WILLY shivered slightly as he got out of bed, doing his best not to make a sound. Grandpa would be mad if he caught him, and his dad, well, he didn’t want to think about his dad. Quietly, he pulled on the shirt, pants, and socks he’d hidden under the bed and then grabbed his boots and hat before tiptoeing out of the room and down the hall past his dad’s and Grandpa’s bedrooms. He only let himself breathe after he’d passed both rooms and made it to the living room. He’d heard his dad and Grandpa fighting over some gathering taking place on their land on the other side of the rise that Willy could see from his bedroom window. It wasn’t the gathering that had caught his curiosity, but the fact that his dad turned up his lip in a scowl whenever he mentioned it. Willy was curious to see what could make the person he loved most in the world act like that, especially when Dad and Grandpa had fought over whatever was happening. Willy pulled open the front door and then closed it behind him without making a sound. He sat on the porch steps and pulled on his boots before walking as quietly as he could out to the barn.
The scent of hay, horses, and stalls reached his nose, and Willy inhaled deeply. That was the scent of home. Willy and his dad had come to live with Willy’s grandpa about six months earlier, and now Willy never wanted to leave. The ranch was more a home to him than the house in the city had ever been, and he figured he could spend his whole life here. The scent of the barn, the stomp of the horses’ hooves, the wind across the open land—all of it settled easily into his fifteen-year-old soul and told him this was where he belonged.
“Are you ready to go for a ride?” Willy asked Midnight, an almost black gelding that had been his grandfather’s birthday present to him four months ago. Midnight wasn’t only his horse—over the past few months, he’d also become Willy’s best friend. He spoke to the horse softly, the way his grandfather had taught him. Midnight’s ears perked up and he leaned forward so Willy could stroke his nose. “We’re going for a ride, but you need to be quiet.” He didn’t know why his father was angry about whatever was happening, but he knew his dad would tan his hide if they were caught.
He got Midnight’s blanket, saddle, and tack, then dressed the horse carefully and speedily before leading him out of the back of the barn. The first rays of the sun were just coloring the sky as he and Midnight set out across the land. Horse and rider had made this trip many times over the past four months. Willy knew every stone and clump of grass, but he waited until the light spread a little more in the sky before spurring Midnight on. He’d heard Grandpa say the ceremony took place at dawn, and he wanted to be there to see it.
They approached the rise as the light continued to build. The sun hadn’t broken the horizon yet, but it was very close when he arrived at the top of the rise. People were gathering in the valley below, most arriving by pickup truck or car, but some on horseback. Willy dismounted and held Midnight’s reins as he watched the forbidden gathering below. He really didn’t see anything wrong, certainly nothing for his dad to get upset about. There were families and groups of people milling around and talking. A few of them pointed up at him, but most of them went about their business, and Willy simply stood in place and watched. After all, they were on his grandpa’s land, and so was Willy. It wasn’t as though they could tell him to leave. He had a right to be there, so he stayed where he was.
As it grew lighter, the people below gathered in a circle, and Willy squinted as he saw someone move to the center. He appeared to be dressed in native clothes, but not like the kind Willy saw in the movies. He couldn’t make out the details, but in the movies, the Indians always wore huge headdresses, carried bows and arrows or spears, and walked around shirtless with decorative breastplates. None of these people looked like that, but Willy did notice a few shirtless boys about his age riding horses without saddles. He wondered if Midnight would let him ride that way and decided Midnight probably would, but his grandfather would have a fit.
The circle grew larger as everyone came together. Even the people on horseback got down and joined in. Sounds welled up from the crowd, and Willy strained to hear what was being said, but he couldn’t understand the words that reached his ears. The man in the circle raised his hands. A scent reached his nose—something burning, but it smelled good and comforting. Willy inhaled to catch the scent once more as the man began to speak. He recognized the reverence of a prayer, and when he was done, the man began to sing. The others joined in. And even though Willy couldn’t understand a word, he still felt the sound work its way into him somehow. He stood stock-still, his gaze drawn to the man in the center of the circle. Then a loud cry from everyone rent the morning as they turned their heads toward the east. The sun crested the edge of the land, its warm rays shining on all the people. Willy felt the first rays of morning warm his skin, as well, and he closed his eyes, basking in the light of a brand-new day.
