Brian's Trains
By:
Jess Mercer
( 2010 by the author)
 

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...

Part 1, 2

Brian walked slowly downtown, hoping the newsstand would have some new modeling magazines. There was a rack at the supermarket that had one other than the one he subscribed to, but his mother always snatched it out of his hand and put it back on the rack saying, "You have enough train magazines, you don't need more. You need to put some time on your studies."

 

But what else was there? Loneliness always hung over him, unwelcome as a blanket in summer heat. It wouldn't be so bad if even one of his classmates could understand his feelings but after he refused to join their games or talk that centered around girls, they began to make small pointed comments about him being queer. It hurt. He knew he was different, but couldn't find a way to pull his feelings together. The small public library held only few books on psychology. He'd read them, but the scant information about homosexuality told him nothing.

 

Thankful for the comfortable interior of the newsstand, he browsed through the paperback books. Oh, wow! One with two young guys hugging on the cover. He looked around to see if anyone was watching, but the clerk was talking to the girl behind the lunch counter and he was alone in the book section. He picked up the paperback, turned so no one could see the cover, and looked through the book. It was the story of a high school kid and another young guy who was gay. With trembling hands he approached the counter and handed the book to the clerk. He felt better when she only looked at the price on the back cover and said, "that's two eighty-five with tax. Want a bag?"

 

"Yes, please." He paid her and dashed from the store.

 

His way home took him past a small shady park. A great looking guy with a forlorn look sat on one of the benches. He looked up as Brian walked closer. Brian slowed his pace, returning the look and thinking, damn, I wish I looked like him. He's gotta be from the Coast Guard base with those jeans and denim shirt. That's what those guys always wear.

 

"Hi," the guy called.

 

Brian walked over and took a seat, beside him.

 

"You live here fellow?"

 

Brian nodded, suddenly tongue-tied.

 

"I just got transferred here. What's there to do in this place?"

 

"Not much, I guess. Most everybody goes up to Riverton if they wanna do something."

 

The guy shook his head. "Don't have a car, so I guess I'm stuck." He held out his hand. "I'm Rick."

 

Brian gave him a shy smile. "I'm Brian." The paperback slid out of the bag when he shifted to take the guy's hand.

 

He bent to pick up the paperback, but Rick already had it in his hand, looking at the cover. He handed to Brian with a grin. "Like this stuff?"

 

Brian felt his face flame. "I I ."

 

Rick grinned. "It's okay, fellow, I've read some of it, too."

 

"You have? Gosh, you look like a guy would have plenty of women." Brian suddenly blurted, face turning red again.

 

"Sometimes a guy needs another guy he can talk to."

 

Brian dropped his head. "Yeah. I know all about that. It's hard not having anybody."

 

"Tell me about it. I have a brother I could talk to about anything before I left home. I sure miss him."

 

 Suddenly frightened by this stranger having seen the book, Brian dropped the book back into the bag and jumped up. "Gotta go, Rick."

 

"See you, Brian." Rick called after him.

 

The rest of the way home, Brian thought about Rick. He seemed nice and he didn't tell me I shouldn't be reading this book, either. I wish I'd talked to him some more.

 

 "I wish you were more friendly with people your own age, Brian. You just mope around the house all day," his mother said while she cooked supper. "You could at least work on your trains or something, but all you do is stay in your room reading. I know you must be lonely."

 

"I guess. I wish I had an older brother. All the guys I know from school are into football and stuff like that. They think I'm a sissy because I like to read and work on my trains."

 

His mother smiled at him. "I'm sorry, Brian. Your father and I tried to have another child, but it just wasn't to be. We even thought of adopting, but it just never seemed to come about. But I'm glad you study and get good grades. At least you aren't always out with a rowdy bunch or getting into trouble. I hope you'll find a nice girlfriend soon."

 

"Yeah," Brian muttered. The thought of kissing a girl or even touching one made him shudder. Now if it was a guy like Rick it would be different.

 

Every Saturday afternoon for the next three weeks, Brian walked past the park, disappointed not to see Rick. Give it one more try, he told himself. He may have had duty or something.

 

Brian broke into a run when he saw a young man with black hair sitting on the bench. "Rick! Where've you been?"

 

Rick smiled. "Hi, Brian, I'm glad to see you again. I had to study for the exam I took last Saturday for promotion."

 

Brian dropped down beside him. "I didn't think you guys had to study for that."

 

Rick shook his head. "Gotta study for everything, now. Not like it used to be. I just hope I passed; I can use the extra money." He looked at Brian. "Going back to the book store?"

 

"Yeah. The new issue of Model Railroader ought to be in."

 

"You got a layout?" Rick asked as they walked together.

 

"I started one in the attic, but I'm not good with tools and I need some bench-work before I can do much."

 

Rick put his arm around Brian's shoulder. "I like trains, too. Got a layout in the basement back home."

 

Brian stopped and stared at Rick in surprise. "You do? Gosh, I wish you could help me with mine."

 

"I'd like that, Brian. It would sure beat sitting on that bench. What scale you in?"

 

"HO. What about yours?"

 

"I've got plenty of room, so I'm in O. My dad got me started and that's what his trains are. We've added a Iot to the layout."

 

"Would you come home with me and see how I want to build it?"

 

"Sure thing, Brian. Will your folks mind?"

 

"No way. Let's go." Brian knew his mother might wonder at his bringing home a stranger, but she wouldn't say anything. His dad would be glad to see him with a friend.

 

"Mom, this is Rick. He's gonna help me with my trains. He and his dad have a big layout," Brian said excitedly.

 

Rick extended his hand. "Rick Hollister, ma'm. Brian asked me about how I built my layout when he saw me looking at a train magazine, so I told him I'd look at his and help him, if you didn't mind."

 

"I'm Brian's mother, Mrs. Nielsen. You're at the Coast Guard base, aren't you?"

 

"Yes, ma'm. I just got transferred here."

 

"It's nice of you to offer to help Brian with his trains. I don't suppose there's much here for you to do when you're off duty."

 

"No, ma'm."

 

Pleased with his soft voice and manners, she smiled at Brian. "You boys go on up to the attic and see what you can do."

 

Rick listened to Brian's excited plans, knowing the layout he wanted was far too ambitious. He waited until Brian had run out of ideas, then put his hand on Brian's shoulder.

 

"Look, buddy, all that can't be done so fast and what you're proposing is going to take up a lot of space. Your mom's gonna need her storage room, too. You like running your trains better than building bench-work, so why don't we do it this way." Rick pointed to the sloping overhead. "Got any tools?"

 

"Just a hammer and a saw. No power tools."

 

"I can make some brackets at the hobby shop on base. We can screw them to the ceiling and make a shelf about eighteen inches wide for the track and a little scenery. It's a lot like what my dad and I did with ours. Seeing them at eye level makes what you're seeing look almost real."

 

Brian suddenly hugged Rick. "That's a lot better than my idea, thanks."

 

Rick ruffled Brian's hair with a grin. "Okay, then. Got a protractor? I need to get the angle of the ceiling. Need some paper and a pencil, too."

 

Brian dashed down to his room and returned. He watched fascinated as Rick measured, wrote, then made a few sketches.

 

"Brian," his mother called, "it's time for dinner."

 

"Guess I better get going," Rick said after they walked downstairs together. "It's been fun, Brian."

 

"Mom! Rick's got it all worked out so we can put my trains on a shelf screwed to the ceiling. It'll be up high and won't take up any space on the floor like I planned."

 

"I'm glad of that." She looked at Rick. "I can see Brian's had you at work, Rick. Won't you have dinner with us? There's plenty. Brian will show you where to wash up."

 

"Thanks ma'm, I'd like that."

 

Brian smiled happily as his new friend talked with his parents over dinner, telling them of his home out west and how he and his dad had built their layout.

 

"Thank you for a great dinner, ma'm. I really enjoyed being here. Keeps me from missing my folks so much."

 

At the door Brian's father shook hands with him and asked, "How are you going to get back to the base, Rick?"

 

"I'll try to hitch a ride."

 

"No need to do that. Brian just got his license. He can take you if he promises to be careful."

 

"I will, dad."

 

Brian's disappointment was keen when Rick didn't show up the next weekend, nor send any word. Then the next Friday afternoon he hadn't been in from school long when the phone rang.

 

"Hi, Brian."

 

"Rick! Why didn't you come last weekend? I missed you."

 

"Working on something for you. I need you to pick me up at the base. Think your dad'll let you?"

 

"I'll ask him soon as he gets home. Call back about seven, I'll know then."

 

Brian's eyes widened when he saw the brackets Rick held. "You made 'em!"

 

"Just a few to try to see how they work, buddy. Let's go."

 

They worked until his father called to Brian it was time for bed. "Oh, good heavens, I forgot Rick was up there with him. I'll have to take him back to the base. I don't want Brian driving this late."

 

After he had returned and gone to bed, Brian's father said to his wife. "I talked with that boy on the way to the base. He's a nice quiet young man, who seems awfully homesick. If Brian had to make friends with one of them, I'm glad he found one just a couple of years older. Brian seems happier, too, and his grades are improving. If it's Rick's influence, I'm willing for them to spend more time together."

