Kaiser's Rodeo

by Bensiamin

Chapter 13

Kaiser stared. The bull stared back. Two thoughts shot through Michael's mind, 'what if the bull hurts Kaiser?'… followed by 'he's acting like a herding dog.'

Suddenly Kaiser barked and then took a step forward. The bull backed up a step. Nate realized that Kaiser had figured the bull out. The golden retriever barked again and took another step forward. The bull hesitated, then took another step backwards. Nate and Michael had reached Tracy, picked her up and stepped inside the pen with her and swung the gate closed. They were safe.

Kaiser barked again and took another step forward. This time the bull backed up, then threw its head in the air, turned on its haunches, snorted, and trotted into the middle of the arena and then back down the line of gates. Michael could see that there were two cowboys on horseback at the other end of the arena, clearly waiting for the confrontation to end. As the bull moved parallel to the gate line, one moved to block him in front of the chute, and the other moved alongside, but at a distance, to herd him along. In another ten seconds the bull turned into the chute and one of the cowboys swung the gate closed.

When they saw the chute gate close behind the bull, Michael opened the gate to the pen they had retreated behind and stepped out holding Tracy's hand. Nate went straight to Kaiser, dropped onto his knees and pulled the dog into a tight embrace. Kaiser licked his face as if to say, 'What's the big deal? It's all over! Thanks for the help!"

He glanced at Michael who had a hold of Tracy's hand, and her eyes were locked onto Kaiser. "Dog," she said. "Can I pat the dog?"

Michael followed her tug as she purposefully walked toward Kaiser, and he saw the arena beginning to fill with people all running toward them.

Kaiser was sitting with Nate's arm around his shoulder, his tail wagging in the dirt of the arena. Tracy walked straight up to him and put her arms around his neck. Nate softly said, "Tracy, this is Kaiser. He's your friend."

That was when JC arrived. Panic was written all over his face as he ran up.

"It's alright, sir. She's fine. She didn't get hurt. I don't even think she was scared. She mainly seemed curious."

"Oh my god!" was all he heard as JC dropped to his knees and pulled Tracy into a tight hug. "I told you to stay right behind me, honey."

Tracy had difficulty starting her reply, but finally said, "I…I…I know, Daddy, but I saw something I wanted to see it closer."

"But you're safe now, that's all that matters."

"Daddy, this is Kaiser. He's a nice dog."

By then Jerrod and Roger, with Jackson and David behind them, had arrived as had a dozen rodeo people.

Michael and Nate's work supervisor was among them and loudly said, "Alright everyone, stand back. Let me through. We need to know what happened and if everyone is okay."

Michael looked at him and said, "We're fine, and more importantly, so is Tracy."

"Was anyone else involved? Anyone else at risk?"

"No, sir," Nate said. "Tracy was down here at the end of the gates, the bull got in somehow and headed down this way. They were kind of looking at each other when Michael and I got here with Kaiser, and then Kaiser got the bull to back up and we got Tracy into one of the pens. That was it."

Their supervisor turned to JC. "Is that the way you saw it, too? She's your daughter, and I certainly apologize for what happened. I don't know how a bull could have gotten into that chute. But what matters is your daughter. Is she alright?"

JC had clearly recovered and was obviously a man who could think on his feet. "It seems that it happened just like these boys described, and Tracy is fine thanks to them and their fine dog."

"Actually, sir, he's not our dog. He belongs to our friends Jerrod and Roger who are here today for the rodeo. They came early so we could show them how it all works, and they brought Kaiser with them."

"Thank God for that," JC said. "I need to properly thank you for what you did and meet these friends of yours. Why don't you all come up into the announcer's stand and introduce everyone."

They all followed JC and Tracy into the announcer's stand, which they found was larger than it looked and had a table with chairs and a small couch. Michael introduced himself and Nate, then Jerrod and Roger and finally Jackson and David. "And this is Kaiser. He's a therapy dog and Jerrod and Roger are his handlers. They were my therapy team at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland when I had cancer and they were Nate's therapy team when he had hip surgery for Perthes disease."

