. “Kurt? Thought you was seein’ Troy?”
She looks at me – we’re the same height now. Her eyes is equal parts exasperated and fond.
“Stopped seein’ Troy near two years ago,” she says. “I’m with Kurt now. This here’s his new ride.”
I look at the shining clean curves of the Dodge and think of how Sherlock used to walk up to his truck before driving down off Baker and lick a handkerchief to wipe off the tiniest little smidge of dust.
“Troy still play baseball?” I ask. My mind’s still watching Sherlock lean down to clean his truck.
“I wouldn’t know, daddy,” Junior says as she moves towards the trailer. “I’m seein’ Kurt now.”
I follow her inside, embarrassed as she takes a quick look around the near empty space. She sits on the little foldout bed while I stoop into the tiny kitchen area and put on some coffee.
“So what’s Kurt do?”
“Works out in the oil fields,” she says. I can hear the pride in her voice. I grin over at her from the corner of my mouth.
“He’s a roughneck, then?” I say, teasin’ her. I’ve forgotten how good it feels to talk to someone.
I put her coffee down in front of her, just like Sherlock’s ma did for me up in Lightning Flat. Unlike me, Junior takes the chipped little mug in her hands and takes a sip.
“You need more furniture, daddy,” she says.
“’Cus you’re eighteen now you think you know everythin’ bout homemaking, is that it?” I ask her. She smiles with sad eyes. “I’m fine, Junior. When you don’t got nothing, don’t need nothing.”
She takes one more look around the sad little trailer. I see her eyes linger on the fishin’ pole standing up in the far corner by the water heater.
“Got some news for you,” she says into her cup. I perch myself on a tilted wooden chair, sit up straight then feel like I’m too formal in church and slouch again. I want to pick at the callouses on my fingers.
“Kurt and I . . . we’re gettin’ married,” she says. She looks up at me from under her eyelashes and waits for me to say something, anything.
I look down at my hands holding the coffee mug. I see the scar on my left thumb I got one spring climbing a tree with Sherlock just so he could get a feather sample out of a nest. I need to remind myself that I ain’t alone right now, can’t be sittin’ there thinking of him when my daughter’s sitting across from me just telling me she’s gettin’ married.
I wanna tell her that when I was just about her age now I was carryin’ a dead soldier on my back running like hell through the jungle back to the little beach where a helicopter was picking us up away from the bombs.
Instead I hum, look out the tiny square window of the trailer. “How long you known this fella?” I ask.
Alma slowly turns the coffee mug in her hands. “Bout a year.”
Something tells me she done spent more time with Kurt in a year than I spent with Sherlock in twenty.
“And this Kurt,” I say. “He loves you?”
Her face floods with relief. I see the smile at the corner of her full lips. “Yes, daddy, he loves me.” She sits up straighter and tucks more hair behind her ear. “Weddin’s gonna be September 5th at the Methodist church. Monroe’s gonna cater it and Francine’ll sing.” She pauses, clears her throat. “I was hopin’ you would be there.”
I close my eyes for a beat and roll my neck on my shoulders. “Aw, Junior, you know I got the roundup come that time – won’t be a day to try and get off work.”
She gives me a look I’ve seen too many times in her eyes. “It’s ok, daddy. I understand.”
She looks out the window and I glance up at the side of her face. The clench of her jaw reminds me of what Sherlock’s face looked like after he whispered that he misses me into the fragile silence. I want to cup her cheek with my palm and smooth it away. Instead I stand up and go to the cabinet where I keep a half-full bottle of whiskey. It was full when I bought it a week ago. I pour out two splashes into little teacups and pass one to Alma Jr.
“Reckon they can find themselves a new cowboy,” I say. She beams at me and raises the teacup in her hand to clink with mine. “To Alma and Kurt.”
She leaves soon after. On the trailer steps she puts her hand on my elbow and squeezes. “Let me see you again before the weddin’,” she asks. I nod and shove my hands in my pockets, stayin’ there in the doorway ‘til long after she drives away and disappears into the horizon.
