The radio alarm clicked on and I reached out to grope in the dark for the switch. Finding it, I quickly pressed the button, killing the sound of the mournful country and western tune emanating from it. I lay back down for a minute, letting myself gradually wake up. When I sat up and turned on the bedside lamp Andrew threw his arm over his eyes and groaned, “Tell me it’s not morning.”
“It’s not morning,” I teased as I drew his arm away from his face to kiss his cheek, rough with stubble.
He turned on his side away from me, “You’re lying,” he accused.
“Yeah,” I admitted with a sigh. “It’s morning.” Barely. I looked at the clock to confirm it was .
I ran a finger lightly down the centre of Andrew’s back, something sure to make him squirm and he reached a hand back to swat me away. “Get lost,” he growled, trying to hide the smile in his voice.
I laughed, “Time to get up sunshine.” I didn’t get a response, Andrew had buried his head in the pillow and I reluctantly got out of bed. Christ but I ached; every muscle I owned seemed to be protesting the least little movement. Not even out of my twenties yet and I felt like an old man. This time of year we showered at the end of the day, it was a waste of time before the work we were going to be doing so I shuffled over to our dresser to rummage through the drawers for clean underwear. Coming up empty handed I asked, “You got any clean shorts, Andy?”
He’s accepted reality and was sitting at the side of the bed, yawning. “Maybe?”
I searched his side of the dresser and found several pair. It was branding season and every waking moment of every day was spent in a continuous flurry of activity. There hadn’t been any time for the more mundane household chores and we were running out of clean clothes. Clean anything actually; the house was an indisputable mess.
The fact that my partner took a smaller size wasn’t lost on me when I pulled the shorts over my hips. I let the elastic snap against my stomach, which was lean and hard from constant exercise and Andrew gave an appreciative whistle.
“Remind me to throw away all your underwear,” he grinned. I could feel the warmth in my face and his grin widened when he saw that he’d made me blush.
We hadn’t had the energy the last few days to do more than exchange a quick kiss before falling into an exhausted sleep. I could see the heat in Andrew’s eyes and I felt an answering on a little lower down and the borrowed shorts got even tighter. I hesitated, sorely tempted before saying reluctantly, “They’ll be waiting on us.”
“Yeah,” he agreed but his head went down and I could feel his disappointment.
I went to him, tilting up his face with a finger under his chin and kissed him hard. “Rain check?” I asked softly.
He nodded, a forced smile twisting his mouth. I bent down to kiss him again before turning to sift through the pile of clothes on the floor, choosing the least filthy pair of jeans to wear. I threw a shirt over my shoulders and buttoned it as I thumped down the stairs to try to find something for breakfast. It was a challenge, we hadn’t been shopping for awhile and the cupboard’s content was pretty meager.
I pressed a peanut butter sandwich into Andrew’s hands when he walked into the kitchen. He frowned and opened his mouth but before he could complain, I handed him his jacket, set his hat on his head and hustled him out the door. We rushed through the necessary morning chores, working in the half-light of dawn before saddling the horses. Considering how hard they’d worked that week they looked amazingly eager to be on their way, vying to be the first one in the trailer.
In the truck I gave Andrew a discreet once over, he looked tired, his face the same grey color I saw in the mirror this morning. We were both tired and if we hadn’t been so desperately needed today I would have begged us off. But in a business with profit margins so tight everyone relied on their neighbors for help and both Andrew and I could rope, a skill that was in short supply.
There was a half-dozen men waiting in the field when I parked the truck only a few minutes past the agreed on meeting time for the round-up. I went to shake hands with the rancher who owned the herd while Andrew unloaded our horses. I recognized all the men gathered there, I’d grown up here and it was rare that anyone new moved into our community, land being passed down from generation to generation. By now, Andrew had met them all too and while small talk was scarce in the morning everyone exchanged nods of greeting.
The rancher was an elderly man and we waited as he outlined his plans for gathering up his cattle for branding. Every man there was an experienced hand and we hardly needed the detailed instructions he doled out in his rasping voice but we still listened patiently. Andrew was the youngest of the group by a few years; the teenagers would come later to hold down the claves when they branded but he’d been doing this his whole life too and I smiled when he looked at me and discreetly rolled his eyes. Finally we all swung onto our respective mounts and moved off in different directions.