They spent the better part of half an hour answering JC's questions, about the boys, their medical conditions, their friends Jerrod and Roger and how they all related to David and Jackson, They also learned that JC was a professional rodeo announcer from Oklahoma who did many of the professional rodeos and just happened to bring his daughter with him for the sound check because his wife had a cold and wanted to take a nap in their motel room.

Jerrod finally got JC's attention and said he had a question.

"Fire away," replied JC.

"Tracy has cerebral palsy, doesn't she?"

"Yes, how do you know that?"

"Because we have a real good friend back in Portland who has it. Sean is one of Kaiser's best friends. When we first got Kaiser, we were in a park taking a walk and Sean and his mom came in and they looked at each other… meaning Sean and Kaiser looked at each other, and that was it. They just ran for each other and have been best buds ever since."

"You don't mean to tell me you think Kaiser knew Tracy has CP, and that he did what he did because of that?"

"I have no idea about that. Roger?"

"I don't know either. All I know is that Kaiser knows who he likes, and he's a therapy dog and he knows what to do to help people. And he did what he needed to just now."

"He certainly did that. And so did your two friends here." He turned to Michael and Nate and added, "I am eternally in your debt, boys. What you did was incredibly brave. You didn't have to run down to that bull… you could have just stood and watched. I dread to think what could have happened this afternoon, but it didn't because you knew what to do… meaning you two and Kaiser, and you all did it together."

When they'd left JC and Tracy, Michael and Nate's supervisor was waiting with the rodeo manager who thanked them profusely for intervening the way they did.

"Hey, we just did out job. It was Kaiser that made the difference."

"Well, it looked like a team effort to us, and we thank you for it. There'll be a bonus in your pay envelopes when you come to pick them up on Tuesday."

Jackson sensed the need for a change of pace and said, "Let's all go somewhere and chill out and kind of recover. What'a ya say?"

They headed to the outdoor concession area, ordered drinks and settled down at a picnic table. Nate looked across the table at his friends and said, "Jerrod… Roger, I'm sorry. I didn't even think when I followed Michael into the arena. I had Kaiser's leash and I don't know if I pulled him along or he just came with me, but… I'm sorry. He's your dog, not mine. I didn't even ask you guys."

"Nate, chill out about that. What happened came out for the best. If you'd shut the gate and left him, he probably would have gone nuts."

"Yeah," Roger added, "don't forget he connected with Tracy. That was something special. You did the right thing, and it came out all for the best."

Nate smiled his appreciation, but before he could say anything he heard a booming voice from over his shoulder.

"Are you two the heroes of the day we've been hearing so much about?"

They all looked up and Michael and Nate simultaneously cried out, "Chase! You're here."

"You bet your bootie I'm here. I told you I'd be here, didn't I?" He laughed out loud.

Michael introduced the Portland contingent, including Kaiser, and Chase introduced his boyfriend. "He don't ride rodeo, but he's a physical therapist, and I can tell you that I wouldn't still be riding if it wasn't for him. So, why don't you boys tell me what happened this afternoon. It sounds pretty wild."

Chase and his boyfriend sat down with them all, and were told about the events with Tracy and the bull, and then the conversation turned to the Gay Rodeo Association. "I was telling these guys about it last night. What you told us last weekend about the work you do."

"Well, thank you for that. You were telling me that your friends," and here he nodded at Jerrod and Roger as well as David and Jackson," work with LGB kids about identity and also work with GSA alliances, so it sounds to me like we're all doing the Lord's work, as it were." He smiled wryly as he looked from face to face.

They talked for ten minutes about the work both were doing in their respective parts of the gay community. Then Chase stood up and said, "We've got to get going. This show's going to be getting under way here shortly, and you all will want to be getting to your seats. It's terrific to see you boys again, and a pleasure to meet you Portland gay activists. Here's my card. Let's try and stay in touch, alright? And guaranteed if any of you are ever in Boise you give us a call. You've always got a friend in that town and a place to stay."

