This is Chapter 10 of the "Queer Identities" series.
The narrator is Justin Taylor, and features Brian Kinney, Sam Elliott, Gar Greenough, Charley Bouley, Patrick Swayze, Rowan Conley, Others.
Rated R and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: Cowboy Camp camp out. Arizona, May 2003.
Disclaimer: You know the drill. This is for fun, not profit. Enjoy.
"There they are," says Sam, pointing into the distance.
We've been bouncing along for more than an hour and the horses have settled into a brisk walk. It's less bone-rattling, that's for sure, but it hadn't seemed like we were making much progress at catching up with the herd.
"Where?" The dust is so thick it's hard to see. My eyes are watering, but the bandanna Sam gave me has helped keep my coughing down.
"See that low cloud on the horizon?"
"Yeah," I nod, squinting. All I see is more dust and a couple of jackrabbits bouncing by. Out here the desert is nothing but sky and dust and jackrabbits. No wonder when Brian comes home his boots, clothes, and hair are filled with dirt and sand.
"That's where we're headed!" Sam shakes the reins and the horses move a little faster.
As we get closer I can hear the sounds of the cattle drive. The bellowing of the steers. The cries of the cowboys. The thud of hooves on the hard, dry ground. I can almost feel the rumble as we approach.
Sam grins under his handlebar moustache. "There's a sight not many folks will ever see nowadays. A herd of Longhorns on the open range. Makes me feel like I'm in a different time and a different place."
"I can feel it, too!" I agree. And it does look like a scene from a movie. Except there are no cameras out here -- at least not yet. Just the men and the animals and the land. Just like it was over a hundred years ago.
"When I first started acting I played a lot of parts. Cops, bikers, lawyers, even a lifeguard!" Sam laughs. "But something about Westerns felt right to me. Like I'd finally found my era. Maybe I was born in the 20th century, but through my films I could live in the 19th as much as any man could. You should see my house. It's in Los Angeles, but it looks like it could be on a ranch not too far from here. I even met my wife on the set of a Western film -- 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.' Have you seen that one, Justin?"
"Of course!" I say. One of Brian's secrets is that he really loves old movies, especially Westerns, and we watch them all the time on DVD. I think that's why he wanted to be in 'Red River' so badly. "That's a great movie!"
"This is what I live to do," Sam muses. "For an actor like Brian a Western is a real anachronism. He'll play a lot of parts in his career, but he's not likely to do another Western any time soon. They just don't make 'em the way they used to because the demand isn't there. It's a risk for the studio, but it's also a challenge for a good director. All the greats made Westerns -- John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann. It's an icon of American culture. But sometimes I feel like me and Eastwood and a couple of the other older fellas are the last of a breed. Look at a great cowboy star like Burr Connor. He was one of the best, but he hasn't made a film in years. It's sad, but true."
"Dorian says Burr Connor might do a small part in 'Red River.'" After all I've heard about this actor I'm very curious to see him. "During the wagon train scenes."
"Maybe," says Sam. "Maybe not. Burr lives in his own little world these days. But we'll see. Hey, someone's coming out to greet us."
I look up to see a horseman heading towards us. I'm hoping it's Brian, but as he gets closer I can see that instead of Brian's big chestnut, this man is riding a skinny gray horse.
"It's Gar," says Sam, naming one of the wranglers. "Charley's the trail boss on this drive, but Gar's the ramrod. That means he's second in command. So what Gar says, goes."
Sam halts the wagon as Gar pulls his horse up next to us. "I was wondering when the hell you were gonna show up!"
"We got here as fast as we could," Sam states. "This wagon is loaded down pretty heavy. The last thing I want to do is tip it over. This trail ain't exactly a paved highway!"
"We'll loop around the herd and head 'em," says Gar. "If we can get a few miles in front we'll look for a place you can set up camp. The boys are gonna be hungry as bears in a couple of hours, so you better have some decent grub for 'em!"
"We'll do the best we can," Sam drawls. "But don't expect miracles. If you wanted fine cuisine you should have recruited Wolfgang Puck for this picture."
