Andrew’s leg healed slowly throughout that winter as he settled into the routine of living with Rick. The pain from the injury gradually dulled although the limp was destined to plague him for some time to come. With Rick’s help, the bitterness he felt began to ebb too as he reconciled with life away from the rodeo and without the adrenaline rush of competing. This quiet way of life suited him, a quiet man by nature and little by little he allowed himself to relax.
The coyotes were a constant but shadowy reality of life at the ranch. Andrew often saw the evidence of their existence; in their droppings in the fields, the stripped carcass of deer they left behind and the occasional glimpse of a lean shape trotting through the grass. Their presence was made more apparent ironically by the fall of darkness. Their yips and howls filled the night, the dogs in the yard answering them with barks and growls of their own. They would occasionally come close to the house to torment the dogs, sending them into a frenzied barking that even Rick’s stern commands couldn’t quiet.
They were an integral part of the balance of nature, keeping a check on the population of gophers and ensuring the health of the deer herds by culling the injured or sick. The men made no effort to interfere in their lives; they were wary animals and avoided humans, posing no threat to them or the stock.
As Andrew’s strength improved, Rick allowed him the chores further a field and his favorite was to check on the expectant cows. The men had selected each cow carefully and their calves would be the foundation of their future herd. The swell of pride that rose up in Andrew whenever he saw their animals always surprised him with its force.
He heard the distressed bellow of one of the cows as soon as he pulled up in the truck. Despite it being still winter a few of the pregnant heifers had calved early and the men checked often on the young animals to make sure they were thriving. But Black Angus cattle were known for their good mothering and the calves were known for their will to survive, once they were up and dry after being born, problems were rare.
It was cold that day and Andrew was grateful for his warm jacket. He’d taken the truck, rather than a horse in concession to the weather and the resultant ache in his leg. The cow stood at the edge of the frozen dugout, bawling mournfully for her calf. Andrew could just see the small dark shape of her little one lying on the ice. “Hey, Big Girl,” he spoke soothingly to the distraught cow. “Don’t worry; I’ll get your baby for you.” Totally puzzled how they came to be separated, he walked towards it, planning on carrying it back to its mother. The cattle, unable to get their footing properly on the ice, couldn’t venture more than a few steps out onto the dugout and Andrew couldn’t understand how the calf could have ended up there. An uneasy feeling settled over him as he drew closer but nothing could have prepared him for the horrific sight of the calf, belly split, its entrails and blood spilling onto the ice around him. Andrew dropped to his knees by the calf, pressing the back of his gloved hand to his mouth to stifle a cry of revulsion. It gave a sudden twitch and Andrew’s stomach lurched at the realization that it was still alive.
He scrambled to his feet and ran as best he could on the slippery surface to the truck. After unlocking the gun rack, he grabbed the shotgun and hurried back. Aiming the gun at the calf’s head, he pulled the trigger, ending its misery. Then, the cries of the cow for its lost calf still echoing in his mind, he got in the truck and drove home.
Rick, hearing the screech of the tires in the yard, came out of the barn to see Andrew taking the porch steps two at a time, leaving the truck door open in his haste. Worried, he followed his partner into the house.
He found him standing in front of the open gun cabinet in the dining room. “Andy? What’s wrong?” Taking in Andrew’s pallor, he wondered what in God’s name could have upset him this badly.
“I need a better gun,” Andrew muttered, his hands shaking as he selected a rifle. Not even giving the other man a glance, Andrew loaded the gun, his trembling hands making it difficult. He snapped the barrel shut when he was done and instinctively check to make sure the safety was on.
“What do you need a gun for?” When he didn’t get an answer, he said firmly, “Put it down, Andrew. You’re in no fit state to be handling a weapon right now.” Getting no reaction at all to that, Rick walked towards the other man, his hand outstretched to take the gun.
But Andrew headed for the door, circumventing his partner’s attempts to block him by rounding the table.