 

Rick's time working with Brian on the layout increased until Brian's parents told Rick to bring clothes and stay every weekend he wasn't on duty. Brian was so happy when Rick was around and sharing his room, his parents wished again they could have had a brother for him. They were pleased with the way Brian's grades in school had risen to A's, and the cheerful way he cut the grass and took out the trash without being asked. Rick, too, made skillful repairs when things went wrong about the house.

 

After being with them on weekends for several months, there came a week Rick did not appear, nor send any word. Fearful that he had somehow made Rick mad, Brian stayed in his room, eating little, and leaving only to go to school. His parents worried about Rick, also. Brian's father answered the phone late one evening and rejoined his wife in the living room.

 

"What is it?" She asked, seeing his worried expression.

 

"It's Rick. I just don't know how I can tell Brian; he'll be crushed."

 

"What's happened?"

 

"That was one of Rick's friends at the base. Rick's been badly hurt in an accident. He's in the military hospital in Riverton. That's all the man could tell me, except Rick's been asking for Brian."

 

"Oh, the poor boy! Tomorrow's Saturday, can't you take Brian to see him?"

 

"I think I should for Brian's sake, and I want Rick to know we miss him too."

 

Brian and his father followed an orderly to a bed at the far end of the ward. "Rick?" Brian said to his friend lying there with his eyes closed.

 

"Brian! Tommy did give you my message." He held out his arms and Brian hugged him. "I'm glad to see you, too, Mr. Nielsen. Thanks for bringing Brian to see me."

 

"I'm glad to, son. Mrs. Nielsen and I are sorry you've been hurt. I hope it's not serious."

 

"Bad enough, sir. When I get out of here, I'll have a few weeks of outpatient treatment, then I'll be discharged and going back home. I'm sorry we didn't get to finish your layout, Brian. I feel like I've let you down."

 

"But you got all the big stuff done. I can do the rest myself, but it won't be the same without you."

 

"Maybe if your dad doesn't mind coming up here to get me, I can spend a weekend or two with you before I head for home. It'll be a few weeks before they'll let me have a pass, though."

 

"Please, dad. I miss Rick."

 

"We all do, son. We'll be glad to have you, Rick. Give us a call when you can come. Is there anything we can do for you while you're here?"

 

"No, thanks. I really appreciate the cookies you brought from Mrs. Nielsen. Thank her for me." He reached out and tousled Brian's hair. "Thanks for the new train magazine, too, little brother, I'm glad to have something to read."

 

Brian's father let him drive back home. He offered only one suggestion, then relaxed when he saw how well his son drove in the heavy traffic. It proved that Brian's A in driver's ed had been earned through hard work.

 

Five weeks passed far too slowly for Brian, eager to see Rick again, but he stayed cheerful at the thought, doing his chores and his schoolwork. His spare time was spent working on the layout, hoping Rick would like the result.

 

Brian felt on top of the world when he answered the phone Friday and Rick told him he had a weekend pass. Brian called his father at his office asking him if he could leave early enough to pick up Rick at the hospital.

 

"I'm sorry, son, but I've got an important meeting in a few minutes."

 

"But, dad, it's Rick!"

 

Brian almost dropped the phone in surprise when his dad told him he could come to the office for the car and drive to Riverton to get Rick if he promised to be careful.

 

When Brian entered the hospital, the receptionist told him to have a seat and she'd tell Rick he was there.

 

Brian fidgeted in his seat until he heard Rick call, "Hi, little brother. I'm ready."

 

He rushed into Rick's outstretched arms. "I'm glad you're coming home, Rick. I've missed you so much."

 

"Whoa, buddy, don't knock me down. I'm not too good on these yet."

 

Brian backed away and looked at his friend dumbfounded. Rick stood on crutches, a part of his right uniform leg pinned neatly up. Tears rolled down Brian's cheeks as he hugged Rick again.

 

Rick put a finger under Brian's chin and lifted so he could look into Brian's eyes. "Don't cry, little brother. I did enough for both of us when I found out. You still gonna love your big brother now he's got only one leg?"

 

"I'll always love you, Rick. Why didn't you tell dad and me when we came to see you?"

 

"I still had my leg then; they were trying to save it. Let's go. I'm sick of this place."

 

Brian picked up his friend's weekend bag and walked slowly out to the car, watching Rick walk on his crutches. He's beautiful. I wonder what his leg looks like. Maybe he'll let me see it tonight when we go to bed.

 

His mother hugged Rick with tears in her eyes, too. "Oh, you poor boy. I'm so glad you're here. We've all missed you, especially Brian. I want you to rest and not let Brian bother you."

 

"I won't. I've got a younger brother back home, so I know how to cope."

 

"I got a lot done on the trains, Rick. Come see."

 

"Put my bag in our room, Brian, then go on up. It takes me longer to go up stairs now."

 

"Don't bother Rick, dear. He doesn't want to climb stairs on his crutches any more than he has to."

 

"That's all right. I'm supposed to practice; I'm just slow. Go ahead little brother."

 

Rick put his arm around Brian. "I'm proud of you, this really looks good. You've done a lot while I was in the hospital. Pull that stool over here for me to sit on and we'll run 'em until supper time."

 

About nine, Rick asked to be excused to go to bed. Brian went upstairs with him. He watched Rick sitting on his bed to undress. "Can I help, Rick?"

 

"Thanks, but I've got to learn all this by myself." When Rick crutched his way back from the bathroom, and lay on his bed, he asked, "You still got that book you had when we met in the park? I want to read it."

 

Brian smiled. "Yeah. Let me get it." He pulled an old cigar box from the back of the closet and carried it to his bed to open. When he pulled the book from the box and started to hand it to Rick, Rick sat up on the edge of his bed and reached over to take the box.

 

He took out several pictures Brian had cut from magazines and looked at them all one-legged guys. "This your big secret, little brother?"

 

Brian dropped his head. "Yeah. I like looking at 'em. I I didn't want you to know."

 

"Why not? Brothers share everything. Did you think I wouldn't like you if I found out?"

 

Brian looked up, tears in his eyes. "I love you, Rick. Don't hate me, cause I'm different."

 

Rick patted the bed. "Come sit next to me, buddy."

 

Brian's feet dragged across the carpet. He couldn't look at Rick as he slowly sat down.

 

Rick's arm went around his shoulders. "Look at me, little brother, I want to tell you something."

 

Brian finally forced himself to look at his friend, afraid Rick was going to tell him it was all over between them.

 

Rick hugged him closer. "Do you think I look as good with one leg as these guys?" Rick held out the pictures.

 

"You look lots better, Rick."

 

"I'm glad. I was afraid you wouldn't like me anymore. Tell me the truth, little brother. Are you really sure you're gay?"

 

Brian nodded slowly, unable to say it to his friend.

 

"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Brian. It's something you can't help any more than my brother can."

 

"He's gay?"

 

Rick nodded. "I'm not, but it doesn't make any difference to me because I love him. I've missed him a lot and when you started hugging me it was like he does, it felt good. I love you too, Brian, but in the same way I love my brother."

 

"I'm glad, cause I love you. I wish you had told me your brother's gay so you could have taught me something about it."

 

"I couldn't, specially after the way your folks made me feel like this is home and  trusted me with you. I wouldn't have guessed if I hadn't seen the book. Put this stuff back in the box and hide it."

 

When Brian had put the box away, he came back and sat on the bed, looking at Rick's stump. "Can can I touch it, Rick?"

 

"If you want. But go easy, it's still sore."

 

Brian's fingers slowly, gently traced the scar and caressed Rick's stump.

 

"Well?" Rick asked him.

 

"It feels good. I didn't think it would. It looks nice, too. I like it." He looked up into Rick's sad eyes. "I I don't guess I should have said that. I'm sorry, Rick, I mean about your leg and all."

 

Rick hugged him. "I wish I still had my leg, but I'm glad it hasn't changed the way you feel about me. I love you, Brian, and always will. Don't ever forget that."

 

Brian rolled over and hugged Rick tightly. "I love you, too. Let me sleep with you tonight. I wanted to ever since that first night you stayed here."

 

Rick smiled. "Why?"

 

"Cause I never had a brother, and I like it when you put your arms around me."

 

"I don't mind holding you, if that's what you want, but you have to understand that's all I'll do."

 

"That's okay. I can always dream it's more."

 

"We won't have that many more nights, because soon as I get my new leg, I'll be going home. Go get ready and come on."

 

After Brian lay beside him, Rick propped up on his elbow and looked into his eyes. "You're a good kid, Brian. I wish we were going to have more time together."

 

The few weekends more they had together only intensified Brian's love for Rick, though he wished Rick were gay. His school let out for the summer the week before Rick limped in the door on two legs. He hugged Brian. "I've come to say goodbye, little brother. I've been discharged and bought a car. I'm headed home, but I'll never forget you. Promise you'll write to me a lot."

 

"I don't want you to go, Rick. I love you." He clung to his friend, crying.

 

"Please don't cry, little brother." He stroked Brian's hair. "Ah, hell, you've got me doing it, too." He dried his eyes. "I want to tell your folks goodbye. They've been so good to me."

 

After he had been hugged by both of Brian's parents, he stood holding Brian's hand, looking at his tear-stained face.

 

"It's going to be a long drive out to Colorado alone and I could use some help with the driving. Why don't you come with me, Brian? It's beautiful country and you can see our ranch and the mountains. There's lots to show you."

 

"Please, dad, I've never been out west."

 

"That's very thoughtful of you, Rick. Will your parents mind?"

