As the youngest son, Joe’d been out riding fence for ten years, four years on his own. He remembered the first time his dad had nodded at him, handing him his reigns, no horse of his own, “you’re old enough,” was all he said. That day had been the proudest of his life. Delegated the job of maintaining the fence all on his own, he was sure he was just a few short months away from even more important jobs.
He spent that first morning taking extra care, looking over every section of fence as though they’d hired someone to put it in, even though he knew dad and brother put in the fence themselves a couple years earlier. Still, he rode the line occasionally jumping down to kick a post or yank on a length of barbed wire. He got home later than usual due to his thoroughness and instead of finding dad at breakfast as he’d imagined, regaling him with the story of sections that might could need a tightening in the weeks to come his imaginary dad beaming at him and patting him on the back, he found him instead out in the barn critiquing the mucking of the stalls.
“You know you gotta get all the way to them corners at least once a week. I can tell from here they ain’t been done in more’n that and you got a foal comin’ soon. Call me when you think you’re done,” he was saying over his shoulder as he walked away clenching and unclenching his gloved hands.
He was mad as Joe’d ever seen him, but Joe was sure he could change that around with his news about the fence. “Pop?” he called. He saw his dad raise his head and catch sight of him.
“You get lost out there? Your chores been waitin’ and breakfast was an hour ago,” his dad said.
Joe hung is head, no longer thinking his story was such a good one, sure now that his best bet was to get moving, “no, Pop. You need me to muck the coup after I feed the pigs, it’s been a week?”
“Pigs’ve been fed, they cain’t wait til lunch for breakfast. Why ain’t your sister mucking the coup?”
“She’s at that Granny Ulrich’s learnin’ the baby business this week,” Joe answered, “I don’t mind doin’ the coup unless you need me somewheres else?”
“Damn that ol’,” his dad grumbled before shifting his weight to his left leg and pulling off his gloves to slap them across his right thigh, “alright, you do the coup and then I need you up chuckin’ hay with your brother.”
Joe nodded, “yessir,” he said as he turned to get to work.
“You ate your breakfast?” his dad asked his back.
“Nah, too late, I got work to do,” Joe said, hanging his head.
“Git in there an’ eat your food fore your mama chaps my ass, the coup’ll wait.”
“Yessir,” Joe repeated, walking quickly towards the house. He got to the porch, knocked his boots against the deck steps, sure to get every bit of muck off of them before going inside. The screen door slammed behind him even as he was reaching out to stop it.
“You clean your boots?” his mama called from another room.
“Yes ma’am,” he called.
“Joe? That you?”
“Yes ma’am,” Joe answered.
“Where you been?” she asked as she came into the kitchen, a load of clean laundry in her arms, “your daddy was worried sick. I was the one convinced him you were old enough to ride fence alone, he about laid into me when you didn’t turn up for sausage.” She set the laundry down on the edge of the large wooden table, immaculately clean that served as both dining room table, family meeting space, and Sunday prayer circle.
Joe picked up his head at this, “sausage? You made sausage, mama?” he couldn’t contain his excitement, nor his hope that anyone had left some for him.
“Awe baby, go on, set down. I made you up a plate early so you’ve got a little of everything. Even without your sister here this mornin’ we got no leftovers.”
“Thank you!” Joe said as she laid a dishcloth covered plate in front of him then removed the cloth to reveal a heap of scrambled eggs, a couple of pieces of thick cut toasted bread, the butter on them making them soggy, and four sausage patties. He grabbed up his fork and started shoveling the eggs onto the bread, then stuffing the bread in his mouth.
“You eat like you didn’t get steak for dinner and I know you did cause I made it my own self. What’s got you in such a state?”
“Gotta get to the coup and the hay,” Joe said, his mouth full, the words sounding nearly like gibberish, but he knew she’d understand. Everyone talked like daddy ran the ranch, but Joe knew it was mama. Nothing happened on that place she didn’t know about.
