All I ever wanted was a chance to turn my life around. I was tired of being looked down upon and called a bum, a drifter, or a no good. Ever since I dropped out of high school at fifteen, it had been hard for me to settle down. Maybe that was the problem, and there was always a woman or something else down the road I didn't want to miss. I figured I'd stop when I'd scraped together enough money to get some sort of start of my own. Somehow that never happened, and the years added up in a way I didn't like the look of.
As usual, I'd been hitching along the highway, unemployed and running low on cash. I had about enough for a cheap room, a couple of drinks, and maybe a woman. A light rain fell, and I'd been damp and cold, the cold that numbed and made me long for a good shot of whiskey. Wind whipped across a barbed wire fence and rattled the blades on a silent windmill. A Burlington Northern freight ran for North Dakota, the boxcars snapping past the fields next to me. Come spring, the fields would be green with winter wheat, and life would be good again, but it wasn't spring yet, and the rain was turning to sleet.
So far, my luck hitching had been like my luck finding jobs, not too good. And the weather hadn't helped any. I was a pretty fair ranch hand and always used to think there wasn't much of anything I couldn't do. I was good with animals and my hands, and I wasn't bad with the ladies, either. When I heard there might be work around Billings, I headed in that direction. Finding jobs was getting harder every year. Most small ranchers didn't have the money to pay for help and the ones that could pay had all the help they needed.
A few cars and pickups roared by on the highway, sending up sprays of rain, but the drivers wouldn't even look at me. It used to be fairly easy to catch a ride in the rain. Somehow, people always took pity on a lone wet figure beside a highway, but it's different today — they think you're going to cut their throats for the change in their pockets.
To take my mind off the water dripping down my neck, I'd started thinking of Davidson, the cook, the last place I'd worked, the one who told me about Billings. He had his girl's picture taped to the wall at the foot of his bunk. I remember the picture because the girl was exceptionally pretty. Her face was almost hidden behind an incredible fall of blond hair.
Davidson would lie in his bunk, smoke cigarillos, and look at the picture. Occasionally he'd raise an eyebrow, roll onto his side, and knock the ash into a beer can, then go back to staring at the girl. She lived in Utah, and he got about three letters a week from her. He never told me what was in the letters. I could lend him ten dollars to lose playing poker, spend long afternoons talking when the snow was too deep for us to work, but the girl was none of my business.
I'd put no girl's picture on the wall. I didn't see the point. Besides, I never had a girl that made you forget yourself like that, though there had been a waitress named Annie in the last town who was pretty enough.
Just as I was about to give up hitching and look for shelter in a barn, a new Dodge pickup stopped just ahead of me. The passenger door swung open in invitation. I ran to it and climbed in before the driver didn't like my looks. I couldn't guess his age from his face, but knew he was much older than I was. He was square-jawed with graying hair and large calloused hands. His black eyes were intent on me, much like my father's had been when he was about to get serious. For a moment, I almost wished I hadn't gotten in.
"Where you headed?" He asked.
"Billings," I said.
"I'm not going quite that far."
"Just drop me anywhere."
"Not sure I can do that. We'll have to see."
Before I could say anything, he'd pulled back onto the highway.
My throat felt dry, my stomach tightened, and I curled my hands into fists, ready for any action.
"What do you do?" he asked.
"I work around."
One thing I never liked about the people who gave me rides was their questions. I liked the ones best who told you their life story as you nodded at them, then bought you a cup of coffee or a meal. What did this guy want?
He nodded his head.
"I was like you once. Never could settle down, even after I got shot up in Viet Nam. Then one day I fell in love, I mean really in love. It knocked me right on my ass. I got a second chance. Maybe you will too."
I stared out the window, hoping he'd stop talking. I didn't need to be preached to.
"I got a ranch now," he said. "Not big, but enough. It's not easy to build it up to where I want it. I know many who've started from nothing, but it wasn't easy. I've seen many start, but few who lasted. I've been luckier than most, though. Found I had oil under my place. Only have one well, but there'll be more. I'm in no hurry. The price ain't going nowhere but up. I want to leave something for my son's future."
"Sounds like a nice setup."
"It's not bad," he said. "I kind of let the ranching end slide when I found out about the oil, and I'm ready to get it back in shape. I could use some help if you're interested."
