Gabriel closed his eyes as the crowd roared around him. He focused, and only heard his own heartbeat and the breath of the beast beneath him. He inhaled one last time, he gripped the rigging from around the bronc as the loud clang of the gate opening interrupted his silence. He opened his eyes and exhaled. He threw one hand above his head and plunged his spurs into the sides of the wild bronc as it bucked and snorted trying as hard as it could to throw him off. After about fifteen seconds an air horn sounded just as he fell hard to the ground, landing on his shoulder.
“Judges’ score comes down to an astounding total of 97 for Gabriel Ammons! That puts him in first place, let’s see if the other riders can beat that!” The announcer echoed through the speakers as the crowd screamed and applauded even louder. Gabriel brushed the dirt off his jeans and shirt and climbed on the fence to watch the rest of the rodeo with the other cowboys.
The town of Sunny Side was isolated from the outside world, to reward the town for its hard work in cattle trade, the town’s Mayor put on a rodeo the first Thursday night of each month. Gabriel had been competing in the bareback bronc ridding class since he was 16 years old. Now, at 22, he was almost guaranteed a win every time he stepped into the arena. He had become somewhat of a celebrity in town.
The announcer revealed the winners of each class at the end of the rodeo, “The winner in the bareback bronc ridding class, with an outstanding score of 97, goes to Gabriel Ammons!” The crowd exploded with cheer as Gabriel went out to the center of the arena to claim his prize, another blue ribbon for the wall and an envelope containing fifty dollars. It wasn’t much, but for a poor, isolated town, it was better than nothing. Rodeos held on the mainland handed out gold and jewel inlaid belt buckles with their prize money.
“Congratulations, Gabriel, on your win again! How about coming out with us to celebrate tonight? We got a keg coming and I think that Annie girl is going to be there, I think she’s pretty sweet on ya.” Jacob slapped Gabriel on the shoulder as he tried to convince him to join them. Most of the cowboys met up after the rodeo to grab a drink to celebrate their winnings and talk about the local girls that came to cheer them on.
Gabriel winced slightly and rubbed his shoulder, “Not tonight guys, I have a lot of work to do in the morning. The hay isn’t going to put itself up ya know. I’ll see y’all next time.” Gabriel waved as he walked back to his old pickup with his winnings shoved into his back pocket. He could hear the guys talking behind his back, “Poor guy, do you think he even knows how to have fun? All he ever does is work.”
“He needs a girlfriend, maybe that will take his mind off of everything. I don’t know why he doesn’t just take Annie out, she’s so hot.” Jacob winked over at Annie who had been leaning on her car with her friend Kimberly, waiting for the guys so they could join them for the after party in Farmer Jenkins’ field.
The town of Sunny Side was small, with less than a thousand people making up its population, but the land surrounding it was quite vast. The drive back to Gabriel’s house wasn’t a short one. As he took his time getting home he replayed his night at the rodeo in his head. He was a modest boy and never gloated or bragged about his winnings that happened almost every month, but he still loved the attention he got when he was in that arena.
Once home, Gabriel hung his hat and walked inside to find his father face first on the kitchen table surrounded by the current bills that were past due and empty beer bottles. Angrily, he slammed the envelope containing his mere fifty dollar winnings and startled his father, "Damn it, Dad, you can’t keep doing this. I am not going to work my ass of and compete in these dang rodeos just so you can drink away all of our money. All it’s going to take is for me to get hurt one more time and we’re done.”
“What, you got hurt? Where?” His father shot up and stumbled around trying to stand up to look over Gabriel for injuries.
“No Dad. Not this time. Will you pay attention?” Gabriel pushed his father off of him and tried to finish when he was cut off by him again.
“What’s-what’s this?” His father pointed to the envelope, “Oh, did you win again, Son? That’s fantastic, great job!” Gabriel’s father drunkenly congratulated him with a slap on the shoulder and staggered away from the table. Furious, Gabriel gathered up the bills and neatly stacked them to the center of their small round dining table so he could look through them in the morning.
