I just knew he was going to love this. Amazon.com had it and it had just arrived in the mail, a genuine Swiss Army knife.
While we were having dinner with my parents and my sister the week before, Rob had been talking to Dad about hunting and camping and mentioned that when he used to camp out with his dad, he used his for everything. He lost it when he was twelve or thirteen and never got around to replacing it. My dad recollected that when he was a kid, owning a genuine Swiss Army knife was about the coolest thing in the world. I love buying really fun gifts for people because I get as much of a kick out of it as they do. I figured Rob would flip over it.
He was supposed to be out of town on business for a couple of days so I let myself into his apartment, planning to leave the box prominently displayed on his coffee table. The moment I was in the door, I heard the unmistakable sounds of people in the throes of passionate sex. I suppose I should have done the decent thing and just left but my curiosity was rising as fast as my anger and I had to see for myself who was replacing me. I strode down the hallway to his bedroom and stood in the doorway. Rob and I had made love often enough that the grunts and cliché terms of endearment coming out of his mouth were all too familiar to me. There he was on his knees behind this woman's ass, plowing her like a cornfield. They hadn't heard me come in.
"You make sure you get your money's worth, cowboy!"
When they turned their shocked faces to me, I saw the object of his lust was my sister. I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised since she'd started coming on to him the minute we walked into my parent's house. It had always been the case that if I had it, she wanted it. Well, as far as I was concerned, he was now hers to keep.
"Oh, fuck!" was all Rob could manage to get out of his mouth. How articulate. My sister just looked away, in shame I hoped.
"So appropriate!" I spat out. "Oh, and I guess I won't be needing this any more." I threw his apartment key at him, bouncing it off the back of his head as he ducked.
I turned to leave but stopped and turned back, "As for you, dear sister, I guess my suspicions are confirmed; you really are a slut." Half way down the hall I could hear Rob coming after me.
"Janet, wait! Let me explain!"
"Explain this!" I hissed, giving him a one-finger salute. "Fuck you and the horse you just rode in on!"
I tossed the giftwrapped box into the glove compartment to get it out of my sight. All I could think of as I drove away was that I was so glad we'd decided to postpone announcing our engagement. How embarrassing would that have been?
Back in my apartment, I poured myself a glass of wine and leaned back on the couch trying to calm down. What was it about me that invited this kind of abuse? I'm a well-educated, reasonably attractive twenty-nine year old woman with a lot to offer to the right guy. Twice now I'd been in relationships that progressed far enough that we were seriously considering marriage and twice my husband-to-be had decided that some recreational 'strange' seemed like a good idea at the time; like what I didn't know wouldn't hurt me. How long was I going to continue playing these silly games?
My cell phone rang and the screen showed it was Rob calling. I turned off the phone. I was done with him and, who knows, maybe I was done with men. Too bad I'm not a lesbian; I'd probably have a much better shot at an honest relationship.
The only thing that worked for me when I got so bent out of shape was meditation. I stripped down to my underwear, brought up some Coyote Oldman on the sound system and assumed the position on my yoga mat. By the time I was through the breathing exercises to focus my mind, I could feel the tension melting away.
When I felt I had affected some distance and perspective, I began examining just where my life seemed to be going. I made darned good money in my job but it was beginning to look like a dead end. My relationships with men obviously left a lot to be desired and Rob was just the latest in a series of disappointments. The city, the apartment, so much about my life left me feeling empty. I needed to find a new direction, a new start.
I know that no matter how far you run, when you look into the mirror, there you are, but it didn't feel like running away; it felt like I just needed space to grow. The rest of the day was spent puttering around the place and pondering my options. The plan that began to take shape in my mind would no doubt be considered outrageously irresponsible by anyone with a lick of sense but the more I considered it the more it felt like the right thing. I owned some fairly lucrative stocks left to me by my late grandmother as well as healthy savings and checking accounts. I didn't carry any credit card debt. In fact everything I had was paid for including my car. The lease on my apartment would be up for renewal in a couple of weeks so I wouldn't loose my butt on that.
