At the edge of town, a yellow school bus swung north and picked up speed. On each side of the highway, sage flats sloped away to mountains, and under the twisted sagebrush shreds of early snow lay scattered like rained-on tissues. Kenny Swanson shoved across the hard vinyl bus seat,a muscle working just above the angle of his jaw. He slid the dirty window open a few inches,and a cold stream of October air stung his eyes.When he blinked, a curve of eyelash rested on his cheek.
Kenny had never ridden this bus before, but he knew it stopped high in the valley near the old rodeo grounds where, even with the arena trampled into craters of frozen mud,it might be his last chance to see Roddy Moyers practice. In the winter Moyers followed the rodeo circuit south. The county was building a new arena and grandstands, but they wouldn't be finished for some time.
The bus jolted over a stretch of pavement buckled by frost,the windows chattering so loud Kenny thought they might shimmy out. Other kids packed the seats three deep, but Kenny didn't know their names. The space next to him was vacant. Even so, he worried that somebody could still sit there and ask where he was going. But he was used to being new. Before his dad left, they'd been transferred with the air force four times in eight years, the last time to Mountain Home, on the other side of Idaho.
Whenever a house or ranch gate came in sight, the driver double-clutched, jammed in the gearshift with a ripping metal sound, and let the bus wheeze to a stop. The air inside heated up and thickened with the smell of stale dust and cracked seat covers. It soured with the smell of leftover lunches, white bread and banana peels closed up in paper bags.
He stared out the window. In the distance,he thought he saw a coyote, a gray outline against the sage. He paid closer attention, searching for the buff light color of an antelope. The bus swayed onto a gravel road, crossed the river, and angled north again.
Ahead, a heavy, blunt-nosed dog raced down a dirt lane, running low. When it reached the road, it flattened to the ground, its eyes on the bus, set to dart out snarling at the tires, but the bus slowed down and stopped.
The dog leapt up wagging his tail, and Kenny noticed that he was an old dog, grizzled gray around the mouth. A tall, blond girl, her hair nearly white, crossed in front of the bus and shifted her books under one arm. She started up the lane toward a low brick ranch house at the mouth of the canyon. She trailed a hand to pet the dog but went on walking. The dog leapt ahead, turning to bark over his shoulder. It made him seem as if he were running backward and forward at the same time.
Kenny knew that girl, Cynthia Dustin. He had watched her from a distance leaning against the senior lockers and laughing with one of the teachers. Being new in a place gave him a kind of extra vision. He always understood from the first few days who belonged and who did not. Seniors like this girl seemed as foreign as adults to him. As he watched her walk up the hill, he thought the old dog must have raced down to meet her ever since he was a woolly pup. It struck him as sad, but he was too excited to feel sad.
When the school bus finally stopped and turned around, Kenny climbed off and walked along the narrow highway. Dry weeds had broken through the crumbling asphalt, and the mountains looked smaller and far away. A cold wind pushed at his back, rattling in the weeds, and it seemed to take no time at all to walk to the gates of the old rodeo grounds.
Long abandoned in the center of a hay field, the arena and bleachers looked like a shipwreck of rotten poles and silver boards. Over the chutes, the announcer's stand listed at an angle, the roof torn off by wind. Still, the chute gates were decorated with five-point wooden stars, the paint flaked and faded pink and pale blue.
He walked partway across the stiff hay stubble and wedged his schoolbooks under the ticket booth. On the far side of the arena, a man was fighting a yellow hammer-headed horse down the ramp of a stock truck. Behind the big truck, a pickup and horse trailer had pulled in, and Kenny watched a fat man tie a saddle horse to the back and leave it. The horse lowered his head and cocked one hind leg, the hoof tipped into the mud, as if he planned to wait there a long time.
When he was close enough to see the faces of the men, Kenny stopped, his stomach uneasy with excitement. He knew both men by sight and reputation. The man with the dirty yellow horse was Billy Wiley. When Kenny and his mother had first moved to town, Billy went on trial at the courthouse for helping poach a moose. He had short, bowed legs and a vague, lost expression. His dark eyes and little mouth looked like o's on a cartoon face.
