Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Wayward Ranch by Kenneth Rosen
Popcorn Fiction
About Popcorn Fiction Previous stories Letters to the editor Subscribe Submissions
CURRENT

A couple of boys try to outpace a man hunting them down in this Western tale from author Kenneth Rosen.

Wayward Ranch

The breeze settled after noon and the sun melted away most of the snow. Thick puddles of mud pooled with horse dung. They took off down the dirt road toward the bridge. A trot, turned canter, turned gallop, left the two speeding down the road, kicking up dirt and mud, their horses heaving and snorting in cold winter air. The wind burned their faces, their eyes watered, their hands grew numb, all because they wanted to be free.

Graver held the silver compass tight between the reins in his clammy hands. Looking toward the horizon and Trainor's slouching back, he squinted against the wind at the mountains. He looked like a young schoolboy on his first day; terrified on the inside, unaware of the madness that begins with bullies. He turned over the compass once in his hand. Six paces behind was comfortable to him, afforded privacy. But he thought of reasons to be closer. If Trainor vanished out of sight, he'd be caught.

Trainor and Graver gained considerable ground. But stopping was their last option. Between the snow-capped mountains lay miles of sagebrush and the single dirt road, though the horses were tired, knew to stay focused on the horizon.

"We should let the horses rest," Graver yelled from behind, and pulled alongside Trainor who kicked his horse harder.

"Can't happen. You know Shavo as well as I do. He'll be right behind us."

 

Shavo poured himself coffee and stared out over The Hill earlier that morning. His fat knees pressed against the wooden railing of his cabin, while the sun rose above the farthest peaks. After each sip he'd grunt through broken teeth and snort. When he was finished he would pour himself another. On any ordinary day he'd be down in the stables doing his daily routine of haranguing wayward teens. But this was no ordinary day, and anything other than his routine. He watched the camp below, smiling while sipping. It wasn't often that he'd have the time to sit and watch the blue button-down shirts of the boys soak with sweat and the white T-shirts of the girls spotted with tears. He'd usually be up close, unable to notice. This was better. Everything was well.

Around noon, Shavo felt a chill and stepped inside to grab his jacket. He'd bought the jacket years earlier in the town of Loa. Its tattered seams and ripped collar, its bottomless pockets and its heavy feel reminded him of trips to the small town. He loved his jacket, just not Loa. Bad memories of ex-girlfriends. Broken pint glasses. Seedy villains and the chilly wind tunnel of an apartment off the main drag.

"We've got a problem." He thought he'd locked his door, but Marion came rushing through, nearly knocking over the coffee pot. "They've gotten over the last fence headed west. Two boys, boss. Couldn't stop them."

Shavo placed his cup on the counter, donned his jacket and walked back to the balcony. Two figures headed away from the camp. 'And on my only day off,' Shavo thought.

 

Anticipation of Shavo's inevitable arrival grew fear in the pit of Trainor's stomach. He knew not to look back. He'd been leading since their last stop and heard nothing but a cough from Graver. He looked back and saw him, his hands clutching the reins, and that stupid thing he called a compass. Trainor's faith in their escape would only last till the edge of the straight that cut through the western mountains, right up to when the drugs would wear off. Graver didn't know this and even if he did it wouldn't have torn him from entertaining the possibility of seeing Katherine again: the promise of a new life.

 

The sun disappeared and the sky darkened. The two boys veered off the road and into the bush. With only an hour of sunlight left and since Graver remembered the compass but not a torch, they found the entrance to the straight and hunkered down out of sight.

In the glow of a small fire, the boys laid out to rest under the cloudless sky. The air was cold and the night was silent. They trembled, and found it difficult to speak. Trainor's mind raced and slowed then picked up again at each howl of a coyote and rumble in the brush. He could see the faint outline of the straight in the distance and, for fear of missing anything important - a passing ride, a pack of coyotes - didn't turn away. Paranoia was setting in.

Graver's back faced the straight to conceal a growing smile. He remembered the conversation he had with Katherine before he left, the one that landed him the compass. He wondered what compelled him to leave, and came up with several answers that only led back to her, back to The Hill. He was young enough to mistake his intense interest in her for love, insane enough to believe it was true. He pressed the compass against his chest. The fire had died but he was warm. He was unaware of what position he'd put Katherine in back on The Hill.

