This is Chapter 11 of the "Queer Identities" series.
The narrator is Justin Taylor, and features Brian Kinney, Sam Elliott, Charley Bouley, Gar Greenough, Jared Brooks, Patrick Swayze, Paco Romano, Frank Painted Horse, Rowan Conley, Pete, Others.
Rated R and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: Cowboy Camp draws to a close as Brian faces one final test. Arizona, May 2003.
Disclaimer: You know the drill. This is for fun, not profit. Enjoy.
"(Together) We will go our way,
(Together) We will leave someday.
(Together) Your hand in my hands,
(Together) We will make our plans,
(Together) We will fly so high,
(Together) Tell all our friends goodbye,
(Together) We will start life new,
(Together) This is what we'll do.
(Together) We will love the beach,
(Together) We will learn and teach,
(Together) Change our pace of life,
(Together) We will work and strive.
(I love you) I know you love me,
(I want you) How could I disagree?
(So that's why) I make no protest,
(When you say) You will do the rest.
(Go West) Sun in wintertime,
(Go West) We will do just fine,
(Go West) Where the skies are blue,
Go West, this is what we're gonna do.
There where the air is free,
We'll be what we want to be.
Now if we make a stand,
We'll find our promised land."
Morning on the desert is cool and clear. The sun is just beginning to come up and the sky in the east is red. It's going to be a hot day. Very hot. And it's still only May.
I roll out of my sleeping bag and gingerly pull on my boots. If I even thought about going barefoot, last night's encounter with the iguana would stop me cold. Snakes, lizards, bugs, not to mention cactus spikes, dry brush, and sharp rocks makes a good pair of boots a necessity. But my feet are still aching from all the running around I did yesterday. I stand up slowly and then head for the edge of camp to take a piss. My back feels like shit, too, but there's a long day ahead and I need to get busy.
The fire has burned down, but the embers are still bright. I feed it with tinder and then go to the water tank and fill a bucket with water for washing. As I wash my face and hands I know I must stink, but at this point I can't even smell myself. We all stink. We're all dirty. If we were on a real cattle drive it might be weeks before the men took a real bath -- that is, if they ever did! I know that's the thing that bothers Brian the most. He's such a clean freak. And I am, too. But out here it's not an option. The best I can do is keep my hands clean while I'm preparing the food, but even that's difficult.
After I wash up, I draw more water to make coffee. I hoist the big kettle onto the coals and while I wait for it to boil I get out the biscuit mix. That's when Sam gets up. He stretches and yawns, but he seems in better shape than I am. He's got to be 60 years old and he makes me feel like a soft city boy.
"Sleep good?" Sam asks, checking the coffee. The cowboys like it very strong. They need that rush to get them started.
"I slept like I was dead," I admit, editing out the part about the iguana. "I was so tired."
Sam smiles wryly. "That's what a day of hard work will do to a man."
"I can't imagine doing this every single day. How did they manage it back then?"
"They did what they had to in order to survive, son," he replies. "They were hardy men doing a tough job. Some were just boys, younger than you. If you had to work like this every day, then you'd do it -- and you'd get used to it, too. You might even come to love it. There are still a few real cowboys out there, but not many. But those that are still riding the range, still working cattle, they do it because it's what they have to do. And what they love to do. You must have something you can't live without doing. It's like that."
I think about the things I can't live without. The things I wouldn't want to live without. Brian. My art. And I almost lost both of them.
"I understand what you mean," I say as Sam helps me haul the big Dutch oven onto the fire to make the biscuits. "And it is beautiful out here." We both pause to watch the sun rise over the far hills. "Especially at this time of day. Beautiful and quiet."
"Well, it's not going to be quiet for long," Sam says. The men are already beginning to stir. "We're gonna have a passel of hungry drovers over here pretty soon, so we better get cracking!"
