Roughly fifteen miles from Three Creeks proper, the Olsen farmland stretched for miles. Like old times, Dirk had been there since sunrise. Grit from cows kicking up dust irritated the sunburn on the back of Dirk’s neck. As troublesome as it felt, Dirk couldn’t be mad. It was a familiar feeling that coaxed him to believe he was back where he belonged. For the first time since returning home, a sense of peace settled throughout Dirk’s body. He was alive.
John Olsen pulled up his ATV beside Dirk’s. His cowboy hat tilted barely, shielded his eyes from the sun. The lines on his weathered face creased in an upward direction as his gravelly voiced, “I live for days like this,” iterated what Dirk was thinking.
While Dirk liked working in the oil field, he missed being out in the open. The men he had known since his childhood worked with a singular purpose. Today, they herded cattle into the coral for branding. Safety and a job well done were the only things that mattered.
“You ready to come back?” John revved the engine of the three-wheeler.
It was one of those two purpose questions. They had to head back to the coral to join the rest of the men. His inquiry also addressed the frequently asked and avoided solution to Dirk’s problem. Was Dirk ready to return to work on the ranch? If Dirk said yes, he’d be back to step one-survival. Saying no meant he had less to offer Liz. As far as Dirk was concerned, lose-lose didn’t merit consideration.
Using the footrest to brace himself, Dirk stood on the ATV and mirrored John, revving the engine. Its roar sent vibrations through his body, reminding him of what was and could be again. Then he sat, bracing himself for the jerk that would come with the forward motion.
Dirk heard Arnie before he saw him through the cloud of dust created by the controlled stampede. “Haw, Haw, haw!” Arnie clapped his hands while urging the cattle with his boisterous voice through the queue formed by corals. The rows were thin enough to easily separate mother from calf. Skilled and confident, Arnie trailed behind them.
Cows mooed, and calves bleated against the six-foot gap between them. As soon as the ranchers finished branding the calf, it was released into the coral to find its mother. Regardless of species, the relationship between mother and child remained the same. Dirk had seen the separation and reconciliation time and time again. Every time it amazed him.
To the human eye matching calf to mother was as easy as pairing a room full of socks. He tried but eventually gave up. It wasn’t like that for the calf. Its bleat sounded something like “maaa.” The mother called out to it. Except, all of the cows were mooing.
The simultaneous cry and response deafened Dirk’s ears. Not so for the temporarily separated. Within minutes the calf found its mother within the herd. It suckled on her utter, and mother and offspring fell silent.
Dirk closed the gate and rotated the latch, securing the animals in their pen. When things settled, they’d open the gate, and the herd would be free to roam the countryside.
“I don’t know why you left, but it’s good to have you back.” Arnie pat Dirk on the shoulder. His dusty grin was as welcoming as his words.
The afternoon progressed with John’s family, ranch hands, and friends participating in a thunderous symphony. Three hours later, they were covered in sweat-soaked dust and glowed in the accomplishment of branding over 200 calves.
If only it were Liz saying that to me. Dirk grinned his thanks. “It’s good to be back.”
Smoke from John’s wood-fired grill mingled with the scent of dirt and cattle. Dirk’s stomach growled, reminding him of his favorite thing about branding, the barbecue after all the hard work.
Dirk sat at a picnic table at the edge of the group, giving lifelong friends and couples room to sit together. Once, Dirk fit in with people. His nine-month hiatus from the community had weakened bonds. Still, he was confident that in time they would strengthen. For the time being, the feeling that came with participating in something that was bigger than him kept Dirk company. Dirk had just shoved a spoonful of potato salad in his mouth when John approached him with an icy, orange sports drink. “Are you still as conscientious about hydrating.”
After a couple more chews and a swallow, Dirk accepted the drink. “Yeah, I am. Thanks.” He liked beer as much as the next guy, but Dirk believed in balance. Or, his mother had ingrained it in him so much, he adopted the habit. Regardless it grew into being a part of his reputation.
“Do you want to tell me what made you so skittish?”
On the surface, John’s question appeared from out of the blue. Sure Dirk had been cautious, but nothing about the day’s events intimidated him.
He arched his left brow and cracked open his drink. “I don’t follow.”
John leaned against the elbow he had pressed into his knee and gestured with his chin to the families. Both men’s eyes fell on a father and son who had joined a small group. Down to holding his thumb in the right front pocket of his jeans, a ten year old copied everything his father did. “You can’t let a woman like Liz go free for too long. Men with family on their minds are watching and waiting for their chance at her. Unless there’s something you know, that they don’t.”
The last sentence came out more like a question than a statement. This is a fishing excursion. It was time for Dirk to set the record straight. Liz hadn’t warmed up to him yet. Her responses to his texts were brief. One word. Still, that was better than the one letter, “k.”
Dirk knew John was asking for his son, John jr. The Olsons had more money and prestige than Dirk. The problem was John jr. hadn’t inherited his father’s sense. He didn’t treat women with the same dignity his father had. Ma Olson was the queen of Circle D ranch, and everyone in the county was well aware of it. John treated her as such and made sure everyone followed suit. His son, John jr. talked to and about women like they were cattle that could be enticed with shiny objects and loud noises.
And then it hit Dirk like a ton of bricks. His insides shriveled in humility. All this time, he thought he hadn’t known how to be married. Yet over the years, John Olsen had been freely giving the lessons. Dirk, like John jr., hadn’t been paying attention and was guilty of making the same assumptions. He wanted to provide a good life for Liz by giving her what he didn’t have as a child.
When she was growing up, Liz wanted for nothing. She and Tom were always the best-dressed kids in town. Their mother always sent snacks for the holiday parties. Every summer, Dirk joined them for their weekend getaways at the cabin. People should have hated Liz and Tom, but couldn’t because both of them were nice to everyone.
The revelation hid Dirk so hard his mind buzzed from the change. Liz’s intolerance of Dirk’s bravado spoke volumes. She didn’t want Dirk’s money. She wanted the riches he provided with his presence. He may have faltered with his discipline, but Dirk had a world full of unconditional love for Cameron.
Dirk slowly chewed his food, giving him time to choose the right words. John’s deserved his honesty. His son didn’t have a chance, but Dirk wouldn’t stop him from trying.
He swallowed then took a sip of his drink. “Liz cannot be contained. Take it from me, any man that thinks he can coral Liz has set himself up for a world of trouble.”
“Good to know,” John’s eyes roamed the crowd and fell on his son. John jr. was leaning against the table with his legs kicked out in front of him. A woman who had to be ten years younger than him pretended to slap his arm while laughing at his joke.
Dirk suspected John jr. wouldn’t be any trouble for too much longer. Now, if he could figure out how to scale the wall, Liz, with the help of his stupidity, had built.
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