I step back into the airless, dark trailer and see she left her sweater on the bed. The soft blue fabric feels weightless and fragile in my fingers. I go to hang it up in the little closet, and I try to close the closet door before I look at what’s hanging on the inside of it, but just like every time I try that, I fail.
My eyes stray to the postcard with a scene of Baker I had to specially order from the store in town. Next to it is my denim shirt on a hanger, wrapped around and protecting his flannel one inside. I look at the shirts nested inside one another for a long time. Think about how Alma’s eyes sparkled when she said “yes, daddy, he loves me.” I look at the dark blue flannel peeking through denim until my eyes are too watery to see it clearly, and then I close the closet door with numb fingers and Sherlock’s name a breath on my lips.
Two days after Alma Jr.’s wedding I’m holding a warm, empty beer can in my hand and sittin’ at the tiny foldout table in my trailer. I had to quit the ranch job, like I knew I would, and now the thought of hustlin’ around to get another one while my knees ache and my shoulders are all in knots feels like hell. I told myself yesterday that today’d be the last day of sittin’ around doing nothing, and now I’m tellin’ myself the same exact thing about tomorrow.
Hours pass. I don’t eat nothing. The months of livin’ in the trailer have taken me back in time to when I was fresh out the army hospital, feeling clothes sag off of me that used to fit tight. I know I should get up and shave, wash my face, cook up some toast at least and then sit down listing who I oughta go see to ask about work.
Instead I sit and think about the wedding. About how beautiful Junior looked in her flowing white dress and long loose hair hanging on Kurt’s arm, and how Alma looked back at me sittin’ in the very back row by the exit door of the church with a stiff nod, and how Francine ran right past me after the ceremony without even recognizing me at first.
I hear a truck pull up outside and pray it’s not for me. It’s ridiculous to think it even would be for me – only person who ever visited me out here is Alma Jr., and she’s off somewhere on her honeymoon. On the other hand, my trailer’s practically on its own way out here off the highway, and there ain’t nobody who would see the group of other trailers farther down the road and pull off here to park instead.
I hear a truck door slam shut, and footsteps crunch forward slowly in the dirt, and then silence. Minutes pass. I start to feel the hair on my neck stand up feelin’ like someone’s outside watching me. Finally I shake my head and push up off the chair and move to the door. A tiny voice in the back of my dark and twisted mind tells my body to get ready to duck from the tire iron swing.
I yank open the screen trailer door and see a man standing ten feet from the steps. I feel bile in the back of my throat as he moves his hand to take his deep brown Stetson off his head. My vision goes grey ‘round the sides as he brings the hat down to his chest and the wind rustles through his hair. My legs go weak and I clutch both sides of the doorframe as he looks up at me from where he stands stock still in the dirt.
It’s Sherlock Holmes.
We stand there staring at each other for a full minute. The wind rips and howls through the tan air between us like the earth itself is mourning and blows dust between my legs and into the trailer behind me. I grip the door jam and tell myself to breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, but I know I’ve done gone and clearly lost my mind seeing a ghost parked outside my front door, and that it’s only be a matter of time before my body gives out and admits defeat.
The ghost lets me look. I see him take in the cheap trailer, the clothes hanging off my body, the two days’ worth of stubble on my face and the way my chest is heaving.
Finally he speaks. “John.” And I know it can’t be a goddamn ghost who says my name like that, soft and warm on the raspy air, and I grip the door even harder and force myself to respond. My voice sounds terrified.
“The hell you doin’ here,” I say. My words are nearly lost in the wind.
I see the corner of his mouth quirk up. He’s gripping his hat so tight his knuckles are white.
“Came to get you,” he says.
I take one step down the rickety metal stairs.
He steps closer to me and I flinch.
“Accordin’ to everyone but you, yes.”
