The white-faced, rust-colored Hereford turned in an uncomfortable circle, drawing in a deep, cautious breath before lowering herself to the ground. Her quivering legs bent ungracefully beneath her pregnant belly as she descended down into the grass. Once situated, she remained still for a long moment, her large, dark, watery eyes staring off into nothingness. Beyond her, the wide expanse of meadow and mountains provided a picturesque backdrop to this otherwise unceremonious calving.
The late-afternoon climate was still warm. Expansive blue sky began to turn heavy with sunset, and the ticking of crickets in the grass monopolized the breeze. Ben and Travis rested on their haunches near one another, plucking at weeds while they watched the birthing process unfold. Travis had been witness to such events a thousand times over, but for Ben, this experience was a first.
“It’s okay, girl,” Travis whispered to the mother cow, as though to reassure her of his presence. As he’d explained to Ben earlier during their ride to push the herd to the next pasture, this was the start of calving season, and, barring any complications, human interaction during the birthing process was unnecessary. The calves dropped when they dropped, directly into the grass, without need for close monitoring from the herders. From there, mother cow took care of them.
Ben had learned a lot in the past several hours about daily rotational grazing and in-pasture calving; how it was far safer, and healthier, than calving within an overcrowded, disease-infected corral. Travis treated all ranch operations with serious intent, and he had plenty of information to share about the daily tasks: maintaining the stables, the tack and feed, the water, the pastures, the fencing, the machinery. The most Ben could do was listen attentively, observe the demonstrations, and offer a helpful hand where he could.
“I was serious about you putting me to work while I’m here,” Ben had stated when they’d first arrived at the ranch from the Glenwood Springs journey. Shoving a hose nozzle into his hand straightaway, Travis had pointed to an empty stall and announced,”Okay. Get that ready for Max. Clean-out, fresh hay, then bring him in from the trailer. I’ll show you how to groom him, and then we’ll move onto the next. There’s plenty of shit to shovel around here.” Ben hadn’t paused to catch his breath since. Now, he was enjoying the momentary reprieve as they stopped to witness the bovine birth in the field.
The cumbersome sow stood to roam in a circle once more, and Ben caught sight of the calf’s hind legs starting to emerge. Mother turned her head back to lick at the ruptured water sack and protruding hooves, and then she lowered herself to the ground once more, rolling over onto her side, her breathing pattern slightly more labored. Travis perched his Resistol hat atop his head and stepped forward to give assistance.
Ben pulled out his Blackberry and snapped a few crude photos of the Hereford and Travis and this birthing process. Made him feel like a mere speck in a much larger universe.
“Good girl. That’s it. Good girl.” Travis repeated this while his hands gripped the pair of ankles now exposed to the air. As he pulled, the mother exerted one final push, and the torso and front legs of the calf’s wet body popped out in an explosion of birthing fluid. The young one then spilled out across the grass, his head still partially encased in the amniotic sack.
Ben was shocked and amazed by the staunch reality of it all. “Un-fucking-believable…” he muttered.
Travis stepped back to allow the mother to attend to her newborn. Went to his saddle, wiped his hands with a rag, and thumped two cigarettes out from his pack of Camels.
“Thanks,” Ben said, taking the one held out to him. Sore from being up on his haunches too long, he sank cross-legged onto the damp ground. With three short hours of sleep, myriad events of the day, and the strenuous workload they’d already engaged in, he felt the exhaustion all the way down to his bones.
Travis landed in the grass beside Ben, removed his hat. “”It’s funny. I’ve observed the arrival of these animals a thousand times over, but somehow, seeing it again never fails to intrigue me, like it’s a new thing. The great circle of life. This one here is our first calf of the season, which makes him extra special.”
“So does he get a name?” Ben asked. “For being the special one?”
“Nope. A number.” Travis took a drag. The cigarette glowed in the rising dusk. “We’ll ear tag him soon. It’s better not to give these guys names, especially when you have to slice off their balls.”