"I don't cast 'em!" Gar retorts. "I only deal with the dregs they give me. And that includes you, Elliott!" Then he glances at me and makes a face. "This your helper? He's kinda scrawny. Don't look like you'll get a full day's work out of him."
I bristle, but Sam just winks at me. "He's an expert cook, Gar. I'll have him make your supper special."
"Don't do me any favors!" Gar wheels his gray horse around. "Follow me!"
The wagon rattles down the rutted trail, but then we go off it and we're driving on the bare ground. If I thought the path was bad, the desert floor is ten times worse. Both Sam and I have to hang on not to be tossed off the seat, while the heavy wagon tilts and sways.
Gar tries to lead us around the steers, but many of them have wandered and we end up going through the far edge of the herd. Some of the cattle don't seem to like the wagon and they come up close to give us dirty looks. The horns on the Longhorns are just that -- wide and sharp and very dangerous-looking. Brian told me that some of the horns have been tipped to make them safer for the wranglers and actors, but they can't do the whole herd.
One cow with a calf at her side comes up to the wagon and bellows at us. Sam takes out a long whip and flicks it at her. "Get away there! Yah!" And the pair back off.
"They're bigger than I thought, especially up close," I say nervously.
"Big -- and mean," Sam agrees. "In the old days they would have been even wilder. This bunch was bred for the movies and they're used to being worked. A real herd would have been like herding angry cats! Except these cats are a thousand pounds! See that red and white cow over there?" He points to another cow with a calf, this one bulkier with shorter legs. "That one's got Hereford blood for sure. That's a beef cow they introduced years ago to make tastier meat. Most of the Longhorns are mixed-breeds these days, but you can still get a feel for what the originals were like. And they're tough old hombres. They had to be to survive in this hard, unforgiving country. Tough, just like the men that herded them."
"Hey!" A big red horse pulls up next to my side of the wagon and snorts.
"Brian!" I shout.
He's dusty, with an old floppy hat pulled down over his head and his denim shirt soaked with sweat, but he looks amazing!
"I was wondering when the honey-wagon was going to get here! Make my reservation for the first luncheon seating, please."
"Honey-wagon?" I raise my eyebrows.
"Down, boy! That's what they call the catering truck!" Brian laughs. "Haven't you learned anything on this shoot?"
"He'll learn a lot with me," says Sam. "I'm planning to work his tail off on this drive."
"Great," says Brian. "The boy needs a firm hand. You have my permission to discipline him as you see fit. I've got to get back. See you at the camp." Brian turns his horse's head and gallops back to the herd.
"He looks good on that horse," Sam comments as we both watch Brian ride away. "Gonna make a nice picture on the big screen. Some fellas never look like cowboys, no matter what they do. But Brian has the look."
We drive the wagon for about another 40 minutes until Gar and Sam find a promising spot. It's even ground, dotted with prickly pears and mesquite. Sam and Gar unhitch the horses and water them, while I drag the grills and Dutch ovens out of the wagon. Gar makes sure that we're settled before he takes off, leaving the two of us to get the fire going and cook the mid-day meal, which is the biggest of the day. Sam gets out two shovels and we dig the shallow pits to put the charcoal in.
"In the old days they had to cook with scrub wood or make their own charcoal," says Sam. "Those mesquite bushes were used to feed the fire. Now it's a trendy flavor in fancy restaurants. Cut off some of those branches and we'll use them to stoke up."
I take a small hatchet and go over to hack off some mesquite. The sun is killing me, the sweat pouring down my face and back. I can imagine what it'll be like when I'm leaning over the fire, cooking.
While Sam gets the fire going I begin to unpack the food. Flour for the biscuits, meat for the chili, potatoes that will need to be peeled, onions to be chopped, and water to boil. Luckily, we've got coolers to keep the meat from spoiling, as well as tanks of water. But there's only so much that can fit into the wagon, so we have to make do with what we've got. Sam warned me that if we run out of water, that's it. We'll either have to find some in the desert -- yeah, right! -- or do without. The cowboys have their own water supply for the camp out in barrels that are carried by a pair of mules, but they're in the same boat -- if they run out, that's all. Of course, I doubt Charley and Gar will let the guys go thirsty in this heat, but it's a matter of pride not to have to call in a supply truck. That would ruin the whole point of the camp out.