The other man, Al Horton,ran a dairy. He was unshaven,with a tidemark of tobacco juice dried under his lip. His belly was so big and hard that his jacket never buttoned all the way. When Kenny first saw him ride, he thought Al Horton was too fat to stick. But he'd seen him ride a wild colt to a stop.
Al and Billy weren't what made him nervous. If they were here, Roddy Moyers would be with them. Just under thirty, Moyers was pretty well known, not only in town, where people said they'd have big crowds again for football games if Moyers was still playing, but also outside the state. Moyers rode roughstock, saddle broncs and bareback,and nearly always finished in the money.
Their landlord had laughed and shaken his head. "The whole damned town turned up to watch him play," he told them, "and he wasn't even that good a ball player." Kenny had heard about him long before they moved into the valley, and since then, he watched for Moyers's dirty white sports car in town, even though it shook him up to see it.
His mother teased him, saying Kenny had a crush on Roddy Moyers. But she didn't understand. He tried to explain about the way Roddy Moyers rode. How it was like fishing. Two years ago when he was twelve, his dad had taken him to Montana to teach him how to fly-fish, but Kenny couldn't learn. All morning he kept snagging his dad's flies in the weeds and willows.
But late in the day, they had walked to a wider place in the river, and he learned in only a few minutes -- from watching his dad cast. He remembered the sheet metal glare off the water, his dad's old bamboo rod gleaming, pheasant colored, in the light. It was the shape and the rhythm, even the sound of it, that taught him. How the line sailed out in a long S curve and the fly touched, weightless, on the water.
He didn't think his mother ever understood what it was with Roddy Moyers. But any time he tried to tell her something and she got confused, she'd make fun of him, saying, "I know, I know -- it's just like fishing," and Kenny would have to look away to keep from laughing.
Kenny found a place behind a post on the near side of the arena where the men wouldn't notice. Moyers was there, but Kenny never looked right at him. He watched Al and Billy work the horse into the chute.
Moyers leaned on the rail, a beer can dangling between his thumb and first finger. He was not as tall as he'd first seemed to Kenny, and he wore his hair thick to the collar. His hair was true black,dull black like dog fur. Kenny had thought only Indians had hair that color -- black hair was really dark brown when you saw it in the light. At school they said Moyers wore his hair so long to cover a scar. He'd cut school to ride in California, and when he reappeared, he had a square white bandage where his ear had been torn off and sewn back on.
Kenny believed the story. Everybody who rode roughstock had accidents. His mother wouldn't let him ride because of accidents. Early in the summer, just after they moved, she sat him down in the kitchen. They had painted the table in the morning, and the top still showed the wrinkle of a thumbprint where he'd touched it accidentally. His mother hardly ever wore old clothes, but she was wearing a faded blue shirt with drops of white paint spattered down the front, her hair pinned up and loose strands curling down her neck.
"We won't have insurance," she said, "until I've had this job six months."
"So, could you wait? Not go out for rodeo this year?"
"It's not forever, just until we get a little bit more settled."
He could hear the worry in her voice. She didn't care for rodeo, not the way his father did, but she wasn't saying he could never ride.They were too far away from a base to use an air force hospital. She didn't have the money to pay if he took a bad fall.
Kenny had just turned fourteen. He could have found a way to ride and his mother would never know, but he didn't. Partly it never occurred to him to go against his mother. And partly he was worried, too. What would happen to them if he did get hurt?
