The path they traversed extended approximately a mile and a half across open meadow consisting of short grass and scrub oak and the occasional Ponderosa pine. By late morning, the ceiling of low cirrus clouds had begun to dissipate. Patches of blue sky and sunlight filtered through, bringing warmth and quietude to the valley where brown and white Herefords nudged their noses to the ground, searching for breakfast in the half-melted snow.
Travis sat atop Red Cloud, guiding the chestnut stallion at a slow, steady pace, one hand loosely leading the reins while his other hand casually hung down at his side, tapping the ends of the leather against his leg. Unlike Ben, his body moved effortlessly with the horse’s natural dip and stride, as though he’d lived his whole life in the saddle – which, for all accounts and purposes, Ben supposed he had.
Ben’s riding companion was Hugo, an even-tempered buckskin gelding who seemed to be guiding Ben more than Ben was guiding him. Travis had probably picked the horse specifically for that reason – either sensing that Ben wasn’t a very seasoned rider or assuming that, because he was a city boy, he would require more assistance. Without verbally expressing it, Ben was thankful for the choice. His position on the saddle felt neither natural nor comfortable. No matter which way he shifted, he couldn’t find a sweet spot that didn’t remind him of being fucked the previous night. And his head intermittently pulsated with a sharp pain, like a hot poker being inserted into his forehead. But, even so, he refused to allow the physical discomforts of the night’s events influence their morning ride.
For the better part of their journey, the two men rode side-by-side, following the hard, sandy loam path that eventually headed deeper into the hills. Neither of them spoke much, content to sit in contemplation for a while, the caws of crows overhead providing the only intermittent interruption until Travis suddenly raised a hand, motioning for Ben to stop. As they pulled the horses to a halt, Travis continued to hold his hand in the air, indicating a request for silence.
Following his line of sight towards a distant edge of trees, Ben noticed two grizzly-coated coyotes approximately two hundred yards to the northwest tracking a small calf who had wandered away from its mother. Carefully, Travis removed the Browning BLR .308 Winchester rifle from the scabbard that was clipped to his saddle and brought it up to his cheek.
“Are you actually going to shoot at them?” Ben whispered, disbelieving the probability of success from such a distance.
“Shh…” Travis eyeballed the scope, zeroing the rifle, seeking optimal range point. Ben covered his ears, anticipating the crack. The tinge of red in the distant coyotes’ fur seemed to tease in the sunlight as they calculated their prey, beckoning the bullet that might likely kill one of them. When Travis’ finger pressed the trigger, the shot resounded across the valley, sending orioles screeching into flight from distant trees. Both Hugo and Ben flinched while Travis’ upper body jolted with the recoil. The coyotes dispersed within a fraction of a second and zipped into the trees, disappearing at the speed of light, sending the young calf scampering back to its mother. The bullet had missed its mark. Only a ringing silence lingered.
Travis laid the rifle across his lap. “Close, but no hit,” he mumbled. “My ears are fucked now.”
“I would’ve been impressed if you’d made that kill,” Ben said, raising his voice a notch, his own ears still ringing. “They were over 200 yards away.”
“It is possible,” Travis revealed. “Had they been elk or something. But they’re smaller predators. Scaring them off was enough. Coyotes don’t usually track livestock; they must be really hungry. I’ll have to keep an eye out.” He slid the Browning back into its scabbard, took a hold of the reins, and clicked at Red Cloud to resume their stroll. Ben tapped the heels of his hiking boots into Hugo’s girth to follow suit. Still, he failed to find a position that didn’t irritate his backside. Every angle he chose pointedly reminded him of penetration.
Eventually, Travis inquired, “You doing okay? You’ve been fidgety in that saddle all morning.”
“I suppose riding a horse so soon after last night was a mistake,” Ben sighed. “But what feels worse is my head. Like there’s an ice pick gorged through my fucking temples.”
“Yeah… Sorry about that. Most likely the rush. That shit can leave a bitch of a headache, especially if you’re not used to it. Of course, all that bourbon we consumed doesn’t help.”
Ben frowned. “Thanks for warning me.”
