Two cowboys from the Rameriz Ranch, their spurs jangling, strode through the big glass doors of the Lucky Star Casino.
They clanged toward their friend Lance Turbyfill seated at the circular bar. The sounds of their boots beat in concert with the upbeat music of the Texas Twisters, a band playing in the dance hall down the corridor.
Billy Black put his hand on Lance’s shoulder as he slid onto a stool. “Clair in a tiff again?”
He noticed the slumped shoulders of his friend and Lance’s down-cast mood.
“Leaving Winnemucca tomorrow,” said Lance. “It’s not Clair’s doing. It’s this guy, a disreputable bastard. I’d like to get my hands on him. He owns the insurance company who insures their trucks. He won’t insure them any longer now because of me.” His body stiffened.
Billy frowned. “I think I heard what you said but it doesn’t make any sense. How can something like insurance kick you out of Winnemucca?”
“Really doesn’t make sense, does it?” worried Lance, “The jerk sent a letter to Clair. He says it’s not right for me to be living with Clair and Mark the way we’re doing. He said he will no longer condone our living situation. If things don’t change in our arrangement, he says he will make sure no else in town will insure the couple’s trucks either.”
“If he isn’t the Devil at work!” agreed Quirt Lavelle. He’d just slid onto the stool on Lane’s right side. “I’ll bet the guy saw you and Clair out on the town taking a breather. Figured Clair was stepping out on Mark. Granted, Clair’s a beautiful gal, but how can he not know that her husband is confined to a wheelchair and in constant pain? She needs to get out once in a while. Everyone in town knows how nasty Mark can be. Until you came along and stepped in to help them, Mark couldn’t control his angry outbursts or terrible temper.”
“Aw, Lance,” said Billy in sympathy, “never did understand why you put yourself out for them like you did. When you up and quit the Romarize ranch and moved into town with the McGranes you left the outdoors for one hell of a life inside their house. Why did you agree to take care of Mark? You knew his reputation for giving everyone shit.”
“It was the right thing to do,” said Lance. “Someone had to step up, give them a hand. When Clair came and begged me to help them, she was sobbing, saying there was no one else she could ask. Until his fall in Vegas from the top of that building, Mark was one of the greatest guys you’d ever want to meet. He has such terrible and unstopping pain that I’m the only one who calms him down. His agony has taken its toll on Clair. She needs,” and Lance emphasized his words slowly before continuing. “A truck. She needs that truck. She has to get away from the house and go to a job, or she says she’ll lose her sanity. He can’t leave the home for a lot of reasons. She’s the bread winner. I’m the one who has to go.”
“Being there has changed you. You’re wrung out. You shouldn’t have left the ranch in the first place,” said Quirt. “The guys miss you. It was a big sacrifice for us, when you went. Left us short-handed. What kind of life have you had living in town? You’re made for the great outdoors. The insurance guy must have made a move on Clair. Any guy would. She must have turned him down. Now he’s taking action to get you out of his way.”
“Shit happens,” said Lance who did not seem to realize the bartender was placing another beer in front of him. He put his hands on the chilled bottle. “Clair has to have a truck so she can get supplies to the agricultural plant where she works. That’s her job and they don’t provide a truck. The McGranes must insure their trucks. Clair’s always tells me when she leaves for work, ‘Thank you for staying. I’ll make it through another day.’”
“What about Mark? Can’t he go to a place that takes in wounded veterans like him?” asked Billy.
“The three of us tried to think of a way around this situation. Mark says there is no place he’d go even if they did have the money. He says he’ll try harder to be more reasonable for Clair’s sake. Maybe he’ll be able to keep his destructive behavior under control with the next caregiver, and that guy won’t leave like all the rest.”
“But, do you have a job you’re heading to?” asked level-headed Quirt.
“Yah, I do,” he sighed, “but it’s a ranch in the middle of nowhere in the wilds of Montana. It’s just a job. Don’t come looking for me. Got to get my health back. I have to get away from everyone and everything here. Forget everything here.”
“We could find you if we wanted,” said Billy firmly. “I know I could.” He’d known Lance through all his up and down years. He looked over his friend of middle years clad in jeans, blue-denim shirt and worn brown cowboy hat, and said, “I know you. You won’t stay long. Place so remote won’t have anywhere for you to go dancing.”
“Don’t come looking for me”
“We’ve been in a lot of tough spots together,” said Billy. “Never saw you so low.”
Quirt swiveled upon the stool to see if he could catch Lance’s eyes. He wanted to prove to himself that he was being told the truth about the McGranes’ situation and about this damn ranch in Montana.
The quarter in his hand, all set to play the poker slot machine set into the curved bar right in front of him, was forgotten as he heard about Lance’s predicament.
“Can you break away? Get to the gathering in July?” The coin wavered in Quirt’s hand.
Billy jumped in. “We’ve heard about a gal who will be at the Rainbow Gathering. She
helps Vietnam vets like us with our delayed stress symptoms. They say this Alexis is quite the expert. Her techniques really work.”
“Okay,” said Lance softly and with a slight smile in his eyes. “Maybe I will have something pleasant to look forward to now that you’ve told me about this gal called Alexis who’s coming to the Gathering. I kinda like way her name rolls around when I say it.” Then, he paused. “I’ll want to forget the mess I’ve put Clair in. Maybe the right thing I thought I was doing a few months ago when I moved in with them made matters worse. She’s still got the same problem. Nothing’s changed.
“It’s a shame. Clair’s a sweetheart. Never complains. Always working, working, working her little heart out. At home. On the job. Trying to be cheerful. Nothing for her to look forward to now, is there, other than finding someone who will help Mark? But, me, I can look forward to seeing you guys in July.
“The boss at the Montana ranch told me if I took his job for a few months, he’ll give me time off so I can get to the Gathering.” He wanted to say no more. He just murmured, “No choice. None at all,” as he thought about the ranch and about the community of Rusty Springs where he’d be going.
A grimace crossed his thin lips as he recalled the little town of Rusty Springs in the middle of a Montana wilderness and the little rural store several miles away that bore the same name. It might be a place offering hope of a new beginning. His life at this junction felt as if it were a hole that kept getting deeper and deeper.
The next day he bandaged up his untidy affairs in Winnemucca, and like a Civil War battlefield surgeon who leaves one bloodied, messy tent behind for another, he departed for the Oliver ranch in Montana.