MATT REECE Connors straddled his Appaloosa stallion, Comet, loping along a ridge at the eastern foothills of the White Mountains. Bitter cold air kept him anxious for the sunrise, which, if nothing else, would warm horse and rider a few degrees.
Minutes later, winter curled into an early spring. With a single spectacular dawn, the season changed. A rush of amethyst and gold flooded the sky as the sun inched above the horizon, and the Nevada desert awakened with a new and inexplicable hope. Wind rushed down the mountain carrying the crisp scent of snow, and it sweetened the sunrays tumbling over the scrublands, lifting Matt Reece’s spirits to the point he forgot about the sorrow that awaited him back at the ranch house.
To the unpracticed eye, this land seemed a place of absence, but Matt Reece saw carved gorges and wind-sharpened peaks and undulating mounds spread over the sprawling panorama. To the west, the mountains rose and rose, smoky blue and snowcapped. To the south, they grew tamer, the colors muted, and the edges faded into the prairie where the land seemed as endless as time. To the east lay the Promesa Rota, which is Spanish for Broken Promise. But this landscape’s promises were never broken; how could they be? These clattering streams and sculpted canyons swallowed him whole with their fathomless, uncomplicated beauty.
It was impossible to wallow in sadness on such a morning. His life seemed one with all creation, and he took no more heed of death than he did the dormant dogwood trees or fading stars. This daybreak feels like freedom, he thought, a glimpse of immortality.
The moment came, however, while scuttling by rock formations heavy with history, when an icy hush at his core told him a long-awaited death had occurred. It could be Grandpa Blake, or it could be his dog, Groucho. Both had weltered on the threshold for weeks. In this country, you trusted your instincts, and so he turned Comet east and prodded him into a gallop. He was near the Promesa Rota’s western property line, with twenty miles of raw country between him and the ranch house. He had over an hour of hard riding before he faced the inevitable heartbreak.
Once he reached the lower pastures skirting the river, he heard a rumbling. He glanced north and saw a bay stallion, six mares, and four colts thundering in a tight group, heads and tails held high and proud. He admired the movement of shoulders and flanks. When the stallion veered east and the herd followed in a sweeping arc, Matt Reece noticed Kenji riding Pepper, a black Arabian saddle horse. Kenji’s shoulders were straight, chin tucked in, and his Stetson sat square on his head. He held himself in flawless dignity. Even Pepper was curried and gleaming.
Kenji drove the herd toward the corrals.
A stab of shame rose up in Matt Reece. Kenji rounded up a herd, and he hadn’t. Spring was branding time, and his job was to find mustangs in the hills and ravines and deliver them to the holding pens. It didn’t matter that he was only eighteen years old while Kenji was a middle-aged man. On the ranch, he needed to pull his weight. He figured he could ride and rope as well as anyone, and he hated being bested.
He leaned forward and gave Comet a spiteful kick, as if coming up short was his fault. Comet jolted into a run. Matt Reece pressed the horse’s flanks between his boot heels. They blue-streaked toward the herd, and the hard-packed ground careened under them. He urged Comet on until they were flat out. He held the reins with his right hand and held his hat on his head with his left. From his perspective, Comet flew like a mythical figure, legs outstretched, mane streaming, tail billowing behind. Horse and rider became a force rocketing through space. Matt Reece knew that a misstep or a prairie-dog hole would put their chance of survival a notch below none. Electric waves sizzled his head, but he kept Comet redlining; the thrill of running down Kenji proved too great for caution.
When he caught up with the bay stallion, he reined Comet into a lope. He and Kenji flanked the herd, Kenji north, he on the south.
He saw disapproval etched on Kenji’s face. Yes, he was reckless, endangering a beautiful animal, not to mention himself. He didn’t care. He experienced a last burst of elation before they reached the ranch house, and perhaps he could cling to that feeling over the next few weeks, a spark of candlelight in a world gone dark.
They rode over a rise, and the Promesa Rota came into view. The compound crouched at the end of a dirt road, two miles off County Road 124, near an area the locals called Dead Bull Butte. Named after the river that flowed through the property, the Promesa Rota had ten sections of grazing pastures bordering each side of the stream. The rest was desert scrub populated by rattlesnakes, coyotes, and mountain lions.
A putty-colored barn dominated the work yard, and an assortment of corrals, sheds, and a windmill over a water tank hovered around it like moons around Jupiter. A two-story Victorian house nestled within a grove of cottonwoods. Farther south stood a dozen pippin and Red Delicious apple trees, the fruit from which Matt Reece’s great-grandmother, Audrey Connors, had made the best cider in the county.
