Uncle Rick's Rhyolite Ranch

Chapter 1

1988 was a memorable year. Ronald Reagan was president, Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Mikhail Gorbachev was the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. The average annual income was $24,500, a gallon of gas cost 91 cents, and the average price of a new car was $10,400. The Hubble Telescope was put into operation, the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and the summer Olympics were held in Soule, South Korea. Beetlejuice, Coming to America, and Die Hard were top box office draws in movie theaters. It was a year of growth, a year of change, and a year of love for four exceptional boys.

Twenty-year-old Jason Peterson took a deep breath and brushed back his dark brown bangs out of his eyes. He tediously sorted through piles of pink and yellow receipts when Mr. Stromberg, his supervisor, carrying two thick manila folders, walked into the small, dull, gray burlap-covered cubicle.

"Peterson, how are you coming along with the Connors account, just about ready to wrap it up?"

Jason took a breath and prepared to deal with another aggravating confrontation with his supervisor. Did Stromberg forget he had tossed the folders on his desk just before closing time last night? It was a twenty-hour job to complete the Connors account.

Jason was perturbed. Mr. Stromberg had a reputation around the office for pushing his subordinates hard, concerned solely on maximizing corporate profits, raising his own self image while demeaning others, and lacking any empathy for his employees. How he became a supervisor was anyone's guess. Jason strained to put on a calm, professional demeanor before he looked up at him. "I'm about half way through compiling the receipts. It will take a couple days to scan and post all the records, invoices, and supporting documents. "

"The firm just signed three more substantial contracts that I'm assigning to you. When you complete the Connors account, do you think you could finalize those by the end of the month?"

"If I have no interruptions and I work overtime, I could, yes. I'm leaving early on Friday for two weeks, so I'll be sure they are completed before then."

"Here are the files. If you need clarification on anything or other documents you can ask the sales rep, Frank. He has all of the basic information on the accounts. Get to them as soon as you can. They need to be out of here by August 1st." Mr. Stromberg rudely tossed the folders on the desktop and walked away.

Jason slumped in his chair and looked frustratingly at the stacks of folders on his desk that were given to him to organize and review when his coworker, Janice quit three weeks ago. He thought of the additional work he had just been given.

"Not even a thank you? That damned psychopath hasn't a clue how to manage people. No wonder Janice quit. I can hardly wait for Friday to get here. I wish there were a way to leave this god-awful job for good."

Jason's Father, Thomas was a partner of one of the largest accounting firms in the state. He originally hired him to work summers. When his father passed away, Jason's mother, as executrix of the estate sold the family's interest with written stipulation that Jason remain employed. The other partners felt that other than the contractual agreement of Jason's employment, they had no further responsibility to Jason. The last three years he worked at Buchman, Cirrus and Krause had felt like a strenuous exercise in futility. When he was passed up for the second time for promotion he realized he wasn't going to advance in the company. The good jobs were given to the privileged family members of the remaining partners. After Jason graduated from high school he worked full time through the first couple years of college until his accumulated student debt was paid. Two months ago Jason sent the last payment to the Student Financial Services Company, finally paying off the lumbering obligation. It felt like someone had lifted a heavy chain off his shoulders.

Noon on Friday couldn't come fast enough for Jason. He arranged to work only a half-day to allow him to make the four-hour trip to Uncle Rick's Rhyolite Ranch and arrive before dark. When it finally arrived he had put in twenty hours of overtime in order to complete the all of the assignments Mr. Stromberg had literally thrown his way.

"And save file. Finished! I'm out of here."

Jason shut down his computer, turned off his work light and locked his desk drawer. He put on his coat, picked up the completed folders and dropped them in his co-worker, Madeleine's in box on the way out of the office.

Jason smiled as he hurried out of the stark utilitarian-styled concrete and glass office building. He had packed and loaded his bags, and filled it's gas tank the night before, in anticipation of a quick getaway. The office was conveniently located only one block away from the freeway on-ramp. Within minutes Jason pushed the throttle of the blue G.M.C. pickup to accelerate onto the freeway. Soon he was past the city limits. As he cruised up the Interstate highway he recalled the conversation he had the week before with his workmate, Travis Hansen.

"The last couple years here at the office have been pretty miserable for me, Travis. I think about the great dreams about sailing to the South Pacific with my high school buddy and wonder what went wrong. How did I end up here?"

