ONE EVENING Joe and Harley sat in their parlor, both exhausted from two weeks on the circuit, both nursing aching bones and muscles that had been twisted, banged, bruised, and otherwise misused by one rank bull or another.
Harley sipped whiskey and turned to Joe. “When I die, you bury me out there somewhere,” he said, pointing with the glass in his hand to the window that faced the flat, sunbaked Texas plains.
“I’ll haul your ass back to Colorado, Harley,” Joe said with a smile. “I’ll plant you in a mountain meadow shaded by tall pine and aspen trees. That out there—” He motioned toward the window. “—is a sad place to be.”
“No, sir.” Harley sat up a bit in his easy chair and stared at Joe. “I’m a Texan, Joe. Born here and I expect to die here. Just ’cause my daddy got a hair up his ass to move to Colorado when I was thirteen don’t mean nothin’. I had no say in that.”
“Okay,” Joe said, and Harley relaxed back in the chair.
“Bein’ a Texan is….” Harley took a moment to gather his thoughts. “Bein’ a Texan is somethin’ that is a forever thing. It’s inside you. It’s a way of thinkin’ and a way of livin’. Hell, it’s a religion, if you ask me. You find me a nice place out there with some switchgrass, blue grama, and maybe some silver bluestem to adorn my grave, and I’ll be happy. Prefer somewhere that cows ain’t shittin’ all over me. You promise me that, Joe?”
“About the blue grama or the cows?”
Harley smiled. “You know what I mean.”
And Joe did know what he meant. Thought it would be a long time before he’d have to make good on that promise.
SHANE THORPE knew Jesus and rode bulls. If his life could be put into a nutshell, then that would be it, and those who knew him never doubted his dedication to either. Except Joe Vasquez, who’d met up with Shane for a second time in Tyler, Texas, the Rose Capital of the World. Shane had invited Joe to move in with him, partner up, and ride the circuit together upon their first meeting at the Yellow Rose Saloon in Tyler. Joe had thought about the offer after getting back to his home in Abilene and shortly after that saw the worth of doing just what Shane had suggested. He returned to Tyler, and he and Shane were soon on the road to ride bulls, both hoping they’d win enough prize money to put gas in their trucks, eat at least one meal a day, sip some whiskey, take a nap, and then head to the next stop on the circuit, and on to the final stop—the National Western in Denver, Colorado.
Upon first meeting and thereafter, Shane spoke of his dalliances with women. All lies, Joe assumed, except for the obvious that saw them both buying shots for the pretty ladies who hung on them in one saloon or another. Like felines writhing high on catnip, the ladies got giddy with drink and carnal possibilities. Except for hugs and friendly kisses, bullshit and smiles, the boys left the ladies droop-jawed, still horny and frustrated, a few voicing ego-saving conclusions that these boys were probably as queer as a three-dollar bill.
“I sometimes regret sleepin’ around,” Shane explained to Joe one day as they left a saloon in Tucson after an afternoon of stool sitting, each catching a whiff of the sweet lady scents that had been left upon their shirts from their barstool carousals. “It’s a sin, and I s’pose I’ll pay for it in the hereafter. That’s what Jesus teaches.”
Joe smiled and watched Shane walk ahead of him, focusing on the muscular mounds of Shane’s ass against the nearly threadbare seat of his Wranglers. Had never seen Shane sleep around but thought he’d play along.
“Jesus didn’t say anything about drinking whiskey, then? Just fornication?”
“He did,” Shane said as he continued to walk. “But the Good Lord gives bull riders a pass on that one. I’m gonna take a nap.”
They’d decided to stay overnight at the Rest Ur Az Motel, their mutual winnings from the prior day’s rodeo not substantial but enough for the comfort of a room with two beds and a shower. The motel was just across the highway from the Cactus Saloon, the proximity a plus for cowboys who understood the worth of not driving after drinking. The last thing either needed was a day on the road lost because of an untimely incarceration. Besides that, they both saw their trucks as extensions of their manhood, their best friends, and a roof over their heads in thin times. Wrecking either of their trucks while stupid on booze was out of the question.
“Believe I’ll take a walk,” Joe said.
“Suit yourself” was Shane’s reply as he unlocked the room, stepped in, and shut the door behind him.
