With a frown, I pulled on the board I had just nailed into place. It had to be secure, or that damn horse would get out again. I really wanted to sell the fucking thing, but he was our best stud. He used to run in the Derby, and the colts and fillies he produced were in high demand. People paid top dollar for any progeny of a champion, which my brother Duro and I desperately needed. Especially now.
I didn’t want to be out in the hot as fuck barn repairing a stall gate. I didn’t want to have to deal with crops and ranch hands and finances. Even though Duro and I started helping out since before we were teens, it was different now. What I wanted was to have my parents back. Fucking stupid drunk drivers. The first time my parents had gone on a date in six months, and some guy decided to get hammered and drive on the wrong side of the highway.
My younger brother by two years, Duro, was faring no better than I was. He went through the motions of taking care of the ranch and shit, just like me, but some of the brightness was gone from his eyes. I would give anything to see it back again.
Our ranch hands, Spartacus, Varro, Barca, and Crixus were, by no means, unaffected by our parents’ death as well. They tried to do more to help in the days following, but there was only so much four men could do on a five hundred acre ranch. The plain fact was we needed more hands, but Duro and I didn’t have the money to hire additional help.
After the funeral, we went through the books and found we were barely making a profit. The past year had been pretty tough. A tornado came through in the Spring, which damaged some equipment, and we lost some livestock. The repairs and replacements made a huge dent in our savings. Right after the storm our folks died, so Duro and I were left to recover alone.
Three months had passed since our world had been turned upside down, and we were doing a little better since all the repairs and shit were done, but it still wasn’t enough. Harvest time was coming up, and when it did, I had no fucking clue how the six of us would get all the work finished in time.
When I was finally satisfied with the stall gate, I headed back to the main house to start dinner. As I washed up in the mudroom, I heard the distinct sound of kissing coming from the kitchen.
Duro and Spartacus.
They thought I didn’t know, but I had for a couple weeks now. There really was no reason for them to hide it, but I think Duro did because he thought I would fire Spartacus. I couldn’t do that, and didn’t want to. He was a damn good ranch hand, and he made Duro happy. I actually envied their affections toward each other. It had been quite a long time since I had a man of my own.
As it turned out, Duro and I both came out to our parents by accident. We had known about each other’s preferences for a while but Mom and Dad had no idea. Until they walked in from an early date to find both Duro and I making out with two guys from school in our rooms. We were mortified. They thought it was funny...at first.
After they kicked out our boyfriends, Duro and I got a huge lecture on having boys over when they weren’t home. My brother and I were shocked that they didn’t say anything about us being gay. Mom and Dad never did say anything, and when we did bring home boys, they always showed the utmost respect to them.
“You two finished?” I called as I walked into the kitchen. Duro, red-faced as hell, turned back around to the sink and started scrubbing potatoes like his life depended on it. Spartacus smiled and started to cut up onions on the cutting board.
Chuckling, I went to the fridge and took out a bottle of water and the chicken for dinner. “You know, you guys don’t have to hide. I’ve known for weeks,” I said, closing the door and setting the meat and water on the counter.
Duro whipped his head around. “How did you know?”
“‘Cause I saw you two kissing in the hayloft when you were supposed to be stacking bales,” I smirked, then opened the chicken and dumped it in a big bowl so I could season it for the grill.
“Shit,” Duro huffed.
“Oh, shut up. I don’t have a problem with it. If dickhead here makes you happy, go for it. Just do me a favor. No fucking during work hours.”
Duro choked and Spartacus laughed. “No problem, boss,” he said happily.
“Spartacus,” Duro said in a low tone, “please go get us some corn for the grill. Twelve ears.”
“I’m on it,” the man said, walking over to kiss my brother on the cheek. “Be right back, honey,” he teased, then left the room.
I moved to the sink to wash my hands after handling the chicken. Duro was staring into the other side of the sink, his face beet red.
“Oh, come on, brother.” I nudged him. “Don’t be so embarrassed. I meant what I said about Spartacus. If he makes you happy, go for it.”
“That’s all well and good, Agron, and thank you, but you two don’t have to tease me about it,” he answered.
Laughing, I replied, “You better get used to that. When the rest of the hands find out...if they don’t know already.”
“Hmm, you have a point,” he said as he turned off the water. He started wrapping the potatoes in foil. “It’s just weird, you know? Getting caught and all that. And, I kind of feel strange.”
“Strange how?” I moved to get my water and took a big drink.
Duro turned to face me, his face a mask of doubt and sadness. “Is it wrong, Agron, to be happy when I’m still missing Mom and Dad so much?”