“It worked, though, didn’t it?” Travis spoke in a frank tone. “Made it easier.”
“I suppose so,” Ben responded. “But still, I wasn’t expecting all of that last night. I’m glad we went to the hot springs and all, but the room, the poppers, the Maker’s Mark that Martin provided – it was all a little weird, like you’d purposely arranged it before we got there.” Like a well-rehearsed routine…
Travis shrugged indifferently. Said, “I like to be prepared.”
“Yeah, apparently so,” Ben mumbled. He didn’t hide his agitation at Travis’ flippant response and turned his attention to the line of evergreen trees they were closing in on. Oddly, the landscape had become wooded with almost no natural transition from the pasture-land, as if the two distinct patterns of terrain had been pushed together from opposing sides, stark in their contrast.
“Something on your mind?” Travis asked.
Ben pulled the sunglasses from his face and slid them into the middle pocket of his pullover. The sunshine was sharp against his bloodshot eyes, and he squinted at his companion. “Do you always carry poppers and lube around in your pockets like keys and cigarettes?” he asked.
Travis altered his grip on Red Cloud’s reins. Brought the horse up tighter. “Does it matter?” Disbelief and annoyance must have been evident on Ben’s face, because Travis reacted with a sigh. “Look,” he said. “As I told you, I like to be prepared.”
“So I guess I should be appreciative that you thought of everything beforehand?”
Green eyes narrowed as he peered at Ben with disdain. “Well, what the hell were you expecting? A dry, bareback fuck? Or maybe would you have preferred that. A way to enhance this little experiment, this fleeting experience, before you head back home and try to forget about it.”
Ben yanked on Hugo’s reins with fisted hands. The gelding countered with a whinny and a jump that veered them off the path, forcing Ben to quickly pull him back into formation. “Why do you say shit like that?” he demanded with a frown.
“Like what?” Travis leaned over and ran his hand over Hugo’s crest in a gesture of reassurance to the animal.
“Like you always know what the fuck’s going on in my head,” Ben replied. “You don’t.”
Travis snickered. “Well, I’m sure I know a lot more about you than you yourself do.”
“That’s bullshit, Cooper, and you know it.”
“It’s just curiosity!” Travis boomed unexpectedly, arcing his arm across the horizon. His voice was laced with a deeper resonance, as though he’d begun quoting someone else from another scenario – another memory with a similar circumstance. “This is all an experiment!” he continued. “A one-time thing! Tomorrow, I’ll go home to my normal, everyday life, and none of this will have ever happened. Got it, Cooper? ‘Cause I’m not like you. I’m not gay. So keep your goddamn mouth shut, faggot.” This last statement he spoke with venom, and it lingered in the air, hovering above them like a tangible object before dispersing in the breeze. Travis gripped the saddle horn with intensity and glared at Ben. “Trust me,” he seethed in a quieter, but no less agitated, voice. “I do know it. I know it fucking well, Ben.”
With a whip of Red Cloud’s reins, he brought the stallion to life beneath him and took off in a wide gallop down the path, leaving Ben stunned in the aftermath. Hesitating for only a moment, Ben dug his heels into Hugo’s girth and lifted his weight slightly off the saddle, prompting the buckskin with a similar whip of the reins to follow, praying that the horse didn’t throw him. He pursued Travis at an impressively steady clip until they were well up into the hills – until Travis slowed down and gave him the opportunity to properly catch up.
Once back together, the horses walked single-file down a thinner, wetter path, entering into a forest of balsam poplar, Douglas-fir and leafless aspen. The ground was half-frozen, muddy, and covered with a layer of damp, decaying leaves, but the horses easily traversed the terrain, their shoes occasionally clicking across rocks. Beams of sunlight filtered through the wooded area in patches, crisscrossing the forest floor beneath them.
Fifty yards further in, there was a stream of snowmelt traveling down from the upper points, trickling over rocks and fallen branches. Travis dismounted and prompted Red Cloud to drink from the cold water. Ben did likewise with Hugo but lingered behind, picking up pebbles to toss across the water, attempting but mostly failing to skip them over the surface. Eventually, he threw the stones straight in, not bothering with finesse.
