Chapter Three (part one)

Cooper Ranch had once been 10,000 acres strong. But, according to Travis, drought, various financial mistakes through the generations, and his father’s untimely death from heart failure three years prior had dwindled the acreage. Most of the land had either been sold to neighboring ranches over the years or auctioned off by the bank to pay for outstanding debts. Now, the ranch encompassed 2,000 acres along a stretch of county road in the foothills of the Sawatch Mountain Range, spreading across rolling terrain scattered with scrub oak, Ponderosa pine and wide-open, short-grass pastures prime for raising cattle.

Nearing the property from the main road, Ben caught sight of the ranch’s namesake carved onto a large lodgepole pine post that straddled the entrance. Passing beneath it, he strained his neck to watch it go by, impressed by its stateliness, feeling as though they were entering into some long-forgotten tale of the wild, wild West – which, perhaps, they were. Rumbling across a large cattle grate, the Dodge headed down a long muddy driveway leading to an old two-story clapboard ranch house.

From a distance, Ben could see that the blue-gray house was dilapidated, weather-worn, in need of a new roof and new paint. There were several outbuildings in the surrounding area, including a barn and a larger white structure, possibly horse stables, which appeared equally derelict. Snow was rapidly melting in the afternoon sun. Patches of brown grass poked up through the thin white blanket which covered it. A few reddish-brown cows with white faces lazily poked their noses around, finding the grass. “It’s like summer out there,” Ben mumbled, more to himself than to anyone.

“Yep, that’s Colorado,” Travis responded. “It can snow a blizzard one day and melt like a flood the next. You just never really know how it’s gonna be, especially with early Spring here.”

Several vehicles were parked in the expansive gravel and mud driveway at the front of the house, including an old rusted late-80s Ford Bronco with two flat rear tires. Travis pulled in near a large cottonwood tree, and everyone gathered their belongings together and followed his lead up to the porch.

“Are you sure your family won’t mind us showing up like this, uninvited?” Audra asked, voicing the question that Ben had wondering himself.

“Nah, they love company,” Travis assured her.

The front door swung open, and a tall, husky man stepped out dressed in a black Henley shirt, tan Carhartt pants, and leather work boots caked in mud. His close-cropped hair was dusty blonde which matched the thick beard covering his face. Running out from behind his legs darted a black and white border collie who immediately dashed over to the new arrivals, sniffing and jumping and yelping in excitement. Ben bent down on one knee to greet her, and she pushed her wet nose against his chin, lapping him with her tongue.

“That’s Derry,” Travis said.

“Hey, Derry,” Ben whispered, scratching her behind her ears. Her musky canine scent made him miss his own two dogs, more than he had been already.

“And this is my brother, Curtis.”

As the introductions were made, Ben stood up and shook Curtis’ outstretched hand. The older man’s grip was strong, his gaze pointed as he eyed Ben with a brusque stare. Immediately, Ben sensed that he wasn’t entirely happy to make his acquaintance, but Curtis opened the door further and invited them inside. They stepped into a wide foyer crowded with coats and hats on hooks and a myriad of shoes and boots on the floor.

The house was rustic, early 20th-century, with red oak floors, exposed ceiling beams, and wide wooden archways. Everything looked and smelled old, a combination of ancient timbers, dust and furniture polish. The décor was shabby yet clean with basic, utilitarian furnishings, a few potted plants, family photographs, ceramic pottery decorating a cherry wood fireplace mantel in the front room. The steps of the staircase leading to the second level were scuffed and worn from years of shoes treading up and down. In the open dining room hung an antique crystal chandelier shimmering in the sunlight, casting rainbows across the room and into the foyer where they all stood.

A woman entered in from around the corner, wiping her hands on a clay-splattered apron as though she’d just gotten up from a potter’s wheel. She looked to be in her late fifties, of slight stature, with light strawberry-blonde hair pulled up into a loose bun atop her head, wisps falling down around her sea-green eyes. Ben knew without needing an introduction that this was Travis’ mother. “Hello,” she beamed at Travis. “You’re home earlier than expected.”

“Yeah, well, Uncle Ed was being a prick again,” he said.