 

"There's always company around, and if Brian wants to do something I can't, my brother can. My folks will be happy to have Brian after the way you've made me feel at home here. They've already told me to invite him."

 

"Please." Brian begged.

 

"You drive well, son, and I can see Rick might need you." He looked at his watch, then at Rick. "Spend the night so Brian can get packed, then you can get an early start tomorrow."

 

Rick helped Brian pack jeans and heavy shirts he'd need on a ranch instead of the good clothing Brian's mother wanted him to take. When they went to bed, Brian snuggled closer to Rick, happy with the feel of his arms around him.

 

Rick pulled on a pair of worn jeans and a cowboy boot the next morning. Brian pointed at Rick's new leg. "Aren't you going to put it on?"

 

"Not to drive. It still gets in my way and hurts if I wear it too long. Take it down to the car for me cause I'm gonna be using my crutches. Gonna be ashamed to be seen with a one-legged cowboy, little brother?"

 

Brian hugged him. "No way."

 

Rick grinned. "Come pin up my jeans leg for me. It'll be neater if you do it while I'm standing."

 

Brian took care to fold the jeans leg neatly and pin it up the way Rick wanted. "I like doing that for you. You look great with the leg pinned up like that."

 

Rick grinned. "From the time you took to do it, I figured that out. Let's go; it's a long trip and we're gonna take our time and make sure you never forget a minute of it."

 

 Part 2

Their drive to Colorado took three days. Though Rick stopped often to show Brian some site of interest, they barely registered with Brian who looked more at Rick than at the view.

He's so beautiful with one leg, Brian thinks over and over. I just wish he'd let me touch his leg more. It makes me feel good when he tells everybody I'm his brother. I'm so happy to be with him. I wonder if his brother looks half so good. I hope he'll like me. Rick said he's gay, maybe he'll teach me stuff.

"Okay, buddy. Pull into that gas station up there," Rick says.

Brian glanced down at the gauge. "Why? We've got plenty of gas."

"I know, but we turn off the interstate up ahead and you don't know these mountain roads. You've done good though, I'm proud of you."

"Thanks."

Rick takes over and soon turns onto a narrow unpaved road that snakes into the forested mountains. At a pull-off, he stops and hands Brian the keys. "Get my leg out of the trunk, Brian. I want to put it on."

"Why? You look great without it."

Rick grimaces. "Don't want mom seeing me on crutches first thing."

"Oh."

Brian retrieves Rick's leg and watches him drop his jeans and put it on. Rick smiles at him. "Just a few more miles, then we'll be there. Sure is gonna be good to get home."

"I hope your folks like me."

Rick reaches over and ruffles Brian's hair. "They will, Donnie specially. He'll have you on a horse before you know it."

"I've never ridden one before. Heck, I ain't never been close to one."

Rick grins. "You've got some fun coming then. Wish I could still ride, we'd take a picnic lunch to a special place I know. Donnie will take you, though."

"It won't be the same without you, Rick. Can't you ride if you keep your leg on?"

"I'm not sure. I may try."

Some twenty minutes later the road flattens out as does the land. "How come it's got so flat?"

"Plateau. That's why our ranch is here." Rick points ahead. "There's the house."

Brian sees a large two-story house with a broad porch. "It's bigger than I thought it would be."

Rick smiles. "Granpa had six kids. He needed a lot of room. There's just four of us now, mom, dad, and Donnie besides me."

"Don't you have any real cowboys?"

"Just a couple. This isn't a working ranch like you've read about because we only live out here in the summer. We don't need a lot of help because we just have a few horses and a cow and raise hay to feed them in the winter. That's about all the farming goes on except for mom's vegetable garden. Sam and Willie live in the bunkhouse year 'round to take care of the place in the winter because we move back to town. Dad has a law firm, so this is a summer place, like people in your area have places at the beach. I hope you aren't disappointed."

"Sam and Willie real cowboys?"

"Sure are. You'll meet 'em at dinner."

Brian finds himself excited and afraid at the same time. What if Rick's folks don't like me? He asks himself as Rick turns toward the house.

Someone flies past them on a huge horse and brings it to a halt at the fence at the back of the house. The horse rears then settles down as the person jumps off and ties the reins loosely to the fence and starts to run toward them.

"That's Donnie," Rick says with a broad smile. "He's the only one ever makes Buck rear like that."

The car barely stops before the door on the driver's side is snatched open and Brain sees a deeply tanned boy about his age pulling at Rick.

"Damn! Took you long enough to get here, bro."

Rick hugs him. "Whew! You even smell like Buck! You need a shower."

"Rode up to the pond to get out of helping Willie muck the stalls. It was hot."

"You haven't changed a bit, always trying to get out of work! When you gonna grow up?"

"I can take you any time," he says with a grin. "Hey, they really cut off your leg?"

Rick nods. "'fraid so."

"How come you got two then?"

"Got a wooden one."

"Gonna let me see it?"

"No. A guy's gotta have some privacy."

Donnie laughs. "Since when? We ain't never had any secrets."

"You'd be surprised. Now say hi to Brian or I'll tan your butt."

"Hi, Brian, come on in. We're gonna have some fun if ole peg leg here ain't too much of a drag."

Rick slaps Donnie on the butt. "I'll drag you, boy. Now let me out a here, I'm tired of sittin'." He hands Donnie the keys. "Get our stuff out a the trunk."

"Think you can stand it?" Rick asks Brian when Donnie's opening the trunk.

"Yeah. He looks like fun."

"Put those down and get our bags," Rick yells at Donnie who is walking down the drive on Rick's crutches.

"It's fun," Donnie says with a grin.

"Like hell! Come on, Brian, let's go in where it's cool."

They are just on the porch when the door opens. "Rick! Oh, it's so good to see you home." The motherly looking woman hugs him with tears in her eyes. "How're you doin'?"

Rick kisses her. "Fine, mom. This is Brian. He was a big help with the driving."

She hugs Brian and kisses him, too. "It's so good to have you. I'm glad you came to keep Rick company. Come on in and have something cool to drink. It's hot out here."

Brian wondered why they thought it hot; to him it was pleasantly cool. "Why's it hard to breathe?" He asks Rick when they're seated at the kitchen table.

"Having trouble, Brian?"

"A little."

"You'll soon adapt. It's because we're over a mile high here and it's almost sea level where you live."

"Oh."

"Where'd you put Brian's bag?" Rick's mother asks Donnie when he comes in.

"My room. He's bunkin' in with me, isn't he?"

"If you want." She looks at Brian. "There's plenty of room if you'd rather be by yourself."

"It's fine."

"Great," Donnie says grinning at him.

"You boys go get unpacked. I've got to start dinner and your dad'll be here soon. He was peeved he couldn't be here when you came, Rick, but he had a case in court today."

"'kay, mom. Come on, Brian. A shower will feel good."

I follow Rick up stairs and into his room. It has to be because there are pictures of trains on the wall and some train books on the shelves of his bookcase. "Are your trains here?" I ask.

"In town, buddy. Dad and I work on them mostly in the winter. I'll take you in to see them, that's a promise. I want to pick up a couple of kits I never got around to building before I went in service." He undresses and puts on the robe I got him from the closet then looks around. "What the hell did Donnie do with my crutches?"

"Where's his room?"

"Across the hall. Go see if he put them in there with your stuff."

It takes only a second and I'm back shaking my head.

"Damn it," Rick mutters then roars, "Donnie, get your butt up here!"

"He's out in the barn, Rick," his mom calls.

"Be a buddy and go find out where the hell he hid them."

"Sure." I take off down the stairs and out the door. When I go in the barn Donnie has strapped his leg up with an old belt and is hobbling around on Rick's crutches.

"Uh, oh," he says when I come in.

I grin. "You look cool, but Rick's mad as hell cause he needs those crutches."

"Why?"

"Cause he can't wear his leg in the shower."

"Oh, shit." He hands them to me and drops his leg. "Let's go."

"Sorry, Rick."

"You take 'em again and you will be. Now get out of here and let me shower."

"Let me see your leg."

Rick winks at me. "Might as well get it over with, cause you'll pester me 'til I do." He slips out of the robe and stands up on his crutches.

Donnie looks at his just above the knee stump then hugs Rick. "I'm sorry, Rick," he says, beginning to cry.

"It's okay, bro; I'm getting' used to it now. Brian was a lot of help cause he never acted like I was any different."

When Donnie calms down, Rick says, "Okay. Let Brian and me shower now."

I'm surprised, cause the shower at home is in the bathtub and he couldn't stand and wash at the same time. I thought he might have a separate shower stall here, but I'm glad he's gonna let me wash him again. I love touching his awesome bod even if he isn't gay.

I'm about to say something about the big shower stall in his bath when he winks at me. "Gotta make you feel at home, buddy. 'sides I like the way you wash me. Feels good."

I smile and get in the shower with him. It's as much fun as always, but he slaps my hand away from his thing when I start to wash it. "Save that for Donnie," he says with a wink and washes himself.

When we're back in his room to dress, I look at him, wishing I looked so great and had one leg like him. It'd be the coolest thing I can think of.

"Where'd you go?" Donnie asks when I go to his room for my clothes.

"I helped Rick shower."

"Huh! For real?"

"Yeah. Our shower's in the tub and he couldn't stand and wash both. He said he hates tub baths."