"Jason, I know you want to be a loyal employee and all but you haven't had a vacation since you started with the company three years ago. No wonder you're so unhappy. You really could use a change of pace."

"You're telling me. It was all I could do not tell Stromberg off and walk right out of here the other day. He's such a bastard. It's obvious he's not leaving anytime soon and I'm never going to be promoted so I have to hang in there and deal with his crap. What I wouldn't give for a less stressful job that paid the bills!"

"Jason, yesterday I talked with my Uncle Rick. He has a ranch, the Rhyolite Ranch, near Chaparral and he wants to take on an extra ranch hand for a couple weeks. It may just be what you need. It would be a good opportunity for you."

"Well, I moved irrigation pipe at a farm field one summer."

"That's a good start. Uncle Rick said you don't need any previous skills. The guys will teach you everything you need to learn and it will be a fun experience, trust me. I had a great time there every summer."

Jason frowned, thinking of the pile of papers on his desk. "You're right. I've kept myself locked up in this office and in my apartment too long. What the hell, call your Uncle Rick and let him know I'll be up there next week."

Travis beamed excitedly. "You are going to have such an amazing time, I know. I'll call him after work and tell him when to expect you."

After two hours of monotonous interstate highway driving it was time for a break. He exited the interstate at Cedarville and found a convenient fast food franchise where he could fill up his stomach and a gas station next door where he could fill up his truck's gas tank. After eating a hamburger and fries lunch he drove next door and topped off the truck's gas tank. In no time he was back on the interstate with the cruise control on and pushed a cassette tape into the player. Billy Ocean filled the cab of the truck with "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car".

Before long Jason's thoughts turned to the summer of his fifteenth year. Friends of Jason's family, The Harrisons, lived in a small town about an hour away from the city. They invited Jason to spend two weeks at their place. Jason was thrilled at the idea, especially considering he would be bunking with cute Stevie Harrison, also age 15. Stevie introduced Jason to Hank Floyd, the owner of the farm where Stevie had a summer job moving irrigation pipe. Hank hired Jason to work with Stevie while he stayed at with the Harrisons. The next morning Stevie showed Jason how to pull the pipes apart, move them and reassemble them. By mid morning the sun warmed the air enough for the two boys to shed their shirts in an attempt to cool down. Jason worried his bulging pants would give him away but Stevie didn't seem to let on if he had noticed. By early afternoon the boys had moved about half of the pipes and took time off for lunch. They found a shady area next to a barn to sit and devour the sandwiches and chips Stevie's mom and packed for them that morning. Stevie and Jason exchanged tales of their adventures as young teen boys and the conversation got around to girls. Stevie talked about the day he went to the hot springs with Stacey Atkins. It was mid week and they were the only people at the isolated hot springs. The two teens spent the afternoon skinny-dipping in the warm water. Young teens with their hormones in full bloom seldom swim naked without something sparking. Stacey and Stevie basked in the sun after their swim. It wasn't long before Stevie and Stacey started making out heavily. Jason looked down at Stevie's bulging shorts as he told his story. He suddenly realized how hot of a boy Stevie was sitting next to him with a full hard-on in his pants. Jason caught Stevie adjusting himself to relieve the pressure in his pants. It was at that moment Jason knew beyond a shadow of a doubt he was gay.

Suddenly Jason was jarred back to the present as he felt his truck shake and veer to the right as a semi-truck passed. Startled, he corrected and centered in his lane. He looked at his crotch and smiled. After all this time his memories of the summer with Stevie still caused him to react.

About an hour from the turnoff to Chaparral the sky began to darken. An early August storm blew its way from the northwest to the road ahead. Soon the skies opened their floodgates, pouring rain down on the freeway. Jason shut off the cruise control and drove carefully through the storm. Within minutes the storm became a severe microburst flooding the interstate with cascading water. Jason reduced his speed. The windshield wipers fought valiantly to keep the windshield as clear as possible but soon visibility was down to 20 feet. For the next 20 miles Jason at a snail's pace plowed his truck through floodwaters until he exited the freeway and made his way to the small town.

"I'd better stop and call the ranch to let them know where I am." He found a payphone at a gas station and pulled into the parking lot next to the phone booth. He dashed out of the truck into the phone booth.

Uncle Rick answered the phone. "Hey, Jason, we were getting a little worried about you. Is everything alright?"

Jason told Uncle Rick about the storm and the delay. "I'm in Chaparral now, and headed up to the ranch."

"The drive shouldn't take you more than about thirty minutes so we'll see you soon."