He watched Al untie his horse from the trailer and lead him into the arena. When he stepped into the stirrup, the saddle creaked over sideways and threatened to slide off. At the same time, Moyers straddled the chute and set his rigging. The little man, Billy, stood ready to swing the gate. Moyers eased down on the back of the horse. A hoof struck hard and splintered wood -- Billy scrambled back. Roddy tugged his hat down low, and Billy looked up,waiting for his nod. At the barest signal from Moyers, he hauled on the rope and the gate swung wide. But nothing happened. Moyers tried to spur the bronc out, but the dark yellow horse locked his knees and stood stiff. He rolled his eyes and tipped his ears, one forward, one back. Kenny pressed into the rail, to see better, to be closer. Then Billy slapped the buckskinyellow rump with a rubber boot. "Get! You son of a bitch!"
Moyers's spurs raked forward and the bronc crow-hopped into the arena. The horse ducked his head, twisted in midair, and kicked out both hind legs. He reared and came down hard on both front hooves, then set off bucking in the frozen mud. The men yelled and Kenny saw the big horse slip and lunge on the ice. He ached to be where Moyers was.
All Kenny's muscles tensed against a fall. He tried to loosen up, to get in time with the ride. But in seconds Al crowded the pickup horse in close, and Moyers dove off. He swung over the rump of Al's horse and landed on his feet. Al chased the bronc, leaned down from the saddle to slip the bucking strap, and trotted his own horse back to the chute. Roddy was at the rail,calling for another beer.
The bronc circled the arena, bucking harder than he had with Moyers.When he stopped, the skin on his neck quivered. He put his nose to the mud and shook, starting with his big square head and ending with his tail, like a wet dog. The men laughed, and Moyers noticed Kenny.
"Hey, kid," he called, his voice so sudden and loud that Kenny jumped. Moyers nodded at the horse. "He's ready to go again. You want a round on Mustard here?"
"No," Kenny said, but Moyers couldn't hear him. "No, thanks," he said, louder.
Moyers waved him over, beckoning with the whole length of his arm. Kenny felt stranded. All three men were watching. He began the slow circle around the arena. It seemed to take so long. He could hardly take the last steps, as if some kind of charge, like a magnetic field, kept pushing him away. But Moyers only held out a beer. Kenny shook his head.
"No, thanks," he mumbled. But Moyers didn't take the beer away.
"Go ahead," he urged. "Hell. I won't tell on us if you don't." He thrust the beer closer. Kenny reached out and wrapped his fingers around the icy can.
Moyers saluted with his beer and took a swallow. "You've been out here before," he said. It might have been a question or an accusation. Kenny wasn't sure. Seeing Moyers up close confused him,made him afraid to look around. He nodded.
"You ride roughstock?"
Kenny hesitated. "No," he said.
"You don't sound convinced -- what is it,yes or no?"
"Yes," Kenny said.
Moyers let out a laugh,and Kenny laughed, too, from relief. But Moyers was looking down at him, at his school clothes and worn, gray gym shoes.
"I used to," he said,but Moyers wasn't listening. He'd turned to watch Al and Billy muscle a raw-boned sorrel horse out of the stock truck. The horse threw his head, jerking Billy Wiley off his feet, and Moyers moved to help.
Kenny stepped back, hoping Moyers would forget about him. He set the beer can on the ground.
"Who's up next?" Moyers asked.
"Ain't me," Al grumbled. "Can't sit down from last time. Put the kid on."
Billy Wiley looked over with his vague expression. "Put the kid on," he repeated.
Moyers spoke over his shoulder, not turning around to look at Kenny. "Sure you don't want a try?" he said.
"No." Kenny said it clearly,but he could hear his voice rise with the start of panic. "I can't."
"Sure you can." The men all spoke at once.
Kenny backed up. He shook his head no. "I can't," he said, and Moyers turned to look at him. Kenny couldn't meet his eye. Billy gave a slow nod.
"Go ahead, boy," he said. "I'll go out and pick up all the rocks. Won't hurt so bad when you come off."
The men laughed at the old joke, and Kenny heard Al Horton suck in juice and spit. They all stared at him and waited.
Kenny grinned, his eyes on the ground. A dark circle, like he got from staring at a lightbulb, was closing in around him.
"I can't," he said. He looked at the raw-boned horse, and from the horse to the men. "I promised my mom."
