Hell’s Cauldron

 

Chapter 1

Destiny

Despite his well-kept secret, Chip Saunders lacks any hope for a happy ending to his first and final year of teaching.  Early elementary years had taught him that schoolyard bullies rarely go away.  As was true on his first day of kindergarten at Ramsey Elementary, Chip’s fate was sealed the day he applied for the Fountain Springs Junior High Social Studies position.  For the past eight and a half months, he has carefully hidden his misery.  Even his colleagues know nothing of his teaching career ending. 

In 1931 Chip was the smallest and frailest student to ever enter kindergarten at Ramsey.  The teasing he encountered that first Monday turned into bullying by Friday.  Throughout the next twelve years, it never let up.  To avoid confrontations, Chip stayed away from all playground and extracurricular activities.  Even after he grew to six foot-four in college, and put on bulk through weight lifting, he continued to avoid activities outside of the classroom. 

He chose Mankato State Teacher’s College in the belief that a teaching career would cure the curse he lived under.  Upon graduation, he picked a small town in central Minnesota as the ideal place to settle down.  Many fishing lakes surrounded Fountain Springs.  Chip had become an avid fisherman – something he could do alone. 

As luck would have it, the principal of the Fountain Springs Junior High had his home and car vandalized one week prior to Chip’s application for the eighth grade Social Studies position.  The principal believed the culprit was Billy Deluca who got off scot-free.  His gang members had provided an airtight alibi.  Because of this, Principal Thompson vowed to have nothing more to do with Billy. 

It was Billy’s dislike for Social Studies that had him constantly acting out in that class.  During seventh grade, his social studies teacher had sent him to Principal Thompson’s office seventy-six times.  Neither the teacher nor the principal could control Billy.  As Billy’s seventh grade Social Studies teacher had no seniority, the eighth-grade Social Studies teacher moved into seventh grade for the coming year.  He, too, wanted nothing to do with Billy.

When the seventh-grade teacher found out he would have Billy a second year, he quit teaching and took a supervisory position at the Smith Douglas Fertilizer Plant.  After he quit, Principal Thompson was left with a dilemma – no teacher at Fountain Springs Junior High was willing to teach eighth-grade social studies for the coming year.  Upon receiving Chip’s application, Thompson decided to made him the pawn in the Billy Deluca saga. 

On Mr. Saunders’ first day of teaching, a gang member from Chip’s first hour social studies stopped Billy in the hall between classes.  “Hey man, you won’t believe how nervous that new social studies teacher is!  You can really rattle his cage!” 

As for Chip, his fears were exacerbated during lunch hour.  Two teachers made crude remarks about Billy Deluca’s classroom behaviors.  Chip had memorized the names of all of his students and their seating assignments.  He had given Billy Deluca the front seat of the middle row in his last hour Social Studies.

By the time Chip had entered that last hour class, his anxiety was ramped up beyond anything he had yet experienced in a school setting.  True to form, Billy began harassing him that very day.  He has never let up.  It is now two weeks before the end of the 1950/51 school year.  Billy is convinced that if he doubles down on hostile behaviors, Chip Saunders’ teaching career will end permanently.  He covets the honor of causing another social studies teacher’s demise. 

As Billy’s gang heads home from school on this warm, mid-May, Friday afternoon, they are discussing summer plans.  “Hey, what say we hit the A & W the night school lets out?”  Murphy-the-Moocher is always looking for free spending money.

“Naw, we hit it too many times last year.  Old Man Summer’s daughter says he isn’t leaving the cash drawer at the store anymore.”  Kevin’s information is accurate. 

Quietly focused on embarrassing Saunders, Billy hears none of their thieving plans.  When a brilliant idea strikes him, he abruptly stops.  Tommy crashes into him, immediately backing away.  To maintain his tough guy image, Billy routinely slugs Tommy for the slightest offences. Tommy watches for Billy’s fists to rise.  To his surprise and relief, all he gets is a dirty look.  Billy’s mind is on something more important – destroying Mr. Saunders.  A eureka moment has struck him.

“Hey, listen up!  I figured out a way to give old man Saunders the sendoff of a lifetime.  It should be good enough to make him hightail it out of town and leave teaching forever.”  

Seeing and hearing Billy’s excitement, the others begin questioning.  “What is it?” comes from a relieved Tommy.  He wants to be the first to support Billy. 

Immediately the others butt in, “Okay, let’s hear it!” 

“Yeah, this better be good.”

 “We should be talking about getting spending money, not old man Saunders!” 

Only Kevin shows concern.  “This better not get us into any trouble!”

Kevin’s statement is followed by, “You ain’t hurt him enough already?”  Leroy’s bluntness does not faze Billy. 

Billy reveals nothing as he knows his buddies always like a bit of mystery and fear to accompany their dirty deeds.  Kevin stops the guessing game.  “Okay, out with it!”  He wants to be prepared.  A recent Billy scheme nearly landed him in Red Wing – a Minnesota juvenile detention center.

“No way!  No one’s going to know about it ahead of time.  I don’t want anything leaked!”  The others know Billy means what he says and return to figuring out how to get summer spending money.

For the next thirteen days, Billy is very public about Saunders’ impending humiliation, but silent on details.  Leroy, always looking for a good score, takes full advantage of the rumors circulating Fountain Springs Junior High.  Eight days ago, he began accepting twenty-five cent bets on the exact second Billy would take action during Saunders’ final class. 

After calculating the number of seconds in a fifty-five-minute class, 3300, Leroy knew his betting scheme could be lucrative.  He planned to skim off ten percent.  His idea came to a screeching halt when the winner-takes-all-pot moved beyond one-hundred dollars.  Student bettors began demanding an accounting of the money.  They turned to Bobbie for help.  She is smart, popular, good looking.  Most of all, she is honest.  She now holds fifty percent of the pot.  Billy’s gang holds the other half.  As they do not fully trust each other, Murphy-the-Moocher and Kevin each hold half of the gang’s portion.  For junior high students in 1952, one-hundred dollars is a lot of money. 

Leroy, too, is no longer concerned about his cut of the money.  He has an ace-in-the-hole – the unsold betting tickets.  With betting closed, the remaining tickets are in his shirt pocket, neatly fixed in consecutive order.  If one of them is the winning ticket, Leroy will trade his ticket for that one.  Mr. Saunders is now leaving the teacher’s lounge and heading to his final class.

Needless to say, his last hour classroom buzzes with theories about when Billy will act.  With an air of self-importance, Billy waits outside the classroom.  Catching a glimpse of Saunders’ turning the corner and heading down the long corridor, he quickly darts into the classroom.  The silence surrounding his entrance reminds him of the attention he received from beating up a tenth-grade bully.  As he walks to his desk, only one thought excites him, Saunders is a dead man walking.

The classroom’s silence highlights every student’s desire to catch the exact moment of Billy’s action.   Slowly crossing the front of the classroom and noting the hopeful looks on those who placed bet, Billy smiles deviously.  Passing behind Saunders’ desk and finding nothing to steal or chalk to scribble a nasty note on the blackboard, he drags four finger nails across the slate. The ear-splitting screeching brings shouts of, “stop it!”  Billy’s smirk shows he is ready for any dirty-deed. 

Rounding Saunders’ desk, he swaggers to the empty desk sitting front and center.  It is between two gang members.  Billy had ordered them to come in early and reserve these three places as seating is not assigned for the final class. Sitting down, he stretches and yawns loudly, feigning great tiredness.  Placing both elbows squarely on the center of his desk, he leans forward to prop a sleepy head into cupped hands.  After closing his eyes, he slows his breathing.  In an odd sort of way, Billy is attempting to mimic Rodin’s famous sculpture, “The Thinker.”

Arriving outside the classroom, Saunders stops to regroup.  With a slight laugh, he tosses aside the “Good Luck” wishes that followed him out of the faculty lounge. He takes one last moment to relax before confronting the inevitable.   The silence emanating from the classroom accentuates Billy’s promise to take action during this class.  Saunders regroups.  I won’t let Billy’s behaviors influence my plan.  I am prepared.  I will be victorious!  I will win!

Rising to his full six-foot-four stature, he strides confidently into the classroom.  His air of self-assurance comes from having practiced many different strides across his living room rug.  Upon arriving at the podium, he pauses just long enough to open his three-ring binder.  “Good afternoon and welcome to your final presentation on working conditions in the late 1800s.”  His discourse quickly becomes agonizingly painful.  Students are only interested in hearing and seeing Billy’s words and actions. 

After fifty minutes of Billy sitting motionless, every student nervously glances from Saunders, to the clock, to Billy, and back again.  The speed of their actions has been increasing with each passing minute.  They are now also synchronized with Mr. Saunders’ shifting body weight when he moves from one foot to the other while glancing at the clock.  The hypnotic movements of the students are very similar to huge ocean waves endlessly rolling in before a coming storm. 

To some students, Saunders’ shifting weight looks more like a heavyweight boxer faking moves to sets up an opponent for the perfect, jaw breaking punch.  Psychiatrists might easily classify this classroom as, “Mass hysteria heading for a collective nervous breakdown.” 

Students, concerned over missing the exact moment of Billy’s action, have stopped their blinking.  Whenever Saunders glances up from his notes to check the clock, his move is matched perfectly by their wide-eyed stares and head movements.  For the last couple time he has looked, Saunders has imagined these students sleep deprived Zombies ready to rise and rush him.  His stomach churns.  Can they hear that gurgle? 

Although he had hoped Billy’s challenge would have been over long ago, he is thankful there is only a minute left.  This is not true of Billy’s gang members.  Once relaxed and confident, they show concern.  What can Billy  hope to accomplish in a minute?  Seeing Saunders let down his guard, Billy acts.

Part of Saunders’ preparation for the end of the school year were prayers.  Prayers that his preparation would allow the end to go smoothly.  His planning began in earnest after last Friday’s final bell.  That is when he began cleaning the classroom   Today, the walls and bulletin boards of his Social Studies room are devoid of any papers, posters, or pictures.  All are stacked neatly on the lower shelf of his back closet, just as they were last August when he first entered this classroom.  The American flag is also stored.  He does not want it desecrated.  Chalk and erasers are locked in his bottom desk drawer.  The eraser rails have been cleaned to perfection. 

Last Friday, Saunders instructed his students, “Bring nothing to class on Monday, not even a pencil!”  Only Dennis Ketchem defied this order.  Before class today, he snuck in a three-ring binder under his shirt.  The others all know why.

On Saturday, Mr. Saunders polished every desk with the special Tung oil issued by Principal Thompson.  With no papers littering the floor and the chalkboards and desks cleaned to perfection, the room is ready for its summer decommissioning.  When the final bell rings, Mr. Saunders’ plan is to march out ahead of his students.  His bags are packed and in the trunk of his father’s ’38 Ford coup, parked behind the school gym.  He plans to leave Fountain Springs immediately for the Dakota Badlands and a much-needed vacation. 

Last Thursday, he accepted a sales position with the Fountain Springs Real Estate Agency.  He wants to be well rested before beginning his new career.  Just moments before this class, he had surreptitiously slipped his resignation letter onto Principal Thompson’s desk.  Now, the only thing standing between him and freedom is one minute!

As Saunders glances at the clock, Billy seizes the moment.  For the past five minutes, he has been acting like a Comodo Dragon waiting for prey to cross its path.  Billy’s right eye lid, open a slit, catches Saunders’ miscue.  Chips’ last nervous glance is followed by a nearly imperceptible sigh of relief.  It is all Billy needs.  Before Saunders can finish his sigh and wrap up his report on factory sweatshops, Billy is up and moving. 

In truth, the present atmosphere in Saunders’ classroom is no better than those 1800’s sweatshops.  Even with the windows wide open to catch a May breeze, it has been of little help against his unimaginative droning on and on.  

After fifty-four minutes of inactivity by Billy, some students believe the heat sucked the fight out of him.  Most believe Saunders has won.  Not so!  The Number One Trouble Maker of Fountain Spring’s Junior High is reacting.  Bolting straight up from his chair, he stretches and yawns  obnoxiously.  Giving an  eyepopping stare at the clock, shock and horror register on his face.  Wiping away fictious sleep is part of his last-minute maneuver.

Student whispers favor Mr. Saunders in this long-awaited struggle.  Hands begin rising to applaud him.  Gang members quickly leap out of their chairs, white knuckled fists drawn and cocked.  This is Billy’s strategy to stop support for Saunders before it begins.  When a fearless girl shoots her hand up to ask a question, Billy steps in her direction.  Immediately she lowers her arm and hand.  To prevent further action, he throws a double dare glare around the room, promising retaliation to any other would-be challenger.  All resistance ceases without a whimper. 

By Christmas, Saunders had lost track of the number of times Billy disrupted his last hour Social Studies class.  Not so for Denny Ketchem!  He is an Honor’s Student who logged a slash mark for every time Billy interrupted this class.  Bringing his binder out into the open now, he enters his final slash – number 197.  Ketchem’s smile shows a truly misguided pleasure in owning this piece of gangster memorabilia – evidence of one student’s misguided cruelty toward a teacher.  Denny reverently folds his arms around the binder, holding it close to his chest and caressing it lightly.  His action is that of an avid gun collector caressing the Colt Double Action 41 used by Billy the Kid. 

Billy belches loudly when Saunders pointedly ignores his attention getting strategy.  Gang members add nasty laughs.  Billy’s court ordered probation last fall only stipulated perfect attendance at school.  Judge Johnson never said anything about classroom disruptions.  “Miss one-hour young man and you get six more months.”  Because Billy wants his summer free for duplicitous activities, his classroom lawlessness has been limited to annoying behaviors.

When an eerie silence greets the gang’s laughter, Billy shoots out an “evil eye,” promising such great revenge that even a gang member cowers.  Believing he has gained the upper hand; he turns on Mr. Saunders.  Both show confident glares. 

As Saunders stands tall and firm, Billy flinches.  He intends to hold the class after the final bell.  Billy’s concerned expression emboldens Saunders.  Sailing across the room, he stops toe-to-toe with Billy.  Up come Billy’s fists. 

Puffing up his chest, Saunders again rises to his full six-foot four height.  Looking down on Billy, he casually draws out his practiced farewell message, “We teachers end the school year on a Monday to get even for the nine months of crap some of you put us through!” 

Topping the classroom heat at this moment is the revenge in Saunders’ voice.  Unfortunately, his left eye brow twitches wildly from nine months of repressed anger.  Immediately Billy uses his pointer finger to mock Chip’s quirky eyebrow behavior.   He stabs twice for emphasis as he rapidly raises up and down his own right eyebrow.  For added insult, he gives a high pitched, uncontrollable laugh.

Lifting his left arm with a raised fist, Saunders bats away Billy’s pointer finger while moving further into Billy’s space, filling the last half inch remaining between them.  The heat from Saunders’ body and his raised fist have Billy trying to separate himself from Saunders.  It is too late.  Saunders is stepping on Billy’s right shoe and forcing him back against his desk.  It is a typical forties desk – cast iron sides flow into cast iron legs bolted to the floor.  Nothing will give way for Billy’s body to find relief.  

With no place for Billy to go, Saunders’ right hand grab Billy’s shirt by the nape of the neck.  Twisting and tightening with a murderous hand and stare, he lifts Billy onto his tippytoes. 

Stunned students gasp at the wild look on Saunders face.  His normally calm demeanor shows a twisted delight as he raises his right arm and cocked fist.  When Billy glances from the cocked fist to the clock, triumph shows on Saunders’ face.  Finally, a major flinch! 

Before releasing Billy, Saunders makes sure that both his shoes are firmly atop Billy’s perfectly polished Engineer boots.  With his feet stuck in place, Billy’s upper body falls awkwardly back over the desk.  The pained expression on his face brings both joy to those harassed by Billy, and anguished gasps.  As hands rise to applaud, gang members counter by stepping into the faces of the nearest students.  Shaking a mean fist and scowling, they counteract any attempt to clap.  No one wants to get beat up after school.

