I threw the covers back and sat up on the side of my bed with my arms restin' on my thighs and my hands danglin' between my legs. I looked over at the window and saw that the sun hadn't come up yet and I yawned loudly as I stood and stretched and headed over to the water basin. After washin', combin' my hair and dressin', I walked over and headed out the door.
"Long night?" Nick asked, smilin' as he came down the hall.
"Didn't sleep well last night," I confessed.
"Bad dreams?" he asked worriedly as we went down the stairs together.
"Unh uh," I said. "Just a lot on my mind."
"Boy, the only thing you should have on your mind today is bustin' broncos!" Nick informed me.
"I'll keep that in mind big brother," I said, stiflin' a yawn.
"Now take me for example," he continued. "I slept like a baby last night and you know why....?"
"'Cause ya got the mentality of a two year old?" I asked.
He gave me a mean scowl and continued, "No!" he said. "It's because I git up every mornin’ and thank my lucky stars for bein' alive! I thank God for my family and for everythin' we've got. Then I sit and enjoy a hearty breakfast with the people I love. After that I go out and do a hard day of honest work and after that I..!"
"Nicholas must you shout?" Mother asked from her chair as we entered the kitchen.
"Good mornin' Mother," Nick said as he walked over to the buffet and piled bacon, eggs, sausage and biscuits on his plate.
"Good mornin' Mother," I said as I followed Nick over to the buffet and started pilin' up the grub.
Jarrod soon joined us with Audra right on his heels. After wishin' each other a good mornin' we all sat down ta eat. Mother said grace and then she looked over at me.
"Are you feeling alright Heath?" she asked. "You look a little tired this morning."
I offered her a weak smile. "I'm fine Mother, just a little trouble sleepin' is all."
"Oh?" she asked worriedly.
"It's because he worries too much Mother," Nick interjected. "You'd think he was ninety years old the way he worries! Now take me for example..."
"Nick please," Mother said.
I looked over and gave her a silent ‘thank you’.
"You should have slept in this morning," Mother said ta me. And boy howdy, what'd she say that for! Nick liked ta choked on his coffee!
"Sleep in!" Nick shouted. "Boy the day I catch you sleepin' in around here, you'd better be on your death bed!"
"Nicholas please!" Mother said as Sis giggled behind her napkin. "Now if Heath isn't feeling well this morning then I think he should take the day off. It's what I would expect from any of you."
"Mother if I took a day off every time I didn't feel well, nothin' would ever git done on this ranch!" Nick bellowed. "This is a workin' ranch! A man can't take the day off because he has a bad dream!"
"It wasn't a bad dream Nick," I said quietly as I buttered my biscuit.
He looked over at me with a scowl. "Then what was it?" he demanded.
"Just a lotta things on my mind," I said.
"Well now," Nick said leaning back in his chair and placing his elbow on the back of it. "You're young, healthy, wealthy. Ya got a lovin' family. For some inexplicable reason that I can’t fathom, women seem ta take to ya. Exactly what kinda problems could you possibly have on your mind that keep you up all night!"
"Oh Nick really!" Mother said in exasperation. "Has it ever occurred to you that being fortunate in life does not necessarily mean that you worry any less?"
"No Mother," Nick said as he stuffed a biscuit into his mouth. "Somehow that never occurred to me."
"Do you want to talk about it Heath?" she asked, looking over at me.
I smiled over at her, "Maybe later," I said.
Nick stood and said, "Well, c'mon boy! We gotta ranch ta run!"
"Heath, take it easy today, Son," Mother said, as Nick and me walked out the door.
Thankfully she didn't hear Nick mumble, "Over my dead body," as he slammed the front door behind us.
The postin' lasted all mornin' and into the afternoon and with the hot sun beatin' down on us and the temperature risin' by the second, it didn't take long for me, Nick and the hands ta git ta feelin' dehydrated. We must've put away a couple gallons of water a piece. Soon as you'd drink it down, the heat would just sap it right back outta ya. We shored up the fences in the east pasture and posted some new ones down around the spring. We were gittin' that heard in from Modesto next week and Nick wanted that new fence up before they got here. With the new line of fencin' up, that would add thirty more acres to our grazin area and give the herd a place ta drink without ever havin' ta leave the fenced in area. Not long after we got the fencin' done, one of the stallions broke loose and took off toward the south end. It took me and Nick about three hours ta run 'em down and git a rope 'round 'im.
"Now Heath if you had cut off to the left like I told ya, we would've had 'im boxed in!" Nick yelled.