Joe continued walking to his truck, where he opened the door, reached under the seat, and pulled out the .32 he kept there. After sticking the pistol under his belt, he tugged on his shirttail and draped it over the butt of the gun. Took off his cowboy hat, grabbed a blue baseball cap, and put it on. From behind the seat, he snatched a yellow windbreaker and put that on too. Didn’t know what he’d find as he continued walking east along the highway but knew what his intentions were—as they always were when he found himself with an empty wallet and some unplanned leisure time. It didn’t happen that often, but when it did, Joe took advantage of it.
Now, as Joe saw the Kum & Go just up ahead, sitting there by itself with no neighboring businesses, no one at the pumps and only one car in the lot, he pulled his blue handkerchief from his back pocket, wrapped it around his neck, and tied the ends in a knot. Patted the .32 with his palm, saw the desert scrub thickly covering the rise behind the store and figured the likelihood of a quick in and out without being noticed was good. Just a goddamn Kum & Go! He pulled the bill of his ball cap lower, walked to the front door, quickly tugged the handkerchief up around his nose and mouth, and stepped in.
Murlan Honiker saw the masked man enter his store out of the side of his eye as he restocked the cigarette shelves. He did not tense but sighed. This was the third time in the last four months that some dipshit had walked in for the obvious purpose of robbing him. He didn’t know why it was happening more often and just nodded when his wife, Mary Lou, suggested maybe it was because of radiation from storms on the sun. Murlan didn’t really care what was causing it but knew he was getting damned weary of it.
Murlan turned full-face to the robber, put his palms on the counter, and leaned slightly toward the bandit. “S’pose you want my money.”
“That’s the idea,” Joe said as he stopped about a foot from the counter and looked at Murlan’s sad face and bloodshot eyes.
“Only keep a hundred in the till. You got a gun?”
Joe lifted the tail of his shirt and exposed the butt of the .32.
Murlan stepped to the register, opened it, gathered the money, and put the pile of small bills on the counter. “You’re bein’ recorded, you know?”
“I know. Need the coins too.” Joe stuffed the bills into the pocket of his windbreaker.
Murlan scooped up the coins and laid them on the counter. “Carryin’ a gun is serious business. Robbery is one thing. Armed robbery is another.”
Joe took the coins and put them in his other pocket. “Sorry about this, but times are tough.”
“For both of us,” Murlan said, lowering his head slightly and peering over the top of his glasses. “Guess you don’t think about that, though?”
Joe turned, walked a few steps, stopped, and faced Murlan. “Figure you’ll make it up somehow. Me? Well, I don’t have that luxury.” He turned back toward the door and stopped again. “You press your panic button yet?” he said over his shoulder.
“Don’t have one. I’ll call the sheriff once you get outside.”
Joe nodded, opened the door, and walked to the side of the building. Untied his handkerchief, took off his ball cap and windbreaker, balled them up, and walked up the slight rise of the desert behind the store. He then began to jog across the scrubby landscape until he saw the back of the Rest Ur Az Motel in the distance. He ran toward it and began walking as soon as he stepped into the motel’s parking lot. He stopped at his truck, stuffed his items behind the seat, pulled his .32 from his waist, and stuck it back under the seat. Walked to the door, behind which he knew Shane was sleeping, took a deep breath, and quietly entered the darkened room.
OVER BREAKFAST the next morning, Shane pulled out a wad of bills from his pocket, looked at all the singles, and shook his head. “Guess I’m gonna have to use that credit card. Got the thing run up to the hilt.”
“Got you covered,” Joe said.
“How you gonna do that? We both blew what we had on the motel and the drinkin’. Neither one of us has made anything to talk about since we left Tyler.”
“Keep a little stash in the truck.”
“First time I heard about that.”
“Don’t tell you all my secrets, Shane. I’ll give you a little for gas too.”
Shane stuffed his money back into his pocket, stared into Joe’s eyes, and smiled. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you was out robbin’ banks in your spare time.”
“Maybe. May. Be.”
“You gentlemen want some more coffee?” The waitress—Bernice, read her name tag—hovered at the table with a smile, an errant strand of hair from the blonde bun atop her head catching the breeze from the overhead fan as she lightly shook the glass coffeepot she held at chest level.
“Believe I’ve had enough,” Shane said.
“Thank you, Bernice, I think we’re ready for the check.” Joe winked at her and fished in his pocket for his wad of bills.
“Be right back,” she said.
“She’s got some nice tits,” Joe teased, knowing that Shane hadn’t even bothered to look.
“Oh,” Shane said. “Yeah. Nice ones.”
AS THEY walked to their trucks, Joe handed Shane forty dollars. “That won’t fill it, but it’ll help.”
