The sun burned hot on Leon and the old roping chute, but he didn’t flinch as he leaned into the scalding metal. His wrench tugged hard on the rusted nut. It didn’t budge. Frustration mounted as sweat dripped down into his eye. Tightening his grip, he dug his heels in and took a deep breath. Just before he gave a second tug, a tremor bubbled up deep within his chest.
Something like a low voltage electric shock pulsed through his core. It spread outward and down the arm still clutching the wrench. His hand clenched and spasmed. The nut held, but the bolt snapped. The spasm’s momentum threw him off balance and drove him to the ground, flat onto his back. His mood soured in the sun’s heat, and he was slow to roll onto his knees.
Son of a biscuit, that hurt!
Attempting to repair the rusted chute was a downright miserable job for a scorching Texas day in late July. The only gusts of wind came and went with the flicker of a fly as it circled near and drifted off. Its droning buzz mingled with the mournful bellowing of Corriente roping calves from a nearby holding corral to form the perfect melody to complement his growing agitation.
Squatting, he cleaned his jeans as best he could with his leather gloves, then mopped the sweat from his forehead. His best guess was the shock had something to do with a damaged component in his cell phone. Hadn't he read about something like that happening somewhere?
Whatever the cause, the jolt alarmed him, like the kind of alarm that happens when briefly brushing up against a hot wire on the Bull setting. His body still tingled as the sensation slowly faded.
He patted the front pocket of his faded denim button-down. Nothing there. Glancing up, he realized his phone still sat on the shaded edge of the chute. Right where he’d placed it a few minutes earlier.
What the…? No way that little phone had enough juice to light me up like that through all that pipe!
Yet, as he continued to consider a potential culprit, the thin profile of his smartphone was all that came to mind.
The broken bolt lay beside him in the dirt. A solid steel chunk of metal torn in two. Although strong for his size, Leon was not a big man. In fact, at three inches shy of six feet tall, and wire-thin, there was little doubt in his mind this was not a case of him underestimating his own strength. He could only conclude there was some inherent defect in the bolt causing the metal to snap like it did.
The chute repairs would have to wait. He pushed himself to his feet, chuckling at his bad luck. He was filthy to boot.
He ought to have quit the rodeo dream years ago, but that ambition had never really been his to lose. Gus Silberman, his grandfather, on the other hand, had been seeing rodeo notoriety in Leon since the first day he threw a wobbly loop over a skinny calf. Leon didn’t especially want to give his grandfather any more reasons for disappointment. Life had served the old man plenty a bitter pill already.
So, instead of hanging up his rope when he no longer felt the itch to compete, the way he’d done with so many of his other pursuits, Leon continued, feeding the old man’s aspirations by constantly working the scrawny Corriente calves through the faded blue chute.
Now, though? Now, Leon had reached his limit. He eyeballed the busted latch atop the chute and shrugged once more.
It's past time I put this sucker up for sale online. Should have stopped after that first buckle, back when I was still riding in the black!
Unfortunately, he would now have to put even more work into that dilapidated hunk of metal if he was ever to get any decent money for it from some other kid with lofty parental expectations.
He turned around to collect the reins to his gelding, Duke. Only, when he looked up, no horse lingered within the shady area beneath the hackberry tree branches alongside the arena. Instead, Duke stood three-quarters of the way down the opposite end, pawing at the sand, acting awfully spooked. He squinted over the horse's sudden display of obstinance.
Leon took a step forward. The gelding laid his ears back and shifted weight ever so slightly. “Come on, Duke, it’s okay, boy. What’s got you so fired up?”
He took another step. The horse’s head jerked up and down. Leon could see the whites of his eyes. A panicky disposition had somehow found purchase in the mind of a normally sane and well broken-in horse.
On his third step forward, the horse turned and bolted…right into the top pipe-rail of the corral. The clang reverberated, breaking the quiet stillness of the afternoon heat as the horse stumbled back.
The gate, not ten feet from Duke, was shut but not locked. It slowly creaked open in hinge-squealing suspense as the reverberations of the horse’s collision caused it to swing outward. Leon tensed. Duke tensed.