"Never ever saw him in a tub. Don't his leg bother you? I mean you washed it and all, didn't you?"

"Yeah. But Rick's beautiful with one leg. I like to touch it."

Donnie looks like he's going to cry again. "But now he can't do all the things we used to before.

I walk over and hug him. "Look, he knows that, but ya gotta treat him just like before. He'll tell ya if he wants help."

"How you know?"

"Cause he stayed at our house a lot and told me. He wanted to come home, but he was afraid everybody would treat him like he was a cripple or something. He ain't, he does what he wants."

Donnie gives me a little smile. "'spect he'll be all over my ass then, just like before."

I dress and we go down. Rick's in the living room talking to a man I know has to be his father, cause he can't help looking at Rick's stump with a sad expression.

"Dad, this is Brian," Rick says when Donnie and me come in.

He gets up and shakes my hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Brian. You're a lucky young man to have such wonderful parents. I want you to know how much we all appreciate the way you gave Rick a home and made him happy."

"He made us happy, too. I love Rick, and he helped me a lot with my trains. I feel like he's my big brother."

His dad smiles. "I talked with your parents on the phone several times and they told me you had never been happier. We all want you to feel this is your second home, Brian, so if you need anything just ask."

"Thank you, sir."

"As soon as we've had dinner, I want you to call home and tell your parents you got here safely."

"Yes, sir."

When we go to the table, Rick's dad sits at one end, his mother at the other. Rick and I are side by side, and Donnie sits with two men. One of 'em is stocky and has brown skin, the other is tall as Rick, but skinny. My dad once pointed to a man like that and told me he might be skinny, but every muscle was like steel cord. Rick's dad introduces the stocky one as Sam and the other as Willie.

"You the cowboys?" I ask.

"Guess we be," Willie says, "only ain't many cows 'round here."

"Come barn in morning, boy. We get horse you ride," Sam says.

I shake my head. "Unh unh. I've never been on a horse."

"Give 'im Hurricane," Donnie says with a grin.

"Donnie," his dad says quietly.

"Aw, dad, I was just teasing."

"That's Rick's horse, he's rather spirited," his dad tells me. "Don't worry, Brian, Donnie will teach you to ride. Put him on Lightning," he tells Sam.

"No way! He'll run." I say.

Sam chuckles. "Lightning old and slow, soon be dog food."

"I don't think so," I say.

Rick takes my hand and squeezes it. "Wish I could ride. I'd like to teach you the right way."

"Why can't you?" I know he wants to ride bad.

"Because of my leg."

"Can't you use your fake one?"

"I don't think so cause I can't throw it over the horse's back to mount."

"Can't you stand on it and throw your real leg over?"

"You have to mount from the left side."

"Why?"

Sam smiles. "City boy. No know horse."

"Because that's the way they're trained. If I tried to mount from the right he'd probably fall over on me."

I shake my head. "I didn't know there was so much to learn about riding."

Sam looks at Rick. "I help you on Thunderbolt tomorrow. You try ride with city boy. You do, I have idea. Show you."

"Okay, Sam. Thanks."

As soon as they've eaten, Sam and Willie leave. The rest of us stay at the table drinking coffee.

"That's the most Sam's talked at the table in years," Rick's dad says. "Wonder what got in him?"

"He's as glad to see Rick home as the rest of us," Rick's mom says.

"He did look happy for a change. Don't mind Sam, Brian, he's Apache so he doesn't have much to say, but he's a good man."

I call my folks and we talk for a few moments before I give the phone to Rick's mom so she can talk to mother. I listen as Rick's dad tells him about things that have happened while he was away.

About ten Rick yawns. "Think it's time for Brian and me to hit the hay," he says.

"It's only ten," Donnie says.

"But it's midnight where Brian lives, and we drove a lot today."

"Of course. You boys go on up. You, too, Donnie. I don't want you waking Brian up later."

"Aw, mom."

"It's okay," I tell her.

Rick and I go up. At the door to his room I hug him. "Wish I could sleep with you."

He messes my hair. "Not a chance. Now get to bed. Love ya, guy."

"I love you, too."

Rick comes in and wakes me when the sun is barely up. "'kay, Brian, rise and shine."

"Go 'way." I pull the covers over my head, but Rick pulls them down.

"Breakfast is almost ready, buddy. We get up early here." He walks across to Donnie and smacks him hard on the butt. "Up, lazy bones."

Donnie reaches up and wraps his arms around Rick's neck. "Shit! Just like before. I love ya, though."

Rick straightens and grins. "Yeah. No more sleepin' in and making mom fix you breakfast after everybody else's done et. Ten minutes, guys."

I get up and shiver. "Cold."

Donnie grins. "It'll get hot afore long. Come on."

He turns on a heater in the bath and it feels good. I pee and see Donnie checking me out. I wash my face, brush my teeth, and put on my clothes fast, pulling on a heavy sweatshirt.

We catch up with Rick going down the stairs. He and Donnie are wearing high leather boots. I'm surprised to see everyone already at the kitchen table, eating. "Good morning, Brian. I hope Rick didn't get you up too early. It'll be fine if you want to sleep longer," his dad says.

"That's okay, sir. I'm sorry if I kept you waiting. I'm not used to getting up so early."

"The reason we do is to get the work done before it gets so hot. The air is thinner at this altitude so it can get unpleasant." He looks at Rick. "I think you'd better put some sunscreen on Brian a little later, Rick. He might burn."

Rick grins. "I'd better use some, too, after all the time I spent in the hospital."

His mother nods. "You do look awfully pale."

I see Sam grin when she says that. "Rick pale face now."

"Stuff it, Sam," Rick replies.

Rick's mom begins to serve the plates for Rick and Donnie. "What would you like, Brian?"

I'm blown away, cause Sam and Willie are finishing up small steaks with hash-browns, and I can tell they've already had eggs, bacon, and hot cakes. "Just some pancakes, please." I'm drinking the glass of orange juice.

"You need more than that; it's a long time 'til lunch," Rick says. "Give him some bacon and eggs, too. Mom."

It's all I can do to eat what she puts before me, but I manage and feel stuffed. Willie snorts when I ask for hot tea instead of coffee. "Ya gotta give 'im a trail breakfast with boiled coffee, Rick," he says.

I see Rick shudder. "How you guys can drink that I'll never understand." He looks at me. "Talk about awful! A spoon will stand up in it."

"Come barn, Rick," Sam says when we've finished eating.

Donnie and I follow them. In the barn is a sawhorse with a big saddle on it, all polished and looking like new.

"Thanks, Sam, I appreciate your taking care of it for me. I know you did it, cause Donnie's too lazy."

"Am not! I kept it cleaned, too." Donnie says.

Rick hugs him. "Just teasing. So, what's your idea, Sam?"

"You try with peg leg today. If no good, I take to town get fixed like so."

He pulls a sheet of paper from under one of the straps and hands it to Rick. "On right side make leather cup hold leg." He points to the drawing. "Like so. Fix to hold sticks you get off."

Rick studies the drawing for a few moments then looks at Sam. "Brilliant, Sam. How'd you think of this?"

"See one leg cowboy long time past. His saddle like so. He say feel good."

"My old one still around?" Sam nods. "When you go to town take the old one and have it fixed like this. If I like it, I'll have this one fixed same."

"You take. Man need measure leg."

Rick slaps Sam on the back. "Right. Thanks, Sam, you're a good man."

"Ride now. I get Thunderbolt."

Donnie is already leading his big horse out of the stall. I back away because the horse is prancing around, but I watch as Donnie gets him ready to ride.

When Sam has Thunderbolt ready for Rick, he leads out another horse looks big as a house to me and puts a saddle on him. At least this one stands still. Then Rick and Sam lead them outside where Donnie is already on Buck's back.

Sam puts his arm around Rick to steady him as Rick puts his foot into the stirrup then as Rick pulls up, swings his fake leg over the horse and goes around to put the foot in the stirrup. "How feel?" He asks Rick.

"About right. Hope I can keep that foot in the stirrup."

Sam looks at Donnie. "Ride slow, help Rick if foot come out."

"'kay."

Sam helps me put my left foot in the stirrup, but when I try to swing my right foot over it hits the horse's rump. He moves a little and I almost panic. "Whoa," Sam says and makes me try again. This time I almost fall off the right side. Donnie starts to snicker, but Rick tells him to shut up.

Finally Sam gets me seated right and adjusts the stirrups so I feel more secure. "Walk only," he says to me and Rick.

"Don't worry," I say. "I wish this thing had training wheels or something. I feel a mile off the ground."

Sam smiles and hands me the reins, telling me to hold them loosely and how to guide the horse with them. "Not need. Lightning follow Thunderbolt." He opens the gate and we start off at a gentle walk, Rick tells me, but after about ten minutes I feel my butt going numb.

"This saddle's hard," I tell Rick.

He grins. "If it were soft it would have too much give. Once you learn a proper seat it won't bother you."

I'm not sure about any of this, but I don't want Donnie and Sam teasing me about being a city boy.

Donnie reins in beside Rick. "How's it feel to be riding again, bro?"

Rick grins. "Great. I feel funny not being able to feel anything with this leg, though. I think Sam's on to a good thing about modifying my saddle. I'll be able to feel what I'm doing and use my stump."

"Guess you don't want to speed up any."

