Promises to Keep

by Grasshopper

Chapter 9

Grasshopper

Don't you love it when someone asks you, "Are you sure?" I always want to say........ well, actually, I kind of have said, "No, wait, let me go ask my other self." Do I want any more coffee? Am I sure? Do I like that music? Am I sure? Did you do a good enough job? Am I sure? The being sure part is hard enough, but being double sure...now that takes time. The harder questions.....Do you want me to leave? Are you sure? Yes. No. I'm not sure. Do you love me anymore? Yes. No. I'm not sure. Am I doing the right thing? Yes. No. I'm not sure. Why are there easy ones and hard ones? Why can't we always be sure?

Bran

Life with Trip in it. Life without Trip in it. That was how Bran accounted for his days at first. He knew he had been the one to stop it. He knew why and he hadn't changed....regretted it? Hell, yes.

He pictured Trip, new friends, new life style, his easy laugh and his sparkling eyes. He shut down his mind when it got to Trip and guys. He wished him well and shut it off. You can love what you don't have.

The days turned into weeks and the weeks bled into three years, Bran slowly turning colder inside. He still took Becky dancing and he now drove Callie to Kindergarten every morning. They had looked at the house over on Canyon Road but decided they just couldn't afford it. Neither one much cared.

They didn't talk much, argued way too much and never touched anymore. The day on the bluffs had become like a hiding place for Bran. He went there when the frustration got to be too much. He refused to take his feelings out on Becky, so he would sit by the window and stare out at the mountains in the distance and on beautiful summer days, he'd ride up there to sit on that boulder and remember what it felt like to be with Trip.

The best though, the times he loved were when the snow was deep and the sky dark. He'd saddle Kick and they'd ride to the bluffs. Those were the times he'd let the tears fall, knowing the snow would wash them away.

He never heard from Trip, he never expected to and he never did. He wondered if Trip ever thought of him, that damn fool guy he used to know who paid the price for his promises.

He never really noticed Becky fading away from him. He figured she was content. He had married her for the baby. Had loved her, in his way and accepted that this was the way his life would go.

"Bran," she said, one cold March evening.

"Mmm?"

"I'm leaving."

He thought she meant to go to the store. "Drive careful."

"No, I'm leaving." She came in and sat down on the foot stool by his chair.

"I'm leaving you."

"What?" he said, confused.

"I'm taking Callie and going to Mom and Dad's."

He sat, staring at her. "Why? What did I do? Why?"

Becky sighed. She had been working up the courage to say this for so long and now that it was here, the words flew away. "I'm not happy. You're not happy."

"I am," he said, his voice almost angry.

"Bran, Hon" she sighed again. "Let's not go on and on about it. You've been so good to me for these past years because of Callie and because you're a good man, but it's time to stop now. I want more and I hope you do too."

"More what?" he asked.

"More life. We're too young to be so old," she said, almost smiling. "We're twenty-three years old and there's nothing happening in our lives."

"Is there someone else?"

"No," she answered, "But I hope there will be. I want more than this. I've never known why, but I've never had enough of you to count. I always thought it was because you married me for Callie's sake, but it's something more than that. You're lonely. You have a wife and a little girl, a house and a good job, but you're lonely. It shows in your eyes."

Bran felt so odd. He felt angry. This is what he had wanted, so why feel angry? Why did he want to scream?

He let her have the house. No need in Callie being uprooted. In the end, he decided to leave. He was free. Free to be alone by himself now. No more wife and child to be lonely around. He was free. He had kept his promises, but now the miles ahead of him seemed endless.

Trip

Jasper and I had arrived in Seattle on a Saturday evening, checked into a Motel6 and driven around to get a feel for the city. It was all so new, so big. So many people and so much noise. It was scary and exciting at the same time.

I had this ache in my chest that never quite settled down, but I just rubbed it with the back of my hand and knew that part of my life was over. I hoped he'd be happy. I knew he wouldn't.

Classes started. I made friends. I got involved with the LGBT studies and met some of the finest people I'd ever known, out and proud of who they were. It was like Dorothy except that I felt like I'd actually gone over the rainbow.

I learned a lot. Got hurt a few times, Found what I liked and didn't like. Became strong. I learned who I was and actually went to regular classes at the same time, drank a lot of beer and laughed. It was great being the kid I had almost missed being.