In a voice as tempered and gentle as possible, Leon pleaded, “Easy, Duke. Good boy. Don’t…”
He didn’t finish. Duke bolted through the open gate and into the cleared pasture beyond. Leon ripped the cap from his head and threw it to the ground. “Son of a biscuit!”
His high-blood roping horse, likely worth a few thousand dollars after two years of painstaking training from Leon, careened through the open pasture in a wild gallop, oblivious to any potential gopher holes or drought cracks that might lay in wait for just such an occasion. Thankfully, he eventually slowed his wild dash to a mildly condescending trot before disappearing over a small rise.
No sense in chasing him back across the pasture in this heat. I'll have to bring him in later.
Leon swallowed the sick feeling in his gut. He had suffered through many heated debates on account of that stubborn horse. Now, those debates were one wrong step away from blowing up in his face. Though to be fair, it wasn't the horse that was the basis of most of the arguments between him and Gus, those debates had more to do with the purpose of the ranch itself, and by extension Leon's role in it. If Leon had it his way, the ranch would derive the bulk of its income from horse breeding and high-end training. Only it wasn't his ranch to run, and its current lifeblood consisted of over two hundred head of commercial Brangus cattle.
Now, thoroughly disgusted at how his day had panned out so far, Leon bent to pick up his dusty cap. As he pulled it down over a well-trimmed mop of curly blond hair, he searched for his dog.
Merle, his trusty old ranch mutt, gave him the stink eye from the nearest corner of the arena.
“What, Merle? You planning to run off, too?”
Merle sneezed and wagged his tail, as if to reassure Leon of his uncompromising loyalty, no matter how ill-placed it might be. He trotted over and gave Leon’s hand a lingering sniff.
Leon’s crooked grin crept out from the patchy start of a three-day beard. “Nope, you're the lucky knucklehead who’s stuck with me. Isn’t that what you mean?”
No response. Typical.
Movement in the distance caught Leon's attention. He eyeballed a dust cloud’s twisted approach. It clamored through still pines along the edge of the pasture, billowing outward with indiscriminate haste before petering away, forcibly extinguished against the mid-day heat. A moment later, Leon heard the steady roar of an overtaxed engine rumbling above the scraping crunch and creak of a low axle.
Thick brush mostly blocked his view of the gravel road as the vehicle curved north, jostling speedily toward the main house and away from the roping arena where he stood, covered in dust and stink. Yet, he saw the silhouette of an expensive-looking car as it sped by from a handful of openings in the dense vegetation along the wooded pasture’s perimeter.
Uninvited visitors were an uncommon, if not rare, occurrence. An uninvited visitor in a car cruising fast enough to require a new pair of shocks was something worth further consideration. Leon couldn’t ignore the sinking feeling in his gut. He might be naturally inclined to think the worst of any given situation, but people just didn’t brave that old, washed-out ranch road in a car to bring good news.
He decided to head to the house. It wouldn’t do for Gus to have to repeat any unsavory news so soon after hearing it himself. Plus, he ought to be there for moral support. Not that Gus would need it, or ask for it, but Leon opted to be there to offer it, regardless.
He stooped down for his wrench and other tools lying near the chute, but Merle barreled into him, knocking him back a step or two.
“What the heck, Merle? We’ve got a good half-mile hike ahead of us. Stop goofing around.”
Leon went to shove Merle out of the way, but he let loose that whining noise all dogs use when you force them to do something they don’t want to do.
“You can be a real moody old grump, you know that?”
Merle actually gave him a head-butt as he unsuccessfully tried, once more, to sidestep the animal. As it was, Merle didn’t do anything in a petite manner. At over one hundred pounds of bird dog mutt, getting his point across with a head-butt provided a pretty convincing means of saying no without saying much at all.
Leon stumbled back, landing on his hind end for the second time that afternoon. As he rose to give Merle the mother of all bad dog tongue lashings, an all too familiar sound to any Texas rancher rose. It resembled a pair of Mexican maracas strapped to the top of a revved-up tractor engine, minus the tractor engine. Leon struggled quickly to his knees and peeked over Merle’s shoulder the same moment a massive rattlesnake reared up and cocked its head back, preparing to strike.