"No way, specially with Brian not knowing how to ride." He looks at me. "How you holding out, bud?"

I reach back and rub my butt. "I'm a dead-end kid."

Donnie grins. "Watch me," he yells and knees his horse.

All I see is a cloud of dust and notice Donnie is moving up and down in the saddle. Rick motions for me to bring Lightning along side Thunderbolt.

"He's showing off, but that's the way we used to ride together. It's fun."

I shake my head. "You ain't gonna convince me. I ride that fast I want something with a brake pedal."

Rick laughs. "Guess you've had about enough for the first time. Let's head back."

"I know you want to ride, Rick. I'm sorry I'm spoiling your fun."

"Don't be, buddy. I'm not all that comfortable with this leg on and I'm sure not going to try anything faster until I am. Donnie will be back sooner or later."

He turns his horse and mine follows. We're about half way back when Rick stops. So does my horse, thank goodness, cause I've forgotten how to stop him.

"What?" I ask.

"Stay still for a minute." He points to the path ahead. There's a big snake all coiled up.

"Oh, shit!"

"He'll move on in a minute. Wish I'd brought my pistol."

"What kind is it?"

"Rattler. There's a lot of them around here."

"At the house, too?"

"Naa. Don't often see one there. If you do, just stand still 'til he moves on."

"Yee Ha!" I look back to see Donnie flying toward us then he slows and sees the snake which has begun to slither off.

"Damn! Buck would a pounded 'im into mush."

"And Sam would ground you for a month if Buck got bit. You know better than try anything that stupid."

"Yeah. Wish dad would let me carry a pistol."

Rick grins. "Hell, you couldn't hit the broad side of the barn."

"Could, too. Willie's been teaching me. I'm almost good as him."

"With a pea shooter," Rick says. "When you grow up, if you ever do, maybe he'll get you a real gun. He's gone; let's go."

Sam smiles when we get to the barn. "Horse not wet," he says. "Donnie, Buck wet. Work."

Sam helps me down and grins when I rub my sore butt. Then he helps Rick.

"Sam, I like your idea for my saddle. I can't feel anything with the leg."

Sam nods. "You, Brian, go house. I take horse."

"Thanks, Sam," Rick says.

I'm so sore I can't walk straight. Rick looks at me and laughs. "You're rolling like a tenderfoot, Brian, but you did well. I'm proud of you for trying it when I know you were scared."

"I'm sure glad we didn't go no faster. Donnie's something else."

"He's been on a horse since he learned to walk; he oughta be good. Still a smart-ass though."

In the kitchen Rick pours a cup of coffee; his mom hands me a mug. "Here's your tea, Brian. Sit down."

"I ah, I think I'll stand, ma'am."

She laughs. "It's hard the first time, but it gets a lot better. Did you enjoy yourself?"

"I'm not sure. There's too much to learn."

"Brian did real well, mom, I'm proud of him," Rick says. "I need to go into town after lunch. Anything you need?"

"Not much. I'll make a list."

I suddenly realize how hot I am. I pull off my sweatshirt. "I need a shower, Rick."

He smiles at me. "I do, too, if we're going into town. Just put what you've got on in the closet with Donnie's cause we can wear 'em again tomorrow."

I get the fun of showering with Rick. While we're drying off he says, "I shouldn't keep on letting you shower with me cause I don't need your help here, but, I'm gonna miss it when you go back home."

I hug him. "I'm going to miss it a lot, Rick. You've got such an awesome bod I love touching it. I wish "

He hugs me back. "I know, but I'm not. You're a sweet kid, little brother."

I have a thought. "Maybe Donnie will help you. He wants to touch your leg."

"Never happen. He won't stop when I say no like you do. Why do you think he wants to touch my stump?"

"Cause when I went to get your crutches yesterday, he had his leg tied up and was walking on them in the barn."

To my surprise, Rick grins. "He always had to copy everything I did. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but there's better things for him to imitate than having one leg. I guess I'd better have a talk with him."

"Yer old saddle's in yer Jeep," Willie tells Rick at dinner.

"Thanks, Willie. Mom, we may stay over in town tonight. I promised Brian I'd show him the trains."

"All right, but you'll have to eat out, there's nothing in the fridge. Have a good time."

As soon as we're on the interstate, Rick says to Donnie, 'What's this I hear about you pretending to have one leg?"

Donnie looks at me and says, "Fink."

"I'm sorry."

"Brian doesn't keep secrets from me, Donnie. Besides, I asked him what you were doing with them."

I look back and see Donnie has tears in his eyes. "I wish it was my leg 'stead of yours, Rick."

Rick doesn't say anything until he's pulled off in a lay-by and stopped. He gets out and gets in back with Donnie, putting his arm around his shoulders.

"I'm glad it isn't your leg, Donnie, but why?"

"You know when I broke my leg a year ago?"

Rick nods. "Mom told me about it."

"I liked using crutches so much I did 'til dad made me stop."

"So?"

"I was pretending my leg was gone 'stead of busted."

Rick puts his hand under Donnie's chin and turns his head so he can look him in the eyes. "You're not playing with me, are you?"

"No, Ric. I swear. You look so great with one leg I wanna be like you." His tears spill over.

Rick hugs him tightly. "I'm glad you think I look good, Donnie, Brian does, too. I don't mind that, but you gotta stop pretending."

"Why? I ain't making fun of you or nothing."

"I know. But what if dad or mom catches you? What'll they think?"

"They won't. I only do it when they ain't home. Please, Rick. It's fun and I ain't alone. I can show you a lot of stuff about it on my computer tonight."

"You do that, and I'll make up my mind about it. It isn't normal though."

Donnie smiles. "They said being gay isn't, but they changed their minds."

"I know you can't help that. I'm just sorry it'll make things tough for you and Brian."

Donnie looks at me. "You really gay?"

"Yeah. Don't nobody know 'cept Rick and now you."

"Cool." He grins. "You're kind o' cute."

"You are, too, cause you look a lot like Rick."

Rick gets back into the driver's seat then messes my hair. "Good. Now maybe you'll have fun with Donnie and quit lusting after my bod," he says with a wink.

"Yeah!" Donnie says.

A half-hour later Rick stops in front of an unpainted barn. We're still out in the country, but this doesn't look like a farm. "Donnie, get my saddle and bring it in."

"Heavy son of a bitch," I hear Donnie mumble when he pulls it out. I go to help him.

"They all weight this much?"

"Naa. I got a medium. There's lightweights, too, but Rick used to work the stock with Sam and Willie so he needed a heavy one."

"You know where to put it, Donnie," Rick says.

I help Donnie put the saddle over a plastic thing made like a horse's body and look around. There are saddles everywhere and lots of leather, a big sewing machine, and other stuff.

Rick's showing an old man Sam's drawing. At last he looks up. "I know what Sam's suggesting. Done one of 'em some years ago fer a one legged man. Get a straddle an' let me measure yer stump."

Rick hops to the saddle and gets on it. I watch the man measure a lot of things then he nods. "You got a lot of leg left. Gonna be easy fer ya to use. I kin have it done tomorrow 'bout noon. How come you're doing yer old saddle?"

"Want to see how it works before I let you mess up my good one."

The man smiles. "Don't mess up saddles. Made all yours so don't tell me I don't know what I'm doing. You ain't never complained."

"Not about to. You're the best saddle man around. I just want to see how it's going to work for me."

"'spect you'll be surprised. That other guy liked his a lot. Said he could do anything he did before."

"I hope it's that good for me. Thanks, Johnny. See you tomorrow."

Donnie's poking around in the back of the shop. He calls me over. "Look at this! Ain't it cool? Wish Rick could wear one." He's holding a wooden peg leg. "I'd sure love to have it."

"What, Donnie?" Rick's come over to us.

"This. It's cool. I wish you could use it."

"It would be good around the ranch, but my stump's too short."

"You want that thing? Ain't made fer a leg like yours." The old man tells Rick.

"I know. It would work for doing things around the ranch if I could use it. I didn't know you made these, too."

"Used to, but no call fer 'em now. They's all getting' them fake legs." He looks at Donnie. "Ya want it fer a plaything?"

"Yeah. How much?"

The old man scratches his head. "Put about ten bucks worth of new leather straps on it three years ago and the man never come back. Just been in my way ever since."

Donnie fishes in his jeans and holds out two fives. "This okay?"

The man smiles. "Sure. Don't know why you want it, but you done bought it."

Donnie walks out to Rick's Jeep with a big grin.

Rick's shaking his head when he gets in. "Where the hell you gonna hide that?"

"Got my places."

It's another twenty minutes into town. Rick stops at a supermarket. "Put your new toy down and come on, Donnie. Gotta get some stuff for mom, then we'll go home."

Twenty minutes later Rick pulls his Jeep into the drive of beautiful two-story brick home that's twice the size of our house. "Put the meats and fresh veggies in the fridge, Donnie, we can leave the rest in here. Brian, bring your pack in."

"Sure."

Rick stops to turn the A/C on then takes me upstairs to Donnie's room. Donnie comes up a few minutes later, goes up another flight of stairs and comes down holding a pair of aluminum crutches that look almost new.

"Those the ones you got when you busted your leg?" Rick asks.

"Yeah."

"Trade you." Rick's are wood.

"'kay. Guess you need 'em."

"Damn right. Now where's that stuff you were gonna show me?"