“Shit, dude. I hope I don’t have to witness that.”
Travis smiled. “Not unless you intend to come back here for roundup. If you do, I’ll hand you the scalpel.”
The sow was already on her feet and instinctively licking her newborn clean. Sections of the messy afterbirth still hung from her backside, like torn gelatinous rags, and Ben decided he could have lived without ever seeing that, just as he could have lived without thinking about castration. Still, it was a crucial part of the ranching operation, and he respected Travis and the ranch and the cycle of life he’d just witnessed. “Man, I really appreciate you stopping for this,” he said. “I feel enlightened.” He glanced upwards. Watched pink clouds slowly travel eastward, as though departing for the day.
“I couldn’t have planned it if I’d wanted to,” Travis said. “Mother Nature does things in her own timing.”
They sat in silence for a while and watched the calf gain his bearings, shaking his head and slapping his ears and seeming to come to terms with being out in the world. It wasn’t long before he struggled to his feet, thin legs wobbling and body quivering, face nuzzling beneath his mother’s belly in search of nourishment. No need for instruction.
Travis snuffed out his cigarette, and, per his usual protocol, retrieved the squashed butt from the ground with the intention of throwing it away. “We should probably start heading back, before it gets too dark.”
Ben stood up with him. Extinguished his own cigarette and commented, “You sure are a stickler about not littering. I find that funny about you.”
Travis took a hold of Red Could’s reins. “It’s not so much about the littering, although I believe in that, too. You gotta protect the land. One burning ember can start a brush fire, or burn an entire forest, especially during a drought season. I’ve seen it happen, and I don’t want that kind of guilt on my shoulders.” Sliding a boot into the saddle stirrup, he hoisted himself up and over and settled into the seat. “Even though we’re far from drought condition right now,” he continued, “it’s better to stay in the habit.”
“Very conscientious of you.” Ben climbed atop Hugo. Settled into the saddle with much less apprehension than he’d had on his first ride a couple of days ago. Now, he felt much more confident about leading the buckskin gelding where he wanted him to go without accidentally jolting the animal in various unwanted directions. Hugo also seemed to appreciate it. With a prompt of the reins, Ben instructed Hugo to follow the lead of Red Cloud, who was headed east, back to the compound. Mother cow and newborn were left in the field to acquaint themselves in the quietude of dusk.
The horses trotted together across the pasture at a good clip as the sky transformed from pink to cobalt-blue, an impending darkness which lured them home faster. Once leaving the pasture, Travis closed the gate, and they continued their descent to the ranch at a slower amble. Nearing the stables, both Travis and Ben noticed the beat-up red and white Bronco parked in front of the main house. Simultaneously, the scent of fresh grilled meat hit their nostrils and the sound of conversation reached their ears. Someone had arrived, and dinner was being served on the back deck, which was ablaze with exterior lights.
Stopping to dismount from their respective saddles, they gazed at the house and the activity outside.”Expecting company?” Ben said.
“It’s my goddamn uncle. Maybe Stella and Carla, too. I don’t know, I wasn’t expecting anyone, but sometimes they just show up.” He took a hold of Red Cloud’s reins and headed toward the stables. Ben followed with Hugo, and for a while they circled the perimeter of the large paddock on foot, giving the horses a chance to cool down while they discussed how to avoid the impromptu family gathering.
“We’ll get the horses in for the night,” Travis suggested. “Then, while you’re sneaking around the back to the bunkhouse, I’ll head up there, make an appearance, grab a big plate of food, and make a quick exit.”
“I’d really rather not go into hiding if I don’t have to,” Ben said. “I’ve been doing a lot of hiding on this trip, a lot of sneaking around, and here, at the ranch, I just don’t want to feel so fucking paranoid. Your mom and Curtis already know I’m here, and if Katy ‘s home now, she does, too. And I’ve met your cousins before, so it’s not really necessary that I keep a low profile. Is it?”