Leon didn’t think, he just reacted. His love for the big mutt told him to try to stop what his mind knew couldn’t be avoided. He saw a blur of motion as the snake struck. His hand snapped forward to stop it, almost in slow motion. Then the same rippling, shocking sensation ripped through him as before.
In less than the blink of an eye, his hand smacked into the snake’s head, which ricocheted back into the chute’s piping. The whole incident happened so fast the sounds blended together to make one loud thh-whack.
The snake writhed on the ground, completely disoriented. It gradually slithered off, and Leon had no inclination or ability to chase it down.
For one or two heartbeats, he leaned on Merle for support and didn’t move a muscle as he allowed his nerves to shift out of sixth gear. Then, taking a few deep breaths, he pulled off his glove and checked his hand for the tell-tale puncture marks he expected to see. Yet he couldn’t even find the slightest sign of a venomous nick.
Leon had quick reflexes, there was no doubt about that. Back in high school, when he ran the eight-hundred-meter sprint, his grandfather used to tease him that his fast-twitch muscle skills were wasted on the track team. "Hard off the block and easy on the finish, you oughta stick to sports that last eight seconds or less!"
But this scenario felt different. No explanation actually fit with what had just occurred. After a few moments of quiet consideration, Leon came up emptyhanded. Without a better explanation, he chalked it all up to blind luck and thanked those lucky stars his fingers weren’t a split second too late…or too early for that matter.
After taking a moment to savor the thought, Leon returned to the task at hand. Much more cautious, he poked around the dry weeds at the base of the chute, gathering up his tools and placing them where he’d remember to collect them later.
A long hot hike to the house lay before him. At least the pines between the pastures would provide some shade along the way. Loblolly pine trees seemed to sprout in every nook and cranny not used for grazing on Cool Water Ranch. Leon and Gus lived out there all on their own, growing grass, feeding cattle, and causing trouble, like all the Silbermans who came before them had done for over a hundred years. Well, maybe the causing trouble part was something Gus just liked to say, but the other descriptions pretty much hit the nail on the head.
Cool Water was located on the south side of the Colorado River, near Smithville, Texas. Most people just called that region the Lost Pines. It was a strip of loblolly pine forest somehow cut off from the larger sister forests of east Texas. Loblollies had the same evergreen look as typical pine trees but with more rounded edges to their profile, less Christmas Tree-esque in shape. No one Leon had ever talked to about the trees knew for certain where all the Lost Pine Loblollies came from or why they stayed but, at some point, those pines sunk deep roots around the area. Even if they no longer fit in with the landscape, they didn’t seem to care.
Leon had long since given up wondering why his local forest island proved such an enigma to the natural order of things. He always felt they did a fine job of existing, of thriving even, where they had no business making a home. The fact was, such unavoidable observations often made him feel he had more in common with those towering pines than he did with most folks he knew.
Taking a long look into the wooded path ahead, he ignored all the other thoughts that threatened to further delay his jog to the house. After latching the gate to the corral, he smiled down at Merle, “Well, boy, no use in putting off what's got to be done. If we want to be there for Gus, we had better get going.”
Leon took off in a well-practiced stride. Considering his circumstances as he ran, he took comfort in the sole sliver of silver-lining that stood out above all the other shortcomings he had experienced so far that day—at least he wore a comfortable pair of cross trainer shoes and not his heavy work boots. Together, he and Merle took the shortest shortcut back to the house through the woods.
# # #
Five minutes later, Leon stumbled out into the clearing near his house. There, rising out of the forest, stood an off-white, weather-worn, one-story ranch house. Out of breath and ready for a cold drink, he still did a double-take as he caught sight of the black Mercedes S500 with blacked-out windows parked in the gravel circle next to his beat-up white Ford truck.
The front gate was open, and a red-faced Gus Silberman stood tip-toed in cowboy boots on the top step of the porch, his arms in full animation. He spoke slowly and deliberately but gradually gained momentum, enunciating, and punctuating each syllable. His old Stetson hat shook with every word he stressed, until at the crescendo of his speech, he dished out the kind of rip that had that straw hat bouncing like a Mexican jumping bean atop his silvery head. He might have even popped a button on the denim shirt he wore if he didn’t stop to take a breath every minute or so.