He went upstairs to the bathroom for a shower before going on to bed. As he waited for the water to get warm, he unbuttoned his shirt to look over his mild injuries from falling off the bronc during the rodeo. He had landed on his right shoulder pretty hard, although it wasn’t a serious injury it was already beginning to bruise. Small injuries were to be expected in such a sport, but the big ones were always taken more seriously in Sunny Side due to the fact that they only had a small medical facility that had pretty outdated equipment and getting a last minute ferry to take you to the mainland was outrageously expensive. One of the first times Gabriel was thrown in the arena, he ended up with a broken arm. He was bigger and stronger now so most of his injuries were easily ignorable.
The next day, Gabriel was up early and on his tractor cutting the hay. He was still frustrated with his father and replayed their last conversation in his head when he noticed a small truck coming over the hill toward him. As he shut down the tractor, his Grandfather Paul, pulled up next to him and held up a lunch pail, “Starvin’ yet boy? Come on now, come take a break with me.”
As Gabriel and his grandfather enjoyed some rough cut ham sandwiches, Paul pointed out toward the beautiful mountain range that surrounded the countryside. “Did I ever tell you the story of the elves that live in them woods?” Gabriel smiled knowing that his grandfather was going to tell him the legend of the forest for the hundredth time. Even though he knew the story by heart, he never grew tired of hearing it.
“Legend has it that there are beings that live deep in that very forest. They are said to be magical elves. Magical, but violent towards anyone that comes near, especially us humans. Do you know how they get their powers?” Paul took another bite of his sandwich and wiped off the spittle from his grey beard.
“Where Granddad? Tell me again, where do they get their magical powers from?” Gabriel set back and relaxed a bit as Paul continued.
“There’s a magical tree that grants them their immortality and dark wizardly powers.” Gabriel snickered at the use of the word wizardly to describe magic. He had grown up hearing the stories of the elves and the legend that the town knew as a dark and mysterious power that supposedly dwelled deep within the forest.
The town’s people avoided the mountainous forests that surrounded their small town. They feared that there may actually be an evil magic about the mountains and didn’t want to risk cursing the town or worse, being killed. There had been some mysterious injuries and disappearances that were related to going into the forest too deep. Stories had even started about other magical creatures living in the mountains, not just elves, but there was no proof to either theory.
Gabriel knew better. Growing up, he spent most of his childhood outside. His favorite place to be just so happened to be within the forest. He had learned to hunt at a young age from his Grandfather. He definitely felt a magic in the mountains, but it felt far from evil, almost comforting and welcoming. He was already deemed an outcast after his mother's death and his father became a drunk. It didn’t bother him that people were talking about him being a little bit nutty for going into the woods, no matter how famous he was at the rodeo.
“And what proof do you have that there’s elves living in the forest?” Gabriel poked at his grandfather.
“I have plenty of proof boy, don’t ever question your Granddad.” His grandfather gave him a playful shove and continued eating his sandwich. With his mouth full he added, “You know, I tried to find them once right?”
Gabriel laughed, “Yeah Granddad, I’ve heard this one, you were just a kid and ended up getting lost in the woods for three days. Great Grandma Fern thought you had been eaten by the wolves.”
“Well I wasn’t, and I’m pretty sure they helped me get home. I fell down trying to jump across a spring deep in the mountains and one of them elves guided me back home.” Paul rubbed the back of his head as he tried to remembered the moment.
Gabriel finished his sandwich and started his tractor back up. He waved to his grandfather as he drove back over the hill and out of sight. His grandfather always seemed to know whenever he needed a visit from him. He was his only real friend and only close family member left, aside from his father William, since the incident with his mother. When she was gone, his life changed forever, his father turned to drinking to cope with his grieving. His alcoholism even caused him to lose his job at the auto shop in town where he was the head mechanic. With his father out of work, his grandfather took care of him until he was old enough to work and help his father pay the bills so they didn’t lose the house. Paul had hoped that with Gabriel working, William would want to get better so that Gabriel wouldn’t have to work so hard. Unfortunately, that idea backfired.
After Gabriel finished cutting all of the hay, he put the tractor back up in the barn. As he went to climb into his truck, he turned to look out over the field and the mountains. The sun was setting behind him casting a beautiful orange glow on the freshly cut hayfield and the mountainous forest that lay along its borders. Fireflies began to rise giving the land and trees a magical sparkle all their own. Despite what the people of Sunny Side believed, Gabriel had only ever found solace in the forest. It was a safe and quiet place to get away from all of the pain being at home brought. He always dreaded going home so he would wait until the sun disappeared behind him and the mountains before him grew dark to head home.