I pulled my old U.S. atlas out of a drawer, set the spine on the kitchen table and let go, allowing it to flop open randomly. Montana. OK, where in Montana? Raising my hand above the page with my finger pointing down, I closed my eyes and moved my hand in little circles as it descended to make contact. Freemont. It looked to be a tiny town on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. My new home!
"Get ready, Freemont, Montana, here I come!"
The next day I gave notice at the office. As I made arrangements to sell my furniture, donated bundles of clothing and other items to Goodwill and notified my landlady that I wouldn't be renewing my lease, my sense of excitement and adventure grew until I could hardly wait to get on the road. I told my mom and dad that I would be in touch after I got settled but I didn't say where I was going.
I refused to answer any of Rob's calls and consigned at least a dozen of his unread e-mails to the trash. He even showed up personally begging to talk but I told him through the door that he was no longer a part of my life and to get lost before I called the cops and reported him as a stalker.
Moving day arrived. I buckled my seatbelt, took a deep breath and headed west. Freemont, Montana was a long way from Bangor, Maine in more ways than one.
The drive alone was therapeutic. I stayed off the interstates, opting for secondary roads running through who knows how many towns and cities, stretching the drive from three or four days to ten. I took little side trips along the way to see points of interest. The weather was warm for May and there was no place I had to be so what was the hurry. Every new day I felt like a little more weight had been lifted off my shoulders and the world looked a little rosier.
When I finally drove into Freemont, population eleven hundred and change, I liked what I saw. I'm not sure what I expected but I wasn't disappointed. There were the ever-present grain elevators, a two-block long downtown business district and a highway truck stop complete with an honest-to-god, art-deco stainless steel-clad diner.
That looked like a good place to ask where I might find temporary quarters. Besides, I was hungry and I had a craving for a greasy cheeseburger and fries, a food genre in which I rarely indulged. The woman behind the counter was fiftyish and looked like she had a lot of miles on her. She had a nice smile and a friendly voice.
When I gave her my order, she asked, "Where you from, Honey? Can't place the accent."
"I'm from Maine. I didn't think I had an accent."
"Well, it's for sure you ain't from around here."
"Yeah, I'm just moving to town. In fact, I was wondering if you knew where I might stay while I looked for an apartment."
She seemed a little surprised. "I can't imagine what there is in Freemont that would attract a pretty young thing like you but welcome anyway. I can tell you there ain't any apartments in this town but there's a few houses for sale or rent. If you need a place for a few days, there's a B&B at the other end of town that has clean rooms and good food. If you want, I can give her a call and make sure she's got room for you."
Glancing at the nametag pinned to her apron, I said, "Thanks, Joy. I'd appreciate that. My name's Janet Whitman, by the way."
"Nice to meetcha, Janet. I'll give her a holler. Her name's Loretta. Your cheeseburger and fries will be ready in a few minutes. You want lemon with your iced tea?"
The burger and fries smelled heavenly and put to shame anything I'd ever eaten at a fast food joint. If there's such a thing as a gourmet cheeseburger, this was it. The only problem was I'd spent so many years dieting to keep my girlish figure that I couldn't eat more than half of it. Joy looked a little disappointed when I pushed the basket away.
"Didn't you like it, Honey?"
"I loved it, Joy. It's just a lot more than I can eat at one sitting."
She chuckled, "You better warn Loretta about that. She's used to feeding people who'd think this was just the appetizer. Say, Janet, since you're moving to town, I don't suppose you'd be lookin' for a job."
"Eventually, but it isn't high on my list of things to do. Why, do you need someone?"
"I surely do. I'm gettin' old and this place just runs me ragged. The last girl I hired wasn't here two weeks before she run off with a trucker."
"Well, I worked as a waitress at Chili's all through college. I could probably help you out but I don't think I'd want anything full-time. How many hours are you talking about?
"If I could get some help for breakfast it'd be a big help. I got a girl comes in for lunch and dinner. I can't afford to pay but five an hour plus tips."