Curtis laughed. Mrs. Cooper glared. Then she turned her attention to the new arrivals. “Looks like you made some friends while you were away.”

Travis made the introductions, and his mother extended a hand to each of them in turn, apologizing for the dried clay on her fingers and explaining that she’d been throwing pottery all morning. “Please do make yourselves at home,” she said. “We love company. It’s been too quiet around here lately.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied with a smile.

Travis and his mother turned away into a quiet conversation while the rest of the party stepped farther into the house. Derry continued to prop her white paws up on Ben’s legs, demanding his attention, and he gladly obliged.

“So how long you all in from Hollywood for?” Curtis inquired with arms crossed, forming more of a statement than a question. He eyed each of them with recognition.

“Just a few more days,” Ben replied. “Unfortunately.”

A silence followed but was soon interrupted by the tapping of footsteps descending the stairs. On first impression, Ben would have guessed the girl to be eighteen or nineteen – a petite yet curvaceous young woman with dyed raven-black hair traveling down the length of her torso and a fire-red lace bra barely hidden beneath a thin cream-colored tank top. Her fancy black and turquoise cowboy boots clunked noisily on the wooden stairs with each step she took.

About a third of the way down, she stopped, gripped the railing, and stared wide-eyed at Ben. “Holy shit!” she breathed. “You’re Ben Mansfield!” With that pronouncement, she quickly clunked the rest of the way down the stairs and threw her arms around his neck, sending him backwards a step. Ben fought to maintain his balance as she nuzzled her face against his ear.

Voicing an apology, Travis quickly plucked her from him. “Go graze somewhere for a while, Kat,” he commanded, propelling her toward the hallway. She turned to glare at him but obeyed, straightening herself out before strutting away. Upon closer inspection, Ben realized that she was much younger than he’d first thought. Sixteen, maybe. “That’s Katy,” Travis explained. “She’s a handful.”

“I’ll second that,” Curtis mumbled, following after her. “She’s probably gone to call all of her friends.”

Mrs. Cooper prompted Bryan and Audra to follow her upstairs to get settled into a guest room while Travis and Ben remained behind in the foyer. Derry lay contentedly on the floor between them with her nose pressed to the cool wood. From somewhere in the house, the mellowed chime of a grandfather clock resounded. Ben listened for further signs of life – Katy, Curtis or perhaps another family member whom Ben had yet to meet – but aside from the clock, the house sat in comfortable silence.

Travis stood with arms crossed, embodying a devil-may-care attitude that caused Ben to fumble over his own thoughts. He wondered if Travis was aware of the tremendous effect he was having on him. Figured that the guy probably knew exactly what he was doing. “So,” Travis started, breaking his reverie. “Shall I take you to your sleeping quarters?”

“My sleeping quarters…?” Ben echoed. “Sounds medieval.”

“It is.” Travis grabbed Ben’s snowboard from its perch in the foyer and headed out the front door, Derry close at his heels. Hefting his carry-on bag onto his shoulder, Ben exited the house and jogged to catch up. They walked together toward a row of three small bunkhouses that lined a pathway behind the horse stables, interspersed with serviceberry and chokecherry shrubs. Each building was identical, with screened-in front porches, single-pane crown glass windows, clapboard siding painted to match the main house, and metal chimneys poking up through slightly gabled rooftops. All units were dilapidated, in need of new paint and structural repair, but there was a rustic charm to them, as though they’d provided shelter to a century of cowboys and held countless stories within their walls.

Travis pushed roughly against the front door of the first building to open it, and they stepped into the semi-darkness of a freezing room. After flipping on an overhead light, Travis set the snowboard down on a small circular oak table surrounded by four mismatched chairs. The bunkhouse was just one room with a tiny bathroom off to the rear. The walls were flanked with twin beds, four total, metal lockers stationed between each one. The starkness reminded Ben of military boot camp: crude and utilitarian. Against the far wall stood a wood-burning stove, cast iron skillets hooked on the wall, a pile of logs stacked nearby. Aside from the beds, tables and mismatched chairs, there was no other furniture and no other sign of occupancy. Ben couldn’t imagine anyone living there.

Travis spread his arms wide to display the room like a game show host. “Well, what do you think?”

