Ben studied his reflection in the full-length, three-sided mirror, admiring the jacket he’d slung over himself. It was a vintage 1950s western-style black gabardine piece, in like-new condition, adorned with ivory filigree embroidery braiding, arrow details around the pockets, and pearl, diamond-shaped snap buttons lining up the front. The style shouted retro-rockabilly with a hint of Johnny Cash thrown in. Paired with blue jeans and the right shirt underneath, Ben knew he’d found what to wear in Chicago.
“Here,” Travis said, shoving a black beaver-felt Stetson hat onto his head. “Now your outfit’s complete.”
A giggle erupted from the owner of the consignment shop, Vicky, who stood nearby witnessing the movie-star fashion show with glee. She was of slim build, in her late-fifties, with a boisterous attitude and a head of frizzy brown hair. From the moment Travis and Ben had entered the consignment shop, she’d doted on them, helping them comb through racks of clothes, most of which weren’t worth a second look, until the retrieval of the MacMurray jacket.
“Oh, I completely agree,” she smiled now, sizing-up Ben’s appearance in the large mirror. “You look fantastic. The black goes great with your dark hair. Like Johnny Cash meets desperado.”
Ben gave his reflection a final review and smiled, satisfied. “I’ll take it,” he said. Pulling the garment off gently, careful not to harm the vintage lining or any of the intricate stitching on it, he handed it over to her.
“The hat, too?” she inquired, pointing upwards.
Ben removed it from atop his head and rolled it over in his hands, giving it a quick examination. It, too, was in good condition, hardly worn. It also happened to be the correct size for his head, thick hair and all. “Sure,” he replied, handing it over to her. “Why not?”
Travis smiled and slapped his shoulder. “Now you’re a cowboy, buddy,” he announced.
“Cowboy, my ass. I’m not castrating any calves.” Ben nudged Travis’ hip and sent him off-kilter into a nearby rack of clothing. After quickly righting himself, Travis returned the push, and they laughed and wrestled each other the entire way up the aisle to the front counter. There, Vicky was tenderly folding up the jacket and tucking it inside tissue paper, ignoring their adolescent behavior.
Ben steadied himself and pulled out his wallet to choose a credit card. Travis landed beside him, hip to hip, and Ben whispered, “You sure you didn’t see anything you like, babe?” He’d wanted to buy him something, a gift, but the guy hadn’t seemed interested in anything they’d looked at.
“No, I’m good,” Travis replied. “You, on the other hand, need some cowboy boots, to complete the look.”
“Believe it or not, I’ve got boots,” Ben said. “A pair of Ariats. After ‘Roustabout’ wrapped up, I kept them. I always take a souvenir home when a production’s over.”
“Ariats suck,” Travis remarked flippantly. He leaned an elbow against the glass countertop and peered up at Ben with a small grin. “They’re not even American-made. You need to get some Justins.” He pointed down to his trusty, well-worn boots, the ones he always wore, the ones which had obviously served him well. There was something to be said for such durability, but, for now, Ben was content with his Salomon hiking boots. He wasn’t ready to turn full-blown cowboy just yet.
“Speaking of ‘Roustabout’,” Vicky interrupted as she placed a credit card slip and pen in front of Ben, “I have to say that your portrayal of Toby was superb. Such raw emotion. I cried more than once. In fact, I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the end, especially when you were laying face-down on Levi’s grave. Such a tragic story. I was really rooting for you and Levi to make it. I wanted you to make it. I think you would have been so good together.”
Once he’d scribbled his signature on the slip, Ben pushed the paper back over to her and said, “Thanks.” He wasn’t sure what else to add to the conversation. Her comments had caused him to reflect on the negative outcome of Toby and Levi’s ill-fated relationship – the pain, the suffering, the suicide – and he simultaneously compared that somberness and futility to himself and to Travis, which, of course, was a mistake, but his mind went there anyway.
This wasn’t West Texas, and he and Travis weren’t roughnecks working the oil rigs on a movie set, but even so, their situation held some similarities. It was art imitating life. Or was it life imitating art…? Either way, Ben needed to make sure that kind of turmoil didn’t befall the two of them.
Travis pulled a cigarette from his pocket, stuck it between his lips, and touched Ben’s elbow. “Meet you outside, okay?”
Ben nodded. “Sure.”