Although Saunders no longer feels threatened by the gang members, he also does not want to see his students in a free-for-all fist fight.  Stepping off Billy’s feet, he turns and gives the gang members a piercing, “Come-and-get-me!” look.  The challenge appears to have them backing down.  They are not.  They are merely following  Billy’s instruction.  “Don’t interfere unless I give you the okay!”

When gang members hold their ground, Saunders returns his attention to Billy.  He has one final, farewell remark, “Don’t be surprised when your summer plans go awry!”

As the final bell rings, students leap to their feet and race out of the classroom.  Once out the door, each turns to jockey for position.  It is very much like fans trying to get seated after the opening bell sounds for a championship fight.  Billy’s buddies, however, maintain their positions.  They are ready to act on Billy’s command.

Shifting his stance to face Mr. Saunders, Billy turns his fists into open palms.  Stretching his arms wide to each side, like a crucified Christ, he pretends a willingness to take any blow.  When that is not enough, he shouts loud enough for the whole school can hear, “I am all yours!  Take a swing!”  Chip Saunders does not comply. 

Believing his gang members’ presence may be inhibiting Saunders, Billy turns to them.  “Wait outside.  I’ll be there in a minute.”  Although each boy wants to be close to the action, each reluctantly obeys.  Filing past Saunders, they linger a moment as if to say, I’ll be returning at a moment’s notice.  In truth, Billy’s friends know Saunders must take the first swing in full view of all the students before they can jump into the fight.  Once in the hallway, the gang members take over the ringside seats.  Classmates now move back and hoist themselves on tiptoes for a glimpse of the coming action.

With the scene set, Billy turns back to Saunders.  Pulling himself up to his full five-foot ten stature, which is tall for an eighth grader in the early 1950’s, Billy kicks Saunders’ shinbone.  As no one saw his quick move to goad Saunders into taking a swing, Saunders obliges Billy with only a scoff, as if he felt nothing.  Billy pushes harder.  “I ain’t scared a you!”  In truth, Billy is not interested in a fight.  Even if he doesn’t start it, a fight will mean a stint at Red Wing.

Sensing he holds the upper-hand, Saunders calmly backs away.  Oozing with derisive sarcasm, “We shall see, young man!  We shall see!”  Although his words are intended more to relieve his own tension, they also include a hint for Billy.

With his arms still spread wide and palms facing Chip Saunders, Billy pleads, “Take your best shot!”   His tone is a perfect, “Poor me, I am the victim!”  His disrespect is one last attempt to prod Saunders into taking a swing.  Saunders laughs and turns away.  Passing his podium, he grabs his three-ring binder.  In the hallway, he easily passes through the assembled crowd.  They are already losing interest and are parting.  Billy’s hype turned out to be just that – hype! 

When Billy realizes he tough guy persona is “fading into oblivion” because of his lack of action, he leaps into the air.  With arms and fists pumping and shooting upward, he shouts, “He is gone for good!”  It is an attempt to cheer wildly for himself.  Startled by Billy’s actions, Saunders looks back.  Seeing no rear attack, he continues exiting the building. 

With “V” for victory fingers held aloft on outstretched arms, Billy moves toward his audience like a prize fighter courting adoring fans.  When gang members applaud enthusiastically, his swagger grows.  His hands again turn to fists and hit the air like one/two knockout punches.  In truth, Billy is slithering out.  If Saunders were still there, he would need to bite his lip so as to resist kicking Billy squarely in the hind end.

With the crowd gone, Gang members initiate friendly jostling.  “Hey man, what gives?  Thought you were going to take him out!”  The few remaining students, not interested in associating with the gang, or appearing to condone Billy’s actions, move away quickly.

“Naw! That creep Saunders got what he had coming.  He can turn any happy moment in tah shit.  You heard how he droned on and on.”  All but Billy laugh heartily.  His laugh is subdued, hiding apprehension.  Off school grounds, he lights up a cigarette.  Things were great until old man Saunders’ gave me that evil eye.  What does he know that I don’t?  After a deep inhale to ward off creeping paranoia, he mutters angrily, “I gotta find out!”  Without the slightest understanding, gang members dutifully grunt agreement.

In an attempt to lessen his worries,  Billy gloats over past successes.  “Hey, remember the time I put kerosene in Principal Thompson’s gas tank?”  How could they forget?  He had lined up half the student body to watch Thompson’s old Packard roll down Main Street, spewing white smoke from the burning kerosene.  Thompson’s car looked like one of those Shriner Clown Cars discharging billowing clouds during the Fourth of July parade.  Billy had used that occasion to yell obscenities and call out, “Hey, there goes Kathy’s clown!”  Kathy is Mr. Thompson’s good-looking wife.  She flirts with all the young male teachers. 

Billy is extremely proud of this practical joke and the mess it made of Thompson’s car engine.  He always describes his illegal acts, especially those hurting others, as “Pretty Cool.”  Every illegal act he pulled this past school year went unpunished.  He always lined up alibis ahead of time.  His best alibi was for the night he slashed several football players’ tires during the homecoming game, stranding their dates before the big dance.

While he was at the stadium slashing tires, a look-alike dragged Broadway with Kevin.  The two raced every car at every stoplight.  When a “concerned citizen,” another gang member, called the police to identify a careless driver, he said he was unsure who was driving, but Mike Duluca’s son, Billy, was riding shotgun.  Later that night the police stopped a car matching the caller’s description.  Billy was in it.

Before the game was over, Kevin had picked him up and together they had driven to the turn-around on Broadway to await the police.  During questioning, Billy adamantly swore, “Kevin wasn’t dragging!  I been with him the whole night!”  Since the concerned citizen did not leave a name, both Billy and Kevin’s alibis became airtight.  The next day, Chief Bohland found it impossible to link Billy to the tire slashing.

Billy’s scheming mind and lying pals had twisted him out of every claim against him, even the most difficult situations.  Now his gut tells him he needs another alibi – but for what?  Old Man Saunders acted like some apocalyptic event is about to occurWhat’s happening that I don’t know about?

As he mulls over Saunders’ behavior, he remembers another teacher’s farewell,“Have a great summer.  Sorry I won’t be seeing all of you at the beach.”  This announcement came from his Phy. Ed. teacher, the summer lifeguard, a teacher Billy likes.  The official opening of the Holland Falls’ Beach is this Friday, Memorial Day.  Billy has not missed an opening in five years. 

With both teachers’ comments and other unrelated imaginings haunting him, Billy retreats further and further into his inner world.  While his body mindlessly accompanies his friends, he repeatedly asks himself, What is going to happen?  Who is responsible?  Perhaps it is the cigarette smoke swirling around his head that clouds his thinking.

Unable to find any answer, Billy’s worries increase.  These frustrations are unusual for Billy.  Amplifying his concern is the belief that nothing should interfere with summer fun and thievery.  When his agonizing reaches crisis proportions, he blurts out angrily, “They know something I don’t!  But what?  I passed every subject!” 

Once again gang members grunt approval without the foggiest notion as to what he is referring to, or how to advise him.  When Billy falls silent again, his friends take notice of his chain-smoking.  No one wants to tangle with Billy when he is in this kind of mood.  His “Shit!  I gotta get out quick,” is their final clue.  One by one, they silently slip away.

“I’ll sneak out when Minnie does her yacking.”  Billy’s mother talks a mile a minute from the time his father comes home until bedtime.  Hearing their evening plans, Billy designs his activities for the opposite end of town. 

As he nears home, his least favorite spot, he stops.  Turning to fight one of his pals, he finds all are absent  He heads to Julie’s house.  She is an on-again, off-again girlfriend.  Since she is two years older, her insights and planning help Billy and the gang fend off mistakes during burglaries and shoplifting trips.  Her advice wins her a cut of their action. 

Today, however, he will leave her house without a single new clue.  His mind is probably still fuzzy from too much smoking.  Poor Julie!  She is beyond frustrated.  Billy’s failure to be attentive to any of her needs, and his chain smoking, has put her in a foul mood.  Just yesterday her folks gave her a final ultimatum, “Quit smoking or find another place to live!”  She is now trying to air out the house before they come home.

Staying at Julie’s until the last possible moment does have one positive effect.  As Billy enters the back door to the family kitchen and dining area, he is just in time to avoid introductory conversations. The family is already beginning meal prayer.  After prayer, Billy begins gulping down Minnie’s great tasting dumplings, gravy, and pot-roast.  He intends to make a quick exit.  Unfortunately, his action keeps him from noticing what is happening around the table.  Minnie is relaxed.  Even her chiding is less strident.  “Billy, slow down.  You don’t need to eat so fast.” 

Ignoring her request, he pushes back from the dinner table in record time and gives a nearly inaudible, “My buddies are waiting at the turnaround.  Promised ‘em I wouldn’t be late.” 

It doesn’t work.  As he rises, his father’s hand comes to rest gently on Billy’s forearm.  Billy’s racing heart tells him he is about to find out what is wrong.  His anxious walk home and spending time with Julie did nothing to prepare him for this moment.  His preoccupation with making a quick getaway from the dinner table blinded him to important clues.  The only chair open when he arrived at the dinner table was to his father’s left.  His mother did not yack on and on about evening plans.  To top it off, his three siblings kept glancing at him.  His absorption with shoveling in food made him oblivious to it all. 

He looks at Justin, his seventeen-year-old brother.  Before Justin reformed, he and Billy regularly carried out illegal activities together.  Justin’s expression shows plenty of empathy, but no sympathy.  Because the nine-year-old twins, George and Annie, see themselves as “good kids,” their focus is on Minnie, not Billy.  Billy doesn’t care much for the twins.  His father and mother learned from the mistakes they made raising Justin and Billy.  They are raising the twins much differently. 

As Billy slides back down into his chair, Mike turns to Minnie.  When her nod, he turns back to Billy.  His expression is serious.  Looking Billy squarely in the eye, “I called your Uncle Gus.”  After a pause to let it sink in, he calmly adds, “He has agreed to take you.” 

Billy’s body jerks.  Those dreaded words bring back memories of Justin’s return from Hell’s Cauldron two years ago.  Justin changed from being the brother he knew and loved, the brother he looked up to, the brother he got into trouble with, to a brainwashed Justin.  Billy swore he would never go to Hell’s Cauldron, even if sent.  Back then, Justin laughed off Billy’s bravado.  Now he gives Billy the, “I told you so look.”  He had warned Billy, “Change or be next.”

When Justin returned from Hell’s Cauldron, he dropped all association with old friends, went out for sports, and settled down to studying.  He even began attending church regularly.  One Sunday at the dinner table his father declared, “Hell’s Cauldron’s made a man of you, son.” 

Billy retorted, “If that’s manhood, no thanks!” Mike was more than just a little mad.  His expectations for a happy moment were ruined.  His father’s railroad watch slid back down into his pants pocket.  Justin’s reward had to wait for another day. 

The memory of that moment still causes the hair on the back of Billy’s neck to stand up.  Billy’s real fear is growing up, becoming an adult.  He does not want to take on adult responsibilities, especially work.  He likes being foot-loose and fancy-free.  “Stealing beats work any day,” is a guiding mantra.

As Mike finishes, he looks to Minnie.  She announces, “Your bus ticket is purchased.”  Her look shows satisfaction in sharing this news.  “You leave at seven AM!  If you want back, earn it!”  Rising, “Get packed before seeing your friends tonight!”  Looking at  Mike, ” I’m going to finish folding clothes.”

Mike follows by rising and heading to the living room, the TV, his favorite chair, a cigarette, and the newspaper.  Before exiting the kitchen, he turns to look Billy in the eye.  “Your uncle Gus asked me to share with you, ‘There’s an appointed time for everything.  A time to plant and a time to uproot.’”

“That supposed to be funny?”

“I don’t think he meant it that way.  Just take it as a clue.” 

Mike stops further conversation by heading straight to his easy chair.  Billy tries fighting back.  “Sure, I’m a goof off, but Hell’s Cauldron?  I don’t deserve it!”  His yelling falls on deaf ears.  Mike and Minnie are convinced Hell’s Cauldron is Billy’s last chance before reform school. 

In his eagerness to blame someone for his predicament, Billy recalls how Minnie suggested to Judge Johnson that Justin choose between Hell’s Cauldron and Red Wing.  Billy now blames Minnie for his dilemma.  Silently, he vows to get even. 

When Billy had appeared before Judge Johnson in November, he had received a six-month probation.  Minnie had told Judge Johnson about several other crimes she believed Billy had committed.  Although sympathetic, the judge could only reply, “I’m forced to follow county guidelines in juvenile cases.”  Turning to Billy, “Next time, Mr. Deluca, things will be different.”  After a slight pause, he returned to Minnie.  “Perhaps you and Mike need to take a firmer hand.” 

On the way out of the courthouse, Minnie was steaming.  Judge Johnson’s comment really stung.  By the time she got to the courthouse steps, her anger was boiling.  Bystanders turned away as she screamed at Billy.  Her final words were, “I’ve had it with you, young man!  You’re going to do some changing or face the consequences!”

Initially Billy had believed her planning might lead to something like tonight’s edict.  However, with no major restrictions imposed by April, he had begun feeling smug, figuring he had gotten off easy.  He even told himself, She folded ‘cause I done what I was told.  He believes the minimum is the maximum any boy needs to do. 

Since Billy never quits rationalizing and scheming, he now yells in the direction of the laundry room, “You were just waiting for the school year to end!  Hell, only incorrigible kids go to Hell’s Cauldron!”

His father’s reprimand is swift.  From the easy chair it comes loud and clear.  “Watch your mouth, son!  You wanna be angry about your situation, come in here and talk to me!”

As silence settles over the kitchen, Billy looks to Justin for support.  Growing suspicious of the quiet, Mike moves his newspaper forward just a bit.  Peripheral vision allows him to see what is happening in the kitchen.  His chair sits adjacent to the dining room archway, allowing a sightline and eavesdropping into kitchen conversations and activities. 

As Justin stares past Billy and into the dining room, Billy turns to see what he is looking at.  His father’s face is halfway hidden by the newspaper.  Billy glares.  Slowly Mike pulls the newspaper closer, as if reading more intently.  This action doubly angers Billy.  It is what his father does when Minnie wants his attention. 

Just as Mr. Saunders’ comment had caused Billy to crave a cigarette, the present moment also does.  Angrily he drum his fingers on the kitchen table to relieve tension.  When this fails to do so, he pushes back from the table.  Standing, he moves toward the back door, intending to retrieve his cigarette pack hidden behind the garage.  Glancing back, he sees Mike again moving his paper forward.  Billy waits until Mike’s peripheral vision gives him a peek at the action.  With an adult audience, Billy begins stomping around the kitchen. 

Working hard to get the clean-up chores done, his younger siblings do not react.  Mike does.  “Cut out that racket or you’ll be in more trouble!”  It is not an idle threat.  Although Billy stops stomping, he does not intend to stop being obnoxious.  Before he can change his tactics, he realizes his father will search him before putting him on the bus.  This reminds him of something Justin once said, “Gus has a no smoking policy.”  No smoking is a conundrum for Billy.  He is addicted.

Billy had begun smoking in third grade after Justin bribed him with a half pack of cigarettes.  The bribe was payment for Billy’s lie about Justin being in bed all night.  Billy had seen Justin sneak in and undress just moments before the police knocked at the front door.  After finishing his ten cigarettes over a few days, Billy decided he liked the smell and taste of cigarettes.  First, he began picking up half-smoked cigarette butts from the ashtrays at the Broadway Hotel and  Rivoli Theater.  Next, he started stealing from his mother’s pack.  That worked fine until she quit. 

Billy smiles at the memory of Minnie’s decision to quit smoking.  It was two days after Judge Johnson had ordered Justin to Hell’s Cauldron.  With his anger hot, and a desire for revenge, Justin had convinced Billy to help him put loads into one of her cigarettes.  Each load is a sliver of wood about a half-inch long, impregnated with gunpowder.  Its size and tobacco color make it easy to hide in cigarettes.  Justin first tried one out on Murphy the Moocher.  When Murphy asked for a cigarette, Justin popped up the one with the load.