Andrew and I trotted our horses along the fence line and the cows, their babies darting at their side, fled in front of us, heading towards the centre of the field as the other men did the same around the perimeter of his land. Occasionally a pair would break away and turn back and Andrew or I would chase them down. They never got far, the horses effortlessly turning them in the right direction, sending them to melt into the herd.
Within an hour we had all the cattle contained in a group, ringing them to hold them there. We sat our horses, relaxing for the moment as the herd settled down and started to graze. I saw one of the men ride up to Andrew and offer him a flask. Most of the men carried one in their boot, it was cool in the morning and a drink gave the illusion at least of warming up. Lifting it to his lips Andrew took a long swallow before handing it back. I shifted uneasily in my saddle, as tired as Andrew was he didn’t need to be drinking, especially this early. It was a long day and alcohol was available in some form virtually the entire time and keeping your wits about you was essential when you were working with unpredictable animals.
I smiled but shook my head when the man rode over to offer the flask to me but I was one of the few that turned it down. A lot of these men drank hard and the strong brandy didn’t even touch them.
We gave the calves time to ‘mother up’ as some had lost their respective parent in the confusion before we moved them into the large corrals. Again we let them rest and settle for a while, trying to minimize their stress for the moment. Now the real work began. Separating the calves from the cows. The air was soon filled with the sounds of plaintive bawling as we, one-by-one, sorted the calves into an adjacent corral. It didn’t matter that they were within sight of each other or that they would soon be reunited, the noise of hundreds of upset cows and calves was deafening.
The day was heating up and we shed our jackets and rolled up our sleeves as the hours passed. A tub filled with cans of beer and bottles of water rested beside the corrals and the men helped themselves freely, thirsty from the hard work. I was vaguely aware of seeing Andrew with a beer in his hand more than once, but busy as I was I didn’t keep a close eye on him. Not that I ever did, he knew as well as I did the dangers of too much alcohol when you were working.
Once they were separated we ran each mother cow through the squeeze, spraying them to prevent parasites and checking for any problems that needed the vet’s attention. As soon as they were done we released them back into the large field and they ventured off to graze nearby.
You get lulled by the hours of repetitive work but I was instantly more alert when cow number 127 hit the squeeze. She bellowed and shook her head as much as she could, trapped as securely as she was. Andrew balanced on a rail at the side of the chute, reaching over the edge to spray the medicine over her back. It only took a moment and then he jumped back to the ground and I could see him adjusting the sprayer for the next cow’s dose. I released the catch of the mechanism that held her head and opened the end of the squeeze, releasing her. A range cow will normally head for the open field and away from people as quick as she can but this one was intent on something else entirely. Cows, just like people, have their own personalities from laid-back to ornery and this one was definitely not a sweet tempered momma. As soon as she was free she turned and charged towards the men standing near the corrals. I shouted over the noise of the cows, “Heads up.” At my signal everyone scattered to the safety of the fence and climbed as the infuriated cow snorted and kicked her way close to them.
All except Andrew, oblivious to what was going on and the danger he was in, he stood absentmindedly fiddling with the equipment. “Heads up,” I boomed out as loud as I could but his mind clearly somewhere else and he didn’t even lift his head to look at me. “Andrew!” I shouted as I grabbed a sturdy cow cane. Finally he looked up just in time to see the cow bearing down on him. Not quite fast enough to dodge her, she caught him a glancing blow and he spun and rolled several times in the dirt. I ran at her and brought the cane down, hitting her solidly on the rump and she turned towards me. I spread my arms wide, making myself as big as I could and she came to a halt, eyeing me. I edged closer to Andrew, so that I was between him and the cow and seeing a way out, she mercifully took it and ran past me and into the field.
Andrew was on his feet, dusting himself off as if nothing had happened. I took a deep breath, relieved but my heart was still pounding as I asked him as casually as I could, “You all right?”
