Saddle Up by CJ Bishop


“The Silence”

His fault? Heff couldn’t wrap his mind around that. “Garland…” Heff approached slowly, his legs shaky. “Why would you think that? They were hit by a drunk driver.”

Garland lowered his arms and rested his head in one hand as he stared blankly at the floor, tears trickling down his flushed face. He still looked fatigued, despite his outburst, and Heff wished he would go back to bed… and Heff with him. But they were in the middle of something important and they couldn’t stop now. It needed to be dealt with once and for all.

“They wouldn’t have been out on the road,” Garland whispered, “if not for me.”

Buttoning his shirt, Heff sat beside the downtrodden cowboy, close enough that their bodies touched. “What happened?” Heff pressed closer. “What did it have to do with the past?”

Garland sniffed. He didn’t look at Heff or respond to his closeness. “Mandy… she was going to call you and tell you…” His head turned away, tension gripping him as quiet sobs broke in his throat. “… the… the good news.”

Heff grew still, his breath stalling in his throat. “What… good news?”

The man was breaking down fast, his words cracking through his tears. “That… that she was going to… to have a baby.”


“What?” Heff pressed his hand to his mouth, eyes filling instantly. “She was… she was pregnant?” He curled forward, shoving his fingers into his hair, crying. He hadn’t thought the pain of losing Mandy and Frank could possibly hurt any worse… he was wrong. Sobs wracked his body, tearing him up inside. “She wanted a baby… so much,” Heff cried brokenly. “Why did this happen… why…” Crying harder, he crawled to his feet, hugging his straining body. “Why would God do this? Why would he give them everything—then take it all away?” He staggered toward the bunk and dropped on the edge of the bed, bent forward, face buried in his hands, the sobs coming faster and harder. “Why would he fucking do that?!”

“He didn’t.” Garland’s words came out hollow… empty. Heff raised his head and the man looked deflated… a shell of the man he once was.

“What…” Heff sniffed, his breath uneven and hitching his chest.

The cowboy swayed where he sat, eyes vacant… yet somehow haunted at the same time. “I did.”

Heff had difficulty processing the new information about his sister… and Garland’s confusing words. “I-I don’t understand,” Heff said thickly. “What’re you… what’re you talking about?”

Garland finally looked at him, unbearable anguish and self-loathing in his watery eyes. “It was my fault.” He shuddered. “I… I didn’t want to be there when she called you. I didn’t want to hear your voice when she put you on speaker. I was…” He looked away, jaw clenched as he choked on sobs. “I was trying so fucking hard to get over you… and I couldn’t… I fucking couldn’t.” He rubbed his eyes and his tear-streaked face. “So, I stayed in town… went to a birthday party at the tavern… drank until I was numb.

Heff returned to the hearth and sat down and took Garland’s hand, threading their fingers. The cowboy held his hand for a split second, then pulled from his grasp and stood, moving away from the young man.

“I got in a fight,” he rasped, his words thick with tears. “That prick—Henry Slade—he started saying things about… about you… and me. And I lost it and started beating the fuck out of him. I think because… what he said was true… and it reminded me all over again what a worthless piece of shit I was.” His back to Heff, he stopped moving, breath heavy, uneven. “And I didn’t need reminding… especially not from a fucker like him.”

Heff couldn’t stop shaking as he stared at the man’s back, the pain in his voice cutting at Heff’s heart.

“I was arrested,” Garland whispered. “Thrown in the drunk tank… and I called Frank to come bail me out. And Mandy came with him.”


Why did you tell him Mandy was pregnant—he didn’t need to know that!

He should’ve lied and said he didn’t know what Mandy wanted to tell him—or just fucking made something up.

Heff watched him from the hearth, arms wrapped tightly around himself, body trembling. Fresh tears glossed his eyes, but he didn’t speak… just waited for Garland to continue the horror story.

What choice did he have but to finish telling it? There was no going back from here. And when he was done… maybe Heff would agree that he was guilty of this unforgivable sin—and walk away for good.

Just get it the fuck over with.

His words rasped and voice turned raw as he spoke of his time in the car with Mandy and Frank… and Mandy’s talk of calling Heff when they arrived home… and Garland wanting out of the car… vomiting… and insisting on staying at a motel, citing he was too sick to ride home in the car.

“They didn’t want me to stay in town alone,” he mumbled through a clogged throat. “Afraid I would stir up more trouble with Slader… or someone else. They finally agreed to leave, once I promised to go straight to the motel and stay there till morning.” He sniffed and swallowed hard. “I was…” He cleared his throat as it closed tight. “I was supposed to call and let them know when I was at the motel, but I passed out as soon as I laid down.” Garland wandered to the window and looked out into the storm as snow whipped against the glass panes. “I woke up an hour later,” he whispered with a tremor. “I called Frank, but… he didn’t answer.” His chin trembled. “Mandy didn’t answer her phone, either… so I left her a message.”

A message she never got.