On Murphy’s second drag, the end blew off just as he was withdrawing the cigarette from his lips.  Murphy hardly flinched.  After that less-than-adequate result, Justin decided his mother deserved three loads.  While meticulously instructing Billy on a side-by-side technique for installing the loads, Justin could barely contain his excitement.  “They’ll go off with one hell of a bang!  You know how she hates loud noises.”

The next morning, as Minnie was fixing breakfast, her pack lay on the ironing board.  After elbowing Billy, Justin distracted his mother with small talk.  Billy took her pack into the bathroom.  Chuckling, he pushed in each load a half inch.  Minnie always took deep drags after lighting up.  She claimed, “It’s the best part of the cigarette.”  Billy returned her pack with the loaded cigarette sticking out, as if it had popped out when she set her pack down. 

After finishing the boys’ bacon and eggs, Minnie returned to ironing.  The protruding cigarette was too great a temptation.  Setting down the iron, she reached for the cigarette.  Since Billy knew she always put the logo end of the cigarette to her lips, he had made sure the loads were on the opposite end.  Smokers are like that; they love routine. 

Minnie always lit up after dinner, while ironing, having a cup of coffee, or in bed at night.  The boys knew about her smoking in bed because the smell drifted out of their folks’ bedroom window on warm summer evenings. 

Minnie also liked to light up while doing the dishes or cooking.  Because she allowed her cigarette to dangle out of the corner of her mouth, long ashes often formed.  Sometimes the weight of the ash caused it to drop into the mashed potatoes or green beans.  When the boys asked about the dark specks in their food, she always claimed, “That’s pepper!”  The boys found it entertaining to put her on the spot.  So did Mike.

On the morning in question, Minnie dangled her cigarette as usual – head tilted in the opposite direction to prevent smoke from getting in her eyes.  She hated putting a cigarette down while working, preferring to take a deep drag whenever the urge arose.  On that particular morning, the boys knew they were in for a real treat.  When they began snickering after she placed the loaded cigarette in her mouth, she immediately withdrew it.  “What’s so funny?”

Their answer came in unison.  “Nothing!  We’re just reading’ the funnies.”  She believed their innocent sounding excuse.  The morning paper lay open to the funnies section.  Returning to ironing, she inhaled deeply.  It was then “all hell broke loose!”  The three loads went off simultaneously.  Ashes and burning tobacco flew in every direction.  Embers landed on Mike’s new work shirt, Minnie’s apron, the ironing pad, and in her hair. 

Terrified and furious, she slapped and stomped the burning ashes, swearing in a fashion the boys had never heard.  When her anger subsided, she grew sad beyond anything they had ever witnessed.  Not able to hold back serious tears, she sat down on the kitchen stool and sobbed into the folds of her apron.

Embarrassed by her bawling, the boys looked down at their bacon and eggs.  Unfortunately, her display of pain did not cause them any remorse.  They just waited for her to stop, like they had so many times when Mike treated her poorly. 

When her crying slowed, she rose with the offending pack in hand.  On reaching the kitchen sink, she opened the right-hand door and pulled out the garbage pail.  Standing over it in a near hypnotic state, she unceremoniously ripped each cigarette into shreds.  The fragments slipped between her fingers, covering the entire top of the garbage like a sacrificial offering.

By the time she returned to ironing, she was in shock and no longer truly aware of her surroundings.  The boys clearly saw she was in no condition to continue ironing.  She might burn herself or worse yet, burn one of their father’s work shirts.  Still, they could not be sympathetic.  Believing they had gotten even, they hightailed it out the back door, laughing loudly while running down their long driveway.

As their howling faded in the distance, Minnie hung Mike’s ash burnt work shirt in plain sight, gazing at it for some time, soul searching, crying periodically.  When she had no more tears to shed, she pleaded with God for help and answers.  The outcome of her prayers and pleading was a pledge.  That evening at the dinner table, she disclosed it.  “I’m quitting smoking.”

This happened about the same time Billy stumbled across brass slugs in the scrap metal railcars behind King’s Manufacturing.  King’s always keeps two railroad gondolas filled with castoffs.  From these, bums got plenty of shanty-building materials.  Billy likes to take softball size pieces and drop them off the viaduct.  His goal is to send them down the smoke stacks of the few remaining coal-burning train engines and the new diesel engines passing beneath. 

While picking up a half dozen metal pieces one day, he found shiny brass slugs the size and feel of quarters.  Barely able to contain his euphoria, he stuffed his pockets full.  At the nearest gas station, he dropped one in a cigarette vending machine. 

Its swift slide through the coin chute caused a jubilant feeling until the dinging began.  Glancing around, he saw the attendant washing a windshield and paying no attention to the vending machine sounds.  Pulling the pack lever was like hitting the jackpot on a one-armed bandit.   Pocketing the goods, he was out of there in the blink of an eye.  Ever since, he has carried his own cigarettes. 

Because Billy’s greed knows no bounds, he often returns to the scrap metal railcars, bringing along a large leather bag that once held his grandfather’s silver dollar collection.  Billy is always hoping to fill it with another jackpot of slugs.  Poor Grandpa, he died believing old age caused him to forget where he had hidden his silver dollar collection.  He hadn’t forgotten.  Billy spent Grandpa’s treasure on movies, girls, and beer for the gang. 

Since the railcar find, Billy has kept his slugs hidden from siblings, friends, and parents.  It was his stash that led to his downfall at the beginning of the school year.  In his zeal to keep students from squealing about his upcoming extracurricular classroom activities, he purchased several packs of cigarettes to give out the first two days of school.

Purchasing all of them at one time meant repeated dinging from the vending machine.  The sounds alerted an attendant.  Previously, the store manager had asked his staff to be on lookout for the culprit using slugs.  When the attendant saw the underage Billy purchasing cigarettes, he gave chase and caught him within two blocks.  The attendant had been a long-distance runner in high school. 

When Billy appeared in Juvenile Court, he found out that returning too often to the same gas station was what led to his downfall.  Because his town of fifteen thousand contains several gas stations, he now spreads his false wealth around town by never returning to the same vending machine more than once every three to four months. 

While in court, Billy’s mother had complained to Judge Johnson about cigarette vending machines being too accessible.  Emboldened, Billy called out her hypocrisy.  In a high-pitched voice mimicking Minnie’s, he blurted, “It’s convenient.”  This had been her mantra when she and other mothers and fathers petitioned the city council to change the licensing laws to allow cigarette vending machines in gas stations. 

Billy’s mocking had really wounded her.  Although his boldness had angered Judge Johnson, it did not change the sentencing, a second blow to Minnie.

These memories now focus Billy on finding a get-even-scheme for his mother.  Seeing his father actually reading the newspaper, Billy turns to Justin.  “Remember how I helped you get even with Mom?”  His low, secretive voice does nothing to persuade Justin.

“Don’t even go there!  You know I am grateful; but it’s over.  I’ve changed.”

“You owe me from when Mom sent you to Hell’s cauldron!”

“I know, but I’m not doing what I asked of you.  You’ll thank me.”

“Then tell me what it’s like.”

“Can’t.”  With that, Justin walks out the back door, leaving Billy and his two younger siblings to finish cleaning the dishes.  The twins always stay out of discussions between Justin and Billy.  They wish they had not even heard this last dialogue.  They know Minnie will ask them what Billy and Justin talked about.  Since the twins like being the “good kids,” they willingly keep their folks informed.  However, the twins also fear “squealing.”  Billy always gets even.  Even if he is gone this summer, he will make sure his gang members bully them at the beach and park.

Justin’s leaving forces Billy to rethink his plans.  First, he imagines hiking from Gus’ Ranch to the Badlands.  I’ll hide there like the cowboys do in the movies after robbing a stagecoach.  After visiting the presidents’ monument in Rapid City, I’ll hitch a ride to Hollywood and get an acting job.  I’ll show them.  I’ll run away and become a famous movie star like James Dean.

Billy doesn’t realize that Gus’ ranch is smack dab in the middle of nowhere, not even close to Rapid City.  It is just east of the Standing Rock Reservation and twenty miles south of the North Dakota border.  Trying to walk out in summer’s heat or winter’s cold means certain death.  It is the equivalent of swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco, if Alcatraz were located fifty miles beyond the Golden Gate.

After Billy heads out the backdoor, slamming it extra hard, he sneaks behind the garage.  A lilac hedge hides this side of the garage.  Sliding open the left-hand side of a double sash sliding window above his dad’s workbench, he crawls in.  Previously he had cut off a portion of this window’s lock, making it appear locked when it was not.  His dad keeps the doors and windows locked for fear of losing tools and rabbits to the Charles Street Gang.  He shouldn’t worry!  Billy runs with them. 

Moving quickly, pausing only long enough to look out the side door window to be sure no one is coming, Billy reaches his father’s pride and joy – the rabbit hutches.  They are off-limits to everyone but his father.  Mike often brags about how much money he has saved his family on meat bills.  This from the man who makes his living cutting beef at Wilson’s Packing House.  Billy, sick and tired of rabbit meat, would long ago have killed the whole bunch were it not for his secret compartment. 

The bunnies all stare wide-eyed as Billy stands before the hutches to consider two strategies for thwarting his parents’ plans.  First, I’ll miss the bus by not packing.  He chuckles at this idea.  The second involves gang members.  It is the reason he is in the garage. 

After his dad had built the rabbit hutches, Billy had made a secret compartment behind the face-board.  It now houses thirty rolls of slugs and stolen goods he has yet to sell.  Grabbing four rolls, he crawls back out the window, climbs over the fence and crosses the neighbor’s backyard.  It is a shortcut to Main Street.  He heads uptown to the Broadway turnaround.  His gang always gathers there after dinner to see who is dragging Broadway.

They all dress alike: blue jeans, black belts, polished black shoes, and white socks.  Their white t-shirts each hold a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the left arm sleeve.  This creative clothing emphasizes their bad boy image, courtesy of Jimmy Dean’s in Rebel without a Cause.  However, not everyone keeps a pack handy.  Murphy the Moocher does not. 

“Hey, Billy, what’s up?”  “You’re late.”  “Got a cig?” are his greetings.

While giving each a cigarette, he announces light-heartedly, “The old lady’s making me go tah h-h-h-Hell’s C-c-c-cauldron.”  The stutter is an attempt to be funny while trying to stave off the inevitable.

“Hey, man, what gives?  You said you’d never go.”  Murphy’s reminder comes while blowing smoke toward Billy’s face.

“Yeah,” the others join in, “what gives?”

Billy does not try to claim his old man will beat him.  They would know he is lying.  His mother and father may have their faults, but hitting is not one of them.  Sorry to say, that is not the case for some of Billy’s pals.  Realizing it is best to keep his mouth shut, Billy bides his time. 

When the others let up, he tries the sympathy angle.  “You guys know my old man will search me.   How about helping me get cigs into Hell’s Cauldron?”  When no offers follow, Billy turns to Kevin.  “Yer Mom is always baking brownies.  How about layering some around a few packs?  I’ll give you four rolls.”  The boys know he is talking quarter sized slugs.  “Use my grandmother’s name and return address.  Gus will never suspect anything.” 

Murphy likes the idea.  “Hey, give’m to me.  I’ll do it.”

“Your Mom don’t bake brownies.”

Murphy turns to Kevin, “You’ll work with me, right Kevin?”  Kevin nods. 

Billy is suspicious.  His pals all wear the same shit-eating grin.  However, because he has nothing to lose and everything to gain, he accepts.  “Ok.  But swear on your grandmothers’ graves!”  When both boys do, he hands over the rolls.  They are ecstatic.  Their grandmothers are still alive.

“Hey, did you hear that Leroy won the pot?  

Kevin’s revelation stuns Billy.  “How the heck did you manage that?” 

The others laugh.  Leroy told them while giving each a share.  He was going to tell Billy and give him a cut of the winnings, but Billy’s announcement changed that.  After Leroy reveals his secret, but before Billy can ask for a share, Bobby pipes up, “Hey, let’s get going.”  Bobby wants the subject changed as he hopes the gang can split Billy’s cut when he leaves for Hell’s Cauldron.  All agree and head to the Packers’ ballpark. 

Their minor league baseball team is playing its archrival, the Brewers.  The guys shag balls for pocket money.  Since the game produced a large number of foul balls back over the grandstand, by night’s end the gang is flush with extra cash.  There is never any competition for shagging balls in this area.  Anyone not a gang member, who tries, gets beat up.  With the extra cash, they head straight to the drive-in. 

“Hey, Billy, we can celebrate you’re going away.”

Murphy’s implication angers Billy.  “You’re talking like I’ll be gone forever!”

“Cool your jets, man.  It’s just a good excuse to party.”  Kevin means at the A&W.  “Maybe we can fix you up with Carol.”  This brings a chorus of laughs.  Carol is every boy’s dream.  Unfortunately, she is just a tease looking for tips.  Billy knows he has no chance and does not comment.  The boys all like the carhops, but these older high school girls do not care for ninth and tenth grade boys. 

“Hi, Sally.”

“You boys got money or just gawking?”  That’s Midge.  Nobody messes with her.

“Hey, give us a break.  We been shagging’ balls all night.”

“You boys gotballs!”  Her sarcastic putdown is not lost on them.

Whenever Billy pulls in with Justin and Todd, he gets more than just a hint of respect. Todd and Justin are football and track stars.  Since the girls want to stay tight with them, they treat Billy well when he is along.  Not tonight. 

As midnight approaches, the boys drop Billy off.  “Hey, man, what’s sitting on your front steps?”  Murphy’s embarrassing question causes a chorus of laughter as Kevin’s, jet black, pinstriped ’38 Chev peels away.  Under the glare of the porch light, Billy’s suitcase sits packed and waiting. 

Chapter 2

The Road Less Traveled

Guided by artistic imaginings and personal beliefs, Gus tools a running buffalo on the seat of the ranch’s newest saddle.  Although the saddle is stained black, the buffalo will be painted white.  Hearing thundering hoofs, he glances out the tack shop window.  Racing in with side-to-side maneuvers are Buck and Death Rider.  Close behind are the faint shadows of the five newest residents.  The scene is remincent of bandits chasing a fleeing stagecoach.  Buck’s grin is as wide as the Cauldron.  He has just completed the boys’ first initiation to cowboy life – eating dust.

Chuckling while putting down his swivel knife, Gus exits the tack room by a side door.  Outside, he signals his foreman to head to the small corral.  The boys continue a beeline for the horse barn.  They must curry, water, and feed their horses before dinner.  As Buck dismounts, Gus prepares him, “Something’s come up!” 

The eagerness in Gus’ voice puts Buck on notice.  Looping reins around the nearest fence post, he less than enthusiastic reply is, “Sure, what’s up?”

“The last one’s coming tomorrow!  Remember Justin?”  Gus cannot hide his eagerness.  Buck’s furrowing eyebrows only serve to quicken Gus’ pace.  “His kid brother is coming.  I intend to drive him down Cliff Road.” 

“I thought we agreed on that senior from Brookings?”  Besides, we need to replace that broken leaf spring in the old pickup.  The truck’s just too dangerous in its present condition.  Plus, we haven’t even checked to see what the winter snow melt and spring rains have done to Cliff Road.”

Ignoring Buck’s fears, Gus pushes forward with enthusiasm.  “This kid has even my brother believing it may be too late.” 

After taking a deep breath, Buck’s reply is slow and unhurried.  “I know great risks are not unusual for us, but I don’t understand using Cliff Road!” 

This only further motivates Gus.  “I’ve known him since he was a little guy.  He’s a diamond in the rough.  Reminds me of myself when I was young.  Just needs an opportunity to make a clean break before he kills himself.”  Buck’s worry lines increase as Gus hurries to get it all out.  “He dives off the Bad Medicine River cliffs with abandonment.  Once jumped off the Holland Falls viaduct onto a moving train.  He’s even rolled under a slow-moving freight to get away from a Dime Store employee chasing him for shoplifting.  So far, his stunts have only gotten him a couple broken bones.” 

