Implement: Hand, hairbrush
Warning: Death of a minor character
Rick heard them as soon as he entered the barn, the loud angry voices that precede a fight. One of the voices was unfortunately familiar. Wincing at the sound of a fist connecting, he pushed his way through a row of men to see them, rolling on the straw-covered floor. The two of them were trading punches in grim silence now, although Andrew quickly gained an advantage and was atop his adversary.
The other men watching were loath to break it up. A good fight relieved the monotony of a night before a rodeo. Ignoring the shouts to let them alone, Rick waded into the fray, bending to pull Andrew off the other man. Spitting mad, too angry to realize it was his partner that was holding him back, he caught Rick with a solid elbow to the midsection. Doubling over, Rick wheezed out a gasp of pain and tightened his grip, giving Andrew a good shake. Finally turning his head, Andrew saw whose grasp he was in. Eyes wide, he breathed, “Oh, shit. Sorry.”
“The trailer, ten minutes,” Rick hissed in his ear. Then let him go. He waited while Andrew scrambled to his feet, picking up his Stetson from the ground and dusted it off by whacking it against his leg; his face still flushed scarlet with fury. He stalked off to his horse’s stall without a backward glance as his opponent slowly got up from the dirt. Shaking his head to clear it, he retrieved his own cowboy hat and made his unsteady way out the door.
In the trailer, Rick ran a hand over his tender stomach. For the life of him he couldn’t understand the continued animosity between Andrew and this other bull rider. He understood what started it. Andrew’s youth and greenness prompted one too many offers to find him a steer to ride, instead of a bull. And while there was no malice in their good-natured teasing, Andrew’s stubborn sense of pride wouldn’t let him see that. Steers were for boys, not men. So, in his mind they were saying he wasn’t a man yet and to him there was nothing worse than that insinuation. But when the others saw that Andrew could ride, the digs had stopped. This Glen though, had been the most vocal and Andrew just couldn’t seem to let it go with him. Just the sight of him was like waving a red flag to the usually equable young man.
It wasn’t even ten minutes before Andrew bolted into the trailer. “Are you all right?” he demanded.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
He rubbed his hand over his own sore jaw and laughed sheepishly, still a bit high on the adrenaline from the fight. “Sorry about that.”
Rick wasn’t particularly amused; that the two men’s bickering had progressed to blows worried him. “Who started the fight?”
“He hit me first.” Self-righteousness oozed out of him.
“That’s not what I asked. Who started it?” Rick drew himself up and looked at Andrew whose virtuousness faltered badly under the scrutiny. His eyes flicked downward, unable to meet his partner’s and he shrugged and mumbled something too quietly to be heard.
“I asked you a question,” Rick said and Andrew’s head shot up in surprise at the sharpness of the tone. “Who started that?”
Rubbing the back of his sweating neck, Andrew shifted his weight in uncomfortable silence until Rick barked in exasperation, “Andrew!”
He knew Rick could easily find out a pretty accurate account of what happened. Gossip spread like wild-fire in their closed, insular world. Finally Andrew ground out, between clenched teeth, “Me.”
Rick spread his arms wide, honestly beyond comprehending, “Why?”
“Because he’s a bastard,” Andrew spat.
Rick hadn’t seen anything that would make the man worthy of that label and Andrew seemed to give as good as he got. “I know he ragged you a bit at first but that was weeks ago, Andrew. It’s time to let it go.”
The mutinous look on Andrew’s face told Rick he wasn’t about to let it go.
“Okay,” Rick sighed. “Your opinion is your own, but I told you before not to start anything with him. Didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” Andrew admitted unwillingly.
“And I told you what would happen if you did.”
“Rick, no,” he protested, his memory returning to him now that his temper had abated. “I’ll be too sore to ride tomorrow.”
He knew very well that his partner would never punish him severely enough that he couldn’t ride the next day. The implication that he would stung Rick. So he called Andrew’s bluff.
Looking at his watch, he said, “There’s still time for you to withdraw tonight. If you hurry, I’ll bet they refund your entry fee.”
“What?” Andrew said blankly.
“Your entry fee,” Rick repeated. “Maybe they’ll refund it if you withdraw tonight.”
“Rick!” he exclaimed, shaken when he realized what that meant. “No!”