Before the words were out,he knew he'd said the wrong thing. He wanted to stop and explain, but before he could, the men looked from one to the other and bent over laughing.
"I promised my mom," Billy said,"but she ain't here right now."
Kenny grinned harder, as if it could make him invisible.
"You see this boy's mother here?" Al Horton said. He pre- tended to look around for her, then he caught Billy's eye and winked. "Ain't his mother that new one at the courthouse? The blondie?" He was short of breath from laughing. "Hell," he said,"if my mother looked like that, I'd ask her permission to spit!"
Kenny felt the blood rise in his face,prickle the skin at his hairline. He was trembling. The men went on joking, but he couldn't hear. He wanted to stop them, say something to turn the joke around, but he was afraid if he tried to talk he might start to cry.
"How 'bout a date with your mother? Think you could fix that up?" Al leered at him, his teeth brown with tobacco juice.
Kenny tried to speak, but the words caught in the back of his throat. Al leaned closer. "What? What'd you say?"
Kenny couldn't think. The men were yelling at him. Blood pumped in his ears.
"I guess," he said.
"You guess?" Al Horton repeated. He whooped, and Billy bent over double, helpless, as if he could picture fat, greasy Al with Kenny's mother. Kenny's face burned with a sting like hot ant bites. When Moyers cut in, his voice was so low Kenny wasn't sure he heard him right.
"It's getting dark. Let's get to work here or go on home."
He tossed his empty beer can at the bottom of a fence post and started toward the chute.
When Kenny finally looked up,it seemed as if he'd stepped out of the movies in the daytime, surprised to see the light. But the sun had fallen below the peaks in the west. He was standing in blue shadows, tinted pink. Al and Billy turned back to the sorrel horse, laughing to themselves.
Kenny wanted to disappear. But he stood where he was,waiting for the rushing in his ears to stop. Several minutes passed before he felt safe enough to move away.
He retrieved his schoolbooks and walked out to the blacktop, to the place where his mother had promised to pick him up after work, and looked down the empty road toward town. His mother was late. He wished she'd never made them move here. She was only a secretary. She could have been a secretary in Mountain Home. Where was she? He couldn't remember his mother ever being late.
He wished he'd ridden the damn bronc, just to show her. He swore to himself that he would never promise her anything again. He cursed through his teeth and threw his books down on the road. He drew back his foot and kicked one of the thick,graycovered books so hard it cracked in the spine and scraped, the pages fluttering and flapping white, across the asphalt.
His anger fell away, like the sudden dropping of a trapdoor in his guts. The men had tricked him, and he had hurt his mother. The way the men had talked about her felt to him dark and dirty. For the first time in his life, he saw his mother as someone, like him, who could be hurt or scared. He felt cold, and a dark space seemed to loom just outside his field of vision.
Pages from the broken book had scattered up and down the road, white and luminescent in the dusk. He went after them, scraping his knuckles on the asphalt, and tried to fit them back together,but the covers wouldn't close. The book seemed swollen with too many pages. He clamped it under his arm with the rest of his books and started walking down the road toward town.
Bands of smoky clouds pushed over the peaks in the west,and a glow from behind the mountains,from beyond the round curve of the earth, washed the valley blue. The air itself was blue, the color of a shadow in a snowdrift,and it smelled like ice and wood smoke.
When a loud heckling call,like the barking of small dogs,broke out somewhere above him, Kenny stopped and looked up. At first he saw nothing. Then, low over the river, he saw a ragged line of Canada geese, their long necks stretched out toward the south, their set-back wings pushing them through the air. In the near darkness, Kenny shivered. He wondered where the geese went at night. He was suddenly afraid of the geese, not that he might be like them, but that he might be them. That his skin was not strong enough to keep him separate.
He shook the feeling off and began to walk again, searching in the distance for the headlights of his mother's car.
Love and Country
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books
- ISBN-10: 0316159409
- ISBN-13: 9780316159401