I had one long term relationship....with Sam.....for seven weeks. It was beautiful in the beginning, fun in the middle and cold at the end. He told me that until I settled my old debts, I was never gonna find what I wanted. He was a city guy; I wanted to breathe the cold crisp air of the country. Good ole Sam. Nothing else to say about that.

I was majoring in Forestry Resources. It was as close to the mountains as I could get. We studied ways to sustain the wilderness and manage habitats that were being encroached on by civilization.

I thought about Kick, hoped he was doing good. I tried not to think about Bran and the bluffs. The ache in my chest would hurt and I'd rub it with the back of my hand, like I had touched his face. I wondered how he was doing; how he was managing.

I'd talked about him in LGBT study group once. We were discussing first loves and first feelings. I just said that we hadn't done much physically; that he was married and had to do the right thing. My professor shook his head sadly, "Being married and giving nothing and wanting someone else is not the right thing." But, I knew Bran and I knew, we both knew, that for us, it was.

I never heard about anyone in Wyoming anymore. Grandma had Alzheimer's now and Mom had to have help with her. Her letters were always cheery, but I knew she missed the ranch.

Kit had graduated and was nursing at a big hospital in Cheyenne. She had a boyfriend, an accountant, who treated her good and wanted to marry her. I'd head that way for the wedding, but just to fly in and fly out. I didn't trust myself to drive anywhere near the old ranch, the bluffs or Brandon.

One day, two years into school, middle of winter, walking to class, wet slushy snow up to Jasper's belly, I realized I'd learned all I was gonna learn and I couldn't breathe here anymore. I knew who I was, I knew I needed to breathe mountain air and it was time to go.

A week later, I drove to Salt Lake. I got there just in time for Grandma's last days. Pneumonia takes you when you're old and you forget to stay warm. Mom and I talked late into the night. I told her about me. She cried and then she hugged me. "I don't care," she said. "But this sure isn't the place for you or for me."

I told her I'd be back for her when I could offer her the air she wanted and the space she needed and headed off east. Not to Wyoming.......but east.

I drove into Darby, Montana late one night, middle of the Bitterroot Valley, small town, looking for a job. I saw a sign stuck up on the wall outside the drive-through at McDonalds.

Needed: a ranch hand to help with a people drive. Experience Please!!

Okay, that made no sense, but what in life much ever does? I followed the map and it led me down a beautiful dirt road to a log cabin with smoke puffing out of the chimney. The sign: 'Johnson's Wilderness Tours' was nailed onto the fencepost and I could see a barn with several horse stalls next to the cabin.

Knocking on the door, I found myself looking into the oldest face I'd ever seen. If I was a little kid, I'd have yelled, 'Santa', but well, he looked a little worse for the whiskey, so I'm thinking not. Bits of food stuck in his yellowish beard, he scowled at me. "What?"

"I'm answering your ad....I think."

"Oh, yeah, okay, c'mon in."

The cabin could have been beautiful, but was cluttered with saddles and horse blankets and fishing rods and tent poles and everything else you can think of.

"I need someone to take over for me on my wilderness tours. My back can't sit in the saddle no more."

I figured he meant hunters. "I'm not much of a hunter."

"Me neither," he grinned. "I only allow camera shooting."

Well, excellent cool. My kinda guy.

The deal was struck and I had a job. The place was mess, but I knew someone who could fix that and love doing it.

"Mom, you're not gonna believe this, but......"


I take tourists back into the Bitterroot. I own the tour service now since old Mr. Johnson died. He just lay down on the sofa one day and said he'd had enough, that he was ready to go see Joseph. I asked who Joseph was and he said, proud as anything, "Joseph was my friend; my special friend for over 40 years. He died before you came here."

"And no one cared that he was your special friend?" I asked.

"Nah, we'd get teased sometimes or people might look at us cross-eyed, but mostly we just lived our lives and now it's time for me to go find him."

It's been almost five years since I touched Brandon's face for the last time, but I did all I could. He needed to find me and he couldn't for all his promises.

I changed the name of the little tour service to The Bluffs Wilderness Camera Tours and placed an ad on a web site and in travel magazines. We do pretty good, mom and me.


Bran

He left that little house and that little town. If he was ever going to be happy, ever find any joy, ever face those hard truths Trip had talked about, it wouldn't be there. He sat Becky down one day before he left and told her why. Why he could never love her the way she wanted. Why he always seemed to be far away. Why he had to leave now. He didn't mention Trip. No need.