Donnie sits down at his desk and starts his computer. I want to see Rick's trains, but I know he wants to settle this stuff with Donnie first.

"Here," Donnie says.

Rick sits down and starts to read. "Get me a beer, Donnie."

"'kay. Can I have one, too?"

"You know what dad said, but I guess I'll let ya have one cause you've been honest with me and it's hot. Get a light, though. Brian?"

"I guess. I ain't never had one."

"It's good when it's hot," Donnie says and runs down the stairs.

I go read over Rick's shoulder. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me but I see him nod and go "Hmmm" from time to time.

Donnie opens a Coors and hands it to Rick, then hands me a Coors light. The first taste is kind of bitter, but the next one's better. It's good and cold.

Rick finishes reading and rolls back the chair so he can look at Donnie. "I thought you were kidding, Donnie, but this is deep stuff."

"So what ya think?"

Rick grins. "I think ya oughta see a shrink."

"Come on. That says I ain't nuts."

"Hell, I don't know. But long as you just like looking at guys like me and pretending, I guess there isn't any harm in it. Be damn sure you don't never get caught, cause it'll be hard as hell to explain to dad and mom."

Donnie hugs him. "Thanks. Look at this." He keys in another site and up comes pictures of guys with one leg. "This guy looks a lot like you, Rick."

It's a guy wearing a college T-shirt and black shorts, sitting at a table with his aluminum crutches hooked over the back of the chair. He does look a lot like Rick except his right leg is gone much higher.

Rick laughs. "Don't look that good."

"Hell, you say," Donnie says.

"He looks just like you, Rick," I add.

"Ha." He gets up. "Come on down to the basement, Brian."

Donnie runs ahead. When we get down to the basement, I almost fall over. The room is carpeted and the space from the shelf for the trains to the floor is hidden behind some kind of solid covering. There's a cornice above to hide the lights. It's beautiful, and the scenery looks real at eye level. Rick picks up a remote control and presses a few buttons. I hear a train start up and a few seconds later a big steam locomotive passes slowly by, pulling a string of freight cars. The chuffing sound and smoke from the stack are fantastic and there's lots of detail cause the scale is twice as big as my HO.

"Wow! It looks real!" I gasp.

Rick grins. "Dad's a detail freak, guess that comes with being a lawyer. I like doing the scenery better."

"Wish mine looked anywhere near good as this."

Rick pats me on the shoulder. "You haven't been doing it long as dad, but it's yours and you did all the work. You can be proud of it, buddy."

"Gee, I wish you could go back and help me make it look good as this."

"I'd like that, but this is home. Besides, you can't spend the money on yours like dad does. You've got an advantage, too."

"What?"

"You can reach everything on yours without crawling under a lot of fancy woodwork."

"Maybe, but I sure wish it looked this real."

"Dad and I are members of the model railroad club here, and two or three of 'em are special friends of dad, so they worked a lot on it with us. If there's a club in Elizabeth City you oughta join. Then if you still like trains when you get older maybe you can make yours look good as this. This took a lot of time. Here, follow the train around."

I have to, to see it cause the layout goes around the whole basement. Rick shows me how the two liftouts go where the doors are. There's so much to see I could spend hours just looking at everything. All the signals work, the crossing gates go up and down, and the sound blows my mind.

We hear a saw start up and Rick's about to go see what Donnie's doing when it shuts off. A minute or two later Donnie struts in on the peg leg. "Ya like it?"

He looks great, but I wait to see what Rick's gonna say.

"Makes you look different, more grown-up somehow. Be glad you ain't usin' it for real."

"It feels good, Rick. Wish you could try it, cause it's a lot better than crutches."

"How's it feel? I mean does it feel heavy?"

"Not that much. I was surprised. What 'cha think, Brian?"

"You look good. When I can't see your leg sticking out behind you look real."

"Wish I was."

Rick looks sad and shakes his head.

Donnie notices. "I'll quit if it bothers you, Rick."

"Naa. I just don't want you to go through what I did." He looks at Donnie again. "You do look grown up, guess I'm gonna have to call you Don now."

"'bout time! I hate Donnie. That's for little kids."

Rick shuts the trains down and turns off the lights over the layout. "We'll have to go out for dinner, cause there's nothing here."

"Mario's." Donnie says.

"You like Italian, Brian?" Rick asks me.

"Sure."

"Good. We can wear what we've got on. Go get that sawdust off your shirt and jeans, Don."

Rick asks me to pin up his jeans leg. "Wish I could go on crutches," Don says, watching how I do it.

"I'll let you get by with pretending on my crutches and that dumb peg leg, but I'm not having you turning into an exhibitionist and embarrassing me or the folks. Got it?" Rick says sternly.

"Yeah. I was just wishin'."

"Wish at home where nobody's gonna see you."

Soon as we're seated in the restaurant a big Italian woman comes to the table. "Rick! It's a so good to see you back. You away too long. I'm sorry you get hurt, but good it bring you home."

"Thanks, Mama. What's special tonight?"

She beams. "Got some extra special veal Parmesan for my poor boy. You like?"

"Fine. Don, Brian?" We both nod.

"I make extra special," she says and bustles away.

She's soon back with a huge tray of antipasto, and sets small plates in front of us. I pick carefully because I hate anchovies and capers, but there's still plenty I like. I'm almost full by the time she takes away the plates and bring the veal, but one taste and I'm ready to eat again. Rick even allows Don and me one glass of wine. But I have to struggle to get the spumoni down, good as it is.

Don has gobbled down everything in sight. "You're gonna get fatter than Mama," Rick teases.

"No chance cause I ain't been here since you left. Wish dad would bring me here. I hate the club and that's where he always goes."

"When he lets you drive you can come often as you want." He grins. "Bring a date maybe."

"Not less he's cute as Brian."

I feel myself blush. "Sheesh."

"How come he gets to drive and I don't? We're the same age almost."

"In North Carolina you can get a provisional license at 16 like here, and Don took driver's ed. He's 17, too. You've got another two months."

"Don't know why dad's making me wait 'til I'm 17."

"Cause you'd pester him and mom to go out with you. Besides, you'd show off."

"Would not. Ain't fair."

"Tough. I had to wait, too, you know."

The minute we're back at their house, Don puts the peg leg back on. Rick shakes his head but doesn't say anything. He takes me down and shows me how to run a train and do a little switching, so I play while he's looking for something in the cabinets. After he puts a couple of kits for buildings on the table, he comes over and pushes some buttons. The layout begins to get dark then lights in the buildings and along the streets come on. He pushes one more button and tells me to watch. Several trains start up and the whole layout is in motion. There are even lighted signs with chase-lights on the theater and a few other buildings. After a few minutes, the lights on the layout begin to flick off and the lights behind the cornice come up bright again. The trains begin to disappear until none are running.

"How'd you do that?" I ask.

"My old computer's under the panel. It can run everything if we just want to watch. Took a long time to program for each train and the accessories."

"You did that, too?"

He nods. "That's how I got interested in computers."

"Wish I knew a lot of things like you."

Rick hugs me. "You're a good guy, Brian, so I know you can learn if you'll stop being so shy and make more friends. You can always learn from others."

"They aren't nice like you."

"They don't have to be close friends, Brian. I mean Sam and Willie don't come into town and go around with dad's friends, but that doesn't mean they're stupid or not good people. They've taught me a lot and I like them."

"I'll try."

"Do. I don't think Don's ever seen a stranger. He's a little slow to warm up at first, but then watch out." He winks at me. "I expect you'll find that out tonight."

I sure do. I'm hardly in bed before Don gets in with me. "Okay if I sleep with you?"

"Yeah." If he didn't have both legs I could almost believe it's Rick in the darkness. It takes quite a while before we go to sleep and it feels good being held like Rick held me.

Rick lets us sleep-in, so it's after nine when I wake up. Don's still asleep when I go to the bath to shave and wash up. When I've dressed I go down. Rick's in the living room reading the paper and drinking coffee.

He looks up. "Kettle's on if you want some tea, we're gonna have to eat out. Don up yet?"

I shake my head. "Still asleep."

"Go kick his ass out of bed or he'll be there all day. We'll be leaving soon."

"'kay."

I wake Don and tell him to get a move on cause we're leaving. His peg leg is on the floor, so I remind him to hide it and go back down. Soon as he comes down we go to IHOP for breakfast, and hit the road. Rick drives until we get to the saddle shop.

"Think I done got you all fixed up," the old man says. "Hop up on 'er and see how she feels.

It's fascinating to watch Rick swing his stump over the saddle then push it in a leather cylinder with a closed end. He rises up and the cylinder swivels. His face breaks into a big smile.

"You haven't lost it, Johnny. If this works on a horse like it does here, it'll be perfect."

"Thought you'd like it. I done got to thinkin' after Donnie got that peg leg. I got an idee 'bout how to make one fer you, iffin you want it. Like you said, would come in handy on yer ranch and you wouldn't be messin' up yer fake leg when yer shovelin' horse shit. Look here."

Rick gets off the saddle and hops over to the workbench. Don and I follow to see what he's drawn. It's a tapered wooden peg topped with a leather cup sort of like the one he made for the saddle, except this one straps on.

"Think it'll work?" Rick asks.

"Ought to. I made one like it years ago and never had no complaint. Only problem is it don't bend, so you can't get in no car with it on. Course it's fer work anyway."