They were in their seats when the rodeo began, and they recognized JC's voice as he welcomed the audience to the opening of the 1999 Pendleton Round Up. He gave a great welcome, then announced the opening parade as local dignitaries, competitors, sponsors and even members of local Native American tribes marched around the arena. When the opening was over, and the arena emptied, the audience anticipation about the beginning of the rodeo built.

JC came back on the PA system and said, "Before we begin this year's amazing Pendleton Round Up, I have an announcement to make. I travel all over the country on the professional rodeo circuit announcing like I am right now. Talking to fine people like you and calling the rodeo events as they happen. This is my eighteenth year being here with you folks at one of the oldest and best rodeos going."

That statement was met with huge applause. When it died down, JC's voice came back over the PA system. "One of the things that amazes and impresses me are the people I meet, and specifically the people who will go out of their way to do good deeds, and even more impressively, the heroes who do amazing things to help others and then say things like 'I was just doing my job.' Those are the kind of people that make this a great country and the kind of people that make rodeo a great institution. Something happened here this afternoon that I want to tell you about."

The audience grew quiet, and JC then went into a short summary of what had happened in the arena, and the crowd's gasp was audible when he described the situation with his daughter and the loose bull. "But then, out of nowhere, three heroes appeared. Two are high school students who worked here in the rodeo grounds this summer, and the third was a dog. What you need to know is that both of these boys are survivors. They met when they were patients at Doernbecher's Children's Hospital in Portland, and the dog, Kaiser, was their therapy dog. The boys were just here this afternoon working and then showing their friends around the rodeo before this evening's event… and their friends includes their therapy team and that included the dog. That's when the bull got loose and there was this kind of standoff between this little girl and this huge bull. And that's when they did what heroes do. They jumped into action without a thought for themselves. Because of that, no one was hurt… not even the loose bull!"

After a round of laughter and applause, JC went on, "So, folks, here's the deal. We want to take a few minutes of your time this evening to point out to you what happened, and to call attention to these heroes. It's not just them. These kind of people are everywhere. But this afternoon it was these three. So, we're going to ask them to come down here for a little recognition. Do you all agree with that approach?"

The audience responded with a huge cheer and applause.

JC asked Michael and Nate and Kaiser to come down to the arena, where he and the rodeo manager met them.

JC was back on the PA system. "You all know that one of the things about the Pendleton Round Up is that each year we have a commemorative silver rodeo belt buckle. They retail for $250, and this evening in appreciation for what they did this afternoon, we're presenting a rodeo buckle to each of these local heroes."

After they were handed their belt buckles, the rodeo manager looked at Michael and Nate and asked if they wanted to say a few words. Nate shook his head, looked at Michael, and said quietly, "You do it."

Michael took the mic and looked around at all the people and then said, "First, I want to say thanks for all three of us. We appreciate being called heroes, but seriously, we just did what needed to be done. I grew up here on a cattle ranch, so you might say I knew something about what to do… but honestly, I didn't know squat about what to do in front of a huge bull. What I want you to know is that Nate and Kaiser didn't grow up here. They're both from Portland. You know, city slickers, right? But guess what? They didn't hesitate either. They both did what needed to be done. And, truth be told, looking back now on what we did, it wasn't that big a deal. Nate and I got Tracy out of the arena. It was Kaiser who was the hero. He's the one that backed the bull down, not us."

He paused, then added, "So, folks, it just goes to show you that you can't judge a book by its cover, and everyone needs to be given the opportunity to do what they can do. We're going to appreciate wearing these belt buckles, and I can guarantee that Kaiser will be the only therapy dog in the world wearing a Pendleton Round Up belt buckle on his therapy dog vest. Thank you."

It had been kind of late when they all got home, and grandpa was still up at Michael's parent's house. They ended up having to retell the whole story for them, and they were wide eyed at parts of it. They were particularly impressed with the Round Up belt buckles that the boys were now sporting! Roger walked down to the guest room and came back with Kaiser's therapy vest, and they spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to affix the belt buckle to it. Michael's mom finally said she had the solution, and would sew a patch onto the vest the next day, that the buckle could attach to.