Becky didn't take it well. Bran knew she wouldn't. It was engrained in her to 'hate' anything she didn't understand. Her tear-filled words "What will Mama and Daddy say?" "What will I tell Callie?" "What will people think?" "Oh, Brandon, how could you do this to me?" finally turned into "You'll never see Callie again" and "I hate you, Brandon, hate you for ruining my life."

Bran could have left it alone and just gone without telling her, but he knew that, one day, down the road, he'd be sorry if he did.

He kissed Callie goodbye, promising to bring her a treat and drove away. It wasn't the hardest thing he'd ever done, but it was near close to it. He couldn't leave Kick, so he brought him along in an old horse trailer he bought that had a gooseneck with a small bed in it. He just drove and at the end of the day, he stopped.

The third night out, somewhere around Pierre, South Dakota, he had the dream. He hadn't had it in years. It had stopped when Trip left as if to say, you're all done, your chance is gone.

The ladder was there, but the crow perched on the top rung cawing, "Wanna fly? Wanna fly?"

"Yes," Bran called.

And there was Jasper, barking........barking at something on the ground. Bran bent over to pick it up and saw the key. It was covered with mold but when he picked it up, it began to shine.

"Brandon?"

"Yes?" He looked around, but the woods were dark and deep.

"All those promises.....all those years."

"I know."

He saw Callie dancing over under a yellow tent. When he got close enough, he could hear her talking in a singsong voice to a big fat brown bear. "Tell my daddy what do to."

The bear laughed, "Poetry and Hums aren't things which you get, they're things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you."

"I don't know where to go," Bran cried.

"Count, Brandon, count to three. One....Two....Three."

"It's the right thing to do...the right thing to do!" the crow cawed. "Use the key. Use the key!"


Bran got a job in Pierre at a Tractor Supply. He began to make new friends and began to open himself up to life.

The flyer was crammed in his post office box along with bills and a card from Callie marked "Return to Sender". Bran added it to the others he had gotten back.

Sitting down in his tiny apartment with a cold beer, he leafed through the pages, not too interested in leaf blowers or cruises to the Bahamas, but then his eyes found a smallish ad on the second to the last page:

The Bluffs Wilderness Camera Tours
Meet nature head-on.....Feel the way life used to be.
Owners: Randall and Sarah Tripley
Darby, Montana

There was a photograph of a path leading into deep dark woods and a gray dog.

Bran sat extremely still, his fingers frozen to the page. Life doesn't do this. Life doesn't hand you another chance. With shaky hands, he punched in the number listed in the ad.

"Bluffs Wilderness Camera Tours. What can I do for you?"

The voice pulled him back in time, back to the bluffs, back to all the years wasted. He couldn't speak. He heard the click at the other end of the phone line and sat, holding the receiver as the sky turned dark and his heart hurt in his chest.


"Wrong number, I guess," I answered Mom. I'd had the weirdest feeling when that phone rang. Oh well.

"You going out tonight?" Mom called from the kitchen.

"Nah, I'd rather watch American Idol with you, my darlin'," I answered back.

Mom came out of the kitchen, apron covered with whatever she was cooking. "Trip, you need to get out there and find someone. You shouldn't be sitting around here every night with your old mother."

She knew how it was with me. I'd told her that it would take a very special person to make me take a chance on what we had built. I wasn't going to ruin this because I was horny. It was almost funny that over the last couple of years, making this life for us and building what we had, I had begun to understand Brandon better. I had always just accepted my responsibility of the ranch and my family, but this was different; this was something that I had built. I remember thinking, years ago, that I would never just stand up and say 'I'm gay' just to hear myself talk. I had to have a person reason to take that chance. So far, Brandon is the only people reason I've ever felt in my heart.

Jasper circled round and round to finally curl up on his bed by the fire and I flipped on the TV to see what was playing. It was okay. I was okay. Like I'd told Bran all those years ago, I'm still okay.


Bran

Bran mulled it over, muttered to himself for days. 'He's prolly with someone perfect. Why would he want some ghost from his past to show up at his door? I could just stop by to say 'Hey'. He remembered all the times all they could think to say was 'Hey' and 'See ya'. It would prolly help him get on with his life if he just went and said 'Hey' once last time. Saw Trip and then let it go.

He hitched up the trailer, loaded Kick. "I'm taking you to Trip," he said, as he coaxed the dancing horse into the trailer. "I'll take you home and then I'll go, really quick like." He almost wished he could just tie Kick to a fencepost near the house and drive away.