He gripped the counter, shoulders hunching as the guilt crippled him. “They… they were already gone when I called.” Sobs gripped him, curling him forward. Over by the fire, Heff quietly cried.

You fucking FUCK—you did this to him! You took EVERYTHING from him!

Heff quieted and cleared his throat. “Garland…” he whispered thickly. “… you can’t do this to yourself… it wasn’t your fault—”

It was!” Garland turned around and came back to the fireplace in a fury, looming over Heff. “It was my goddamn fault!” he cried. “They were in town because of me!I fucking killed them!” His strength gave out and he landed on his knees before the hearth, falling forward, his head in his arms. “They’re gone… they’re not coming back… and it’s my fault… my fault… I took them from you, Heff… I took them from me…”

Heff pulled him into his arms and Garland’s forehead sank against the boy’s chest. Heff hugged his head, lips pressed to his hair. “You couldn’t have known what would happen,” Heff cried softly. “You can’t predict what happens in life… none of us can.” He hugged him tighter, stroking his hair. “It’s not your fault.”

Garland closed his eyes, feeling the rapid beat of the young man’s heart. “If I’d just told you the truth from the start,” he sobbed shakily. “Just talked to you, instead of…” He shuddered. “You would’ve never left… and I wouldn’t have been in the tavern that night… trying to drink away your memory.” His arms went around Heff, and he clung to the young man, shaking and crying. “I should’ve… I should’ve never made love to you that night… that’s where it started, and this… this is where it ended… with Mandy and Frank gone.”

“If that night is what started a chain reaction to… this,” Heff sobbed, “then it’s as much my fault as yours… maybe more my fault. I came to your room… instead of braving it out and sleeping in my own bed. I pushed you to make love to me… even when you didn’t want to go that far. You can’t blame yourself… without blaming me, too… that wouldn’t be fair.”

Garland raised his head. The boy swam before him. “No, Heff… you take no blame for this.”

His breath shuddering, Heff cupped the man’s tear-streaked face. “And neither do you. The only one to blame is the irresponsible person who thought it was a good idea to get behind the wheel and drive drunk.” His chin quivered. “He took them from us. He is the only one guilty of their deaths.”

Garland went still, staring into the boy’s anguished eyes. “Henry Slader was the drunk driver,” he whispered. “The man I assaulted… and pissed off.” His head sank down against Heff’s chest again as cold shivers ran through him. “What if… what if it wasn’t an accident? What if he thought I was in the car with them? He knew our family… he would’ve known Frank would come bail me out. He said I would pay for what I did to him.” Sobs shook him. “What if he hit them on purpose—because of our fight?”

Heff kissed his head, shaking and crying. “You don’t know that’s what happened,” he choked softly. “What did… what did Slader say after the accident? Did he even remember hitting them?”

Lifting his head a fraction, Garland stared over the boy’s shoulder at the flickering flames. “He didn’t say anything,” Garland mumbled, his throat raw. “He didn’t survive the crash.”


Heff had known very little about the accident except that his sister and brother-in-law had died. After that, nothing else mattered. He hadn’t known that the drunk driver had died as well. Heff thought it should give him some sense of justice that the “villain” didn’t walk away with his life. But it didn’t, not really. Maybe later, he would experience the justice, but for now… it didn’t bring back Mandy and Frank. It didn’t ease the pain of their loss.

“Then you don’t know that any of that is true.” Heff raised Garland’s head and looked him in the eyes. “More likely, it was just an accident. A drunk driver on the road… he could’ve hit anyone. And even if…” Heff hung his head for a moment, breath catching. He looked up. “Even if it was intentional… that’s still on him, not you. I don’t give a damn if you and he had a fight, you are not responsible for his actions. You…” A quiet sob broke Heff’s voice. “You can’t carry this for the rest of your life, Garland. You can’t. Do you really think Mandy and Frank are looking down on you from heaven, blaming you? They’re not. And they wouldn’t want this. They loved you, so much. They want you to remember the good times, the things that make you smile. They don’t want this. In your heart, you know that’s true.”

Garland wilted against him, crying on his shoulder. “I feel like I took everything away from you… everything good in your life. How… how am I supposed to live with that?”

Heff combed his fingers through the cowboy’s hair, warm tears rolling down his face. “You didn’t take Mandy and Frank away from me,” he whispered. “And all the other that happened between us… it can be fixed.” He drew Garland deeper into his arms. “Everything good isn’t gone from my life.” Heff lifted the man’s face and kissed him softly on the lips. “You’re still here.” His chin trembled. “When I thought the storm might take you from me, too… I didn’t want to be alive… I didn’t want to be in this world without you.”

Crumbling beneath his grief, Garland hung his head and closed his eyes. “I-I don’t know if I can look at all of this the way you do…” His body strained with sobs. “… it feels… like everything is my fault… and I don’t know how to stop feeling that way.”

