It's 1895 when Luke Straily returns to Gunnison, Colorado, after a twelve-year absence and reluctantly heads to the cattle ranch owned by Jack Hinch, the only man he’s ever loved. Looking to make amends for an intolerable act, Luke hires on at the ranch, but Jack makes it perfectly clear he's unable to forgive or forget just yet.
It'll take everything in Luke's power to set things right with the man he wronged and placed in jeopardy before he ran away, but he aims to earn back Jack's trust no matter the personal cost. Complicating matters, though, is ranch foreman Tim Dutcher, who’s been enjoying a sexual relationship with the handsome rancher during the intervening years and thoroughly resents Luke's intrusion.
As Luke and Jack gradually rebuild their severed friendship and renew their former passion, jealousy flares, leading to a volatile confrontation. Can the men settle matters without any shots being fired?
We gather a dozen horses, Jack choosing them with care, then herd them from the ranch, Jack on point, me behind. Horses, being mostly good-natured, go along without complaint. I figure they’re happy with a change of scenery.
Salida is due east, but not so far that we come down onto the plain. Jack tells me this since I’ve never been there before. We remain in country that mixes open spaces with banks of trees and, in the distance, mountains looking down upon it all. Jack seems comfortable with the territory, and I enjoy not only getting him free of the ranch, but free of Tim Dutcher. Whatever the outcome, he’s mine for now.
When we cross a small river, Jack stops the herd on the bank to take a break. The horses keep loosely together, some wading into the water, others nibbling grass. Jack has brought a sack of provisions from which he takes a cloth-wrapped package. In it are ham sandwiches, two for each of us.
We sit on the riverbank to eat and Jack says not a word. I’m okay with this, content to let him lead, but by the time the food is gone, I can no longer keep quiet.
“Good eats,” I say.
All he does is nod.
Rummaging for something else to say, I come up with a question. “Isn’t there a railhead in Salida? You could have shipped the horses.”
“Could have, but this is cheaper and I don’t mind getting off the ranch now and again.” He rises as he says this, and minutes later, we’ve got the horses moving again.
With so few animals we can pick up the pace, which Jack does. The little herd becomes eager, as do I. Ned also seems happy to get moving.
I’ve no idea where we are when Jack stops, only that dusk is coming on. A stream is nearby, as is open space enough to rig a rope corral for the horses. Jack has brought stakes and extra rope, and when he sets to work, I jump in to help. In no time, the horses are corralled, grass plentiful underfoot, and we’ve got up a fire.
From his big sack of provisions, Jack pulls a small skillet, some chops, plates, cups, and such, and a can of peaches. Supper is chops and peaches, which is fine with me. I’m so hungry I’d eat most anything.
“You’re awful quiet,” I say when I’ve polished off the meal.
“What did you expect?”
“Okay, right, I got it. You’re not the same as back then.”
When he offers no further comment, I press on.
“I’d like to get to know the man you are now, Jack. No matter past actions, I still have feelings for you. Those never stopped.”
He adds more sticks to the fire, pokes at it, and I get I’ve cornered him, maybe not in a good way.
“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to cause pain.”
He shakes his head and gives the fire another poke.
“Why’d you bring me out here?” I ask. “You could have picked one of the others, saved yourself the torment.”
Leaving the fire, he sits on his outspread bedding, pulling up his knees and wrapping arms around them. As he stares at the fire, he says, “Stop trying to figure this out” and that’s it, not another word, so I hit the sack.
It turns cold at night in this high country, so I fix my blanket with the canvas both under and over it. Hat on my head, I tuck in, and when Jack gets up, I don’t open my eyes. I hear him piss nearby and think maybe he’ll bring that thing over here and do some damage, but he doesn’t. He gets into bed and there we lay, tormented because I know he’s far from restful.