My job is pouring the coffee and making the biscuits, while Sam fries up the bacon. The biscuits turn out much better today. I'm starting to get the hang of it. I break out a big jar of strawberry preserves and the men slather it on the hot biscuits. It's simple food, but it's good, if I do say so myself.
After all the men get their food and settle down to eat, Charley and Gar come over to talk to Sam. "We're gonna keep this site for tonight," says Charley. "Since we're doin' the brandin' today it's too much trouble to break camp and move when we'll just have to turn around and go back to the main location tomorrow."
Sam nods. "That'll save us some hassle. What about the fire for the irons?"
"You and the kid can build it out on the range while we round up the steers we're gonna brand," says Charley. "And the calves we're gonna cut, too. You can make the mid-day meal out there, then we'll all come back here for supper."
"Sounds good to me," says Sam. "And what about... you know?" He glances at me and raises those thick eyebrows.
Charley frowns. "It's a go. We all agreed."
Sam bites his lip. "You're the boss, Charley. Whatever you say."
Charley and Gar refill their coffee cups and walk away without saying anything else.
"What were they talking about?" I ask. I have an uneasy feeling that something is going on.
"Nothing," says Sam. But then he gives me a knowing look. "Nothing you need to worry about, Justin. Brian will do fine. Just fine."
Now an alarm is raised in my head. "Brian? What do you mean? What about Brian?"
"Don't you fret," he replies. Something is definitely going on. But when I try to press Sam for more information, he turns away and begins to gather up the dirty breakfast plates. "Get on these dishes pronto. We have to clean up here and then head out on the range to get that fire going."
The men roll up their sleeping bags and prepare for the day's work. I try to signal to Brian, but he's joking around with Pat and the other guys while I'm stuck washing the dishes. Finally, I get away for a few minutes while Sam is packing some equipment. I catch up with Brian as he's saddling his horse.
"Hey," he says. Trooper stamps and blows air through his nostrils as Brian heaves the heavy saddle onto his back. "Good breakfast. If I wasn't working my ass off out here, I'd gain a ton eating all that food!"
"Thanks." Before I can say anything else Brian grabs me and pulls me to him, kissing me fiercely. Trooper's big body shields us from the rest of the men, who are also getting their horses ready.
"Do you have any fucking idea how horny I am?" Brian whispers. "I woke up with a stiffie so hard I thought it would tear right through my sleeping bag! All I could think about was your lips wrapped around it. And that made me even harder!"
"Brian, be careful! What if the other guys see us?"
"Fuck 'em!" He presses me up against the side of the horse and I can feel how hard his erection really is. "If I have to go another night without getting off, I'm going to pop more than my dick! I'm going to blow my fucking top!"
As much as I'm enjoying Brian's attention, I have something else I need to discuss with him. And he's getting me distracted. Very, very distracted! "Brian, I need to tell you something."
"Just rub my cock. A little. Yeah, right there."
"Brian, stop for a second! Please?" I pull away reluctantly.
He sighs and adjusts himself. "I guess it wouldn't do to cream my jeans right now. Jesus! I fucking hate camping! See, Sunshine? Wouldn't you much rather be in a penthouse suite in a five star hotel in New York? That's my idea of roughing it!" He slaps Troopers neck. "I've got to mount up -- but not in the way I really want to!"
I grab his arm. "Wait two seconds! I came over here to tell you something important!"
He looks at me quizzically. "Okay, I'm listening."
"I heard Charley and Gar talking to Sam. They're planning something, Brian. Some kind of practical joke, I think, but they shut up when Sam reminded them that I was standing there. It has something to do with you. I wanted to warn you."
Brian smiles slightly. "Taking care of me, huh?"
"I'm trying! If you'll listen to me!"
"I already know that something's coming up," he says. "Pat has been hinting at it."
Brian shrugs. "I don't know. Some kind of test. Like an initiation."
"You mean like in a fraternity?" It sounds unlikely to me.