As Willy watched, a few of the boys left the group and jumped on their horses, and one of the guys rode up toward where Willy was standing with Midnight. He didn’t move, waiting to see what the rider would do. As the kid got closer, Willy saw he was about his age, with long black hair that bounced behind him as he rode and dark skin that almost looked like an extension of the horse he was riding. Then the kid stopped his horse and stared at Willy, who stared back as intently. There were so many things he wanted to ask, but he didn’t have the nerve. After a few seconds, Willy raised one hand in greeting, and the kid did the same. He hoped the boy would get down from his horse. There was something different about this boy that stirred feelings inside him, feelings he didn’t understand, and that unsettled him. Suddenly, the boy turned around and rode back, then rejoined the group.
“What are you doing out here?”
Willy whipped around as his grandfather got off his horse and walked closer, until he stood next to Willy.
“I was wondering what the ceremony was,” Willy said honestly. Lying would get him nothing except a worse punishment than the one he already had coming, though he didn’t know why watching whatever had happened down below would be cause for punishment. He desperately wanted the moment back when he’d felt at one with the sun and the people below, even if he wasn’t part of them, but the moment had passed and it wasn’t coming back.
“You know your daddy will have three fits and a hemorrhage if he finds you out here at this hour of the day, especially after he made it clear how he feels about….”
“About what? It sounded like they were singing or something. They weren’t doing anything wrong,” Willy said, turning to watch. The people seemed to be celebrating. “They’re happy. What’s wrong with folks being happy?”
“Nothing. But that isn’t the point, and you know it. Your father made it perfectly clear how he feels, and here you are disobeying him.” Willy’s grandfather scowled, but Willy could tell it was a front. The softness in his eyes gave him away.
“He didn’t say I couldn’t come out here,” Willy said as he began walking Midnight back toward the house.
“Attitude like that will get your backside tanned. Don’t matter how big you’re getting. When it comes to this, your daddy is adamant, and he isn’t going to listen to reason or any argument you can make. He won’t listen to me neither.” Grandpa climbed on his horse, and Willy remounted Midnight, then rode slowly beside his grandfather as their horses walked them home.
“Why doesn’t Dad like those people? They’re Indians, right?” Willy asked quietly, wondering about the boy on the horse.
“Native Americans,” his grandfather corrected. “And the story of your daddy and them goes back a long ways, but it isn’t my story to tell. Besides, I don’t know most of it anyway. But let me just say that he doesn’t like them and hates the fact that I allow them on the land once a year so they can have their ceremony. I have for as long as I’ve owned this land, and I will allow it until I pass.”
Willy rode quietly for a while. “What are they doing?”
Grandpa pulled back the reins and stopped his horse. “The Sioux have a number of beliefs. To them, the entire Black Hills are sacred, and the government actually signed a treaty saying they were theirs. But then white people found gold and they took the land and the hills away, and the government allowed it.” Willy’s grandfather turned to him, looking very sad. “The government did a lot of that, signing treaties with the Native Americans and then breaking the treaties when it was convenient.” He took off his hat and wiped his brow on his sleeve.
“What does that have to do with our land?” Willy asked.
“That spot over the hill where they were gathered is one of the places they believe is sacred, and each year at this time they gather there for their ceremony and ritual. I’m not exactly sure how that spot fits into their beliefs, but people often come there to pray. Like I said, they believe that spot is sacred, and it’s important to them. It doesn’t really matter what they believe. It means something to them, and that’s enough for me. They don’t hurt anyone, and they always leave the land the way they found it. In a week, you’ll never know any of them were there.”
“So they’re not doing anything wrong?” Willy asked, already thinking of arguments he could use with his dad. After all, Willy had no delusions he wasn’t going to be in trouble.
“Of course not,” Grandpa said indignantly. “They’re simply practicing their religion, the same as we do when we go to church.”