Once again, Travis had managed to slice him open with his razor-sharp blade of observation. Somehow, the guy had the ability to dig his fingers deep into Ben’s flesh and travel all the way down into his inner core, forcing him to acknowledge the hollow chasm there. Although Ben had assumed that their time together would satiate his depravity and fill the void – and that he’d then walk away with clean hands and a clean conscious – there was still something missing from the equation, and it stabbed at him like the sharp end of a knife.
Travis produced a blanket and a knapsack from his saddlebag and spread items out on the damp ground beside the stream. “I brought biscuits and elk jerky, since we missed breakfast,” he announced. “And more coffee.”
Ignoring the invitation, Ben slumped down onto a boulder embedded in the muddy bank and stared at the movement of water swirling around him in tiny currents. Travis opened the thermos of coffee and poured the steaming liquid into two tin camping mugs, adding a pinch of whiskey to each from his silver flask. Stepping over rocks, he handed one of the mugs to Ben and said, “Look, I’m sorry if I hit a nerve.”
Ben accepted the coffee and took a sip. Kept his eyes on the water and whispered, “I don’t know what it is… Sometimes, the things you say hit me hard. It’s alarming. You’re like Audra that way.”
Taking a seat on the blanket, Travis lounged back on an elbow and sipped at his own coffee. “It’s because I’ve heard it all before,” he stated. “Your thoughts, your fears, your hesitations – they’re all predictable to me.”
Ben pushed the hood of his sweatshirt from his head and looked down at him. “What if I wasn’t so predictable?” he asked. “What if I was different from the others?”
Travis took a bite of biscuit and shrugged. “Then I suppose I’m open to being proven wrong. But I doubt it.”
Ben stood from the boulder and attempted to find a comfortable position on the lumpy blanket beside Travis. Pine cones and tree branches poked up into the wool fabric from underneath. Travis poured more coffee into their cups, topped each one off with another pinch of whiskey, and proceeded to drink straight from the flask before screwing the lid back on. Acknowledging his hunger, Ben grabbed a slab of the thick-cut jerky and bit off a piece. The flavor was rich, gamey, salt-laden. “Thanks for thinking about food,” he said between bites.
“We could both use the refuel.”
Once finishing the makeshift meal, Ben laid down on the blanket and cupped his hands under his head to gaze up through the columns of quaking aspens which towered like white candles pointing to an endless blue sky above. The scent of damp earth, cold air, and pine resin was rich. He inhaled deeply, wishing the smell would fill his pores, permeate his skin, never leave – a constant reminder of Travis Cooper and these days and nights at the ranch. Pulling his Blackberry from his jeans pocket, he held the device up and snapped a photo of the scenery above him before turning the lens on Travis and snapping a photo of his profile.
“Does that thing really take pictures?” Travis inquired. He pushed the knapsack aside to lay down beside Ben. Wrapped an arm around his waist to pull him in closer and kissed his jaw.
“Not great ones, but yeah.”
“Technology. Way ahead of me.”
“So you don’t have a mobile phone at all?” Ben asked.
“Nah,” Travis replied, nuzzling deeper against Ben’s ear. “Seems too intrusive. Like extra baggage to carry around. I’ll stick to regular forms of communication for now.”
“Everyone’ll have one, soon enough,” Ben pointed out.
“Not me. I’m a Rocky Mountain hick boy, remember? Besides, no one needs to get a hold of me that badly.”
“You never know. Someone might…”
A slight breeze passed through, swaying the crowns of the trees, and Ben shivered within his sweatshirt. Pulled the hood back up over his head. Regretted not bringing a heavier coat like Travis had been smart enough to do. Red Cloud or Hugo neighed softly from nearby, shifting hooves on the ground. Brown-capped rosy-finch birds flittered and chirped between the branches of surrounding pine trees, sending excitable songs off into the wind. Travis pulled Ben in closer, as if to share his body heat.
“What if I didn’t fly home tomorrow?” Ben proposed. The words rolled from his tongue without much forethought. A spontaneous question that surprised even him.