Eventually the day's activities caught up with them all, as evidence by the yawns, and they bid one another good night. They'd agreed that the next day would be a driving tour for David and Jackson of some of the major sites, but that they'd stay on the ranch on Monday, the Labor Day holiday, and just relax.

Roger and Jerrod walked down to Michael and Nate's room with Kaiser and Chloe following along. They all piled on the bed, and Jerrod said, "After listening to you guys tell the folks about what happened, I'm amazed all over again. This is going to be some story to tell at Doernbecher, you know, about how patients saved the day at the Pendleton Round Up."

Michael rolled his eyes. "Jerrod, don't get too carried away, and don't go spreading rumors we'll have to live down." He chuckled, then continued, "Seriously, it was only us 'cause we were closest and knew something about rodeo 'cause we work there. If something like this had happened in a boat yard with sail boats Nate and I would have been clueless, but you two would have been on it automatically, just like we were. Like I said, we just did what needed to be done."

"Okay, okay. I hear you. But we're your therapy team, so we get to boast about you. You were our patients and then became our friends, and now you're our heroes. I mean that in a special way, right, Roger?" He looked at his boyfriend.

"For sure. There's all kinds of heroes, I guess. I think what Jerrod's saying is that we've only know you, Michael, for less than a year. We've known Nate for less than that. When we met you both you were recovering from pretty major stuff. You were weak and coming back… even though you both had spark, and we for sure saw that. But here you are now, running down a fucking bull and being part of the team than stares it down. You're the heroes, in my book."

"Thanks, man. That's probably the nicest thing anyone's ever said about me," Michael replied. He hugged Nate and looked at Jerrod and Roger and added, "Not bad for a couple of gay boys, right? Well… a gay boy and his bi boyfriend!"

"Ain't that the truth," Jerrod replied. "What you said after they gave you the mic was way cool, too. You didn't get into the gay stuff, but you made a really strong statement about accepting people and not judging them. The comment about Nate and Kaiser being city slickers from Portland but doing the job was killer!"

Michael just smiled, hugging Nate closer to him. They all found themselves yawning and Jerrod and Roger rousted the dogs and headed down to their room. After a minute of simply being in each other's arms, Michael whispered to Nate, "You know, you're my hero, too. You didn't even think 'what happens to me or my hip if that bull goes after me?' – you just responded and went for it. Pretty much a great John Wayne move in my book."

"Was he bi?"


"John Wayne. Was he bi?"

"No, numb nuts, you know he wasn't. I was just giving you a compliment."

"I know, and I love it. Thanks. Here's my big question."

"What's that?"

"Do I have to brush my teeth and stuff or can I just go to sleep right here. Laying here in your arms is pretty warm and comfortable."

The plan was to get organized after the cattle got watered and fed in the morning and then head out. They would all be in Jackson's Durango, and it would be a tight fit. But Jackson was upbeat because it had a third seat below the rear deck, they would be able to use that and put half of the middle seat back down to make space for the dogs.

They didn't leave on schedule because Stew called totally wigged out about what he'd heard had happened at the rodeo the night before. Michael and Nate alternated updating him about how it went down, and Stew was amazed and impressed. "They gave you belt buckles, too? That's totally cool. You guys really filled those Wranglers like a couple of cowboys last night!"

They told him they had to go 'cause they were doing a day drive with the Portland contingent. "Wait, you've got to meet them… I mean, you gave us the comp tickets. We're having a cookout early afternoon tomorrow. Can you and Todd come?"

Stew said he could, and he'd check with Todd, and Michael told him to hold on while he cleared it with his mom. He was back in a minute. "All cool. She thinks you should meet them because of the tickets, and also that it will probably be your last chance to see Nate before he goes home on Tuesday."

That settled, they all headed out, driving north towards Washington and the Columbia River. The worry about crowded space for the dogs turned out not to be a problem because Chloe ended up spending most of the trip laying in someone's lap.

They knew they only had one day for this drive and Michael wanted them to see the highlights of northeastern Oregon, so they drove first to Sacajawea State Park where he'd taken Jerrod and Roger. Both the Snake and Columbia rivers were lower than they had been in the spring, but the confluence was still impressive.