I look out over the empty plains. “Jesus Christ,” I breathe.
He takes another step closer. “John, listen to me,” he starts. His voice is even, determined, but threatening to break at any moment. “Hear me out. I promise I’ll tell you everything, explain it all. I ain’t askin’ for anything in return but for you to just listen.”
The sound of his voice washes over me and takes my breath away. I thought it was lost to me forever, trapped in the clouds up on Baker where I could never hear it again.
I feel helpless. I turn my hands out at my sides and shake my head. “Why?” I ask. I’m barely standing up straight.
He walks forward again, closing the space between us ‘til there’s only a couple feet. His eyes are sparkling, alive. I can’t look away.
“Got us a ranch, John,” he says. “Little place way out in Dayton over the other side of Bighorn. Way back in the trees, ain’t nobody to bother us. I paid the whole thing in cash. Can get us some animals or crops or whatever you want and be left well enough alone.” He coughs and looks strange at the ground for a beat. “Now that everyone thinks I’m dead anyways – be just like you’re up there runnin’ the place on your own. No one’ll know.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. The words are like nonsense sounds, and my brain hurts tryin’ to fit them all together and make any sense.
“I’ve come to cut you out, John,” he says.
I remember driving out to the bottom of Bighorn two months after he died and pulling off the road into a little closed off grove of trees. I remember sittin’ there for hours holding a loaded pistol in my hand and hearin’ his harmonica in my head until the sun slipped down behind the trees, and I threw the bullets out into the brush and drove away fast as I could.
I think of layin’ on the little cot in that trailer clutching his shirt in my hands until I thought I’d pass out from not breathing.
Suddenly I’m filled with white hot anger, watching him stand there in his perfect pressed shirt with his muscled arms and gleaming white truck behind him like he ain’t suffered one second the whole time since he went and died. I can’t see nothing but his pursed bottom lip as I lunge down off the stairs and charge at him, grabbing his collar in my hands and walking him backwards ‘til his back slams into the side of his truck. I swing back my hand for a punch when I feel his body ready itself for a fight, and then he shoves me off of him like it’s nothing, ducking my arm and throwin’ me to the ground before I can kick him in the shin.
We tear at each other kneeling in the dirt, both breathing hard and fast. I can feel him overpowering me. I struggle against his grip and reach out to grab and yank his hair. When I feel the curls against my fingertips I let out a cry I didn’t know was there and sink forward onto him. I hide my face in his chest against the shame of cryin’ in his arms. He grips me so tight against him I think my bones will crack open and bleed.
He holds me there, hidden from view by his truck and my trailer, and I grip his hair hard in my fingers and choke out against his chest words I never even admitted to myself.
“I wanted to die.”
I hear him breathe out hard through his nose. His shaking hands grip my back even tighter. I feel him whispering into my hair, his voice breathless and hoarse. “I didn’t know, I didn’t realize.”
Too soon his grip on me feels choking, claustrophobic. I tear myself from his hands and sway on my feet backing away, wiping the back of my hand over my face like it’ll erase every sign I just lost it out in the dirt like a spineless little kid. I didn’t even cry the night my parents never came home.
He follows me at a safe distance into the trailer. I feel his eyes on me every second like he can’t look away. I sit down silently in the wooden chair and nod at the bed. His legs are too long for it, and his knees end up ‘round his chest. I keep waiting to wake up, to blink and open my eyes and see that I’m just sitting in an empty, silent trailer same as always.
But he starts talking.
He tells me it all, near day by day. How the rumors were startin’ to fly about him down in Amarillo. How he barely escaped gettin’ the tire iron to his head outside a bar one night and how that put the idea for all this in his head. How he staged it all, and how the little sheriff station secretary helped him find another body, and how he planned every little detail so the whole world would think Sherlock Holmes was dead and gone, cold on the side of the highway with nobody to turn him over.