“It’s… very quaint,” Ben replied, dropping his carry-on bag onto the bare mattress of one of the creaky beds. “Are others sharing my abode?”

“Just a few ranch hands,” Travis replied. “They get a little rowdy sometimes, but don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll fit right in.”

Ben looked at him skeptically. Wondered for a split second if he was telling the truth but then thought, There’s no fucking way this room has recently been occupied. “You’re full of shit,” he insisted.

Travis stood expressionless, stoic, hands resting on his hips as he tried to convince Ben through body language that he was telling the truth. But his smile peeked through. “You’re right,” he said, throwing an arm around Ben’s shoulders. “I’m just fucking with you. We don’t have ranch hands right now. There’s only Arturo, and he sleeps in the main house.”

Once again, his smile was disarming. Sliding his arms around Ben’s waist, he pulled him into a long, soft kiss. It was in such contrast to the mad, intense kiss on the mountain pass, it took Ben a second to adjust. Eventually, he relaxed in the embrace, hooking his fingers into the belt loops of Travis’ jeans, returning the kiss as sweetly as it was offered. He’d never felt such euphoria, such instant passion, in kissing someone before meeting Travis. But he lingered in the man’s embrace for only a moment before disentangling himself and nudging him away.

Travis narrowed his eyes and sighed. “This again?”

Without a reply, Ben ran a hand through his hair and concentrated on a large knot in the wood planking of the floor.

“You’re all mixed signals,” Travis continued. “One minute, your body language is telling me ‘go’, the next minute, you’re pissed that I’ve come near you.”

Ben nodded but couldn’t meet his eyes. Yes, he was all mixed up. Twenty-four hours ago he would have punched the shit out of anyone suggesting that he’d soon be standing in a barren bunkhouse kissing a cowboy of his own accord, without even a film crew nearby. What the hell are you doing? he demanded of himself.Toby Conroy is a goddamn fictional character. He’s not you. You’re not him. Yet there lingered an interweaving of personalities between Toby and Ben – real and fabricated, fictional and true – that melded together in ways that Ben could not bring himself to acknowledge.

“I do want this,” Ben eventually muttered, feeling anxious, still unable to meet Travis’ gaze. “I just… I don’t know why I can’t relax… It feels natural but unnatural at the same time…”

Not waiting for further explanation, Travis grabbed him by the hand and swiftly led him from the room. Derry followed fast at their heels as they crossed over to the next bunkhouse, which on first appearance looked to be an exact replica of the first bunkhouse, but all similarity ended at the front door. Inside, the large room was devoid of cobwebs and mismatched furniture. Instead of four twin beds there was one large bed covered in flannel quilts, its headboard constructed of hand-hewed lodgepole pine. Next to a makeshift kitchenette area was an old leather sofa, chenille recliner, several wooden crates stacked together holding an extensive collection of CDs and vinyl records. A small television and vintage stereo system occupied the top of a bookshelf that was crowded with files, books, and miscellaneous papers.

Ben knew even without asking that this bunkhouse belonged to Travis. Stepping further inside, he glanced around, absorbing it. Oddly, hung beside an impressive set of elk antlers was a large abstract oil painting in bright hues of yellow and orange, offering an artistic addition to an otherwise unpretentious room. What pulled at his attention the greatest was a high shelf showcasing a scattering of dusty rodeo buckles attached to wooden backers. Pulling one of the small boards down, Ben studied the ornate design of a silver and brass buckle that had the words “Chaffee County 2001” engraved on it.

“Rodeo cowboy, huh?” Ben asked.

Travis lingered in the doorway, appearing self-conscious at his browsing. “Yeah,” he said. “Amateur stuff. Calf roping.”

“That’s cool. Did you ever bull ride?”

“A few times. But I wasn’t cut out for it. Only assholes ride bulls.”

Ben placed the buckle back on its shelf and said off-handedly, “Yeah, Toby was never really cut out for it, either. Even though he wasn’t an asshole, not really…”

“Toby…?” Travis echoed.

Ben turned to him. Realized that he thought Toby was a real person. “Just a character I played. He tried his hand at bull riding but never really made it.”

“Are you talking about this ‘Roustabout’ movie? The one everyone seems to be buzzing over?”

