> 1 <
Two months had passed since Ren had convinced Julia Hanson that her son, Hec, was lying about what happened at the lake. Soon, school would be starting at the ranch.
Hec was now gone. Leading up to his departure, there had been a meeting of all the families in the schoolhouse building, where the kids all assembled every day during the school year. Julia Hanson had asked everyone to come. When they came, they found Hec sitting on a straight-backed chair in front of the group; Cal was standing behind him with his hands on the boy’s shoulders. Even with Cal standing over him, Hec had tried to bolt several times. Ren would have felt sorry for him, but any warm feelings he’d had for the boy had entirely disappeared during the time he’d spent alone, frightened and despairing at the lake.
Mrs. Hanson spoke to the families in the school’s large assembly room while standing near Hec. She explained she had learned what Hec had done, the threats that he’d made, and what he’d forced the boys from the ranch to do.
“I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but there’s been a great wrong done to you boys,” she said, looking them in their eyes, “and this would be an opportunity, if any of you wished to take it, to perhaps get things off your chests. If anyone wants to confront Hec and say anything at all to him with no fear of any repercussions, this would be your opportunity to do that. Hec won’t be here much longer and won’t be back for a long, long time, so if anyone does wish to say anything to him, it has to be now.”
Then Mrs. Hanson praised all the boys who’d been involved for doing what they’d done because of their thinking they had to protect their parents. She told them she was proud of them for that, for their loyalty to their families, but that she wished they had trusted her not to have done what Hec had said would happen if they’d told. She told them that the ranch was their home, their parents’ home, and that their parents were as much a part of this ranch and its success as she and her family had been.
Then she spoke directly to the adults. “I’d never throw any of you or your families off this ranch. You all mean way too much to me, you’re all loyal to a fault and truly good people. We’re all one family here, and the homes you live in have been earned many time over.”
In addition, she told them she never thought of herself as anyone’s boss, but was simply one of the people who kept the ranch running for everyone’s benefit. “We’re all separate families and one larger one here. We’re all part of what we have on this ranch. I’m very sad that my own son has acted as he has. Obviously, he needs a firmer hand and stricter guidance and discipline as he finishes his childhood, and he will get it.”
She asked that all the boys who’d passed their 13th birthdays to come up and sit in front. They were embarrassed but not shy in front of her. They all liked her, had grown up with her, and she’d always been friendly and generous and approachable. So they came to the front of the group and sat on the floor.
“I said I was proud of all of you, and I meant it,” she said. “You don’t have to confront Hec if you don’t want to. But maybe you do. Maybe you’re angry at him for what he forced you to do. Maybe it would help all of you to get over some of that anger if you told him how you feel about what he did.”
The boys squirmed a little, looked at each other and then dropped their eyes. Everyone in the room was nervous, and that feeling communicated itself through the group. There was dead silence, no movement at all until, suddenly, Hec tried again to escape, which was quickly stopped with firm pressure from Cal’s hands on his shoulders.
The silence and stillness lasted over a minute—a long, tense minute—until, to Ren’s surprise, Gus Mendoza stood up.
Gus was the boy Ren had thought to be like himself: a reader, a kid who stayed in his house most of the time, something of a dreamer, not terribly adventurous, not terribly brave, not wholly comfortable in social situations. Yet Gus stood and then hesitantly walked up to where Hec was sitting. Cal remained standing behind Hec and continued to hold the boy in his chair. Cal was making it clear to everyone that Hec was being physically restrained and in no position to do anything at all.
Gus walked until he was standing in front of Hec. He cleared his throat.
“Hector,” he said, and Hec winced. Evidently, Ren thought, Hec hated his full name, and the boys knew that. “Hector, you made me kneel down and kiss your penis. It was the most humiliating thing I ever did, and I’ve hated myself for it ever since. It changed me, and I started staying by myself more than before. I was ashamed of myself because I knew I should have told, but I was a coward. I’ve decided I’m not going to be a coward any longer. It took a new kid to be brave enough to stand up to you, even though it almost killed him to do so, and I’m going to try to follow his example from now on. Whatever punishment you get, in my opinion, you earned—it and more—and what happens to you from now on, I don’t give a damn. I’ll be glad if I never see you again.”