He gave a curt nod. I wasn’t going to fuss over him, something he’d consider embarrassing in front of the other men. Instead I simply asked, “Do we need to go to the hospital?” He’d tell me if any bones were broke, anything else he’d consider a flesh would and could be safely tended to later. His wounded pride was much more important to him than a few bruises, no matter how deep and when he shook his head I turned and shouted to the men who were chasing the cows into the chute, “Okay, ready.”
But Mr. Mason, the owner, came over at that point to check on Andrew. Injuries were a fact of life for all of us but no one wanted to see any of the men seriously hurt, especially on their ranch. “Boy,” he asked gruffly. “You hurt?”
I could see Andrew stiffen at being addressed as boy but the man meant no insult. He was eighty if he was a day and we were all boys to him.
“No, sir,” Andrew answered between gritted teeth.
“Thank God,” the older man breathed. “You need to be paying attention,” he scolded mildly. Having taken in the scene from his vantage point on the fence he clearly knew Andrew hadn’t been attending to what was going on around him, a cardinal sin when you were working with cattle.
“Yes, sir,” Andrew answered and I could see the huge effort it took for him to be polite. His face flushed red, he bent to pick up the sprayer from the dirt and moved to his position by the chute.
Satisfied, Mr. Mason nodded and went back to his seat on the fence and everyone else went back to work. I did keep my eye on Andrew after that but his daydreaming was over and he stayed focused on what was going on. Knowing him as I do I could see he was upset though, his lips moving soundlessly as he carried on some internal dialog with himself.
Gradually more and more trucks were parked in the field as others came for the more labor-intensive work of handling the calves. The branding pots were filled with hot coals, the irons nestled in the bed to heat them to a bright red. Andrew and I remounted our horses, coiling our long ropes, ready for our part. We worked in teams; each roper had two teenagers that held the calf once its legs had been secured. I watched as Andrew threw out his rope, expertly snaring the hind legs of a calf and his horse backed up, pulling it to the ground so the boys could hold it. As soon as it was down it was branded, castrated and inoculated by men who moved from one calf to another. It was over in a matter of minutes, the rope removed and the calf allowed to run off to join its mother in the field, bellowing its indignation.
There was a break for lunch and we walked the short distance to the house to eat. This part was hard for Andrew, a shy man, he found it difficult to be amongst so many people. Avoiding the tables set up to eat at, he filled a plate and went to the farthest part of the yard to sit cross-legged on the grass to eat his meal, Hungry, I did the same, settling beside him. A few of the other men wandered over to join us but Andrew kept his head down, eating steadily and not participating in the conversation. The other men weren’t offended; a quiet man was more the norm than a loquacious one here. He got up and left when he was finished, presumably to refill his plate. I found him a short while later beside the drinks table, a glass of dark liquid in his hand and he gave me a nervous glance when I walked up. The smell of whiskey hit me and explained his anxiousness. I took his glass from him, casually raising it to my lips for a drink. It was more alcohol than mix and I didn’t return the drink to Andrew, instead I set it down on one of the nearby tables and discreetly touched his arm. “We need to check on Breeze’s leg, I think she was limping this morning.”
He didn’t need any further prompting and he walked with me to where our horses were tethered.
“What’s going on?” I asked sternly as soon as we were out of earshot.
He licked his lips and tried for a look of injured innocence. “What?”
“You shouldn’t be drinking like this, Andy,” I told him bluntly. “We’ve still got work to do.”
“I’m not drinking any more than anyone else.”
I shook my head, “Then they’re taking a risk. One I’m not prepared to let you take.” I didn’t bring up the close call he’d already had this morning, knowing it was a raw nerve and this wasn’t the place to discuss it.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” he muttered, turning and starting to move away from me.
I stopped him with a firm hand on his arm, “Hey,” I said sharply, not prepared to put up with either his disrespectful attitude or any further defiance from him. “Do we need to leave?”
“No,” he said quickly, knowing I was serious.
“No more,” I ordered, not leaving any room for negotiation.
He nodded, his face reddening at my blunt words. I took the truck keys from my pocket and handed them to Andrew, “Go lie down for a while, I’ll come and get you when it’s time to start.”
His hands were trembling when he took the keys but he obeyed, walking to where our truck was parked. A lot of the men were tired and he wasn’t the only one that was having a nap, either in their truck or in the grass beside their horse trailers.