Moving back, Travis peered at him with a raised eyebrow. “What?”
“I could stay a couple more days, then fly straight to Chicago,” Ben suggested. “I’ve got some flexibility.” He perched himself up on an elbow. Felt enthusiasm rise with each word he spoke. “We can take Audra and Bryan back to Aspen, as planned, and then return here. I’ll pay for the gas. I’ll help out with stuff around the ranch,” he continued. “I’m sure you could use the extra hand, right? Put me to work. I’ll shovel shit. Hunt coyotes with you. Whatever.”
Travis contemplated this new development in silence for a moment, releasing his hold on Ben to roll over onto his back. He focused his attention on the breeze swaying the bare branches above him. A cold front was moving in again. After a time, he said, “I doubt that’d be a good idea, Ben.” His voice was thin, his forehead creased. He kept his eyes averted.
It was not the response Ben had expected. “What? Why not?” he asked.
“Because…” Travis exhaled loudly and returned his gaze. Underlying defeat was evident in his expression. “This little chapter of ours is coming to a close.”
At these words, Ben sat up and folded himself into a cross-legged position. Rocks poked up through the blanket from below, piercing his buttocks and adding to his annoyance, but he didn’t move. “Is there a time limit I’m not aware of here?” he demanded.
“What the fuck?”
Travis hoisted himself up to sit and face him. Wrapped an arm around his bent knee and looked at Ben with irritated eyes that seemed to mask a deep sadness. “If this is your attempt at trying to be unpredictable, knock it off,” he said. “One more night in my bed isn’t going to change a goddamn thing about you, Benjy. We’ve had our moment, you expelled some of your inner demons, now you get to go home and move on. That’s how this works.”
The sentiment hit Ben like a fisted blow, grinding against his resolve. “Why do you keep saying shit like that?” he seethed.
“Am I wrong?”
A myriad of plaintive responses circled Ben’s mind. He was uncertain how best to articulate them without sounding vulnerable . “Yes,” he finally spoke. “You are wrong. This is what I want.” He pointed a finger down at the blanket to indicate his desire to stay.
“This..?” Travis echoed. “You mean another fuck?” He, too, pointed a finger down at the blanket. “Raw ass or not, we can certainly do that. I’ve got lube and poppers and condoms in my pockets, always at the ready, as you know.”
“Goddammit, Cooper, that’s not what I’m talking about,” Ben insisted. “Stop putting words into my mouth for two seconds.”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
Ben plucked at loose threads within the weaving of the wool. He’d never been competent at expressing his feelings, and he wasn’t sure he was capable of improving his track record now. When serious matters arose, he tended to change the subject or transform the conversation into a humorous anecdote, searching for the quickest and safest method of escape from an awkward situation. He recalled the incident during the filming of the motel scene in ‘Roustabout’, when the director and entire production crew had witnessed his obvious erection in the wake of Seth’s convincingly passionate embraces. Immediately, Ben had twisted the shameful moment into a joke, laughing and exclaiming that Seth kissed like a goddamn girl, and “it’s no wonder I have a boner!” Even afterwards, as he’d rubbed his desire out into a towel within the privacy of his set trailer, he’d convinced himself it was all a joke.
Travis brought the open palm of his hand up to rest on Ben’s cheek. His touch was warm, soothing, and Ben felt an instant sensation of plummeting to the ground from a high perch. His head became heavy, his breath constricted. Travis leaned in and kissed him – sweetly, with a hint of longing – and then he sat back and dropped his hand to his lap, a gesture that seemed to present finalization. “Let’s not toss emotions into the mix,” he instructed. His voice had turned quiet, less confrontational, yet there remained a barrier between them that felt tangible to Ben. “You and I have had a hell of a great hook-up here,” he continued. “Let’s not complicate it.” With that, he unfolded himself from his sitting position and got to his feet.