"Sort of. I think they're planning to do something -- or make me do something -- to prove myself. To show them I've got what it takes to be a cowboy. And it's going to happen today, on the final day of Cowboy Camp, I know that much."
"But what are they going to do? Will it be dangerous?"
"I don't know," Brian says honestly. "Probably not too dangerous. They wouldn't chance me getting hurt and having the set closed down. The men need this job and they don't want to fuck themselves by having anything happen to me. But let's face it, everything we've been doing is dangerous to a certain extent. I could fall off Trooper and break my neck. Or that fucking chuckwagon could overturn and wipe out both you and Sam. Or we could crash the P.T. Cruiser driving into town for a pizza! It's the luck of the draw. So I'll wait and see what they have planned."
"And then I'll do it. Because if I don't, I'll be the faggot who crapped out. And I'm not going to let any straight fucker be in a position to say that Brian Kinney couldn't take it. Because I can take it! Take it like a man!" He grins at me. "And so can you. Always remember that."
I'm not sure at all, but I nod. "I better get back before Sam comes looking for me."
"Okay. And tomorrow night when we get back to the trailer? Be ready to be fucked into oblivion!"
Now I have to grin. "Ready, willing, and able, sir!" I salute.
Brian swings up into the saddle. I still can't get over how amazing he looks sitting on that horse. "See you around, cowboy!" And he follows the other men out to the herd.
"Justin!" Sam is hollering as I run back to the chuckwagon. One of the wrangler's pack mules is standing there, swishing his tail. "Where in hell have you been?"
"I... um... I needed to do something. Private." I look over to a place behind some mesquite bushes where the wranglers have dug a shallow pit for a makeshift latrine.
"Oh," says Sam. "Help me load this mule. It's too hard to move the wagon, so we'll hike out to the spot where Charley wants that fire."
We pack all the equipment we'll need, plus beef jerky, leftover ham and biscuits, and some flat bread to make a cold lunch for the men. It's going to be a long day.
By noon I'm ready to drop. It's hotter today than yesterday and Sam and I are tending the fire out here on the open range without the shade of the chuckwagon. I know I shouldn't complain. That's what it's like for the cowboys all the time -- they don't have any shelter except for their hats. But it's so fucking hot!
Charley has the men rope some of the younger steers and bring them into our makeshift camp to be branded. One of the major plot points in 'Red River' concerns the creation of the Red River Ranch brand, so there will be a couple of branding scenes filmed. That means Brian has got to know what he's doing, so he's right in the middle of everything. This is the real culmination of Cowboy Camp, where the actors show what they've learned.
Sam and I watch as the men struggle to rope the steers and get them close to the fire. It's a dangerous and frustrating business. Brian and his stunt double, Jared Brooks, manage to catch the Longhorn that Charley points out to them without too much trouble, but getting the animal to cooperate once the rope is on him is a different story. First he pulls in the opposite direction. When that doesn't work, he charges Jared's horse. Those long, sharp horns graze the horse's flanks and he rears up, almost throwing Jared. Brian and Pat ride in close, distracting the steer while Jared gets his horse out of the way. Then Paco and Frank, on foot, add their ropes to the steer and the whole bunch of them wrestle him over to the fire.
Brian and Pat jump off their horses to help. The steer is bellowing like mad as Pat, Paco, and Frank try to tip him over onto the ground.
"Throw that son of a bitch!" Charley shouts. "We can't brand him while he's standing there like he's at a Sunday School picnic!"
The three of them finally push the animal over on his side. But getting him to stay there is another matter. While Pat and Paco sit on him, Frank ties his legs together. But the steer won't stop kicking. Meanwhile, Jared and Gar are heating up the irons in the fire. Sam has me feed it more kindling until the iron glows bright red. The heat next to the fire is intense.
"Here you go," says Jared, handing the branding iron to Brian. "Your first steer."
Brian grips the cool end of the iron with his gloved hands. He glances at me, but doesn't say anything. This must be the test that Charley and Gar were talking about to Sam. I know Brian wants to do this right. Wants to show them all that he's got what it takes to be one of them. That he can do anything they can -- or at least try without flinching.