After the purchase was complete, Vicky proffered a large paper shopping bag which held the items inside. “Thanks again for coming in,” she crooned sweetly. “It’s not too often we see celebrities around here, unless they’re passing through to ski. Are you staying in town for long?”
Glancing over at the front entrance Travis had just exited out of, Ben replied, “Unfortunately, no. I leave for Chicago tomorrow. But… I’ll be back soon.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” she said. “There are plenty of gems in Southern Colorado, if you know where to look for them.” She, too, glanced to the door Travis had exited out of, as though she’d been referring to him. In a softer tone, she added, “A place like Cooper Ranch could use a fresh face.”
Ben studied her, searching for clarification in her emerald eyes. If she and Travis knew each other, they hadn’t acted like it. From behind the counter, she produced a copy of this morning’s edition of Global Star and laid it on the glass. “I wasn’t sure of the validity of this,” she explained, pointing to the cover. “But, now I see. You have a reason to return. That’s good. I’m happy for you. And for him.”
Ben frowned and pushed the magazine back across the glass in her direction. He’d already grown tired of seeing it. “That’s nothing but trash,” he muttered.
At this statement, Vicky tilted her head. She appeared to be disappointed at his pronouncement. “Yes, but is it all trash?” she asked quietly.
Ben bit the inside of his cheek and looked at her. Contemplated responding affirmatively that it was a giant lie spurred on by greedy sources, but he decided against it. “Those magazines have a tendency to blow things out of proportion,” he stated. “But, no… there is some truth to that story.” He gestured to the periodical, and she brushed a curlicue of hair from her line of vision and smiled warmly at him. There was something calming about her presence, and he relaxed his stance.
“It can be hard to hide the truth behind lies,” she spoke. “Eventually, it always finds its way out of the shadows and into the light, whether we’re ready for it to appear or not. It’s how we handle it that matters. We can choose to retreat from it or face it head-on with dignity. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Very wise words.” Ben shifted the large shopping bag down to his side and took a step back from the counter. He planned on making his exit before she delved any deeper into his psyche. She was a kind woman, but now he felt uncomfortable under her scrutiny; she’d opened him up, examined his insecurities in a very short amount of time. “Thanks for helping me find the jacket,” he said. “If you catch Dunn & Darby in the morning, you might see me wearing it.”
She smiled. “Great! I’ll look for you. Best of luck, Ben… with everything.”
“Thanks.” He smiled, turned, and pushed through the front door.
Outside, Travis was waiting for him, casually leaning against the wooden post of the front steps while finishing off his cigarette. His Resistol hat was perched low across his forehead to shade his eyes from the late afternoon sun. When he peered up from beneath the brim, he flashed Ben a sly smile, and Ben fought the urge to flick the hat from his head and tackle him to the ground.
“Are you finally ready to go?” Travis asked with a hint of teasing. He pushed off from the post, snuffed his cigarette out against the railing, and dropped the butt into an empty ceramic flower pot that housed dozens of other cigarette butts. They made their way across the small patch of grass to the Dodge parked at the curb and strategically avoided eye contact with the photographer who was poking a lens out of the window of the silver Lexus a dozen yards away.
“Let’s ditch him,” Travis said.
“Sounds good. How about I buy you a beer somewhere?”
“Like, a bar around here?” Travis pushed his hat back from his eyes and peered at Ben with a smile. “You sure you wanna brave that?”
“Take me wherever you want.” Ben set his shopping bag in the backseat and climbed up into the front.
Travis joined him and brought the engine to life. Pulled out onto the pot-holed, two-lane road which led back to the main thoroughfare. “You oughta be careful giving me permission like that,” he stated, sliding a hand up Ben’s thigh. “I’ll take you straight to the motel again.”
“That wouldn’t be the worst idea you’ve ever had.”
Travis met Ben’s gaze with a grin and gave his leg a hard squeeze. “I see I’ve successfully corrupted you. Only a few nights ago, you were resistant to the whole motel room idea.”
“That was then,” Ben said. “This is now.”
* * * *
The lackluster interior of The Eagle’s Nest bar mirrored the drab appearance of its exterior: a modular building placed on the outskirts of town with a no-frills, utilitarian design – not meant to be architecturally inspiring but simply a place for the locals to drink. Of the dozen or so patrons congregated inside the room when Ben and Travis arrived, a few acknowledged Travis with a nod or a handshake, but not a single person approached Ben, despite second glances and expressions of surprise that he was inside their dark, unassuming establishment.