I didn't answer.
"There's maybe three months' work. And there could be a bonus if things work out. Have to let you go after that. Pay you in cash."
"I haven't told you I was interested yet."
"How much money you got right now?"
"I'm going to Billings."
"Sure, you are," he said and then paused. "I'll pay you well, plus room and board. Enough to get a proper start on things. That's all you want, isn't it? I've a bunkhouse nobody's using, just needs a little fixing up. I'm not someone who enjoys beating around the bush in these matters. Three thousand. How's that? That's a lot of money for a man like you. I know it, I been there too."
He was right; three thousand dollars could do a lot for me. "What would I be doing?" I said.
"You'll find out."
"I want to know."
"Of course you do. I would, too, if I were in your position."
He was silent, and I wondered whether I'd said too much.
"I still want to know what I'll be doing."
"Persistent, aren't you?" He gave me a half-smile. "I was like that once. Five thousand, and that's my ultimate offer. If I were in your place, I'd jump at the offer."
"Well, you're not."
"Touchy, ain't you?"
"What if I am?" I tensed.
"Look, I just like to know the person I'll be hiring."
"Sure, of yourself, aren't you?" I tried to hide my annoyance.
"I have to be." He looked at me directly in the eye. "And there'll be that bonus I told you about."
"The best kind. You wait and see the kind a man like you dream about."
The five thousand was more money than I could ever imagine. "All right," I said, wondering what I was getting into.
"My name's Frank Brower," he said, extending his hand. "I like a man who knows what he wants."
His grip was firm.
"Jack Ennis," I said.
After a few more miles, he turned off the highway, and we bounced along over dirt and gravel road, then into a long driveway bordered on both sides by barbed wire, scrub juniper, and sage. At the end of the driveway was a barn, pump jack, bunkhouse, empty pens and corrals, and a small, white, one-story house with what looked like a skylight at one end of the roof and brightly colored curtains in the windows. Except for the flowery curtains, which seemed out of place for a man like Brower, it didn't look like much.
He slowed the truck to a stop in front of the house and blew the horn. I jumped at the sound. "Sometimes my wife Rita is busy and doesn't hear me come in," he said with a laugh, "I just like to warn her in case..."
He shrugged his shoulders.
I looked at him. Was he joking or serious? What had I got myself into? Then I climbed out and stretched my legs. Brower moved stiffly from the seat, placing his feet carefully on the ground. I stared at him.
"Shrapnel," he said. "Someplace in Viet Nam I can't pronounce. Sometimes it can be a real bother. I got hit pretty good. Can't do a lot of things I once could."
I'd heard about wounded guys like Frank, who had survived the war but suffered from trauma.
It had almost stopped raining, but I could see snow clouds forming in the mountains and wondered whether they would reach the ranch. The empty pens looked ominous in the gray light and the squeaking and pulse of the oil well filled the night.
There was a movement at the door of the house, and a young woman of about twenty-five stepped out. I caught myself staring. She was about five foot seven with bronze hair and the dancing green eyes I liked best in a woman, but hers were different, clear, and steady, with shadows of thought in their depths. Yet her mouth held a certain sadness and bitterness I couldn't figure out. Then her face changed when she saw Frank. It became full of a passion I'd never seen in a woman before. I guessed she made him feel like he was almost a man again. I pushed my hands into my pockets and pretended to look away. Brower smiled at me as if he knew I'd stare.
"This is Jack Ennis,"
She smiled at me, and I felt warm all over, very warm. Brower led me to the bunkhouse. The place needed a good cleaning, but other than that, it was all right.
"Blankets and sheets are in the storage closet. You get settled in, then come up and see me."
He limped back toward the house. Rita waited for him beside the truck, and he took her hand and went inside.
About half an hour later, I knocked on the door but got no answer. I knocked again and then stepped inside. The living room was sparsely furnished, but the things were nice. There was a couch along one wall, a coffee table with a couple of magazines on it, and a deep leather chair with a reading lamp near the fireplace.
I heard running water and passed through the living room, where I knocked on the doorway leading into the hall. The water stopped, and Rita stepped out into the hallway. Wearing a towel, I stared again. She looked at me with a curious, almost bold look in her eye.