Jason concluded the call, ran back to his truck and opened up his map and read the directions. "From the center of Chaparral continue seven miles to Hansen Road. Turn right and continue five miles, turn left into the driveway."

He made note of the odometer reading and pulled out onto the main road. He easily found Hansen Road and drove up the winding mountain road. After a few miles the pavement ended and the road turned to a primitive graded dirt road. Jason was glad he had his 4-wheel drive pickup to make the journey. It turned out the extra ground clearance enabled him to make it through the gale-force wind and the ruts made by water flowing over the roadway from the torrential rain to his destination. As he rounded a curve a sudden blast of wind forcefully rocked the truck toppled a fir tree over the road just in front of him. Jason jammed on the brakes skidding on the mud-covered roadway. It was too late. With a loud bang, the truck slammed into the downed tree trunk. Jason shut the engine off, got out of the truck and walked to the front to survey the damage. The front bumper was lodged into the top of the fallen tree trunk. He then appraised the situation and determined it would be impossible to get around the three-foot diameter tree trunk that blocked the entire road. Drenched from the pouring rain Jason quickly climbed back into the cab of the truck. He unfolded the map and determined he was about three miles up Hansen Road from the main highway. Jason started the engine and put the transmission in reverse. All four wheels spun but the truck remained affixed to the tree. He was stuck. The road ahead was blocked and the truck could not dislodge itself from the tree. He turned off the ignition and sat, listening to the pouring rain on the roof of the truck and thinking of any kind of solution to get him out of this dilemma.

At the ranch Uncle Rick noticed it was getting late. "Jason should have been here twenty minutes ago. I'm thinking maybe he had some trouble in this storm. I'm going to drive down the road and look for him. You guys keep a watch in case he shows up here some how."

Uncle Rick climbed into the cab of his Ford F-250, started the engine and drove down the road toward town. The wind buffeted the big truck as he made his way down the rough road. As he rounded a sharp curve he came upon a fallen tree blocking the road. His headlights cast their beams on Jason's truck that was lodged on top of the tree trunk. With the engine still running he climbed out of the truck and walked over to the fallen tree. Uncle Rick yelled out. "Are you Jason?"

Jason had seen the headlights approached and smiled at the sight of a large dark haired muscular man wearing a red-checked Western cut shirt that covered a hairy chest standing on the other side of the tree. Holding his jeans up was an engraved leather belt with a Western-style silver and gold belt buckle. His rugged clean-shaven face was highlighted with a wide smile and twinkle in his eyes. Jason climbed out of the truck and walked to the fallen tree. "I'm Jason. Are you Uncle Rick?"

"That's me. It's nice to meet you. Rick reached a hand out to Jason and gave a hardy handshake. I got a bit worried when you didn't show so I thought I'd come looking for you. I see it's a good thing I did. Why don't you grab your bags and we'll take my truck up to the ranch. We'll come back in the morning to clear this away and get your truck."

Jason retrieved his bag and backpack from the cab of his truck, handed them across the fallen tree to Uncle Rick and climbed to the other side of the tree. The two then drove the rest of the way to the ranch in the big Ford truck.

They made their way up the long driveway to the large ranch house built from logs that looked like it could have been used for the filming of the 1960's T.V. series, Bonanza.

"Jason, I'll let you out here and I'll go park in the garage."

Jason nodded, grabbed his bag and backpack, opened the truck door, and stepped out into the pouring rain. A flash of lightning struck in close proximity, followed by a clap of thunder startling Jason who jumped, nearly losing his footing. He quickly ran to under the porch and was about to knock on the large wooden front door of the house when it swung open to reveal a cherubic boy. Standing about 4' 4" with big brown eyes, appearing to be about ten years old, he looked up smiling at Jason.

Jason looked down at the beautiful boy. "Hi I'm..."

"You're Jason."

"Right, how did you know?"

The angelic looking boy giggled and opened his gleaming brown eyes wide, with a trance-like face. "Cody knows all!"
Jason smiled down on the adorable boy. "Well, Cody Knows All, it's very nice to meet you."

Cody beamed from ear to ear and reached out to shake hands. The moment their hands touched Jason felt a feeling of comfortable tranquility and familiarity with Cody he had not felt with anyone before.

"It's really nice to meet you too. I've been waiting for you."

"You have? Did you know I was coming?"

