The magazine landed with an alarming slap against the Formica tabletop, startling the family members who were seated around it eating breakfast. Katy’s forkful of scrambled eggs halted midway to her mouth as she studied the cover of the tabloid laid out before her. When she lifted her rid-rimmed, puffy eyes to look at Ben and Travis, they were towering over her with discontented stares. Together, they made a formidable pair, and she cowered in their presence.
“Great job,” Travis snapped at her. “Real great job, Kat. Your vengeance has paid off. First Eric, now this. Are you fucking pleased with yourself?”
“This wasn’t me!” she exclaimed, instantly defensive. She tapped a fuchsia fingernail against the glossy cover and added, “I had nothing to do with this!”
“Bullshit!” Travis retorted. “There’s no way a reporter could have known Ben was here unless he was tipped off by someone. Meaning, you.” With this last word, he poked the tip of his forefinger into the soft part of her shoulder, and she winced slightly.
“Okay, enough,” Mrs. Cooper intervened. She set her fork and knife down to slide the magazine over and see what all of the commotion was about. After reviewing the cover, she expelled a sigh and said, “Let’s not jump to conclusions – ”
“I don’t have to jump,” Travis interrupted. “Kat did this.”
“I’m telling you, I didn’t!” The girl scraped her chair back and stood up, a look of desperation in her green eyes as she focused firmly on Ben. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin snitching on you to someone. Who would I call? The Chaffee County Times?”
Ben crossed his arms over his chest and stared right back at her. “A few days ago you threatened to do just that,” he said. “Remember our little conversation in the woods?” For him, it wasn’t easily forgotten. He could still feel the cartilage of her windpipe pressed between his thumbs.
A frown spread across her face, and she turned her gaze down to her cooling plate of food. “Yes, I remember that… But… I’m telling you, I didn’t do it.” When she lifted her puffy eyelids once more to stare intently at him, he almost believed her. “I swear it, Ben.”
Something in her words, in her imploring expression, struck him, and he knew she was telling the truth. He’d started to lose interest in the accusation, anyway; somehow, the who and the why of the article no longer mattered in comparison to the burden of having to mitigate what Melanie and Audra and everyone else considered to be his newly-tarnished reputation. His efforts needed to be focused on that, not on whether or not this sixteen-year-old girl was guilty or innocent of making a phone call. Maybe she’d told a friend, who’d told a friend, who’d told another friend who was the niece of the reporter in question. Buena Vista was a small town. Anything was possible.
Curtis pulled the magazine over to his place setting and peered down at it while chewing on a mouthful of toast. “Hmph,” he mumbled. “That guy didn’t even do a good job taking a photo. That could be anyone on those horses. I figured they’d send someone more competent to come out here.”
“What the hell. Did you did this?” Travis moved to jump around the table and tackle his brother, but Ben held out an arm to keep him still.
Curtis pushed the magazine aside and wiped a napkin across his mouth, unperturbed by the accusation. “Why would I waste my time on that?” he asked. He pushed his chair back and stood up, dropping the napkin to his plate. “I don’t give two shits about your hotshot Hollywood star. Isn’t he leaving soon anyway?”
“Tomorrow,” Ben answered with a glare. “I’m leaving tomorrow.” And far away from you, you ignorant prick…
“Calm down, Curtis,” Mrs. Cooper said. She concentrated on sliding orange wedges from one side of her plate to other, and Ben observed that she didn’t face Curtis, didn’t look up at him while voicing her request, which made the words empty, flat, pointless. Was she afraid of her own son? Ben hadn’t noticed this dynamic before. Maybe he was imagining it.
“I’ll be out in the stables,” Curtis stated. He shoved his Stetson hat onto his head and left through the back door.
After he’d gone and silence filled the room, Arturo took his turn and pulled the magazine over to examine it. He flipped through a few of the interior pages and then glanced up at Travis and Ben and said, “I don’t understand. What’s all the fuss about?”
“Ben’s vacation was supposed to be kept under wraps,” Travis answered, agitated. “Now, the world knows he’s here. With me.”
“And that’s bad?” Arty asked this question directly to Ben. It was apparent that he genuinely didn’t understand Ben’s predicament. His total acceptance of Travis, and therefore of Ben, was obvious. His non-judgmental attitude about their relationship was bolstering. Ben wished he could surround himself with a regiment of Uncle Artys.
“He’s right,” Ben stated. Surprised eyes turned on him. “This shouldn’t have to be a secret,” he continued. “I can vacation wherever I want, spend time with whomever I want to. Me being here at the ranch isn’t anyone’s fucking business.” He gestured to the magazine. “Only losers read Global Star. Losers and desperate housewives. Everybody knows that.”