After picking up beers at the counter, they took a table in the corner near a small, empty stage. A digital jukebox pumped out overplayed rock and country tunes with a volume so loud that conversing without yelling was a challenge. Travis and Ben were forced to lean in close to one another in order to be heard.
“So do you know the owner of that thrift shop?” Ben asked.
“No,” Travis replied. “But I’ve been in there a few times. Why?”
“She acted like she knows you. She mentioned Cooper Ranch.”
“This is Buena Vista. Everyone knows Cooper Ranch. Doesn’t mean they know me.”
Ben took a swig of his Budweiser. “OK, so tell me this,” he prompted. “Those who do know you – like some of the people in here, for instance – do they know you’re gay?”
Travis took a long gulp of his own Budweiser and chirped a low belch. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Secrets like that are difficult to keep quiet, especially around here. But I don’t stress-out about trying to hide it, not anymore. I’d make myself nuts if I did that.”
“And no one’s ever given you shit for it?”
“Oh, I’ve gotten plenty of shit for it.”
Ben frowned. The response wasn’t what he’d expected. Travis leaned in close, near enough so that his breath caressed Ben’s cheek. “This is hick country, Ben,” he said. “I’ve had to fight my way out of a ton of altercations. But those who’ve kicked my ass leave me alone now. I kick ass right back, and they know it.”
Images of a younger Travis having to defend himself against homophobic bigots angered Ben. Then, Curtis’ violent tendencies popped into view, and he pointed to Travis’ temple and stated, “Curtis really did do that to you, didn’t he.” It wasn’t a question.
Travis slumped back and chugged the rest of his beer down. If he was contemplating an answer, he gave no indication of revealing it. Instead, he pushed his chair back and went up to the bar. A few minutes later, he returned balancing four rock glasses in his hands. Each glass full of amber-colored liquid housed an additional shot glass of darker liquid inside. Two of these he set down before Ben, the other two he kept for himself. Then, holding one up in a toast, he announced, “To city boys, country boys, and motel rooms.”
Ben chuckled. “And to what lies ahead,” he added. They clinked their glasses together and simultaneously slammed back the liquor, amber and dark liquid combined. A jolt of lightning rushed through Ben, and he shook his head and coughed and swallowed a few times. “What the hell was in that?” he demanded through constricted throat.
Travis laughed. His voice was scratchy as he replied, “Jägermeister and Red Bull. A drink with a kick! Now, drink your other one, buddy, you gotta get the full effect.”
Ben did so and immediately felt his head spin. Because he’d consumed the rest of the Budweiser directly beforehand, the result of slamming back two full Jägerbombs in rapid succession was a swift and brutal blow. The bison burger he’d eaten for lunch shifted in his gut.
“Still with me?” Travis inquired with a grin, noting Ben’s reaction.
Ben nodded. Simply replied, “Yep,” and leaned back in his chair, watching the ceiling fans spin above. The digital jukebox changed its tune from Merle Haggard to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Ben shut his eyes and hummed along to “Sweet Home Alabama” for a minute until the sound of a woman murmuring “Hey, handsome” brought him back to the room. The older, buxom blonde who’d voiced the flirtatious sentiment stood over Travis, pressing frosty pink lips to his scarred temple.
“Hi, Darlene,” Travis responded in a banal tone. Politely, he set her aside as though she was an unwanted toy.
The woman was clueless to his disinterest. “Come, dance with me,” she insisted, tugging on his shirt, beckoning him to rise from his chair.
“Not right now,” he stated and plucked her fingers from his collar.
In response to the rejection, Darlene leaned down. Shoved her cleavage in his face and said, “Why are you always puttin’ me off, Cooper? At least buy me a drink.”
Travis sighed, glanced at Ben, and pulled his wallet out to retrieve a five-dollar bill from inside. “Here,” he said, offering her the cash. “Go get yourself a rum and Coke. On me.”
Her expression twisted from a flirtatious smile to a pout, but she didn’t protest, simply snatched the money from his fingers and sauntered off in search of another prospective beau. To Ben, she gave no notice. He was invisible.
After she was gone, Travis leaned in and said, “She never gets the hint. I swear she’s one of the only ladies left in town who doesn’t know.”
The Jägerbombs were kicking in; Ben could feel it in his chest, in the speed of his heart rate. Alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. He must have appeared slightly off-kilter, because Travis touched his knee under the table and said, “You all right?”