“Joe Braithe, don’t talk with your mouth full, I know for a fact you weren’t raised in a barn,” she folded the dishcloth that’d kept his food from getting too stale as she continued, “I don’t want you in the coup today. Your brother cain’t recollect how to much a stall he oughta be the one cleaning the coup, a little reminder about how things work around here. You get to the hay after you eat but tell your daddy I need to see him before you get started.”
“Yes ma’am,” Joe said showing the last forkful of food into his mouth, chewing and rising from the table at the same time. He picked up his plate to take to the sink.
“Leave it, baby,” mama said, “tell your daddy to come in here and get to work.”
He swallowed, loudly and with a grimace, that bite had been too big, “yes, mama.” He kissed her cheek and flew out the door, grabbing it before it banged this time, for which he knew his mama would be pleased, and went in search of his dad.
The best way to find his dad was not to walk around the ranch, he’d figured that out long ago. You could walk round that ranch a hundred times and never find his daddy cause he’d always be a few steps ahead of you. Nope, fastest way to find daddy was to stand still, be quiet, open your mouth a bit and close your eyes to improve your hearing, and then just stand there awhile. It took less time and energy than walking the ranch and it worked every time.
Daddy was not a quiet man unless he was working a horse. Then he had all the calm and quiet you could want. Working a horse his daddy could stand immobile for hours at a time if necessary. Working a horse his daddy could knicker with a voice that made you wanna weep with it’s sweet love.
But daddy wouldn’t be working a horse today. Nope, he’d be doing something that required muscle, something that required sweat, and something that more than likely required swearing. In fact, Joe was pretty sure he knew exactly where his daddy was, but the stop, listen, and wait trick was worth a couple minutes to be sure.
“You don’t get that band on them balls in two more seconds and I’mma let you do all these calves on your own.”
Yup. Castration time. Daddy was down with the calves, and based on daddy’s tone and word choice it was Earl down there with him. Earl had been with the ranch for as long as Joe could remember. He wasn’t old although he was older than daddy, and he wasn’t young although he was a lick younger than Granny Ulrich. Earl was hard to figure out. He had all the patience of a broody hen when it came to helping Joe learn the ranch, and all the impatience of an unbroke horse getting a taste for it’s first saddle when it came to damn near anything else. He could castrate those calves all on his own in about the same time as he could do it with help, but for whatever reason he asked daddy to help him every year.
Joe was pretty sure Earl asked for help because he knew it made his daddy queasy. Joe wasn’t sure why, he understood that the basic anatomy of a calf and a human were the same, and he could understand how the thought of having your own scrotum rubber banded could cause you to feel a bit pained, but it wasn’t any different than any other chore on the farm, really. Killing the chickens wasn’t any fun. Debudding the kids was no picnic, especially with the mama goats wailing at them from the other side of the fence. Killing the pigs was just about the worst cause of the smell and the heat and the squealing.
If it were up to Joe, daddy could go move the hay and he’d stay and help Earl with the calves. But he knew Earl would never suggest it, and would probably fight him on it a little bit. He’d give in though, Earl would, he knew Joe was better suited to help, but he’d probably make a show of it, enjoying watching daddy squirm at the idea of having to stay when he was so eager to go.
“Daddy?” Joe asked, approaching the two men and the little calf that had just been banded and was jumping up and walking off with a bit of a buck in his step, unsure about this new addition to his body. His dad looked up at him, hopeful that he was about to get a reprieve. “Mama needs you up at the house.”
“Well hell, Earl,” daddy said, unable to contain the glee in his voice, “I guess I gotta go for a bit. I’ll be back though, if you’re not too fast, I might still be able to help you here.”
“I can help Earl, daddy,” Joe said.
“Well sure you can, son,” daddy said, proud of his boy for stepping in but even more grateful that he could step out. “I’ll be back soon’s I can,” he said, dusting off his jeans and walking off the way Joe’d come.
~~~That’s one hour~~~