Then he stared at Hec, and Hec tried to stare back, but couldn’t. He dropped his eyes. Still, Gus stood there a moment longer, then turned and slowly walked back to his family, where Mrs. Mendoza had her arms open waiting for him, and Mr. Mendoza grasped his shoulder firmly and patted him on the back, whispering something in his ear that caused him to smile.
That led to other boys coming up and admitting they’d done what Hec had forced them to do because they’d been afraid. They faced Hec, looked in his eyes, and then returned to their families, blushing, and every one of them was greeted with hugs.
Ren thought about what had happened to him in Jackson. Though these boys had suffered, they were getting closure that he knew he’d never get from his mother. Still, he was past that. He was happy now and felt very good about living on the ranch. He was happy to see what was happening in the assembly room.
Hec squirmed throughout and tried again to get up, and Cal tightened his grip.
Mrs. Hanson had Ren stand up, and she publicly commended him on his courage. He hated being a spectacle like that, and he had trouble meeting anyone’s eyes, but in the quick glances he took at the crowd of people he saw friendliness and smiles. He tried to smile back. It was hard for him.
At the end of the meeting, Mrs. Hanson told everyone that Hec was being sent to a military school all the way across the country from the ranch, a school that was noted for turning around wayward boys. He’d be gone until he graduated, if he was able to do that; in his case it would be a full two years and maybe longer because he’d never worked hard at the school here. He would not be returning during the time he was enrolled at the school. When he graduated, another decision would be made, but she would have to approve his return; she thought it likely he’d go into the military. If he wanted to visit the ranch, it would only happen if she was convinced he had changed.
She looked directly at him when she said, “I’ll be hard to convince. I will need to believe you because I don’t want any further harm to come to the people who live on this ranch.”
> 2 <
“Ow! That hurt!”
“Aw, stop being a baby. Everyone does this!”
Andy broke out laughing as he watched. He’d been involved with Ren from the beginning and observed as Ren learned the ways of the ranch. Ren was a fast study, mentally, but the physical aspects of most activities usually frustrated him. Andy knew he’d learn everything eventually and enjoyed watching the process, even the times when some pain was involved.
“Try again, and hold it tight like I showed you.”
Izzy was loving this, working with Ren. She still had her crush on him. It confused her. She’d thought she was one of those people who’d been born in the wrong body. She’d been so sure she was supposed to be a boy. She hated girly things and loved boy things. The occasional crushes she’d had growing up were confusing because she’d felt them for some girls and some boys, too. She’d just thought that crushes on anyone were part of the process of growing up.
Then Ren had arrived, and she’d met him in his kitchen—almost naked, hair mussed up, sleep still in his eyes, in the same condition her brother Rocky was usually in when he got up; somehow, Ren just mesmerized her. He was the most wonderful thing she’d ever seen. It made no sense to her! She figured it was just because he was new and different, and the feelings would go away. They were girly feelings and dammit, she was no girl!
The feelings never had left her, however. Now, he was becoming just another boy on the ranch, one of the crowd, but her heart beat faster whenever he was around. Part of the problem was, he was so nice, so unassuming, so friendly, so…well, shy…and to top all that off, so cute! She knew by heart every expression, every grimmace, every smile he displayed. She found each one of them adorable.
She’d hoped getting to know him better would make the crush go away. If anything, it was making it worse. Even stuff like this—working with him, talking to him, teaching him—she loved doing it, but damn! At least she wasn’t blushing. Sometimes, she did when her thoughts ran away from her. She hated blushing.