“You haven’t met my uncle. He’s the biggest asshole this side of the Divide. I don’t want to subject you to his bigoted bullshit all night.”
“I’ll charm him,” Ben said. “He won’t know what hit him.”
Travis grinned a crooked grin and pulled him close. Gave him an impulsive kiss. “Yeah, you are pretty good at being charming,” he concurred. “Works on me every time.”
Tucking Red Cloud and Hugo in for the night was a long process, and once again Ben felt like Travis’ pupil, learning how to properly care for a horse under his expert tutelage. Administering cool downs, removing tack, cleaning, grooming, feeding, even picking dirt and grass out of hooves – a long list of tasks that Travis was able to accomplish on a regular basis. Ben wondered who’d be around to help do it all once Curtis gave up the ranch and Arturo grew too old. Katy…? Fucking unlikely.
It wasn’t even just the horses; it was the land, the buildings, the cattle, the roundup, the seasonal duties that never ended but only changed direction and focus. Not to mention the unexpected demands that were bound to pop-up along the way. Ben knew that operations at Cooper Ranch went far beyond what he understood them to be. In his short visit, he’d only witnessed a small portion of a much larger picture. It worried him that Travis wouldn’t be able to hold it all together, now that the additional income he was bringing in had ended. Now that the side gig of screwing Jack Osbourne for extra cash had come to a halt.
Ben wondered what circumstances had even led Travis down that path, how the tricking had come about. Did it have to do with his father’s death? His eagerness to kick Curtis off the ranch? In a heartbeat, Ben would volunteer to help out, to open up his checkbook and be generous because he had more than enough money to go around, but he instinctively knew that Travis would refuse the offer; he’d rather rely on his own resources, his own abilities, his own dick. Even if Ben tried to spin the financial gift like a real estate investment – a partnership with no strings attached – a positive outcome was unlikely. There was very little point in going down that path… at least for now, when things were still so new and awkward and precarious between them. Maybe when Travis trusted him more, when they were more invested in each other, he would be receptive to such a gift. But maybe not even then.
Before closing up the stables for the night, Travis meticulously visited every occupied stall to ensure that the horses were properly settled in. Some of the horses belonged to Cooper Ranch, others were being boarded there, but he treated each one with the same amount of affection and respect. After turning off all but a few lights, he bid the occupants good night and pushed the massive sliding door closed. The heavy clank of the locking mechanism echoed through the night air. Alerted to their presence, Derry raced down the hill from the house. A second later, Mrs. Cooper was on the back steps, waving and beckoning for Travis and Ben to come up while Carla and Stella happily traipsed down the path to greet them.
* * * *
The infamous Uncle Ed sat lounging on the glider swing – cold brew in hand, balding head glistening in the illumination of the exterior wall sconce. The moment Travis and Ben ascended the steps to the deck, he grumbled, “Dangerous thing, riding a horse at night. You should know that, boy.”
Travis grunted. “And you’re an expert how…?” Without waiting for an answer, he stepped over to the picnic table and pulled two bottles of Coors Light from a cardboard six-pack. Popped off the lids and handed one of the them to Ben.
“Thanks,” Ben said. From the corners of his eyes, he studied the man. He seemed to have a permanent scowl etched onto his face, and his clothes were unkempt, his cheeks hollow, his eyes red-rimmed. He was either someone who’d partied too hard in the past, or someone who still did. Ben suspected the latter.
“You and your disrespectful mouth,” Edward spat. “Always saying something snarky to me. I don’t know why you put up with it, Elaine.” He gestured to his sister, who was standing nearby with a plate full of food.
Mrs. Cooper sighed. “Oh, Ed, be quiet. He’s fine. You can be just as snarky sometimes, you know. Leave him be.” Turning her attention to the late arrivals, she said, “Everything go okay this afternoon?”