“If you’ll be too sore to ride tomorrow…?” The words hung in the air.
Andrew, his eyes pleading, confessed, “I won’t be too sore. Please, Rick? I want to ride.”
Rick let him squirm for a minute before asking, “Was that fair, Andrew?”
Knowing exactly what he meant, Andrew’s face flushed. “No, I’m sorry.”
“I’m putting a stop to this, right now. I told you not to start anything with him and you didn’t listen. I guess I’ll have to give you more of an incentive.” He opened his arms and with a groan of misery, Andrew went to him to bury his face in his partner’s solid shoulder. A wave of awful anticipation fluttered in his stomach. “I just hate him so much.”
“Hate him all you want Andrew but let him alone.”
“Rick,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady as he burrowed further into Rick’s shoulder. “Not over your knee, please? Let me just bend over? I won’t move, I swear.”
When Rick shook his head, he continued to try to negotiate, as he did every time, “Just use your belt then?”
So he could distance himself from what was happening. Rick knew how much easier it was to take a punishment if you didn’t have that flesh to flesh contact of being across someone’s knees, their hand on your bare backside. It was the intimacy of the discipline that broke down Andrew’s defenses but it was the intimacy that unnerved him too. A spanking was a powerful deterrent to Andy, not because of the pain involved, but because of the feelings it stirred. “No, Andy, that isn’t up to you,” Rick told him gently.
He winced at his failed attempt and his breath hitched when he said, “I won’t do it again, Rick, I promise.” When he didn’t get a response, he pulled back out of Rick’s arms a little to meet his eyes and added another desperate, “I promise.”
“Good,” Rick said. “You’re both grown men, strong enough that you could hurt each other bad fighting like that.”
“I know,” he said softly.
“You’ve got a lot of self-control, Andrew. Use it for God’s sake. Take a deep breath and walk away if he’s getting to you.”
Andrew nodded and sighed in defeat, his pleas used up. It was rare that it got to this point. Their rules were few and for the most part Andrew found them easy to comply with but he knew Rick wasn’t about to tolerate him provoking a senseless fight.
“Take your boots off,” Rick told him, giving him another reassuring hug before releasing him. “Your jeans too.”
Andrew looked at the other man anxiously, wondering if his instructions meant a more serious spanking than the previous few he’d been given. Meeting his eyes, Rick nodded firmly to him, letting Andrew know that he expected his obedience. Rick could tell as the younger man slowly toed off his boots that he was already regretting letting his temper get the best of him. The whole time he was unfastening his jeans and pulling them off he was looking at his partner, silently bargaining for leniency. Despite the appeal of those big eyes, he wasn’t going to get it this time.
“Get me my hairbrush from my shaving kit.”
“Just do it,” Rick encouraged him.
He padded over to the small bathroom to retrieve the leather bag. The brush was on top and he paused as he held it in his hand, taking an apprehensive look at the wide wooden back of it.
“He’s the one that hit me,” Andrew protested, a little self-righteous indignation creeping into his voice again, now that punishment was imminent.
“Why did he want to hit you?”
He blushed furiously and looked at the floor. Rick wasn’t going to let him play the martyr here; he’d obviously said something he was ashamed to admit to now. “Andrew?”
“Nothing,” he said with false innocence. It was remarkable how he could transform himself from a toughened bull rider into a blameless young man just by widening those blue eyes and letting that full bottom lip tremble.
“He just hit you for no reason? I thought you told me you started the fight?”
A hesitant shrug was his only answer.
Rick held out my hand for the brush, “Let me help you with your memory.”
Licking his lips, Andrew clutched the hairbrush tighter. “I might have said something about his ride at the last rodeo.”
“He stuck his ride but slapped the bull and got disqualified. I …kind of mentioned it.” And that was obviously the sanitized version of what was said. He looked miserable, it was definitely a low thing to torment a rider over something like that and Andrew clearly recognized that. He protested lamely, “I was just kidding around, like he did to me.”
“It’s not the same thing and you know it. A man doesn’t throw that in another rider’s face.”
That one hit his pig-headed sense of pride. That he’d acted like a boy hitting out in revenge. His face twisted but he nodded in agreement.
“Come on,” Rick said softly, going to the bed to sit down. “Let’s get this over with; we need a good night’s sleep.”