As promised I went and woke him when it was time. It was thankfully only another couple of hours of work and as soon as the last calf was done, I was off my horse and leading it to the trailer. Andrew followed at a slower pace; he wasn’t in any rush, not when an awkward discussion waited at home.
We weren’t the only ones leaving although the majority of the men seemed ready to settle into some serious drinking now that the work was over. We were loading the horses when Mr. Mason came over to thank us for our help. Shaking out hands, he invited to stay, “Party’s just getting started,” he protested.
I thanked him for his hospitality but explained we had chores waiting at home. He accepted that excuse and thanking us again, he went back to joint the others. We were back home within a half hour, unloading the horses again. They were subdued now, grateful for the soothing grooming and attention we gave them before letting them out into the paddock.
Andrew had been carefully avoiding meeting my eye but as soon as the most pressing chores were done I said to him, “Go and shower, Andy. I’ll be in soon.”
“I can…,” he started to argue but I cut him off.
“Shower.” He wanted an argument; I could see it in his eyes. About what at this point it didn’t matter. Generally uncomfortable with strong feelings, I think he often found anger an easier emotion to deal with, his own and mine. Sometimes it was as if he was trying to provoke me when he was in trouble, maybe it was an attempt to deflect attention from what he’d done initially or maybe it was hope that I’d just hurry up and punish him and he wouldn’t have to think about it too hard. But whatever the reason it was never successful. While I was a man with all the capabilities of anger I had control if it and myself.
He’d grabbed hold of a bale and said hotly, “I’m just going to feed the horses.”
“No, you’re going to shower. Last warning, sweetheart,” I said, keeping my voice even. We hardly ever called each other by anything by our names and I used an endearment deliberately. A reminder that whatever else was going on, I loved him.
He hesitated, knowing that the ball was in his court. I’d discipline him now if he didn’t obey but it wouldn’t be tangled up in what had come before. The bale dropped to the ground and his shoulders slumped, his attempt to sustain any show of anger defeated and he started towards the house without another word.
I finished what absolutely had to be done in the barn; the rest could wait until tomorrow. Walking into the house I couldn’t help the initial feeling of dismay. The floor was thick with mud and hay we’d tracked in, not even having the time to take off our boots, every dish we possessed was piled by the sink, waiting to be washed and the whole house had an out of control feel to it. At that moment it was hard not to feel overwhelmed, by my own exhaustion and the amount of work we had to do but it didn’t last long. I stripped off my dirt-encrusted clothes in the laundry room and started a load of wash and it was enough to give me the illusion that I was going to get a handle on it.
Freshly showered, Andrew was in the bedroom and I felt a pang of sympathy at his anxious expression. “I’m just going to shower,” I said quietly. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”
He nodded and looked at me in appeal, obviously wanting some direction.
“Why don’t you change the sheets, Andy? There’s clean ones in the cupboard.”
The hot water felt so good, I could have happily stayed in the shower longer but it was cruel to keep Andrew waiting. I dried off and dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, aware the whole time of Andrew hovering near the bedroom door. Sitting down on the side of the bed I held out my hand, “Come here.”
“I don’t have to.” His voice was tight and angry, not with defiance but some other emotion I couldn’t understand.
“No, you don’t,” I said softly. It was always up to him, whether to submit or not. I’d have never forced him, even if I could have, Andrew was a strong young man in his own right and I’d seen him best men as big as me in a fight.
Just because we love someone doesn’t mean we can change who they are, I loved Andrew and I knew without a doubt that he loved me, but even that didn’t mean he was an open book to me. I watched, my own chest aching with sympathy, as he struggled with himself. Finally he crossed the room to me, his steps hesitant and sat down at my feet, his back resting against the bed. He was breathing hard, shaking with the effort to tell me what was wrong. His voice low and fierce, he eventually said, “I’m no boy.”
I should have known that was the trouble. The comment from the rancher today and the fact that I was going to spank him were intertwined in his mind and his sensitive pride was stung. He needed to know that just because I disciplined him that’s not what I thought. “I know,” I said firmly. He looked up at me and I took a chance that he’d accept it and reached down to lightly stroke his cheek. “Andy,” I shook my head, “Mr. Mason is an old man, anyone under forty is a boy to him.” It might have been obvious to me but it wasn’t clear in Andrew’s mind.
