I watch a fat honey bee buzz through the golden grasses of early fall in the Colorado high country. Dang if he doesn’t stop at every purple clover and Indian paintbrush he can find. Before Jake came, I hadn’t ever paid bees any mind beyond swatting them away. Ever since I sat on a yellow jacket when I was eight, I haven’t been a huge fan of anything with a stinger. But I can’t help seeing them through Jake’s eyes as a valuable part of this world that I love so much.
The kids’ hives sit in a meadow a little up the mountain near a small aspen grove. All the leaves turned just the other day. Nothing is more beautiful than the gold leaves and white bark against the bright blue sky. A few horses graze in the pasture and the late afternoon sun burnishes the hillside in bronze and copper. The bee completes his flight across the dusty dirt track and joins a small swarm of his fellow workers as they follow their wiggling flight path to the hive.
Two bees buzz right next to my ear, I flinch, raising my hand instinctively.
“Don’t swat it, Ethan,” Poll calls. “You’ll scare him.”
“What about him scaring me?” The screen hat and gloves Jake gave me suddenly don’t seem like enough protection. “D’ya ever think of that?”
“Are you scared of a little ole bee?” Cassie asks.
“Not one bee, no. But fifty thousand of them?”
“There’s probably only thirty thousand,” a voice says from behind me.
Dang. I hadn’t noticed the new kid coming up behind me. Which is a little surprising since I usually have excellent situational awareness and I’ve spent a bit of time the last week noticing the new kid. What can I say? I admit when I’m wrong and I was wrong about Jake. He’s not a partying college kid, or a so-called expert who thinks he can some in and tell me how to do the job I’ve been doing for twenty years. Almost his whole life. He’s bright, hardworking, and knows his way around a ranch. Fortunately for me, he seems to have forgiven me my early crabbiness. In my defense, I’d been in quite a bit of pain the night he came and that pisses me off.
I hate the pain. I envy these kids coming in all strong and full of life. It’s all just a reminder of what I used to be and all the things I can’t do. But Jake doesn’t get me like that. He doesn’t feel like a young buck come to challenge my position in the herd. He almost feels like he could be a friend. Or more. That’s the most terrifying thing I’ve felt in a long time.
“Thanks, Jake,” I tell him. “I feel so much better now.”
He laughs and slaps me on the shoulder. “It’s okay, old man. I’ll check the hives after this. Once we get that bear fence up, you won’t have to play with the scary bees anymore.”
“Once we get this fence up, tenderfoot, I’ll remember I’m cowboss and you’ll be mucking stalls for a year.”
“Sure thing, boss.” A thick fog of sweet-smelling wood smoke pours out of the smoker he’s carrying as he walks past me. He’s going to inspect the hives. This morning dawned sunny, clear, and almost windless. According to Jake, that makes it the perfect day to check and see how the Queen is laying and inspect the overall health of the hive. Perfect for him. I’d prefer to be about a mile away. Maybe two.
“Stay back, guys,” he tells the kids. They aren’t wearing any protective gear. He reaches the square wooden hive and starts prying off the top with the tiny crowbar he uses.
“Okay, pre-teen terrors.” I motion the Cassie and Poll closer to me, further from the hive. “What’s the plan for keeping Winnie the Pooh away from our honey?”
Cassie reaches under the seat and pulls out sheets of loose-leaf paper covered in diagrams and arrows. “We have to go electric,” she says. Poll jumps down from the fence and joins them, leaning an arm on the imperturbable Teeny.
I try to pay attention to the plans, I really do. But watching Jake work with the bees is distracting. He’s wearing jeans, a long sleeve t-shirt, and a protective hat complete with veil, but his hands are uncovered. He’s methodical but gentle as he pries the top off the wooden boxes and pulls the frames out one by one, examining the quality of the honey, the health of the workers. Sunlight fractures through the curtain of smoke hanging low around him. Bees alight and take off from the landing pad, not threatened by his presence at all. He hums as he works, a melody that I almost catch, and old memory.
I lose track of time, watching him.
A cry from Poll interrupts my reverie. I turn to the kids just in time to see Cassie poke Poll with a crutch. Judging from fast and loud Poll is talking, and the way Cassie is waving her arms, there’s some dispute over the design.
I reach over their heads, grabs the papers, and roll them back up into tube, and bop the twins one at a time over the head with it. “Let me take a look at this tonight and we’ll talk again tomorrow, alright?”
“Fine,” Poll huffs. “But my idea is still better. The ground’s too dry for an electric fence.”
“It won’t be when the snow comes,” Cassie argues.
