Word got around faster than the scent of hot dogs at a summer picnic. Dirk was home. Friends looking to reconnect invited him to a bonfire, a barbecue, and several brandings. Instead, Dirk chose to stay close to home. Go to the Circle D brewery, have a couple of beers.
The bar was a mainstay of the town with complete with faded linoleum floors, red vinyl seats, and slot machines lining the far wall. After being at bars in other parts of the state, Dirk saw that it could use an upgrade. But, other people seemed to be happy, so it would most likely remain the same.
Dirk walked through the cloud of smoke people formed by people lined up to catch that last lick of nicotine. They paused their discussions long enough to say a quick, “Hello.” Then they returned to the conversations they were having before he arrived. Dirk had moved on, and so had they.
The familiar scent of beer mingled in with the sweetness of syrup hit him before his eyes adjusted from the light outside to the dimly lit interior. “Sup, Dirk?” Raven, the bartender, set the glass in front of the taps. She had been there tending bar for as long as Dirk could remember. “Your usual?”
Dirk had been gone for six months, and Raven still remembered his beer of choice. Nobody had taken into account that he had changed since then. Then again, sometimes it was easier to not think. That’s why he needed the break from Liz. He didn’t want to think about how he couldn’t provide for Liz and her son. Nor did he have to worry about the shots to his ego when Cam wanted something, and Liz had to cover it. He shrugged and took a seat at the bar. “Sure.”
Raven slid the beer across the counter without spilling any. In the handoff, Dirk caught a glimpse of an addition to the tattoo on her wrist. It was an infinity symbol with the names of her children scrawled in the loops.
“You here alone?” Despite the noise around them, Raven kept her attention trained on Dirk.
Apparently, word hadn’t got out. Heads inclined away from conversations.
The art of avoidance was the beginning of a subtle dance. Dirk didn’t want people talking, but he had to say enough to satisfy their curiosity.
They would eventually, but if he had any say, it would be on his terms. “She’s at home with Cam.”
“Is everything alright between you two?”
Dirk glanced toward the far corner of the bar as though something there would help him with an answer. Indignation hit him. It swirled around Dirk’s gut and rose to somewhere in the middle of his chest. Why did people insist on putting their noses in his business? If they had left well enough alone, in the first place, he wouldn’t be in the situation. Dirk planned on three weeks to tell Liz and was forced to break the news within a day of coming home. He said, in his matter of fact voice, “We are on a hiatus.”
A traveling ranch hand sat in the stool beside dirk. His weathered hand patted Dirk on the shoulder. “She finally cut you loose.” They both turned when light from the door opening illuminated the bar.
John Olson, an older rancher with a head of cattle that roamed for as far as the eye could see, took a seat on the other side of Dirk. “I heard you were back, but wouldn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.”
He raised two fingers to Raven, who was talking with some women at the bar’s edge. She returned to her post at the taps and began the pour.
John rested his elbow on the counter. “You looking to get back into ranchhand work?”
That was Dirk’s past. Working seven days a week, not knowing when his shift ended. One time he had one foot in the pickup and the other hand on the door when a cow broke loose. She ran back and forth, finding holes in their attempts to usher her back to the coral. What she wanted and why she was so averse to returning to safety alluded Dirk and the other ranch hands, making the task that much harder.
“Nah, I’m looking to get into something else,” Dirk replied. “If you need help here and there, I’d be glad to stop by.”
John’s weathered cowboy hat rested slightly above his brow, shielding his eyes, and placing emphasis on his slow smile. “We’re branding this weekend. We could always use one more hand.”
Of all the invitations, branding seemed to be the safest. Women looking for a companion to fill their time would be too busy to pay him any notice. Men chasing after cows would have too much adrenalin in their system to care about Dirk’s tomorrow, next week, or his future.
Author note: Dirk wanted to get his life in order. Could going back to the Olsen farm be the writing on the wall that supplies Dirk with a dose of courage to approach Liz?
Categories: Home For the New Year