None of this information lessens Buck’s concern.  Seeing what he hoped for, Gus  continues, “I have a feeling on this one.  I know you want me to remember Justin’s entry into the Spout, and I know I swore never again, but I think Billy is the fourth member of this year’s vision quest.”

“White Horse said he didn’t know who it was.  Why do you believe it’s Billy?” 

In early May, while preparing for this year’s vision quest, Chief White Horse had hung around the ranch until he was able to get Gus and Buck alone.  “My people’s medicine men and women are sending only three candidates this year.  They believe an unknown fourth will join them.”  White Horse’s revelation has had Gus wondering ever since.

Unknown to Buck, Gus is familiar with the vision quests taking place at the Spout and Wakhansica Hioka – Devil’s Hole.  He knew the fourth had to be someone connected with the ranch.  For this reason, he wants Buck to accept Billy as the sixth summer resident. 

“You’ve got one of your hunches!”  Gus’ innocent look tells Buck further questioning will be hopeless.  “Okay.  How do you want me to prepare Harper and the others?”

“That’s the part I’m unsure of.  We need to think about how things happened with Justin.  Billy’s capable of much more.”

“That’s not reassuring.  If we couldn’t stop Justin, how do you expect to slow Billy?”

“That’s just it, I don’t!  I want this yearling to lead.  The last time I saw him, I nicknamed him Billy the Kid.  That should give you some indication of what we’re up against.”

“It’s hardly an unusual moniker for one of our summer guys.” 

Buck’s last response is what Gus wants to hear.  “Let’s continue this conversation after dinner when Stella can join us.”  With the seed planted and the decision etched in stone, Gus leaves Buck pondering what kind of mess they are getting into.

After dinner, while Gus and Stella meet with Buck, their thirteen-year-old daughter lies on her bed making a diary entry.  The Prairie Flower quilt she lies on is a precious reminder of her grandmother.  She died two days after gifting it to Andy on Christmas Eve, 1950.  Each quilt square contains six flower beds of varying sizes.  Each bed contains a set of different prairie flowers.   

Before sewing the squares together, her grandmother spent over two years hand stitching each flower bed.  Because red is Andy’s favorite color, Grandma bordered the squares with it.  Since the gifting, this precious quilt has never been washed.  Held within its fabric is the pleasant aroma of grandmother’s favorite perfume.  A poignant reminder of the gentle woman who, while the two planted beds of wildflowers in the arbor and around the homestead’s buildings, gave Andy great advice on becoming a firm and gentle leader.   .

Andy’s headboard is a set of three, built-in shelves holding fiction, geology, and history books.  No nick-knacks.  The wallpaper surrounding her bookshelves illustrates kittens in playful poses.  Opposite the foot of her bed, against the south wall, is a wardrobe.  On cold winter mornings she enjoys sliding out from the foot of her bed and stepping onto the soft, braided rug her mother made, all while wrapped in warm blankets.

From this vantage point, she easily reaches the clothes hanging in her wardrobe or set in the bottom two drawers.  Both doors of the wardrobe are presently open.  Three riding outfits and one fancy cowgirl dress hang in plain sight.  On the shelf beneath are two pair of riding boots – one for work and one for dress.  To call attention to her white dress boots, Andy recently attached pink tassels to sway back and forth as she walks. 

The wall left of her bed faces west.  Its double wide window allows for a magnificent view of the western wall of the Cauldron.  In front of this window is the desk her father built.  Above and to each side of the window, the wallpaper depicts magnificent stallions and mares standing atop a canyon ridge, gazing down into the flatlands below.  The window curtains display various dog breeds.  To keep her feet warm on cold days, another braided rug lies between her bed and her desk.   Apart from these few items, her bedroom shows little else of her personality.

Presently her left hand is cupping her chin.  With her legs bent at the knees, she twirls her feet nervously over her back and pens an entry into her diary. 

Monday, May 26, 1952

Dear Diary,                                                                    

Heard Dad talking and laughing with Mom before dinner.  Caught just the tail end of it.  “Billy the Kid” is coming tomorrow. Mom does not think Dad’s nickname funny.  The Three Musketeers are now in the parlor for one of their secret Pow Wow’s.  Couldn’t help but hear some of what they are saying.  The windows are wide open as it is another warm spring evening.

Dad said Uncle Mike has had more trouble with Billy than he did with Justin.  He also said, “Billy’s been implicated in a number of robberies and a knife fight.”   The last time I saw Billy was four years ago when we visited Holland Falls.  His family has not been here since I was little.  Mom says Uncle Mike does not like the Elevator or Cliff Road. 

The last time we visited them, Billy acted as if he were a big-city slicker.  He’s only a year older but pretends to be much smarter.  I remember him being kind of short and skinny with a nice smile.  Kicked me once when I would not play his dumb game.  He wanted to see who could jump the furthest off the back of his garage roof.  He didn’t even have a hay pile to jump onto.  Never did find out why his older brother was here two years ago, or what happened to him.  

Maybe Billy knows.                                                                                               Andy                                                            

Before breakfast, she pens another entry.

Tuesday, May 27, 1952

Dear Diary,                                                      

Had a weird dream last night.  Billy watched me go down Devil’s Hole.  Just stood there laughing.  Glad I woke up.  It felt like certain death.  I think I need to be extra careful around him.  Sure hope nothing bad happens to Dad on Cliff Road.  If it does, I’ll be mad at Billy.  I’ll write more after he arrives.             Andy 

As mid-morning approaches, Gus enters the kitchen from the side porch door.  Stella is preparing a cherry pie.  Her hands are coated with flour as she spreads and rolls the dough.  When he encircles her waist for a hug, she sets down her rolling pin and twists around to greet him.  With both hands, she draws his face in for a kiss.   Stepping back with a smile, the glow in her dark brown eyes reveals both a deep love and a serious concern.

When she lifts a corner of her full-length feedbag apron to wipes her hands, he realizes the clown face he must be wearing.  Lifting the other corner of her apron, he wipes the flour off his face.   Acting totally relaxed and with a loving smile and soft, caressing voice, to betray any hint of concern, Gus says, “I’ll be back before dinner.”  When she does not drop her gaze, he adds, “Don’t worry!  I’ll be careful!”

“I still don’t think it’s worth the risk.” 

Gus works hard to allay her fears.  “You know I wouldn’t do anything foolish.  I love you too much.” 

Her reply is simply, “I’ll walk you out.” 

As they exit the ranch house by the front door, Andy is on the other side of the white picket fence framing the front yard.  Slowly tightening Tansy’s cinch to the post ring, she is waiting to see her father off.  After lunch, Stella will join her in the round up.  When she sees them coming out the front door, she hurries thought the gate to give her father a goodbye hug.  As she does so, she whispers, “I love you, Dad.”  Her actions mirror Stella’s concern.

“I love you, too, honey.”

As Gus drives away in the old pickup, she turns to her mother.  “Why’s Dad using Cliff Road?  You told me it wasn’t safe.”

“Never mind, honey.  He’ll be okay.” 

Since both  added “honey” to the end of their statements, Andy knows they are worried.  She wonders, Is it the danger in using Cliff Road, Billy’s coming, or both?

……………………………………………………………

As the sun rises in Holland Falls, Billy is hiding a slug in each sock.  In the past, before leaving on family vacations, he would always hide slugs this way.  After breakfast, his father pointedly asks, “Mind taking your shoes and socks off?”  When Billy does, the metal slugs cling to the bottoms of his sweaty feet.  He believes he has won round one.

Three hours later his bus pulls into the Hub Café and gas station on the outskirts of Slayton, Minnesota.  Hurrying to get off, Billy’s feet barely touch the ground when a strong hand grabs his forearm.  “Hey, kid, your old man gave me an extra five to look after you.  Wait here while I get the new people checked in.  I’ll walk you to the restroom.”

Billy tries pulling free.  “He never said nothin’ about you!”  The old guy would be dead meat if looks could kill.

Tightening his grip, the driver returns the challenge.  “Tough guy, huh?  You’re not the first I took to Hell’s Cauldron, and you won’t be the last.  Trust me, you don’t scare me a bit!”  Taking a page from Billy’s book, he shows a willingness to go twelve rounds.  Billy backs down.  “I hope that place scares the hell out of you.  If it don’t, I’m ready to.”

Outmaneuvered, Billy changes tactics.  “You took other kids there?”

“Only punks like you.  A couple run away.  Sheriff thinks they died from heat and dehydration.  Probably buried six feet under from those blowing Dakota sands.  Is that what you’re aiming for?”

“Hah, my old man put you up to this!”

“I’m to call the cops if you give me any crap.”  Billy stops struggling.  Upon entering the restroom, his anger boils over from waiting in the hot morning sun – perhaps five minutes.  In an attempt to rid himself of frustration, he pees all over the toilet seat and floor.  Standing outside the restroom door, the bus driver grows suspicious because of the snickering from within. 

As Billy opens the door to come out, the driver pushes him back.  “Okay, what’s so damned funny?”  Billy attempts to push past the old man.  Grabbing Billy by the scruff of his neck, he slams him against the nearest wall.  Stunned, Billy quiets.  Holding him tightly with one hand, the driver sniffs the air and looks around.  Finding what he suspected, he shoves Billy through the stall door to face his mess.

“There’s cleaner and rags in the cabinet under the sink.  Get ’em!”  When Billy finishes cleaning the floor and toilet bowl to the driver’s satisfaction, they return to the bus – side by side.  Billy acts cool, as if he and the driver are old friends.  He is not fooling any of the passengers.  They know he is being marched.  Looking over the vacant seats, the driver orders, “Sit in that aisle seat halfway back on the right!”  Billy slinks into the vacant seat.

Hours later Billy’s stop is moments away.  A quarter of a mile to be exact.  He knows this because his father often brags about how Gus Deluca won a Burma Shave ditty contest.  “They put his signs up just before the ranch road.  He got placement rights and a hundred dollars in that contest.”  

While Billy gets his carry-on items together, the little girl sitting in front of him begins reading the Burma Shave signs to her mother.   

“Cattle Crossing

Means Go Slow

That Old Bull

Is Some

Cow’s Beau

Burma Shave”

“Mommy, what does beau mean?”  Hearing her question, Billy conceives a plan for getting even with the driver who is slowly moving the bus off the right side of the highway.  Once off and parked parallel to it, he steps out onto some twenty square yards of barren land.  On the opposite side of the lot is Gus’ pickup parked and facing onto the ranch’s road. Gus is calmly leaning against the left rear fender.  He will wait for Billy to come to him.  He has learned from past bus stops that the driver is on a tight schedule.

Remaining seated, Billy looks out the side window and waits for the driver to retrieve his bag from the undercarriage.  Seeing it coming out, he pops up and sticks his head between the little girl and her mother, “Means the old bull wants to have sex with the cow!” 

As Billy hits the aisle, the mother is swinging.  Unfortunately, Billy is too quick for her.  She connects with thin air.  Off the bus, he rips his suitcase from the driver’s hand.  The action is intended to distract both the driver and Gus.  The driver tosses off Billy’s rudeness as good riddance.  To stay on schedule, he and Gus wave to each other.

Billy’s quick movement momentarily distract both Gus and the driver from seeing the big picture.  As Billy moves quickly toward Gus, he takes the time to size up the uncle he hasn’t seen in four years.  He looks damn sure of himself.  Don’t remember him that way! 

Gus, dressed in a cowboy shirt and blue jeans, is leaning against his rusty old pickup, exudes confidence without flash.  He is the type of person who does not wish to bring undo attention to himself.  Billy correctly reads him as someone not easily led.  That’s a quality Billy desperately wants for himself. 

As Billy draws near, Gus’ belt buckle garners his attention.  A twisted rope of Black Hills gold surrounds a four-inch black, oval agate.  Danged if those white veins don’t remind me of a peace pipe head.  Although Gus notes Billy’s staring at the belt buckle, he shows no reaction.  Next Billy takes in Gus’ leather boots.  They, too, give Billy pause to wonder.  Their design is unlike any Billy has ever seen.  Although the boots appear soft and form fitting like a pair of fancy women’s driving gloves, the curlicue-stitching flowing from beneath his pants-cuffs is what grabs Billy’s attention.  They’re like beckoning fingers.  Like the belt buckle’s white veins, the stitches appear to have a story behind them.  

Although intrigued by the stitching and belt buckle, Billy turns his attention back to sizing-up Gus.  He seems ready for any contingency.  What throws Billy off is Gus’ light brown cowboy hat.  Tilted slightly back, it gives the faintest hint of that folksy cowboy all Americans love, Will Rogers.  What is this guy trying to tell me?

As for his part, Gus is speculating on Billy’s eagerness to get away from the bus.  Pushing off the fender of his ‘39 Chevy pickup, he extends a welcoming hand and smile.  “Glad you’re excited about coming, Billy!” 

Although Gus is not deceived by Billy’s actions, his greeting and outstretched hand are genuine.  He believes Billy is special and wants to work with him.  However, this idyllic belief won’t interfere with his responsibilities.  This truth immediately shows when Billy shows defiance.  “Just here to please my old lady and stay out of jail.  Don’t like being here any better than you like having me.”  Without shaking Gus’ hand, Billy stops in front of him and stares, blocking Gus’ full view of the exiting bus.

Realizing the distraction, Gus looks past Billy.  Plastered against the left pane of a doublewide, sliding bus window is a little girl sticking out her tongue.  Adjacent is her mother angrily trying to slide open the other half of the window.  Immediately Billy steps around Gus and up to the pickup.  Banging the suitcase down into the truck’s bed, he heads to the passenger door where he stops to turn and shout, “Let’s get going and get this over with!” 

Feeling he has been left little choice in handling Billy, Gus plans for the more dangerous strategy.  Billy must be saved at all costs.  It is better to die trying than to lose Billy.  Gus has never before made such a drastic decision.

An avid fan of detective movies, Billy spent the better part of his bus ride rehearsing facial expressions used by bad guys in the detective movies shown at the Rivoli Theater.  Opening the passenger door, he climbs onto the running board.  Standing on tiptoes for added height, he throws a contemptuous glance Gus’ way.  Feeling the scene is set, he shouts, “Don’t wanna be here!  Just doing this to please the old lady.”  Although his accompanying sneer might scare off the meanest mongrel, Gus is unfazed.

Getting no reaction, Billy puffs up his chest and scowls.  Another attempt to guilt Gus into apologizing for accepting him as a summer resident.  When this action also gets no reaction, Billy barks a command, “Let’s get going!” 

Gus is very patient in bringing about positive changes to offensive behavior.  Neither his posture nor his facial expression change.  Seeing firmness, Billy climbs into the cab and sulks.  After five minutes and still no Gus entering the cab, Billy turns to looks out the rear cab window.  Gus reads, “What the hell you waiting for, Christmas?”  He gives the faintest hint of a smile.  Billy turns immediately and stares out the windshield.  When Gus finally moves forward and opens the driver’s door, Billy turns, glares, and demands, “What’s so damn funny?”

“Nothing you want to hear, Son.  But welcome to Hell’s Cauldron.”  After entering the cab, Gus goes silent, forcing Billy to reflect.  Only Billy will be able to break this new silence.  Gus has wrangled before.

Their drive across the prairie is on a narrow, dusty, low-maintenance road.  It is hot, bumpy, and monotonous.  Soon the acres of sagebrush and low-growing cacti further deteriorate Billy’s attitude.  That does not deter Gus.  This is his territory, his paradise.  He is in charge.

Unable to cope with the long silence, Billy tries sarcasm.  “Don’t you got no paved roads in South Dakota?”  When Gus does not respond, Billy continues niggling.  “How come you only grow cactus?”