What better place to meet the locals, I was thinking. "Let me get settled in at the B&B and I'll come back and talk to you about it, Joy. Can you tell me how to get there?"
The B&B was like something out of an old movie, a three-story clapboard house with a wrap-around porch. Loretta was a charming little lady who was eighty if she was a day. I told her I'd be staying until I found a place to rent. She showed me half a dozen rooms and said I could take my pick since they were all the same price – cheap. I chose a corner room on the third floor because all the other guests were on the first and second floor and I wouldn't have to compete for use of the bathroom.
By the time I got unpacked and showered it was almost six and I was starting to feel the day catching up to me so I lay down for a short nap before dinner. Some nap! I woke up at four thirty the next morning. After I got cleaned up, I dressed in some jeans and a knit top with a sweater over it and went out for a walk around town to see what was where. At six thousand feet in altitude, the extra layer was necessary that early in the morning, even though it was getting close to summer. As I stepped off the porch, I could see the sky was already getting light in the east. I took a deep breath, loving the cool, clean fresh air with not a hint of pollution. There was however, a hint of the feedlot I'd driven past on the way into town.
It didn't take long to scope out the whole community. Forty-five minutes later I wound up at the diner and saw it was already open. Joy was behind the counter and there were three stools and a couple of booths already occupied. She saw me come in and lifted the coffee pot with a question on her face. I nodded and took a stool next to the cash register. She set the standard issue ceramic mug in front of me and filled it.
"Morning, Janet. Get settled over to Loretta's OK?"
"Yes. I can't believe I slept for over ten hours. I didn't think I was that tired." Looking around, I asked, "Are you here by yourself?"
"'Fraid so, just me and the dish washer 'til I can get some help."
"Tell you what, Joy. Why don't you cook and I'll wait. Got an apron?"
"Oh, bless you girl! You're a real lifesaver! There's a clean apron under the counter.
Come on around here and let's get you started."
Waiting is waiting. Smile a lot, keep the orders straight and keep the coffee coming. Joy and I made a good team, she being a whiz on the grill and I being naturally efficient and fast on my feet. The place was filled by six thirty and stayed that way until after nine. Truckers and ranch hands tend to eat big breakfasts so the kid in back washing dishes had to stay on his toes to keep up. In three and a half hours I earned $17.50 in salary and $42.50 in tips. Nothing like I was used to earning but it felt like good honest money and I was happy with it.
I hung around filling saltshakers and napkin and sugar dispensers until the other girl came in a little after ten. I took off the apron and was reaching for my sweater when Joy took me by the shoulders and marched me around the counter to a stool. "I ain't gonna let you go 'til you've had a good breakfast. Now, what'll it be?"
She wasn't going to be dissuaded. "How about one egg over easy and a grilled English muffin."
"Lordy, girl, you eat like a little bird but if that's what you want. How 'bout some OJ to go with that?"
"Sounds good. Thanks, Joy."
"No, Honey, thank you! Are you gonna be able to come back in the mornin'?"
"If you're hiring me, you can count on the standard two weeks notice before being abandoned."
"Heaven knows I can't ask for more than that."
Within a week, I already knew quite a few of the breakfast crowd by name and they nearly all knew me. They were open, friendly people who loved to chat about anything and everything, not as reserved and taciturn as a lot of the Down Easters in Maine. Of course there was the usual kidding, flirting and double-entendre but it was all good-natured, nothing outright sleazy.
There was one regular customer in particular that intrigued me. He was tall and slim and had straight black hair long enough to pull into a ponytail that fell half way down his back ... I could only guess his age at somewhere between thirty and forty. By his facial features and skin color, I guessed him to be Native American. He always had the same thing for breakfast, two over easy, whole-wheat toast, one slice of bacon and coffee. He always left the same tip, one silver dollar. Except for a friendly 'good morning' when he came in, he only spoke when he was spoken to and he never used any more words than were necessary. He always dressed in Levis, a clean white shirt, a jean jacket, boots and a straw western hat. Joy said she didn't really know much about him other than that his name was Brandon Old Sun and that he had a ranch a few miles out of town. I got the impression she knew more than she was letting on but I didn't press her.
