Hokey Sloan was in his mid 40s but looked far older. He was often referred to as “Old Man” by the boys who worked occasional days on the ranch. Hokey had been the one ranch hand at Jenk’s Ranch since he was 20 years old. He had shown up at the front door of the main house on a rainy Thursday afternoon and asked if there was work. Tucker Jenk took one look at the skinny, drowning boy and told him to bed down in the bunk house and they would talk in the morning. Mr. Jenk had handed him a loaf of bread, a package of lunch meat, a jug of milk, and sent him across the yard.
Hokey tried never to think about what had brought him to Jenk’s Ranch, but sometimes, when the whiskey took over, he remembered. He remembered that Thursday afternoon and what had sent him blindly down that road. He remembered what had shattered every dream he had ever had, and he remembered Diane.
Hokey saw Diane for the first time when he was 18. He was a quiet boy from the part of town where people worked hard and had very little to show for it. Diane was from the part of town where people worked hard, and it showed. He had often wondered about that difference. Why did some people have things to show for their hard work when others didn’t—even though they worked just as hard? It was a question he could never answer. But there was Diane, standing outside Mr. Bundy’s algebra class in the north building of the community college. Diane was dressed in a blue dress. Hokey remembered, even now, every detail. Diane wore black shoes with a gold buckle. She had a ribbon on her ponytail that matched the dress, and she had that smile.
Diane’s smile lit up the entire hallway. It struck Hokey like a bolt of lightning, and he was permanently hooked. He knew he loved her at that moment, and he knew he always would. But Diane was dating Lucas. Hokey couldn’t remember Lucas’ last name, nor did he want to, but he remembered how he felt when Lucas slid next to Diane and wrapped his arm around her waist. Hokey felt his blood go cold as he watched the two of them.
It became an obsession after that. Hokey would follow Diane from a distance. He would watch her in classes and between. He followed her after classes were over and discovered where she lived, where she went, and who she spent time with. Hokey found himself spending more and more time watching Diane. His idea of love was stretching out of proportion with each passing day, and his obsession with this auburn-haired girl grew along with it.
On that Friday morning, coming out of a biology class, Hokey was following several feet behind Diane and Lucas when he saw Lucas grab Diane’s arm. Diane pulled away, but Lucas grabbed her again and forced her from the building. Hokey felt the pulse in his throat. His skin felt hot, and he clenched his fists so tightly his nails dug into his palms. He followed the pair until they reached the far side of the back parking lot. Lucas was pushing Diane in front of him, and she was resisting. She kept slapping at Lucas’ hands and trying to pull away. In that moment, Hokey’s life changed forever.
Lucas drew his hand back, and slapped Diane across the face. When he pulled his hand back for a second strike, Hokey was there. He grabbed Lucas’ hand and twisted the young man’s arm behind him. When Lucas tried to pull away, Hokey lost control. The next hit was to Lucas’ throat. Lucas dropped to the pavement and laid still. Hokey was breathing hard. He slowly looked up at Diane to see her staring at him as though he was a monster. She stared at him as though she expected him to hit her next.
Hokey remembered muttering that he only wanted to protect her, that he saw Lucas hit her. Diane had come at him with a flurry of fists. She had screamed that it was none of his business. She had screamed he was crazy. She had knelt beside Lucas and cried. That guy had hit her, and she was crying over him. Hokey suddenly saw Diane through different eyes. He saw her hair was not so shiny and her eyes not so bright. He saw she was too thin, and he saw she was scared—of him.
Hokey had walked away. He hadn’t gone home, and he hadn’t picked up any of his things. He just started walking.
Hokey didn’t know how long he wandered. He would beg for change so he could get something to eat. For a few months, he lost himself in a drugged haze somewhere in Oklahoma, but when he ended up in jail for vagrancy, he moved on. Hokey took quick odd jobs along the way and kept from starving. He slept in any out of the way place he could find and he moved further and further away from Diane.
When Hokey entered west Texas, the places to find food and work were few and far between. There were few houses along the road and even fewer towns. He was hungry, and he was tired. He remembered once a black car had stopped and asked if he needed help. He told them he was just looking for work and they handed him ten dollars. He was grateful, and told them so, but when the car drove away, Hokey realized the money wouldn’t help out here in the barren land. So Hokey continued walking until he saw the sign over the top of that long drive. “Jenk’s Ranch,” it had said. That same sign was there now, rusted a bit, but still a beacon as far as Hokey was concerned. He wasn’t sure why it called to him that day, but in the rain, it was like a light from Heaven itself. He walked down that long drive until he came to the house. He knew he must look horrible, but he no longer cared. He knocked at that door, and Old Man Jenk answered. Hokey had seen the look on his face—like an old, starved animal had turned up on his doorstep.
Hokey thought back on that bunkhouse and those rough old blankets. He thought of that bread and meat and milk. He remembered he had known he wouldn’t run anymore. That had been somewhere around 25 years ago. Hokey didn’t remember exactly. He didn’t keep track of things like birthdays. All Hokey Sloan kept track of was the horses and cattle and ranch. He did a good job. Old Man Jenk told him he had never had a hand who was better, and Old Man Jenk took care of Hokey. He made sure he was fed and clothed and had a warm place to sleep. And Old Man Jenk was going to die.
Hokey took another long swig from the second bottle of whiskey for the day. He knew he drank too much. He knew it was killing him. But Hokey also knew it didn’t matter. When Old Man Jenk was gone, Hokey would be gone. He just knew it. He thought, reluctantly, of Diane and of Lucas. He had often had nightmares about that parking lot. He wondered what had happened to Diane. He wondered how badly he had hurt Lucas. Hokey took another long drink from the whiskey bottle. His final thought as he lay back on his bed was that he didn’t care about Lucas. He missed Diane. He regretted Diane
About the Author
Nancy L. Stanford is a Southern Illinois author known for her down to earth characters. Ms Stanford is the author of the Letters to Sarah series Books One and Two with the release of Book Three coming soon.