“Then why is Dad so mean about them?” Willy pressed.
“You know that people are prejudiced, and all I can figure is that your dad is prejudiced against them. I’ve never known Kevin to be intolerant of anyone, but he can’t stand Native Americans. He gets all worked up over the fact that they gather on the land every year. They have since he was a kid, and there was a time when he used to gather with them, but that was a long time ago and a lot has changed since then.” His grandfather turned his gaze forward.
“But…,” Willy began, but then the look on his grandfather’s face when he turned back to Willy shut him up instantly. He wasn’t going to get anywhere, and there was no use trying. They rode the rest of the way back to the house with just the “clop, thud” of the horses’ hooves, the wind, and Midnight’s occasional snorts breaking the near silence.
“Where were you?” Willy’s father growled as Willy and Grandpa entered the yard. “I got up and you were gone. If you went anywhere near….”
“Hold your horses, Kevin,” Grandpa snapped, and Willy turned toward him, then got off the horse, ready for the tanning of his life. His dad’s face was red, and he was breathing hard like he’d been running around looking for him. “Willy and I were just going for a ride. He was up when I got up, and we took a few minutes to talk.” Grandpa got down and slowly began walking his horse toward the barn without so much as looking at Willy’s dad. “You could have come too, if you hadn’t still been in bed,” he added just before he disappeared into the barn.
Willy followed Grandpa, figuring it would be safest to get out of his dad’s way. He put Midnight in his stall and took off his saddle and bridle before brushing him down good. He could hardly believe he wasn’t going to get pounded into the ground.
“Don’t think you’re not in trouble,” Grandpa whispered to him as Willy came out of the stall. “You need to clean all the horse stalls in the barn without a single word, understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Willy answered softly, and then he went to get the wheelbarrow and shovel.
“Breakfast will be ready soon,” Grandpa told him with a wink, and Willy got to work. He wondered if the people were still gathered over the hill and thought about the boy on horseback, letting his mind wander over what he’d seen and what his grandfather had told him. Fifteen minutes later, he’d finished mucking out the first stall and was nearly done laying the fresh bedding.
“Willy, come in and eat,” Grandpa called, and Willy set his tool aside. The image of that boy and the way he’d made him feel stayed with him well past breakfast.
“GRAMPS?” he asked as he approached his grandfather. The old man patted the ground under the gnarled tree, where he was sitting working on one of his drums. Kunsi was an artist and worked in only the traditional style with traditional materials.
“What’s bothering you?” he asked in his usual soft voice. “You have been distracted since the summer celebration. Something confuses your spirit.”
“Yes. I saw something I didn’t understand.” Actually he’d seen something that set his insides fluttering like the wings of a hummingbird, and he didn’t know what it meant. “How do you know when you’ve met the person the spirits have destined for you?”
His grandfather set his tools on the ground. “So it’s finally happened. You’ve met someone who stirs your heart.” His grandfather smiled slightly. “I was beginning to think your heart had been so hurt that it would never happen. You need not tell me who she is; that’s not important.” His grandfather suddenly appeared peaceful. “I cannot answer for everyone, but my advice is that you will know her because she knows your mind and your heart almost as well as you do.” Kunsi picked up his tools again. “She’ll know you so well she’ll almost be able to read your thoughts.”
WILL, as Willy preferred to be called now, drove home from college for the last time. He’d made the four-hundred-plus-mile trip many times from Vermillion during his first two years of school. Not so much after that, but this was the final one. He’d graduated a week ago and had spent the days since with friends, but now it was time to go home. Will turned into the long drive to the ranch, then drove past the barn and bunkhouse before heading directly up to the ranch house. He pulled his truck, a final present from his grandfather, to a stop next to his father’s truck and got out.
His dad came out of the house with a smile on his face, and some of the trepidation that had built up inside Will faded. “You’re home,” his dad said softly, and Will climbed the porch and was pulled into a hug by his father. “It’s been too long,” his dad whispered, and Will wrapped his arms around his father.