As Leon neared the yard, Gus continued shouting in an angry Texas drawl. His ire clearly aimed down at a pale-skinned, dark-haired man, standing casually before him in the yard below. The stranger wore a long-sleeved white business shirt, gray tie, polished dress shoes, and checkered slacks, without a crease. Dark aviator glasses hid his eyes as he held out some paperwork in his right hand. Leon hopped the fence and cut across the lawn to get to the action a little quicker.
Gus stuck a gnarly, weathered finger toward the man’s face as Leon reached the porch, “…son, you’re about as windy as a sack full of farts! If you really think you're here doing me a favor, you don’t know horse apples from truffle butter!”
The man’s voice had a slight New England accent, causing him to put an edge on every R as he responded “Sir, I understand you're upset, but do try to be reasonable. It’s not like you have to sell the whole ranch, just the—”
“Just the part that’s been in my family for upwards of two hundred years?
“Listen here, boy, I’ve banked with the Lost Pines Credit Union for over forty years, and this ain’t the way they do business. Why haven’t I received a call from Jim Traeger directly?”
The man’s response was worded to reconcile, but his tone held an edge, “Mr. Silberman, as I said, Lost Pines is under new management. Jim no longer works for this branch. That’s why we felt it prudent to come out here in person, to—”
“Horse-hockey! You just can’t wait to git yer money-grubbing hands on my land is more like it! Get off my dad-gum property, I’ve heard enough!”
The man took a casual step back, a toothy grin showing. “Yes, sir, I understand.”
He turned to Leon as if noticing him standing there for the first time. His nose twitched at the combination of sweat and whatever Leon may have inadvertently fallen into earlier, but he extended his hand nonetheless, “Sorry to interrupt your day sport.”
Without knowing what else to do, Leon shook it in response. “Mr. Banker, can’t say it's nice to meet you based on what little I’ve heard, but I’ll shake your hand.”
“Likewise, I’m sure, the name’s Joseph Romano.”
Leon looked Joseph in the eye and gave him a good tight squeeze before he released his hand. “Leon Waldman.”
Joseph turned back to Gus, his smile sweetening into a condescending smirk. “Hired help?”
“Of course. Well, please, remember Mr. Silberman, you have forty-eight hours to make a decision.” He spread his arms wide. “I suggest you take the money. You will be well compensated.”
Leon could practically see the steam coming from Gus’ ears. When Gus involuntarily slid his right hand down to grasp the hilt of his old bone-handled hunting knife, Leon saw a dangerous look descend over Gus. A look he hadn’t seen in the many years he’d lived with the man he called his grandfather. He rushed up the steps to stop the old man from leaping off the porch and physically assaulting the banker.
Gus had all the finesse of a big burly teddy bear, but he could be downright dangerous if the war stories he sometimes told from his younger, wilder days held a quarter of the truth he claimed. Without the cowboy hat and pearl snap shirts he wore, his barrel build and steely disposition could easily be mistaken for that of an outlaw biker. Especially with the handlebar mustache and silver sideburns he sported.
But something about the banker’s stance, something about the way he moved, told Leon that Joseph could hold his own if it came down to it. Leon couldn’t pinpoint how he knew, but he knew. Deep down, he knew.
Once Joseph saw Leon’s hand braced on Gus’ arm, he realized some sort of threat had just been avoided. He took a step forward.
Gone was the slick smile and condescending posture. Leon knew a bully when he saw one. As a little guy with a hot temper, he’d had ample time in high school to hone that skill on jocks who had often misjudged him.
Great, just what I need, either see my granddad gut a stranger, or have a stranger beat down the both of us on our front porch.
Before either party said another word, they heard a deep guttural growl coming from behind the banker. Merle’s growl continued to build as he circled the stranger, eventually placing his body between Leon and a perceived threat for the second time that day.
Merle rarely barked. His size nullified the need for those types of theatrics. Instead, he hunched his shoulders and curled his lip, causing him to look more akin to a wolf than a large gray mutt in the moment.