Michael told them what he knew about the Lewis and Clark expedition getting out of the Bitterroot Mountains and arriving at this place just about this same time of year, and then being able to use the fast flow of the Columbia to reach the Pacific Ocean before winter set in.

From there they drove east to Walla Walla where they had lunch, and then headed southeast to the town of Joseph in the Wallowa Mountains. They were all awed by the striking nature of what were frequently referred to as Oregon's alps, and even more impressed with Wallowa Lake, a high-altitude ribbon lake. They stopped at Wallowa Lake State Park at the south end and took the dogs for a walk along the lake shore, marveling at the beauty of the lake and the surrounding mountains. They then circled the lake back to Joseph, then north to Enterprise, and onto the highway that would take them to La Grande and back to Pendleton.

It turned out that Michael hadn't been to Wallowa Lake before, and they all talked about the beauty and the fact that in a single state they could cross the Cascades from beach to alpine mountains, and also visit rain forest and desert.

Jackson smiled at David and then looked at the boys and dogs in the rearview mirror. "I'm getting an idea for next summer."

It got quiet, and he went on, "Did you see the couple of lodges we went by, and that one had cabins and chalets? Why don't we make a pact right now that we'll come back next summer, the eight of us. We'll rent a couple of those cabins and spend a few days and really see this place? It's so beautiful that it's something I want to do, and I can't think of a better bunch to do it with. What'a ya think?"

He got a rousing cheer of agreement, and they talked about the best time of the summer, and that led to who'd be doing what summer jobs and Michael finishing high school and Jerrod and Roger spending their first summer after a year of college. David turned to Michael and asked what his college plans were. He told them all about wanting to go to vet school, and that was at Oregon State in Corvallis, but that he'd already told Nate he was thinking about the first year at Portland State University, so he'd be in Portland with Nate.

"I've got to talk to mom but maybe he could like live with us," Nate added, "like Jerrod and Roger do with you guys, and ride to college with Matt. Wouldn't that be cool?"

Everyone agreed it would be, and they recommitted to make the vacation in the Wallowa's happen. It was late when they got back to the ranch, but Michael's mom had planned ahead and had a casserole in the oven for them.

The discussion continued over dinner, and then turned to plans for the next day. The weather was still pretty warm, so the agreement was swimming in the reservoir after watering and feeding the cattle, then the family cookout in the early afternoon. The day was catching up with everyone and the boys took their leave, and shortly after David and Jackson walked down to grandpa's house. To their surprise he was still up, reading in his armchair.

"Evening, gents," he said as they walked in. "Long day on the road by the looks of it."

"It was that," David replied, "but we saw some beautiful country. I had no idea the Wallowa Mountains were so beautiful… or that something like that existed in Oregon."

"They're pretty astonishing, I'll admit," grandpa replied. "When I was younger, we'd go elk hunting up there." He nodded at the kitchen and added, "There's another bottle of white wine in the refrigerator if you care to partake."

David grinned at him and stepped into the kitchen.

"We loved Wallowa Lake, too," Jackson added. "In fact, we all agreed that we're going to rent a couple of cabins on the lake next summer for a vacation together. It looks like there's all kinds of things to do from hiking to water sports to just hanging out together."

"It'd be pretty great all around if all of you had that opportunity. I'm glad you had a good day. No unplanned surprises like yesterday?" He chuckled.

"No, it was a pretty mellow day," David said as he handed Jackson a glass and sat down. "Yesterday's surprise was enough for the whole weekend!"

"Can I ask you gents something?"

David looked at the older man. "Of course, you can ask us anything."

"How do you think those two boys are doing? I mean their relationship and how they're getting along and all that?"

"Wait," Jackson said, "you've been part of their life all summer and you're asking us?"

"Well," he replied with a wry grin on his face, "you two are the experts on gay teenagers… or so I'm told. At least, you're the only experts I know!"