“Dad, you know why,” Will said once the hug ended and he stepped back. “Things haven’t changed for me. You know that. And they aren’t going to.” Will purposely hadn’t unpacked his bags from the truck. He and his father had had more than one fight about what his father referred to as Will’s “lifestyle.”
“You’re still so stubborn,” his father said.
“Just like you,” Will countered. “Besides, you know this isn’t about me being stubborn or making a decision and sticking to it because I’m too stupid to change my mind. This is part of who I am, believe it or not. I can’t change it, and I won’t live a lie to make you happy.” Will took a small step backward. “If you can’t deal with that, I can go. I have a job offer outside Pierre. I can take it and you’ll never have to see me again.” Will stared hard at his father, boring a hole into him the way he’d seen his grandfather do so many times.
“No. I want you here. This is your home, and someday this ranch will be yours. That’s what your grandfather wanted.”
“What do you want, Dad?” Will asked, and he seemed to have caught his father off guard.
His father took off his hat and wiped his brow, the movement reminding Will of his grandfather. He missed him each and every day. “I want my only son to not be gay—that’s what I want,” his dad said flatly. “I want you to settle down, get married, and have children, little copies of you to make you happy and give you no end of grief.” His father actually smiled slightly.
“I can have all that,” Will countered. They’d been over this same ground so many times Will wasn’t sure it was worth rehashing, but his dad seemed intent on it. “I can have children and be happy. It’s true, I won’t have a wife, but I can have a husband, and I can give you a son-in-law.” Will blew the breath from his lungs. “I want to know what would make you happy, Dad—not for me, but for yourself.” He shook his head. “You know, it’s okay to talk about yourself,” Will snapped. “You’ll talk about me and what you think of me and my decisions, but you don’t talk about yourself.” Since his grandfather’s heart attack and subsequent death, Will had begun to realize how much time he’d spent with his grandfather and how little he and his father talked about anything other than the ranch. “I’m an adult, and if I stay, I expect to be treated as such.”
“You do, huh?” his father said.
“Yes, and I’ll treat you with the same respect,” Will said. He’d already decided he wasn’t going to return home and act like a kid.
“Okay, then,” his dad said. “So, are you coming inside?” With that, he turned around and went into the house. Will stood staring. He wasn’t sure what had just happened, but he thought maybe he and his father had agreed to disagree on the whole gay thing. It wasn’t like Will was going to rub it in his dad’s face; that wasn’t his style. He and his dad used to be so close, but things had changed once they’d moved to the ranch. He could see it now, where he hadn’t been able to at the time. Will had grown closer and closer to his grandfather, and his dad had become more distant. There was nothing he could do about the past, and there certainly wasn’t anything he could do to change his father, so he pulled open the liftgate and began hauling stuff into the house.
“Do you need help?” Lyle, one of the hands, asked as he strode over from the barn. Lyle was about Will’s age, but gangly and a bit awkward. He was also one of the nicest people Will had ever met in his life.
“That would be great, thanks,” Will said, and he grabbed a suitcase. Lyle grabbed the other bags before following Will inside. “Just set them by the bed,” Will said after opening the door to his room.
“Sure thing,” Lyle agreed with a grin. “Are you back for good?”
“Yup,” Will answered with a smile. He and his dad still needed to work out exactly what his job was going to be. Will had a whole bunch of ideas on how they could improve the business side of the ranch.
“Oh,” Lyle said, the grin shifting off his face. “Your daddy said when I hired on that I was taking up the work you used to do.” He shuffled his feet nervously. Lyle took care of the barn, cleaning the stalls and doing the general work. He wasn’t particularly skilled, but Will always thought Lyle worked hard, and he was certainly willing to lend a hand wherever he was needed.
“Don’t you worry—I’m not coming back to replace you,” Will said to reassure him, and he reminded himself to have that talk with his father sooner rather than later. “I need to get the rest of the stuff.”
Will went back out to the truck and loaded Lyle up with boxes before heading back inside with his own arms full. “That all goes in the cellar,” Will said, and Lyle headed toward the basement door. Will retrieved the last of his things from the truck and then closed the doors and liftgate. “That’s everything,” he told Lyle as he came back into the house.