"If I'd gone to the left, he still could've doubled back and gotten up inta them hills," I told 'im.
"Doubled back!" Nick said, lookin' at me incredulously. "Not with me on his flank he wouldn't!"
"Nick ya can't be in two places at one time," I told ‘im.
"Well I wouldn't have ta be if you had boxed 'im in like I told ya!" he bellowed. "We wasted three hours on this and we still gotta git those broncs busted today so Meyers can come out and pick 'em up tomorrow!"
"Well I got faith in ya Nick," I said smilin' over at 'im as we headed back to the ranch with the stallion in tow. "If anybody can get the job done, you're the man ta do it."
I couldn't help but chuckle as he scowled at me and let a stream of cuss words fly. As we rode back, I thought about everythin' that Nick said at breakfast this mornin' and I realized he was right. I got a lot ta be thankful for. From now on, I'm not gonna spend my nights tossin' and turnin' and wonderin' if I deserve everthin' that God has gifted me with. God gives ya what he wants ya ta have and if he doesn't want ya ta have it, he can just as easily take it away from ya. So from now on, instead of stayin' up late wonderin'
‘Why me’?, I think I'll just be thankful for all his blessin's.
"Stay with 'im Nick! Stay with 'im!" I shouted to him in encouragement.
"He's going to lose him!" Jarrod said anxiously.
I looked over at my oldest brother and the worry was etched clearly on his face. I looked back at Nick in the coral tryin' ta break that bronc, or more aptly put, that bronc was tryin' ta break him!"
"Ride 'im Nick! Ride 'im!" I knew that somewhere in the back of 'is mind, he could hear me cheerin' 'im on, as I've heard him cheerin' me on so many times in the past when it was me up in that saddle gettin' a work out. But when you're the one bustin' that bronc, all ya can think about is stayin' up, cause boy howdy, if ya go down, you're gonna hurt a whole lot more than ya pride.
I watched my stubborn big brother, all two hundred, lean, mean pounds of 'im tryin' ta tame an even more stubborn eleven hundred pound bronc. I couldn't help but smile at the determination of the both of 'em. Each one of 'em tryin' ta best the other. Who would win? Who would best who? Who would reign supreme this day?
"What are you grinning about?" Jarrod asked as he looked over at me.
"Oh nuthin'," I told 'im. "Just tryin' ta figure out where Nick ends and that bronc begins."
Jarrod smiled back at me. "Probably somewhere near the rear," he said, winkin' at me.
Well that just about did it. I couldn't help but laugh out loud. Nobody throws out those zingers like that better than Jarrod does.
Finally, the bronc begin ta tire. That's what did 'im in. Whereas he's longer on stamina than he is on stubbornness, brother Nick is just the opposite. He'll tire out long before that bronc ever does, but it's his stubbornness that'll keep 'im goin'. He trotted that beauty 'round the coral a couple a times just ta show 'im, and us, who's boss. He steered 'im to the middle of the coral and dismounted as ol' Ned and George Hendricks ran over ta take his lead. Nick walked over ta me and Jarrod with the biggest and proudest grin I ever seen on his face.
"Well now dear brothers," he bragged, "I do believe that's the way us experts do it!"
"Never doubted you for a minute brother Nick," Jarrod said as he patted 'im on his back."
"I knew ya could do it all along," I told 'im.
"Is that right?" he said, eyeing me suspiciously. "Well then maybe you can hand over that ten bucks ya lost ta Jarrod bettin' against me and he can take me inta town and buy me a drink with it."
He reached over and mussed my hair as he smiled at me. "C'mon," he said as he climbed over the coral fence, "lets go git cleaned up and head inta town! I got a powerful thirst and a naggin' hunger I need satisfied!"
"Well, Silas just finished cookin' supper," I told 'im. "We can git a bite ta eat before we leave."
He stopped in his tracks and turned and looked at me. "Heath," he said quietly, staring at me as if I’d grown horns, "I thought you'd been around. When a man says he's got a naggin' hunger, he ain't talkin' 'bout food boy!"
"Eloquent as ever, brother Nick," Jarrod said, as he walked past us and went inside the house. Me and Nick followed and raced up the stairs ta see who'd git to the tub first.
"Well now," Nick said as he looked at his playin' cards. "I'll see your five, and I'll raise ya ten," he said as he added fifteen dollars to the pot in the center of the table. He puffed on his cigar and accepted the shot of whiskey that Annabelle brought over to 'im. "Thank ya 'Belle," he drawled. "Stick with me honey, and you'll be ridin' with a winner!"