“Andrew,” Rick barked, trying to break through his obvious shock. “Stand still.”
Finally responding to Rick’s voice, Andrew stopped.
“Put down the gun,” Rick ordered sharply. He was relieved when Andrew reflexively obeyed, setting the rifle down on the dining room table.
“I have to do something,” Andrew insisted, clearly still highly agitated. He was breathing hard and his eyes kept darting towards the gun on the table. Before he had a chance to reclaim it, Rick took his arm, drawing him close.
“Calm down,” he said firmly. When Andrew struggled to free himself from his grip, Rick swatted him hard. His face twisting, Andrew said unsteadily, “Rick?”
Taking him into his arms, Rick held Andrew tightly, feeling the tension in his rigid body.
Slowly, unwillingly, Andrew began to weep into his partner’s shoulder. “Oh God, Rick,” he cried. “The calf was still alive when I found him, they’d …they’d. . . ,” he choked, unable to give voice to the awfulness of what he’d witnessed.
Rick stroked his head in silence until he’d regained some control of himself and then asked, “What happened?”
“The coyotes. They gutted one of the calves, drug it out on the ice so the mother couldn’t protect it,” Andrew said. “I had to finish it off.”
“Shit,” swore Rick. He held Andrew close for a few minutes until the gulping sobs had stopped. “Listen, Andrew. I need to go check. You stay here until I get back. Understand?”
“No, Rick. Please, I’ll go with you.”
“No one needs to see that twice,” Rick said firmly to him, rubbing a comforting hand down his back. “You did what you had to do.”
“I’m fine,” protested Andrew, ducking his head to wipe his wet cheeks, embarrassed by his tears.
“I know you are,” Rick answered. “But right now I want you to sit here,” he pulled out a chair from the table, “And I’m going to get you a coffee and you can warm up for a bit.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Rick assured him, lifting Andrew’s chin to kiss him. “You stay right here until I do.”
Reluctantly Andrew let Rick help him off with his jacket and he sat down at the table. “Okay,” he conceded, grateful that he was sitting, his legs turning to rubber suddenly. A few minutes later Rick returned with a steaming mug in his hand which he set down in front of Andrew. Waiting until he drank some of the hot coffee, Rick lifted Andrew’s chin to kiss him. “I’ll be back soon,” Rick assured him. “You stay right here until I do.”
“I will,” Andrew agreed, his shock gradually receding as he drank his coffee. He tried to put the vivid image of the calf out of his mind as he sat obediently where Rick left him. Lost in thought, he started when he heard the door open. “Rick?” he called. His partner came to the doorway, his usual ruddy complexion pale. Andrew stood up uncertainly but Rick gestured to him, signaling him to come to him.
The two men embraced for a long moment, Rick gratefully holding Andrew close. “Oh God,” Rick breathed. “That was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.” When he saw the condition of the calf he’d understood why Andrew had found it so disturbing and knowing the other man, the fact that he’d actually had to shoot the calf would make it even more so. “Come on, I need a drink.” Taking Andrew’s hand, Rick drew him into the kitchen. He poured them each a liberal shot of whiskey and they sat at the kitchen table to sip the drink.
After a few moments of silence, Andrew asked, “What would make them do that? They’ve never bothered the cattle before.”
“I don’t know,” Rick admitted, the worry obvious in his voice. “But it was definitely coyotes; I found their prints all around the calf.”
His anger returning, Andrew said hotly, “Well, I’m a damn good shot; I’m going to pick off every last coyote on the place.” He got to his feet, seemingly prepared to make good on his threat.
“You’ll do no such thing,” Rick growled, reaching out to lay a restraining hand on his arm. “No one is going off half-cocked and shooting anything. You’ve got no business picking up a gun when you’re upset; it’s dangerous, Andrew.”
Andrew sank down in his chair again; well aware that he’d already broken that cardinal safety rule.