"He's in there," she said, pointing down the hall. "At his desk. Go right in. Frank's expecting you."
She turned down the hall in the opposite direction. Her hair stuck to her neck and I could smell the bathwater still on her, hot and musty with the faint smell of roses. I felt the flush in my face from staring at her when I entered Brower's study. He sat at the desk with his boots off. Other than the desk, a rug, and a couple of chairs, the room wasn't much to look at.
"Was that Rita in the hall?" he said.
"I'll have to talk to her about her bath schedule."
"It's all right."
"Seen a lot of naked women, have you?" he said with a smile.
"Scotch, all right?"
He carefully poured out the drinks and handed me a glass. It was smooth and tasted pretty good. "Not bad," I said. Scotch was scotch to me.
Brower smiled. "A hundred dollars a bottle. How long did you say you've been working on ranches?"
"As long as I can remember."
He nodded his understanding. "Then you can do a lot of things."
"I hope so."
"My father had a dream about this country," he said. "Finding water, growing crops, raising cattle. Having children. Building a life. He never quite made it. He liked a drink now and then. It's a dream I want to see happen now, especially for Rita's sake. Sometimes I worry about her being alone here all the time. She says it doesn't bother her. But I don't know. So, it's important for me to make her happy."
He propped his feet on the desk, sipping his drink, and motioned me to a chair. "I'm going to be away a lot in the next three months. If I handle this oil thing right, it will make a lot of money. I'm not greedy. I don't have to have it all right now, but with the proper planning, neither of us will ever have to worry about money again. Even if some kids come along.
"I know this place has got run down, and now that money is coming, I want to put it back like a working ranch ought to be, so I wanted to make sure that you knew what you were doing."
"No problem there," I said.
"It's not spring yet, but as soon as the ground has softened, I want you to dig a garden. Nothing large, you understand, just enough to keep Rita happy. Down by the south side of the bunkhouse will be fine. She wants to plant flowers. She's like that."
So far, it didn't look too bad.
"Second. You're to check the oil rig twice a day. The instructions are hanging in the shed on the platform. The last guy I hired had other things on his mind. Cost me a bundle to get the rig working again and get rid of him in a hurry."
He caught my eye. Was he expecting me to say something? What he did on his ranch wasn't my business.
"Third, I need a lot of fencing replaced, brush cleared, and some ditches dug. There's at least three or four weeks' work there, maybe more. You can charge what you need at the hardware store. Fourth, the barn roof could do with some fixing. It leaks in heavy rains. And you might as well paint it while you're at it. Fifth, I need the windmill repaired. And, of course, there's the bunkhouse plus anything else that needs attention. That should be enough for now."
It certainly would be. I'd come pretty near earning my money if I got all that done in three months.
I had none.
He stood, and I knew I was dismissed. I also stood, leaving my half-finished whiskey on the desk.
"I expect you to be up and ready by five-thirty tomorrow morning. Rita will have breakfast ready. Good night now."
I turned and walked out. Instead of calming me, the whiskey made me tense. The whole setup was a little strange. It was especially strange that Frank would bring in a younger man to spend a lot of time around the place with his young wife when he was going to be away so much. Rita's image came back to me, and I wondered whether she would be a fringe benefit beyond the money.
I headed back to the bunkhouse and lay down on one of the beds. I wondered what it took to get a place like this and a beautiful wife to go with it. Luck, maybe. But what of Rita was that luck, too? I didn't know. He got the chance to be someone, and I hadn't. I wondered whether Brower knew what it was like to sleep, coated with dust and sweat, under a table at a roadside rest. Then waking with a loneliness no man should feel. Certainly, that entitled me to something in this life.
I soon settled into the routine. Every morning by the time I started work, Brower had already left. He'd always be back for supper, driving up in his truck and blowing the damn horn for his wife. Like so many other things, their lives seemed to pass me by while I watched from roofs, ditches, or wherever I was working.
One night at supper, Brower was loose and whiskey talkative, though I could tell the shrapnel was bothering him because his face was pale and drawn.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" he said as Rita brought the last of the things to the table and slipped gracefully into her chair. She looked away, and I couldn't tell if she was annoyed or embarrassed. I could only nod in agreement. Out of fear, my voice would reveal too much.