Cody nodded just as a bolt of lightning struck within close proximity, emitting a thunderous boom that shook the house. Cody grabbed Jason by the hand and pulled him inside.

"Hurry, come in, Jason. We don't want you blown up by the lightning, do we?"

"No. Wow, it sure is nasty out there."

"You can leave your wet boots here by the door to dry out. I can help you with your bag if you want. Follow me."

Cody grabbed one of Jason's bags and led the way through a large foyer to an open stairway leading to the second floor and through a hallway hung with paintings of cowboys riding and roping cattle on the open range.

He opened the door and carried the bag inside a large bedroom. "You'll be in here with Daniel. He is out in the greenhouse but will be back in just a little while and you can meet him then. You two will get along really well. "

Jason followed Cody into the large bedroom where two double beds, separated by a nightstand and lamp, were against the far wall. Cody set Jason's bag on the bed on the right.

"This is your bed, Jason. You can use that dresser for your stuff."

A voice from the living room carried to the back of the house. "Cody, who was at the door?"

"Jason, you get comfortable and when you're ready come out to the family room and meet everyone."

Cody ran out of the bedroom shouting. "Jason is in his room unpacking, Brandon."

Jason found space in the closet to hang his coat and a few shirts and an empty drawer in which he could put his underwear, socks and T-shirts. He stowed his backpack and bag in the closet and headed out to meet the rest of the family.

Cody stood up and ran to Jason, taking his hand as he came into the family room.

"Guys, Jason. Jason, this is Henry."

A middle aged thin man with whiskers, wearing a tan colored worn western-style shirt and worn jeans stood and shook Jason's hand.

"This is Brandon and Wes."

A portly redhead man stood and shook Jason's hand, followed by a thin older graying man with high cheekbones and a scraggly mustache.

And you already met Uncle Rick.

Jason instantaneously felt at home.

"It's good to meet you. Travis told me a bit about you guys and the ranch. I am excited to see it all."

Rick put his hand on Jason's shoulder. "We're glad to have you. We sure can use the extra help too."

Cody looked up at Jason. His big brown eyes shined as he beamed from ear to ear and reached out his hand to take Jason's. "How long are you going to be with us?"

"I am here for two weeks to help you guys, Cody."


"Is that not okay?"

Cody hesitated in thought. "Well, yeah, you're supposed to be here at least that long. I hope you'll like it so much that you wont ever want to go."

"Is that so?"

"Uh huh."

"Well, I'm glad."

" It looks like we're getting a break in the rain, want to see what I built?"

Uncle Rick gave Cody a stern look. "Cody, maybe Jason wants to get settled first."

"Thanks, Uncle Rick. Cody was nice enough to show me my room and where to put my things. I'm all set."

"If he ever gets to be too much, just tell him, alright?"

Uncle Rick excused himself to check on dinner.

Cody smiled at Jason. "It's in the back by the pond."

"Lead the way, Cody Knows All!"

Cody giggled and grabbed Jason by the hand leading him out the back door. The rain had let up allowing them to follow a path that led towards a stream that fed into a large pond.

"This is beautiful, Cody. You built this pond?"

Cody gigged. "Nooo, but I'll show you what I did build, come on."

Cody took Jason around to the other side of the pond and showed him a four-legged tower about twenty-five feet tall made out of bolted together lumber. Between the tower legs was a large cylinder of concrete hanging from the top of the tower by a cable.

"What is this, Cody?"

"It's a gravity generator."

"I've never seen a generator like this. How does it work?"

Cody walked to one of the tower legs and turned a crank. The crank pulled a large cylinder of concrete to the top of the tower. "At the top of the tower is a pulley and gears. When this weight comes down it turns those gears. They are connected to an alternator that Uncle Rick got for me from the junkyard. When the gears turn the alternator makes electricity that charges these batteries here." Cody opened a wooden box at the bottom of one of the tower legs. Inside were several deep cycle batteries.

"What do the batteries power?"

"They are hooked to this inverter that changes electricity from DC to AC. That powers this water pump. It pumps water from the pond to the garden, greenhouse, and orchard to water the plants and trees."

"Wow, I'm impressed, Cody. You made all this?"

"Well I designed it and everyone helped put it up."

"That's great. You're pretty smart, Cody."

Cody beamed at the praise. "Thank you."

"How long does it take for the weight to travel all the way down?"

"It takes about two and a half hours to come all the way down."

Uncle Rick shouted from the house. "Cody, Jason, Dinner is in fifteen minutes!"