Looking at the ceiling, Andrew took several deep breaths, blinking hard to control his tears and walked over to Rick, who took the brush from his hand and laid it beside him on the bed. Guiding him over his lap, Rick could feel the tension in his partner’s body. He positioned him carefully, making sure he was well supported on the bed and then worked on getting him relaxed enough to accept the coming discipline. Andrew would still fight against his tears but it would be an easier journey if he started out in a more accepting frame of mind.
Rick stroked his rigid back for a moment, letting him know through his gentle touch that he wasn’t angry.
Andrew shifted a little and sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“You can tell that to Glen tomorrow too.”
“Shit,” Andrew objected, looking over his shoulder at Rick in outrage. “I can’t do that.”
“You can and you will.” Rick pulled his shorts down and rested his hand on Andrew’s bare bottom, which prompted him to wriggle uneasily, getting the message despite Rick’s even tone.
“Yes, sir,” he groaned as the hand was brought down hard.
Although it was a serious spanking, Rick using his strong arm and calloused palm to great effect, Andrew took it in stoic silence for the first couple of minutes. Rick knew he was losing the battle against his tears and his mounting emotions when Andrew pleaded with him to stop. When the spanking continued unabated, he begged again for him to stop, this time the plea turning into a sob. Once Andrew’s bottom was hot and sore and he was crying freely Rick picked up the brush and said, “You don’t start fights and you don’t disobey me.”
Andrew gasped and struggled through the twenty swats Rick dealt out, feeling the more intense sting of the wood on his already sensitive skin. The spanking over, he slid off Rick’s lap, and knelt at his feet. Crying miserably, he buried his face against his lover’s thigh, his tears soaking into his jeans. With a gentle hand now, Rick caressed the sobbing young man’s hair until he had settled.
“Get ready for bed,” Rick told him softly as he helped Andrew to his feet. Pulling up his shorts over his reddened bottom, Andrew went silently to wash his tear-stained face and brush his teeth. Their small fridge held several bottles of water and Rick handed one to him as he made his way to the bed. With only a slight grimace, Andrew sat down and raised the bottle to his mouth to drink deeply. After unbuttoning his shirt he shrugged it off and flung it on top of his jeans already on the floor. Lying down on the bed, he turned his back to Rick and pulled up the covers. Rick took his time getting ready for sleep himself; letting Andrew have a few minutes to think things through. But obviously he’d used the time to work on forgetting why he’d earned his stinging backside, rather than the reasons for the punishment. When Rick lay down and tried to spoon around him, Andrew said angrily, “Don’t, my ass is sore.”
“Hey,” Rick said, cupping one of his hands around Andrew’s bottom. His partner occasionally had trouble accepting the facts when it came to his own wrongdoing, even after punishment was over. Again, there was no way Rick was going to allow him to play the victim, losing the point of the discipline in his self-delusion. Part of the punishment was acknowledging the transgression so it wouldn’t be repeated. Twisting it around afterwards to make it someone else’s fault wouldn’t do him any good at all. “Why did I spank you?”
His anger flaring even more at the blunt words, he tried to squirm away but was held in place by a strong arm. Rick slipped his hand in the back of Andrew’s shorts to lightly stroke the still heated skin, hearing his breath roughening again, the tears threatening once more. Andrew shook his head and pressed his lips together, not wanting to answer so Rick propped himself up on his elbow to look at his partner’s unhappy face more closely. “Why, Andrew?”
Desperately trying to hang onto his resentment, Andrew turned his head to bury his face in the pillow. Using his greater strength, Rick rolled him onto his back and began to rub gentle circles on Andrew’s taut stomach, waiting patiently for the inevitable softening of his attitude. Finally, a tear slipping from his closed eye and trickled down his cheek, and he whispered, “Fighting. Disobedience.” His chest heaved and he started to cry again and Rick lay back down to cuddle him closer.
“That’s right. You don’t disobey me and you don’t start fights.”
Andrew turned so he could lay his head on his partner’s wide chest and Rick held him tightly against him. “I’m sorry,” he choked out. “I won’t do it again.”
Rick kissed his forehead and told him, “I’m glad, Andy.”
Gradually his breathing evened out as he quit crying and slipped into sleep although he stayed pressed against Rick’s side, wanting the comfort. Usually Andrew was a restless sleeper but that night he didn’t stir, tired out from the emotional release of the spanking. In the morning though, his handsome face was still troubled.