"I picked her up along the road just like I did you," he said. "She wasn't going anywhere, and she had no money. You should have heard her swear when I offered a ride."
He reached out and squeezed her hand. She seemed embarrassed and looked away.
"I'm nearing some final agreements on my oil projects and have to meet with the drillers and the bank. I'll be gone several days, this time, perhaps longer. I don't really know. I'll be leaving Rita in charge. Things have been going well, and I hope they'll continue that way."
We finished eating in silence, then Frank stood and put his arm around his wife's shoulder so that she could lead him down the hall to the bedroom.
I let my eyes travel over her firm breasts as she took the weight of his body. I thought of the next few days when Brower would be away and tried to keep from smiling to myself.
Instead of going to sleep as usual that night, I stayed awake until past midnight. The memory of her in the hall after the bath was more than a man could take. Still restless, I looked toward the house. I noticed a light was on and sneaked up and see if I could glimpse her.
I put on my coat and crept quietly toward the house, wondering when she'd see that Brower wasn't what she'd thought he'd be. How many times had she helped him down that hallway, only to be left alone and unfulfilled? The window to the living room was half open, as if someone had forgotten to close it.
After a while, I heard Brower's footsteps, and then the creak of the couch in the living room.
"Frank, don't sleep there," came Rita's voice. "You'll be lamed up in the morning."
"Sometimes it helps," he said. "It's funny, if that war had never happened, I wouldn't have all this shrapnel in my legs, and I probably wouldn't have you either."
"Just lie quiet," she said. "You don't have to talk."
I heard water running, and when I found a better position where I could see them through the window, she was putting a poultice on his leg.
"Too hot, Frank?" she said.
He just murmured, and then let out his breath in a little sigh.
"It's a big piece," he said. "Maybe that's the last." He held up the black fragment.
"Yes, maybe it is," she said softly.
The couch creaked again as Frank left it. She put her arm around him, and they went down the hall together, and soon the lights went out. Then I knew they must be lying side by side.
At lunchtime the next day, she brought me a cup of coffee and a sandwich out where I was working on the fence by the highway. She looked tired and haggard from staying up with Frank. She leaned against the car, saying nothing, while I hunkered down by the fence and started the food.
"The sandwich is good," I said.
"Were you ever a soldier?" she asked.
"I wanted to be."
What I had done with my life was my business.
"What were you before you married Frank?" I asked.
"A lot like you."
She looked beyond me to where heavy clouds were building over the prairie.
"How old are you?" I said, not afraid of the question.
She didn't answer but continued to stare over the brown fields.
"A man could wonder about a woman like you," I said.
"And what are you wondering?" she said in a voice devoid of emotion.
"Why the things a man would wonder about a beautiful woman alone in a place like this..."
She shifted her gaze to me then and smiled. Despite myself, I could no longer resist her. This was my chance. I rose, walked the three or four steps to her, and took her by the shoulders. and kissed her. She didn't respond wildly, but she didn't resist me either. I held her close for a long and pleasant moment. When I dropped my arms and stepped back, her face was set in an even expression I couldn't read, and she didn't look at me. She took the cup and empty plate, then got into the car and drove back to the house.
I knew I'd done it then; blown both my five grand and any chance I might have had with her. Angry with myself, I started down the road toward Flat Creek, kicking rocks as I went. I figured to catch a ride to town and have a few beers. Maybe if I drank enough, I'd feel better. If not, I could just keep heading to Billings.
I hadn't got far when a car pulled up behind me. I turned to look. A window rolled down and Rita leaned out and said, "Where you going?"
"Town's a long way," she said. "Get in."
I hesitated, then scrambled in, smelling her strong jasmine perfume as we drove in silence. I couldn't tell whether she was being friendly or gave me a lift to get me further away from the ranch. Finally, she looked over and said.
"What were you going to town for?"
"A beer. Then hit the road again. I guess I blew things by kissing you."
"What happened happened." She said. "I'll buy you a beer, and then you can decide what you want to do. Frank won't mind; he'd do the same thing."
When we reached Flat Creek, she turned the car into an empty spot in the parking lot of the Double Eagle bar and got out. I followed her.
