This ficlet started as an author’s extra for my new story, 8 Seconds on the Mountain.
“So how the heck did you learn to do all this stuff?” I handed Kurt a wrench when he stuck his hand out at me. The upper section of him was out of sight: he was standing on the bumper of the tanker, leaning over the engine, which had coughed asthmatically and died.
“Remember I told you my brother-in-law Cliff is a rancher?” A bolt squeaked as he turned it.
“And that I spent my vacations with him and Vanessa every year after Mom died?” His voice, already muffled in the bowels of the engine, went softer. He’d told me back during the fire that Larry and Vanessa, his much older brother and sister, and later, their spouses Polly and Cliff, had helped raise him.
“You’d said.” I looked at the western horizon: the sun was approaching it fast.
“Think about it. A rancher can’t make a living if he can’t do most everything himself.” Kurt got his upper body out of the engine. “Try starting it now.”
I jumped into the driver’s seat and twisted the key. The big diesel growled to life, its usual ferocious rumble was back. Kurt slammed the hood, jumped down, and joined me in the cab.
“A rancher has to repair vehicles and equipment, do veterinary work, train animals, manage finances, gauge markets, and about a hundred other things. The more you have to hire done, the less money is left at the end of the year, and that amount can be awfully near zero anyway. So you learn to do it, just to stay above water.” Kurt smiled ruefully, his face decorated with a greasy smudge across his nose.
“When I was young enough to have a serious case of hero worship, I followed Cliff around, trying to learn everything to be like him.” Kurt laughed. So that was where he got the hyper-competence. “And then when I got older and developed a bad case of teen-aged smartmouth, he’d give me some tools and make me figure it out.”
I steered us up the single lane of dirt track that was our road home through the Uncompahgre National Forest. “He didn’t make you figure it out on the animals, did he?”
“No, he didn’t; he coached me or did it with me. Gentling and training the horses was a lot more pleasant than calving season or round-up.” A red rag that had been lurking under the seat waved in the corner of my eye; Kurt was cleaning his hands.
“I can imagine.” I hoped that when I did meet his family, those last two weren’t on the agenda. “Get the smudge on your nose, too.”
He scrubbed at his face. “Did I get it?”
I glanced over, enjoying the sight of blue eyes in his tanned face. “Mostly. Hey–” We’d talked about getting up to Wyoming for me to meet his family. Given that some of the cowboys who’d seen us together had been a lot less than accepting, I wanted to know. “You said he knows you’re gay, but — how did he take the news?”
“I was twenty- three when I told them. Cliff was kind of stunned, but he came outside later, just sat with me in the barn. I was mending tack; I needed something to do with my hands that kept me away from everyone for a while. Then he threaded a needle for me and he said, “You know your father, your brother, and I have tried to teach you everything we can about being a man.” I was braced to hear how badly he thought I’d failed–”
Kurt stopped, and the red rag was back by his face; I didn’t think he was trying to get the last of the smudge. “But Cliff just handed me the needle and said, “I think we did all right.””