“Why don’t you go to the barns first to find Glen?” It was best to get it over with this time of morning. Rick knew Andrew didn’t want an audience to his apology but he also knew he wouldn’t let go out of his guilt until it had been delivered. Hesitating at the trailer door, Andrew asked, “Are you coming?”
Rick nodded, glad to provide some moral backup if that’s what Andrew needed. “Sure, King will be wanting his breakfast.”
The barns were deserted when the two men reached them and they both were soon absorbed in the morning ritual of caring for the horses. Rick looked up from cleaning his horse’s hooves to see Andrew stiffen. Following his gaze he watched Glen enter the barn, a steaming cup of coffee held in his hand. Andy’s face was already flushed with emotion and Rick felt for him. He really did but he also knew that a sincere apology would be good for both of the men. If this didn’t clear the air though, he would advise Andrew to stay away from Glen as best he could.
“Glen?” Andrew said, approaching the other man with his hand extended. “I’m sorry about yesterday. I had no right to say that. It’s not true; I was just trying to rile you.”
Glen blinked in surprise before he shook Andrew’s outstretched hand warmly. “Well, that’s the way it goes. Even though they let ‘you’ ride, this ain’t the Little Britches rodeo, right?”
Oh God. Rick groaned and lowered his head to rest against his horse’s flank, cursing the brat that obviously lurked beneath Glen’s adult exterior. Little Britches was the junior rodeo where boys learned the ropes before they reached manhood and progressed to the pro circuit. And boys were allowed to ride their steer with two hands, while men had to avoid any contact with the bull with their free hand or be disqualified, like Glen had been. Andrew was going to kill him; he was going to rip off Glen’s head and hand it to him. Rick readied himself to vault the side of the horse’s stall to stop the fight that would certainly break out, doubting if the spanking he’d delivered last night would be enough to ensure Andrew’s self-control with that kind of provocation. The deathly silence lasted for a long moment and then Rick saw the quirk of Glen’s eyebrow. Obviously he was teasing Andrew but Rick really didn’t know if his stubborn partner was going to get the joke. His sense of humor, unfortunately, didn’t extend to laughing at himself, so concerned in maintaining his image of the tough bull rider. The verbal jousting the other men took so easily in stride often left him feeling angry and defensive. But Rick saw with relief, Andrew’s mouth give an answering twitch and then he was laughing out loud, “You bastard,” he grinned. This time the word had none of the bitterness that Andrew had infused it with before.
They stood and talked for a few minutes, mostly about the coming rodeo and who had the best chance of winning. When Andrew joined Rick at King’s stall he was still smiling. “Jesus,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. “All this time, he was just trying to get me to laugh, that’s all. He asked me to pull for him in the chute today.”
Rick smiled at Andrew’s insight, thankful the two men had finally resolved their differences. They spent the rest of the morning exercising their horses in a field behind the arena, Andrew continuing to work his mare for a while after Rick stopped to rest. The older man leaned against the fence of the corral, soaking up the late autumn sunshine and watching his lover put the beautiful horse through her paces. Rick was glad of the distraction, not wanting to focus too much of his attention on the upcoming ride. There was a tremendous amount of pressure on him, being a past winner, to turn in a top score. Andrew, on the other hand, was relatively unbothered by the prospect of tonight’s event, as a novice there wasn’t that expectation that hovered over his partner.
After lunch the two men began to ready themselves for the afternoon event, dressing carefully in clean jeans and shirt, although it was guaranteed they’d be dirtied in the infield. Smoothing down his dark hair before placing his hat on his head, Rick watched Andrew buckling on his leather chaps. Not able to resist his partner’s fine backside, framed by the chaps, Rick pulled him into a forceful embrace, squeezing the muscular cheeks firmly. They exchanged a rough kiss before leaving the trailer to go to the pens to find Glen; his agitated pacing revealing how wired he was about his upcoming ride. “Hey,” he greeted them. “It’s my lucky day. I got Brimstone in the draw.”
“That’s great,” Andrew replied, recognizing the name of one of the top bulls. “Are you sure you want me to pull for you?”