A sharp pain pricked at Ben’s eyes, like pins inserted into his pupils, and he promptly bit the inside of his cheek, hard enough to produce blood. Complicated or not, emotions were already in the mix for him. Slowly, he slid the sunglasses back onto his face and stood up. Lifted the blanket from the ground and shook the debris off. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he muttered. “I’m just here for the fuck, like you said. Tomorrow, I’ll go back home and forget about it all. I’ll forget about you. So keep your goddamn mouth shut about it, faggot.” This last phrase scraped from Ben’s tongue with the same disgust and amount of venom as Travis had so pointedly expressed it earlier.
* * * *
Descending from the shadows of the forest to ride back across open pasture toward the ranch, Ben lingered a step behind on Hugo, embroiled in solemnity while Travis trotted ahead in silence, embroiled in his own thoughts. Periodically, Ben reached up to touch his left cheek, running the tips of his fingers across the cut where his skin had split open. What blood still surrounded the swelling had already hardened in the dry Colorado air. He would have benefited from an ice pack but was forced to endure the pulsating pain of the bruise until they returned to the ranch – which seemed to be taking far too fucking long on the reverse ride.
Travis’ right hook had been quick. A split second of shocking pain, followed by a fall. Although Ben had slipped in the mud, he’d managed to take the brunt of the landing on his arm instead of on his face, which had smacked dangerously close to a rock. Travis had extended a hand to help him up, voicing sincere apologies, but Ben had swiftly slapped it away, bringing himself up to his hands and knees and eventually to a standing position of his own accord.
Unsteady on his feet, his head still swirling with stars, Ben had lunged forward, grabbing Travis by the waist and tackling him to the ground. They’d wrestled in the mud and pine needles until Ben had gained the upper edge, rolling onto Travis’ back and smacking his face repeatedly into the wet, decaying leaves and loose gravel until, eventually, he’d rolled off and stumbled over to Hugo. Managing to hoist himself up onto the saddle, Ben had wrapped the reins around his hands, preparing to ride away.
Despite his own bewilderment, Travis had quickly sprung up and grabbed Hugo’s bit to keep the horse from moving. “Don’t ride off yet,” he’d insisted. “You’re bleeding.”
This had been news to Ben. He’d reached up and wiped his face with the shirtsleeve of his Lakers hoodie, surprised to see the sizable spread of crimson soaked into the fabric. With one hand still holding Hugo’s bit, Travis had reached over into Red Cloud’s saddlebag and rummaged through it for a moment, eventually pulling out a rag and bending down to dip it in the cold water of the creek. Ben had blindly accepted the dripping fabric from him, bringing it to his cheek, feeling dizzy and separated from his body as he’d dabbed at the wound.
“I’m sorry, Ben,” Travis had said, wiping mud and leaves from his own face. “I really am. Give me a minute to pack up our stuff and we’ll go. Don’t ride off without me. Okay?”
During the slow amble out of the woods, the stars in Ben’s head had dissipated, but the pain in his face had heightened. Now, the headache he’d experienced all morning had mutated into a fiercer form, shifting from his eye sockets down into his left cheekbone, concentrated there and rhythmically pulsating. Although the pain would eventually subside into a dull ache, the physical evidence of Travis’ white hot punch would linger for a while. Without a doubt, Audra would lose her shit when she saw him. Even if his sunglasses had survived the assault, which they hadn’t, the frames wouldn’t have been sufficient enough to hide the wound.
Travis shifted the pace of Red Cloud and came back around to ride alongside Ben, close enough to tap his boot against Hugo’s stirrup. Glancing over at him, Ben noticed that the whole left side of his face was covered in a myriad of scratches, as though an angry cat had sharpened its claws on his flesh. The presence of the jagged scar only added to the wreckage of his appearance. Ben supposed that they were both ego-driven idiots, concerned more with projecting power than admitting to weaknesses. Their injuries clearly pointed to their stubbornness.
“So now what?” Travis asked, disrupting the silence.
Ben blinked at him. “Now what, what?”
“Well, now that we’ve been in a fight and both feel like shit… what’s next?”
Contemplating the question for a moment, Ben replied, “Nothing’s next. You said so yourself, back in the woods when I suggested I’d stay a few more days. Once you drop me off in Aspen, that’s it. Right? So, nothing next.”