“Yeah, but, even so, people are gonna give you shit for it,” Travis protested. He took a step closer, brushed Ben’s hand with his fingers. “You know that.” His tone was protective, as though he felt compulsion to shield Ben from the fallout. This was an unexpected reaction. Ben recounted their conversation in the sauna at the motel only a couple of nights ago, when Travis had judged him harshly for being reluctant to come out. At the time, he’d gruffly told Ben that he’d “just have to deal with it, like the rest of us.” He’d been pissed. He’d accused Ben of being a coward. He’d been right.
But something had caused the cowboy to change his tune. Now, he was concerned for Ben’s reputation, his well-being, his happiness. He cared, and he wasn’t afraid to say so. They were both feeling the tug, experiencing the same undefined connection that was sealing them fast together. An anomaly, but clearly an affection which ran deeper than friendship, deeper than ephemeral lust, had surfaced – a significant fondness, despite the fact that they’d only known each other for five days.
Five days. Ben had difficulty getting his head around it, yet when he glanced over at Travis, he felt all of those things – those love things which bubble up to the surface at the most unexpected and inopportune moments, when you feel it in your pores and in the palpitations of your heartbeat, and you can’t control it. The acknowledgment that it was happening between the two of them became overpowering. Once embedded into Ben’s consciousness, he couldn’t erase it.
“Come, sit down, both of you,” Mrs. Cooper instructed, forcing Ben to reconnect with the room. “Have something to eat before the morning’s gone. I imagine you both have a lot to do today.”
Travis pulled out a chair and slumped down into it, stealing a strip of cold bacon from Katy’s plate. “We’d better make it quick,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to take care of this morning. I’m hoping to show Ben around town this afternoon, if there’s time. Maybe even go to Salida.”
“Ooh, can I join you?” Katy piped in. Her demeanor had changed from desperate and uptight to sweet and cheery. A broad smile lit up her face, but one look from Travis shut her down. She knew she didn’t stand a chance. A pout swiftly replaced her smile, and she pushed her plate aside and stood up. “I guess I’ll finish getting ready for school,” she mumbled, then shuffled from the room.
After she’d gone, Travis turned to his mother. “Will you please pick her up from school today?”
Mrs. Cooper blinked at him over the coffee mug perched at her mouth. “What on earth for?” she asked. “She usually walks from the bus stop or gets a ride with Kelly.”
“Eric’s back in town,” he stated.
“Oh.” She returned her mug to the table. “I’m sorry to hear that, sweetie. But what does that have to do with Kat?”
“She’s got it in her head that she can hang around with him,” Travis replied. “She can’t. Just… will you please pick her up? I don’t want there to be any opportunity for him to give her a ride or take her anywhere. Will you do that?”
His mother nodded. “Yes, of course. Sure.”
“Thank you.” Then, to Ben he said, “Sit.” He pulled out the chair closest to him and motioned for him to take it. “Let’s eat something before it’s time to head out.”
Ben hesitated with eyes fixed on the table. There was something he needed to take care of first. Snatching up the tabloid magazine, he carried it into the kitchen, stepped on the foot latch to open the trashcan, and proceeded to dump the gossip periodical inside. He was pleased to see it land among the damp coffee grounds, orange peels, and broken egg shells below. It was exactly where it belonged – discarded with the rest of the garbage.
* * * *
All evidence of the hoarfrost from the morning had vanished, and the valley sat beneath a canopy of cerulean sky, starkly contrasted against the white-capped peaks of the Sawatch Mountain Range in the distance. Moving the adjustable field fencing half an acre across pasture was a callous-producing, time-consuming task, but Travis and Ben completed the job without much interruption. When they were finished securing the pigtail posts, they mounted their horses and herded the five or six dozen Herefords inside the new area where fresh forage awaited them.
As best he could, Ben helped Travis ear-tag the newborn calf who’d been brought into the world yesterday, along with an additional young one who’d been born during the night. To Ben, this calf seemed too small, like a runt, but she was pulling on her mother’s milk like a champ, and Travis found no reason to be concerned about her.
Shortly before noon, when the grazing rotation was complete, Travis and Ben paused to eat a quick meal of apples and protein bars before heading on horseback to a spot at the northernmost edge of the property where a grove of leafless aspen trees flanked a small gated cemetery. Clearly, it was a private area, meant only to be seen by those who knew of its existence, and once Ben dismounted from Hugo and tossed the horse’s lead over the wrought-iron rail, he hesitated.
Travis unhooked the gate latch and beckoned for him to follow. “I want to show you something,” he said, and so Ben obliged, taking a hold of the hand which Travis extended to him.