"Get your pretty ass over here, Kinney!" Pat yells. "We can't hold down this monster all day!"
Brian kneels by the steer's side. The animal is still struggling, even with a couple of cowboys sitting on him. "Keep it nice and straight," Jared instructs. "Remember how I did the last one. Press it firmly into his hide, right by the hip."
Brian grits his teeth grimly and aims the iron. The steer wails as the hot metal sears into his flesh. It smokes and the odor of burning meat and hair fills the air. I wince, glad that I don't have to do it. But I'm also proud of Brian. When he pulls the iron away, the brand looks perfect.
"Good job, Brian," says Gar. "Okay. Let him up, boys."
Frank unties the steer's legs and he stands up. He gives himself a shake and looks at his aching hip, but then he trots off, back to the herd.
This goes on all morning. The men rope the selected steer, bring him into camp, and one of the men brands him. Brian does two more, Pat another two, and even Rowan takes his turn. He looks terrified of the steer, but he manages to get the brand on him. Gar tells him it's okay. Rowan looks relieved. I guess that means they've all passed the test to be real cowboys.
Charley calls for the lunch break and they all come limping over to the fire. Sam and I pour coffee and hand out the jerky, biscuits, bread, and cold meat. The men eat quietly, conserving their strength in the punishing heat.
I bring a sandwich and a cup of coffee over to Brian, who is sprawled on the ground. He accepts the sandwich gratefully, but declines the coffee. "Do you have any water? My canteen is almost empty."
I take his canteen and shake it. Then I unhook mine from my belt. "Here, Brian. It's almost full."
"No, Justin, you'll need your water."
"I'll get more from Sam," I tell him. "We brought water from camp on the mule. You take this." I force the canteen into his hands.
"Thanks." Brian unscrews the cap and takes a long sip. "My throat feels fucked. This dust is killing me."
"Tomorrow we'll head back to the location," I remind him. "This is the toughest day. Once it's behind you, everything will be all right."
Brian snorts. "The real work hasn't even begun yet! On Monday we start filming. And most of my scenes are with Clint. This is hard, but that's going to be the real test -- going toe to toe with Eastwood. I'd rather wrestle that goddamn steer to the ground all by myself every fucking day! At least the steer won't be judging my acting!"
"You'll be great, Brian!" And I mean it. "I know you will!"
"Thanks, Sunshine." Brian takes another drink of water and then a bite of his sandwich. "You better get back to work. I wouldn't want Sam to have to kick your ass. And then he'll kick mine for distracting you."
I leave Brian to eat in peace and get back to the fire to make sure it's stoked up. But Charley, Gar, and a couple of the other wranglers are already gathered around it, unwrapping some new irons. But when I look closer I see it's not more branding irons. It's a collection of very sharp knives in a number of different sizes.
"What are those for?" I ask naively. Then I remember the other reason the men are out here today.
"For the bull calves, kid," says Gar with an evil grin. "You ever seen a calf castrated before?"
"Um... I can't say that I have." I realize that I've stepped back from the fire -- and away from the nasty-looking knives.
"Well, then you're in for a treat!" Gar nudges another wrangler and they both laugh. "I hope you got a strong stomach!"
This is it. I know that now. The real test. The branding was only the warm-up. The wranglers are going to make Brian -- and also Rowan, as the other wannabe cowboy -- castrate the calves. Branding the steers was hot, hard, and dangerous work, but cutting the balls off a bunch of calves is really disgusting. I know it's necessary in the cattle business, but that doesn't mean it's a job I'd ever thought I'd see Brian doing. But he'll do it. And I know he won't hesitate.
"That's enough!" Charley snaps at Gar. "This ain't no party game. Heat up them knives and we can start bringing in the calves."