David flashed him a smile and said, "I think it's fair to say we're impressed with the level of commitment and maturity in their relationship that has developed across the summer. After meeting at the hospital and then the beach weekend, coming up here for the summer could have been not much more than a lark for Nate, but it appears to have been much more than that."


"Meaning that they appear as connected and solid as one could expect from boys their age. They're got a few deep underlying connections most couples don't, like their prior health problems, their friendship with Roger and Jerrod…" he paused.

"And the family context of this summer," Jackson continued for him. "Roger told us when they got back to Portland that he'd asked you to be Nate's grandpa and watch out for him. It sure seems like you did."

"Not just me. Michael's parents did more than their share, too, for both boys." He grew quiet, thinking, then said, "It seems to me that their relationship is pretty darn good, all things considered."

"I'd agree," David replied. "with the qualifier part of 'given their ages.' Boys their age change a lot from year to year, and they're not only a year apart in age, but they're going to spend the coming year apart. A lot can happen in that much time."

Jackson interjected, "Has Michael told you he's thinking of doing his first year of college in Portland to be with Nate?"

"Nope, sure hasn't. But something like that would be just like him. When they had their little difficulty, I told Nate that Michael would walk through the flames of hell for him. It's just the way the boy's made."

"Well, we know you're worried about the future… their future. Will it work out, will they stay together… all of that. I'd say they've got as good a chance as any couple I know of."

"I'd agree," Jackson added. "They've spent more time together than most couples their age have the chance to. They had their 'little difficulty,' as you so delicately put it and came through that closer than before. I have to tell you, though, that work, progress in life, even romance happens in a setting… not in isolation. It seems to me that you and Michael's parents did a pretty amazing job of creating the best setting possible for them."

The old man smiled ruefully. "Well, you heard Michael's dad say the other night that he and Michael's mom set out to do that and to watch out for them. You know about my first love and what happened to him. I just promised myself I'd do my damnedest to make sure they had all the chances possible to make it work for them."

"Well, you certainly succeeded there. It looks to us like it'll work out for them. Even if it doesn't though, the important thing for both of them as people is not just how much they've grown and matured this summer, but the degree to which they've discovered who they are as individuals, and how their relationship has prospered because of it. Few boys their age have that opportunity."

"Thanks for sharing those thoughts. I'm old enough and it's past my bedtime, so I'm going to call it a day. All I'll say, though, is that if you pull off that vacation in the Wallowa's next summer, you have to agree right now that it'll start with a couple of days here. You two are like part of the family now, you know. Just like Jerrod and Roger."

Jackson and David gave the older man a smile of appreciation and a huge hug before they all headed to bed.

Labor Day unfolded as expected, and they'd all gotten back from the reservoir and not only cleaned up, but had time to help Michael's mom organize the cookout. The menu included hamburgers and barbecued ribs, potato salad and a couple of salads, which Jackson and David helped prepare.

Stew and Todd arrived and were introduced to the Portland contingent, and David and Jackson thanked them for the tickets. "I bet you didn't plan on it being such an eventful rodeo for our first one," Jackson quipped.

"No way. I almost lost it when my dad told me what happened. I got home after dropping Todd off last night, and when I walked in, he waved me into the living room with a grin on his face, and I knew something was up. Then he says, 'Guess what? Your gay friends from Portland were the heroes at the rodeo tonight!' You can imagine that blew my socks off."

Stew paused, and then hurried on, "Oh, and my parents are cool with me being gay and that Michael and Nate are together." He looked at David. "The GSA sessions you did in the spring helped me a lot, and the one you did for parents really made a difference with them."

"I'm really glad to hear that. It's not that often you get great feedback like that."

"Well, yeah. That's why I had no choice but to give Michael comp tickets for all you guys. What you did made a huge difference with my parents, and opened the door for Nate to be here this summer. And it was Michael and Nate that got Todd and me together."

He glanced at Todd and smiled, and Todd added, "That's for sure. We were kind of stalling around like we were afraid or something, and they challenged us to get with it."

Jackson glanced at Jerrod and Roger, who were sitting on the back porch with Michael and Nate. "Sounds like those two. They got Michael and Nate together, so I guess the good work continues."