“Absolutely,” Glen assured him, kissing the medallion he was holding in his hand before putting it in his pocket. He winked unashamedly at the other two men; most bull riders had their rituals and superstitions. “I’m up,” he said cheerfully, hearing his name called by one of the officials. He and Andrew headed to the chutes to prepare for his ride.
Climbing the fence of one of the unused chutes, Rick settled in to watch the competition for a moment before it was his turn. From his vantage point he could see Andrew at the side of the chute, tightening the bull belt. Then the chute gate swung open and Brimstone exploded into the corral, Glen straddling him, one hand held carefully in the air. There was a groan of disappointment from the crowd when he was thrown before the eight-second horn sounded and then a collective gasp of dismay as he landed underneath the bull. It was over in a blink of an eye. One instant Glen was alive and the next he was under the bull’s hooves, the life trampled from him.
There is a hush that comes over the spectators when someone’s seriously hurt in the rodeo. This time the hush of respectful concern was for Glen, although he was past all knowing already. Like most of the riders, he didn’t wear a helmet, seeing it as a sign of weakness and the force of a ton of bull landing on his head, crushed his skull and killed him, his life draining away on the dirt floor of the infield. Rick watched, his stomach lurching, as the paramedics worked uselessly on the unmoving body.
Within a moment his shock receded enough that he thought of Andrew, who had had a front row seat to the tragedy. Scanning the crowd, Rick was unable to spot him. Long minutes of searching the grounds finally found him behind the barns, sitting with his back to the wall, an open bottle of rye nestled between his legs.
“Is he dead?” Andrew rasped out as Rick sat down beside him. Reaching out, Rick grabbed the bottle from the ground and put it to his lips. He took a long swallow of the whiskey, gasping and shuddering at the burn of the straight alcohol, before taking another, more judicious, drink.
“Yeah,” he breathed. “I think so.”
“Aw, Fuck,” Andrew groaned and staggered to his feet, moving a few feet away to be sick, his arms folded over his belly as he heaved. Knowing from past experience not to touch his partner, Rick waited until Andrew returned, collapsing on the grass to lean against the wall again, his head thrown back, gasping for breath. Silently Rick handed him a bandana and Andrew wiped his watering eyes with a shaking hand.
There was no illusion that Glen had been a close friend with either of them, it was not a great personal grief but it was a terrible shock to see a fellow rider die in front of you, an undeniable sadness at a life cut short. The reality of the risks they took every time they rode suddenly slammed into Andrew’s consciousness, sending him reeling. While it was extremely unnerving to Rick as well, he had seen it happen before. Twice, in his years of rodeo. It was something that gave you pause when it occurred, no question, but it was something that Rick had already reconciled with, out of necessity.
“Come on,” Rick urged, holding out his hand to Andrew, whose eyes were still deadened by shock. “Let’s take a walk.”
Allowing himself to be pulled to his feet, Andrew stumbled and almost fell before regaining his balance. Keeping hold of his arm, Rick towed him along in his wake as they walked the perimeter of the field behind the barn. By the second loop the two men were walking side-by-side, still in silence but their unsteadiness had all but gone.
When the inevitable talk about Glen started in the barns, Andrew retreated to the quiet of their trailer, unable to stand the feelings it invoked. Some of the other men had been close friends with the bull rider and it eased their pain to tell stories about him. Stories of his joy of riding that made his death seem to make sense, instead of a pointless tragedy. Some of them would drink themselves into a numb state and Rick, knowing how easy it would be to succumb to that temptation, was relieved Andrew didn’t want to join them.
When Rick woke early the next day, Andrew was already gone from the trailer. Guessing he was most likely in the barns, Rick straightened their gear from last night before going to find him. He was in the frost-covered field, riding his mare in the dim light of daybreak, galloping her hard. The horse’s heaving chest was already covered in lather, her breath a billow of steam in the cold air.