He tells me how he was right, and how nobody really looked closer into it seein’ as how they all knew someone had simply had enough of hearin’ them rumors about him and taken the law into his own hands. How he convinced his parents with fake ashes, and then went and worked near every day for a whole year savin’ up every dollar that got passed him under the table while he searched around for the perfect little ranch to buy for us.
He tells me how he almost said fuck it and hopped in his truck to come and see me countless times, and how he’d sit there and think of how I wouldn’t want to see him at all ‘til he at least had something to show for all the trouble, and how he’d grit his teeth and go back to work the next day and the next day and the day after that.
He tells me how I was never supposed to know so early. He looks right sheepish when he says he didn’t know the post office would return the card like that, and how he had postcards written up in advance and sealed in envelopes that his secretary would unknowingly send to me throughout the year thinking she was communicatin’ with his lawyer.
By the time he’s done the sun’s long gone down. My empty stomach feels tight and nauseous. I keep a straight face through all his stories, not showin’ him anything of what I’m feeling, what I’ve been feeling. I’m not sure it’d be humanly possible to show so many emotions all at once. I’m furious, and I’m stunned. Rocked off my center and stranded and found and grieving and relieved and so unbelievably angry.
Finally I clear my throat and lean forward in my chair, my elbows diggin’ into the table.
“Let me get this straight,” I say. He’s sittin’ up ramrod straight, body tense like he’s waiting for round two of the fight.
“You killed yourself, convinced everyone you was gone, done all this bullshit for over a year, just so’s we can have a ranch together.”
He swallows hard. “Yes. If that’s what you want.”
I used to tell myself I’d give anything to hear his voice one more time, now I’m screamin’ inside to hear the silence again. I need to be alone. To think. I stand up from the table and nearly hit my head on a cupboard.
“I need to sleep. Take some water and you can kip in your truck,” I say. He nods like he was expecting that, takes a warm bottle of water from the little countertop and leaves after lookin’ at me one last time. I watch him through the window walk back slowly to his truck. He leans his head on the door for a long time before climbing in and folding up his long legs on the seat.
I lay on the little cot and stare at the ceiling for hours, forcing my mind to stay blank. I figure it’s all I can do. If I try to think about it all I’ll burst, I’ll crumble and fly and burn all at once. I’m still in my clothes. After what feels like four hours I finally close my eyes. The first thing I see is Sherlock Holmes lookin’ up at me and seein’ straight through me from under the brim of his hat back that first early morning in Aguirre’s gravel lot. My eyes fly open and I know.
I shuffle over to the trailer door and open it, walk to his truck real quiet so I don’t startle him and rap softly on the window. He ain’t asleep. I look at him sayin’ nothing and then turn back towards the door, hearin’ him climb out of the truck to follow me.
We don’t say anything inside. I lock the door and pull the window curtain closed. We each strip ourselves down to our underwear, not stopping to look at each others' changed bodies, then Sherlock folds himself as small as he can on the far side of the little foldout bed and holds his arm up for me to come and lie down against him. He sighs long and deep as he wraps his arm around me. I feel his breath shudder as he nestles his nose in my hair and places his palm cross my scar. His grip on me is soft but firm. I realize he must’ve been just as lonely as me, not even knowin’ whether I would take him back when it was all said and done. Feelin’ the whole year that his only chance at happiness was givin’ this a try and prayin’ to God that I would forgive him.
I listen to him breathe for a long while, and my body slowly melds into his. I can’t believe he’s there, that I can feel him warm and solid and breathing behind me.
“I’m fuckin’ angry at you,” I whisper.
I feel his sad smile in my hair as he pulls me closer to himself. His voice vibrates down into my chest.
“I know, John. I know.”
I know as well as I know my own name that he done gave up everything for this – his house down in Amarillo, the brand new job in his own fancy office, the work with the sheriff, the ability to just strut out the door and walk into town without havin’ to sneak through at weird hours and hide his face on account of bein’ a dead man’s ghost.