Knowing what awaited him there, a bizarre feeling came over him: that he was, and always had been, too fragile for this lonely landscape. As they rode nearer, he tried to imagine how life would be if he had never been born into this desolate place. He wondered what he would be like if he had not spent the last eighteen years absorbing the silent vistas, the river’s hypnotic pull, the meadow lark’s ascending three-note song. Until his older brother, Patrick, went off to college, he’d been happy enough, but over the last two years, loneliness weighed on his shoulders to the point where any kind of life somewhere else seemed an improvement.
Kenji spurred Pepper into a run, and they dashed ahead to open the corral gates. When Matt Reece reached the compound, a sour taste worked its way up his throat, and he swallowed it down.
He drove the mustangs into the main holding pen to join a dozen horses grouped at the far end. They were a mixed lot, duns and roans and bays and paints. They varied in size, sex, age, and conformation. Kenji closed the gate after them.
Kenji and Matt Reece dismounted and led their horses into the barn without a word. Matt Reece pulled his Hamley saddle and blanket from Comet and sat them over a sawhorse. He lifted the bridle off Comet, haltered him, and led him into his stall. He gave the horse’s damp coat a rubdown with a gunnysack before he closed and latched the gate, and then hung the bridle on a peg on the wall.
The lecture he was expecting never came. Instead, Kenji wrapped an arm over his shoulders and said, “Go start on breakfast. I’ll feed and water the stock and milk Lucy.”
His offer to do the chores convinced Matt Reece that he also had an inkling of what awaited them in the house.
“If you say so, sir.” Matt Reece leaned into Kenji, finding the warmth he searched for. Kenji Hiroshige was his stepfather, a Japanese man in his forties who looked younger than any thirty-year-old, which was an impressive feat in this godless territory. He was strong yet lissome, with a stomach as flat as Matt Reece’s. The only things that showed his age were his eyes. Beneath his Zen-like gaze lurked something wounded, ancient… and untouchable.
Feeling that reassuring heat, he thought of how admirable Kenji was, a Buddhist, a vegetarian, and a veterinarian working at Golden Eagle Industries, a research firm studying the aging process and age-related illnesses. The company experimented on a variety of animals, and Kenji helped with the research while caring for the livestock. He was a scientist, for God’s sake, working with Consuela Rocha y Villareal, one of the most celebrated minds in the scientific world, and a household name, like Einstein and Stephen Hawking. That alone made Kenji everything Matt Reece longed for, but he held no illusions that he would ever rise so high in life. He seemed destined to be stuck on this ranch, where it was impossible to become anything more interesting or useful than a cowboy.
Like Matt Reece’s paternal father, Jessup Connors, Kenji had made something of himself before coming to the ranch. That was the key, Matt Reece knew. Try as he might, he couldn’t make something of his life without abandoning this ranch and the people he loved.
He shucked off his canvas chore coat and draped it over the top rail, then pulled off his rawhide gloves and stuffed them in his hip pocket. Kenji squeezed Matt Reece’s neck and nudged him in the direction of the house. Matt Reece picked up a pail by the barn door, swung by the chicken coop, and gathered seven eggs before climbing the steps to the mudroom. Slipping inside confirmed his suspicions. Under the sink where the men washed up before entering the house, Groucho lay on his patch of carpet, too weak to even lift his head.
A wirehaired pointer with blue roan coloration, Groucho owned a face only his mother—and Matt Reece—could love. The dog was bloated and wheezing.
He was relieved that it was Groucho—not Grandpa Blake—who was near dead, but that did little to lessen his heartbreak.
He set his pail on the floor, knelt, and scooped Groucho into his arms. One bleary red eye showed like a signal in a fog; the cold and dripping nose pressed to his neck. The dog broke wind, and his face pulled into what looked like an apology. Matt Reece knew it was cruel to prolong what must be done, but after Patrick moved away to attend UC Berkeley, Groucho became his only friend. Clutching that head to his chest, he tried to will energy back into the limp body that held no warmth. What little life remaining had retreated to the dog’s core, leaving the extremities cold.
Matt Reece’s heart felt like it squeezed up into his throat, his typical reaction to death or violence or abandonment. A harsh pressure in the back of his esophagus tugged at his solar plexus, pitching him into a coughing fit. Each coughing rasp clogged his windpipe with mucus until he couldn’t take in enough air. A suffocating, nervy rush drove him to his feet.
“Oh—” He drew in a painful breath. “—shit.” He stared at Groucho’s peaceful face. Can I live here without him? Doubt settled over him, which gave birth to despair.
He thought of Patrick, visualizing his smooth face, thin lips, black hair, and fatally blue eyes. They’d slept in the same bed until Matt Reece became a teen, their heads angled toward each other, their legs and torsos touching. Patrick outgrew that intimacy, but Matt Reece still longed for it, still hankered to wake with the feel of his brother’s breath on his neck. He thought about his mother, Gail, now living in Long Beach with Lester. All the people who abandoned him. And now Groucho. He felt sorry for them. He imagined walking to the barn, saddling Comet, and riding away. He could, for the first time, forsake them instead. He could reach the foothills by noon and be lost in the mountains by dark. It would take them weeks to find him. But the need for air spurred him into a different direction.