Mr. Old Sun was about the quietest, most unassuming man I'd ever met but one morning I got a little more insight into his nature. There was a young ranch hand who couldn't have been more than four or five years out of high school sitting at the counter. For some reason he had decided I was his heart's desire. He kept asking me to go out with him and I kept giving him polite but firm refusals. As I walked by him carrying two plates to one of the booths, he patted me on my butt. I continued to the booth and served the men their breakfasts, then came back and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and looked at me with a lascivious grin on his face.
I leaned close to him and said very quietly, "This is your one and only warning, Bucko! Do that again and you'll very much wish you hadn't."
He must have thought I was kidding. It wasn't two minutes later that he did it again. I walked to the end of the counter and picked up a serving tray, walking behind him like I was going to bus one of the booths. When I was directly behind him, I slammed the tray against the side of his head so hard it knocked him off his stool. He sat on the floor with a totally stunned look on his face until he figured out what had just happened. Then he got mad.
"Why you skanky cunt..." He started up off the floor with malicious intent in his eyes. When he was half way up, I kicked him in the face and put him on his back, bloodying his nose in the process. All those self-defense classes I'd signed up for had finally paid off. There wasn't a sound in the diner.
"You're dead meat, bitch!" He started to get up again when Brandon Old Sun stood and quietly said, "Jess!"
When the kid looked at him, all the color drained from his face.
Mr. Old Sun continued, "It's time for you to leave."
Jess nodded his head and scooted backward on his butt before getting to his feet, wiping the blood from his nose onto his sleeve. As he turned to leave the diner, Mr. Old Sun added, "Jess, if anything happens to this young lady, you won't be able to go far enough fast enough if you get my meaning?"
Jess nodded again and headed for the door but Mr. Old Sun wasn't finished yet.
"Jess, you still owe for your breakfast."
The guy searched his pockets and found a ten-dollar bill, laying it on the counter. His exit was quick and totally devoid of any composure or self-respect. As soon as the door slammed shut, business resumed in the diner as if nothing had happened.
Brandon Old Sun took his seat at the counter and sipped his coffee. I put my hand on his shoulder and said with considerable relief, "Thanks for getting that guy out of here. I warned him but he just wouldn't listen."
"You did exactly the right thing, Janet. He'll think twice before doing it to anyone else."
"I hope so. Anyway, thanks again for intervening."
"My pleasure, but it didn't look like you needed much help."
From then on, I went out of my way to be friendly. He insisted that I call him Brandon. He was always pleasant but not much more talkative than before. There was no reluctance to answer any of my questions but he volunteered almost nothing. That didn't stop me from trying.
"Can I ask what tribe you come from, Brandon?"
"Siksika, what you call Blackfoot."
"Oh, yeah. Isn't there a Blackfoot reservation up north?"
"Yes, on the Canadian border. Our benevolent white brothers in Washington generously allowed us to retain possession of a small portion of our traditional lands. I believe there are a little over ten thousand of us still living there."
While there didn't seem to be any overt bitterness in the tone of his voice, his words spoke volumes. I felt a little embarrassed that I had opened a sensitive topic. I guess my discomfort showed.
With the first actual smile I'd seen on his face, he patted my hand and said, "Forgive the cynical tone of that remark. It's far too late in the game to carry around bitterness about the past. It can't be recovered and chasing after lost causes just make things harder for everyone. See you tomorrow." He tossed down the last of his coffee and ambled out to his pickup.
As soon as I was back in my room later that morning, I was on the internet learning whatever I could about the Siksika. From everything that I could read, Brandon could have been the poster boy Blackfoot warrior; tall, slim but powerfully built, erect posture, handsome. Two hours of reading Siksika Nation history gave me a long list of questions I wanted to ask him. If I parceled them out one or two at a time, I'd have conversation material for quite a while. The first question would be about his name. I'd read that Old Sun was the name of the Chief of the Northern Blackfeet back in the late 1800's. I wondered if he was related.