I lay awake at night in our bed under the thick Pendleton blanket worryin’ at the ceiling that all this ain’t gonna be enough for him. We never talk about it now– what all he did after he died and how it was for me while he was gone. Not since we woke up clingin’ to each other a month ago in my little trailer and by that afternoon I was lockin’ the front door for good and leaving the key and an envelope for next month’s rent in the little #17 mailbox.
But just ‘cus we don’t talk about it doesn’t mean I ain’t walkin’ round our new ranch just waiting for the moment he’s gonna open his eyes, look around him at what he’s lost and decide it all isn’t worth shit.
I drive myself damn near insane stewing over it. I know he can read what’s on my mind clear as day, but the thought of bringin’ it all up only to have him agree with me is scarier than just keepin’ my mouth shut.
I slip out of bed early one morning a month after we move in to get out and walk. Every breath I take in the house smells like him. It makes me feel like I’m suffocating, drowning on the little wisps of air leftover from Baker Mountain all those years ago that still cling to his bones. I think I need to get out away from it all and think it over, try and figure out why I ain’t happy now that I have everything I thought I wanted on those lonely nights when I lay down on my cot clutching his shirt in the dark. Try and figure out when the day’ll come when I wake up to see his clothes is gone from the closet with a folded up note left on the kitchen counter.
I walk up the little trail behind our property with a flask of water in one pocket and a handful of beef jerky in the other. Oddly enough I don’t even think about Sherlock once I’m up there among the trees. Instead my mind drifts back across the world, back to little bars filled with soldiers in neon wet corners of Saigon, and the rickety top bunks of the army barracks hidin’ little transistor radios that played Loretta Lynn and The Marvelettes in the dead of night when the lieutenants were fast asleep, and the long wooden benches in the back of the Air Force planes they’d cram all us foot soldiers on to with saltine crackers in our pockets and gunfire waitin’ for us when we landed.
I don’t even realize the sun has gone down until I hear the coyotes start to howl through the passes. By the time I reach the edges of the ranch I’m finding my way by moonlight. My feet pick up speed when the house comes into view, like if I don’t get back to it fast enough it’ll all disappear in a mirage. I step up over one of the corral fences with the house still a hundred yards off, and I see the kitchen light flip on. Suddenly the back door slams open and I see Sherlock sprintin’ towards me fast as he can through the tall grass.
He calls out my name when he’s ten feet away, and before I can ask him what in hell’s gotten into him he crushes me in his arms, near knocking me over into the dirt and holding my face in his hands saying “thank God, oh thank God.”
I know then that he don’t regret a damn thing. Neither do I.
‘Bout a year later I slip away from my dreams to the feelin’ of soft dry lips pressing just below my ear. By the time I can force my eyes open Sherlock’s already gone, his side of the bed slowly growin’ cold while I hear him puttering around out in the kitchen puttin’ on a pot of coffee and humming to himself.
I turn to look at my daddy’s old watch on the bedside table and groan. It’s already gone 5:30.
I lay still and try and catch what tune Sherlock’s humming, waitin’ for my legs to wake up and move of their own accord, but for all I know it’s some strange classical piece or something he done made up himself. I marvel for the hundredth time how he can get by with so little sleep. I know I kept us both up half the night breathing like a saw and hunched over on the edge of our bed after a car backfiring echoed through the pass up to our ranch and woke me up from the deepest part a sleep. He sits and runs his fingers through my hair on the black nights. It’s the only part of my body he can touch without fearing I’ll slip back into the jungles in my mind and lash out at him. We’ve learned the hard way.
I pull myself outta bed and crack my neck. The early hints of dawn are pouring in through the slit in the curtain, lighting my path as I yank on an old pair of sweats and a soft black t-shirt I’m pretty certain is Sherlock’s from his rodeo days. It’s grown loose from decades of hand washing, and there’s a ripped hole in both armpits. It smells like horses and Persil detergent and the talcum powder Sherlock used to clean his Stetson last week.