The two made their way back into the house just as the rain started falling again. Brandon to poked his head out of the kitchen.

"Dinner is just about done. We're having one of your favorite dishes tonight, Henry. I hope you worked up an appetite today because there is plenty of it."

Henry wore a big grin as he walked into the kitchen. "Yes sir, I sure did work up an appetite today."

Wes chuckled. "Just mention food and leave it up to Henry to make sure dinner is served as soon as possible. What can I do to help?"

"Thank you. You can set the table if you like."

Another nearby bolt of lightning flashed and a clap of thunder shook the house just before there was a knock at the back door.

Cody hurried to the door and swung it open. "Daniel's back." He announced.

In stepped an 18-year old blond haired boy carrying boxes of vegetables and fruit.

"Wow, it's pouring out there. Cody, would you take one of these boxes, please? I'm about to drop them."

Cody took one of the boxes and followed Daniel into the kitchen. After a few minutes of unpacking and putting away the groceries Cody pulled Daniel by the hand out to the family room, where the others were in conversation.

Cody politely waited until they finished talking. "Daniel, this is Travis's friend, Jason Peterson. He's going to be with us for a while. Jason, this is Daniel Bunch.

Jason stood and reached to shake Daniel's hand. When they touched a spark of energy between them startled both of them. The charge was different than static electricity from the carpet. Jason looked into Daniel's deep brown eyes, framed by his blonde hair. He almost couldn't breathe. Was it his imagination or did Daniel hold his penetrating gaze and hand a few seconds longer than expected? This was unlike anything he had encountered before. What was so special about this gorgeous young man that just walked into his life?

Cody padded off into the kitchen and came out carrying a handful of plates and napkins and put them on the dining room table. He looked up at Daniel and Jason who engaged in friendly conversation, gave a big smile and went back in the kitchen for the rest of the table settings.

Jason noticed Cody's smile. "What was that about?"

Daniel chuckled "Who knows with Cody, but he's probably plotting something like a lot of 10-year old boys do."

Cody giggled as he came out to set the glasses on the table. "I heard that!"

Uncle Rick and Brandon brought large plates and bowls of food out to the table.

"Come on boys, let's eat," Uncle Rick announced. "Jason, you go ahead and sit at the end of the table."

Uncle Rick sat at the end of the table closest to the kitchen. Brandon and Wes sat on either side of him. Henry sat next to Wes and Cody sat on one side of Jason as Daniel sat on the other. Jason smelled the savory aromas from the food on the table and realized just how hungry he was.

Brandon smiled warmly across the table at Jason. "We have a fresh green salad made from produce Cody picked out of the garden this afternoon. There are braised pork loins, fresh asparagus, mashed sweet potatoes, and homemade bread. Don't be shy. There is plenty for everyone to have seconds."

Jason was passed the bowl of green salad. "Wow, life here seems about as different as it could be from my life in the city."

Daniel smiled at Jason. "Yeah, I can't imagine living in a big city. All that traffic and noise would give me a headache."

"I can see how it would. I'm used to all the people and the noise but it seems I notice it more lately. The worst part is my office job."

Cody glanced up at Jason. "Office job? Ewww!"

"Now Cody, if that is what Jason wants then it's fine for him." Uncle Rick explained. "Some people don't want to be on a ranch, working outside all the time, getting dirty around animals and sweaty and smelly."

Cody looked at Jason sadly. "I'm sorry, Jason."

"Thank you, Cody. To be honest, this seems like a lot better adventure than answering phones and sorting receipts all day."

"Daniel can help you have a fun adventure. He knows all the cool spots on the ranch." Cody naively suggested.

"Oh, is Daniel the best tour guide on the ranch, Cody?"

"Nah, I am but I let him think he is." Cody explained with a grin.

Daniel threatened Cody with a mock angry look. "Don't make me take you in the other room and torture you with tickles, little man."

A big grin came to Cody's face. "You wouldn't dare. Besides, Brandon, Henry and Wes would eat all of your food while you weren't paying attention."

"You better just watch it, Bucko," teased Daniel, "I'll get Jason to team up with me and we'll have a mass tickling on you."

Cody giggled. "Okay, I'll be good for now but I can't guarantee anything after dinner."

Jason laughed at the friendly banter. He hadn't enjoyed a home cooked meal this good since living at home with his parents before college. Throughout dinner Daniel and Jason stole glances and smiles at each other. Cody caught them smiling at each other and grinned from ear to ear before eating a bite of savory pork loin.