Gus uses the opening.  “The plural is cacti.  It’s from the Latin.”  It does the trick.  Billy goes on the defensive.  Forming his best sneer and curled lip, he exhales a low, guttural, unintelligible sound.  Gus answers, “That’s okay with me, son.” 

When Billy returns to sulking, Gus soon wonders if his cacti comment may have pushed things a bit too far.  He decides to try a new approach.  “If you really want to get out of Hell’s Cauldron, I’ll show you how.” 

Convinced Gus is trying to get the upper hand, Billy turns on him.  He wants to say, “I won’t be staying that long,” but chooses something subtler.  Mimicking the vocal tones a male movie star used on a nightclub singer, he asserts, “I already know how.” Billy believes using a baritone voice makes his words him sound wiser.  It worked on a sixth-grade girl at the ice-skating rink this past winter.  Now he naively believes it will work on anyone.

“Let’s be honest, Billy.  Your folks know my rule.  You go home when I say.” 

“What?  My old man said the summer!”

“I’ll tell you the same thing I told Justin, ‘Work with me, and you’ll be out of here in no time.  Work against me, you’ll wish you were at Red Wing.  Secondly, you’ll speak respectfully of your parents while you’re here.” 

Billy turns and stares out the side window, hiding this latest blow.  Gus’ serious, quiet, authoritative voice is a reality check.  He is in charge.  Nothing will change that.  Billy’s greatest fear is happening – meeting his match before he can finish his bluff.  Billy struggles to hold back an overwhelming feeling of loss.   To prevent tears, he locks his jaw and publicly vows with great passion, “I won’t change!  I got a good life!

“There’s a time to seek, and a time to let go, Billy.  The choice is yours.”

Taking this adult platitude as fighting words, “Yeah!  Dad said you had corny sayings.”  When Billy’s attempt to inflict emotional pain fails, neither speak for nearly an hour.  When boredom overtakes Billy, he closes his eyes for a nap.  This action prevents him from noting that the road is rising over a half foot per mile.  The rising is easy to see when you looking five or more miles down a dusty road; but it is not noticeable while sleeping.

When the timing is right, Gus clears his throat as if struggling with phlegm.  Irritated at this senseless awakening, Billy readies for a fight.  Before he can react, the windshield scene stops him cold.  Clouds hang just beyond the hood.  There is no horizon or road in front of him – only wispy clouds painted on a blue backdrop. 

“What’s going on?”

“Just wanted you to see the end of the road.  We are approaching the edge of Hell’s Cauldron.  You ever see sky that blue?”  The stage is set.  “Wanted you to see the big picture before we go down.  Didn’t want you waking up and freaking out.”  Gus is driving up a short, steep incline that ends at the rim’s edge.

Billy laughs!  Hiding fear, he responds.  “If I were living in Columbus’ time, I’d say we were about to fall off the edge of the world.”  Although Billy has never seen the ocean, his analogy is a good one.  Unfortunately, it reveals serious apprehension.  The only tangible objects are in his peripheral vision, out his side window. 

A huge oak tree and a flatbed truck are near the rim of the Cauldron some fifty yards to the right.  The rest of the view is just the slimmest bit of the Cauldron’s rim – perhaps an inch.  Wide open sky best describes most of Billy’s view.  Were it not for the bumpy road, Billy might easily believe the truck hovering in midair.  Wispy clouds block a clear view of the Cauldron’s floor. 

Gus takes full advantage of Billy’s statement concerning falling off the edge of the world.  “Can’t say I disagree with you, son.  Maybe we will!  The last time you were here, you squealed with delight as we made this approach.  Maybe that was fear.  Maybe you thought we were flying out and into a 400-foot hole.”  Gus is planting seeds.  Billy was three the one and only time he rode down Cliff Road.  “But hey, I like your edge-of-the-world idea.  Nothing but blue sky ahead for you and I.  Nothing but that bright light people claim to see just before dying.” 

Without letting up on the accelerator or watching the road, Gus continues staring at Billy who returns the stare with a loud disparaging comment.  “Ain’t done being crazy yet, huh?  And by the way, it’s you and me, not you and I!” 

Still staring at Billy, Gus responds in an overly calm and peaceful voice.  “You’re right, Billy.  It’s important to remember that in the last moments of our lives!”  Gus is the consummate actor.  His voice carries no anger or retaliation.  Billy feels is trapped by a crazy uncle.  He’s turned into Mr. Hyde

Grabbing the door handle, Billy begins formulating a plan to open it and roll out.  He saw James Dean do it in a movie when his brakes failed and he was about to go over a cliff.  Billy believes he can do it 

Just before unlatching the door, he takes another look out.  The giant, yawning void becomes a reality check.  Turning to yell at Gus, he again encounters a calm, relaxed man staring at him.  He imagines a crazed psycho recently escaped from an institution.  Hoping against hope, Billy tries to change his thinking. He’s got to be bluffing!.

“If I were you, son, I’d keep my eyes on the road ahead.  I don’t need you freaking out on me!”

Instinctively Billy looks through the windshield.  Broken clouds show only glimpses of blue – reinforcing the feeling of a passing into nothingness.  Calculating the truck’s speed, Billy decides lunatic is now the correct assessment of his driver.

With his mind racing, Billy remembers leaping off the river cliffs back home and the countless running jumps into the huge gravel pit just outside of Holland Falls.  In the latter, he would run full speed and jump as far off as he could, reaching soft sand some fifty feet below.  Touching down brought mini-avalanches that carried him to the bottom. Could he do that here?

Gus interrupts.  “We call the old lake bed Hell’s Cauldron.  Roughly sixty-five hundred acres, or ten square miles for city folk.  Some call it a pit or a crater.  A few claim it is a basin.  Detractors call it a gully hole.  You take your pick.  I like cauldron.  Truth is, there is only one way in, and that’s straight down.  There are no openings on any side like you find in a canyon.”

Pausing to allow the image to sink in, he waits for the right moment and then offers, “The drop is about four hundred feet.  Most people call this entrance ‘The Road to Hell.’  I like to think of it more as The Road of Life – lots of twists and unexpected down-turns.”

When Gus stops talking to check the road ahead, Billy turns to stare at him.  Immediately Gus shows fear beyond reckoning.  “Stop what you’re about to say and hang on!  We’re going down!”  Billy tries removing his hand from the door handle. It is immobile, fast asleep in a death grip.  

White-knuckling the steering wheel, Gus shouts a second time, “I waited too long!”  Billy braces his feet firmly against the firewall as Gus’ slams on the brakes to magnify the implications.  The truck’s rear end shudders, fishtailing right.  Jamming the steering wheel hard in that direction sees Billy sliding off the seat and huddling under the dashboard.  Gus’ timing is nearly as perfect as it was thirty years ago.  As the slide ends, Gus cranks the wheel left to stop the fishtailing. 

From his huddled position, Billy vents anger.  “Maybe you think you can scare me into changing or die in the process!  Hell, I’m willing to go down with you!”  His words are subterfuge.

The sliding, shuddering truck reminds Billy of his first roller coaster ride at Lake Okoboji’s Amusement Park.  He was much younger then – easily frightened.  On that ride, the roller coaster felt like it was leaping off the tracks at every hairpin turn.  Terrified, he had peed in his pants.  It took a long time before Justin let him live that down.  Mike had told Gus of the incident in preparation for today’s ride.  Billy’s pants are again dampening.

Before Gus looked over and found Billy in such a tight canon ball position, protecting his body, he questioned his delay of braking on the curve.  Now reaffirmed in his decision he notes, Finally, the lad is showing some sense!

Pushing in the clutch, Gus jams the straight stick into first gear.  The downshift brings an abrupt slowing and clicking from a broken leaf spring.  It is as if some part of the truck is breaking off.  Coupled with the roaring engine, new death-fears grip Billy.  His arms fly off his legs and over his head.  He is in the tightest, most protective ball he can form. 

Although Gus cannot see the road, he knows it is there.  The large boulder on his left marks the turn.  However, he is too close.  The truck’s running board scrapes it.  This sound has Billy imagining the truck’s undercarriage grinding on the road’s edge as it slides over.

Not since his fourteenth birthday has Gus been so foolhardy, yet so calm.  In a voice as smooth as the blended whiskey his grandfather used to make, he encourages, “Don’t worry, son!  If I miss the mark, we’ll land in the river.”  His taunting lets Billy know he is not going to gain control anytime soon.

Crouched helplessly, and in a much more humiliating position than Gus’ older sister when he pulled this same stunt on her, Billy is shaken.  Gus’ sister merely bent over in the seat, threw her head in her lap, and began screaming hysterically. 

As the truck slows and stability returns, Billy gains enough courage to look up.  Blood is returning to Gus’ face.  Shit, he’s scared, too!  Accompanying his crawling back onto the bench seat is more venting.  “This road must be the reason my folks quit visiting!  They’re not dumb enough to risk it twice!”  Expecting a reply, but getting nothing, he pushes harder.  “If you want to drive like a maniac, why don’t you have seat belts like the roller coasters?”  To show he is no longer fearful, he lookss out his side window. 

Gus jerks the steering wheel in that direction.  Again, the truck lunges toward the outer edge of the road.  Again, the broken leaf spring and worn shock bring the right front fender crashing down on the tire.  The renewed clicking and scraping do nothing to lessen Billy’s turmoil.  Adding greater fear this time is the loose gravel spitting off the tires and banging the undercarriage before flying off the road and into the abyss.  The sounds and sights force Billy’s stomach to churn anew.  Once again, he tightly closes his eyes. 

Even though he is on the inside of the road, next to the cliff’s face, Gus, too, is uncomfortable.  His pounding heart causes him to question whether the risk is worth it.  This reflection brings recall of a major guiding principle – “You can’t change a person all in one fell swoop, so don’t ever try.”  I need to quit this foolishness before I get us both killed

Relaxing a bit, he remembers how his father took away his driving privileges for six months.  Gus was only fourteen at the time.  His older sister had become a bossy front seat driver ever since the first day he began driving at age eleven.  He was fed up with her nagging.  Although she screamed and cried nearly the whole ride down that day, she never again told him how to drive. 

As this memory fades, Gus again glances at Billy’s posture.  Billy’s tenseness tells Gus he has gained the upper hand on a boy who has shown nothing but contempt for authority. It again reaffirms his use of Cliff Road.

To calm himself, Billy has closed his eyes to revisit a scene he glimpsed earlier.  The river on the Cauldron floor flows past a house and outbuildings before disappearing abruptly.  It becomes an “aha moment” allowing him to focus all of his attention away from the steep, narrow road.

Seeing Billy relaxing, Gus acts as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.  “The roundup is just beginning.  You’ll practice riding before participating.  We usually bring in between fifteen-hundred and two thousand head.  We dehorn some of the feeders and breeders before releasing them.  Youll get to help Buck with the castrations.”  Gus is not about to let Billy completely off the hook.  “We usually make a couple hundred steer.”

“You must think I’m a dumb city-boy.”

“Not at all.  Later, you will participate in the rattler roundup.”

“Rattler roundup?”  Billy eyes pop wide as he turns to check out Gus’ expression.  Gus swerves to the outer edge.  Another opportunity to size up the youngster.  Without hesitation Billy turns away, shutting his eyes for a fake gaze out the passenger window.  He accompanies his look with a broad smile, as if enjoying the danger, and asks,  “How come we didn’t use that elevator?”

Caught off-guard, Gus probes, “What made you say that?”

“Looks like you got one hooked up to that old stake bed.”  Billy is referring to a medium-sized truck whose flatbed has post pockets every three feet of the perimeter.  These pockets allow the truck bed to be converted by putting up fencing for hauling animals, solid walls to hold a load of grain, or no sides for baled hay.

“You saw that?”

“Yeah.  Reminds me of our ski run back home.  Someone ran an old ’36 Chevy coup up to the top.  Put the rear end on blocks and used the rims as pulleys.  Spliced a couple of hayloft ropes together to make a continuous loop.  Does a good job of pulling us up!”

“Notice anything else?”  Gus’ voice shows praise.

“Sure.  Woke up once and saw cattle chutes at a railroad siding some ten miles back.”  He looks for Gus’ reaction.  When he  sees approval, he forges ahead.  “Anyone ever walk out of here and hop a passing freight?”  When Gus does not respond, Billy believes he has hit a nerve.  Turning for another fake stare out the side window, he tries a new tactic.  “That railroad siding reminds me of the stockyards.” 

“Really.  You go there often?”  Gus’ questioning is real.  He wants to know what inspires Billy.

“Just to learn things.”

Not liking Billy’s tone and feeling he may reveal too much, Gus again steers toward the outer edge, braking and risking life and limb.  When Billy glares at him, fear, hurt, and questioning show on his face.  He squeezes his legs to stop a second pee reflex.  The day he wet his pants on the roller coaster was the day he vowed, “never again.”  To help contain control, he shouts,  “What the hell is it with you?”   

“Wrong tone, son.  Do not use it again!  You’ll pay a high price for swearing around the ranch.”  Taking his foot off the gas, “There is no stopping until we get down.  You’ll just have to hold it.” 

“Why are you doing this?” 

When Gus does not respond, Billy turns to God for help.  Get me down safely Lord.  I’ll do whatever you ask.  Immediately his promise makes him angry.  Why the hell is God punishing me for my sins before I die?  This question is a bad move.  Billy’s sins begin flashing before him as if on the big screen at the drive-in movie theater.  He tries stopping the review by repenting.  When that doesn’t help, he blurts angrily, “I won’t make a full confession!”

His out of the blue declaration astonishes Gus.  “You talking to me?”

 “In your dreams!” 

To avoid further miscues, Billy tries manipulating God by claiming he did not fully understand the seriousness of some of his actions.  I’m just a boy doing normal kid stuff.  This also backfires by bringing memories of serious transgressions.  Realizing God is not about to relent in reminding him of his waywardness, Billy decides to make a full confession.  Then, before he can, a contrary thought leads him to believe God is purposely jerking him around.  A second outburst occurs.  “No, I won’t change!” 

Hearing Billy’s second eruption leads Gus to believe all the right buttons are being pushed.  Perhaps Billy is finally thinking about the direction his life is going

Frustrated by his second outburst, and resentful of Gus’ treatment, Billy goes after him.  “You’re playing me!”  However, Billy cannot decide if he is angry or scared.

Gus changes the subject.  “You’ll appreciate the rattler roundup.  A lot of them hang around the bunkhouse.”

Billy’s mockery mimics Gus’ tone.  “Yeah, everything about this ride is perfect.”  Staring straight ahead, his eyes widen when peripheral vision again sets his stomach churning.  For the first time, heights are making him dizzy.  Jumping off river bridges and between buildings in Holland Falls never caused him this kind of stress. 

“Ever been to the top of the Foshay Tower?”   It is the tallest building in Minneapolis.

Billy lies, “Yeah.  Why yah asking?” 

“The cliffs surrounding the Cauldron are about the same height.”

“So?”

“Just thought you might like a visual image of how tall the canyon walls are.”

Why does he keep reminding me of heights?  Gus knows the tallest building in Holland Falls is only five stories.  The water tower Billy climbed to write his name on was a mere 90 feet.

When he closes eyes again, with the height firmly embedded in his thinking, now the slow jerking of the truck brings on feelings of carsickness.  Figuring Gus is playing some weird game, Billy relaxes by retrieving memories from his favorite spot in the woods outside Holland Falls.

Noting Billy’s calmness, Gus changes tactics.  “Andy will teach you riding.”

When Billy’s response is silence, Gus ceases further challenges until the truck reaches the Cauldron floor.  As it rolls to a stop, “You can open your eyes now.” 

Billy eyes are open.  For the last few minutes, he has been looking through the windshield in rapt silence.  The nearly vertical wall now looks like shake siding.  Abutting the wall and road for the past block or so are piles of chipped rocks.  It is as if some giant sculptor chiseled off the lower side of the cliff.  Adding character to the scene are the late afternoon shadows.  They both engulf and accentuate the wall.  Overall, it feels like early evening.