“Are you going riding?” Lyle asked. “I can get your horse saddled if you want.”
“Maybe later. Thank you for helping,” Will said, and Lyle hurried outside.
“He’s great with the horses,” his dad said, joining Will in the living room with two beers. He handed Will one and sat down on the sofa. “So what was it you had in mind to do?”
“I figured now that I’m home from college, I’d run the place, and you could spend the afternoons in your rocking chair on the porch,” Will said and then took a pull from his beer.
“Little shit,” his dad said with a smile. “I’m serious.”
“Well, there are plenty of things we can do to make the ranch more efficient and profitable,” Will said. “Enlarging the herd, for one thing; we have more than enough land.” His father looked dubious. “I know Grandpa kept the herd at a size he could manage, and you haven’t enlarged it for the same reason, but we can now, and we should.” There were other things he wanted to do, like protecting their water supply and a getting a thorough survey of all the land and what it would be best used for. But that could wait.
“If you think you’re up for it, I’ll put you in charge of the herd for now,” his father said. “But only up to a point. You need to keep me informed, and the decisions are ultimately mine.” Will watched his dad upend his bottle. He hadn’t expected anything else. “And as for the other thing you brought up,” his father said as he stood, “I need to accept you for who you are.”
Will stood up as well. “Thanks, Dad. I know that wasn’t easy for you.”
“No, it wasn’t, but you’re my son, and I think it’s high time I treated you like my son.” He dropped his bottle into the trash, and Will did the same. “Things have been hard for a very long time, and I need to stop taking it out on you.” Will had no idea what his father was talking about. Sure, they hadn’t had the best of relationships of late, but Will always thought it was the whole gay thing. “Are you going to unpack?”
“I thought I’d take a ride first—get back in touch with the ranch and the land,” Will said, and his father nodded slightly.
“I have some work to take care of in my office. I’ll talk to Gene and let him know what we decided,” his father said.
Gene was his father’s foreman and the key to keeping the ranch running right. He was also the person who’d helped Will come to terms with who he was. Gene kept to himself and was careful, but about three years earlier, he’d taken Will aside and quietly had a talk about the kind of man Will wanted to be and about being true to himself.
“Thanks. Gene and I will work well together,” Will said. He and Gene had already talked over some ideas for the ranch when Will had been home last. That had been a while ago, but Will doubted Gene would have changed his mind. Will left the house and headed out to the barn. Lyle saw him and hurried into the barn. By the time Will reached Midnight’s stall, Lyle was already hauling over the blanket and saddle.
“Thanks,” Will said. “I’ll take care of saddling him. It’ll be dinnertime soon, and you know what happens to whoever’s late.”
“Cook makes them do dishes,” Lyle grumbled, and Will grinned. Lyle then hurried away, and Will got Midnight saddled and ready to ride.
“Did you miss me?” Will asked Midnight, and the gelding bumped his head against Will’s chest and snorted. “I know, I was gone too long. But I’m back for good.” Midnight snorted again and bobbed his head. “Let’s get you saddled and then we can go for a ride.” Will got to work. He put Midnight’s blanket on him, made sure it was in the right place, then saddled him and tightened the girth. Once Midnight was all set, Will patted his neck and led him out of the barn. Then he mounted and walked Midnight for a while to let him warm up his muscles before spurring him on. Midnight took off, and together they zoomed over the land. Instantly, Will’s spirit soared with a freedom he hadn’t felt in months. It was just him, Midnight, the sun, the land, and the wind. Nothing else mattered at that moment. “God, I missed this!” Will called into the wind as it whipped through his hair. He probably should have worn a hat, but what the hell, he was happy to be home.
Midnight seemed to know where Will wanted to go, because soon enough, they crested the rise to the east of the ranch house. Will pulled Midnight to a halt and dismounted as he stared out over the land. Thousands of acres of relatively flat grassland stretched out in front of him, with the Black Hills in the distance. Will closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of the clean air and earth, a scent that meant home to him just as much as the scent of a clean barn with fresh straw in all the stalls. He could hardly remember what life had been like in St. Louis before he and his dad had moved here. Will rarely thought about that part of his life now. The land, this land, was as much a part of him as his hands and feet.