He went back inside the apartment to get his overnight stuff and looked at himself in the mirror. Twenty-four years old. Why did it feel like he'd lived three lifetimes already? Where had Trip been? Who was he with? Questions on top of questions.

Stopping by the store, he pleaded family emergency and said he'd be back in three days. Pulling out onto the highway, he drove southwest til he hit I90 at Wall, and then headed for Montana. Up through Billings and Bozeman, finally dropping off the world to travel small one lane roads, heading into the Bitterroot. He was tired, eating fast food and not stopping to sleep. 'Get it done', Trip used to say. Bran was just gonna get it done.

He pulled into the tiny town around six in the morning and parked at a diner to eat and get some coffee. He sat in the booth watching the darkness turn to day. Darby was way off the Interstate and there wasn't much traffic at six in the morning except the ranch hands.

Bran looked at himself in the glass of the diner window. He had two days growth of beard and dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep. Trip probably wouldn't even recognize him. What if Trip didn't even remember? What if the years had made Bran out to be a fool in his eyes?

Asking directions to the Bluffs Wilderness Tours outfit, Bran took the last gulp of coffee, checked on Kick and climbed back in the truck. It was ten miles out from town, behind a bright red gate with 'Tripley' carved in a piece of dark wood. There was a big Bluffs Wilderness sign nailed to the eye-level rung of and old wooden ladder leaning against the fencepost. Climbing out of the truck, Bran walked quietly to gate.

The gate was locked.

He'd come so far. He had to go just a little farther. Just down this road. Get it done. Then, without knowing how or why, it all fell into place. He remembered.............He counted three rungs up the ladder, reached around and felt for a nail. There it was. He slipped the key off and held it in his hand. He could hear cawing faintly in his head, "One, two, three.......do what's right."

This was what was finally right. Take Kick to Trip and get it done.

He unlocked the gate and replaced the key, He could smell a wood fire burning and, as he got closer to the cabin, he heard a dog bark. Turning off the engine, he heard Jasper barking that same old bark, almost as if he knew who it was. Off to his left, out in the still dark woods, he heard the barking and then, the loud whistle and, "Jasper. To me." The voice was lower, deeper than he remembered. A man's voice now. Like his.

He turned as he heard Trip walking out of the trees, Jasper sniffing and circling the trailer and him.

Trip stopped in mid-stride.

"I brought Kick back."

"Bran?"

"Hey, Trip."

"Brandon?"


Trip

I heard the truck, heard Jasper barking and felt the oddest déjà vu. It was like I had heard this very same bark, like he knew who it was and was telling me. I let him bark until finally I whistled and I said what I have always said to get him to stay with me: "Jasper. To me."

Walking out of the woods, I stopped, my heart felt like it was gonna jump out of my chest. It was beating sixty to the minute. I'd never seen anyone so beautiful in my life, scraggly whiskers, blueish circles under terrified eyes and all.

He didn't even say 'Hey', just ....... "I brought Kick back."

"Brandon?"

He smiled then, and it was a smile I'd never seen before. It was free. It was the smile of a man who'd come to terms with himself.

I just stared at him, trying to get him to say words, any words, so he'd stay. It had always been me, pulling and tugging, and him, always resisting, always arguing with himself.

"I kept him for you like you asked." Bran walked around to the back doors and opened them wide. Kick backed out and Jasper welcomed him home.

My mom came out the front door and said, with a big smile, "Well, Brandon Kelcher, it's so good to see you, son. You'll stay for breakfast?"

"Thank you Ma'am," he said softly, "But I just came to return Kick."

I couldn't tell what he was thinking. Tell me, Bran. Talk.

"I've got a long trip back," he said softly.

"You can stay the day, can't you? Buffalo's not that far."

"I don't live there anymore," he answered. "I moved to Pierre."

"With Becky? Callie?"

"No."

I could see a nerve jerking at the corner of his mouth. Say it, Bran.

Then, I realized something. It doesn't matter who says it, as long as it gets said. He's fought all his life for the right words. He's had so many promises to keep. He's an honorable man.

He put his hand on the truck door, his back to me, the set of his shoulders saying more than any words could ever say.

I put two fingers in my mouth and whistled. I spoke clearly from my heart, "Brandon. To me."

He turned, and when I held out my arms, he did. He came to me. Maybe now, we can get it done.

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