"That's cool, Rick. Get it." Don says.

"Don't know what dad'll say."

"Who cares? Ain't him using it, and it's only to the ranch anyhow."

Rick nods. "Go ahead and make it up, Johnny. I'll get it next trip to town."

"'kay. Bring yer good saddle in if ya likes this one. I'll put 'em all on yer bill."

"Thanks, Johnny. Don, put my saddle in the car."

I help Don take it out. He's grinning. "Man, Rick's gonna look real cool on a horse now. I'm glad he can ride again."

"Me, too."

To Don's envy, Rick lets me drive 'til we turn off the interstate. He drives to the barn and stops. Sam comes out. "I get saddle," he tells Rick. "Wanna see what Johnny done."

Rick grins. "A good job. It feels great, but I want to try it out. Don, you and Brian take those groceries in to mom."

When Don and me come back out, Rick's in the saddle on Thunderbolt riding around the fenced in lot, Sam watching. He's got a big smile when he rides up to the gate and says, "Let us out. Think I can do just fine."

He rides faster down the drive to the road then takes off. "Look at 'im go!" Don yells.

Sam pats Don on the shoulder. "Ride like he always done. Shore glad I 'membered 'bout that saddle I seen."

A few minutes later Rick comes riding up, standing 'til he sits down to stop his horse. "Sam, you're a genius!" He says. "It's perfect and I have full control." Sam grins. "Let's get this on Hurricane."

Don dashes in the barn. "I'm goin', too."

Rick looks at me. "Sorry. Buddy, but I'm gonna leave you here. We're gonna be going at a full gallop. You can sit on the fence and watch."

"Fine with me. Have fun."

"I sure will."

Sam lifts Rick until his foot finds the stirrup and he swings his stump over. Hurricane almost throws him off before he's got his stump in the holder, but Rick calms him. "He'll get used to it. Let's go, kid," he says to Don.

I thought Thunderbolt was fast, but Hurricane is only a blur when they take off.

"Good see Rick have fun," Sam says.

"Yeah. He's the greatest," I say.

Sam looks at me and half way smiles. "You good kid fer city boy. Rick like so do Donnie."

"I like them, too, specially Rick. Wish he was my brother for real."

Sam nods. Willie comes up. "That Rick I seen go flyin' by?"

Sam nods again.

"I thought you was crazy the way you drew that thing fer the saddle, but it shore seem to work."

"Indian ride long 'fore white man. Know horse better."

"But not saddles."

"Ain't never rid outten one," Sams says and walks away.

Rick's mom comes out of the house and sees me sitting on the board fence, so she walks over. "Where are Rick and Donnie?"

"Riding."

"And they left you here? I'm ashamed of them."

"Rick got his saddle fixed so he's riding fast."

She looks at me. "He's on Hurricane? Lord, I hope he don't get hurt; he's the only one can ride Hurricane, cept Sam."

I point to a cloud of dust. "There they are."

She stands by me until Rick and Don ride up. "Wow, mom! Sam's idea works great. I can ride just like before. I'm taking my good saddle to Johnny to fix."

She takes the reins and wraps them around the fence post a couple of times. Rick slides off Hurricane and leans against him while I run to get his crutches from the barn. When I hand them to Rick, I see his mom wipe her eyes.

"It's so good to see you enjoying yourself, Rick. I was afraid you wouldn't be able to ride."

Rick kisses her. "Just gotta learn new ways to do things. Only problem is mounting."

"I should think so." She sniffs. "You and Donnie go get in a shower, I can smell you both."

To my disappointment, Rick shakes his head when I start to follow him in. "Get a soda or somethin', buddy. I won't be long."

Rick's dad looks real happy when Rick tells him about the saddle and how he can ride like he used to. "Glad to see you coping so well, son. You must teach Brian how to ride so he can go with you and Donnie."

"I plan to. Soon as he can ride a little faster I thought we'd take a picnic lunch and go up to the lake."

"Good. You'll like it up there, Brian. It's one of the prettiest places I've ever seen."

"I've already seen the prettiest thing I want to see."

"What is that?"

"Your trains, sir. Your layout's awesome."

"Thank you. I'm pleased with the way it looks. Needs some more structures if Rick ever gets around to building them."

"Brought two kits back with us, dad. I'm going to show Brian how I do it."

"Good. The next time you're in town you might get one in HO and let him build it with your help. Rick's far better at buildings than I am, Brian. He can teach you a lot."

"He already did, sir. My layout's nothing compared to yours, but I wouldn't have anything if Rick hadn't helped me." I smile. "He made me study, too. Dad's real happy about my grades, that's why he let me come with Rick."

Rick's dad nods. "Good for you, Rick. Now see if you can work some magic with Donnie."

"Aw, dad," Don says.

"You need it and Rick's going to be here to help you, so quit whining."

"Yes, sir. Aah, dad?"

"Yes?"

"Ain't it about time you an' mom started callin' me Don, 'stead of Donnie. That's a kid's name."

His dad smiles. "Guess it is. Going to be hard changing cause you've always been Donnie."

"Thanks, dad."

I'm not exactly thrilled when Rick tells me to put on the jeans I wore for my first ride, but he's so happy I don't want to let him down. I guess it's cause he wants to teach me that Sam gets Thunderbolt saddled for him and Lightning for me. We walk the horses out to the road and Rick tells me to watch. He rides a little faster and I see he's not sitting in the saddle but sort of bobbing up and down in time with the horse's motion.

He comes back. "See what I was doing, Brian? That's called posting." He grins. "Saves you from a sore butt. That's why it's easier to ride at a trot rather than a walk. Try it with me."

It doesn't take me long to copy him, but I can tell it's my legs gonna be sore now. Rick smiles at me as he passes and Lightning speeds up more. I hold on for dear life, but it becomes fun after I relax a little. I don't know where we are, but the scenery is beautiful now that I can get a look at it instead of concentrating on staying on Lightning.

After a while, Rick slows and turns Thunderbolt, so Lightning follows. When we get back to the barn and stop, Rick's smiling. "You did good, Brian. Didn't think you'd catch on so fast."

I slide off Lightning and wrap his reins around the fence post then go help Rick down. Sam comes running up.

"Hey, Sam, got this city boy up to a canter. He did well."

Sam smiles. "Make him like horse maybe. You do Thunderbolt. I do Lightning for boy."

I follow them in the barn and watch as Rick and Sam dry and brush the horses down. "Must care for horse after ride," Sam says to me.

"Thanks for doing it for me," I tell him.

"You not know. My job."

Don and I sleep together every night, but he always mess up his bed in case his mom checks, cause we're supposed to make our own beds each morning. I like him lots, but it's Rick I love.

For the next few days Rick, Don and I ride further every morning until going at a steady canter doesn't bother me and I don't hang on so tight any more. One morning I hand Rick's mom my camera so she can take my picture on Lightning and then one of me and Rick together and another of Don with us. I start to carry it around with me taking pictures of everything, specially Rick on his crutches. The three rolls of film I brought are soon gone. When I mention it, Rick says we need to go back to town so he can take his good saddle to be fixed.

"Like yer saddle?" The old man asks soon as we walk in.

Rick grins. "Brought my good one. That tell you anything."

"Thought you'd like it. Fit right fer riding?"

"Perfect. Couldn't be any better."

"Good. Look here." He reaches behind him and holds out Rick's peg leg. It looks like the bottom half of a wooden crutch 'cept the shafts are wider. There's a little leather covered platform for Rick's stump to rest on and the shafts go up higher with three leather belts to hold it on.

"This isn't like the one Don got," Rick says.

"Nope. Don't need to tote all that extra wood, but this one's sturdy as his'n. Try it."

Rick straps it on and stands up. "Feels a little funny to be standing on the end of my stump, but it doesn't hurt or anything."

"Length right?"

Rick nods then tries a few steps. He smiles at Don. "Think you were on to something, Don. Glad I watched you so I knew how to walk on it."

"You kin wear it unner yer jeans iffen you want," the man says, "but ya better get one of them sock things like goes with a leg iffen ya do so it don't chafe yer stump. That there leather is stiff, but it'll soften up after a bit."

"Got plenty of stump socks, I'll remember to wear 'em with this. Thanks, Johnny."

"Sure. Glad I still 'member how to make 'em. Been a while."

"Don't wear it under your jeans," Don says when we're in the car.

"Why?"

"Cause it's so sexy lookin'."

"Yeah. You really look cool on it," I add.

"Damn! What am I gonna do with two devs puttin' the make on a straight guy with a peg leg?"

"I know what I wanna do," I say.

"Me, too," Don adds.

"Never gonna happen, guys. Sorry, but I guess you're stuck with each other."

"Don's okay 'cept he ain't gotta stump," I say.

"Yeah. Wish I could trade with Rick."

"That's enough, Don," Rick says.

"Okay. Can I call you ole peg leg now you got one fer real?"

"Do and I'll tan your butt. You know it'll upset mom if she hears you."

Don smiles. "Yeah. She'd probably slap the shit out o' me."

"And don't you forget it."

He stops at Wal-Mart for me to get some film. "Wear your peg in," Don says.

"I will not. It's for work, not showing off like you would."

"Aaaw."

I'm disappointed, too, cause he looks so great on it, but I'll get some pictures of him. I hope he wears it his cutoff jeans so I can get a good picture of how all of it looks on his stump. I want to be able to see him after I go back home.