Inside, it was warm and crowded. A couple of men at the counter looked up as we came in, admired Rita with their eyes, and then went back to talking about basketball. In the back, several couples shuffled slowly to the music from the jukebox.
We took a table, and she ordered. When the beer came, she took a long drink.
"I used to work in a place like this," she said. Her face was hard, and she was suddenly pale and tense, the bitterness I'd seen earlier returning. "I left home when I was barely eighteen. My father had a small store that never made much money. He was one of those God-fearing men, forever teaching his three daughters the Ten Commandments. He made us go to church on Sunday and do all the respectable things you did in a small town. After I left, I took whatever job was available. I'd almost given up when I met Frank. He didn't care what I'd been. I owe him more than I can ever repay. I want to be worthy of him. Do you understand?"
Over her shoulder, I noticed a man about Brower's size and shape outside. The window was too steamed to get a good look, and the figure had turned and walked away. My heart pounded in my chest. Rita didn't seem to notice and stared down into her beer.
We finished in silence, and then she said, "Well, I think we better go now. You still have a lot to do."
What just happened? The drive to the ranch seemed to take forever. She parked the car, switched it off, and, as we sat there in the intimate silence, said. "He was the only one that really cared for me. No one else did. When he got really sick last year with the shrapnel, he lay there on the couch to watch me move. He said that I was strong and full of life. He said it did him good just to see me move around. No one ever said that to me before."
I could certainly understand that she did the same thing to me. But she wasn't my wife.
She turned toward me then, and said, "How about a whiskey before..."
Her voice trailed off.
"Frank won't mind," she said, got out, and walked toward the house.
I followed her into the kitchen, where she took off her coat, and followed her down the hallway to Frank's study. I was too restless to sit and paced back and forth in the small room. I knew I shouldn't have gone in with her, and kept heading for Billings, but before I could decide how to get out of this situation gracefully, she poured out two glasses then sat showing off her legs, sipping her drink and not talking. I continued to pace, then stopped and turned to face her. In a long, sensuous motion, she drew her hands down her legs. When she reached her ankles, she caught my eye. I smiled at her. She drank again, quicker this time, and then stood. She was waiting for me when I reached the bedroom.
The light was on, and I saw it was their room. She stood for a moment watching me. At the peak of the roof was a glass oval window full of stars.
"Frank knows how much I love stars. Sometimes when he's away, I come in here to look at them. They're so beautiful. Frank says that when I go to heaven, I'll be the brightest star in the entire universe."
There were tears in her eyes as she undressed.
"No," I said. "This isn't the way."
Aroused as I was, I didn't want things to be like this. Why couldn't I have met her under different circumstances where there was no one like Frank in her life?
"There is no other way. Don't you want me?"
"Not like this."
I turned and walked out. How could I have not seen what they had planned? I cursed myself.
The next morning at breakfast, I ate quickly, trying not to look at her, just wanting to leave as soon as I could. I was happy to see Frank's truck pull up out front. He was home several days sooner than expected, and I grabbed my coat from a chair and went outside to meet him and figure out what I was going to say.
"Looks like both of you survived."
He took her hand.
"I know I told you there'd be three months' work, but things have changed now, and I can't keep you on. It's impossible."
I started for the bunkhouse to get my things. Then Frank broke away from Rita, reached into his pocket, and stuffed the five grand into my coat. "Well," he said, "might see you sometime if you're ever out this way again."
"I don't want your money. It's dirty," I spit the words out. "You're dirty. Get yourself, someone, to do your dirty work. Money can't buy you everything — look what you've done, turned your wife into a cheap whore just so you can carry on your line. I may be no one, but I'd never sell my wife out like she was some cheap bit of goods."
"I thought you'd do anything for money," said Frank with anger.
"Well, you figured wrong. I used to envy men like you — I used to feel you knew something I didn't. Now I know that's not true. You disgust me. You're nothing but a hypocrite. But at least I still have my pride."
Frank lunged at me, and I pushed him out of the way. He lost his balance and toppled over. Rita ran to him.
My tongue felt gritty and thick, the taste of straw in my mouth.
It took about five minutes for me to get my things together and head toward the highway. It had begun to drizzle. When I finally looked back, the only motion I could see was the pumping of the pump jack.