My tired feet take me cross the worn wood floors into the kitchen where Sherlock stands leanin’ on the counter and looking out through the sink window, watching the tall yellow grasses and little copse of poplars that make up our ranch be slowly painted with gold by the sun’s little yellow paws. He silently hands me a mug of thick black coffee, places his hand warmed by the cup at the low of my back and runs up my spine once slow and firm. He’s already dressed for the day in his Levi’s and perfect flannel shirt even though we don’t even own an iron – socked feet just waitin’ for his boots by the back door.
“I’ll take care a feedin’ the animals,” he says, staring out at the mist slowly drifting from our ranch back up through the mountain passes. “Alma Jr.’ll be here round before lunchtime, I should think. You do the chores round the house now I reckon that’ll give me time to go and hunt us something for supper while she’s here.”
I shake my head and look up at him out the corner of my eye. He’s hidin’ his grin behind his coffee mug.
“How in hell can you be knowin’ she’s coming up here?” I ask.
She’s only been over to the ranch once, right after we moved in, and as far as she and everybody else knows, Scott Holmes died down in Amarillo leavin’ me without a fishin’ buddy, and I hit my head one mornin’ and decided it was a good idea to buy this chicken and calf ranch way out here and run it on my own just for something new to do as part of a midlife crisis or some such nonsense.
“Easy,” he says. “You see each other bout every two months, today’s a Friday so it’s her day off from her job in Signal. That husband a’ hers is up in the Dakota’s for two weeks so she’s lonely and she’s got access to his car – won’t have to wait for you to drive down to Signal and visit her at her place like you usually do. Paper three days ago had a story ‘bout a Vietnam vet in it. Seein’ as she reads the paper every day while fixin’ dinner and she always misses you when people talk about the war or the army, I reckon’ it’s a fair good chance that she’s taking the day to drive over here and pay you a surprise visit just in time to be home for Friday night supper with her neighbor.”
I roll my eyes and don’t give him the satisfaction of lookin’ at him open mouthed, which is what I wanna do. Instead I shake my head over my coffee and mutter, “Jesus Christ, you get crazier every day.”
He walks behind me to the backdoor to slip on his boots and talks over his shoulder. “I ain’t crazy, other people is just dumb.”
I snort into my mug. “Oh, and I’m dumb too ‘cus I can’t figure out my own daughter’s gonna come visit me based on what was in the paper three days ago?”
He grabs his hat from the peg by the door and ruffles his fingers through his hair. I watch him from the reflection in the glass.
“John Watson,” he says smiling. “You’re the dumbest one of ‘em all.”
I stand there sipping my coffee and watch him as he disappears into the sea of gold mist, whistling to himself while he lights a cigarette and stoppin’ by the corral to run his hand up and down our two old horses’ noses, sneakin’ them a treat of apples from his pocket he thinks I won’t know about.
I don’t see him the rest of the morning. I spend the time doing chores round the house and clearing away everything outta sight that makes it seem there’s more than just me livin’ there.
It takes me a good hour to clear up all the papers Sherlock has scattered across the old wood kitchen table. A couple months ago he was so incensed readin’ about a murder trial in the paper thinkin’ they got the wrong guy that he wrote a letter to the Sheriff over in Sheridan tellin’ him all his ideas and signing it with my name. Turns out he was damn right, not that I was surprised. Sure enough word got round that some ol’ cowboy on a ranch up outside of Dayton was mighty good at solvin’ little problems and crimes from afar, and now “Mr. John Watson” gets a handful of letters a week askin’ for help with everything from missing family jewels to murder.
Sherlock loves it. He lights up like a little kid when he gets a new letter. Paces back and forth across the sittin’ room talking to himself and listing out all the further questions he wants to write back and ask, jumping up in the middle of dinner with wide eyes to go run outside and investigate something or other, or to go bury his nose in the Encyclopedia collection I done gave him as his Christmas gift.