“Hell no, it’s not wrong, Duro! I envy you for having someone besides me to share your grief with. You and Spartacus are a good match, even if we don’t have our parents anymore.” I moved closer, wanting him to really listen and understand what I was trying to say. “You can’t let the accident come between you two. You hear me?”
“Yeah, I hear you, and I won’t,” he responded with a small smile. “Thank you, brother.”
“Anytime,” I said, and hugged him briefly. I left him alone with his thoughts and went out to light the grill.
Dinner was the one meal where the four hands, Duro, and I set aside work and any other problems in favor of normal conversation. Whether it be about a television show we saw, or a trip to the grocery store, it didn’t matter. To me, it was important that we had that kind of talk. It made us feel like regular guys, sharing a meal and shooting the shit.
“Going out Friday night, Crixus?” I asked as I took another piece of corn out of the bowl.
“I don’t know. I was thinking about just hanging around the bunkhouse.”
“Party animal,” Varro snorted.
“What will you be doing then?” Crixus retorted. “Going out to break another woman’s heart?”
“Funny, asshole,” Varro said. “No, I have a hot date. I’m gonna give my bed some ass and my pillow some head.”
All of our laughter rang around the room.
“Mark my words,” Varro continued. “You guys will be sorry for not getting the extra sleep before Saturday, when haying starts.” He pointed at us all with his fork, before he continued to shovel in his food.
“Spartacus?” I asked. “You have plans? I’m staying here and vegging on the couch.”
“Well,” Spartacus said slowly, “I want to take Duro out, if he’ll agree.”
Crixus burst into laughter. “Pay up, Barca! I told you, and you didn’t believe me!” Duro stared, surprised, as Barca fished in his pocket, handing Crixus a twenty.
“Told you they probably knew, brother,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, you did,” he agreed with a small smile. “Spartacus, I’d be happy to go out with you Friday night.”
Spartacus gave Duro a goofy smile and took his hand. It was sweet to see them like that, even if we all busted their balls about it. Their new relationship made me happy for my brother, yet it held a little sadness as well. I wished to have someone I could share thoughts and touches with as a lover.
The mundane conversation and teasing continued as we finished our meal. When we were done, everyone pitched in to clean the kitchen, then the hands left for the bunkhouse. Duro went with them, to tell Spartacus goodnight, I figured.
I took the time alone to take a quick shower and get dressed in more comfortable clothes. When I was done, I went into the living room and turned on the television. Idly flipping through the channels, I decided on a dumb slasher movie. It was only for background noise, really. My thoughts were elsewhere.
No matter how I tried to distract myself, my mind wandered to the upcoming harvest and our lack of hands. We only had one acre of corn, thank God, but there were two colts and one filly to train, along with the regular chores. There was also all the hay we had to make. I had a grim feeling we were going to lose profit if we didn’t make some changes.
The phone rang, scaring the shit out of me. I fumbled on the side table for it, and quickly answered.
“Brandt Ranch. Agron here.”
“Hello, Agron. This is Officer Williams from County Jail,” the man said. My mind immediately went into overdrive, wondering if maybe I had forgotten to pay an outstanding ticket or something. As far as I could remember, I hadn’t gotten any. Maybe Duro had and forgot to tell me. Shit.
“Agron?” Officer Williams asked again, and I mentally slapped myself. Get it together, idiot.
“I’m here, Officer,” I said, and cleared my suddenly dry throat. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem,” the officer said cheerfully. “The warden and guards had a meeting, and we think we might have a solution to your problem.”
“Problem?” I asked, confused.
“Yes. Word gets around in a small town, Mr. Brandt,” he chuckled. “A few mornings ago, one of the other officers heard your neighbor talking about your need for extra ranch hands in the diner. Word came back to us, and that’s what brought on the meeting. Anyhow, the warden has been wanting to start a community service program for some of the best behaved inmates, and we all thought you guys could be our ‘guinea pigs’. It would help all of us.”
Wait. Was he saying what I thought he was? The warden had been friends with our parents, having bought a horse from them for his granddaughter, but I never thought he liked them so much to do something like what the officer seemed to be suggesting.
“You mean to tell me you want to send inmates here, for eight hours a day, to work for free?”
“That’s the plan,” he answered. I could hear the smile in his voice.
“But...they’re inmates,” I blurted, my mind filled with images of huge, ugly tattooed fuckers causing riots and shit. Officer Williams chuckled.