Sam immediately puts me to work cutting things up. I have a large cutting board, which helps, but nowhere to sit but on the ground. After about a half hour of this my back is killing me, but I still have a pile of onions and potatoes to prepare. Once Sam gets the fire going, he cuts up the meat and mixes the spices for the chili. I don't think he trusts me with the meat, at least not yet. I have to prove myself with everything else first.
Finally, we get the food cooking. The sun is directly overhead now, which means that the men will be coming for their meal in about an hour. I boil the potatoes and then fry them up with onions, dumping them into big bowls as they're finished. I worked at the diner as a busboy and a waiter, but never as a cook, but I have a lot more respect for that job now. Even during the breakfast rush I don't think I ever worked harder than I am now. Even Sam, who is the world's most easy-going guy, seems stressed as he tells me to get busy on the biscuits. The flour mix has already been prepared, but I have to stir in the water and then bake the biscuits in the Dutch oven. I don't think I've ever been hotter in my entire life as I spoon out the dough into the oven and then haul the heavy cast-iron onto the glowing coals. I have to watch them carefully so they don't burn, but some of them get charred on the bottom anyway.
Sam shrugs when I show him the burned biscuits. "It's gonna happen. But the men are gonna be so hungry that they won't care."
As I smell the chili cooking I realize how hungry I am myself. Although Sam and I do a little tasting here and there to make sure food is done, we can't eat our meal until all the men have been fed. That's the first rule of being a cattle drive cook.
Sooner than I expected the men begin to ride into camp. I haul buckets of water from the wagon to fill a big wooden bucket Sam has set out for them to wash their faces and hands. But there are no towels. I guess cowboys don't use napkins, either. Most of the guys use their bandannas or wipe their hands on their shirts.
Brian steps up and dips his hands into the bucket, then splashes water on his dusty face. "Hot enough for you, Sunshine?" he grins.
But I won't bite. "We have air conditioning in the wagon. You ought to stop by sometime and cool off."
"Fuck you!" he laughs. Then he goes and sits with Pat, Paco, and the Indian guy, Frank Painted Horse. Frank takes out some tobacco and rolling papers and they all have a smoke while they wait for their food.
"Justin! Get your hind end over here and help me serve this chow!"
"I'm coming, Sam!" And I don't stop running for the next hour, as I fill tin plates with chili and fried potatoes and biscuits and hand them out, along with metal spoons. And the guys keep coming for the food. And coming. And coming. Even Brian eats two huge helpings, slathering his biscuits with butter and molasses, following the lead of Pat and Frank. I race back and forth, filling their cups with water. A few of the men hand around flasks of whiskey, but I notice that Brian passes. I wouldn't blame him if he had a swig or two, but he doesn't. I admit that when Sam holds out his own flask to me, I take a good, long pull.
"All right, you worthless sons of bitches!" Charley finally shouts. The meal is officially over. "Time to get back to them steers! We still need to drive 'em a few more miles and this day ain't gettin' any younger!"
The men bring their plates and spoons back to the wagon and drop them into the wooden bucket, which I emptied and refilled with clean water. The food's been eaten, but work isn't done by a long shot. Now Sam and I have to put out the fire, wash the dishes, pack up camp, move, and do it all over again in time for supper. My arms, legs, and back ache from carrying water, chopping kindling, peeling and cutting up potatoes, and bending over the fire. I've barely eaten a bite all day and I'm already so tired I'm ready to drop. No wonder cowboys were so ornery!
But some things are worth anything you have to do.
"See you later," says Brian as he drops his plate and spoon into the bucket. "Good biscuits," he adds. And I feel myself smiling.
The men ride away and Sam and I begin cleaning up. Yes, it's hard work, especially in this heat, but I know that Brian and the guys are working a lot harder.
"How you holding up, son?" asks Sam as we load the wagon. He and Gar fed and hitched up the horses before Gar returned to the drive.
"Okay," I reply, not wanting him to see me flagging. We've buried our garbage and also filled in the fire-pit so that the dry brush doesn't catch. I look down at my hands. They're red and raw because it's impossible to cut up the food and cook with gloves on.
