When Elaine first met Mike Pruitt on that snowy December twenty-third, she’d already heard about the men who lived together on the horse ranch in the upper reaches of the valley, of course. She and her four children had recently joined her husband where he’d finally found work, and so they’d been taken under the wing of the First Baptist Ladies’ Guild. Sally Collins had told her about Mike and Harry the first time she’d come out to drop off a cake and a casserole, confiding the news as if it were the best story their tiny community had to offer. The town boasted no more than five hundred souls, though if you included all the farm and ranch people, that total swelled to at least a thousand. Two gay men, living brazenly within the traditionally conservative country of big sky and branded cattle: Elaine figured that had to be worth repeating in Elk Ridge for a hundred years at least. She listened carefully to all the information about stores and weather and churches and the state of the roads that Sally had to give her, and she was grateful for the help, but especially she listened to word about these men. Her son Danny was just turned sixteen, morose and uncommunicative and unhappy in a way that hurt a mother’s heart, and she worried about him. It might be…. She’d do about anything to get him to talk to her.
Elaine heard more about Mike and Harry the second time Sally drove up to the seen-better-days clapboard house she and Gilbert were renting. Elaine wiped her hands on a towel and went out to meet her in the side yard, not minding one bit this interruption to her day. The early-December wind swirled around her, kicking up her apron because she’d been making burritos for Maudie’s restaurant. The part-time work would make a good Christmas possible for the family, and maybe she could think of something to buy that would cheer Danny up. She shivered against the cold and pulled her sweater closer around her, moving her feet to keep them warm. The rocky ground of their acreage, ten miles outside of town, was covered with a dusting of snow, though the peaks surrounding them had been thoroughly white-capped since she and the kids had arrived two weeks before.
Sally had brought Ann Huntington with her, the vice president of the guild, along with a bible and two sacks of used children’s clothes that Elaine received happily. The three of them settled down around the kitchen table and the real visit began. It seemed that the boys, as Sally insisted on calling forty-five-year-old men, had come to the valley five or six years before and had started out by renting a ramshackle place nobody else had wanted. But then they came into some money because they’d bought the Rodriguez ranch, and that surely must have cost a pretty penny, don’t you know?
Elaine wasn’t sure which Sally thought was more scandalous, the fact that the two men were living in sin against the laws of God as clearly defined in Leviticus—“Though nobody’s ever seen them do anything unseemly,” Sally said regretfully, “not even hold hands or kiss each other. To look at them you’d think they were normal”—or if the problem was that their ranch and the equipment rental business operated by Mike from a lot next to the post office both seemed to be thriving.
“It’s a shame, as fine-looking as those two are,” Sally told her, “that they don’t have an eye for a woman.”
“I like Mike,” Ann put in as she reached for another chocolate chip cookie from the plate Elaine had put out. Thankfully the children were in school so they had some peace and quiet to talk. Elaine was pleased with the company of other women even if she wasn’t a Baptist and had no intention of attending their church. Unitarian Universalist had always been her flavor, where the joke was that a person didn’t need to believe in a god at all to belong—except it wasn’t a joke. Nobody had ever pressed her on what she held true when she’d gone for services some Sundays that they’d lived in Denver. But there wasn’t a UU church for a hundred miles around, so she’d pretty much decided she’d pray to, or think about, or curse whatever god there was on her own.
“Wait until you meet Mike,” Ann went on. “He’s drop-dead gorgeous even if he is showing gray.”
“You always have had a partiality for dark-haired, blue-eyed boys who talk a blue streak,” Sally said. “All the way back to grade school. Remember Sammy Morrison?”
Ann blushed and broke the cookie in half. “He’s long gone. I saw Harry limping the other day at the gas station.”
“You did? What’s wrong with him?”
“I asked, and he tipped his hat to me in that way he has. Whatever you might say about their godless way of living, you’ve got to admit, Sally May, they are both real polite.”
“I never said they weren’t polite. I said they shouldn’t give the kids bad ideas about the ways a man can satisfy his lusts.” Sally’s lips folded until her lipstick didn’t show, but then she relaxed. “Is that leg of his giving him trouble again? Remember how it took him months after that accident he had before he could walk right?”
“You know how getting anything out of him is like pulling teeth. But he mumbled something about a horse kicking him, so I guess that’s the reason.”
