The men of Lincoln County worked the land from sunup without a break. They were on horseback in the blistering parched heat of the summer to the wild howling snowstorms of winter on the High Lonesome. By the time they put their horses in the corral and drove their old rattletrap pickups into town to have supper at the Mad Moose, any ability they might have had to open their minds to discussions of diversity with gay artists and cooks who had Chinese tattoos and flaming orange hair had long since evaporated. Luckily, working ranch hands were almost universally too tired to cause much trouble, and Graham suspected they were too tired to care, as well. Besides, these men had watched Baxter grow up here. Most of those cowboys looked at him and saw a red-headed, freckle-faced kid with a cane fishing pole and a pair of overalls, about eight years old. They had all been in love with his mamma.
No matter how many times Baxter sat down with them, shook their chapped and worn hands and asked if they could open up a dialogue about tolerance, so far no one had punched him in the mouth, which Graham thought was something of a miracle. The fact that Baxter's grandfather owned the biggest ranch in the county and, in fact, employed the majority of them, might have had something to do with it. But what Graham suspected was that tolerance in Lincoln County was a new concept, a very thin crust over some very strong feelings. He was afraid someone was walking on ice and about to break through.
Baxter washed the green beans, then started snapping them into pieces and tossing them into a red enamel bowl. "Did you hear from Eddie? Are they coming?"
"Yeah, they're coming. He's bringing six guys from his platoon when they get back in from hunting. You would think they were starving. I never heard such bitching and moaning about food as from those guys. Eddie complained every day for a solid year about the food in Iraq."
"Do you know any of the other guys from his National Guard unit?"
Graham hesitated. "I went to high school with Tommy Lathrop. He was XO in Eddie's unit."
"Really? You mean the Tommy Lathrop who's chief deputy and was just appointed acting sheriff?"
Graham nodded, and Baxter looked at him for a long moment before turning back to the beans. "Well, if we're gonna have your big brother, Major Eddie, and the acting sheriff of Lincoln County, and a house full of war heroes and cowboys, we better give them an extra good dinner. What's on the menu tonight?"
"We've got elk pot roast with mashed potatoes and green beans. We've got venison chili with corn and cheddar tortillas. We'll serve a salad with that one. And we've got burgers--buffalo and elk and regular cow--with fried potatoes and green beans. What kind of pies are you gonna fix?"
Baxter rinsed his hands under the tap and dried them on a cup towel. "Four New Mexican apple. Two pumpkin, and some walnut brownies with vanilla ice cream. I could do that cherry crumble thing the ranch hands like so much, just to make sure we have enough. How does that sound?"
"Sounds perfect. We aren't gonna have a bit of food left in this place."
Graham wrote the evening's menu on the chalkboard in the front window. The café served three main dishes every night, depending on what game meat was available, and people in town would drift by the window and check the chalkboard before deciding if they wanted to cook supper at home.
Graham had a headache by noon, and Excedrin Migraine wouldn't touch it. He couldn't go home and lie down, though. He had too much to do. A year and a month the National Guard unit had been gone, most of that time around Baghdad or Fallujah. Graham had worried the whole time about Eddie and Tommy and the rest of the guys that he'd only met a few times. He'd swamped them with care packages and chatty, upbeat, down-home newsletters, and in the entire year, he'd only heard from Tommy once.
It was Tommy's foxhole letter, the one he'd written when he thought he wasn't gonna climb out alive in the morning. Just a couple of lines that broke Graham's heart, but didn't change anything between them. I don't regret anything, Graham. I wish I could die with your taste on my tongue and you asleep in my arms. Maybe we'll have a chance in the next life.
Graham knew Tommy didn't want him to write back. They never talked about what was between them, not since the first time when they'd been nineteen and skunked on bourbon stolen from under the front seat of Eddie's pickup. They had been best friends once, talking about everything, but then they took a step with no going back, slid into loving each other in the dark, and let the walls form between them in the light of day. In the ten years since high school, Graham had wondered more than once if it was worth it, if he wouldn't rather have his friend back, and give up his lover.
What he knew for sure was that he didn't sleep an entire night through while they were gone and in danger. Graham had prayed for him, prayed for all of them, moved into that old habit of talking to God. He'd closed that door about sixteen, decided he had nothing else to say to the old man upstairs. But, as it happened, it felt good to pray for the guys. He felt like he was doing something constructive, not just lying in bed at night twisting the sheets and picturing Humvees on fire, Tommy trapped inside, picturing Eddie flying through the air, all those horrible CNN red and black nighttime pictures.
When the unit came home Tommy didn't come and find him, or call, or even come into the restaurant to eat supper, even though he only lived thirty miles up the road. All their lives, Tommy had come to him. Football practice in high school, Tommy had come by his house to get him, so they could walk together. When he wanted to touch Graham in the dark, Tommy would slide into his bed with the lights turned out. It had always been that way, but this time Tommy didn't come. When he was named Chief Deputy of Lincoln County, Graham had sent a note of congratulations, not expecting to hear back. And he hadn't. He actually thought that Tommy wouldn't show up tonight for the platoon's reunion dinner.