The front door to the bar swung open, and low-level sunlight filtered in. Doug appeared on the threshold and waited a moment for his eyes to adjust before he entered in. Scanning the room, he noticed Travis and Ben, and a smile spread across his face. He approached the table and offered fist bumps to each of them before plopping down, exhausted, into a chair. “What’s the word?” he asked, pulling off his baseball cap, tossing it to the table. His short, spiky hair was unruffled from the weight of the hat. “I didn’t expect to find you two here.”
“Ben wanted a beer,” Travis responded.
“You chose the classiest spot in town. Looks like I came late to the party.” Doug gestured to the empty glasses and beer bottles.
“There’s still time for you to catch up.” Travis retreated to the bar and returned cradling a bottle of Budweiser and three lowball glasses of neat whiskey. The beer he handed to Doug; the whiskey glasses he passed around, one for each of them.
Ben looked at the glass he’d been given and pushed it aside. No way…
“How’d the job in Alma go?” Travis asked, taking a large sip of his whiskey.
“Had to redo all the plumbing.” Doug snarled. “Always one obstacle or another at these shit remodels. But I’ll get it done.” He peered at Ben. Kept his eyes fastened on him while he sipped his beer. Ben shifted in his chair. Turned his gaze down to the Texas star tattoo on the underside of Doug’s right wrist. There were countless tattoos up and down the man’s arms, but the star tattoo sat alone, no other markings surrounding it, like it was special, like it was meant to sit in seclusion.
“I showed Ben around town a bit,” Travis said. He finished off his whiskey and slammed the empty glass down.
“Bet that was exciting,” Doug teased. “Not a lot happens in Buena Vista. Nothing like L.A.”
“I kinda like that part of it,” Ben muttered.
Doug grinned and raised his bottle in a toast while retaining his transfixed stare from across the table. Ben returned the stare, equally transfixed, then stood up and headed in a somewhat crooked pattern to the rear of the bar, passing a few curious eyes along the way. The men’s room was grubby and small: one urinal, one stall, a floor covered in dirty paper towels and piss. Ben opened his fly and pulled himself out and aimed for the urinal as best he could. His head felt frothy as he stood there. Goddamn Jägerbombs.
Once completing his task, he splashed cold water across his face and grabbed a paper towel to wipe the moisture off. Then, the door pushed open, Doug entered into the cramped room with a salacious smile, and the walls closed in tighter. He unzipped his tight jeans and stood at the urinal, and Ben commanded himself not to look, but as soon as piss hit porcelain, he took a peek. The man was uncut and thick. Doug smirked to himself, aware that he was being watched. Obviously, he enjoyed playing the exhibitionist.
I could grab him, Ben thought. I could kiss that fucking smirk right off his face and take him into the stall. His crotch expanded at the play-out of this ten-second fantasy, but the scenario ceased as soon as the door opened and another guy stepped in. Ben was relieved by the interruption. Dropped the paper towel he was still holding onto the top of the overflowing trashcan and exited back out into the cacophony of jukebox music and bar patrons.
Maybe Travis had been right. Maybe there was little chance that he could resist fucking other people. In his heart, he wanted it to work, but temptation was bound to be everywhere, now that he’d turned insatiable. It’s all Travis’ fault, he accused, but that was neither fair nor accurate. He’d been hungry for cock since puberty; he’d just never had the guts to venture out and try it until now.
As he started to make his way back to the table, he noticed that Travis was no longer seated there but standing at the bar, leaning in close to a copper-haired man seated on a stool who had not previously been there. Ben watched as Travis retrieved a small object from his pants’ pocket and slammed it down on the wooden counter in front of the man, who looked at it indifferently. Although Travis managed to control the volume of his voice so that he wasn’t shouting and causing a scene, he was unmistakably spewing red-hot fire into the man’s freckled face – the infamous Eric.
Seemingly unruffled by the verbal attack, Eric responded with a malevolent grin. Picked up the ring that Travis had placed in front of him and slowly slid it onto his ring finger. Then he slipped off the stool and said something to Travis, which further provoked him; Travis rolled his hands into fists; a muscle twitched in his jaw. Ben recognized the signs of his rising fury. Eric was about to get his ass kicked, no doubt about it.