 

A snapping twig in the darkness jolted Graver awake. Next to an open canteen, smoke rose from where the fire had been. No evidence of Trainor but his horse. A twig snapped again and behind him stood Katherine. His throat swelled and, for a second time, he cleared the sand from his eyes. She stood disheveled and weary, losing her balance before Graver could catch her. Looking up at him, she smiled and sighed in relief. Graver brought his canteen to her and sat by her side while she caught her breath.

"It was unreal. He threatened to keep me for another two years, and God knows I can handle six more months - but two years?" Graver heard nothing that she said. He turned the compass in his pocket and smiled.

"We'd been talking about you two all morning, me and the girls." She looked over both her shoulders.

"You came alone?"

"Yes," Katherine said. 'Oh, that sigh,' Graver thought. Something made her shudder. A twig, a howl, an itch of paranoia that pitted deep within her. Graver kept silent while they mounted his horse with difficulty, unlike before, when everything came with ease. For a moment he stopped, though he shouldn't have. He saw the stars through a clear sky quickly fading to day, and then he looked toward the straight and the shadows that moved within its jagged passage.

When they were a mile from Loa, Katherine was on edge, and for good reason. Graver had taken everything lightly, forgetting he was running at all. He loved feeling her against him, sitting behind him atop the horse, and when she began to tense up, he grabbed her hand and placed it in his pocket with the compass.

"You kept it?" Her voice cracked and he heard her choke back tears. He'd read in books that this was the time when young hearts supposedly grew stronger, a real human connection. He placed his hands over hers. How could he, in such a desolate and foreboding place, find love, find something worth running to or from? Graver closed his eyes to let the moment overwhelm him. With her free hand, Katherine reined the horse back into the brush away from Loa, away from where Trainor sat free before a warm breakfast.

Not much of a diner, but off Main Street Trainor found a comfortable and quiet booth in the back. He'd changed out of his button-down blues in the bathroom and ditched them in the trash. With what money he'd taken from the homeless man off of Main Street, he was able to afford a coffee and a bagel. It tasted like freedom. 'Clueless,' he thought, slouching as he did over his meal, 'all of you so content and civil but completely clueless.' He held a grudge, one that would last forever. He'd think back to how he left Graver only after letting the cream cheese smother his teeth with every bite, but there wasn't much room between each one anyway.

The next bus left in twenty minutes, but his bagel was finished, so he walked across the street to the bus stop where two men and a couple stood. When he sat down, the couple strolled on and one of the men asked where he had been, if he had any clue as to where the bus was going, if he knew who they were. His breakfast nearly came up and he thought of Graver, the drugs and The Hill one last time.

 

On The Hill, in a dimly lit room, horseshoes and ribbons lined the wall behind a wooden desk. Graver could hear the slow whimper of Katherine behind him, the one that reminded him of the sigh she'd let out when he saw her last. 'Oh, that sigh,' he thought. Through blurred vision, he watched a man sit on the desk and cross his legs, a cup in his hands.

"Love, young man, is a fallacy. A simple, feeble, intrinsic fallacy of the young mind. And you let it get the best of you." Shavo stood up and walked behind Graver before pulling before him Katherine, who used her T-shirt to wipe away her tears. "Look what you've done to her, son."

"Can I go, please?" Katherine said.

"Of course, dear. You've done well. Your release papers will be wired tomorrow." Shavo led her to the door with the papers in hand.

"Thank you." Katherine took one last glance at Graver. Shutting the door gently behind her, Shavo laughed and tossed the papers on his desk. He threw himself in his chair.

"You kids are something else. Funny that she thinks she's going home." Shavo ripped her papers and tossed them onto Graver who clenched them in his clammy hands. "And it's all your fault." Graver felt the kind of numb that comes during the coldest of winters, the chills that one experiences when they've almost made it, when the wind burns your face, numbs your hands, and the drugs take hold.

"A valiant attempt, my friend. One of the best. But it seems like you and I get to start over. From the top again."

His vision strengthened, and while Shavo leaned back in his chair, smiling through retched teeth, Graver caught the headline of the paper on his desk:

Asylum teen found dead in Loa Dumpster


"Trainor, though we all know he shouldn't have been here, should have thought his decision through. Loa is a dangerous place, you know," Shavo said, lifting a pot of coffee to pour another cup. "I should know, got a lot of friends over there." Graver leaned back in the chair feeling beaten, drained, as if everything in the world that was sure and stable had crumbled and amassed to nothing more than another journey devoid of purpose. 'So that,' he thought, 'was what the world was like without his medication.'

About the Author

Kenneth Rosen is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. On occasion, he pens fiction. Follow him on Twitter: @Kenosen2 or head to his website: Kennrosen.com.