“Prob’ly get me to Albuquerque.” Shane took the money. “Thank you. I’ll pay you back when…. Hell, plan to make my fortune in Denver, Joe. Gonna ride a few of those sonsabitches for the eight seconds, get some nice points, and pay off my debts—you and the credit-card assholes.”
“You’re not putting me in that latter category, I hope?”
“The ladder? Don’t know what—”
“Never mind. Let’s get the hell to Denver.”
THEY DID get to Albuquerque, over four hundred miles in six hours. Joe kept Shane’s truck in sight the entire way and called him ten miles before the exit to see if he was going to gas up and if he wanted to stop for supper.
“10-4 on that,” Shane said.
THEY PULLED into the gas station and parked on either side of the pump island.
“You got any more of that stash you said you had?” Shane said as they both got out of their trucks and stretched.
“A bunch of coins is about all I’ve got left. If you don’t want to use your card, you can borrow mine.” Joe had lied. He still had about fifty dollars in his pocket, but he’d learned from Harley that you never spent the last of your cash unless you had to. You never knew when you’d need it.
“Nah. Hell, I’ll use mine.” Shane reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. “Tell you what…. You use my card, and that’ll pay you back for earlier.”
“You will,” Shane interrupted, holding the card out to Joe. “Take it. I want to do this.”
Joe shook his head and took the card. “We’ll use mine for supper.”
Joe swiped Shane’s card and handed it back to him. “If you don’t win big in Denver, you’ll probably have to get a job to pay Mr. Visa.”
“I ain’t worried about it.” Shane swiped the card, grabbed the pump handle, and stuck the spout into the side of his truck. “I feel my luck is changin’. Denver will make of me a star. Besides that, my mama will pay on the card.”
“If you say so,” Joe said as he watched the digital readout keep climbing. He then glanced over at Shane, his attention once again drawn to that fine ass as Shane worked the squeegee over his windows. And, for about the hundredth time, he wondered what he’d seen in Shane and what Shane had seen in him for them to agree to travel the circuit together, now almost three weeks since they’d left Tyler, Texas. Oh, if Shane had even hinted at the possibility he’d sleep with Joe in Tyler, the allure of pairing up with him on their little caravan to Palestine, Texas; Fort Worth, a diversion to Oklahoma City, then on to Lubbock, Amarillo, Tucson, Albuquerque, and now to Denver, would have paled to just some fuck-buddy adventure with no mystery or fantasy about it.
Yes, Shane had told him about the time he’d shared a motel room with a cowboy who paraded around the room naked and suggested Shane might want to crawl into bed with him. Joe was still curious about that little admission. But aside from the fact that Shane had knocked on his side window the night he’d stopped at the Yellow Rose Saloon in Tyler after Harley had died and asked him if he was okay, Shane had not shown himself to be the sensitive type at all, much less queer. Oh, he was a caring man but had never hinted that he and Joe might someday share a bed. Be that as it may, Joe’s fascination with the whole thing, especially the prospect of eventually fucking this fine specimen, added an unexpected twist to his participation in the rodeo circuit. Of course, there was also the robbery aspect to Joe’s travels. There was always that to spice up the monotony of the road.
“I saw a Mexican place just up the road,” Shane said as he placed the squeegee back in the plastic bucket, then pulled the nozzle out of his truck and hung it back on the pump.
“We got about another six hours on the road, Shane. Don’t know if Mexican is such a good idea.”
“If we was travelin’ in the same truck, no, it wouldn’t be. But it sure sounds good to me about now. You think on it. Hell, we could spend the night here too. I gotta take a major piss.”
Joe watched Shane head for the storefront. Heard and felt the click of the nozzle, waited for a second, pulled it out, and then rehooked it on the pump. He stepped to his truck and folded his hands on the hood. He studied the layout of the storefront, noted where the cashier stood, then looked at the outside of the building. There were at least two cameras at the top of either side of the door, pointed down, focused on the area directly in front of the entrance. He looked up at the canopies over the three pump islands and saw cameras there as well. Not that he had any intention of robbing the place, for certainly it was much busier, and much better protected by cameras, than the Kum & Go had been. It was just something he always did. Well, it was just something he’d started doing after his first robbery, the one that could have ended his life on this earth.