"Yes," he answered the next morning as I was pouring his coffee, "Old Sun was my great, great grandfather. I see you've been boning up on Siksika history. Are you really interested or just passing curious?"
I wasn't quite sure how to take his question. "Interested. I'm sorry to say that my knowledge of Native American history doesn't go much beyond American History texts and Dee Brown's book but I'm a willing learner. I'd appreciate whatever holes you could fill in."
He looked at me curiously for a while before he spoke again. "There's a museum near Calgary that's well worth the visit but it's a good six or seven hour drive. If you ever get a couple of days off you should check it out."
"Thanks, I'll do that." Taking a different tack, I asked as casually as I could, "Do you have family living around here, Brandon?"
"Nope. Got a sister in Billings." He grinned and shook his head. "Look, Janet, you want to know more about me and I'm curious about you. Instead of maneuvering the conversation into all sorts of different directions, I'll make a deal with you. I'll trade a factoid about me for a factoid about you. That should save us both a lot of brain strain.
"Busted!" I laughed. "You catch on too quickly, Brandon. I was just trying to be careful not to cross into forbidden territory or come off like the nosy busy-body I really am."
"If you do, I'll let you know. I need to get back to the ranch now. See you tomorrow."
He had no sooner driven out of the parking lot than Jess-of-the–busy-hands walked in. As soon as I recognized him I grabbed a steak knife and Joy stepped up beside me brandishing a cast-iron skillet. He took a step back, his hands quickly coming up palms out.
"Wait! I'm here on a peace mission! I just want to say I'm sorry for being such a creep. I promise I'll never touch you again if you'll promise to never kick my ass again."
I wasn't that easy to placate. "I sense crocodile tears, Jess. Convince me!"
"Look, Janet, you're about the best looking thing to hit this town in a long time. I guess I just got carried away. I really am sorry and I swear it won't ever happen again."
A few moments of consideration and I decided to relent. "OK. A conditional truce then, Jess, but one false move and you can start doing your underwear shopping at Fredrick's of Hollywood, comprende?
"I get it. Joy, will you let me come back?"
Joy put the skillet down. "What she said, but you're on probation. I mean it, Jess, not one screw-up!"
"I'm on my best behavior. Could I get some breakfast?"
"Sit down and keep your hands where I can see them."
Later, as Jess was paying his tab, I asked the question that had been on my mind since the dust-up. "Jess, why did you get so frightened when you looked at Brandon the other day?"
He didn't like the question but he answered, "You would be too if you'd seen what I saw."
He looked around the diner for a few seconds before answering. "When I was in high school, a bunch of us guys got ripped on beer one night and we were cruising around looking for a good time. Somebody spotted Brandon on the side of the road changing a tire on his pickup and decided to have some fun with him. We were just joking around but one of the guys went too far and called him a 'stinkin' Injun' and took a poke at him. By the time it was all over, there were bloody faces and broken bones all over the place and none of them were Brandon's. I was lucky 'cause I took off runnin' when the first punch was thrown. That's a man nobody wants angry at them."
Now it made sense. "Bye, Jess. Behave, OK?"
I finally got around to renting a house within walking distance of the diner. It was more space than I needed but in Freemont there weren't a lot of choices. I was disappointed when I looked around town for furnishings because there just wasn't much to be had. I mentioned to Brandon that I thought I'd have to rent a truck and go shopping in a bigger town.
"No need to rent a truck. I've got a horse trailer that'll hold everything you need. How about we drive over to Great Falls tomorrow. I know a place over there that sells new and used stuff and their prices are fair."
I jumped at the chance to spend the day with him. "It's really nice of you to offer, Brandon. Are you sure it's not too much trouble?"
"Not at all. We'll leave from here tomorrow as soon as you're done with work."
The next morning, his pickup rolled up to the side of the diner pulling a covered trailer that could've carried six horses and all the tack that goes with them. We were on the road by nine thirty.
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate this. I hope you'll let me pay for the gas."