Sam squints as he looks up at the sky. The sun is beginning to get lower in the west, but there are still many hours of daylight left. "We'll move on up the trail and then set up camp for the night. We'll need to clear the brush from the area so the men can bed down. Then we'll cook the evening meal. You gonna be able to keep up?"
"I'm fine," I say resolutely. "Let's get moving."
"Good man." Sam boosts me into the seat, climbs up next to me, and we're off.
We find a decent spot a few miles down the trail. That's not very far, but the herd isn't going to be able to move any faster. No wonder it took real cattle drives weeks or even months to get where they were going. An outcropping of rocks and a stand of saguaro cactus looms over the trail and Sam gets out of the wagon and scouts around.
"Gar told me there was a campsite along here and this seems to be it." He points to a place where the ground is bare and dark. "Here's where somebody built a fire not too long ago. And the ground is already partly cleared. I'll take care of the horses and you start setting up."
Now that we've turned out one meal, things go much faster for supper. Sam and I are beginning to fall into a routine. And I'm getting a second wind, too. As evening approaches it feels cooler. The wind doesn't seem as dusty as it did at noon. Or maybe this site is more sheltered by the rocks and tall cactus.
Sam is making barbecued pork, so he puts me to work making cornbread in the big Dutch oven. It's hard to bake on an open fire, but the cornbread turns out to be easier than the biscuits. Again, the edges for the first batch come out burned, but the second batch looks much better. And it tastes good, too. I also peel more potatoes and mash them. Meat, potatoes, bread. I haven't seen a vegetable since we left the main camp. With a diet like that it's a wonder that cowboys weren't constantly constipated. Or maybe they were. Maybe that's also why they were so ornery!
I hear the herd before I can see them. That low rumble, getting closer. But not too close. Sam doesn't want the smell of the herd overwhelming the campsite.
The men drift into camp after they take care of their horses. They look beat. And dirty. Brian has been coming back to the trailer every night tired and filthy, but he heads right into the shower. There's no shower out here in the desert. And not a lot of extra water for washing. I'm very aware of that as I wash my hands before I prepared the food. Sam keeps warning me to watch how much water I use. Every drop is precious because what we carry is all we have. By the time we get back on Saturday we're all going to reek, so I can only imagine what real cowboys must have looked like -- and smelled like! -- after weeks on the trail.
Each man stakes out a place to unroll his sleeping bag. I watch Brian look around and notice that he claims a spot on the edge of campsite. I don't know where I'm expected to sleep -- Sam has his gear stowed under the wagon, while mine is still inside. I remember Brian warning me that this isn't a fun camping trip where we can fuck under the stars, but part of me wonders if it would be okay if we at least slept next to each other. I don't want to do anything to screw up Brian's acceptance by the other guys, but they all know we're together. At least I think they all know. In the end, I decide that I better sleep under the wagon, next to Sam.
I help Sam shred the pork and mix it with the barbecue sauce.
"This'll go great with my cornbread," I comment after tasting the pork.
"That's the idea." Sam stirs the mix with a big spoon. "Gotta give the men something that'll stick with 'em. Charley Bouley gave catering these recipes, so they're tried and true. Simple enough to be able to cook on the trail, but also hearty enough to keep a man filled up. In the old days the drovers would have lived on coffee, salt pork, dried peas and beans, and a little bacon fat. This is a feast compared to that."
The men line up and I begin doling out the food.
"Looks fine," says Charley, who, as the trail boss, is the first man through the line. And the ramrod, Gar, who is right after him, nods. "Good job, kid."
"Thanks!" I say. And I mean it. I'm proud of what Sam and I have made. It's a definite improvement from the mid-day meal.
"Hey, Sam! This grub is almost edible!" Pat calls out. Brian says that Pat is the joker of the crowd, always needling or playing a trick on someone. Brian's been the butt of a couple of his jokes, but he says that proves he's Pat's friend. The men don't bother pranking someone they don't like. "I love barbecued jackrabbit!" And all the men crack up. Except for the steers, I've seen more jackrabbits than any other animal out here.
"If you were a real cowboy instead of a jumped up former pretty boy, Swayze, you'd be living on beef jerky," Sam drawls. "But I see you had two helpings of the pork -- and three of the cornbread."