“Yes, they are,” he replied. “But remember, they will only be the best behaved of the lot we have. Also, we will send a guard for each to keep watch over them, just in case.”
Damn. The idea sounded intriguing.
“How many?” I asked.
“Would four be enough?”
“Holy shit,” I said, then facepalmed myself. “Sorry, Officer. That sounds great. Then Duro and I would be able to get what we need finished before winter sets in.”
“Is that a yes?” the officer laughed.
“Well, I have to talk to Duro and the other hands,” I answered. “Can I call you tomorrow and let you know for sure?”
“You sure can,” Officer Williams replied. “My extension is four-one-two.”
“Okay, thank you so much,” I said, scribbling the officer’s name and extension on the pad of paper kept on the table.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Brandt. Speak to you tomorrow.”
We hung up, and I sat back on the couch. My mind was going ninety miles an hour. It seemed too good to be true to have four extra hands, free of charge. I was a little worried that they were convicted criminals, but the officer said they would be well behaved and guarded.
I really didn’t think Duro would be against the idea, but I had to check with the other hands about the situation. They would be working next to the men sent from the prison, and I refused to have my hands be uncomfortable in their home.
Instead of relaxing me, the thought that there may be a way out of the hole Duro and I were in had me wired. I wandered around the house for a few minutes before getting a beer from the fridge. As I sipped, I found myself in the bedroom my parents once slept in.
I walked over to the empty closet first. It still looked so weird without their clothes hanging in the neat rows Mom always made sure they were in. Duro and I had given all of them to the Goodwill and various churches about a month ago. We figured if they could help people, it was what our parents would have wanted.
Something on the top shelf caught my eye. It was a shoe box. I took it and sat on the edge of the bed before opening the nearly tattered thing. When I did, sadness rocketed through me so hard I had to set my beer on the nightstand to keep from dropping it.
Inside were pictures of me and Duro. I dumped them out on the bed so I could get a good look. One in particular caught my eye, and I picked it up to have a closer look. It was a Christmas photo, taken when I was about eight and Duro six. We were on Santa’s lap at the mall, and while I was grinning happily, Duro was screaming.
I remembered that day. After we had the picture taken, Mom took us to get ice cream. Tears filled my eyes at the memory of Mom wiping the tears from Duro’s cheeks with a napkin while he held onto her. Fuck, she was such a good mom.
Grabbing my beer, I took a long drink and swiped at my eyes. Picking another photo, I smiled to see an image of me and Duro camping in the backyard. We were twelve and ten. Dad had even built a small campfire, and we roasted marshmallows. He sat in the tent with us after, telling us ghost stories. I remembered thinking he was silly, because we were in our backyard, and bears didn’t wander in people’s yards. They liked the woods.
“What are you doing?” Duro asked, startling me. I dropped the photo and looked up. He was standing in the doorway, looking pretty rumpled. I was too emotional to pick on him.
“I found a box of photos in the top of Mom and Dad’s closet,” I told him quietly. “Come see.”
He joined me on the bed, and we leafed through the pictures silently for a moment. Duro laughed and took one, holding it out for me.
“Remember this?” he asked.
Oh, God. Yes, I did. For Duro’s thirteenth Christmas, we got a trampoline. It took Dad and us almost the whole of Christmas Day to put the damn thing together. Then, of course, we had to use it.
Bundled up in our thickest coats, gloves, and hats, Duro and I played for hours. The image my brother held was of the two of us happily jumping on our amazing Christmas present. We were in the air with our hands clasped, legs kicking out and smiles huge. A beautiful sunset was visible in the background. Dad took that picture, and right after, he had to rush Duro to the hospital because he fell off and broke his pinky finger.
Duro gave me a smug smirk, and I shook my head.
“Oh no, shithead. That was not my fault,” I said.
“Oh hell yes, it was!” he exclaimed. “You tripped me!”
“Did not,” I huffed.
We broke out in laughter at our silly argument. Duro would forever blame that broken finger on me.
“These are pretty great,” he sighed when once we controlled ourselves.
“Yeah, they are,” I replied.
He was quiet for a moment before asking, “What should we do with them?”
“I think we should leave them where they are,” I said. “Then, when we’re missing Mom and Dad, we can come and remember the good times.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “That’s a good idea.”
Hefting myself off of the bed, I clapped Duro on the shoulder.
“I’m heading to bed, brother,” I told him. “Night.”
“Night,” he responded. “Oh, Agron?”
“Yeah?” I asked from the doorway.
Giving him a smile, I nodded. “Love you too, Duro.”