“It won’t happen overnight.” Heff lifted his face again and stroked his cheeks. “But it will happen. And I’ll stay right here with you to make sure it happens. Together… we’ll make life good again. And the day will come when we’ll be able to talk about Mandy and Frank… and smile and laugh and remember all the good times we spent together. We’ll always miss them, but it won’t always hurt this bad… because the good memories will ease that pain. And when we think of them… we’ll imagine them in heaven…” His throat worked and vision blurred. “… with their baby.” Heff touched his head to Garland’s brow. “Everything will be okay.” He kissed him deeply. “We got this, baby… we got each other.”


Garland sat back on his heels and lifted Heff from the hearth, into his lap. He kissed his face, his mouth, his throat, peeling open the flannel shirt to lay kisses on his chest. The boy moaned softly and curled his legs around Garland’s waist, hugging his neck as he pulled himself up a bit, resting his soft, bare cheeks on the man’s growing arousal.

Groaning deeply, Garland held the young man to him, hands slipping beneath the back of his shirt, palms flat against his warm shoulder blades. Their faces nearly touching, Heff’s warm breath shuddered between Garland’s parted lips.

“Tell me,” Heff whispered unevenly.


“What I’ve wanted to hear since the moment I met you.” His slender hips rotated gently, swiveling his soft ass on the man’s erection, trapped within its cotton cage.

Garland breathed a little faster. He kissed Heff on the mouth, drawing out the tender passion, then whispered against his trembling lips, “I love you.” He shifted and laid Heff on the floor, brushing the flannel shirt away from his body, and looked upon him with deep longing. “I’ve always loved you.” Garland leaned down, covering the boy’s body with his own as he slowly stripped off his briefs. “I never stopped loving you.” He wet his hard member with saliva. “I never will.” He entered the boy.

Heff released a stuttered gasp, followed by a tender moan, and wrapped around the cowboy with arms, legs… heart, and soul.

The two young men made love in the firelight while the storm raged through the night outside the cabin walls. They moved to the bunk before either climaxed and finished making love beneath the warm blankets, their cries of passion echoing through the small cabin.

Lying together in the afterglow, Heff’s head on Garland’s damp, fevered chest, the cowboy played with the boy’s damp strands as neither spoke but just lay there breathing… their love for one another evident on each uneven exhale.

Garland gazed at the low ceiling as Heff’s words slowly began to sink in. Everything will be okay. The pain of his loss remained. The guilt remained. But for the first time in a very long time… there was a beacon of light in the storm, guiding him toward home, and just like that… he was no longer lost.

He kissed the boy’s damp hair… and smiled. It felt good to smile again. “You awake?” he murmured.

“Mm-hm.” Heff wriggled closer, drawing the covers further up their bodies.

“Do you remember that day we rode up to the pool?” Garland asked quietly.

Heff smiled against his chest. “Yes,” he whispered. “That was the best day.”

“Yeah, it was.” Garland pressed his lips to the young man’s head. “I thought about it all the time when you were gone… even when I didn’t want to.”

“I did, too,” Heff said with emotion.

“Do you remember what we talked about?”

“Like it was yesterday.”

Garland’s chest hitched with a soft chuckle. “So, you remember what you said you’d do with the ranch if it was yours?”

Heff laughed softly. “Yeah.”

“Would you still like to do that?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Well… the ranch is yours now.”


“Semantics,” Garland murmured. “I liked your reason for the idea.”

“Ogling hot cowboys?”

Garland chuckled low. “Besides that. I think…” He sighed contentedly. “I think it’s an idea worth considering.”

Raising his head, Heff stared at him. “Are you serious? You would… you would turn the ranch into a… gay dude ranch?”

Garland smiled and kissed him. “I can’t think of one good reason not to… and plenty of good reasons to do it.”

“And… what would the people around here think of that?”

Garland shrugged, the corner of his mouth turning up in a crooked smile. “Frankly, my dear… I don’t give a damn.”

Heff laughed and kissed his lips. “Frankly, my dear… I don’t either.”

Settling into each other’s arms, Garland held Heff close and looked up at the roof of the cabin. “Do you think they knew?”


“Mandy and Frank,” Garland murmured. “Do you think they knew why you left… and why I took it so badly?”

Heff swallowed. “Maybe. I could never hide things from Mandy. I thought I hid this… but I was probably wrong. She never stopped trying to get me to come back to the ranch. Maybe it wasn’t just for her.”

Garland laid his head against Heff. “I think they knew if something ever happened to them… how much we would need each other.”

“And since we were both too stubborn to admit it…”

“The clause was born.” Garland sighed. “You ever notice how they were always right?”

Heff smiled. “Yeah, I noticed.”

Garland fell silent, listening to the night. “Hear that?” he whispered.

Heff was quiet a moment, then, “I don’t hear anything.”

Garland exhaled softly. “I don’t, either.” He lifted Heff’s chin and kissed him as outside the cabin… and inside the man… the chaos had silenced. “The storm is over.”