Rick watched for a moment, there was none of the beauty of the previous day, only a sad desperation in the exercise. He stepped out into the field and held up his hand, signaling Andrew to stop. Ignoring his partner, Andrew veered around him and continued the relentless lap, the thundering of the horse’s hooves filling his mind, crowding out the disturbing thoughts of yesterday. Cursing, Rick went to the barn to saddle King, knowing he couldn’t safely stop the galloping mare on foot. After putting on the horse’s tack, he rode the gelding out into the field, easily overtaking the exhausted mare. Rick didn’t bother to tell Andrew to stop again; he just rode beside him and reached out to grab the reins. “Whoa,” he told the horse and both King and the mare gradually slowed to a walk. The dominant horse nickered in reassurance to her and the mare gratefully followed him in a much more sedate circuit around the field. Refusing to look at his partner, Andrew turned his face, red from the wind and cold, away and let Rick lead. When they reached the doors to the barn, Rick swung down from King and Andrew slowly dismounted. Holding out the still quivering mare’s reins to him, Rick said sternly. “When I tell you to stop, you damn well stop. Now, finish cooling her down.”
Still breathing hard from his own exertion, Andrew moved to snatch the reins from Rick’s hand, muttering, “For Christ’s sake, I know how to take care of my horse,”
Instead of allowing Andrew to take the reins, Rick took his arm and brought the ends of them sharply down several times on the backs of Andrew’s thighs. Then he turned him, pressing him so his cheek was touching the soaked neck of the mare. “Do you?” he asked. The sting of the reins had got his attention and held like that against the horse’s neck; Andrew could feel her still thudding pulse. His gut twisted in shame for having used her so selfishly. He leaned his forehead against her wet coat and when he whispered “I’m sorry,” it was to both the horse and to Rick.
Rick turned him towards him again and said quietly, “I know you’re feeling bad, Andy. So am I. That’s not the way to deal with it. That horse would kill herself trying to please you.”
“I’m sorry,” Andrew said. “I just wanted….I wanted,,,.”
“What did you want, sweetheart?” asked Rick gently, already knowing that he had wanted to avoid thinking about Glen. When he didn’t get an answer, he sighed and gripped the back of Andrew’s neck sympathetically and drew him into a hug. Andrew wouldn’t accept the comfort though, struggling free immediately to tend to the mare.
Their event had been re-scheduled for that afternoon but Rick expected that some of the other bull riders that had been close to Glen would withdraw. Life went on for the rest of them.
Several times Rick tried to draw Andrew out about the previous day’s tragedy but the other man simply turned away and shut down every time Glen’s name was mentioned. Unable to get him to talk, Rick was forced to let it drop and it remained an unspoken weight around Andrew’s heart. They were early to the pens to wait for their turn and Andrew leaned against the metal fence of the corral, his eyes riveted to the bulls, bellowing and tussling with each other.
Rick saw his partner’s shoulders stiffen as his panic suddenly overtook him, unable to deny the reality of yesterday, at the sight of the bulls. When Rick met his wild-eyed stare, he realized Andrew was reliving Glen’s fateful ride and considering the possibility that it could have been him under that bull’s hooves. “Rick,” he said, his voice strangled. “Tell me what to do.”
“What do you mean, Andy?” Rick asked, moving closer to his partner to lay a reassuring hand on his arm, ready to steer him to a more private place if he needed to. The last thing Andrew would want would be to lose face in front of any of the other men.
“Tell me if I should ride,” he begged desperately.
If he didn’t conquer his fear today and get on a bull, Rick knew he likely never would. But there was no way he could tell Andrew what to do in this circumstance. Riding was Andrew’s life, his joy. If Rick told him to quit, he’d end up hating him for taking that from him, even if it was at his own behest. And if he told him to continue and something went wrong, he couldn’t live with his own guilt. In a profession as dangerous as theirs, it was a decision each man had to make for himself.
“I can’t, Andy,” Rick said, his voice soft with regret, wishing he could help his distraught partner. “That’s up to you.”
Andrew held onto the metal bar of the fence, his knuckles white, as he tried to gather his fragmented courage.
“Do what you feel is right,” said Rick earnestly, squeezing Andrew’s muscular arm hard. “You don’t have to impress me, Andy. I love you, whatever you decide.”
Drawing a shuddering breath, Andy said grimly, “I’m going to ride.”
“All right,” Rick agreed, offering him advice that had helped him when riding was the most difficult. “Don’t think about anything but staying on the bull. Don’t think about getting thrown or what’s coming next. Focus on sticking on that bull till you hear the horn. Its eight seconds. That’s all. Just think about hearing that horn, Andrew. Nothing else.”
Concentrating on Rick’s words, Andrew nodded and jammed his hat on his head, his blue eyes set and determined now.