I look down and see how the worn kitchen table in front of me covered in letters and scribbles connects him back to the world he thought he gave up forever when he decided to let Sherlock Holmes die on the side of a road outside Amarillo, and it makes my heart hurt to have to clear it all away on account of Alma Jr. visiting.
Sure ‘nuff Junior pulls up in Kurt’s red Challenger just before lunchtime. Sherlock’s nowhere to be seen, probably gone and left already on one of the horses with his rifle to go find us a rabbit for stew. I feel too small in the house without him there makin’ noise. It makes me marvel at how I ever lived alone all those years after leavin’ Alma and the girls.
I remind myself as I’m opening the door that I have to act surprised.
“What do we got here?” I say as Alma steps up outta the car. My eyes grow wide as she shuts the car door in front of her, showin’ a little round bump that sure wasn’t there the last time I seen her back at her place.
She sees me starin’ and wraps her jacket tighter ‘round herself, rolling her eyes as she walks up to me.
“Well, there goes my news,” she says as she hugs me. She whispers “hi, daddy,” into my neck and I pat her softly on the side of her head.
I tamp down the nerves in my gut as we walk in the front door, eyes scannin’ left and right like mad tryin’ to make sure nothing of Sherlock’s is in sight. Only one jacket on the hook, only one set of boots out back by the kitchen door, only one coffee mug leftover from breakfast sittin’ on the cleared off dining room table.
Alma sees me pausin’ in the doorway and pushes past me. “S’alright, daddy, I been here once before,” she says, hanging up her coat and movin’ to sit down at the table. “Hundred times better than your last two places,” she adds.
I nod, move on clumsy feet over to the little silver fridge.
“You eat yet?” I ask.
She shakes her head and sits back silently in the wooden chair while I make us both a sandwich. I feel more connected to her in the long, quiet moments. She don’t tell me much while we eat, just mentions that she thought to come up and see me when she read somethin’ in the paper the other day and how Kurt’s gonna come back next week and interview for a job in town at the new butcher shop so he can spend more time at home.
I nod and smile, thinkin’ of what color eyes her little one’s gonna have and wanting to ask whether they done picked out a name yet without knowing how to put that thought into words. When she’s done she licks a smudge of mayonnaise off her finger and pulls her hair up into a little knot at the top of her head. She’s so sure of herself now, so quietly certain. She moves in a way that seems to me women twice her age can’t always quite manage. I see now lookin’ at her sitting tall and proud in the little wooden chair how Kurt must’ve near fallen over dead when he first laid eyes on her.
“Bathroom?” she asks.
I nod down the little hall and rise to clear up the plates. I smile to myself over the sink thinkin’ of how Sherlock had come up behind me there the night before and slipped his rough hands up under the front of my shirt and rubbed over my nipples while I tried to finish the damn dishes.
I’m so lost in the thought I don’t realize ‘til both plates is clean and nearly dry that Junior ain’t come back from the bathroom yet. It’s a clear shot down, not like she could miss it and get lost. I dry my hands on the front of my jeans and walk over to peek down the hallway. I see her standing there frozen and my mouth goes dry.
She’s lookin’ in the open door of the bedroom.
I know what she’s seeing. My little girl’s standing in a dark farmhouse hallway seein’ one big bed, and two nightstands – one covered in books, one with a little framed, faded out picture of Sherlock taken from the stands at a rodeo ridin’ a roping horse full speed through the dirt. Two different size pairs of boots sittin’ outside the little closet, and a coat that ain’t mine layin’ across the quilt.
I stand at the end of the hallway and think my body must be getting ready to die. My heart’s pounding, and my knees are shaking, and the little hallway feels so dark and airless it’s like we’re in a pitch black sealed box.
Alma keeps standing there staring quietly into the room. She ain’t moved since I froze ten feet from her. I know she knows I’m there. The house is silent.
