HE was running scared and he knew it. The more miles he put between him and his past, the better. Johnny Redbear shook his head as he shifted into third. His old truck sounded like a ghost rising from a tomb. Just like his life. Dead man walking. He’d been to war. He’d married, loved, and lost when he came out as homosexual to his wife of seven years. She literally tore down the white picket fence. With their SUV. He had lived a lie for too long. He loved his kids. No doubt about that. He loved his wife—but it was far more platonic than romantic. She didn’t want to “be friends,” share the house, raise the kids. She made it pretty clear that he needed to scoot. Kids cried. Broke his heart. He became a man without a country.
He didn’t belong in suburbia.
He had no desire to return to reservation life, nor the military.
There had to be somewhere in between for him. A life where he could be himself. A place where lightning wouldn’t strike twice and where he could literally ride into the sunset. A place where he might find companionship without living a lie.
Might have been easier to deal with the devastation he left in his wake had he a lover on the side. Trouble was, he didn’t. He hadn’t. Sure, the urges were there. So was that ultra-religious upbringing that set fear and guilt out before him like a shield.
His tribe had stories about what polite society called “alternative lifestyles.” Gender fluid couples. Fuck. Gender fluid warriors. In the old days it wasn’t taboo to be a man who loved another man. Grandma had hinted at such things in bedtime stories. Man/man. Woman/woman. Man/woman. Grandmother must have known—even when he was seven. Gran was the only non-conservative link to his past. He’d been raised pretty traditionally. Mom and Dad were church-going conservative straight arrows. It was all he’d known. That and horses.
I am a gay man who has never bedded another man. Sure enough, his heart felt less heavy not carrying the secret, but everything else was bogged down by grief, indecision, doubt, and anticipation. At some point, he was going to meet a man who could deal with his baggage and fall in love. At some point. Every now and then his sexual side became activated like an electric fence when around a man he found attractive. Most relationships were time and circumstances, and neither of these two things had ever been in place for him. He hadn’t done the bar scene. He hadn’t surfed the internet for love. He spent most of his time with a lead rope in hand and a horse at the end of it. Horses kept him sane and grounded when he figured he could have been a suicide risk by adulthood.
Without horses, I’d have been fucked.
After the divorce he dove head-first into work. Horses were his job, his passion, his salvation, and a poultice to his wounded soul. He kept busy. Head down. No time for love. But he did make a friend. An older man with the patience of Job, and skin the color of a well-used saddlebag. Ezekiel. Zeke. Sixty-two years old, and perhaps the strongest man of mind and body Johnny had ever known. And he was gay.
They had a draft horse on cross-ties one afternoon. Needed a good brushing. Why a horse that big would roll in burs and go out of his way to trample sticker bushes, he never did understand. Large horses like that took four hands, a currycomb, and good old fashioned nit-picking.
Zeke took it in stride. “Old Buck here, he just wants attention. As if he doesn’t get enough. He saw us lunging that new gelding and just couldn’t stand it. Isn’t that right, Buck?”
John laughed. “I think he’s just an asshole, Zeke.”
“Nah. You just don’t understand this old man. Which surprises me a little.”
“How’s that?” John asked.
“Well, you seem a bit head-blind to some things. Like you deliberately try to deflect certain signs, or conversations.”
“Just pick the fucking burs out of Buck here and leave the psychoanalysis to the professionals, Zeke.”
“I’m gay. Did you know that? I am a goddamn gay cowboy. And just like this big old heavy horse, I like attention. In this case, I want your attention.”
John stood up straight and peered around Buck’s long neck. “Oh?”
“It doesn’t do a man any good to hide from himself, John Redbear.”
“Never said it did.”
“Then step into the light, brother.”
John didn’t reply.
“I knew it. You are not only in the closet, you have the door locked and bolted from the inside. Tell you what, John—this is about the safest place to come out there is. Buck and I got your back.”
“I tell you about my ex?” John asked.
“I came out to her and she opened up the gates of hell and dropped me face first.”
“I knew you were gay.”
“Sorriest excuse for a gay man on the planet.”
“Why’s that?” Zeke walked around Buck to face him. “Buck and I think you’re just fine.”
“The only thing I was ever good at was horses.”
“You’re a virgin.”
“Ah, Zeke. I have two kids.”
“Have you ever so much as held hands with another man?”
“I see. Now, I don’t shit where I eat, you know? I don’t date co-workers and I sure as hell don’t date virgins—but I can introduce you around if you want. Get your feet wet.”
“I’m not ready for anything like that,” John replied.
“Well, the offer is there. It’s not good for a man to be alone.”
“I’m never alone.”
“Horses don’t count, John.” Zeke took his friend by the shoulder. “What gets you off? To whom are you attracted? Gladiators?” He chuckled.
Johnny felt himself flush crimson. “I like blonds. Blue eyes. Just the opposite of me.”
“I figured you were into Asian gay porn the way you blush. Ain’t no shame in liking what you like.”
“I don’t watch porn. I can’t. I haven’t got over the fear of God my parents instilled yet.” He paused. “I like athletic type magazines. Weight lifting. Nutrition. The ads—I use the ads.”
“How old are you?”
Johnny laughed. “Old enough to have served my country.”
“Don’t you get all defensive with me, John Redbear. I did a stint, too. Served during the pull-out from Nam and through the Carter years. Didn’t really see combat.”
“I’m thirty-five, and I feel like my entire life has been a battle zone.”
“You have an entire lifetime ahead of you. Quit spending so much time in the past.”
“Are you my therapist now, Zeke?”
“I am not, Johnny. I’m your friend.”
John patted Buck. “We’re done here, old man.” He paused. “Thanks, Zeke. I can use a friend.”