When Will opened his eyes again, movement caught his eye. A lone man sat cross-legged on the ground, gently swaying back and forth. He didn’t seem to be wearing a shirt, his skin almost providing a type of camouflage against the red-brown land. Slowly, Will led Midnight down the far side of the rise, closer to where the man sat. As he approached and dismounted, the man’s posture stiffened, but he made no move to get up.
“If you’re here to kick me off, you can just go about your business,” the man said in a deeply rich voice.
“Why would I do that? You aren’t hurting anything,” Will said. He didn’t come too close. “You might get trampled by the cattle if they wander this way, but that’s the only kicking anyone is going to do.”
The man opened his eyes, and Will stared into the deepest set of brown eyes he’d ever seen in his life.
“I know you, and I know this horse,” the man said, and he slowly unfolded his legs and stood up, tall and proud. “I saw this horse and probably you a long time ago.” He met Will’s gaze. “I was coming to say hello when your grandfather pulled you away.”
Will swallowed as his gaze traveled over the man’s body before quickly returning to his face. He didn’t want to be too obvious, but damned if this guy wasn’t some sort of god come down to earth. “I remember you,” Will said, his mind conjuring up the memory. “I was watching the ceremony when I was a kid, and I remember you on your horse, riding bareback. I wondered at the time if I could ride like that on Midnight here, but I never tried it.”
“How do you know it was me?” the man asked.
“I remember the scar on your shoulder. The boy I saw had the same one, but it was fresher then. Now it’s an old wound, but not then.” Will met the man’s gaze. “What are you doing here?”
“Praying,” he answered. “This place is very special to me and my people. I come here sometimes to pray to the gods to help my people, but they don’t listen.” He sounded angry. “Instead, they let your father keep us away from this land and bar us from coming here.”
“He did that?” Will asked. Not that he was surprised. Thinking back, his father had probably stopped them from using the land as soon as Grandpa died. Even now, Will didn’t know why his father hated Native Americans so much, but he’d found out that the man he’d thought his father was through young teenage eyes turned out to be far different from the man Will saw through adult eyes.
“Yes. He stopped my people from coming here two years ago. Now I’m the only one who comes. Your father would call the police if he found me, but I don’t care. It’s more important to practice my people’s beliefs than it is to obey the wishes of some small-minded, hard-hearted white man.”
Will didn’t move, but Midnight began to stomp and pull on the reins. He was getting impatient. “My father isn’t so bad,” Will said.
“Then why does he keep my people from this place? We do no harm, and we only commune with nature and establish a connection to our heritage and customs. This place is sacred, and it figures into one of our earliest stories.”
“I know. My grandfather used to tell me the stories he knew. He said he had a friend who was Sioux, and he shared the stories with him. I think that’s why Grandfather understood and didn’t interfere with you.” Will began to move to appease Midnight. “He told me the day I watched you that your coming here was the same as us going to church.” The man nodded. “Then I give you and your people permission to come here and to hold your ceremony.”
Will led Midnight farther away and got ready to mount, but stopped when he heard the other man laughing. “I know it’s your father who owns the land, or thinks he owns the land. But no one can own nature or the land. Not even you.”
Will stomped over to where the man stood, knowing Midnight would stay. “Look, you can play the stereotypical stoic Indian all you want. But I meant what I said. I happen to believe you should be able to practice your beliefs. So you can either act like an ass or say thank you.” Will stared at the annoying man, wondering why he was bothering at all.
“Native American,” the man said. “I’m Native American, not Indian, and why should I say thank you for allowing my people to practice beliefs we’ve held and passed down for thousands of years?”
God, the man was a smartass. “Okay, then don’t practice your beliefs and stay away. It’s no skin off my nose,” Will said as he climbed back into the saddle. “I was trying to help.” Will turned Midnight’s head toward home and clicked his teeth to start the horse moving.
“You were,” the man said, and Will pulled