When Gabriel arrived at home, he noticed the lights were on in the kitchen and he thought he could smell something burning. He rushed inside, afraid the house would be aflame, only to find his father drunkenly attempting to cook hamburgers on the stove. Gabriel leaned over and turned off the stove eye, “Come on now Dad, don’t you think these are beyond done? You’re going to burn the house down.” Gabriel tried to remain calm to avoid another screaming match with his father.
“Now Gabriel, I was doing just fine, turn that stove back on. Where have you been all day anyway?” William tried to push past Gabriel, but was too drunk to hold his own and Gabriel was bigger and stronger than him now so he didn’t even attempt to fight with him over the stove. He threw his hands up and sat down at the table.
Gabriel quickly changed his mind about avoiding a fight and yelled at his father, “I have been busting my ass off working out in the hay field all damn day trying to have something to sell to farmer Jenkins next week before he buys his hay from someone else. If it weren’t for him buying his hay from us we wouldn’t have the money to pay any of the bills that you have let pile up on the table for the last three months!” Gabriel pointed to the stack of bills laying on the kitchen table, “The power is going to be shut off in two weeks if we can’t get at least one month caught up and I can’t afford the turn on fee this time.”
“Now listen here Gabriel, we are doing just fine, I won’t let us get into any financial trouble again.” His father reached for another beer as he tossed an empty glass bottle into the trash after finishing off the last sip.
Gabriel pointed to the bottle in his hand. “That! It’s that right there that keeps getting us into trouble. Every time I get us back out of a hole, you go and blow our savings on your damn alcohol. Burn your damn burgers, I’m out of here.” Gabriel stormed out of the house and sped towards town in his truck. Once in town, he pulled into Sunny Side Up, a small diner that served nothing but good, country style food. It was open well after midnight most nights so the farmers had an opportunity to grab a bite to eat after a long day in the fields or down at the docks. There were only a few guys seated at the counter when Gabriel arrived. He waved to his favorite waitress and took a seat in a booth near the back of the restaurant.
“Hey Gabriel, congratulations on your win last night. How’s your dad doing?” Janet poured him a glass of water and looked at him with some concern. She was close to the family and was always doing what she could to help them out. There were many nights when Janet would sit at the diner with Gabriel after school because his father was too drunk to leave the shop and pick him up. After his mom died, Janet brought over casseroles and lasagna to put in the freezer for them to have to eat quite often. Gabriel thought of her as an aunt and was always so appreciative of her help.
“He’s his usual. Tonight he’s burning hamburgers and probably burning down the house as we speak.” Gabriel tried to hide the fact that his father’s addiction bothered him but Janet could always tell. He sat his elbows on the table and ran his fingers through his hair as if to rub the frustration from his face.
She nodded her head and yelled back to the kitchen, “I need a number six, deluxe, with a little moo left in it!”
As she turned to head back to the kitchen, Gabriel grabbed her hand and asked, “Will you tell me a story about her?” Janet gave a soft smile and sat down in the booth across from him.
“Of course Hun, what kind of story?”
“I don't know, tell me something you two did together. Something funny.”
Janet giggled as she reminisced about her late best friend. “Have I told you about the time your mom and I snuck out and tried to meet up with a boy?”
Gabriel raised and eyebrow and replied, “But I thought Dad was the only man mom had ever dated?”
Janet laughed harder, “Oh no, this was a boy that I liked. I was too shy to make the first move and your mom was always a bad influence growing up.”
“Wait, so Mom was the bad influence? I have a hard time believing that, but go on.” Gabriel crossed his arms as he shifted his weight and got comfortable as Janet began her story.
“You know the house down the road from your grandparents’ place that the Smiths live in now?” Gabriel nodded. “Well this guy, named Van, lived there with his family for a little while during high school. His father had taken the job as preacher at the little church at the end of the road. He was friends with your mom, but who wasn’t? I thought he was cute but was too shy to say anything. One night, while I was staying over with Jenni, she got this bright idea that we should sneak out and go see what Van was up to. We walked down the long driveway to the road, I was afraid we were going to get caught, but Jenni kept telling me it would be fine. When we got to Van’s house there were a few lights on around the back of the house but the bedrooms looked dark. As fearless as your mom was, she walked right up to Van’s bedroom window and tried to look inside and tap on it. His parents must have seen her shadow creep across the yard because all of a sudden the porch lights flipped on. We freaked and took off toward the cow pasture next to the house.”