What was worse was, Andy seemed to know. At least, it was only Andy who knew. He was probably the one boy on the ranch who was nice enough not to say anything to anyone and not to tease her. Andy had been best friends with her brother, but ever since Rocky had become moon-eyed over Anna Vargas and could talk of little else, Andy seemed to spend most of his time with Ren. She thought that Rocky should be offended, but Rocky was all in with Anna. He was friends with everyone, always had been, but now his eyes and thoughts were always on Anna, and he barely seemed to notice that Andy didn’t hang with him much anymore.
She didn’t blame Andy for choosing Ren over her brother for a friend. Andy was Andy, and he marched to his own drummer. He been like that since he was little. Somehow, in some subtle way that Izzy couldn’t really put her finger on, Andy was a little different from the others. He was very friendly, had a quirky sense of humor, laughed at things she couldn’t quite see the humor in, was well liked and fit in with the rest, but there was always a slight remoteness or reserve to him. She’d thought it odd he’d picked Rocky for his best friend, because they were so different. Rocky was totally outgoing, everyone’s best buddy, while Andy had that…that something about him.
She was glad that if anyone had to notice how she behaved when Ren was around, it was Andy. She liked Andy, too, but not romantically. Her romantic feelings for Ren seemed to have no limits. Even if he was a boy. She felt she needed to reevaluate herself once again. Seemed like she’d been doing that all her life. Figuring out just who you were was difficult for a 12-year-old girl, she decided, especially if your name was Isamar Gonzales.
“Now lie down, flat on your stomach. Spread your legs. No, not like that.” She got down and pressed outward on his inner thighs, pushing his legs farther apart, aware of where her hands were and annoyed with herself for how that made her feel. She’d been touching boys all her life, wrestling with them, rough-and-tumbling with them, and none of it had given her feelings like this. Damn!
“Now this time, hold it against your shoulder. No, tighter.”
She was teaching him how to shoot a rifle. Andy had tried, but Andy was a mediocre shot. Izzy was one of the best at the ranch, even if she was only 12. She was one of the best at all the activities the boys did. She joined in right along with them. She spent almost no time at all with any of the girls. And while she spent all her time with the boys, she also liked to beat them, to prove she was one of them, that she was as good as they were at everything they did. They couldn’t very well make fun of her if she could beat them. They had to accept her.
Ren still didn’t have the stock of the rifle against his shoulder correctly. No matter how he held it, it didn’t feel comfortable to him.
“No, move it back here,” Izzy said, reaching across him to pull the stock of the rifle firmly against his shoulder. “That’s why it hurt last time. This is a .30-30 rifle. They don’t kick all that bad. But it will hurt if it isn’t right up against your shoulder, and you didn’t have it tight enough.” She tsked and then got down on top of him, wiggling around and adjusting the stock against his shoulder, getting it just so, then moving his head so his cheek was against it; wishing it was her cheek pressed against his as she did so—realizing how her crotch was pressed against the softness of his butt as she moved.
She rolled off. This time she was blushing. She took a quick, hopefully casual-appearing glance at Andy. He was watching her. His expression was one she couldn’t read; she wasn’t even sure he saw how red her face was.
She returned to her job, happy to look away from Andy. “Now aim, and this time, don’t pull the trigger so hard. Just keep squeezing and aiming and keep the barrel steady, not waving around, and when the rifle fires, you should hit what you’re aiming at.”
Ren tried. He really tried. He didn’t want to disappoint her because she was trying so hard. He slowly squeezed, and finally the explosion came, and he looked, but he seemed to have missed the entire target again.
“Maybe next time,” he said, and stood up, brushing himself off. “Thanks for trying. I’m just hopeless at things like this. And softball and soccer and football, and—”
Andy wouldn’t let that go unchallenged. “Only at first,” he said, “and not at games like capture the flag or kick the can. Games that have some strategy element to them, you’re really good at. You’re a good swimmer, too!” Andy hated it when Ren got down on himself, which he did so easily. Andy understood why Ren didn’t have much confidence, but jeez! He was good at some things, not so good at others. Just like everyone else. He just seemed to overlook what he was good at and concentrate on what he couldn’t do.