Gar and the other men ride back out to the herd while Sam and Charley prepare the knives. First they dip them into an antiseptic solution and then they heat them in the heart of the fire to sterilize them. I shudder when I think about what they're going to do with those knives. Thinking about it makes my own balls ache!
If I thought the steers brought in for branding made a lot of noise, it's nothing compared to the racket the cows and calves make. It's not that hard to rope and lead in the calves, who are only a few months old, or even younger, but usually the mother tries to follow. When they separate the two, that's when the moaning begins.
After they're rounded up, the men bring the first calf up to the fire. But Brian and Rowan, who, along with Pat, Paco, and Frank, have dismounted, just stand there and watch as Charley, Gar, and another wrangler, Pete, do the actual castration. While Pete holds the head, Gar grips the calf between his legs and holds the tail up, bracing the animal. Then Charley does the deed in a few quick motions. It's bloody. Very bloody. And smelly. I don't know how painful it is for the poor calf, but it bleats pitifully. Yeah, you can imagine. Charley bathes the incision in some of the antiseptic solution and then the calf hobbles away to rejoin the herd.
The final thing Charley does before moving on to the next calf is to lay the two little testicles on an iron pan that Sam placed next to the fire. After a while there's quite a collection of these bloody little disgusting packages.
I keep expecting Gar or Charley to motion for Brian to take hold of one of the calves while it's being cut, but it doesn't happen. I guess this is too important to leave to an amateur. The calf could be damaged or even killed if Charley makes a mistake, and since this herd of Longhorns is the way he and the other cowboys make their living, every one of them is a valuable commodity.
The hot, bloody afternoon wears on until eight calves have been cut. Pat keeps cracking jokes, especially when one of the calves has a particularly large pair of balls, but generally it's serious business. Finally, Jared brings up the last calf in the bunch.
"That's it, I think," he tells Charley. "There might be a couple more out there, but we can catch them another time." He squints up at the sun. "It's starting to get late."
Charley nods and they quickly finish the job, adding another pair of bloody scraps to the iron pan.
"Good work, men," Gar pronounces. "You've all done your best and I have to say that this has been a successful Cowboy Camp. Wouldn't you say that, Charley?"
"You all done pretty good," Charley agrees. "I think you'll pass muster on the screen -- at least as far as a bunch of city people are concerned. Of course, you wouldn't fool any real drovers, but they wouldn't be bothered with seeing some jumped up picture show anyway, so that don't matter."
"Come on, Charley!" says Pat. "Give the devil his due! We've all done damn good! Especially Brian here." Pat turns and slaps Brian on the back. "Only one thing left to prove he's a real cowboy. The final test. Sam, since you're the cook in this outfit, will you do the honors?"
Sam steps forward. He's got a long skewer in his hand, like the kind you'd use to make shish kabob. I can't believe what I'm seeing when he spears one of the testicles from the pan and holds it up.
"Behold!" Pat proclaims. "Arizona sushi! Otherwise known as Montana tenderloin, cowboy caviar, swinging sirloin, or prairie oysters. But here we usually call them calf fries!"
The men are all laughing now -- except for Brian. And Rowan, who looks like he's about to puke. And I don't blame him. I think I'm going to throw up, too!
Sam holds the 'oyster' over the fire to cook. It's still dripping blood and the hot coals sputter as the juice hits them. After a few minutes he takes the delicacy away from the flames.
"Sometimes we bread 'em and deep fry 'em, or we roast 'em with a little salt and pepper," says Gar. "But I think a real cowboy likes 'em best as the good Lord intended -- fresh off the calf and hot from the branding fire." He pulls the sizzling flesh right off the skewer and pops it into his mouth, chomping loudly. I cringe, thinking about what he's chewing. "Now THAT is good eatin'! Better than that slop Sam's been serving us. Brian -- you step right up. You're our guest, so you get the next one."
Sam spears another testicle and holds it in the fire. Brian bites his bottom lip, but then he walks up and stands tall, waiting. So, this is the real test, after all. He catches my eye and winks. Go for it, Brian! Go for it!