“Hope the drive down didn’t upset you too much.  Happens sometimes.”  Gus’ probing keeps Billy quiet.  “Let’s make that pit stop.” 

As Billy steps out of the truck, unsteady legs force him to lean back against the rear fender.  Gus acts concerned, “Are you okay?”

As Gus already holds too much over him, Billy nixes the impulse to drop to his knees and kiss the ground.  Instead, he looks back up at the road, wanting to know what hid this area.  When he finds the outcropping, he asks, “Did I see a river?”

“You did.  Let’s head over to the falls and get a cool drink.”  Gus expects to bring up the river later.

“Falls?  Justin never said anything about falls!”  Despite Billy’s enthusiasm, Gus remains silent.  He knows the sights and smells along the path will melt away some of Billy’s hurt and anger.  He also knows a fifteen-year-old, cut off from his pals and losing his summer freedom, all within less than twenty-four hours, is a heavy burden to bear. 

After a few steps, Billy stops.  What is happening to me?  Billy has had a similar experience in the big woods back home.  On that occasion, he had believed a gang member had followed him into the woods and was playing a trick on him.  Coming from somewhere in the underbrush was, “You need to change.”  At first, he thought he heard it coming from his left.  When he stopped to listen, the repeat was on his right.  He called out, “Whoever you are, you can come out now!  I ain’t playing your game!” 

When no further sounds were heard, except for chirping birds, Billy had grabbed a large stick and had begun beating the bushes and tall grass where the voices had come from.  When no one ever came out or was uncovered, he turned back to his original destination, a nearby campfire circle.  He always wondered who had built it and why.  It was in the middle of nowhere.  No path led to it.  He had found it by accident while tracking a stag that had disappeared behind some trees.

That the voice he had heard a year ago is now back, except different.  It is offering a bribe.  “You can find peace in exchange for letting go.”  He accuses Gus, “Nice try Uncle!  Who did you get to say that?”  When he looks over, Gus is in deep thought.  Thinking him faking it, Billy yells loud enough to create an echo off the Cauldron’s wall, “Nice try, Uncle Gus!”  Still Gus does not react.  Billy leaves the path and meander through the tall grasses and wildflowers.  Coming upon an opening, Cattle have been grazing here.  Peacefulness slowly begins to overtake Billy. 

Coming back to the moment, Gus looks around for Billy.  He is off the path some thirty feet to the east.  “There isn’t much time for us to relax or explore.  We are expected back at the ranch house for dinner.”

Angered by Gus’s interruption, Billy turns on him, “Why are you acting this way?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re trying to rub my prison sentence in my face?  You can’t even stand to let me have a few moments of peace!  Are you really that big of a killjoy?”

Gus backtracks, “I just wanted you to know this area is off limits unless you are with the group or rounding up strays.  Your Dad warned me about your wanderlust and attraction to water.  Don’t go off on your own out here!” 

When Billy turns back to exploring, a nearly five-foot diameter tree trunk confronts him.  Where did that come from?  Stepping around it, he enters a ten-foot-wide grassy area surrounding a clear blue pool.  Fifty feet away, and forty feet up the Cauldron wall, water leaps out a three-foot hole.  It is now clear how the pool was carved by years of water pounding its limestone base.  To the right of the pool some fifteen head of cattle graze.  They barely lift their heads to acknowledge the intruders. 

Billy immediately imagines it a living portrait painted by the hand of God because of the brightly colored flowers running wild in lush, green grasses, and the joyous birds singing tunes to loll the cattle into a false sense of security.  Even the crashing Falls are silenced by the pool’s circular flow.  Does all of this help keep the peace in Hell’s Cauldron?  Why am I thinking these things? As Billy’s eyes follow the circular flow, he takes note of how it leaves pond and enters the river headwater with barely a ripple.  It doesn’t make sense!  The place seems controlled by some living, breathing being.

When Gus smacks the rump of a nearby cow, Billy’s reflection shatters.  Gus keeps it that way by speaking to his cows.  “Hey girls, I missed you!  Hope you’re enjoying yourselves.” 

Sound like he expects a hero’s welcome!   Billy challenges, “How can you say that?  You’re rounding them up for the slaughter house!  Hell, you’re just messing with my mind!”

Ignoring Billy’s accusation, “Except for the falls, don’t drink from Dead Man’s Creek.  The cattle are in it all the time.”

Intrigued, Billy goes after more information.  “That can’t be the reason they call it Dead Man’s Creek.”

“Nope!  Plunges underground after passing the bunkhouse.  Nothing going in ever comes out!”

“Yeah, I saw how it ended in the middle of the Cauldron when we were coming down.  So why is it so lush down here and scrubby up there?  You can’t be getting more rain down here.”

Pleased with Billy’s question, Gus falls for his deception.  “You’re standing in an old lake bed.  A good ten feet of silt remained after the lake drained.  Three waterfalls and a spring continue to feed it.  Makes for great prairie grasses and cattle grazing.  Too little rain for wheat and corn.  We do, however, irrigate three small fields for winter feed, fresh vegetables, and fruit trees.  You’ll find lush growth around each of the springs, the river, and the irrigated fields.”

“What caused the lake to empty?”

Gus pauses to examine Billy’s posture and facial expression.  When Billy turns his back to gaze at the falls, Gus questions,  “You’re asking a lot of questions for someone not wanting to be here?”

Turning back, he eyes Gus, “Just curious about what makes this place so important to you.”

Gus chuckles, “Sounds like you might want to know for other reasons.”  He expects Billy to respond.  When he does not, “I’ll tell you this.  Planning the wrong kind of activities in the Cauldron has gotten summer residents killed.” 

“What is with you anyway?  You’re always acting like I’m working some kind of angle.”

The ensuing staring match is broken by Gus.  “Okay, I’ll let up.  But if you’re seeking information for the wrong reason, it’ll cause you more pain than gain.”  After letting those words sink in, he continues.  “One theory is that melting snow and spring rains filtering through the limestone cliffs carved out tunnels that eventually formed an underground river beneath the lake.  A South Dakota University professor believes an earthquake may have caused the lake’s bottom to crack open and drain into that underground river.  “The Lakota say Wakhan Thanka Wamniyomni, the Great Spirit of the Whirlpool, drained it after finishing the maze of tunnels.  They say the tunnels are his Woiyuthe,a great test.’” 

Underground tunnels and caves interest Billy.  He scans the cliff for openings.  Gus’ response is swift.  “All caves are off limits!” 

Despite Gus’ displeasure, Billy pushes harder.  “Why do the Indians call it a great test?”

“Don’t know for sure.  Wakhan Bleska, the lake’s original name, means Sacred Lake.  After it drained, the Indians renamed it, Ainab Bleska, Hidden Lake.  I’ve only heard bits and pieces, so that’s about as much as I can tell you.”  Gus decides to withhold more information as the wheels in Billy’s brain appear to be going clickity-clack at a hundred miles an hour.  A new staring match begins. 

Gus wants to feel more comfortable before continuing.  He needs to know that Billy is seeking information for all the right reasons.  When the standoff continues too long, Billy believes he is revealing too much about himself and turns to again immerses himself in the beauty of this area.

The immensity of the Cauldron wall, the calm below it, the warm spring breeze, the trees and swaying grasses, the singing birds – all turn Billy’s thoughts inward.  Maybe Hell’s Cauldron is a bit of paradise.  Maybe this is what changed Justin.  He loves nature, too.

After a bit, Billy returns to studying the falls and nonchalantly speculates.  “Must be forty feet up to where that water gushes out.  I’ll bet a person could come shooting outa that opening and land dead center in this pool.”  Before Gus can reply, Billy purposely changes his tone to one of innocence, “Does the flow ever change?”

Gus stops to collect himself.  He must only respond to the question.  “Dried up in the thirties.  Usually slows in late August.  If you’re thinking what I think you are, forget it!”

Since Billy does not want Gus deducing any more, he changes his line of questioning.  “If it is limestone in the Cauldron walls, maybe there are rooms with stalactites and stalagmites.”

Gus will have no more of it.  “All caves are off limits!  I told you that.  You go near them, you’re off to Red Wing!  I promised your grandfather that I would respect the Indian traditions.  I intend to keep that promise.  Only the Lakota explore!  Got it?”

“So, Indians come here?”

Billy’s focus on the falls and Indians, force Gus to get serious.  “You’re treading a minefield even considering anything near these falls.  You see those rocks?  You wouldn’t survive a fall.  I want you upright when you leave.

“Yes, sir!” Billy salutes.

“Don’t fool with me, Billy.  I promised your dad.”

Billy tucks away the statement as a weakness in Gus’ management style. “I guess you’re right.  The constant pounding of water has done little to wear down these boulders.  Anyone hitting them would be a goner.”  Not able to leave well-enough alone, he continues, “But the pool looks deep enough.”  Knowing he must mix things up, Billy begins acting as if he is talking to himself.   “I wonder…” 

After a couple minutes of silence, “You wonder what?”

“The water rushes away from the pool as though being drawn.”

“Why would you say that?” 

“Well, I get these strange feelings when I look into it.  It is as if the waters were speaking to me.”

Gus likes this thought but purposefully moves the conversation in another direction.  “The University of South Dakota has a dig site in the Cauldron.  A dinosaur leg bone surfaced two summers ago.  The poor thing must have fallen into the lake and drowned.  I suspect its weight caused it to sink into the mud once it hit the bottom.  After the lake drained and grasses began growing, animals wandered down.  When the Indians followed, it became their summer camp.  If you help at the dig site, you get a share of any arrowheads, spear points, and carved fish hooks found.”

Bill is not so easily distracted.  “Earlier you mentioned respecting Indian traditions.  What’s the story on this place?”

“Like I said, I only know bits and pieces.”  Gus’ statement does not ring true, so Billy waits.  Again, Gus concedes.  “One story centers on a shaman who wanted control of the Plains Indians.  In his early twenties, he changed his name from Black Bear to White Buffalo.  Claimed he had a vision in the Black Hills in which Wakhan Tonka spoke to him, asking him to lead all the Lakota tribes.

“When the elders began questioning his claims, he recruited young braves by promising greatness and leadership positions.  Believing him, many followed.  Eventually he convinced his followers the Black Hills were a gateway to gaining supernatural powers.  Off they went on a retreat of sorts.  When they returned, all of the young braves were ready to follow Black Bear to the death.  Even then, the elders believed him no great threat.

“Legend has it he soon began killing off every medicine man, woman, and elder who opposed him, staging their deaths to look like a spirit had done it.  ‘That’s what happens to anyone who speaks ill of Wakhan Tonka’s prophetic leader,’ became his rallying cry.  Eventually the spirits of the dead elders put a stop to his shenanigans by sending eagles and vultures to hound him across the prairie, cornering him on the shores of Wakhan Bleska.”

“The Sacred Lake?”

“Right.  When he would not enter, they sent rattlers.  Fearful, he jumped in and seized a drifting log.  When he did not push out quickly enough, a herd of beavers were sent to hound him.  Kicking like crazy, he eventually reached the center of the lake.  That’s when the beavers turned back.  He watched until they neared shore before he continued his crossing.  That’s when Wakhan Tonka punctured a hole in the lake’s bottom to call forth Wamniyomni Tonka, the Whirlpool Spirit. 

“Black Bear and his log were sucked into Ainab Bleska where he began wandering the underground passageways.  Legend has his log still lodged in a passageway.  If someone takes a wrong turn there, it means certain death.

“From that day forward, Black Bear was no longer referred to by the honored name of White Buffalo, nor by his given name, Black Bear.  He became known as One Who Runs in Darkness.  They say he hunts down anyone entering the underground caves through Dead Man’s Creek, ripping them to pieces and scattering their body parts throughout the underground passageways.  That’s how this place got its name, Hell’s Cauldron.”

Gus’ smile has Billy chiding, “Sounds like a fairytale to keep kids from messing around the opening.  Probably just another Big Bad Wolf or Little Red Riding Hood story.”

“There is something to be said for warnings.” 

A pleased smile crosses Billy face.  He is happy with what he has learned. 

Chapter 3

The Six Pack

After bedding down Death Rider in the stable, Buck heads to the bunkhouse to update the boys on the sixth summer resident.  The guys are in various stages of relaxation when he approaches the back porch.  They worked hard today and deserve the rest.  Their log cabin home was built by Gus’ great grandfather after settling Hell’s Cauldron just before the Civil War.  When the new ranch house went up in the early thirties, the original log home became the bunkhouse.  To make it feel more spacious, the interior walls were taken down. 

Coming around back of the bunkhouse, Buck steps onto the porch and moves to the oldest boy, as if needing an ally.   To be more informal, he pushes off his cowboy hat, letting it hang down his back.  He wants a face-to-face meeting.  “You guys did a great job mending the fences and rounding up the cattle close to the holding pen.”  Although appreciative, the boys are apprehensive.  When he pauses, they hold their breath waiting for the other shoe to fall.  Sure he has their full attention, “The last one’s arriving shortly.  He’ll be the youngest, so cut him some slack.”

All of them know Brandon’s buddy from Brookings was scheduled to join them as the sixth.  They now expect Brandon to vent his anger.  He does so with sarcasm.  “You asking us to babysit some kid-brother?  We expected someone who could pull his own weight!”  Derisive laughter comes from only one other court ordered guest – a tall, lanky boy sitting on the front edge of the porch.  For the past half hour, he has been whittling a Billy Club out of a small tree limb.  Standing, he waves it to emphasize support for Brandon’s concern.  His laughter and action leave no doubt – he considers himself Brandon’s first lieutenant.  Brandon is not the biggest, but he is the meanest looking of the five boys.  The others stay focused on Buck.  They do not wish to acknowledge Brandon’s challenge.

Across the way in the ranch house, Andy is still dressed in her roundup chaps, about to leave for the barn and curry Tansy.  Pausing at the kitchen’s outside entry door, she turns to her mother.  “Why is Billy coming?  He’s only a year older than me.”

“Honey, he needs support just like Justin.  You liked Justin.  You’ll like Billy.  Why not stick around and greet him?”

“All I remember is him kicking me.  Anyway, I’m going to check on Boots and get Tansy settled in for the night.”

………………………………………………………

The drive from the falls to the ranch house relaxes both Gus and Billy.  Each enjoys the lush grasses and abundance of bobolinks, meadowlarks, dickcissels, and field sparrows.  These birds are familiar to Billy because of Moses, a World War II vet who had drifted through Holland Falls just over a year ago.  He became a summer squatter at the bum’s camp west of the Holland Falls’ railroad yard.  Billy and his friends call that area, Brush Valley.  Traveling with Moses was Charlie, a friendly Heinz-57.  He did not eat much and was a great watchdog.

Moses grew up on a farm in southwestern Minnesota near the Blue Mounds.  As a boy, he had learned to love the peace and solitude nature offers.  As a medic in the War, his spirit broke witnessing so much loss of life and limb.  The bloody carnage led to depression.  When his commitment to Uncle Sam ended, he went searching for the peace he had known before the war.  His wanderings brought him through Holland Falls.  Billy had met him while hiking in the big woods.  They were both searching for mushrooms. 

When Billy asked his name and got Moses, he blurted, “Like the guy in the Bible who wandered forty years?”

“Yup.”

Besides teaching Billy about birds, Moses taught him campfire-cooking skills.  After Billy caught a chicken near the processing plant and brought it to Moses for fixing, Moses took a quick look and hooted with laughter.  “That’s the skinniest damned chicken I ever saw!  You must have chased the hell out it.”  Both had a good laugh before cleaning and cooking it.

When Moses decided to leave Brush Valley, he was ready to resume the life he had lost during the war.  He encouraged Billy to do the same. “Maybe you might consider going back to your life before the gang?” 