“What happened? Did you two get caught?” Gabriel was leaning on the table eagerly waiting for the end of the story.
Janet laughed and shook her head in embarrassment, “Jenni, being quick and agile, dove beneath the shrub line along the fence and hid perfectly in the shadows. I, on the other hand, decided my best hiding place would be behind a tree. A very small tree. Alright, it was a sapling half my size.” Janet held her hand up about nine inches apart while mentioning the baby tree.
Gabriel just about spewed water all over Janet laughing at her story. He had seen pictures of Janet with his mom when they were young, she was the more curvier of the two. She was still a curvy woman at fourty; regardless, she was exceptionally beautiful with her long blonde hair and deep blue eyes. Gabriel had always wondered why a woman as pretty and kind as her was still single at her age.
The bell rang in the pick up window and Janet stood up to fetch the order.
“Aw, come on Janet, you didn’t tell me if you two got caught.”
Janet laughed again, “Oh, I’m sure his mom saw us, well, saw me. I’m pretty sure the tree had boobs from her view. She stepped out onto the carport and looked our way but didn’t say a word or approach us. I guess she realized it was just a couple dumb teenagers being boy crazy. When she went inside we booked it back to Jenni’s place before we got caught by anyone else. Come to find out, Van wasn’t even home that night.”
Gabriel laughed once again. Janet smiled, pleased that she was able to put Gabriel in a better mood, if only for a little while.
“Hey Janet, your order is ready for pickup,” the cook yelled from the kitchen as he placed a big juicy hamburger in the pick up window and rang the small bell for the second time.
“I heard ya, I’m coming!” Janet got up from the booth and headed toward the kitchen, “That must be yours Gabriel. I’ll bring it right to ya.”
Janet brought Gabriel his usual, a hamburger with all the works and an extra helping of fries on the side. As he ate, he couldn’t help but smile thinking about the story Janet told him of her and his mom goofing up as kids. His only memories of his mother were captured in the pictures he had of her. He was only two when she had passed away, so he hardly had any memory of her at all except how much she loved him. He kept an old family photo in his wallet and he looked at it often as if to ask his mother for help and wonder what things would be like if she were still alive.
Gabriel got up and went to pay for his burger. While at the register, Janet handed him a to go bag and winked, “It’s on the house, make sure your dad eats too. Burnt burgers just don’t sound very appetizing.”
“Thank you Janet. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for us. I don’t know how we’d get by without you.”
Janet smiled, “Jenni was my best friend, more like a sister really. So that makes you family too, and family sticks together.”
Gabriel reached over the register and gave Janet a quick hug before heading back home.
Even though Gabriel felt better when he got home, he didn’t go inside right away. Instead, he climbed up in the bed of his truck and laid back to watch the stars twinkle over the big open fields. There was just something about the way the moon shimmered over the land that captivated him. The mountains themselves almost seemed to illuminate from within under the light of the moon.
Unsure how much time had passed, Gabriel grabbed the burger Janet had given him for his father and headed inside, hopeful that he had already gone to bed. When he went in, he found his father leaned back in his recliner with an empty beer bottle in his hand and a charred burger on a plate next to him. Gabriel shook his head and cleaned up the mess from earlier, including the burnt bits of meat that his father had claimed to be a hamburger. He stuck the fresh one in the fridge and headed up to his room for a shower and bed.
As the sun came up, Gabriel was already shoving a piece of jelly toast into his mouth and hurrying out to the tractor. He hooked up the rake and headed out to the field he had cut the day before.
The field they sold hay out of was a little less than a hundred acres. Most of the people in Sunny Side had large farms, it was how they made their money. A few farmers, like farmer Jenkins, were in the cattle business. The mainland had a large market for cattle and they preferred the beef grown in Sunny Side to any other. They were bigger and healthier than the cattle grown on the mainland. With a high demand for such prized cattle came an equally high demand for the hay and corn to feed them. Gabriel, unfortunately, no longer had the equipment to farm both hay and corn. After his father lost his shop, he sold the harvester to prevent the bank from foreclosing on the house. Even though corn was a higher paying cash crop, the hay was faster to grow, which meant he could sell more than one harvest a year.