Rick made sure he had eye contact before he spoke. “If I ever see that again, Andy I’ll spank you, you can count on it. You don’t handle a weapon unless you’ve got control of yourself.”
“Yes, sir,” Andrew answered. “I was just…it was just seeing that…” he trailed off.
“What are we going to do about the coyotes?”
“I don’t know. I’m going to talk to Dad and see what he has to say.”
It was a conversation too complicated to have over the phone and they drove the ten miles to Rick’s parents’ ranch. His mother greeted them happily when they appeared in her kitchen.
“Boys,” she smiled. “What a nice surprise.” Rick slipped off his coat and bent so she could kiss his cheek.
The two men settled at the table in the large kitchen while she went to pour them a coffee. It was unusually quiet for their busy house with David at school and the other men out working.
“Is Dad around?”
“Yes, he and Ethan are in the South field taking the bulls some hay. They won’t be long.”
It was only a short while before Rick’s father and brother returned, the kitchen seeming to grow smaller with their added bulk. They washed their hands at the sink before joining Rick and Andrew at the long, wooden table. Lily laid the table in front of them and set out plates of sandwiches. The men helped themselves, except Andrew, his stomach still unsettled.
Having filled in the men on the situation, Rick asked, “So, Dad? What do you think we should do?”
“That’s really unusual, that coyotes go for the cattle. Maybe it won’t happen again,” Joe answered.
“For God’s sake, just shoot every coyote you see. I know where their den is I could wipe them out,” Andrew blurted out.
A bit taken back by this uncharacteristic outburst, everyone sat in surprised silence for a moment. It was rare that Andrew joined their conversation in spite of the efforts of Rick’s family. That he’d spoken out now was a clear indication of how troubled he was.
Joe said quietly, “You don’t need to do that, Andy. They’ve got their place too; you’ll be overrun by gophers and rabbits in no time without them. And wipe out the ones you’ve got now and others will come in to take their place. You’re never going to eliminate them.”
“So you’re saying we’re just supposed to sit back and let them kill all the calves?” asked Andrew incredulously.
“No, Andy,” Joe said continued. “That’s not what I’m saying. It’s just that it’s more complicated than simply shooting a few coyotes. It’s often just one of them that will attack, leading the others. If you can get rid of that one, the others will likely stop. If you have any more trouble, I’d call the conservation officer.”
Embarrassed despite the gentleness of the rebuke, Andrew buried himself in his coffee. Even though he was a skilled marksman, he didn’t hunt and the men never allowed anyone else access to hunt on their land either, leaving their ranch a sanctuary for wildlife.
Glancing at his watch, Rick got up from the table. “We’d better get going.”
Still self-conscious, Andrew got up too, mumbling a quick good-bye. When they got into the truck, he apologized, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude to your Dad.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Rick said, knowing how deeply his partner was affected by the trauma of seeing the calf. Despite how he tried to portray himself, Andrew was a softhearted young man and the often harsh reality of life on the ranch took its toll on him. There was no way for Rick to soften that and he knew Andrew would be insulted if he tried. And he knew too that Andrew’s tough talk was just that, born out of sympathy for the calf’s suffering.
Before dusk the two men went to gather up the cows and their calves, herding them into the large corral beside the barn. They’d be much safer there with the dogs nearby to alert them to the presence of any predators. The men saddled their horses in the morning and herded the cattle back towards the open fields and the dugout.
The coyotes were far too clever to attack with the men nearby but the fields were vast and they found a secluded spot to kill the second calf. Andrew and Rick could only look in dismay at her half-eaten remains, the hope that it had been a one time occurrence, gone.
Both of the cows that had lost their calves were wandering the field, calling out to them. It would take days before they gave up and the mournful sounds of their search tore at Andrew’s heart. He couldn’t fully explain the desire to seek vengeance on the coyotes; they were animals just trying to survive. To infuse their actions with evil was unfair. It was a powerful feeling though and Andrew tried to push it down, ashamed of himself.