Recalling his good times with Moses now changes Billy’s mood to be indecisive as the truck rolls to a stop beside the log ranch house.  Its ten-foot-wide porch runs the entire perimeter of the front and east side of the house.  It gives an impressive look to the home.   Aunt Stella is out the side door before the truck makes a complete stop.  The last time Billy saw her was four years ago.  That was the time he had kicked Antonia.  Because of that incident, his folks began sending him to Y camp whenever Gus and family visited. 

Aunt Stella is still the slim, pretty woman he remembered.  Her long, dark brown hair is fixed in a single braid hanging down her back.  Gus likes how it accentuates her downhome beauty.  The dust on her boots, jean culottes, and a long-sleeved denim work-shirt, rolled up to the elbows, indicates she is an active partner in the roundup.  Billy likes women who can hold their own in hard work. 

As Aunt Stella steps off the porch into the late afternoon sun, she flips on her riding hat.  Rounding up strays has not sapped any of her beauty or energy.  Her knee high, riding boots have the same curlicue stitching and rounded toes as Gus’ boots.  Her reputation during round-ups is historic.  On more than one occasion she has pushed a mean steer off Cliff Road.  For this reason, her petite figure and pleasant smile do not fool any South Dakota cowboy.  In addition to being a fulltime rancher’s wife, she enjoys singing jazz love-torch songs.  Another major attribute is her ability to make people feel welcomed and loved when they visit the ranch.  Her laughter and downhome style are well known throughout South Dakota.

Bounding off the porch alongside Aunt Stella are two dogs.  At first glance, they appear to be guarding her.  They are not.  They are just proud to accompany her.  Nevertheless, halfway to Gus, they can no longer contain their joy and race ahead to meet him.  He drops to a bended knee.  Their wagging tails and loving kisses smother Gus with pure joy.  Billy’s envy is noticeable. 

As Gus stands to greet Stella, he points the dogs to Billy.  Immediately they move and stand three feet in front of him.  Their body postures clearly indicate they are no longer loving, playful dogs.  They are guard dogs at attention and standing between Billy and their master and mistress.

The rapid, quiet transformation and confrontation are a new experience for Billy.  These dogs are not menacing, just obeying a command.  Their stare tells Billy they are reading him, forming an opinion.  He raises an uneasy hand to pet the smaller one.  Both dogs take a step back.  The muscles in their bodies go taut.  Billy freezes.  Slowly lowering his hand, he holds it out palm down, inviting them to sniff and see he means them no harm. 

The smaller dog steps forward.  After sniffing, she looks back at her partner to relay her findings.  When done, she retreats to her guard position.  Both dogs relax a tiny bit, as if some modicum of friendship has begun.  However, when their intense stares do not end, an uneasy feeling creeps into the pit of Billy’s stomach.

Billy helped trained Tippy, Murphy’s mongrel and gang mascot, to head out on silent hand signals.  He now tries one on the dogs.  Thrusting out his right arm and hand, his pointer finger directs them to chase a nearby Jack Rabbit.  Gus and Stella watch inquisitively. 

Only the smaller dog looks.  The larger one concentrates on Billy’s midsection.  “Both chase rabbits and strays.  They don’t run needlessly.”  Gus’ interjection breaks Billy and the dogs’ concentration.  The smaller one looks to Gus.  Seeing no command, she returns her focus to Billy.

Billy has seen strong, silent links between handlers and their dogs, realizes he will need to find a way to connect into that attachment.  What amazes him most is the dogs protect each other’s backside.  Standing in a “V” formation, their hind ends nearly touching, their slow-moving tails touch with each swish.  Every now and then they touch a bit longer.  During these pauses, the smaller dog turns to look at her companion.  Billy surmises something new is being communicated because both immediately focus on Billy with renewed attention – as if checking off a weakness.  Paranoia pushes Billy to test his theory.

Moving just the middle three fingers of his right hand draws a defensive gaze only from the smaller dog.  The larger one remains focused on Billy’s midsection.  To confirm his suspicions, he turns to Gus, “You trained your dogs to do what the Fountain Springs wrestling coach teaches, ‘Watch your opponent’s mid-section.  It telegraphs their next move.’”

Gus’ smile and response reveal nothing.  “They hunt, herd, and guard.  You can’t fool them.  They look before they leap.  Andy will teach you their hand signals.”   “Willa!”  “Shep!”  “Friend!”  The two relax and move forward to lick Billy’s hand and sniff him.  “You’re now free to pet or play with them, but don’t expect to do so at night.  Once Buck or I put them in guard mode, only the breakfast bell changes their status.”

“You got your own alarm system?”  Billy’s uneasy laugh brings a smile to Gus’ and a frown to Stella.  She is afraid Billy is drawing the wrong conclusion about how they treat summer residents.  Her fear is that his first impression might make him less amenable to their style of discipline.

Despite Stella’s look of concern, Gus pushes ahead.  “The white one is Willa.  He is an American Bulldog.  His Indian name is a shortened version of Water Spirit.  He loves to be around water but not in it.  The Australian Cattle Herder is Shep.  I have always wanted a dog named Shep.  She may be only 40 pounds, but even Willa does not challenge her.  They easily outlast any horse during roundup.  I suspect they know this place better than I do.  They will be six next month.  I always pair my dogs so they grow up like brother and sister.  It helps them understand each other’s behaviors in difficult moments.” 

Knowledge of these dogs will be important for Billy if he is to make an unencumbered escape from Hells Cauldron.  So that Gus will not suspect what he is thinking, Billy responds with a compliment.  “You’re as proud of them as you are your cattle.” 

Although true, Gus is prouder of the woman beside him.  She gets his greatest respect.  Sliding his arm around her waist, he draws her closer.  Billy misreads Gus’ affection – Gus is relieved to be home safely.  Continuing to search Gus and Stella’s faces, he notes for the first time Gus’ weather-beaten smile.  Must be what happens to Dakota cowboys.  As Billy continues sizing up his aunt and uncle, Gus’ smile broadens, smoothing out every wrinkle.  It is exactly what happened when he talked to his cattle.  While Stella and Gus continue their look of love and respect, Billy tries to imagine what that kind of happiness must be like.

Keenly interested in re-acquainting herself with Billy, Stella breaks free of Gus.  Shooing the dogs aside, she extends a welcoming hand.  “It’s great to have you here.  You’ve grown a lot since we last visited.”  Billy’s controlled smile and stiff demeanor push her to add, “You’ll like it here.  Give us a chance.”  

Billy wants to say, “Too bad Gus doesn’t feel that way!”  Instead, he bites his tongue.  “Thanks!  My folks wanted me to greet you.”  Although his statement is not a lie, his parents never actually said it.  Their parting words were, “Wish you luck.”  He had seen in their eyes they meant it.  Now, looking into Aunt Stella’s eyes, he wonders what his folks were implying.  Do they think Gus and Stella are going to change me? 

Because her kindness takes Billy a bit off-guard, he hardens his facial expression to study her reaction.  As he does so, he is reminded of Gus’ statements on the ride down – “You work, you eat.”  He draws the conclusion they are playing good cop, bad cop.  I need to be wary of both.  Before he can continue his analysis, Stella interrupts.  “Your cousin Andy is in the barn and should be here any minute.”

At this third mention of Andy, Billy gives Stella a quizzical lookShe misses it while turning to Gus.  “Andy’s had a rough day.  Caught Tom in the act of killing one of the new kittens.  Darn near killed Tom with a kick that sent him slamming into the nearest wall.  Tom is still licking his wounds.” 

“Did he get Boots?”

“No.  She was next.”

Billy searches his mind for facts on Andy.  Justin never mentioned him. There was that beanpole, girl cousin.  Mom hinted she might be adopted.  Maybe they adopted a boy.  As Billy searches Gus and Stella’s faces for more information, Gus breaks into a big smile and moves past him.

Billy turns to see what grabbed Gus’ attention.  “Missed riding with you, honey.  Sorry about the kittens.”  Billy thinks the greeting even more strange when Gus hugs the kid like he might a daughter.  Must be a momma’s boy.

“I’m okay.  We got forty head from the north canyon and should be able to meet our goal in the next two weeks.”  The high -pitched voice has  Billy concluding the boy younger than he originally thought.

Turning to look at Billy, Gus reintroduces them.  “Andy, you remember Billy?”  After pushing off her cowboy hat, she gently shakes her head.  Brilliant red hair falls into place around the dusty face of a green-eyed angel.  Caught completely off-guard by how much Antonia has changed, Billy is stunned and transfixed.  Blushing, he is captivated by her beauty. 

When Andy stops dead in her tracks, Gus fails to the note the interchange. “Well, don’t just stand there, Billy!  Greet your cousin Andy!”  Billy does not hear Gus as he steps forward to shake her outstretched hand.  Her handshake is a near perfect imitation of her mother’s.  However, as their hands touch, the sensation is much different.  Electricity races through Billy’s body, sending confusing and mixed messages.  Although her hand is small and delicate like her mother’s, it is tough as leather from riding, roping, and hard work  Yet, it is gentle.  The tingling sensation leaves Billy speechless.

Not feeling the same tingling, Andy asks, “Are you okay?”

Shaking off some of his stupor, Billy withdraws his hand.  “It’s just you’ve changed so much.  I hardly recognized you!”  What he doesn’t say in his awkwardness is, “Your handshake feels like we just had an entire conversation without saying a word.  I’ve never experienced that before.”  Andy’s blush is nearly imperceptible.

Puzzled by the unspoken interchange, Gus wants control of the situation.  “Yes, she is pretty remarkable!”  Billy does not hear him.  He is remembering something his mother once said, “They named her Antonia because they never thought they would have children.  Her coming brought them a priceless gem.”  But it is not her outer beauty that strikes Billy.  It is something within her that he can’t pinpoint.  The sensation of the  unknown leaves him feeling helpless.  It also brings a million unanswered questions.  Not even Moses’ caring for Billy as he did, and imparting such great knowledge, ever left this kind of unknown challenge.

Wanting to be involved in whatever is happening between the two teenagers, Gus steps beside Andy and puts his arm around her shoulders.  “She can do the work of any two guys.”

Andy elbows him. “Cut it out!  You’re embarrassing me.”  Turning back to Billy, “Dad calls me Andy because he always wanted a boy.”  Gus, pretends to lose his balance and staggers back.  Although Billy would love to have this kind of bond with his father, his smile shows disbelief.  A girl doing the work of two guys.  Ha!

Sensing the awkwardness, Stella moves in, “Dinner’s almost ready.  Andy, will you help me in the kitchen after showing Billy the bunkhouse?  He’ll need to meet the others on his own.”  Stella’s crisp and clear emphasis of “on his own” leaves Billy with more unanswered questions.

Turning, he retrieves his suitcase from the pickup’s bed and follows Andy to the bunkhouse.  The dogs tag along as bodyguards.  Their sideways glances make it clear they are here for Andy, not Billy.  Remembering that Andy is about his age, Billy wonders if Justin had a crush on her when he left.  What changed Justin?

At the bunkhouse, Andy’s voice is crisp like her mother’s a moment ago.  “You’re bunking with five guys.  They’re out back.  Buck’s the foreman.”  After opening the bunkhouse door, she points to an upper bunk, “You’ll sleep there.  The built-in drawers on the lower left are yours.  Wash up but don’t be late for dinner.  You’ll have one minute after the bell rings.” 

Although Andy’s speech is efficient like her mother’s, her edge is tougher.  Since she does not enter the bunkhouse, Billy figures it is off limits.  He also senses she will be a challengePoor Billy, he is in for a few surprises!  Andy is nothing like the junior high girls in Holland Falls. 

Throwing his suitcase on the top bunk, he heads out back.  Five boys, all bigger and older, juniors and seniors in high school, stop their conversations to check him out.  It is an awkward moment.  When the biggest boy in the background begins staring Billy down, Billy cannot figure out why.  Somehow, he seems to be searching for something different than the others.  The others seem ready to fight Billy.  This guy doesn’t want a fight, but he wants something!  The broad-shouldered man next to him seems to be in charge.  When he turns to look Billy over, his gaze is also challenging.  Yet, he too does not to want a fight.  Gotta figure out what’s going on with those two.  Billy surmises the older man is Buck. 

By this time, the other four boys have straightened up into muscular stances.  Each, in his own way, is trying to send Billy a message, “Don’t mess with me.”

Realizing he does not stand a reasonable chance at gaining any type of leadership role, Billy concentrates on the two smallest guys.  They are waiting for one of the bigger ones to make a move.  Taking advantage of the situation, he offers his hand to the meanest looking one.  His nose and chin appear to have been broken and never properly set.   Brandon reads Billy’s offer perfectly.  Stiffening, he refuses to shake.  Before Billy can react, the mid-thirties, six-foot guy, takes action.  “I’m Buck.”  His friendly voice leaves the impression he wants to be more than just an army sergeant or prison guard.  Billy wonders, Why is he holding back? 

As Billy studies Buck, one of the smaller guys breaks in, “He’ll kick yer butt, kid.” 

Brandon throws out his own challenge, “If he don’t, I will!”   When Brandon takes a half step in his direction, Billy readies himself.  The dogs go on full alert.  Their hind ends form their protective “V.”  Tightened leg muscles show them ready to pounce at the tiniest wrong movement by a human.  Billy nearly laughs as their ears move like tiny radar dishes accompanied by rapid eye movements searchling for the tiniest hint of trouble.  Their immobile tails leave the impression they are ready to pounce.

Billy backs off.  “I’m Billy.” 

Wanting no trouble, Buck takes full control.  “Sit!”  Not only do the dogs obey, the boys draw closer together as if wanting to obey.  Without missing a beat, Buck turns on Billy and barks, “You’re late!”  All friendliness is gone.

Billy knows the “sit” is for the dogs, but coupling it with an accusation leaves no doubt in Billy mind.  He sees me as responsible for the present uneasiness.  With all welcoming gone, Billy readies himself for a verbal fight.

Shit, he drew conclusions before I said anything.  If I am late, it’s Gus’ fault.  “Don’t know what you are talking about.”  When belittling laughter erupts, Billy sends out a second volley. “What’s so damn funny?”  The tone of his voice shows he is ready to fight. 

The oldest boy, Harper, steps in, “Listen, kid, you don’t fool us.  We’re all here for a reason, so get off your high horse and tell us why you’re late.  We’ve been here a week.  You got catching up to do!” 

Billy, having earlier dismissed the thought of fighting Harper, does not want this confrontation.  When Harper’s words bring a taunting laugh from the smallest kid, Billy turns on him.  “Gus is my uncle!”

Oohs, aahs, and hoots follow.  Quickly the third largest boy, Wade, steps up.  He is a muscular fellow with a single, long, black braid hanging down his back.  The last inch is tied off with tightly wound, red thread.   “That supposed to impress us?”  His question opens the floodgates for the boys to belittling Billy. 

“Yeah, Andy’s my sister.”

“No, you’re just her lap dog.  The kid here is her sister.” 

“Naw, he’s dog shit.”  These and other comments draw more laughter. 

Looking into each boy’s face, Billy notes weaknesses.  Learning what he wants, he turns on Wade, the kid with the dark skin and hawked nose.  Seeing the fight coming, Harper intervenes, “Listen, kid, I got caught stealing cars.”  Before Billy can comment, Harper turns on the guy moving up on Billy’s left, and steps in front of him, “Parker, here, breaks into jewelry stores.  Says he needs classy items to impress the girls.”   This draws whistles, laughter, hoots, and, “Are they worth it?” 

Parker is a white kid nearly the same size as Harper but slimmer and sporting a summer tan.  His wavy black hair is cut and parted just like Frank Sinatra’s.  Although Parker knows he should ignore the comment, he decides to take credit.  “Wouldn’t you like to know?”  

“Ooh, la la, a Lady Killer.”  More laughter.

“How many you made Parker?” comes from Brandon.  He is a tall as Harper, but more muscular.  “Maybe the kid here could use one of your women to make him a man.”  Yeahs, clapping, and shrill whistles begin.  From schoolyard fights, Billy is familiar with the taunts.

Harper again intervenes.  Stepping between Billy and Brandon, he asks Parker, “Okay, how many girlfriends you got anyway?” 