"Speaking of which, you two need to go spend some time with them, while Jackson and I help finish up the food preparation."

Michael's dad had the ribs slow-cooking in a smoker, and when grandpa walked in he started putting the burgers on the grill. Shortly they were all gathered around two picnic tables enjoying a Labor Day cookout.

Dessert was a choice of deep-dish plum pie or German chocolate cake, both served with vanilla ice cream. It wasn't long afterwards that Stew said, "We've got to be going before too long, 'cause we've both got family things to go to. But we've got something to do before we go. I've got to run to my car. I'll be right back."

The conversation continued about the food until Stew returned in a couple of minutes. He handed Todd a package and stood looking at Michael and Nate while holding a round box behind his back. Then he said, "Not all of you know, but Todd and I owe these two in more ways than one because they not only asked us to do things with them, like friends do, but they also kind of gave Todd and me a boot in the butt this summer about getting together, and we did… and here we are."

He looked at Nate and said, "We know you're heading back to Portland tomorrow, so we've got something for you because you've become such a good friend."

He stepped forward and handed Nate the round box. "I can still remember how you looked when you came into the western store with Michael when your grandpa said you needed some western clothes to fit in. You looked pretty much like a city slicker, a little timid and out of place. But you filled those boots and those Wranglers pretty well! You did a good job on the cowboy hat as well, and the ivory color suits you really well. The problem is how dirty and sweaty that hat has gotten. It's pretty much brown now, in case you haven't noticed. So, this is a new one to remember us Pendleton folks by when you're back in the big city."

"Wow! That is so cool," Nate said as he stood up to take the box and give Stew a hug. He paused, kind of blushed and then said, "I didn't really do all that much… just be me. You guys have become good friends, and maybe you can come visit in Portland."

Stew nodded and smiled and glanced at Todd who reached in the bag and pulled out two framed photographs. "You remember you two asked us to go camping with you, and we had such a great time… two couples together." He ogled Nate and Michael, and said, "remember?"

Then he went on, "Anyway, I'm studying photography and can use the dark room at school, and I got a couple of pretty good shots of you two when we were camping. So, here's one for each of you so you've got a constant reminder of one of the summer highlights."

He handed both of them the framed photo. It was from when they'd been sitting around the campfire after dinner. The evening light was soft behind them, and Nate was leaning against Michael, the orange light from the campfire illuminating their faces in a warm glow. They weren't looking at each other, rather it appeared they were looking over Todd's shoulder, but they looked completely happy and natural together. In a word, they both had radiant expressions on their faces."

"Whoa, Todd! This is outrageous," Michael exuded.

"It sure is," Nate added. "I never thought about it before just now, but I'm leaving tomorrow, and this is going to be so important when I'm back in Portland and Michael's here in Pendleton." They passed the framed photos around to exceedingly favorable comments.

Michael and Nate walked Stew and Todd out to the car and pulled them into huge hugs. "You guys are the best," Nate said softly, "This has been the best summer of my life, and you two have been a big part of it." He paused, then said, "I'm serious about you guys coming to Portland to visit. Stew, you're going to want to in order to look at colleges, and probably you too, Todd. Don't wait till Spring. Come sooner if you can, okay?"

They both agreed and gave Nate a final farewell hug. "Later, man," Stew said, "And I better not hear that new hat lives in your closet!"

When they rejoined everyone else, the photos were still being passed around.

"That Todd boy sure captured you two at your best," grandpa commented.

The boys just grinned. Finally, Michael said, "I knew he had his camera with him, but I just didn't think anything of it. This is a pretty great picture, isn't it?"

"Young love is what I call it," grandpa quipped.

They all went to work on clean up and washing dishes, and then the adults settled down on the lawn furniture with the dogs while the boys loaded into the Scout and headed down to the Bike Pit at Pilot Rock for some off-road fun.

They were talking about life in eastern Oregon compared to Portland, and Jackson asked Michael's dad if things were slowing down on the ranch now that Fall was here.