"That cornbread is damn good!" Pat asserts.
Sam stands over the fire, spoon in hand, his eyes like flint. "The kid made it."
Brian grins at me, giving me a thumbs up.
"Watch it, old man," Pat guffaws. "We'll make him the cook and you can come on the drive and help us with the calves tomorrow. We'll need all the help we can get!"
"What does he mean by that?" I ask Sam when we finally sit down with our plates of pork and cornbread. "About the calves?"
"Tomorrow they'll cut the calves out of the herd. Then they'll brand 'em. And castrate 'em."
I almost choke on my piece of cornbread. "Castrate?"
"Yup," says Sam. "That's what makes 'em steers, son. There's only a few of 'em that need to be done, but the actors need to practice, since there's a branding scene in the film. It's a dirty, nasty job. And a noisy one, too. The calves make a hell of a caterwaul!"
I swallow. "I bet."
"It's the thing that separates the men from the boys out here, Justin. You and me will be digging the fire-pit for the branding irons and getting it going, so you'll see it all first-hand."
"Oh, boy," I say. "Lucky me." I only hope I don't fucking faint in front of everyone!
Since we'll be spending the night here, cleanup is much more leisurely. I'm washing the tin plates when Rowan Conley wanders over. He's the youngest guy in the cast and I notice that the men don't include him much in their joking and fooling around. Rowan is a jerk, but he looks so forlorn that I feel kind of sorry for him.
"I was surprised to see you out here, Justin." Rowan's Irish accent is subdued. I guess he's trying to sound more American, although Sam told me that cowboys were all nationalities, as well as a lot of Mexicans, African Americans, and Indians who worked on ranches all over the West, so an Irish accent wouldn't be that out of places.
"I'm just giving Sam a hand with the food. So, how's it going?"
Rowan shrugs. "All right. My arse is sore as a nun's knees."
I laugh. "That's the price you pay for stardom."
"I don't feel like much of a star," Rowan complains. "I'll be lucky if my three lines stay in the finished picture. But Nick says it's good for my career."
"Everybody has to start somewhere." Rowan is starting to annoy me. "And a picture with Clint Eastwood and Brian Kinney is pretty great start."
"Brian starred in his first film," Rowan sniffs.
"Brian is Brian," I point out. "And you're not. So I'd keep my mouth shut if I were you."
"Still riding on the big man's coattails, huh, Justin?" Rowan sneers.
Now I don't feel sorry for Rowan at all. Some people can't help being assholes, no matter what. "I wouldn't talk so big myself, since you probably wouldn't have this job if your boyfriend wasn't an assistant director on this picture. Oh, I forgot -- you don't have a boyfriend, because you're straight! Right!"
"Fuck off!" Rowan says sourly.
Sam walks over. "Justin, I need some help over here."
"Sure, Sam." I turn away from Rowan and follow Sam back to the wagon.
"What's that fella's problem?" Sam asks.
"We used to be friends in England," I explain. "But he's jealous of me and Brian."
"There's always going to be people like that, Justin, especially in this business. They pretend to be your friend, but they only want to use you. A fella like that isn't worth worrying about."
"I know," I tell Sam. "But it bothers me anyway."
"Well, right now we got other things to worry about. Like this fire." Sam nods toward the fire-pit. "We want to keep it going all night because we'll need to make breakfast and brew the coffee first thing in the morning. And it can get cold out here in the desert at night, so we want that fire stoked. I'll be keeping my eye on it, but even I need to sleep a little. So if you wake up in the middle of the night and notice that it's burning down, add some of that kindling. Okay?"
"Sure thing, Sam."
"Now get your bedroll and find your partner," he adds. "You've had a long day, so get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow is gonna be just as busy."
I glance over at Brian, who is sitting with Pat and Paco, laughing and smoking their hand-rolled cigarettes.
"I thought I'd sleep over here, under the wagon, where I'd be out of the way."
Sam gives me one of those what-the-fuck looks. "A cowboy's gotta have his partner. So get your hind over there and lay out your bedroll. Oh, and watch where you unroll it. Make sure there's no rattlers around."
"Rattlers?" I'd forgotten all about the snakes and other things crawling around the desert.