It does the trick.  Attention returns to Parker.  He wants out of the spotlight.  “None of your damn business.”

Harper turns to face Wade.  “Wade, here, busts up teachers.  He doesn’t like school.”

Getting the chance he wants, Billy focuses on Wade.  This action moves Lucky, the kid closest in age and size to Billy, to step up.  “That the way you are, Billy Boy?”  His challenging stance and questioning go unanswered. 

With attention off him, Parker adds his voice to the mix.  “Hit the nail on the head, eh kid?”  Billy does not blink or show the slightest acknowledgement. 

Both Wade and Brandon grow angry.  Wade does not care for Billy wanting to fight him.  Brandon does not care for Billy choosing to antagonize Wade rather than himself.  Stepping toward Billy, Brandon asks, “Still got nothing to say, punk?”

Harper stays between Billy and Wade as he turns to face Brandon.  “This is Brandon.  He’s on the fast track to becoming an alcoholic.  Likes to drink and wreck cars.  Rolled Mommy’s new pink Caddy after a kegger.  His Daddy is an insurance salesman who divorced her to marry a rich client.  Brandon figures he found a way to get even with both.  The judge disagreed, hey Brandon?”

Brandon gives Harper a dismissive look while trying to figure out why Billy wants to fight Wade.  With no good reason forthcoming, Brandon decides to join Wade.  “The kid’s a smart ass.  He needs to be put in his place, right Wade?”

Billy chose Wade, the third largest, for a couple of reasons.  As a fight is always the price he pays for initiation into a group of older boys, he believes Wade will go easiest on him.  Secondly, he believes Wade will later offer him friendship to salve his conscience for beating the crap out of a smaller kid.

Once more Harper works to avoid an all-out fight.  “Lucky here breaks store windows at night.  Claims it makes shopping easier.  Tried to sell the sheriff’s wife some of the goods.  Sheriff didn’t like it.”  This intro receives a roar of laughter.  Harper relaxes a bit.

Lucky, however, does not want the attention.  He uses a sarcastic tone to challenge Billy.  “So, what’s your story, big guy?”  All go quiet, daring Billy to avoid the question a second time.

Staring at Wade, as if challenging him, Billy answers.  “My old lady sent me here.”

Believing Billy’s dirty look is because he doesn’t like Indians, Wade answers, “You’re full of shit.”

Lucky, who is developing a friendship with Wade, now uses his mother’s favorite words when she grabs the leather strap to whip one of her boys.  “What you need is an attitude adjustment.”  Wade’s amusement is not from Lucky’s threat, but from Billy.  He knows he can easily take Billy out.

Stepping in, Buck takes control.  “Be honest, Billy, you’re going to be here awhile.”  Buck’s tone and interjection has no effect on Wade.  He is convinced Billy does not like Indians.  

Attuned to Wade’s frustrations with prejudice, Lucky shouts indignantly, “Why the hell did the judge send you here?”  Wade waits for an answer before acting. 

Billy spits it out angrily, “I told you.  My old lady sent me here.”  Billy figures he will get in one good punch before going down.

Wades has other ideas.  His fists move like lightening for a one-two punch and are accompanied with a sneering, “Yeah, but before I knock some sense into that thick skull of yours, answer the question.  Why’d she send you here, white boy?”  As his right heads for Billy’s jaw, it is caught in midair.  Slammed back into his chest, the force nearly sends Wade to the ground.  Stunned by Buck’s strength, and seeing his other fist cocked, Wade drops his arms and shouts, “You ain’t heard the last from me, white boy.” 

“How long you planning on staying in Hell’s Cauldron, Wade?” Although the determination and fearlessness in Buck’s voice slows Wade’s anger, Billy’s apparent Indian putdown leaves Wade far from satisfied.  

Buck, angry at Billy for riling up the others, demands, “You need to quit pushing buttons and tell us why you’re here, son!”

Giving Buck the evil eye, as if everything is his fault, Billy replies angrily, “I used slugs in a vending machine, and my old lady is pissed because I fooled around in school and got away with a couple things.  She thinks Gus is going to change me like he did my brother, Justin.”

Harper’s body lurches to attention and his eyes go wide.  “Justin?  Holland Falls!  You’re his brother?  You don’t look anything like him!  He was here the last time I was.”

Billy is quick to use this news to corral Harper’s support.  “Then you’re just like me.  Nothing’s gonna change you too!”  Keenly interested in Harper’s response, Buck’s ears perk up.  Harper doesn’t have the chance to reply – the dinner bell clangs.  Everyone moves.

As Buck turns to lead them to the dining room and prevent further wrangling over who is top dog, “Anyone trying to finish this later will be escorted out of Hell’s Cauldron by the sheriff!”  His ultimatum comes as he steps in front of the boys and leads them to the ranch house.  Each dutifully falls in line.  Harper steps in front of Billy, forcing him to be last.  The quick submission by all the boys convince Billy they are a bunch of wimps. The dogs fall into line between Buck and the boys.  Giving quick glances back, they ensure no one takes any action against him.

The ranch’s dining room has a long mission table set and waiting for the boys.  Gus, Stella, Andy, and Buck stand behind chairs along the wall side of the table.  One additional chair and place setting are next to Buck.  Brandon, Parker, Wade, Lucky and Harper fall in behind the first five chairs opposite the family.  The sixth chair on the boy’s side has no place setting.  After stopping there, Billy reaches across the table to remove the place setting next to Buck. 

Buck’s right hand stops Billy’s move.  Firm, but not angry, “Come around, son.”  For the time being, Billy will sit on Buck’s right.  With arrangements settled, everyone sits.  Andy opens a Bible and begins reading about a man who helped someone beaten by robbers.  Billy is glad the passage is short.  They do not read the Bible at the dinner table in his house.

After the meal prayer, he grabs his fork to spear a piece of meat.  For the second time, Buck lays a gentle hand atop Billy’s.  “It’ll come around.”  Angry, Billy sets his fork down with one hand while grabbing for the bowl of peas with the other.  Buck acts decisively.  “You need to wait until it is passed to you.”  As Billy opens his mouth to protest, Buck turns on him.  “You can speak at breakfast or lunch, but never at dinner unless asked a direct question.” 

As the others stare, Billy relents.  After picking up the meat platter, Buck hands it to Andy.  He does so with each dish.  When the food gets around to Harper, he takes a portion and hands it back across the table to Buck.  Only after Buck has taken a portion of food does he pass the platter or bowl to Billy.  “Harper, explain things to Billy.”  Buck’s tone is pleasant enough.

“The newest person is always served last the first three meals.  After each meal, we take turns with cleanup.  Tonight, you clear the table and sweep the floor.  The slop bucket  under the sink is fed to the hogs by whoever clears.  You will also need to hose down the hog floor before leaving.”  As Harper finishes, Billy sees nothing but smirks from the other boys.  “I’ll show you the setup tonight.  It’s a good idea to stay tuned in during dinner conversations because that is when tomorrow’s work plans are revealed.” 

As Billy opens his mouth to ask a question, Buck is calm and emphatic.  “You may speak freely at breakfast or lunch, not dinner.”  Billy sits up and shuts up.  Gus, Stella, Andy, and Buck begin a conversation about the day’s events and tomorrow’s plans.  Billy finds out that Buck will meet him at the horse barn after breakfast.

Noticing Billy has yet to use his napkin, Buck quietly suggests, “Put the napkin on your left knee, Son.”  His soft-spoken direction takes Billy by surprise.  His napkin is still beside his plate in a fancy silver ring.  Two more things they do not use at his house – cloth napkins and napkin rings.  The silverware and plates are also fancy. 

Lifting the napkin, Billy stares at the ring.  Stella responds.  “My Grandmother Rose brought this China from Ireland.  The rings were made in the mid 1800’s.  They are real Irish silver.”

Billy accepts her hidden message – ‘Be extra careful!  You don’t want to ruin grandmother’s gifts.’  Man, they really make things tough here.  When the other boys remain watching Billy, he throws them “a mind-your-own-business” look.  Dinner ends with baked apple pie, dripping with homemade caramel.  The sweet dessert brightens Billy’s mood.

While he finishes chores, the other boys are visiting on the back porch of the bunkhouse.  This porch is only a foot and a half off the ground.  Centered on the porch’s back wall is the rear entrance to the bunkhouse.  With no porch railing, the door is easily accessible from any direction.  A hundred yards off the porch and to the northwest is the horse barn.  Dead Man’s Creek flows another fifty yards beyond the barn.

A long wooden bench, with one chair on each side, lines the wall left of door upon exiting the bunkhouse.  On the right side is an eight-foot long, two-foot-wide table attached to the log wall.  Six washbasins and water pitchers sit atop it.  Above each basin is a linen towel hanging on a ten-penny nail.  Strewn about the table are several bars of homemade soap in various stages of disintegration. 

Harper and Brandon occupy the only two porch chairs.  Lucky and Wade sit on the front edge of the porch, resting their feet on the ground.  Parker is standing and throwing his hunting knife into a circle drawn in the dirt.  Lucky poses a question to Wade, “So, what’d yah think of the new guy?”

Brandon stops heckling Parker’s knife throwing abilities to answer.  He believes he is speaking for everyone, “He’s a punk!  I say we give him shit.  See what he is made of.  Right, Wade?  He don’t like Indians.”

Wade does not care for Brandon’s condescending attitude.  “Maybe I was too quick to judge him.  He’s doing his chores without complaining.”

“Let’s wait a day.  Give him a break.”  Harper again acts as a mediator.

With chores done and his mood improved, Billy heads to the bunkhouse for unpacking.  The pig responsibility was not as bad as he had imagined.  The ranch is raising only a few pigs for personal consumption.  

Upon entering the bunkhouse, Billy finds his clothes and personal gear packed into the two assigned drawers beneath his bunk.  Searching further shows his suitcase hanging in the rafters on a ten-penny nail.  Someone’s trying to send me a message.  Before he can deduce whom, a creaking sound comes from behind.  Turning reveals Buck behind the door.  He is leaning back against the wall, balancing on the chairs back legs.  With fingers interlaced behind his head, he appears to be the epitome of relaxed.

“You’re my greeting party!”  Billy tries to sound amused.  Buck is not.  He wants Billy’s undivided, and submissive attention.  Standing to make this clear only ramps up Billy’s fighting mode.  Stepping forward, Buck demands, “Sit down!” His tone produces confusion for Billy.  He sounds somewhere between friendly and authoritative.  To test his belief, Billy turns toward a bench at the far end of his bunk.  Buck counters, “No!  Sit here!” referring to the bench directly across from his chair.

Besides the four sets of bunks, and Buck’s chair, the only other pieces of furniture in the room are these small, one-person benches set at each end of the bunks.  These wooden seats are worn smooth from years of use.  Gus’ grandfather handcrafted them when he built the first bunkhouse in the late 1800’s.  That building now houses pigs on one side and chickens on the other.  The original wooden floor was torn out and replaced with concrete to accommodate the pigs and chickens.

Billy will soon learn that the well-worn chair Buck occupies is exclusively his.  Sitting down on the bench nearest Buck is accompanied by a backhanded compliment.  “Glad to see you didn’t bring any cigarettes.” 

As Billy smiles, he knows Buck is unaware of his plan to smuggle in cigarettes through the mail.  Immediately a new command greets him.   “Take your shoes and socks off to show me the bottoms of your feet.”  Billy cannot fool anyone today!  With the ride into the Cauldron still fresh in his mind, and everything he owns exposed, the confiscation of slugs is a final blow.

While Billy puts his socks back on, Buck picks up his black, well-polished, engineer boots.  “You won’t be needing these.”  Walking them to a wall closet, he opens the door and pulls out a pair of cowboy boots.  Handing them to Billy, “Put’em on.  See how they fit.”  The boots are identical to those Andy, Gus and the others wear – medium brown, rounded toes, and curly cued stitching.  They fit like a glove.  The upper leather is soft.  The sole, heel, and toe are firm.

“How did you know my size?”

“That’s Stella’s department.  You can keep them when you leave.  There’s a dress pair in your closet.”  As Buck sits back down, he places Billy’s Engineer boots beside his chair.  “You’ll get these back after you earn your way out of here.”  Buck keeps all of the boys’ street shoes in a locked chest.

“Which won’t be long!”

“Not any time soon, Son.”  Although Buck’s words are delivered definitively, there is no malice in his voice.  In fact, it is a bit friendly.  “The chaps and gloves on the first peg are yours.  You’ll need them during roundup.”  When Billy rises to take them off the peg, he feels the same, supple leather as in his boots.  Both awe and reverence show on his face. 

Seeing Billy’s look, Buck anticipates his unspoken questions.  “We tan our own leather.  Andy made your gloves and chaps, so appreciate them.  She learned the skill from her mother.  We usually tan a few hides after roundup.  You will learn more about that later.  The hat and bandana on the second peg are also yours.  Stella makes the best stiff brimmed hats and the softest bandanas.  Both have a multitude of uses.”  Billy’s quizzical look brings a laugh from Buck, “You’re not just a wise-guy, right?”

“Nope.  I’ll figure it out and be out of here in no time.” 

Billy’s repeat gets not only a laugh from Buck, but a serious, authoritative response.  “Not anytime soon, Son.” 

For the boy who loves to roam and make his own decision, Buck’s dismissive laugh and words take a toll.  Seeing Billy is in enough misery, Buck stands to exit through the front door.  Pausing in the doorway, he turns. In a softer tone, he passes on advice.  “Stay within the confines of the out-buildings.  You have an hour until evening bell.”

When Buck exits the front door, Billy exits the backdoor.  Wade is showing Lucky a lariat trick.  Parker is still trying to perfect his knife throwing skill.  Seeing Billy, the easy conversations cease.  The silence that follows remind Billy of a lynching scene from the last Lash LaRue movie.  Billy admires Lash’s black outfit because of its “bad boy look.”

When no one moves to invite Billy into the group, he heads toward the horse barn.  After only a few steps, the razzing begins.  “Whatcha gonna do, horse around?”  More one-liners and contemptuous laughter follow.  Billy wisely decides it is not the time for a fight.  Their sarcastic remarks follow him until he reaches the barn. 

Inside, everything changes.  The sweet aromas of leather, hay, straw, and mixed grains bring a flood of memories and renewed hope.  Relaxed, Billy walks the side aisle to the barn’s center aisle.  Looking left and right, he counts twenty-four stalls – twelve to his right and twelve left, six on each side of the main aisle. 

Of the twenty-four stalls, fourteen contain horses.  Although unsure, he believes there are at least three different breeds in these stalls.  None of them are anything like the Shetland Ponies familiar to Billy. 

The stall on his immediate right contains hale bales.  Across the aisle is a stall with straw bales.  Next to the straw is a stall with bags of oats, flax, and two covered barrels.  He figures that when a sack of feed is opened, the contents are poured into one of those two barrels.  On the far-right end of the barn are two tack rooms.  Later Billy will find that one holds saddles, reins, blankets, etc.  The other is used for making and repairing leather items.

Recalling Buck’s dinner promise, “You can pick a horse when you get good at riding.  Until then, Lucy will train you.” Billy begins visiting each horse.  His only concern right now is how each horse reacts to his voice and touch.  

Moving from stall to stall, his actions show a knowledge of horses.  His first question while petting each horse is the same, “What are you like, old girl?”  When asking, he gets that same faraway look Gus had while talking to his cows at the falls.  Billy’s voice becomes gentle and caring as he asks a horse named Lucy about roundup work.  He knows it is going to be much harder than leading horses around on Roscoe’s pony ride. 

Hiding in her favorite hayloft perch is Andy.  She is taking note of Billy’s every action.  Soon enough the night bell tolls.  She does not come down from her perch until all the boys are in the bunkhouse and their lanterns extinguished.

Reprinting of Hell’s Cauldron, or any part thereof, or transmission by any means,without prior written authorization, is unlawful.

 Posted by at 5:27 pm