To be at the mercy of something that was beyond his power was a terrible feeling. But it was the perception that Rick was equally helpless that filled him with despair. He hid his fear in a burst of anger.
“Now are we going to shoot them?” he demanded, not caring how disrespectful he sounded.
“No, now I’m going to call the Conservation Officer,” Rick said. “And you’re going to calm down.”
“Like hell I am,” Andrew snorted belligerently. “I don’t care what you say; I know what I’m going to do.” He reached for the rifle attached to his saddle, the horse under him shying nervously at his raised voice. Maneuvering his own horse close to Andrew’s, Rick reached out to grasp his arm in a hard grip, forcing Andrew to lean a bit out of his saddle. He swallowed hard when Rick brought his face close to his.
“No,” said Rick simply. “That’s enough.” There was sufficient resolve in that to quiet Andrew and when Rick released him, he flushed and glanced away, not able to withstand the look in his partner’s eyes.
“Ride home,” ordered Rick and he gave Andrew’s mare an encouraging slap on her flank.
Andrew galloped the horse back to the barn, Rick close behind him. When they arrived, Andrew dismounted and stood by the corrals, unsure of what to do. Once Rick had swung down from his horse, he held out his hand for Andrew’s reins. “Go inside,” he said firmly.
“Rick,” Andrew started, his voice wavering.
“No,” said Rick sternly. “Go inside.”
Once in the house though, Andrew’s fury quickly disappeared to be replaced again by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. He sat on the chair in the living room, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He didn’t move when he heard Rick come inside and go to the phone. The muffled conversation was largely inaudible and Andrew didn’t even try to make out what was being said.
“You ready to talk?” asked Rick when he entered the room. When he saw the small nod he went to the couch to sit down, his own tiredness evident. “Come here,” he ordered firmly, holding out his hand. He understood that Andrew was feeling unsafe and vulnerable and was trying to mask that in defiance but it was a pitiful attempt. Andrew quickly stumbled over to him and Rick took him into his arms, holding him securely against his chest.
“I’m just a man, same as you, Andy,” Rick said softly. “No one has control over everything in life, especially out here and sometimes there isn’t an easy answer.”
That his partner was badly shaken was obvious, he was trembling and Rick could feel the dampness of sweat on his shirt. “But that doesn’t mean that you’re not safe with me.”
Knowing his partner’s worry, he continued, “We could lose all the calves, Andy and you and me, we’d still be fine. But it won’t come down to that. The Conservation officer is coming this afternoon and we’re going to bait the coyotes to see which one is the problem.”
He held him for a long time until the trembling had stopped and Andrew was relatively calm. “Now we’re going to talk about respect and obedience, Andy,” he said. “I understand it’s been a hard couple of days. And you can disagree with me but I’m not putting up with being shouted and sworn at or with flat-out disobedience.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it,” Andrew said, clinging harder to Rick. All traces of his earlier insolence had vanished and he whimpered in protest when he was gently peeled away.
“Go get the paddle,” Rick said.
“No,” begged Andrew. Still raw emotionally, he didn’t know how he was going to get through a paddling with any kind of dignity.
“Right now.” He helped Andrew to his feet and gave him a gentle push. There was no room for wavering, as sympathetic as he was to Andrew’s anxiety this was the quickest way to relieve it and give him the reassurance he needed. That Rick was there for him, that he could be trusted and that he was safely held.
Andrew was already wiping his eyes when he returned with the paddle and Rick had to steel himself for a moment before speaking. “Take your pants off,” he ordered, reaching out for the paddle and waited while his partner obeyed.
Somehow Andrew managed to toe off his boots and tug his jeans down. Blinded by tears he let Rick guide him over his lap but once he was in position he couldn’t help but plead, “Please, Rick. Don’t.”