Leon gasped. He couldn’t ever recall Merle demonstrating such an intimidating pose, but he didn’t call him off either.
The stranger’s posture went stone still. He balanced on his toes, leaning just a smidge forward. Leon couldn’t tell whether he planned to attack or pivot and run. He didn’t seem like the running type.
Merle and the man stared each other down for seconds that felt like minutes. The man wasn’t going to allow Merle to intimidate him, and Merle’s growl continued to grow until he had spittle running down his chin.
Before things got entirely out of hand, Leon squatted down and grabbed Merle by his collar. The big dog felt the tug and went silent, though the hair on his back still stood on end.
Squinting up into the sun above Joseph, Leon thought it about time to bring things to a close. “Mister, you’ve delivered your message. Now, I suggest you head back to your bank.”
Joseph nodded with a none too friendly smile. All three of them watched the man take three steps backward before pivoting and strutting slowly back to his car. He certainly didn’t act like any country banker Leon had ever met.
Before passing through the gate, Joseph stopped, picked up a fist-sized rock, and stacked it with a thud on the paperwork above the h-brace in the fence. He didn’t shut the gate behind him.
As soon as the engine started, the car took off, spraying dirt and pebbles back onto the old Ford parked nearby. Leon’s eyes narrowed as the new dirt kicked up on his mud-covered grill guard. He mumbled to himself more than to Gus, “Well, he didn’t have to go and do that!”
“A man like that does what he pleases, Leon, and it typically pleases such a one to do just like that.” Then, he growled, “I simply can’t tolerate a man who don’t know to shut a gate behind his self.” Gus spat into the yard for good measure. He was still amped up to the nth degree.
“Well, what was all that about anyhow?”
After a few deep breaths, Gus spoke softly. His age broke through the careful façade he kept and showed a touch of uncertainty in his eyes, “The banks calling our loans, son. The taxman didn’t do us any favors either, even with last year’s exemptions. Jim allowed us to refinance last winter and gave us a six-month extension on the loan payment this spring. It was on a handshake, mostly. That's why I didn’t pay much heed to the boilerplate notices we received in the mail. I’ve only ever had to do that twice before, and Jim always gave us the other extension to get us through till calves were ready to sell.” Gus pulled his hat off his head and mopped his brow with a hanky.
“We can’t get another loan?”
“This new bank management isn’t having it. They’ve been sneaky. Drove my credit score into the mud. Somehow, though I can’t recall how now, the paperwork says I had the old section lumped in as collateral years back. They aim to take it.” He swatted at a fly, overly interested in filling the vacancy on his head.
“What about selling off half the momma cows?"
"We do that, and we'll be in the same boat come next year, maybe worse." Gus used his hat to halfheartedly swat at the fly once more.
"Well, how about stripping the lumber in the south pastures?”
Gus paused his fly-catching to look Leon in the eye when he responded, “Wouldn’t matter now. The last time we called the lumber company, they wanted a lease inked before they would come out. We ain’t got the time to let the lawyers do their dance this time around.”
“So, they’re just going to take your land? Can they do that?”
“Maybe, maybe not. They won’t if I can help it though! Go ahead and finish up with what you’ve got to do today, I’ve a few calls to make.” He batted at the fly once more with his hat. Then his sour lips split into a grin when its escape path took it right into one of several fly strips hanging down off the eaves. Leon heard it buzz once or twice while it struggled in vain to take off.
Gus sniffed at the air and his eyes twinkled just a bit, “Though, on second thought, that banker feller was on to something. You may want to change yer britches, or at least hang a few more fly-strips if you plan on loafing around out here any longer.”
Leon chuckled. That was typical Gus. He could find a measure of humor and a reason to be busy in the midst of just about any situation. They didn't always see eye to eye, but he always knew where the old man stood.
Gus tossed his hat on the porch rocker, fished his cell phone and reading glasses out of his shirt pocket, and shuffled back into the house.
Leon watched the dust cloud from the car’s departure in the distance. It billowed up and over the pines once more, but it sure seemed to hang around a bit longer than it did before. He hopped off the porch and went to shut the gate.