I chuckled as Jarrod looked over at me and rolled his eyes.
"Oh I intend to cowboy," 'Belle said, as she rubbed his shoulders from behind. Nick looked over at me and winked.
I smiled and shook my head and sipped my beer.
"Well," I said, "I'll see your fifteen and I'll raise ya......." I counted my dwindlin' funds, "another....three," I said.
"Three!" Nick roared. "This is a man's game boy! If you're gonna bet, bet like a man!"
"I call," Jarrod said, addin' eighteen to the pot.
"I fold," Buck said, throwin' his cards down on the table in disgust.
"I call," Johnny said, countin' out his bills and addin' 'em to the pot.
"All right," Nick said, smiling happily, lets see what cha can do with that?" He lay his hand on the table and spread the cards so that we could all see them.
"Four aces!" Nick said happily.
"Well, that does me in," Johnny said dejectedly as he threw his cards down and got up and walked over to the bar.
"Me too" Jarrod said as he laid his cards down. He picked up his shot of whiskey and emptied his glass. Takin' out his pocket watch, he checked the time and sat back in his chair. "Whenever you, gentlemen, are ready," he said.
Nick smiled up at 'Belle and stuck his hands out to grab the pot.
"Not so fast big brother," I said. I laid my cards down and spread them the way Nick had earlier.
"I do believe a straight flush beats four of kind," I said.
Nick's cigar dangled precariously from the corner of his mouth as he looked on in surprise. "Well I'll be damned," he muttered.
I chuckled and reached out and grabbed the pot. Nick sat back in his chair and slowly rubbed his chin while watching me collect my winnings.
"Somethin' the matter big brother?" I asked as I gathered up the bills.
"I'm just not sure Heath," Nick said thoughtfully. "But when I find out, believe me, you'll be the first ta know."
I winked at him and smiled.
"Well now", Annabelle said as she walked from behind Nick's chair and walked over and stood behind mine. "What say you and me go upstairs and do a little celebratin'," she said as she started ta rub my shoulders.
"Now wait a minute!" Nick bellowed.
"Unh uh," I interrupted. "The lady wants ta ride with a winner Nick," I said as I pocketed the bills. I stood and put my arm 'round 'Belle's waist, "Don't wait up for me," I told Nick and Jarrod as I allowed 'Belle ta lead me up ta her room. I could hear Jarrod chucklin' as we walked away.
Four hours later, I was headed home with a pleasant buzzin' in my head and a silly grin on my face. 'One thing about that 'Belle,' I thought ta myself, 'she sure knows how ta make a man feel like a man!'
I took Charger into the stable and unsaddled 'im and brushed 'im down. He was as beautiful as the first day I laid eyes on 'im. His red coat glistened in sunlight, moonlight and lantern light. He flicked his ears and swished his tail as I talked softly to 'im. This was our time together, after all the work was done and the tools had been put away, after the sun had gone down and the men had gone ta bed. This was the time of day that I enjoyed most. The quiet time. The time ta reflect on all I've lost and all I've gained. The time ta say ‘thank you’ for my family, for their love, for my life. These are the things that I say out loud ta Charger. The things that I have in my heart and in my mind. The things that keep me up late at night and fill my days with pride and happiness, and yes, sometimes even sadness. But it is all a part of who I am, who I always will be, and who my family accepts me as. I sighed as tears ran down my face. Unbidden tears. Tears I wasn't afraid or embarrassed ta cry in front of my constant companion. He whinnied and nudged my chest with his magnificent head and I smiled and stroked his face.
"You know who we are?" I asked 'im, as he chewed a cube of sugarcane that I'd offered 'im. "You and me are two of the luckiest guys on the face of the earth." He whinnied louder and swished his tail and I took that as a sign that he was agreein' with me. I gave 'im one last stroke and left the stable. I walked in the house and quietly closed the door behind me, not wanting ta wake up the family. As I walked over to the stairs, Nick came up behind me.
"You alright boy?" he whispered.
"Nick!" I whispered back, startled. "Whatcha doin' up this time a night?"
"Couldn't sleep," he said.
I stared at 'im intensely in the dark. "Bad dreams?" I asked.
He put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Nah, good dreams. Dreams about findin' a brother and a friend."
I smiled at 'im as my heart filled with pride and love.
"Let's go ta bed," he said wearily. We walked up the stairs arm in arm. Neither one of us bothered ta wipe away the unbidden tears.