Jake walks past us, pulling off his protective hat and veil. He throw them in the back of his truck, and sits on the dropped tailgate, watching the argument with amusement.
Cassie waves her crutch menacingly at her brother. I grab it out of her hand. “Okay. That’s enough of that. Go home. Jake and I have work to do.”
Cassie rolls her eyes. It’s her new favorite expression. I love puberty. “You were more fun when you were dating Danny.” She freezes in the middle of picking up the reins. “Oh. I mean…I didn’t mean. I’m sorry. Sorry.” She slaps the reins on Teeny’s flanks and takes off at a brisk trot.
Straddling his motorbike, Poll looks older than his twelve years. “She didn’t mean anything by it, Ethan.” He checks on Cassie, torn between comforting her and reassuring me.
“It’s okay, Poll. I know she didn’t. Go tell her I’m not mad.”
He nods. Lifts a hand in goodbye to Jake, and takes off after Cassie.
I’m slapping the rolled up paper tube against my legs as join Jake.
“Fifty dollars they don’t make it to eighteen,” Jake says.
“I’m not taking that bet. We’re all surprised they made it this far. You should have seen them when they were ’bout, I don’t know, not even two. Climbing everything they could reach. Couldn’t keep them in a crib once they started walking.” I try to hide how much I’m hurting, but I can’t hold back a soft grunt as I sit stiffly on the tailgate of the old F150. I rub my left hip hard, massaging out the pain.
“Hip bothering you again?” Jake asks.
Ethan shrugs. “Nah, just a little stiff.”
“Do you think you’ll get back in saddle again soon?” Jake sits down next to Ethan, the truck swaying on its shocks.
“I can ride,” Ethan says. “You’ve seen me.”
“Yeah, but that’s just around here. Don’t you want to get back up in the high country again? Spend a few days?”
I looks over to where the sun sets behind the mountains, aspen leaves shining in the liquid light, the grasses and ground a hundred shades of gold and brown and yellow. A silver sparkle hints at the river threading through the land. The sky to the east is a deep blue and there’s a hint of night’s coolness under the dusty heat of the afternoon. More than anything, I think. “There’s not much of a point,” I say. “Not like I can do much anymore around here. Do I sound bitter? I hope I don’t.
“You talk like you’re a hundred years old. I’ve seen sixty year old cowboys riding out every day back in Oklahoma.” Jake looks me up and down, give me a thorough assessment. I resist the urge to sit up straight and suck in my gut. “You can’t be, what? Forty yet?”
“Thirty nine,” I say. “Near enough forty.” Jake’s eyes are the same blue as the sky and I am acutely aware of the way his knee pressed against mine. Too damn bad he’s only twenty six and straight. Probably straight. You can never tell with kids these days.
Time to change the subject. “So, how are the bees?
“Well, truthfully, the honey level is kind of low for this time of year. If this keeps up, we’re going to have to supplement them to keep them alive through the winter.”
Great. Not bad enough that we have to drop hay for the cattle all through the winter, now I get to wrangle and feed bees. Sure, the kids will do it when they can, but farm kids are busy dawn to past dusk. Not sure they can fit in the feeding. “I didn’t think bees would be so hard to keep.”
He frowns a little, makes a maybe-yes, maybe-no wave of his hand. “Easier than ranching cattle,” he says. “No midnight calving. Why? You thinking about it?”
“Maybe. Be nice to have some honey on tap.”
I ask him a million questions. Can you plant flowers that attract wild ones. Would you want to if you have a kept hive? How many hives should you have? I really do want to know, but I have to admit, sitting here next to him, is good. It’s nice. Calm. It feels like he’d be perfectly happy to sit here on the back on this baby blue rust-bucket, watch the clouds blow across the blue and answer my questions all day. I know I would be.
“I’m sold,” I tell him. “I’m still not a fan of getting stung, but when I get my own place set up, I’m getting some bees.”
“You want your own ranch?”
“Not like this,” I say, waving a hand across all the acres of Bar H. “I can’t keep it up. Just something small. A couple of cows to sell, some chickens. Maybe a pig or two.”
Jake leans back on his hands. “Land’s getting expensive out here, price of cattle is falling.”
“I know. But I already got the land. A small piece. Plus, I was thinking about maybe doing, you know, a dude ranch. Opening it up for a couple of weeks.”
“Yeah? Like for people who want to visit a working ranch?”
I nod. He’s not laughing or looking disgusted yet. That’s good. Lot of cowboys hate the idea of playing babysitter for a bunch of tourists who don’t know enough to stay away from the hind end of a horse. “Mostly for kids. You know, disadvantaged city kids, suburban kids who don’t get to the country a lot.”