"Not necessary. I need to pick up another ATV for the ranch so I would've had to go anyway."
"What's an ATV?"
He looked at me and laughed. "I forget you're a city girl. ATV means all-terrain vehicle. Think of it as a motorcycle with four wheels instead of two. It can go nearly any place a horse can and it can pull a trailer to boot. It's probably one of the most useful tools on a ranch. When we get back, I'll let you ride it."
"I'm looking forward to it."
Now that I had him all to myself, I figured it was the perfect time to take him up on his offer to trade items of information. "So, Brandon, are you involved with anyone?"
He was slow to answer. "No, not the way you're thinking."
"OK. Now I owe you one." I told him about my engagement and disappointment with Rob.
"Maybe you should just get a dog. At least you can depend on their loyalty."
"Mr. Old Sun speaks with wisdom. The catch is that the sound of my ticking biological clock keeps reminding me that I hope to have children some day. Oh, I know marriage is no prerequisite for pregnancy but I'm kind of old-fashioned in that respect."
"In that respect, old-fashioned is a good thing."
Time for a new topic, "How big is your ranch and how many cattle are you raising?"
"I have about six thousand acres south of Freemont and right now I'm running about three hundred head. I've also got a few alpacas I raise for the wool and a few horses."
"Alpacas? Is their wool profitable?"
"I give the wool to some women on the reservation. They spin it into yarn and make coats, sweaters and rugs. They do beautiful work and they get a good a price for their stuff."
"I'm sure they appreciate you generosity. I'd love to see some of their work."
"Everybody does their share."
"One last question and I'll give it a rest for this session. You sound pretty well educated. How far did you go in school?"
"I have a master's in agribusiness. You?"
"And you're waiting tables?"
"It's more fun and I needed a change. Besides, I'm mostly doing it as a favor to Joy."
Our first stop was at the motor sports shop to pick up the ATV. He already knew the one he wanted so it only took about twenty minutes to do the paperwork and write the check. He dropped the tailgate on the trailer and rode it to the front and lifted the rear around so it sat sideways leaving scads of room for whatever I might buy.
The new and used furniture store took a lot longer. Brandon was very patient with me while I picked and chose and fussed over every piece. In the end, I furnished two bedrooms, a living room and a dining room. The house came equipped with all the necessary appliances but even so we were hauling quite a load when we headed home. On the way, he called Joy at the diner and asked if she could round up a couple of warm bodies to help us unload.
By most people's standards, he remained the quiet, contemplative type on the drive back but compared to his usual silence, he was absolutely garrulous. I found myself more and more attracted to him in spite of the warnings flashing through my brain to slow down, that it was much too soon to get into the game again. I wanted to know him a lot better but I had a strong sense that he was a man one could never know completely; that there would always be a person under the surface that he shared with nobody. Me being the person I am, however, that aura of mystery made him all the more attractive.
When we pulled up in front of my new digs, there were three strapping young men waiting for us; one of them was Jess. When Brandon saw him, he walked up and stood directly in front of the poor boy who looked like he was about to pee his pants. Then he patted Jess on the shoulder and said, "Glad to see you've made your peace with the lady, Jess. Thanks for your help."
Jess smiled broadly, "Happy to do it, Brandon."
"OK, gentlemen, let's get this stuff inside and get the beds put together," he instructed. "Janet, if you'll go in and direct us."
It all took less than an hour. When the last stick of furniture was in place, I called out, "Guys, dinner is on me! Let's all meet at the diner."
The night cook was on the grill when we descended on the place and Joy was just leaving. I put my arm around her shoulder and asked her to join us but she said she was having dinner with her sister. Ours wasn't a meal for the health-conscious but it was tasty and filling. The guys put away an astounding amount of food. I thanked them all for their help, even offering to pay them each twenty bucks but they refused. I followed Brandon to his pickup.
"I can't thank you enough, Brandon Old Sun. When do I get to ride that ATV?"
"You can ride it right now if you want."
"And make a fool of myself in front of these guys? Not a chance."