Ren smiled at him, and Izzy said, “Speaking of swimming, I’m hot. Wanna?”
Andy looked at Ren, and Ren said, “Sure. Wanna get some of the others?”
That was difficult for Izzy! When a whole group went, the boys skinny-dipped. She’d been swimming with them since she was six. Back then, her older sister, Linda, would go, too, along with some of the other girls, and while the girls hung together, the boys would go to a different part of the lake and where they’d strip off completely. As Izzy grew older and began hanging pretty exclusively with the boys, they’d begun treating her like one of them, and eventually, when a group of them went swimming and she was the only girl among them, she joined in—without bothering to tell her mother or anyone else. That day, the boys had simply stripped off like they always did, and she had, too. Except, she’d left her panties on. She wasn’t sure why. She’d thought about it afterwards and decided it was because she was ashamed. She knew she didn’t have the same equipment they did, and it embarrassed her. So she kept her panties on to keep her missing parts less noticeable.
The boys noticed, and her brother Rocky had started to say something, but one of the older boys, Gus Mendoza, had grabbed his arm, shaken his head, and taken him aside. He’d spoken to him and said something that had evidently made a difference because Rocky hadn’t said anything more about it then or later. Some of the other boys had noticed Gus drawing Rocky aside, and no one else had made anything of her skinny-dipping with them from then on either.
When the older boys were all going swimming in a group, when there were ones who were better developed with hair and all, Izzy didn’t go with them. When it was just the younger ones, she went along. Now, the problem was, if she went with only Ren and Andy, she was pretty sure they, being who they were, would keep their underwear on because she was there and had hers on. And she didn’t want that! She didn’t want them thinking of her as a girl! She wanted to be one of them. Even with the feelings she had for Ren, she still wanted to be thought of as just one of them.
But it was more complicated than that, and she knew it. She hadn’t been swimming with Ren yet, and she wanted to see him naked. If she went swimming with just him and Andy, she doubted she’d get to see that. If they went with a bunch of the others their age, she probably would.
Ren had asked the question about others joining them to neither Andy or Izzy in particular. Andy, for some reason, was looking at her and not answering. Bugger. She wanted the three of them to go without anyone else, but she did want others with them, too. Why was everything now so complicated? Things were easier when she was younger. Before Ren showed up, too.
And how should she answer the question about getting some of the others to join them?
She didn’t have to. Ren answered his own question. “The others are probably all busy doing other things. If we stop to round people up, it’ll take too long. I’m hot, and swimming sounds wonderful. I think just the three of us should go. Is that OK?”
They were out on the prairie where the rifle range had been set up. There was a knoll that was high enough to serve as a safe backdrop. They were about a mile from home, and only a half mile from one of the small ponds they swam in. It made no sense to ride home to tell their parents where they were going, and besides, this was Texas, and Texas kids learned early to be self-reliant. Their parents didn’t expect them to come home to report in all day long or tell them what they were up to.
Ren put his rifle in the scabbard hanging on Midnight, and Izzy did the same with hers. They mounted and rode at an easy gait to the pond. No one else was there.
Andy had been quiet on the ride, which was fine with Izzy. Izzy was a talker, and with Andy seeming to be off in one of his reflective moods, Izzy was able to pretend it was just she and Ren. She was loving it, and she showed it by talking to him almost nonstop. Which suited Ren fine. He never quite knew what to say to any girl.
They dismounted and let their horses drink and then graze. Andy began undressing right away. Ren had been swimming with the boys several times now, but Izzy hadn’t been with them. Now, he wasn’t sure how this was going to work. But Andy seemed to have no qualms. He started undressing, and didn’t stop till he had no more clothes to remove.
Ren had been much slower, probably because he kept glancing furtively at Izzy, watching what she was doing. She was undressing much slower than she usually did and being very neat with everything she took off. However, once she got to her tee shirt, off it came. She never wore a bra. She hated them and, so far, had no need for one.