"And if you get up to take a piss, watch where you step in the dark. You don't want to get bit."
I shudder. "I'll remember."
I carry my sleeping bag and canteen across the camp and set them down next to Brian's gear. Brian gets up and strolls over. "I was wondering when you'd make it over here."
"I wasn't sure if I should."
Brian leans close to my ear. "Afraid I won't be able to resist plowing your tight little ass in front of the entire cast?"
"Shut up!" I laugh and punch his shoulder.
"Okay, you lazy bastards!" says Charley Bouley as he walks through camp. "Get to sleep, because them steers ain't goin' nowhere. Tomorrow is branding day. If you thought driving them mavericks was hard work, wait until you gotta rope, throw, and brand 'em!"
Brian smirks. "Now Charley is quoting the 'Rawhide' song! I was wondering when we'd hear that one!"
Brian unrolls our bags while I clear away any rocks -- or snakes! -- from the ground. Luckily all I see are a few bugs. Very small bugs.
"I'm going to need a fucking chiropractor when I finish this shoot," Brian says, easing himself into the sleeping bag.
"Do you have Dr. Dave's number in the Pitts? I'm sure he'd love to come out to Arizona and 'adjust' you!"
"Jesus." Brian rolls his eyes. "Poor Michael." Then he shakes his head regretfully.
When it gets dark in the desert, it gets very, very dark. There are no towns nearby, so the only light is from the fire and the stars, and later the moon as it rises. Brian and I lay side by side, staring up at the black sky. I can hear the other men snoring, the chirp of insects, the snorts of the horses. And a coyote howling in the distance.
Brian hears it, too. "The wranglers are taking turns watching the herd. A coyote can't take down a full-grown steer, but they might try to get a calf. Or they might spook the herd and stampede them."
"Don't worry. It won't happen. Except in the picture. That'll be the most dangerous part of the shoot."
"Are you scared, Brian?"
"Naw! I'll keep my ass in the clear and leave the dangerous stuff to Jared, my stunt double. You should be more worried about him."
I reach out and find Brian's hand resting on the outside of the sleeping bag. He wraps his fingers around mine. "You're the only one I care about."
"You better," he whispers. "I'm holding you to that, brat."
The ground is hard, but exhaustion finally catches up with me and I find myself drifting off. Funny, but in this dry place I dream about the boat. About the two of us cruising around the islands up in Lake Erie, except we're in 'La Diva' instead of the 'Colleen.' Dreams always mix things up. First we're alone, but then Gus is with us, except he's older. Tall, like Brian, with Brian's eyes, long fingers, and trademarked smirk, but Lindsay's nose and chin. The boat plunges through the clear water, the wind whipping past us. But then something touches me. I can feel it on my arm. Then on my chest. But I'm not asleep anymore.
"Brian!" I whisper, afraid to move, afraid to open my eyes. All I can think of is rattlesnakes and I don't want to look a rattler in the eye. "BRIAN!"
"What?" And he's right there.
"Something is on me! I think it's a snake!" Now I'm fucking paralyzed!
"Don't move." Then I hear him exhale in relief. "Open your eyes, Justin. It's not a snake."
I slowly open one eye and then the other. Sitting on top of my sleeping bag, as terrified as I am, is a long, skinny green lizard. Reptile eyes are shining in the dark and the long tongue whips out nervously. It's a desert iguana. I recognize it from my guidebook, but I didn't think I'd see one up this close.
"Hey," Brian says to the lizard. "Scram, Godzilla." He brushes it with his hand and it's gone in a flash, off into the darkness.
"Thank God it wasn't a snake," I breathe in relief.
"You should have grabbed it," Brian chortles. "You could have made a special for the dinner service tomorrow -- Iguana Du Jour with Biscuits and Beans!"
"Very funny!" But my heart is still beating like a hammer.
"Enjoying camping, Sunshine?" he snarks. "Better than the Bordello Suite at the Chatterton, huh?"
"Much better." I roll over and pull the sleeping bag over my head. One deep breath. Another. And the next thing I know it's morning.
Continue on to "Go West".
©Gaedhal, June 2007.
Posted June 25, 2007.