That seemed to be it for the talk on Mike and Harry. Elaine didn’t know whether to press for more or not, didn’t know if it made any difference to her and her family or not. She’d never known any gay men; they’d never been a part of her life. Sally and Ann went on to fill her in on the principal of the consolidated school and how his daughter was in drug rehab, that the prices at Allsup’s had gone up and it was better to shop at Gordon’s, and how it was amazing that it hadn’t snowed much yet.
Then Sally asked how Gilbert was, and Elaine said he was liking the new job as foreman of the McPherson ranch fine.
“Not your first husband?” Sally asked delicately.
“No, but he’s my last,” Elaine said with a smile. She wasn’t going to get into divorcing her first husband because of the beatings, or how Gilbert sometimes had trouble getting along with her black-haired Danny, who looked so much like his slick-devil handsome daddy it was scary.
A little while later Sally and Ann went on their charitable, God-fearing-women way, getting a promise from Elaine that she’d work the community rummage sale that Saturday. Elaine liked them even though she wasn’t much like them. They were older women, busybodies, with their children grown. She was more from the live-and-let-live school of thought, and she had a houseful of kids she needed to make sure adjusted to this new home.
A week before Christmas Gilbert came home early because a horse had stepped on him. His calf was tender and purple with welled-up blood by the time Elaine got to him with hot, wet compresses and some aspirin for the soreness. He put his foot up on a stool in the tiny dining room and kept her company, talking, while she worked on her portable sewing machine finishing up some curtains. She loved Gilbert; he was a generous, open-hearted man, had accepted her kids that Charlie had fathered, and he was such fine company that she’d like it if he stayed home all the time. She didn’t mind his big nose or that he was a Libertarian. But there were some things they didn’t talk about, like Danny. She wished they did. Maybe she could get to the subject that was on her mind in a roundabout way.
“I heard that one of our neighbors was kicked by a horse not long ago. He owns a ranch like the McPhersons do.”
“Oh, yeah?” Gilbert asked, clearly not paying much attention to her. “Who’s that?”
“Harry Sanderson, I think his name is. He owns a ranch up past County Road 20 with—”
Gilbert straightened up in his chair. “You mean the faggot?”
“Gilbert! I won’t have that kind of language in my home.” He’d known of her liberal views when they’d married.
“Sorry. Sure, I know about him. Actually, I’ve met him. He used to have my job. Did you know that?”
She stuck a pin her mouth and talked around it. “No, I didn’t.”
“Yeah, he was foreman for the McPhersons for a couple years, then went part-time when he bought the Double R, and quit altogether this fall when they found me to replace him. Him and the owners, Brenda Jean and Ricky, they’re great friends.”
“I heard he doesn’t talk much.”
Gilbert scratched over his ear. “Maybe he’s a little quiet. He still trains some horses for the ranch, and he was there delivering one he’d finished with.”
“How … how is he otherwise?”
“You mean the being gay part,” Gil said as if he was wise about such things.
“Does he seem….”
“He doesn’t make any secret of it, I guess. Seems him and the guy he’s living with were at some old man’s house for Thanksgiving along with the McPhersons and their family, and they were talking about how the other guy, you know, the one he’s living with—”
“You mean his partner?”
“Is that what they call it?”
“It’s 1990, Gilbert. Get with it.”
“Okay, okay. Anyway, seems his partner forgot to bring the pumpkin pie and didn’t tell anybody, just left after dinner when everybody thought he was up in the bathroom and went home to get it. Brenda Jean thought that was hilarious, ’cause they were looking all over the house for him and starting to worry.” Gilbert readjusted the compress on his leg.
“So, they have friends here?”
“Seems like it. Why? You not happy with those ladies you’ve met? Want to talk up cooking and housekeeping with those fellows?”
She knew he didn’t mean it, not quite. “They run a successful ranch from what I’ve heard,” she pointed out. “And a business in town. I doubt they’ve got time to swap recipes with me.” But what did she know? That’s what she wanted to think, not what she was sure of. Was it possible for men so different to live good lives, happy lives, lives where they’d be accepted? She set the seam in place on her machine and started to sew, the machine making a whirring sound that about matched the whirring of her thoughts.
“I’d better oil that for you tonight,” Gilbert said when she was finished.
“All right.” She looked up into his honest face, a homely face truth be told, and she didn’t know how to go from where they were right then, comfortable, finally established in a home with a job to support the family, surrounded by what seemed to be fine, welcoming people, to where she wondered if they needed to be.
“Honey? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she said lightly, and she looked out the window to a darkening sky. A solitary snowflake came down to the ground, with no weight to it.
And then she met them.