She was naked except for her panties. Andy was as naked as he could be. Ren looked back and forth at them.
Then Andy said, “Come on, Ren. Izzy’s one of us.” Then he turned and made for the water, and Izzy followed.
Ren was uncertain. He knew Izzy had a crush on him. He couldn’t help but know. Realizing that, he wondered if it was right for him to strip. But then he had a thought. He liked Izzy fine, but it wasn’t a romantic kind of liking. Not at all. And it kind of bothered him that she felt the way she did about him. He’d have preferred it if she was simply a friend. So, he thought, wouldn’t it show her that he didn’t think of her the way she thought of him if he did strip down and let her see him? He wouldn’t do that if he liked her, would he? Well, perhaps some boys, the show-off type of boys, would, but he himself would not.
He was still a little undecided, but then he thought about the swimming and how happy Andy looked, ignoring his nudity and just splashing around in the water, and he thought, the hell with it, stripped off his undies, and joined them.
He saw Izzy watching him as he walked to the water and jumped in. He decided not to let it bother him.
As for Izzy, her day was now complete, and her crush on Ren just that much stronger. That boy was cute! All over!
> 3 <
Andy came to Ren’s house almost every day. Ren had never had such a constant friend before. He and Bobby had never spent that much time together, and Bobby’d never been as important in Ren’s life as Andy had become. The side of him that still doubted himself, a part that wasn’t asserting itself as often as time passed, wondered why Andy spent so much time with him. The boy had to have had friends he’d hung with before Ren had showed up.
But he enjoyed Andy’s company too much to wonder about the reasons the boy had latched onto him.
After Izzy’s shooting lesson and the skinny-dipping, which Ren was still trying to get his head around, Andy just naturally followed Ren to his house when they’d finished tending to the horses. It was late afternoon, and Ren knew he had to start dinner soon, but Andy came with him into the kitchen and sat at the table. To Ren, Andy looked like he had something on his mind.
Ren grabbed a couple of Cokes out of the refrigerator and sat down at the table next to Andy, placing one of the Cokes in front of him. Then he just sat patiently waiting.
When Andy took his time opening his can and then sort of fidgeted in his chair, Ren very seriously said, “Nice day, isn’t it? Think it might rain later?” And then he laughed.
Andy did, too. “OK, so I have something to say, and I’m nervous.”
“Nervous? Around me? Really?”
Andy nodded, then lowered his head. Without lifting it, he said, “I should have warned you about Hec. I’m surprised you haven’t said anything.”
“Hec?! That was months ago. I’ve forgotten all about him. You haven’t been worrying about him all this time, have you?”
“Not him. You. I’ve thought maybe you’d be mad. I’ve been wanting to tell you why I never warned you. You haven’t been wondering about that?”
Ren took a long drink before answering. Then he looked into Andy’s eyes. “Are we being honest here?”
Andy nodded again, meeting Ren’s eyes. “Yeah, we are.”
“OK then, I’ll go first. Since you’re nervous and all.” Ren laughed, easing the tension that had arisen, and Andy, feeling less nervous now that Ren had laughed, smiled thankfully.
Ren continued. “I wondered what was up with you when I first came here because every time Hec would show up, not even coming over to talk to us, you’d always disappear. The first couple of times when I was watching Hec, when I turned around to say something to you, you were gone. Then I noticed it happened every time. I thought that was weird. Then after the lake stuff where I learned what Hec had done to the kids here, after that, I wondered if you’d bailed out those times because you didn’t like him on account of what he’d done, or if you were scared of him somehow. But it was still weird, because with the other kids, he only made them do it once, so there wouldn't be anything to be scared about afterwards. But I didn’t want to ask. I didn’t know why you kept disappearing like that, and I was afraid I might hurt your feelings asking about it, and I didn’t want to do that.”
Ren stopped to take another drink, then directly answered Andy’s question. “I did wonder, once, why you hadn’t said anything, but none of the kids did, and several could have. I just thought after it was done that maybe all you guys simply considered it something you all had to do and I would be in the same boat and would do it and it would be over. I never held it against you for not telling me.” He stopped and waited till Andy looked up. Ren caught his eye and repeated, “Never.”