The ground was damp and covered in layers of partially-decayed yellow leaves leftover from the previous autumn. As the two men wove past ancient and modern gravestones marked with generations of Cooper family members, Ben kept his head lowered, wanting to show respect but also feeling out of place, like he didn’t belong there. Even though Travis was holding his hand and guiding him along, he felt like he was trespassing on sacred ground not meant for his footsteps.
Upon reaching a tall, arched marble headstone near the far end of the enclosure, Travis stopped, and Ben almost bumped into him from behind before catching his mistake and moving aside. Releasing hands, they silently studied the carvings etched into the gray and white tombstone before them:
Charles Weston Cooper
Beloved husband, father, friend
Once met, never forgotten…
B. February 28, 1953 – D. May 5, 2002
A life expired too soon. “I’m sorry, Travis…” Ben whispered.
“I don’t come here much anymore,” Travis spoke in a quiet voice. “After he died, I rode out here every day, sat with him, talked with him, demanded answers. Now, what he looks like, even the sound of his voice, they’re already fading from my memory. I wish I could hold onto them, but they slip away a little more each day.”
“I know you miss him,” Ben said, feeling inadequate in his attempt to be sympathetic. He’d never lost a close family member outside of his grandfather, which had been painful enough. He couldn’t imagine losing his father. “Your memories won’t completely fade,” he assured him. “He’ll always be with you in spirit.”
“Maybe,” Travis said. “But I really wish he was still around. He was the leader, the glue that held everything together, you know? This ranch is going to shit. This family’s going to shit. And I don’t know if I can keep holding it all together…”
“That responsibility shouldn’t all fall on you.”
“No one else is willing to do it,” Travis replied with resignation. “No one else can do it.”
Ben turned his attention to an object that was resting at the base of the headstone. It was partially covered in leaves and dead grass and appeared to be about five inches squared and made of decorative wood. Pointing to it, he said, “What’s that?”
Travis leaned over and picked it up. Plucked the leaves from its edges and turned it around in his hands a few times to examine it before laying it across his open palm and offering it to Ben. It was a handmade box, constructed out of walnut, with an intricate Celtic knot carved onto the lid, brushed over with a rich, natural stain that was only slightly weathered. “Wow,” Ben said, turning it over in his hands. “Did you make this?”
Travis nodded. “Shortly after he died. It’s a wish box.”
“A wish box?” Ben echoed.
“You can open it.”
Once again, Ben felt like he was intruding on something private that was none of his business, but he peeled away the lid from the box as instructed, his curiosity driving him forward. Inside, there was a piece of paper folded several times. The secured lid of the box had kept the note dry from the elements through the years. Gingerly, Ben pulled it out.
“Go ahead, read it,” Travis insisted.
Unfolding the ivory-colored paper, Ben discovered a short letter hastily scratched out in Travis’ handwriting:
Six feet under. That’s where we buried you.
You’re probably kicking and screaming about your time being cut short by some god who plays human lives like puppet shows. I’m pissed, too. I tossed the dirt over your coffin. I sang the songs. I said goodbye to you, but goodbye hurts way too much.
You were never perfect, but I’m not either. I was a coward scared of disappointing you. Now it’s too late to tell you all the things I wanted to tell you. You’re gone and you’ll never know the truth about me, because I wasn’t brave enough to be honest. I thought you’d hate me… like I hate myself, like Curtis hates me… and I couldn’t handle that.
Now I’d give anything for a chance to talk with you again. Just one more day. But that’s not possible, is it? The songs have ended, and there’s only silence.
Are you comfortable there in your satin-lined coffin buried six feet underground?
Maybe someday you’ll be able to forgive me for lying.
Several minutes passed as Ben reread the note and absorbed its contents. What could he say about it? No words came to mind, only sadness.
“Heavy shit, right?” Travis said for him. He retrieved the note and wooden box from Ben’s hands and carefully assembled it all back together. Then he positioned the wish box in the spot where it had been sitting for the last three years – at the foot of his father’s grave.
“I’m sure he’s forgiven you,” Ben said. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.”
Travis straightened himself back up. Brushed the dirt from his hands. “I brought Eric here once,” he said. “Right after we got together. My dad had only been gone for about ten months, and I was still grieving pretty bad. He opened that box and read my note and laughed out loud. Told me that I shouldn’t give a shit about what my family thinks of me, so long as I’m living the life I want. It hurt. He didn’t realize that this is the life I want, family and all.”
“I’m sorry,” were the only words Ben could muster in response. His sympathy was feeble.