As everyone finished the delicious home cooked meal Cody spoke up.

"Uncle Rick, you aren't forgetting about the pie, are you?"

"Pie? What pie are you talking about, Cody? Do you know something that I don't?"

"Awe, Uncle Rick, you know what pie I'm talking about."

Rick stood, scratching his head. "Come to think of it, I do remember something about a pie. Now if I were a pie, where would I be?" He walked into the kitchen and came back with a lemon meringue pie.

Henry looked surprised. "When did you have time to make that, Rick?"

"I didn't. Daniel made it this afternoon before he went to work on his chores."

Everyone dug into their pieces of sweet and tangy lemon meringue pie and raved at how good it was. Daniel was proud of his work. "I saw the recipe in the grocery store last week and remembered how Grandma used to make lemon meringue pie when I was a little boy. I'm glad you guys liked it."

After finishing his pie Jason rubbed his full stomach. "Oh my god that was so good. If all the meals here are like this I'm going to gain a few pounds."

Wes listened with a grin. "Don't worry, Jason. Uncle Rick makes sure there is enough food around here to keep us going and enough work around here to burn every calorie we eat."

After dinner Daniel, Cody, and Jason cleared the table of the dishes and teamed up to wash and dry them at the kitchen sink. Daniel washed, Jason rinsed, while Cody dried and put the clean dishes away. Jason couldn't help but noticed how coordinated the three were at completing the task.

"We three make a pretty good clean up crew, don't we?"

Daniel laughed. "Yeah we do, but don't let Uncle Rick here that. He'll have us doing this after every meal."

Cody agreed. "Yeah, sssshhhh." He whispered, putting a finger to his mouth.

As they washed and dried the dishes, Jason wanted to know more about life on the ranch. "What does everyone do after dinner around here?"

"Well, Cody does his homework until bedtime. Uncle Rick usually reads or does some kind of paperwork in the den. Brandon and Wes usually call their girlfriends and family."

"Does Cody go to school in the summer?"

"Uncle Rick home schools him in the summer when he's not in regular school. He gives him homework to do at night and Cody likes to do it. Last year Cody got straight "A"s and that's probably because of Uncle Rick's help; that and Cody is a really smart kid."

"What do you usually do, Daniel?"

"I check on the animals before they go to bed. If it's nice out sometimes I'll go for a walk down along the stream. On rainy nights like this I sit in front of the fireplace. Other times I may write."

"You write?"

"Mmhmm. Short stories mostly. Sometimes I write songs and play my guitar."

Jason was quickly becoming fond of this talented farm boy. "I'd like to hear those sometime, if you're willing."

"Well, they aren't really that great but sure, we can do that one night. How long do we get to have you here with us, Jason?"

"I took two weeks off work to come stay and work here. To be honest, I'm hoping this will be the much-needed break I need from the mundane pit of an office."

Daniel handed Jason the last dish to rinse and let the water out of the sink. "I hope you'll find this life more enjoyable than office work. "

Jason handed the last dish to Cody to dry. "Got it from here, Sport?"

Cody nodded and grinned as he dried and put the last dish in the cupboard. "All finished."

"Do you have homework tonight, Cody?" Daniel asked.

Cody frowned. "I have to study for a math test Uncle Rick is giving me. I wish I could stay out here with you guys."

"We'll have time to hang out. Don't worry. For right now though you better get cracking on that math. You want us to be proud of you for acing the test."

Jason and Daniel smiled as Cody nodded and padded off to his room to do his homework.

"I think the rain has stopped again. Want to come with me to check the animals, Jason?"

"Sounds good."

Daniel led the way to the mud porch where they slipped on gumboots before they went out the back door towards the barn. Once inside the stables Daniel explained that every night they make sure the horses are locked in their stalls and have plenty of hay and water.

"Here, grab this pitchfork and toss some hay into the feeders on the right side while I toss it into the feeders on the left."

Jason grabbed the extra pitchfork and tossed the hay. As he did he watched Daniel and emulated his style.

"How long have you been here on the ranch, Daniel?"

"Uncle Rick took me in after I left home two years ago."

"You left home when you were 15? That must have been an awful experience for you."

"Yeah, it wasn't fun living on the streets, broke, with nowhere to go and nobody to look after me. I was scared. I hid in a culvert under the street at night and begged for food days. Luckily I took my backpack with some clothes in it when my self-righteous father was going to have me sent away."