Andy got a wan smile on his face after that. He hesitated for a few moments, and Ren waited. Then, speaking softly, Andy said, “That wasn’t the reason.”
“Huh? You mean that wasn’t the reason you didn’t warn me?”
“No, it wasn’t the reason I always walked away. But I guess the reason for not warning you, too. And that’s part of what I wanted to talk to you about.”
He was nervous again. Andy had to be careful how he approached this.
“See, I’m the only boy here our age or older who Hec never got to. He would have if he could, but as you saw, I was pretty good at adiosing myself whenever he showed up. I never gave him the opportunity. He always got boys when they were alone. He made them ride out with him somewhere. I was never alone with him, I made sure of that, and even when I was with others, I’d leave wherever he showed up if I could.”
Ren was looking at him wide-eyed. “You never did that—with him?”
Andy grinned, not humorously. “Never. But if he had caught me, I probably would have. His threats sounded very real, and none of us had any idea whether he could make them come true or not. He told us he was a part-owner of the ranch, even showed Gus some papers once that he said were shares of stock given him by his grandfather. So we believed him. None of us told our parents about it, either. We were all ashamed. That was one reason I didn’t want to do it with him. In my family, we don’t have secrets. I think I would have told Mom and Dad. It would have eaten at me, and I’d have told them. I knew they’d go to Mrs. Hanson. I was afraid of what might happen.”
Ren didn’t say anything. He did reach out to touch Andy’s hand briefly.
It was quiet for a few moments, then Ren asked, “You said that was part of what you wanted to talk about. What else?”
“The rest is awkward, too. But, well, you know Izzy likes you, don’t you?”
Ren grinned. “Yeah, how could I not? But I like her, too. She’s great. I don’t like her the way she likes me, but I figure she’ll get over it. She’s only 12.”
“So you don’t want to be her boyfriend?”
“No! Did you think I did?”
“I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe. See, this is the awkward part. I saw how you acted when Hec was around. So I thought… Well, then there was Izzy, and you didn’t seem to be looking at her the way she was at you, and then the way you looked at Hec, and I just thought maybe…but then you wouldn’t do what Hec asked, and that made me think…well, I didn’t know what to think.”
He stopped and dropped his eyes. Ren was quiet. Was Andy asking him if he was gay? Thinking he didn’t like Izzy that way because he was gay? That he wouldn’t have minded kissing Hec’s dick because he was gay?
Ren didn’t want to talk about this. He liked Andy and really liked that they were friends. He was afraid if he said he was gay, that might change things. Maybe not much; maybe Andy wouldn't care, but maybe he would. It was too much of a risk.
So what should he say?
Andy spoke before he could. “I didn’t want you to fall in love with Izzy. When the guys do that, they change. I’m glad that you’re not doing that.”
Ren smiled, thinking Andy was making it easier for him, not pushing. Did he do that on purpose? Anyway, this was easier. “No, I’m not doing that. I like Izzy, but not that way.”
Andy stood up. “I feel better now. Thanks. You have dinner to fix, I know. So I’ll go. But, I’m glad you didn’t do that with Hec, either. Everyone’s proud of you, you know. You solved a very big problem here.”
When he was gone, Ren had to think about what had just happened. Andy hadn’t asked if he was gay, but he’d sure led up to it. Of course, Ren hadn’t asked Andy if he was gay, either, and he could be. If so, that would explain him not wanting Ren to be falling for Izzy. It could also be why he was always walking away when he saw how Ren acted with Hec around; maybe Andy had been jealous.
He realized, unhappily, that he didn’t know any more now than he did before Andy had talked to him. But, would he have welcomed more? Did he want Andy to be gay? He wasn’t sure. Their relationship was perfect right now. If Andy was gay and Ren knew it, things would change. There was no question about that.
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