In a swift motion, Travis grabbed the guy by the elbow and propelled him toward the front door. No one else in the bar seemed to notice or care that a fight was about to erupt in the parking lot. Ben immediately made to follow, but a hand clamped down on his shoulder, halting him in place. “Give them a minute,” Doug commanded.
“No way.” Ben shook free and headed to the door. Had it been Doug’s plan to occupy him in the bathroom while Travis confronted his enemy? An attempt to keep him from interfering? Nice try, asshole.
Outside, the early evening air was still warm. The sun had dropped behind the mountains, and the sky was now a violet purple silhouetting the range. In addition to the steady rhythm of cicadas, the distinct sounds of a scuffle filled the air, along with a slew of curses. Ben rounded the corner of the building to witness Travis holding Eric by the throat, pressing his body up against the aluminum siding. During the tussle, they had trampled through chokecherry bushes which lined the building, and the guy’s boots were now tangled up in branches, like shackles. He was unable to get a proper foothold, and as a result, he was choking in Travis’ firm hold, trying to grab at Travis’ wrists with desperate hands. Clearly, Travis had no intention of easing up on him.
“Travis!” Ben yelled.
The intrusion was ignored. Travis smacked Eric’s head against the siding a few times, which left the man dazed. Flashbacks of being similarly handled by Curtis in the stables that very morning crashed forward, and for a split second, Ben thought he was witnessing Curtis’ twin acting out the same aggressive scenario. “Take it easy, Travis,” he prompted as he took a few steps closer.
He was conflicted whether or not to intervene. On the one hand, he wanted Travis to inflict serious pain on the guy. On the other hand, he didn’t want to deal with a murder. No matter how things played out, he feared this confrontation wouldn’t end well.
Doug, of course, was no help. He appeared at Ben’s side, amped-up and excited, and yelled, “Kick his fucking ass, Cooper!”
“Shut up, Doug,” Ben seethed.
A couple of bar patrons walked by and took a wide berth around the altercation, not wanting to get involved. Finally, Travis released his victim and took a step back. In a blur, Eric side-swiped him with a left hook to the jaw, sending him sprawling backwards across the chokecherry bushes. Travis fell to the sidewalk, smacking his back against the pavement, and in a flash, Eric was upon him, grabbing him by the shirt collar, wrestling with him for what seemed an eternity. All the while, curses and grunts filled the air.
Eventually, Travis gained a foothold and landed heavily on Eric’s chest, pinning his arms beneath his knees. Then he proceeded to smash the hell out of his face until his knuckles turned bloody – until Ben made the move to pull him off. Even then, Travis continued to throw punches, lashing out at the air, trying to kick Eric with his boots while Ben held tight to his waist, restraining him.
“Let me finish it!” Travis blurted, struggling to free himself. “Just let me fucking finish it!”
Eric hoisted himself up and leaned against the wheel of a Chevy Tahoe parked near him. His legs were twisted awkwardly beneath him. His face was a pulpy mess. “Shit, Cooper,” he muttered, spitting blood. “I’d heard rumors you were fucking Ben Mansfield, but I figured that was just some bad joke.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Travis commanded breathlessly.
Ben noticed Eric’s malevolent smirk as he looked up at Travis. Saw the unmistakable cruelty in his eyes. “He’s a handful, our Cooper,” Eric stated, trying to smile wide through cracked lips. “All the Coopers are. A word of advice for you, Ben: keep your boy on a tight leash. He needs discipline.”
Ben made to release Travis so that he could finish off the asshole, but Doug beat him to it. He stepped forward and kicked the guy straight across the face, sending him sailing back down to the ground.
“Enough,” Travis said, now slumped in Ben’s arms, all willpower and resistance gone. “Leave him.”
Doug moved in close and cradled Travis’ face in his hands. Planted a kiss on his moist forehead. “He deserved it, Cooper,” he whispered. “He had it coming for a long time. You know that. We all know that.”
Travis responded with a defeated nod.
“Get him out of here,” Doug calmly instructed Ben. “Take him home. I’ll deal with this.”
His arm still tightly wrapped around Travis’ waist, Ben guided him over to the Dodge. Reached inside his pocket for the keys and helped him climb into the passenger seat. As he pulled the seat belt across Travis’ chest, he kissed him on the mouth and whispered, “I’m taking you home, babe. You don’t have to worry about anything. It’s over now.”
By the time he’d rounded the front of the truck and climbed into the driver’s side, Travis was hunched over, sobbing into his bloodied hands.