Jason shook his head in amazement. "How did you end up here?"

"A couple weeks after I left I was walking along the road in Chaparral and found a five-dollar bill. It was the most money I'd had since leaving home. I went into the market with the money and bought some cheap food to eat. Uncle Rick was behind me in the checkout line and noticed me counting every penny of the change I got back. I was pretty grungy and I guess it wasn't too hard for him to see I was living on the streets. I went out front and ate that food as fast as I could. It was the first real food I'd had in a week. I didn't know what I was going to do after that. I knew I couldn't stay on the streets but I had no hope of ever going home again. I thought about just ending my life. When Uncle Rick came out of the market and saw me crying. He came over, asked what was wrong and I told him about escaping from my Dad. He told me he had a big ranch with a comfortable house and he could use a ranch hand to help out around the place for food and board plus a little extra. I looked at my choices and that sounded like a much needed miracle. Uncle Rick saved my life. A few months later we went before a judge who granted Uncle Rick as my guardian and dissolving any rights my parents had.

Daniel's story sounded familiar to Jason. He remembered a high school friend who was kicked out of his house after his father caught him kissing another boy. Could Daniel also be gay like Jason's high school friend?

"How did you end up coming up here, Jason?"

"I work with Uncle Rick's nephew, Travis in a dead end, boring job. I was depressed and angry with my supervisor last week. Travis is a good friend and so he was concerned about me. He pointed out I hadn't taken a day off since I started there and I really needed a break. He told me about his uncle and the ranch and suggested I come up here for a working vacation for a couple weeks. "

"Have you ever worked on a ranch before?"

"When I was in high school I worked summers on a couple farms, moving irrigation pipes, watering crops, and other chores." They weren't working ranches though."

"Great, Jason, I hope you like it here. All the guys here are really good about helping each other. Well, the animals are locked up and fed. How about we go in and sit by the fire?"

Daniel and Jason stepped out of the barn and were casually walking to the house when the skies let loose with a tremendous downpour. They suddenly ran for the house as fast as they could but were drenched when they got inside the mudroom. Laughing at being soaked they shed their wet shirts and pants, draping them on hangers to dry. The boys, dressed only in their underwear, glanced at each other and smiled.

Jason blushed. "I'm a little embarrassed to walk in the house like this."

"Don't worry, I don't think any of the guys are out and about anyway. Come on. let's go into our room and get some dry clothes and then sit by the fire."

Sure enough, as Daniel thought, when they walked through the house to their room they saw they were alone. Daniel handed Jason a white terrycloth robe from his closet and took another for himself.

"Jason, why don't you go relax in the living room and I'll make us some hot chocolate to warm us up."

Jason made his way to the family room and sat on a couch in front of the fireplace where a fire was glowing. A few minutes later Daniel came out of the kitchen with two mugs of hot chocolate, handing one to Daniel and sitting down on the couch next to him.

As they sipped their drinks Jason looked around the room, watching shadows play on the thick wooden rafters high above him. He was mesmerized as he gazed at the peaceful flames crackling and dancing before him. The stress from his job and all the negativity he felt about his life were far away from this tranquil place.

Daniel watched his new friend staring at the fire. "You seem deep in thought. What's on your mind?"

"I was just thinking how different, how serene it is here, and how at ease I feel. I haven't felt so relaxed for a long time."

"People need to sit, relax, and just breathe more often. Too many don't do that and end up getting old quickly."

"That's for sure."

Daniel sipped his hot chocolate. "Do you come from a big family, Jason?"

"It was just my parents and a brother who is nearly 10 years older than I. Mom and dad worked during the day and I was a latch key kid after my brother went away to college. How about you?"

"I think mine was the smallest family in town. Like your family, there were only two boys. I'm the older. My brother, Erik is thirteen now." I come from a small town about eighty-five miles from here where there are usually at least five or six kids in each family."

"Your parents quit after two kids?"

"You could say that. Something went wrong when Erik was born. My mom couldn't have any more children after that. They were really religious and said God had punished them for their sins. We would go to church and the Bishop would talk about how the lord would punish the sinners of the world and if you got sick or died it was because you or someone in your family had sinned."

"Did you believe that too?"

Daniel shook his head. "I learned to stopped believing all the stuff they were preaching in church when I was a little boy.