With his heart racing, he rushed through the kitchen and into the living room. Jessup had fallen asleep on the sofa the night before and was still there, snoring, his red shirt unbuttoned, his jeans fly open. A near-empty glass of rye sat on the coffee table. Jessup drank lately because his father, Blake Connors, was in the same condition as Groucho. They had been a reasonably happy family until six months ago when Blake became bedridden. In Hawthorn, the doctors did biopsies, and the news was as bad as it gets, well into stage four. All the doctors could do was administer drugs to keep him comfortable. He had, however, wanted to die at home, so Jessup and Kenji packed him up and brought his sorrow to the ranch.
That’s when Jessup’s deterioration kicked into high gear. Each night at sunset, in the name of unwinding, Jessup threw back a glass of rye, and another, and so on, until he couldn’t keep his eyes open. He often passed out before he made it to the bedroom.
The two bedrooms on the first floor were down the hall from the living room. Jessup and Kenji shared one, and across the hall Blake lay dying. Matt Reece’s bedroom, his sanctuary, was upstairs.
Matt Reece’s lungs were clinching, and he didn’t have much time. He tugged on Jessup’s elbow with no effect and then slapped his face hard enough to rattle teeth. Jessup opened one eye. The act of focusing proved too much for him, and he mumbled, “Leave me be, dammit.”
For a moment, still, it seemed like nothing too serious—another desertion, the loss of one more loved one. He was used to that, right? But anxiety wrapped itself around his chest and squeezed, taking him with such force that it felt like being squashed by a python.
Matt Reece tried to speak, but his lungs refused to draw air. He shook Jessup harder. He believed in Jessup, trusted his strength; his touch was nourishment from a realm beyond normal human interaction. Jessup had never let him down. He slapped his face again, harder. This time Jessup opened both eyes.
“Is Grandpa dead?” Jessup asked.
Jessup’s eyes registered nothing. He sat up, took Matt Reece’s arm, and drew him onto the couch. He tugged Matt Reece’s Stetson off his head and dropped it on the easy chair, then wrapped his arms around Matt Reece and held him. “Okay, son. It’s just another anxiety attack. Close your eyes, and breathe with me. Deep as you can. We’ll work through this. You and me.”
This close, Matt Reece smelled the sour whiskey tainting Jessup’s breath. That didn’t matter. He closed his eyes and felt Jessup’s empathy flowing into him. He knew Jessup’s strength could protect him from everything except loneliness. He let that body heat and sour breath carry him to a gentler place. His lungs slowly unclenched. Jessup could do this, only him, because of the trust they shared.
They stayed nailed together with Matt Reece gazing out the front window at the unpeopled vastness of the Promesa Rota, until Kenji ambled across the work yard carrying a pail of milk.
“I know what Groucho means to you, son,” Jessup said, his voice low and soothing, “but we have to face it; everything that lives will eventually die—you and me and Kenji and Patrick and Grandpa, everyone. It’s how nature works. We can’t change that.”
“He’s all I’ve got, sir.”
“You have me and Kenji and Comet, and for a short time we have Grandpa. Old Groucho had about the best damn life a dog could want. Maybe it’s time we gave another dog an opportunity. There’s bound to be a litter of pups somewhere in the county.”
He looked down, not wanting to think about a replacement. There was, however, no denying the mention of a puppy lit a spark of yearning in his heart. He could even name it Harpo, as a way to honor the memory of his greatest friend.
“Tell you what, sport,” Jessup said. “You put the coffee on while I clean up. After breakfast I’ll dig a grave, we’ll say goodbye to him, and I’ll make a few phone calls to see what’s available.” He loosened his arms, and Matt Reece stood. Jessup pushed himself off the couch and had trouble balancing. Matt Reece held his arm to keep him from falling backward.
“I’m okay,” Jessup said, but his face winced. Jessup shared those same features that Patrick had—high cheekbones and thin lips, black hair, and sapphire-blue eyes—only nineteen years older. Before Blake got sick, Jessup had a youthful appearance and strong physique. But over these last months, Jessup’s face lost its vitality. The effects of drink and depression spread over his features, making fine lines appear around the mouth. His cheeks grew flush and more pronounced, the eyelids sagged, and deep lines etched across his forehead. At forty-three, he had a sixty-year-old face, and the slight drooping across his features gave the impression of profound grief.
Looking into those bloodshot eyes, Matt Reece figured this was how he would end up, not a scientist or even veterinarian, but rather, he would stay on the ranch living a small, dull life, and when everyone abandoned him, he would let whiskey beat him down to nothing.
