Ferrying Mr. Billings

“Hey, Ferry Boy,” Olly Collings said. He was fishing off the landing pier, and he muttered it with a sneer as Ricky passed him to gather the guests for the trip across the lake. “Ferry Boy’s gonna ferry a fairy today.”

“Go to hell,” Ricky said.

“Not me,” Nate said, “I ain’t ferryin’ fairies.”

Ricky was a tall, slender boy with a thatch of brown hair and blue eyes. He was sixteen, and his father paid him ten dollars a day to haul guests to the Hollyster Ranch and Resort and then work as a waiter in the dining room. He would have preferred to work with the horses; but his brother, Dalin, already had that job and did not like the water. Ricky liked running the boat across the lake with the water-fresh breeze and the headwind lifting his hair across his face. It gave him a sense that he was no longer waiting, but moving toward something, though he could never say exactly what that might be. It was even more freeing, in that sense, than riding a horse.

“You’re the guest guy,” his dad teased, “You meet ‘em; you greet ‘em; you feed ‘em.” His dad managed the ranch, a staff of four or five college and high school students, including Ricky and Dalin, who kept the rooms clean, worked in the barn or in the kitchen and dining room. His mother managed the kitchen.

There were six people in the landing waiting room, the Rambol family from Bozeman and a stout, rough looking man that Ricky had never met before. The Rambols were regulars, Dick and Kitty had honeymooned at the Ranch when Ricky was ten years old. Now they had three kids, and they came every August for holiday. The six of them were on the benches in the small waiting house. The man Ricky did not know was talking with Kitty Rambol, who joggled the two-year old on her shoulder.

Ricky knew that the man he did not know was from Denver and that his name was Billings. The Holyster Ranch and Resort did not often get lone guests; usually the men came in packs to hunt and fish. Or they brought their families. Loners were unusual. Ricky wondered what brought this man here alone.

When Billy Rambol saw Ricky, he jumped up from the bench where he was kneeling and watching out the window.

“Hey, Ricky,” he said, “look.” He held up a stuffed bear.  Billy was six years old.

“It goes everywhere with him,” Kitty said. She said “everywhere” as if it were a minor amusing disaster.

“We all need a friend,” the stranger said. He was a short, wide shouldered, heavy muscled man. His eyes passed over Ricky quickly, then looked away. Ricky wondered, as he often did when people did that, what the man saw. Did he see a boy waiting for something he did not understand? Did he see the confusion that idiots like Hollings made him feel?

“He,” Billy said, “It’s a he, not a it.”

“What’s her name,” Ricky teased.

“He’s a he,” Billy frowned. “Griz,” he said.

“Well,” Ricky said, “let me shake Griz’s paw.” He leaned down and put out his hand.

“Griz don’t shake with who call him a girl.” Billy turned the stuffed bear away.

“Well, I was mistaken. He is a boy bear, a right handsome boy bear at that,” Ricky said.

Billy turned around, a small pout on his face; but he lifted the stuffed bear’s arm. Ricky took it and gave it a quick nod. Billy smiled at him.

The man Ricky did not know stood up; he extended his hand. He was grinning. “I’ve been called worse,” he nodded toward Billy and the stuffed bear. He said “worse” in a way that implied something less than worse. “Ivers Billings,” he said. He had bright brown eyes and his hand, though city soft, took Ricky’s firmly.

As Ricky began to gather the guests’ luggage, the door opened. It was Olly Collings with his fishing rod and tackle box. He was grinning at Ricky.

“You need any help ferrying the luggage to the ferry,” Olly said. He was not openly sneering. But Ricky could hear all the inuendo of his repetition of the word “ferry.”

“I can manage,” Ricky said.

“You can ferry to the ferry for this old boy,” Billings said.

Olly blinked twice at the man. He had apparently not expected anyone to take him up on his offer.

“Those two there,” Billings said. He nodded to a suitcase and a satchel on the bench near where he had been sitting. Olly blinked again, first at the bags, then at Billings.

“Two dollars,” Billings said.

“Well.” Olly said, “At your service.” He was sneering again. “Two dollars is two dollars however you get it,” he said. He leaned his rod against the wall and put his tacklebox down.

“Or from whomever,” Billings said.

“Prezackly,” Olly said.

At the boat Ricky stowed the luggage. When he took Billings’s bags from Olly, Olly hissed. “Maybe he’ll two-dollar you to ferry, too.”

“Go to hell,” Ricky said.

Ricky passed out the lifejackets. He put the Rambols on the stern benches. Billings went forward. He sat with an arm over the rail, one leg crooked over his knee, and looked out over the water. He was wearing jeans and a long sleeve cotton pullover shirt. The life jacket was tight over his thick chest.

Ricky cast off, and took the wheel. Billings sat looking out over the water and lifted his face into the headwind.

After a time, he turned to Ricky and said, “I never pay except to whores,” he said. He waved back at the landing toward Olly Collings. “And I never pay whores for what they are meant for.”

Ricky felt himself blush. There was sudden, empty hunger in the pit of his stomach. He was frightened and excited. He did not know until that moment that he had been waiting. He didn’t say anything, and when he looked, Billings was watching a gull hover over the water.

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