Daniel paused a moment and sipped more of his hot chocolate. "But my parents believed it. They prayed a dozen times a day and led the kind of lives the church told them to lead. They paid their tithing every month and were God-fearing people. They were going to send me away to an asylum, and so I left."

"Wow, I can't imagine how that was.

Jason saw tears form in Daniel's eyes as he looked down at his cup."

My life is much better now. I just miss my little brother a lot."

"Would it be too personal if I asked why they were going to send you away?"

Daniel took a deep breath and looked into Jason's eyes.

"Mom and Dad went to church that morning and after the sermon was over Bishop Foutz asked them into a private meeting. The bishop convinced them God had told him the oldest male child of one of his parishioners was a sinner. He told them he prayed and God showed him my face in his prayers. He told them I was a homosexual and had been seen having sex right there in the church. They believed him of course because a man with such hierarchy in the church had to be honest. They never bothered to ask me about it.

"That night Erik and I were in our room doing homework. Our door was open and we could hear Dad talking on the phone downstairs. We heard him say 'Don't worry, Bishop, I'll have that sinner boy, Daniel ready for them to take to Cedarline Institute.' Erik and I looked at each other in shock. We knew Cedarline was an asylum where they practiced shock therapy on the mentally ill. Erik said that I had to run away and I agreed that I had to leave before I was forcibly taken away. We heard Dad hang up the phone and come down the hall to our room. He told Erik to go to the family room. After Erik ran out of the room Dad grabbed me by my T-shirt threw me down on the floor. He picked me up and held me so close I could see the hatred swelling in his eyes. I'd never seen him so mad. He spat in my face as he told me I was no queer son of his. He told me to pack my things and be ready to be taken away. If I weren't in the family room in fifteen minutes he'd beat my every sin out of me in the name of the lord until I was dead. He walked out and waited in the family room with Mom and Erik. That was my only chance. I snatched my backpack, stuffed what I could into it, climbed out the window, I hopped on my bike and peddled as fast as I could. That was the last time I saw my family."

Jason looked into Daniel's eyes. "How could parents treat their child like that? I can't imagine how you must have felt. "

Daniel firmly took Jason's hand in his. "It happened so fast. In just five minutes I had lost my whole family and my life, as I knew it. I was shocked at what happened. As far as I know my family probably assumes I'm dead by now."

As Jason watched Daniel lower his head and his eyes fill with tears he spoke softly.

"Where did you go?"

Daniel looked up at Jason. "Well, I knew I couldn't trust any of my friends or neighbors. Erik was the only person in my family I could trust. Everyone I thought of was a church member and would turn me over to the Bishop. I had to get out of town as fast as I could. I also knew they'd be looking for me and I had to hide where they would never find me. I remembered a place Erik and I found one day riding our bikes. It was an old mine that was hidden in some bushes behind a ranch just outside of town by the airport. I spent the night in the mine thinking about what to do, who I could and couldn't trust, where I should go, and how I should get there. Just before sunrise I walked out of the mine. A plane flew over me, on approach to landing at the airport. I recognized the plane and remembered I had a friend, Dylan, who was the pilot of that plane. Dylan lived out of state and wasn't a member of the church. I grabbed my backpack, hopped on my bike and rode across the fields to the airport as fast as I could peddle. I got there before the airport workers started work and I managed to get onto tarmac without being seen. I made it to the Flight Courier Services hangar, where I found my friend Dylan loading packages onto his plane. I explained my situation to Dylan and he agreed to sneak me on board his airplane. He gave me a ride to his last stop of the day, which was Chaparral. "

Jason smiled. "And what about your little brother? Do you know if he is alright?"

Daniel shook his head. "No, I haven't dared go back or to contact any of my family. I sure miss him though."

"I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to bring back painful memories."

Daniel looked at Jason, smiled, and wiped the tears from his eyes. "No, it's okay. There is a lot of love from good people on this ranch. I feel more wanted and loved here than I ever felt at home. I, I hope you like it here too, Jason."

They sat together in silence, sipping their hot chocolate while listening to the crackle of the fire as the flames darted in front of them. After a while their eyes grew heavy and they started falling into sleep. It was time to call it a night. They made their way to their bedroom, undressed, used the washroom and each climbed in their own beds and drifted off to sleep quickly.

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Author's notes:

Thanks to my anonymous S.L. friend and to Mark for your much appreciated help with this chapter. I welcome any respectful comments.

I welcome any respectful comments. If you enjoy this story please send me an email and tell me what you think about the story. Thanks!