Ben nodded.

“Maybe I need to see this film.”

“If you want.” Their eyes connected and lingered there for a moment, but Ben broke the reverie by returning to their initial conversation. “So do you rodeo anymore?”

Travis’ body slumped an inch as his gaze dropped. “Not since my dad died,” he replied. There was disappointment in his voice. Sadness, grief. Ben immediately regretted his question. Hadn’t intended to stir up dismal thoughts. Hoping to turn the mood around, he asked, “How long have you lived in this place?”

Travis seemed relieved with the change of direction and replied, “Curtis and I shared it together when we were younger. Had twin beds over there.” He pointed to where the leather sofa now occupied space. “We thought we were such hot shit back then, hanging out with the ranch hands.”

“Where does Curtis live now?”

“In Salida, about twenty miles from here. His wife’s a critical care nurse at the hospital.”

Ben nodded. Stood with hands on his hips and further surveyed the room. “Shit,” he eventually said. “I would’ve killed for a place like this as a kid.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Travis quipped. “I’m sure you were a spoiled brat at that age.”

“Is that what you think?” Ben laughed. “That I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth?”

“Yep.”

“I’ll have you know, my family spent many holidays when Audra and I were growing up serving food to the homeless and sharing birthday cakes with senior citizens. My parents thought it was important to keep us grounded.”

Travis raised an eyebrow, seemingly impressed by this proclamation. “Interesting. Any other humbling experiences you’d like to share?”

“Far too many to bore you with.” Ben sifted through the crates of records, noticing a very eclectic taste ranging from Buck Owens to R.E.M., with the heaviest collection comprised of classic jazz. He pulled out Dave Brubeck’s Bossa Nova U.S.A. album and studied the cover for a moment. There were dozens of such records: Ella Fitzgerald, Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. It was an impressive collection, and Ben didn’t consider himself a music connoisseur. “Guess you like jazz, huh?” he asked.

“Love it.”

“Hmm. I wouldn’t have guessed you for a jazz type.” Ben continued to look through the crates. Everything was neatly alphabetized. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue caught his attention, and he quickly pulled it out. “Man, this is one of my favorites!”

“Yeah?” Travis pushed himself away from the door and plucked the record from his fingers. “I wouldn’t have picked you for a jazz fan, either.”

Ben looked at him sideways, grinning. Travis gently slid the record from its sheath and reverently placed it on the turntable. ‘So What’ began to play. Aside from a few slight crackles beneath the needle, the vinyl recording sounded perfect – deep, rich, full. “I didn’t think anyone even owned vinyl anymore,” Ben commented.

“It’s one of my things,” Travis stated. “I’ve been collecting records, mostly jazz, for a while now. Second-hand stores in Denver, yard sales around here. Occasionally, I break down and buy something more expensive online, like this one.”

Ben whistled. “Online? A cowboy who’s computer savvy, too?”

Travis strolled over to the small refrigerator and returned carrying two cans of Coors. “I’m not a total hick,” he informed him.

Ben accepted the proffered beer and popped the top open. “You told me just last night that you are.”

He playfully scowled. “About a lot of things, smartass. Not everything.” He took a sip of the beer and then added, “There’s internet access in the stable office if you need to hook up. And a printer.”

Despite his aloofness while driving over the pass, he’d obviously overheard Ben’s conversation with Melissa. Although Ben knew he should have put duty first – called Melissa straight away and told her to go ahead and email him all the crap she yearned to send him, which she probably already had – he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. At that moment, he wanted to focus all of his attention on the ranch. And on this thing with Travis – whatever the hell it was. “Thanks, but not right now,” he said.

“You sure?”

Ben nodded. “Hollywood can wait a day or two.” Or forever, maybe.

Travis grinned, holding his bottle up. “Well, let’s make a toast then… to snowboarding, Miles Davis, and new friendships.” He tapped his bottle to Ben’s, and they locked gazes in a silent communication. It was an indication of something much greater than mere friendship developing between them, something much more profound. And at that moment, Ben honestly did want to punch something, anything, just to clear his head, but the beer was soothing and the company was intriguing, and for that moment, it was enough.

*   *   *   *

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