Travis plucked a few kalamata olives from her plate and popped them into his mouth. “Got our first newborn up in the north pasture.”
“Great! So it begins. No complications, I hope?”
“Nope. I helped with the pull. All went well. We’ll go back and tag him with the next rotation.” He grabbed a plate and dumped a pile of ribs onto it.
Ben reached for a plate, as well, but Stella or Carla (he wasn’t sure which) quickly jumped in to assist him, swiping the plate out of his hand with a smile. “What would you like?” she asked. Metal tongs were at the ready. “Ribs? Chicken? Some of this kale salad?”
Although it was ridiculous, he went along with the friendly gesture to placate the cousin. “A little bit of everything would be great. Thank you.”
While the plate was being prepared, Uncle Ed called out, “So who’s your friend?” He gestured over to Ben with a swoop of his half-empty beer bottle. “Another intern?”
Taking the initiative before Travis or anyone else could respond, Ben stepped over to the man and held out his hand. “I’m Ben.” He produced that disarming, calculated smile he enjoyed slapping onto strangers. “You must be Travis’ uncle, the one who lives in Basalt? I met your daughters the other night in Aspen. They’re really great girls. It’s good to finally meet you, too.”
Edward blinked up at him. Seemed taken aback by Ben’s confident demeanor and outstretched hand. Eventually, he decided to shake it. Their grips were firm, palms pressed together. Ben maintained eye contact until Ed grew uncomfortable, until he turned his gaze away, pulled his hand free. “Nice to meet you, too,” he said hesitantly. “You look familiar… Have we met? You live in Carbondale?”
Ben smiled again. “No, sir. I’m from Los Angeles.”
“Huh… You part of Travis’ ranching program at Colorado State?”
“Nope, not a rancher,” Ben replied. “I’m an actor. I’ve only been in Colorado for a short time, skiing and some snowboarding. Travis and I met a few days ago. He’s teaching me the real deal about horses and cattle and the workings of the ranch. It’s been very, uh, informative, to say the least. I’m having a good time.”
Edward took a swig of beer and regarded Ben slyly. Revealed skepticism in his ragged, red-rimmed eyes. The gears of his brain seemed to rotate at minimal capacity, but then recognition finally settled in. “You’re in that queer roughneck movie, aren’t you…” he said with something close to contempt in his tone.
Ben reacted with a similar change of tone. His smile faded and disappointment crept in. Another one of these assholes… “If you’re referring to ‘Roustabout’, then, yeah, that’s one of my films.”
“Hmph.” A succinct response from a simple-minded man. Dickwad took another swig from the bottle and eyed Ben carefully, as though calculating his next move.
“Oh, he’s brilliant in it, Daddy,” Stella/Carla crooned, swooping in, hooking a hand onto Ben’s elbow as though they were old friends. “He won an Oscar for the role, you know.”
“Did he…?” Still, contempt in the man’s voice. Then, a low, long belch escaped his lips. He made no effort to hide it or excuse it.
“Come on, let’s eat.” Travis interjected into the conversation. Nudged Ben in the back and gestured to the sliding glass door. Carla/Stella handed Ben his heavy plate of food, and he thanked her and followed Travis inside.
Taking a seat at the kitchen table, Ben said, “Dude, I see what you mean.”
“Yeah. Now you’ve met him. Now you know what I have to deal with.”
“I don’t envy you that. Has he always been a dick?”
Travis paused, rib to his mouth, barbecue sauce sinking down onto his fingers. “Not always. Not like this.” He set the rib down and sighed. “When my aunt dumped him, that’s when most of it started. But even before then… he was kind of an asshole. Tended to pick on me and Curtis, make us feel inferior, like we were sissies, never man enough in his eyes. I suppose he thought it was funny, just joking around in that aggressive machismo sort of way. I don’t know. But once he found out that I’m gay, he pretty much permanently shut the door on our relationship. In fact, just yesterday, he told me to stop hanging around Carla and Stella so much, because I’m a bad influence and he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Can you believe that shit?”