His smile is just gorgeous. Smile lines around his blue eyes from years in the sun and I can’t help but notice the freckles across the bridge of his nose. He shifts and his thigh presses against mine and I have to look away. “I know. It won’t make any money. Stupid idea, probably.”
“I think it’s great. I can see you with all those kids running around. You got the Wild Bunch here eating out of your hand.” He turns towards me, shifting one leg up on the tailgate. “So, do you have any of your own?”
“Yeah. Is there a Mrs. Cowboss?”
His voice is level. I can’t get a read on what he’s really asking. I’m sure it’s just an innocent question, but still, my heart gives a little lurch. That’s bad. Nothing good can come from that.
I don’t know why I’m equivocating. It’s not like my sexuality is a secret on the ranch. I look him right in the eye. “No ex, current, or future missus cowboss. That’s not really my scene. You know?”
Jake’s exhale is almost a laugh. “Yeah,” he says, mouth crooked up in a half smile. “I know.”
The once-over he gives me this time has none of the subtlety of the other times I thought I’d caught him checking me out. This look is slow and approving. It makes me want to lean in, take a step closer. Maybe two. But I don’t. I slide off the tailgate, the stab of pain in my hip a reminder of what happened the last time I let myself fall for some good-looking fast-talking cowboy ten years (or more) too young for me.
“So,” I say, walking away. I have to walk away before I do something stupid. “It’s Friday night. Payday, too. You going into town? Meet your friends?”
“What friends?” He jumps down off the tailgate, follows me as I walk down the track to the cattle guard crossing the dirt road.
“I don’t know, from school? Didn’t you just graduate?”
The sun sinks lower and a cold breeze blows in from the West. Jake unwraps the flannel shirt from his waist and shrugs into it. “I graduate in May. And I’m a good seven years older and world apart from my classmates. My wild days are behind me. Not that they were ever particularly wild.” He stands next to me, shoulder to shoulder, both of us staring across the field, watching the last rays of the sun turn the clouds deep red.
He shoves his hands deep into the front pockets of his jeans. “Who’s Danny?” He asks like he already knows.
“Ex,” I answer.
He doesn’t push, for which I am more grateful than I can say. He never pushes for information. He’s as kind and patient with me as he is with the kids, with the bees. Doesn’t ask about the limp, about the scars, though he hasn’t seen the worst of it. And he never will.
He faces me and I’m struck again by how blue his eyes are, how dark his lashes are in comparison to his straw colored hair. “What are you doing tonight?”
I kick a few stray bits of wire between the metal bars of the cattle guard. “Same thing I do every night, Pinky.”
“Try to take over the world?”
“Something like that. Watch a little television. Maybe some House of Cards. Heat up some leftovers. The usual. Throw in the laundry.”
He almost sounds like he means it, but he doesn’t say anything else. He jerks his chin back towards the truck. “C’mon. I’ll give you a ride back down.
When we reach the truck, I slide into the passenger’s seat, but he stops before he gets in, on foot up on the frame, arms on the roof of the cab. He ducks his head to look at me through the opening.
“Jake? Everything okay?”
“Yeah. Do you, ah, do you want to get something to eat?”
It could just be a simple question. Two guys getting some food on a Friday night. Maybe a few beers. Listen to some of the live music that permeates the town. But I know it’s not just about the food. It would be a date.
I think about it. About what getting something to eat could lead to. My whole pelvis aches something fierce tonight. All that’s waiting for at home is Netflix and some leftover pot pie. Jake looks so young. He needs to be with someone his own age. Someone who can hike and ride long days over the mountains. Someone educated, not a guy who barely made Cs in high school. Besides, Jake’s not going to stick around anymore than any of them did. These kids come in, interns, short term summer hands, and they leave when the snow comes. Out for greener pastures.
The cold wind carries hints of winter and I imagine it freezing the pins and metal in my fake hip. I can almost feel the years rolling away in front of me. Each one exactly like the last but lonelier, working the Bar H, living in the three-room cabin by the river. Even Cassie and Pollux will move out, go away to college. And I’ll here until they force me out, collecting magazine articles and bookmarking website for the farm I’ll never own.
Jake doesn’t deserve that. He deserves so much more.
“No,” Ethan says. “I don’t think I do.”
Jake nods. “Okay then,” he says just like that and slides behind the wheel.
It’s a quiet drive back to the cabin I call home. I watch his taillights until they disappear around a curve and curse myself for an idiot.