Sam points the skewer at Brian. The calf fry is smoking. It's bigger than the one Gar ate, but Brian doesn't hesitate. He's still wearing his leather gloves, so he takes them off and stuffs them in his back pocket. Then he eases the fry off the skewer, puts it right in his mouth, and chews. The look on his face tells me that it's pretty horrible, but he keeps chewing.
"Come on, Kinney!" crows Pat. "We all know you've had bigger balls in your mouth before this!"
Brian swallows, only coughing slightly as it goes down. "Those are bigger than yours were last night, that's for sure, Swayze!" Then he takes a sip of water from my canteen to clear the taste from his mouth.
"Hot damn, Brian!" says Pat. "You're a real cowboy now!" He turns to Rowan. "You're next."
But Rowan goes white as a sheet. "Like fuck I will!"
"Go ahead, Rowan," says Brian. "It's not that bad."
"No!" says Rowan, backing away. "That's a load of shite! You can't make me eat that! I'll tell Nick!"
"Just do it," Brian urges. He knows this is important. The initiation ritual that proves you've got the right stuff and all that other macho bullshit. If Rowan doesn't do it, he'll look like a total dick. "One swallow and it's all over."
Sam is standing there with another smoking fry on the end of the skewer. But Rowan won't do it. "Fuck you!" he yells. He turns his back on the cowboys and walks away.
"I'll take it," I say suddenly. I don't know what makes me say it. Maybe watching Rowan wimp out. Because I may be a little faggot, but I know I'm a better man than Rowan Conley!
"You don't have to, Justin," Sam says gently. "No one expects you to do it. I mean, it's only for the men."
"And what am I?" I challenge. Sam looks at Gar and Charley and they both shrug.
"Give it to him, Sam," says Brian. "Do it, Justin." I see Pat and Paco nodding behind him.
Sam holds the skewer out at me and I pull the fry off the end of it. It's very hot. It's only a piece of meat, I tell myself. And I've definitely had worse things in my mouth. I pop it in and chew for a few moments. It's mainly fat, with a rubbery feel. Then I hit a something firmer, like gristle, and gag. I don't want to think about what it might be, so I try to swallow quickly. Brian is right there with the canteen. The water helps me choke the whole mess all the way down. I wait, thinking that it's going to come right back up, but it doesn't. I take another swig of water. It's going to stay in my stomach. I passed the test! We both did!
"Son of a bitch. The kid ate it," I hear Charley say.
I look at Brian's face. He's beaming. He's proud of me. And I'm proud of him. So fucking proud to be his partner!
"Let's get back to camp!" says Sam. "I'm making steak and strawberry shortcake for dinner tonight -- and I've got cold beer for everybody! We're gonna have ourselves a party!"
"If you have a beer tonight, Brian, I don't think even Dr. Gorowitz would say it's a bad thing," I tell Brian as he puts his arm around my shoulder.
"I might," he replies. "But I don't really need to in order to celebrate. There are a million ways to celebrate. A million ways to let yourself know that you did a good job. I'm only just beginning to understand that."
"You're going to make a great cowboy, Brian! Clint better watch his ass!"
"I'll tell him you said so!" Brian laughs. "Do you know that I love you, you fucking little twat?"
"I know, Brian," I say. "I've always known. But sometimes it's nice to hear you say it."
"(I know that) There are many ways,
(To live there) In the sun or shade.
(Together) We will find a place,
(To settle) Where there's so much space,
(Without rush) And the pace back east,
(The hustling) Rustling just to feed.
(I know I'm) Ready to leave too,
(So that's what) We are gonna do.
(Go West) Life is peaceful there,
(Go West) In the open air,
(Go West) Baby, you and me,
Go West, This is our destiny."
(The Village People)
Continue on to "Inertia".
©Gaedhal, July 2007.
Posted July 24, 2007.