Chapter Two—Joe Vasquez
AT EIGHTEEN, Joe Vasquez had been a boy on a mission. He’d forsaken the utter bullshit the northside gangs in Denver were espousing about marking turf and acting tough, their hoodies oversized and their pants droopy. No, Joe’d long ago decided that life was short and such childish, regressive distractions weren’t worth the effort. Joe was going to college, and someday he’d become a veterinarian. Wanted to care for large critters like horses. Though he’d never even been close enough to touch a horse, his childhood passion for them became an obsession as he finished high school with a 3.7 GPA and an acceptance letter from the University of Colorado-Denver. Problem was, he couldn’t pay for college. His mother, a single parent who’d never married Joe’s father, had saved what she could for the past eighteen years. Repeating her almost constant admonition that Joe must go to college, she’d handed him a check for twenty-five hundred dollars shortly after he was handed his high school diploma.
Joe’s mother, Lucia, who’d worked the counter at McDonald’s for fifteen years, besides cleaning houses and condos in the late afternoons, had known that the small sum she’d managed to save for Joe’s education wouldn’t go very far. But it’d been the best she could do. Besides, Joe’d always been an inventive boy, managing to take care of himself, sometimes remarkably so, since she’d agreed when he turned fourteen that he didn’t need to spend his off-school hours with her sister, Joe’s aunt Rosa, who lived five blocks away. Aunt Rosa’s seven children—four of them living at home by the time Joe turned thirteen, two still in diapers—had made Joe’s life hell.
Downtown Denver was within walking distance, both from Joe’s home and his school. When his mother had agreed to let him be on his own while she worked her second job, Joe found that walking the 16th Street Mall—the center of downtown Denver’s business district—was interesting, or, more precisely, bubbling with opportunities.
As a child, Joe was not so much handsome as pretty. His skin was a silky beige, his hair crow-black, and his eyes were the color of his absent father’s, an unusually dark green that caused those who’d noticed him to take a second look. His lithe body effused health, sports endeavors, certainly good genes. And he was not immune to the quick glances and lingering stares from passersby as he walked the mall, returning a charming smile to those whose stare lingered.
Joe was also not immune to the mall rats, the kids who appeared to live in the mall day and night, the ones with blue and pink hair, the ones dressed in black, the ones who hovered at outdoor dining areas, quickly snatching food left on tables by paying customers. And they did not ignore him. More than a few approached Joe, offering him friendship, camaraderie, some handing him multicolored pills, joints, some even pulling syringes from their pockets. “Wanna get high?” some would say, staring into those green eyes and at that smile. Joe was never tempted. Just as he’d done with the gang boys who roamed his North Denver neighborhood, who believed machismo came from a Magic Marker or a can of spray paint, Joe always managed to walk away, still smiling, saying, “No, thanks.” Joe had his priorities. He was going to college. He was going to care for horses.
When he was seventeen, Joe befriended an older boy, a senior who had transferred to Joe’s high school from a place he’d never heard of. “Where is Crawford?” Joe asked the boy, Harley, one day when he found him outside, sitting on a concrete walkway, his back to the side of the building, smoking a cigarette. Harley was a lanky white kid with blond hair and blue eyes, a rarity in the predominantly Hispanic high school. He wore faded jeans and colorful shirts, and when the history teacher had asked him to stand up and introduce himself, he’d told the class he’d been born in Texas, had grown up there, but had lately moved from Crawford, Colorado where his daddy had raised cows and where he’d had a horse of his own. There’d been snickers in the classroom after the words un caballero were spoken loud enough for the class to hear. All Joe had heard was that Harley had had a horse of his own.
“Crawford is about three-hundred miles south of here,” Harley said, not looking at Joe, but staring straight ahead at his boots, high-heeled and tapered to a point at the toe.
“And you have a horse?” Joe asked, sitting down next to Harley, staring at Harley’s face, his delicate features, his blue eyes.
“Listen,” Harley said, “I ain’t here to make friends. I’m just here ’cause I have to be.” He then looked at Joe, paused a moment when he saw those eyes. “You’re in my history class.”
“Yes, I am. And you did say you had a horse?”
Harley rubbed the end of his cigarette on the ground, then put the butt in his shirt pocket. “Had to leave him in Crawford. My dad lost the… had to sell the ranch, and we moved up here for work.”
“Can you tell me about your horse?”
Harley smiled and shook his head. “What do you wanna know?”
Harley turned and looked at Joe’s face. “Like from the time he was born?”
“Everything,” Joe repeated.
And Harley did tell him about that horse, and in the conversation, he told Joe that as soon as he could see his way clear to do it, he was going to become a bull rider. “I turn eighteen, and I’m joinin’ the circuit. Been ridin’ bulls ever since I was ten. Not the big boys, but I know I could ride them too. Lots of money in bull ridin’.”