I'm in luck cause they're having a sale on six-packs of the film I use. I get one and we head for their house. Rick puts the peg on so he can get used to it, and that's all I care about seeing. Don gets his on, too, and I got a lot to enjoy. I talk them into going outside so I can take a picture of them. It takes a little doing, but I get an angle so I can't see Don's leg poking out back.

"If that one comes out good, send me a copy," Don asks when we're in bed.

"Okay."

We leave the house about ten and Rick drives to a hobby shop. "Let's find something for you to build for your layout, Brian. Tonight I'll start on one of the kits I brought from the house and show you how I build them."

"Cool! Thanks, Rick."

I look at several, but I like the one of an old farmhouse the best. It's thirty-five dollars but I've got a little over two hundred my dad gave me and I haven't spent any of it 'cept for the film.

I reach for a tube of glue, but Rick stops me. "Not that, there's something better." He shows me a glue pen I should get.

"What about tools?"

"Got my box at the ranch. You can use 'em."

Next stop is for his saddle. He tries it and says it feels just the same as his old one. The man shows him the holder he put on it to hold Rick's crutches. This saddle's a little lighter than his other one so Don carries it alone. When we get to the house, Rick parks next to the barn door, puts on his peg leg and carries his saddle in.

Willie looks at him and grins. "You done shown good sense, Rick. That there peg's just what ya need."

"Yeah. Trying to rub down Hurricane on crutches doesn't get it." To my disappointment he takes it off and hangs it on a nail near the door then hops to the car for his crutches.

"Ain't cha gonna wear it?" Don asks before I do.

"When I'm working. That's what I got it for. Get your stuff, Brian, and let's go in."

Soon as we've had lunch, I go with Rick to his room. He clears some stuff off the big desk in there and lays out the plan for the kit I bought. Then he goes around to the other side and opens one of his kits.

"I'm glad you bought that one, Brian, cause I'm building the same one." He shows me how to lay out all the little parts in a couple of little plastic muffin tins, then watches me do the same. I love doing this when he's with me.

Don's in his room playing some computer game on line cause he doesn't like model building. Rick and I work until his mom calls up that we should get ready for dinner.

"Mom, tomorrow's supposed to be nice and Brian rides pretty well now, so we're going to lake for a picnic if that's okay."

"That's an excellent idea. Brian, that's one the prettiest spots on earth. Be sure to take your camera."

"I will. Sounds like fun."

"I washed those clothes you boys have been riding in so you go clean, though Lord knows what you'll be like when you get back."

"Thanks, mom," Rick says. "I should have done it."

She laughs. "They were so bad I put them in with Sam's and Willie's."

"Aw, mom, not my special shirt. Did ya bleach it?" Don asks.

She nods. "It was filthy."

"Aw, heck."

"If you didn't want it bleached you should have washed it yourself."

"I forgot."

"Then don't complain."

"But "

"Enough, Don," his dad says.

Don sulks the rest of the way through dinner. Soon as it's over he runs upstairs and comes into Rick's room carrying it. It's a denim shirt with two stallions reared up facing each other on the back. It's almost bleached white.

"Look what she done," he says.

"I'm sorry, Don. I know you loved that shirt, but it's your own fault for not taking better care of it. The next rodeo we go to see if you can't find another like it," Rick says. "Maybe you need a year or two in service to teach you how to keep your clothes."

Don shakes his head. "No way."

"If you don't start making better grades you won't get in college and then I know dad'll insist."

"Unh, unh. Not me."

"Hey, if you were to get in the Coast Guard like Rick you might get stationed in Elizabeth City. Then you could live with us like Rick did. I'd like that."

"But you'd be in college, Brian," Rick says.

"Gonna do my first couple of years at the one there. Don could, too, cause some of the guys from the base do."

Rick nods. "I was going to, too, but it didn't work out."

"I like ya lots, Brian, but I guess I better start studying." He grins at Rick. "'sides, they won't let no gay in."

"Don't be too sure. I knew a couple of guys I think were, but they kept it secret on base. They always went on leave together, though."

Don shakes his head. "Don't need that hassle."

He goes to his room and Rick and I work on our models. He stops me several times. I like to work fast, but he makes me do it slow and carefully like he does.

"It takes patience to do it right, Brian. What's the rush? We've got plenty of time."

The next morning we ride for two hours up a mountain trail then we're at the lake. The water's as blue as the sky, not brown like the water around home, and in a few spots where the trees are low, it seems you can see forever.

"Like it, Brian?" Don asks.

"It's beautiful. Sure isn't like anything around home." I point to a hazy spot far in the distance. "What's that?"

Rick grins. "Denver."

"Why's it all hazy like that?"

"Pollution. You can see it easy from the mountains."

"It's hot," Don says. "I'm goin' swimming." He strips off his clothes and jumps in naked. "Come on in, it's great."

Since Rick's undressing I do too, but when I hit the water I'm out faster than I got in. "Damn! That's cold!" I yell.

"You'll get used to it, Brian," Rick says.

I shake my head and lay down in the sun on the blanket he brought along. In a few minutes Rick gets out and hops over to me. "You need sunscreen, or you'll burn fast."

He puts it on my back and gets back in the water while I finish.

"Don't know what you're missing," Don calls.

I'm having my own fun watching Rick. They finally get out and lay down on the blanket beside me. I want to get a picture of Rick, but I know the photo shop won't print nudes, so I try to store up a mental picture of him.

We have fried chicken, potato salad, and lots of good stuff for lunch. Rick's beer and my soda is cold cause he put them in the lake when we got here. After we get a short nap, we start back to the ranch. I'm glad to see Rick put on his peg leg when he goes to rub Hurricane down. His cutoff jeans don't cover any of it so I get some good pictures of him since Sam's doing Lightning for me.

"How as it, Brian?" His mom asks when we go in.

"Great. It was beautiful as you said."

"He wouldn't go in the water," Don tells her.

"Heck, no. It's colder than the ocean."

She smiles. "It would be because it's spring fed and only gets a few hours of sun. Go get a hot shower and I'll fix you a cup of hot tea."

A couple of days later we go into town again and I think of Rick's mom and how great she's been. On the way out to go back to the ranch. I tell Rick to stop at a flower shop and buy her a dozen Tiffany roses when Rick says they're her favorite. The florist puts them in water for me and I hold them carefully all the way back.

"Oh, Brian, how beautiful! My favorite." She kisses me and I feel good, but I know I'll be going home at the end of the week, cause I checked my plane ticket.

The days go by so fast I can't remember all the great things we did, but my last day we all have breakfast together, even Sam and Willie eat with us.

When they finish and get up to go out, Sam puts his hand on my shoulder. "Next time come, I make you care for horse."

"I will. Thanks for all your help, Sam. You, too, Willie. I want to take your pictures."

"Why?" Willie asks.

"To show people at home real cowboys aren't like those in books."

Willie snorts. "Ain't no different from anybody else. Just a couple of working stiffs."

I get my picture though Sam won't smile.

I kiss Rick's mom and shake hands with his dad then we're on the road. When Rick parks at the airport I'm ready to cry. "I don't want to go. I've had so much fun."

"I'm glad, li'l brother, but your parents miss you. Give 'em my love," Rick says.

I sniffle and wipe my nose. "I will."

Don helps me carry my stuff in the big airport, and Rick gets me checked in and to the right gate. We don't talk much, but I tell Rick and Don to come see me next summer. We've got each other's e-mail addresses and promise to keep in touch. When my flight is called, I hug Don and get kissed. Then I hug Rick.

"I love you so much, Rick."

"Love you, too, Brian." After a hug he swats me on the butt. "Get going, buddy. They're boarding. I'll call your dad to meet you."

I get one last look at them walking away and feel it's the end of the world.

**********

My dad and mother meet me at the airport in Norfolk. They're so happy to see me I cheer up and tell them about my visit on the drive home. They can't believe I learned to ride a horse. Because it's two hours later here, I'm ready to go to bed when we get home.

The next morning I ride my bike to the photo shop and leave the film. I can get it that afternoon cause mom and dad want to see the pictures I took. When the UPS truck drops off a box for me, I unpack the model house Rick helped me build. I look at it and see he's put lights in it for me, but when I take it up to put it on my layout, I compare my layout with Rick's. It's so pitiful in comparison I feel like kicking it to pieces, but I remember how much Rick helped me with it and it looks better.

That evening I get the prints and go through them quickly in my room, taking out those I don't want my parents to see and putting them in my desk drawer. I was afraid I'd be sad again looking at the pictures, but my mom and dad are so fascinated with them and my telling them about each, I enjoy it. It's only when I go up to bed and look at the pictures I made just for me, I can't help a few tears. I love Rick so much.

We all exchange e-mail nearly every day, but by Thanksgiving they slow down. They moved back to town when school started. Rick's in college and has a girl friend so he stops writing first, then I only hear from Don once in a while. I get Christmas cards from them and when Don doesn't answer my last e-mail I stop writing altogether.

I still carry a picture of Rick on his peg leg in my billfold and look at it once in a while, wishing I could be with him. I know it's not gonna happen so I start trying to make new friends at school and hope for the future cause I'll be in college next fall. But, to take it all in stride, I've got no regrets.

Rick gave me the best year of my life.

The End.

 

Posted: 05/07/10