Farmer Jenkins had been buying the hay Gabriel harvested since he could operate the tractor on his own. He had the most successful cattle farm in Sunny Side and bought his hay and corn from many other farmers in town and didn’t really need to buy it from Gabriel. He had grown up with his grandfather and felt bad for the situation their family was in and couldn’t help but want to help them out every year by purchasing the hay from them for his emergency stock incase rain or fire ruined the hay from his other suppliers.
Raking up the hay wasn’t a hard task, it just took half the day to do. It was easy for Gabriel to get distracted and day dream as he raked the hay into rows that he would later bale into great big round bales for Farmer Jenkins.
It was while Gabriel was daydreaming that he saw the creature. He was on the furthest side of the field that met with the tree line of the legendary mountainous forest. He looked over into the woods and saw a large, black creature walking on all fours just within the trees. At first he thought it was a wolf, but as he looked closer this creature was covered in leather plates instead of fur and had a much larger muzzle than a wolf. The creature stopped and looked right at Gabriel just before it turned and ran deep into the woods, out of sight.
Gabriel stopped the tractor for a second and climbed down to look into the woods to see if he could find any proof this creature was actually there or if he was just hallucinating from the heat. There were prints but not very discernable ones, whatever this creature was, it had been digging around the tree line where some rabbits had been burrowed.
Confused, he climbed back up on his tractor and continued to rake the last bit of hay.
Once he finished raking the hay he went to the barn to unhook the rake and set up the big baler. He only stopped long enough to take big bites of the sandwich he had brought with him, even if it did taste more like the grease from his hands than the ham and cheese that was in between the white bread, it was better than nothing.
He couldn’t help but look back to the spot where he saw the mysterious creature as he baled the hay. He thought out loud to himself, “Maybe it was a boar, they are rare but not unheard of around here.” Saying it out loud almost made it feel true, so he stuck with the idea of some wild boar being in the forest too.
It was almost dark when he finished baling up the hay and parked the tractor back in the barn. He was so caught up thinking about the strange creature he saw in the woods that he didn't even unhook anything; just parked it in the barn, shut the door and hurried home.
When he got home, his dad was in the kitchen again. This time, he was not attempting to cook, he was hunched over asleep at the kitchen table with empty beer bottles and all of the bills scattered in front of him again. Gabriel shook his head as he grabbed an apple from the fruit basket by the kitchen sink and headed upstairs. He went straight to his bathroom. He began to undress and jump in the shower when the phone rang. He stepped into his bedroom and answered the phone hanging on the wall, "Hello?”
“Hey Boy, its Granddad. Did ya get the hay finished today?”
“Yeah I got it all baled up but didn’t get a chance to move any over though.” He peeked around the corner to the bathroom to see if his water had begun to warm yet.
“That’s alright, I’ll help ya get it done tomorrow afternoon.”
“Thanks Granddad, listen I’m about to jump in the shower. I’ll see ya tomorrow at church though.”
“Oh sorry about that, yeah I’ll holler at ya later, Night Boy, I love ya.”
“Love you too Granddad.” Gabriel hung the phone back on the wall and returned to the bathroom.
He quickly slid off his pants and turned to the mirror. As the steam started to creep onto the mirror, he looked over himself and his injured shoulder. It had begun to turn a yellowish green around the incredibly dark purple bruise that covered the bulk of his shoulder blade. He thought to himself, “At least it’s trying to heal.” He looked harder at his reflection in the mirror and noticed his face was incredibly dirty from working out in the hay field all day. His deep, bright blue eyes, although young, revealed his exhaustion. Not just physically, Gabriel was mentally tired from the life he dealt with on a daily basis.
Despite the bruise on his shoulder, Gabriel was in great physical health. His shoulders were broad and his arms were thick and toned from all the farm work and rodeos he did over the years. He ran his fingers through his dirty, shaggy, blonde hair thinking how badly he needed a haircut, but thanks to his father’s addiction, it was hard to even afford the simple luxury of visiting the barber.
While in the shower, Gabriel tried to wash away the image of the strange creature locking eyes with him in the field, out of his mind. Something about the animal gave him a really bad gut feeling. He knew there was nothing to be done about it so he hurried himself in the shower and immediately climbed into bed ready to get a good nights rest.