"Then pick a day and come out to the ranch. We'll take two ATVs and I'll give you a tour of the place."
"It's a date! You just say when."
"How about Saturday?"
"Saturday it is!" He started to get into his pickup but I held his arm. When he turned to look at me, I stood on my tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. He smiled and then he blushed.
"See you then."
The terrain varying from prairie to foothills made for beautiful scenery on the way out to the ranch. There were broad green stretches of prairie grasses with patches of wooded areas, rolling hills and some impressive rocky outcroppings. I turned off the highway and crossed a cattle guard under a wooden sign reading 'Old Sun Ranch'. His house wasn't visible for another half mile but when it came into view, somehow it was exactly what I was expecting; a long, low log house surrounded on three sides by various barns, sheds and other outbuildings. His pickup was parked in front along with two ATV's. Two large dogs I later learned were Akitas announced my arrival.
Brandon stepped through the front door as I got out of my car. "Good morning! Welcome to my humble tepee. Don't worry about the dogs, they won't bite unless I tell them to. Come on in, the coffee's ready."
"Good morning to you and thanks, coffee sounds good."
The first impression I got as I stepped inside was that this was definitely a man's home with heavy wooden furniture, muted colors, a massive fireplace at one end of the living room. I didn't see a single thing that suggested a woman had ever stepped foot into the place. And it was neat as a pin, spotless. The motif, if there was one, wasn't especially western although it fit with the log house perfectly. The kitchen was modern and brightly lit.
"The coffee smells wonderful!"
"I think you'll like it. The beans are African arabica, dark roasted for lots of flavor."
"How nice. The stuff I serve at the diner must seem like swill to you."
He chuckled, "No, as restaurant coffee goes, it's pretty good. Mostly because you never let it get old. Did you have any trouble finding the place?"
"Not a bit. Your directions were clear enough that even I could follow them and I have virtually no sense of direction. I'm impressed with your home. I can see you go to a lot of trouble to keep it up."
"Most of that praise should go to the lady who comes in twice a week to clean."
"Do you have other employees?"
"There's one full-time and one part-time hand. They don't work weekends unless I need them for a specific job. I may decide to run another hundred head of cattle and hire another full-time man."
As we chatted over coffee, it was evident that Brandon was a lot more comfortable with casual conversation in his own home than anywhere else. Not that you could call him chatty but he was certainly a lot more open. You got a sense that when he was in his own element, a protective shield dissolved and you could see the real man behind it. I wondered if the quiet nature was a cultural trait among Blackfeet but more likely, he understood the advantage of listening over talking.
On the way out to the machines, he stopped and took two motorcycle helmets out of the hall closet and handed one to me. "Let's start with a few lessons on the ATV before we head off cross country. The first lesson is no one rides my machines without a helmet."
Both ATV's were Hondas. I climbed aboard the one he indicated and tried not to be too intimidated by all the buttons and levers. Very patiently, Brandon explained the entire program from starting it to shifting gears (electric, push-button and no clutch, thank heavens) to the hand and foot brakes. The accelerator was a thumb lever. He warned me to push in very slowly until I got used to it because the machine had lots of power and would jump out from under me if I goosed it too hard. I did and it did. After half a dozen tries, I finally got the hang of it and spent a few minutes riding around in circles and figure eights, speeding up, slowing down and changing gears.
"OK," he said, "Let's put some miles on these things. I'll tell you up front, by the time we get back, your butt's going to be tired and your accelerator thumb is going to be cramping up. We'll start out slow until you get more comfortable. Let's ride side by side so I can keep an eye on you. Ready?"
"Let's do it!"
We took an easy path that didn't present any real challenges. There was one place where he demonstrated what the machines could do on steep, rough terrain but he suggested I get a few more hours in the saddle before I risked it; I agreed. We wove through cattle, horses and alpacas as we wandered around the ranch. I guess they were used to the sound of the machines because they hardly looked up from their grazing.