“You’re all right,” Rick reassured him before pulling his underwear down to begin. He held him close and delivered a hard hand spanking that left Andrew gasping and squirming. Picking up the paddle, he rested it on Andrew’s hot skin and paused, waiting for his partner to catch his breath. He lifted the piece of thin wood and brought it down firmly on the underside of Andrew’s bottom, eliciting a reflexive kick. He continued, despite Andrew’s protests, until the skin was thoroughly reddened. After letting him cry for a few moments Rick helped him stand and then led him to the bedroom. Rick toed off his own boots and lay down on the bed, opening his arms. Gratefully, Andrew sank into them, still crying hard. For a while all he could think about was the intense burning pain of his backside. Eventually it faded enough that he was able to consider what Rick had told him.
“What time is the officer coming?” he asked.
“Two,” answered Rick. “I’ll meet him out in the calving field.”
The significance of the statement wasn’t lost on Andrew. “I’m a better shot than you…. He started, his words tripping over themselves in his panic. “You can’t leave me out of it, Rick.”
“I can and I’m going to,” Rick said implacably. “We’re not going to fight about this, Andrew. I’m the boss and what I say, goes.”
“I’m all right, I can do it,” Andrew argued, fighting to sit up. He cried out as his sore bottom came in contact with the blanket.
Rick pulled him back down into his arms where he struggled briefly to get free before giving up and lying back down. The sobs that had died down started again and he cried, out of frustration now. He tried several times to argue but each time Rick lay his hand on Andrew’s reddened backside in warning and he quieted.
When Andrew had fallen into a fitful doze, Rick got up and covering his partner with a blanket, he left the room. He was taking his rifle out of the cabinet when Andrew came to find him. “Please,” he begged softly. “Please.”
“No,” answered Rick simply. This time he wasn’t going to let his partner’s stubborn sense of pride be the definitive consideration. While he was this vulnerable, he would protect him from this unpleasant job and any more hurt. It was enough that he had been the one to have to shoot the calf. And looking at Andrew it was obvious he wasn’t capable of handling a gun, still shaky with emotion.
“You’re not to leave the house this afternoon, Andy. If you do I’ll paddle you again.”
His bottom still burned fiercely and the thought of being paddled again made Andrew shudder.
“Do you understand?” asked Rick.
“Yes,” answered Andrew reluctantly. “But…”
“Say it,” ordered Rick, there was going to be no leeway to excuse any disobedience.
“If I leave the house, you’ll paddle me,” choked out Andrew.
Rick reached out and pulled his unhappy partner into a tight hug. “I love you,” he said softly, kissing his forehead.
“I love you too,” whispered Andy, his arms around Rick’s waist. Although he didn’t want to admit it, he was having trouble gathering himself together after the punishment and more significantly, the events that had preceded it. He would have had a difficult time shooting a coyote at any time, it would be impossible now.
“I want you to lie back down for a while,” Rick instructed.
Not wanting to be left alone, Andrew burrowed further into Rick’s shoulder in silent protest.
“When I get back I’ll lie down with you,” Rick assured him, gently placing a hand on Andrew’s bottom. The heat under his hand was still considerable and he knew that his partner was sore enough that lying in bed would be a comfort, not a hardship.
Dropping another kiss on his forehead Rick led Andrew back to their bedroom, the younger man leaning against him. He settled under the blanket but was too troubled to sleep soundly. So he drifted, straining his ears to hear any sounds that would tell what was happening. Several times as he slipped in and out of sleep, he thought he heard the echo of a gunshot.
Waking, he saw that Rick was sitting at the side of the bed, his handsome face sad and tired. When he noticed that Andrew was awake, he laid a calloused hand on his face, gently running his thumb over his partner’s cheekbone.
“Is it done?” asked Andrew softly.
Rick nodded, “Yes, it’s done. We shot three of them. I hope that’s the end of it.”
That there was no satisfaction in the job for Rick was apparent. It obviously saddened him that he’d had to do it and that he’d found it distasteful. He sighed deeply and lay down beside Andrew who immediately rested his head on Rick’s chest, both of the men comforted by their closeness.