AS MATT Reece grabbed the coffeepot, a noise came from the mudroom. He crossed the kitchen to the doorway and saw Kenji leaning over Groucho, using a stethoscope to listen to the dog’s chest. His vet-medical bag was open and within easy reach. There was an assortment of futuristic-looking devices in it, the kind of equipment one would expect to find only in scientific laboratories.
“Don’t let him die, sir,” Matt Reece said with a low voice so Jessup couldn’t hear.
Kenji looked up. “Must be hard never leaving the ranch. A boy needs friends.”
For the last two years, Matt Reece had been homeschooled to protect him from bullies at school. Jessup and Kenji assumed he was picked on because they were a gay couple, but Matt Reece knew better. The other boys had rightly guessed he was also gay. This was a tough country, and the boys were coarse. When Patrick was no longer there to protect him, they picked fights with him. Once they realized he couldn’t fight back because of his phobia with violence, the persecution intensified. After months of black eyes and broken teeth, Jessup put his foot down. Matt Reece hadn’t left the ranch since.
Kenji seemed to turn inward, as if analyzing himself, rather than Groucho’s condition. After a moment, he nodded. “Maybe there’s something I can try.”
Jessup passed behind Matt Reece and eased himself into the mudroom. Kenji stood, and they embraced and kissed as Matt Reece looked on. Their intimacy was a reminder that they had each other while he had only Groucho. He felt his heart free-falling.
There was nothing to do but start on breakfast. He grabbed the bucket of eggs and the pail of milk Kenji had carried in. He set them on the counter next to the stove, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and washed his hands in the sink. Jessup walked to the bathroom, but Kenji stayed in the mudroom, which seemed somewhat suspicious. Matt Reece tiptoed back to the doorway and leaned his head inside. Kenji was again stooped over Groucho, but this time he held a gadget in his hand. It looked surprisingly similar to a Star Trek medical tricorder that Dr. McCoy used to diagnose patients. It didn’t make a sound, but it did emit an aura of purplish light that engulfed both dog and man.
Matt Reece eased back into the kitchen, his hopes raising the width of an eyelash. He knew the Star Trek tricorder was used to gather and interpret data, but he couldn’t remember if it actually cured anything. But of course, that was a TV show, purely fiction. No telling what Kenji was doing, if anything.
Matt Reece poured coffee beans into a hand grinder and pulverized them. As Jessup hauled himself to the dining table, Matt Reece measured out water and coffee into the percolator, set it on the stove, lit the burner with a match, and turned up an inch of flame.
“Fried or scrambled?” Matt Reece asked.
“Over easy will do.”
Kenji joined Jessup at the table.
Jessup said, “After breakfast, I’ll dig a grave.”
Kenji shot Matt Reece a glance and told Jessup there was still hope. Before Jessup could argue, Matt Reece turned on them. “After we bury Groucho, I want to go live with Patrick and enroll in college. I love you both, but I’m done here.”
He wanted to tell them it was time for them to man up and take care of Grandpa Blake themselves, but that sounded too confrontational. Why state the obvious? And he was hoping they wouldn’t ask what he wanted to study in college, because he wasn’t sure yet. He just wanted a different life than this, something like being a marine biologist. His favorite TV shows were the Jacques Cousteau documentaries. He often pictured himself living on the Calypso as part of Cousteau’s red-capped crew, studying climate change and making a positive difference in the world. His favorite one was about sharks, and he longed to swim alongside a hammerhead or mako. They claimed that sharks have to keep moving in order to breathe—constant forward motion to force water through their gills. That’s what he felt like, that the ranch was stagnation, and he needed forward motion to someplace else so he could finally breathe.
Jessup shook his head. “Son, I know the ranch is lonely and the work is hard, but it’s also safe. You know how you respond to violence. Patrick lives in Berkeley, which borders Oakland, one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. I’m talkin’ gang wars, innocent people shot down in the streets, and thugs willing to kill you for the change in your pocket.”
“I need to be more than a cowboy.”
“Son, we’re all sad about Groucho. Kenji and I will help you through this. On the ranch we stick together and live the way nature intended, no matter what. Here we’re safe, and we live a fine life.”
“Fine for you, sir. You have your writing and a husband. I’ve got nothing.”
“You have us. Funny thing about people, they’re like coins. Holding four quarters is far better than lugging around a hundred pennies.”
“Give it a rest,” Kenji said. “Groucho ain’t dead, so let’s wait to see what happens.”
“All’s I’m saying is: it’s foolish to rush headlong toward danger,” Jessup said. “When it comes to courage, better than passing the test is not being put to the test.”
Matt Reece turned his back on them and clamped his jaw so tight it could crack his teeth. His mind was set. His ass was Berkeley-bound an hour after they lay Groucho to rest. He would ride his thumb, and if nobody stopped to lend a ride, he would walk there. He imagined himself hoofing it along the highway, head held toward a new future, as dignified and lonely as an asteroid hurtling through space.