Six thousand acres turns out to be a lot of land. We climbed one hill that had a spectacular view out over a huge swathe of territory. If you squinted your eyes, you could just see the grain elevators in town to the north. From there we rode through wooded areas, down into arroyos and across shallow streams. The ride was exhilarating but tiring for a first-timer on an ATV. After an hour and a half we headed back to home base.
By the time we parked in front of the house again, everything Brandon warned me about had come true; my butt was tired and my accelerator thumb was so sore I could hardly grip the handlebar.
Lunch was a tossed salad with shrimp and some sort of spicy bean paste wrapped up in a tortilla. "I've got iced tea, sodas, water and I think there might be some wine in the refrigerator," he said as he held my chair for me. Such a gentleman.
"I'll have wine if you're going to."
"I don't drink alcohol, but you're welcome to whatever I've got. I only keep it around for the occasional guest."
"Then I'll have iced tea, thanks."
At some time during our ride, I'd made up my mind that I was going to seduce Brandon Old Sun. Since I had my own place, it didn't much matter whether it was his place or mind, but I absolutely had the hots for the man. He was unlike any other guy I'd ever met but I figured biology is biology; he should respond to the same signals. I was wrong. It seemed that all my best efforts to communicate to him that I could be had were like water off a duck's back. It even crossed my mind that he wasn't romantically attracted to women though nothing about his general affect suggested that.
In frustration, I finally gave up my quest. "Thanks so much for showing me your ranch, Brandon. And thanks for the ATV lessons; they were a blast. I guess I should be heading back to town."
There was a sadness in his expression as he looked at me. He stood up and held out his hand. "Lets take a little walk, Janet."
We walked past his pickup toward a long, low barn across the yard. Attached to it at one end was a corral. The light was dim inside and the place smelled strongly of horses and hay. There were stalls along both sides but only a few of them were occupied. We stopped in front of one of them, looking at a beautiful appaloosa. She pushed her head over the gate nuzzling Brandon's chest, no doubt looking for a treat. He pulled a sugar cube out of his shirt pocket and let her daintily remove it from his palm with her pink lips.
"She's gorgeous, Brandon! Do you ride her much?"
"No, I don't ride her. Her name is Gray Lady. She belongs to my wife."
What do you say to something like that? Confusion and hurt must have been written in bold print across my face. "I had no idea you were married. If you'd told me I wouldn't have embarrassed myself by coming on to you like a bitch in heat." I shook my head and sighed, "Well, it's not like you led me on or anything. Do I get to meet her?"
"You can't meet her, Janet, because I have no idea where she is. I haven't seen her for almost six years. The last rumor I heard was that she was a hooker in Denver. Like so many of my people, she fell victim to alcohol. I knew she drank when I met her but I didn't realize how profoundly she was addicted until after we were married. I did everything I could think of to get her turned around but none of it worked. Joy saw her hitch a ride with a trucker heading south and that's the last anybody around here ever saw of her."
"Oh, Brandon, I'm so sorry for your heartache. You're still grieving aren't you? Don't you think she's lost to you by now?"
"Yeah, you're right, of course. That's one of the reasons I invited you out here. I'm very much attracted to you and you've given me every opportunity to make that move. Believe me, I didn't miss any of your signals. I don't know what's holding me back but every time I want to tell you how I feel, I get cold feet. It's like, once I take that step, I'll have to finally admit to myself that she's never coming back."
He turned toward me and held my shoulders in his hands. "Janet, I have no right to ask you this but would you please not give up on me yet. I need some time to work this out in my mind. I've already spoken to my lawyer, Fred Calhoun about it and he says that getting a divorce decree is just a formality at this point. I just don't want to start a new chapter in my life without closing out the last one."
I took a step forward and put my arms around his waist, hugging him tightly. "Brandon Old Sun, even if we are never more than friends, I think you are a person I want to have in my life. You do what you have to do. You won't feel any pressure from me. If there's anything I can do to help, I hope you won't hesitate to ask."
He hugged back. "I knew from the first time we spoke that you were a lady with class. Thanks for your kindness and thanks for you patients."
"I've got to get back to town. See you Monday morning?"
"I'll be there. Seeya."