“He called each and every one of ‘boy’ at some point today,” I told him emphatically.
“Even you?” he questioned.
“Even Harvey Slater.”
He forgot his anger and gaped at me in disbelief.
“For Christ’s sake, Andy,” I said, knowing most of Andrew’s resentment was because he was embarrassed at making such a public mistake. “You almost gave the poor old guy a heart attack. And he was right, wasn’t he? You should have been paying attention.”
He sighed and leaned his head back against the bed.
“What does ‘heads up’ mean?” I let him hear the determination in my voice. Reassured of his status as a man in my eyes, I was moving on to what he’d done wrong today.
He groaned, “I know, I know.”
I shook my head, “Not good enough, tell me.”
“It means something’s gone sideways and you need to be paying attention.”
“You didn’t even hear me today, Andy. You were a million miles away. You just can’t let that happen when you’re working.”
He hugged his knees to his chest, obviously trying to think of a way to deny what had happened. Finally he said grudgingly, “Yeah.”
“How much did you have to drink today?” I asked him point-blank.
His handsome face flushed red and surprisingly he admitted, “Too much.”
“I just wanted to feel better. I was just so fucking tired,” he said plaintively.
“You’re going to be fucking dead,” I replied brutally. “Drinking when you’re tired is the last thing you should be doing. Especially when you’re working cattle.”
His temper reasserted itself a little. “I wasn’t the only one.”
“Some of those men have drinking problems, Andy. You don’t want to go down that road.”
He paused, considering that statement before he sighed and closed his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
I rubbed the back of his neck, “I know.”
He groaned and looked up at me, those blue eyes begging, “I won’t do it again, Rick.”
“Good,” I replied, standing up and reaching down to pull him to his feet. “But that doesn’t change what’s going to happen, does it?”
“No,” he admitted miserably.
“Take your shirt off,” I instructed him and he gave me a quizzical look. “I’m just going to check for bruises,” I explained.
He pulled off his T-shirt and I ran my hands over his muscular chest and back, looking for marks. He had a large contusion on his arm where the cow had hit him but otherwise looked unscathed. “Lucky,” I said wryly and swatted him gently.
Nodding, he put his shirt back on. I motioned towards his boxers, “You can take those off.”
He more reluctantly slid them off and I did a cursory inspection, finding his legs and hips unharmed. I sat down at the side of the bed and took his hand in mine. “All right?” I asked, checking to make sure there wasn’t anything left unsaid.
Silently, he nodded and then lowered himself across my lap. I ran my hand over his firm bottom and he shifted anxiously, “Rick?” he asked, his voice breaking, “I’m sorry about…”
“It’s okay,” I reassured him. “I understand.” And I did, I didn’t hold it against him for his initial refusal to be disciplined. Far better for him to have voiced his concerns than to harbor resentment about being punished.
I lifted my hand and brought it down in a quick sharp
swat. Andrew gasped and squirmed in
response to the stinging pain. Holding
him tighter around his waist, I continued to bring my hand down, covering his
white backside with reddening hand prints.
As the pain built Andrew tried to contain his reactions by holding his
breath but it was a futile struggle and soon he was whimpering. I finished with a set of hard slaps to the
upper thighs which prompted Andrew to burst into loud sobs. Lifting him I held him against my chest,
letting him catch his breath and start to settle.
“I’m tired,” he sobbed pitifully.
“I know,” I soothed him, kissing his temple softly. “We’re going to sleep now.” Still holding him in arms I stood and turned back the covers of the bed. I climbed in, taking him with me and once we were lying down he buried his face in my chest and cried harder. Feeling him trembling with exhaustion and the aftermath of the spanking I held him tightly, whispering words of comfort against his hair until he was quiet.
Nestled against me, he was deeply asleep, his mouth open and snoring softly, I rolled him on his side and spooned around his body. Feeling the warmth of his punished backside, I eased myself away, conscious of hurting him but in his sleep he snuggled back firmly against me. I draped my arm around his waist and gave into my own exhaustion.