Travis nodded. Picked up his rib again. “Asshole is right.”
Katy’s entrance into the kitchen from the dining room startled them, caught them both off-guard so that all conversation ceased as they watched her glide into the room as though floating on air. A spark of a smile adorned her face. Perhaps she thought she was alone, because, noticing Ben seated at the table, she became equally startled. Stopped mid-stride to gawk at him, her purse falling from her hand to the tiled floor. “You’ve come back?” she exclaimed.
Ben nodded. Wiped a napkin across his mouth. “Yes. For a few more days.”
“Wow!” She pulled out a chair and slid onto it, pushing her little red purse across the table. “I had no idea.”
A pause followed. Silence. Ben and Travis sat with equal apprehension, passing glances over one another, unsure of what might transpire next. But Katy seemed to be caught up in her own world, in her own thoughts, that trace of a smile still playing across her magenta lips as her eyes focused on something other than what – or who – was presently in the room with her. Ben couldn’t believe that she wasn’t pouncing on him. Running her hands through his hair. Declaring her undying lust for him. Grabbing at his crotch.
Why was Katy Cooper being civil?
All of the scolding Ben had intended to douse on her with a fury settled into muted agitation as he watched her drift into la-la land, her thoughts clearly wrapped up somewhere else, with someone else, and not involving him. In her right hand, she twirled something around, something silver and copper, like a ring, spinning it between her fingers almost longingly. Taking notice of the object, Travis immediately reached across the table and snatched it away, alarming everyone.
“Hey!” Katy jumped up to grab it back. Came around the table and attempted to pry her brother’s hand open, though it was futile. He wasn’t going to let it go. “Give it back, fucker!”
Travis’ chair smacked to the floor behind him as he stood. “Where the hell did you get this?” he demanded. His eyes were spitting fire as he glared down at her.
“He gave it to me! As a gift!” Still, her fingers worked on prying his hand open, persistent but to no avail. Her next trick was to kick him in the shin, hard.
In rebuttal, Travis grabbed her by the elbow and dug his fingers deep into her flesh, bringing her up onto her toes. “When?” His jaw was firm, his scar agitated as though mirroring his anger.
Overcoming his initial shock, Ben scraped his chair back and got to his feet, preparing to intervene. “Hey, Travis, cool down…” he suggested, not understanding even a hint of what was going on other than the Cooper siblings were at it again.
But Travis ignored him. Gave his sister a little shake and closed in on her, his angered face inches away from her defiant-yet-equally-frightened one. “When did he give this to you, Kat?” he insisted. “Tell me, goddammit!”
Through a quivering lip, she replied meekly, “Just now.”
It was as though thunder cracked. Travis spun around and kicked his fallen chair across the tile, sending it careening to the wall. Then, in a flash, he was gone, disappearing through the dining room, slamming the front door behind him. In his absence: silence, despair, confusion. Ben stared at Katy. Katy stared back at him.
“What the hell was that all about?” he asked, wanting to know the circumstance before catching up with Travis. Wanting to be prepared for how to approach him.
Katy was trembling. Visibly shaken. It was similar to her reaction in the woods on snowboarding day, after she’d threatened Ben and he’d responded with violence, almost choking her. She knew how to pull the strings of agitation. “I don’t know…” she said.
“Bullshit,” Ben said. “What did he take from you, and who did you get it from?”
She hesitated, a tear silently falling down a soft cheek.
“Tell me!” he insisted.
“A ring. Eric’s ring. He gave it to me…”
“Eric? The intern from Wyoming?”
The name was all he needed to hear. Without another word, he brushed past the crying girl to follow the path of Travis’ hasty retreat, through the dining room, out the front door.
While still within earshot of the kitchen, he heard Katy whimper, “He gave it to me. To me…”