Finally she turns and looks at me. I force myself to meet her gaze, and I know my lips are pressed together like I’m in pain. She looks ten years older now than she did when we was eatin’ lunch.
“Are you happy, daddy?” she asks. Her voice is so soft, like she sees I’m standing there ready to die of shame and fear, and so she cloaked her words in velvet.
I can’t even answer her. I look down at my toes and can’t decide whether to wrap my arms tight around my chest or shove my fingers down into my pockets ‘til they’re numb. The silence stretches on. I can feel her gaze on me in the dim yellow light of the hall lamp. I keep tryin’ to say her name, to beg and plead for forgiveness or mercy or understanding or something but the words keep dyin’ in my throat.
She looks back once more into the room then turns towards me in the hall. I’m terrified of what I’m gonna see in her eyes when I look up. I can’t decide if pity or anger or disgust would be worse.
When I do look up and meet her gaze, she’s lookin’ at me the same way she did right before she asked if she could come live with me sittin’ in the front seat of my truck.
“I ain’t ashamed of you,” she says. Her face looks clear, like she suddenly knows the answers to hundreds of questions she had in her head growin’ up.
I nod and try to clear my throat. I hate myself for not knowin’ the right words to say to tell her how those words have affected me. Instead I step aside so she can walk past me back out into the kitchen. She finds a pen on the counter and the back of a receipt from her purse and writes something down, then slips it under the only magnet on the fridge.
“That there’s the date we’re hopin’ to hold the christening, if all’s according to plan,” she says. “If you ain’t there I’ll send Kurt up here after you.”
I keep nodding like the dumb cowboy I am. I want to beg her not to tell anybody but I know it ain’t necessary. She takes one more look around the kitchen, her eyes scanning the mountains out through the sink window, and then she walks towards me and fits her head just under my chin. She’s never hugged me so tight before, not even when she was just a little kid I could pick up and throw on my shoulders like a lamb. I’m scared to hold her too close on account of her little baby in between us, but her arms grip my back hard, and I give in to stroking down the back of her long, smooth hair with my hand. She wipes her eyes real quick with the back of her hand when she pulls back, and I let out a breath when I see they’re not angry tears.
We don’t say anything more. Don’t need to. I hand her the coat off the hook and stand in the doorway watchin’ until the Challenger disappears ‘round the first curve in the woods. It don’t occur to me until then that she didn’t even ask me who I was livin’ with. It’d be too much to expect she figured out from the framed picture on my nightstand and a couple pairs of boots on the floor that it was my old fishin’ buddy Scott come back from the grave. But then, she’s always been smarter than I realize.
Sherlock walks in the back door not a minute after Alma’s out of sight. Of course he was back there waitin’ for the coast to be clear. I know I won’t have to tell him what just happened. He’ll figure it out sure enough.
I walk back into the little kitchen and see him standing there gulping down a glass of water. There’s a full sack lyin’ next to his rifle out against the fence in the yard holding whatever he found for supper.
I step past him outside towards the fence knowin’ full well he’ll follow me. He joins me leaning up against the splintered wood that needs replacing come after the winter. We stand there with our feet propped up on the bottom rung lookin’ out over the land. One of the horses whinnies down off in the corral, and it sends a warm chill up my spine. I can feel the heat of him radiating towards me, pulling me in to himself like he’s done since that first moment I stepped down outta my truck and seen him leaning against his Ford, hat tipped down. The sun starts to slip behind the Bighorn peaks standing at attention in front of us, pouring golden light down the slopes and sending a cold breeze through the grass.
I turn towards him and lift his hat off of his curls, hanging it off the fencepost. He looks at me curious as I lay my hand on the side of his face and pull him down towards me. I kiss his forehead softly, breathe in his skin. I’ve never done that before. When I pull back he looks at me so open it’s like he done took his soul and scattered it across the plains, filling them up full where before they was empty.
I know he knows I’m really sayin’ “I love you.”