He smiled, then said, "The workload will lighten up for a bit now that we've got all the hay baled and put up, and the equipment serviced and put away for the winter. In the next month or so we'll bring all the cattle down from pasture to the big paddocks attached to the barn. We'll use the horses to herd them down here and that gets them in position before winter hits, and lets us separate the calves from the cows. They'll be in the paddock right next door, so they're close enough to see, hear and smell their mothers through the fences. They'll put on weight over the winter and be ready for spring sale as yearlings. We had a couple of bulls in with the cows in June, so the pregnant cows will birth in March or April, and the cycle will start all over again."

"The annual cycle of life?"

"Pretty much. That's the way it is if you're ranching or farming. Your life is in sync with the seasons. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. It's a good life and the seasonal rhythm is a good thing to understand and to live by. I know Michael has it in his bones, and I think Nate got a real taste of it this summer, too."

When they got back the boys looked like they'd had a great time. The Scout was covered with mud. Roger had driven Jerrod's Jeep Cherokee, but neither had done any real off-road four-wheel driving, so it was new experience for them. David and Jackson were able to listen to Jerrod and Roger talk about the wild sensations of dropping into the mud pits and climbing back out with a certain level of appreciation.

Michael looked at Nate and raised an eyebrow.


"Before you guys leave in the morning, you and me have to drive into town to the rodeo grounds and pick up our paychecks. Do you want to do that in a muddy Scout?"

Nate grinned. "Are you thinking these city boys should help us wash the Scout since they helped get it so muddy?"

"Sure am!" He looked at Jerrod and Roger. "Well?"

"We're in. This is a team event, right? What would really be nice is if we could figure out how to get Kaiser to man a wash rag for us. Wouldn't that be a hoot?"

The evening ended with the adults sipping beer or wine on the front porch, watching their four favorite teenage boys joking around and washing the Scout in the driveway.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if it could be just like this for them forever?" grandpa asked wistfully.

David looked at him and smiled softly. "Who knows but that that might be the case. They're all great young men with strong foundations. They've learned about life and love, they've also learned one of the most important lessons of life, that it isn't all about the self, but that happiness and fulfillment in large measure comes from giving rather than taking. I think anything is possible with those four!"

"Do you really think so," Michael's mother asked, "because that's certainly what I hope for."

"Yes, I really do, and a good part of it is what they've all gone through in their own life situations… and the role you've played in it. What I mean is that what they've gone through has given them a level of experience and maturity that most young men don't have. They've developed close relationships with their parents, they've also built real friendships, they've forged real personalities that understand emotional complexity… in other words, they've navigated the mess of being human in relationships with other people."

David paused. "Am I making it too complicated? Sorry if that's the case."

"I don't think so," Michael's mom said. "I see similar things with students at school. Most boys don't develop deep, intimate and emotional relationships. It's all too easy for them to fall into the sports stereotype of strong/weak, winner/loser, conqueror/vanquished. That's not the way life works, and most boys never really figure that out until they're much older and get knocked around by life."

"Isn't that part of what Nate was struggling with?" Jackson asked.

"I think so," she replied. "He was kind of locked into that athletic model of winner/loser, but he wasn't comfortable with it. Then along came another boy he truly related to, felt connected to, and he had to deal with the realities that go along with it. Fortunately, he and his older brother were able to connect with a support network made possible by those other two boys down there, and the larger framework you and David provided."

"We tried to do our part," David said, "but don't underestimate the importance of the support network, the family network, you all provided for him. What you got in early July was a boy with a hole in his life because of the absence of a father and a grandfather. That was complicated by a mother who was working full time to support her family. What he landed in here was not just a close friendship that grew into love, but paternal support and direction and familial love like he'd never had… or knew he needed. That plus a very wise mother figure who also knows a lot about gay teenage psychology."

He looked at Michael's mom, then his dad, and finally his granddad.

"He should count himself a very fortunate person. One who has learned a lot in the course of a single year about what matters most in life… knowing and accepting yourself, about the real value of family, and about the complexities of being human and how to navigate them with grace and love."

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