“He and I were never matched right,” Travis continued. “I was a goddamn idiot for being with him, but I was so desperate for something, anything, to take my grief away. I needed to be comforted, and I convinced myself that he loved me. I was wrong, obviously, but at the time, I couldn’t see the negative parts, only the good parts that I wanted to believe were true. Do you know what I mean?” He paused, seeking Ben’s reaction. Ben nodded. He himself was guilty of clinging to the wrong people at the wrong times when he’d needed temporary comfort, temporary shelter from the self-loathing and doubt that frequently consumed him.
“I fell hard for him,” Travis admitted. “He was an absolute pro at laying the web of deceit that snagged me. The only thing is, I just can’t believe he was stringing Katy along that whole time, too. Fuck. She was only fourteen. Why they hell would he do that?”
“I think you know the answer to that already,” Ben spoke quietly. He blocked out elements of Travis’ harrowing tale from the previous night that might relate to Katy. He didn’t want his imagination to go there…
“I should have known,” Travis continued forlornly. “I should have protected her from him. She’s too young to be growing up so fast. I wish she’d realize there are no advantages to being an adult, only more responsibilities, more hardships.”
“Seems like maybe she could use some guidance on that.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not equipped to rein her in. I’m barely equipped to keep my own fucking shit together.”
“Maybe your mom could help…?”
It was a logical question, but Travis shook his head and snickered. “Mom is definitely not equipped to rein her in,” he said. “She’s been a total mess herself these last three years. She can take care of the house and her potter’s studio, and that’s about it.”
“It’s obvious to me that your whole family’s still mourning the loss of your dad, Travis.” Ben touched his hand. “You’re not alone in this.”
As if deflecting the touch, Travis shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and looked to the ground, studying the mud circling the soles of his boots. “It sure fucking feels like I am…”
Ben stepped in closer. Clasped a strong hand on his shoulder and whispered, “Trust me, Cooper, you’re not alone. Your family’s still here for you. I’m here for you. I could take some of the stress away, if you’d let me. I could invest a little in the ranch, help you pay-off Curtis, help you fix up the place or something – ”
“No.” Travis’ response was swift. Harsh.
Ben sighed and released his shoulder. “I figured you’d say that,” he continued. “But the offer will be there, if you change your mind.”
Travis studied him, green eyes delving into blue in search of an explanation. “Why do you want to help me out so much?” he asked. “This dilapidated old ranch, a few cows, some horses, a dysfunctional family, my past, my present. I’m a mess. You know that. Hell, you don’t even know all of it. Why would you want to invest in this? In me?”
“I know enough,” Ben replied without hesitation. “I know that you want Curtis off your back. I know that you deserve a chance to fucking breathe. Who would’ve helped you move fences today if I wasn’t here? How long do you think you can really keep this up…?” His voice trailed off, and he looked out across the cemetery, past the ancient headstones and wrought-iron gate to the vast pastureland that lay beyond – all of those precious acres of Cooper Ranch passed down from generation to generation, landing in Travis’ lap at a time when he was least ready to take it on. So much of it had dwindled already. If Travis wasn’t careful, he’d end up losing it all.
“You deserve to be happy,” Ben commented quietly. “It’s that simple.”
Travis sighed and nudged at the ground with the toe of his boot. “You deserve it, too, Ben,” he said. “But I think I’ve only made it worse for you…”
“No, you haven’t,” Ben insisted. He took a hold of Travis’ arms and forced the guy to face him. “I was serious at breakfast when I said I don’t give a shit about the tabloid,” he said. “It’s why I threw it in the trash. For the first time ever, I feel unburdened by secrets. What a fucking rush that is. And it’s thanks to you.”
“I appreciate the sentiment,” Travis muttered. “I really do. But think about it… What happens when you get to Chicago? When you go back to L.A.? How will you feel about things when the spotlight’s blinding you? We need to be realistic. I don’t want you hating me when this is all over. I couldn’t live with that…”
“That’s not going to happen,” Ben challenged. “I could never hate you. And it’s not going to be over.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Travis whispered. “I feel exactly what you’re feeling right now. I really do. It’s a strong pull. But we’re not a good match, Ben. In fact, we couldn’t be more opposite. You’re a Hollywood star. I’m a hick boy. Used goods. I could never fit into your world -”
To shut him up, Ben pulled him into a kiss – it was sincere, a dance of tongues, a message of hope. When he stepped back, he kept his eyes focused on the sea-green orbs which peered back at him displaying uncertainty, pain, affection. Travis was conflicted. For once, Ben was not.
“I’m not walking away from this,” Ben stated.
Travis refrained from responding right away. He glanced at his father’s grave. Glanced across the field of grass. Seemed to travel outside of his body for a moment, searching for an answer. When he returned, he slowly nodded. “Okay,” he murmured, capitulating, sliding his fingers across Ben’s open hand. “I’m with you.”