Travis nodded. “Right…” There was unmistakable gloom in his voice, no way to mask it.
“So are you gonna tell me what this is all about?” Ben prodded. “This trigger that makes you see red? I thought I was the one with all the walls up, but you’ve got a fucking impenetrable barricade going, dude. I don’t know if you put it there or if someone else erected it around you, like a cage.”
Travis concentrated on Red Cloud’s mane. “I could tell you all sorts of things,” he responded, “if you had a few hours to listen. But you don’t. So how about we just not go there? My life is far from perfect, Ben. I grab opportunities for enjoyment where and when I can, and I don’t get too deeply invested when I do. That’s it, in a nutshell.”
“Sounds like a lonely proposition.”
“It’s better than perpetual cycles of pain and bullshit.”
Ben’s mobile phone buzzed within the front pocket of his jeans. He chose to ignore it. He wanted to shut out the world and coax Travis into revealing more, but his phone buzzed again. And again. Finally, he fished it out of his pocket. “What?” he snapped, noting that it was Audra.
“We’ve got a member of the dog team snooping around,” she replied.
No sooner had she spoken the words than the presence of a newer-model silver Lexus ES caught Travis’ attention, parked in front of the ranch house. Instructing Ben to wait about a hundred yards back, he galloped ahead, pulling the Browning from its scabbard and laying it across his lap as he did so. Ben, having no intention of heeding his command, snapped Hugo’s reins and followed suit. Nearing closer, he caught sight of Curtis and Bryan standing at the front of the Lexus, speaking sternly with a thirties-something man dressed in a tan Eddie Bauer barn coat with a Nikon D50 zoom lens camera hanging from a strap around his neck.
Seeing the camera, Ben pulled back and stopped to linger between a set of cottonwood trees. He strained his ears to catch snippets of the conversation, but all he could decipher were gruff tones, not actual words. He watched Travis approach the trio and bring Red Cloud to a halt. The rifle remained on his lap, unmistakable in its presence. A few more heated words were exchanged, and then the mysterious man removed the camera from around his neck, slid into the driver’s seat, and shut the door. A second later, the engine came to life. The Lexus was pulled into a U-turn and driven back down the long length of the driveway to the main road beyond, where it traveled north at a steady speed.
Ben waited until he could no longer see the sun glinting off of the silver topcoat before he prompted Hugo to move forward. “Who the hell was that?” he asked as he approached the group. Audra had stepped down from the front porch to join them.
“Some reporter,” Curtis replied. “I caught him snooping around. Told him to get the hell off the property.”
“What was he looking for?”
Curtis squinted up at him. “You, I imagine.” Then, “What the hell happened to your face?”
Ben dismounted, and Audra rushed forward to assess his wound, clucking her tongue like a mother hen. Travis also dismounted, tucking his rifle away, glancing at Ben cautiously. In irritation, Ben brushed Audra’s hand away and stated, “Hugo threw me.” Many years of working with an acting coach had provided him the tools necessary for telling believable lies. He only hoped his poker face was enough to convince them.
Curtis pushed his calloused hands inside the pockets of his overalls and stood back on his heels. Shifted his gaze between Ben and Travis, waiting for the truth to surface, because it was a well-known fact on Cooper Ranch that Hugo didn’t throw riders. But neither of the men volunteered to offer actual accounts, and so he turned his attention to Travis. “I suppose Red Cloud threw you, too?” he interrogated, noting the disheveled appearance of his brother.
Travis ran a hand down his left cheek, picking off traces of dried mud with his fingernails. “I slipped,” he countered. “Near Johnson Creek.”
“Uh-huh,” Curtis responded. “I suggest you get your shit together before heading out. This is a goddamn important deal today. Jack is expecting you.”
“Yeah, I know that,” Travis snapped back in annoyance. He pulled Red Cloud around and began to lead him toward the stables. “Rest assured, brother, I’ll get the stud to Glenwood this afternoon, just like I said I would.” He shot a large glob of spit to the ground, as though expelling his contempt. Ben pushed Audra’s hand away from his face once more and pulled Hugo around to follow him across the muddy terrain.