Saddle Up by CJ Bishop
To Heff’s surprise, he awoke from the most restful sleep he’d had since receiving news of his sister’s death. Having fallen asleep in a heightened state of panic, he was sure he’d awaken filled with tension and thoroughly exhausted as he had many times before. But this morning, he felt genuinely rested.
Heff left the bed and stepped over to the window, shocked to find mere inches of snow outside, he’d anticipated much more after last night. Apparently, the storm had consisted of mainly wind, thunder, and lightning.
Turning from the window, Heff spotted his suitcase on the floor just inside the bedroom door. He hadn’t brought it in from the Jeep yesterday, his mind elsewhere. By the time he’d scurried to his room last night, he wasn’t thinking about a change of clothes.
But there it was.
Garland brought it in?
Heff sat down on the bed, drawing the blankets over his legs, and thought about the scene in the barn. He’d never seen Garland cry before. At the funeral, he stood still as a statue, eyes shielded by dark sunglasses, and let Heff give the eulogy. Heff barely made it through without crumbling, but somehow, he’d managed. Maybe it was the shock numbing the senses that allowed him to speak of his sister and brother-in-law without a torrent of tears. Had the funeral been today… he would’ve cried the whole way through.
Though Garland knew Mandy and Frank’s friends far better than Heff, it was Heff who greeted and thanked them for being there. Garland hardly moved at all, and merely nodded when folks offered their condolences. Heff understood. For some, just trying to speak in a moment of grief would cause a domino effect that ultimately brought them crashing down. He thought Garland was using every ounce of strength just to stay on his feet.
Heff’s eyes stung as he again thought of Garland in the barn, hugging the hound dog, and finally letting it all go. There was a time, long ago, when Garland might have turned to Heff for comfort in a situation like this. But those days were gone forever. Garland would never expose his pain to Heff. He would never smile at Heff again… or be his friend. And that fact made all the good memories he had of him and Garland more priceless… and more painful. Still, he clung to them. No matter how badly Garland treated him now, Heff would always remember the man he used to be… the friend he used to be.
“So, you’re turning the big one-six this weekend, huh?” Garland spoke over his shoulder to Heff, who rode double with him on the quarter horse gelding.
“Uh-huh.” Heff gripped the man’s belt, fingers tucked around the leather strap. He wanted to wrap his arms around Garland and bury his face in his hair, inhale his cologne, but he was afraid Garland would object. He teased Heff constantly and playfully hugged him a lot, but it wasn’t real—he didn’t actually “like” Heff… the way Heff liked him. Heff didn’t think Garland was even gay, though he never saw him go on dates with girls.
“Sweet sixteen.” Garland grinned. “How… sweet.”
“Stop it.” Heff smiled, his face warming. “Sweet sixteen is a girl thing. For a boy, it’s just another year older. It isn’t anything special.”
“What?” Garland squawked. “Like hell, it isn’t special for a boy. Sixteen is the home stretch to becoming a full-fledged man. Two more years, baby, and you’ll be all grown up.”
Heff shivered pleasantly; Garland acknowledged that too? It meant he was paying attention… right? The thought warmed Heff inside. Was he as eager as Heff for Heff’s eighteenth birthday?
Stop doing this to yourself—he was just pointing out the obvious. He isn’t waiting for the chance to jump your bones.
Heff kind of wished he was. His dreams of Garland lately were getting hotter—and Garland wasn’t helping. Every time he whipped off his shirt while doing chores around the ranch… Heff had to find ways to hide his reaction. More and more every day he thought about Garland being his first… his only. He didn’t want to be with anyone else, ever.
“You’re awful quiet back there,” Garland observed. “A penny for your thoughts.”
No way Heff would admit his thoughts—not even for millions of pennies.
“Thinking about what you want for your birthday?”
Heff smiled. “I don’t know. I guess.”
“What do you want more than anything else?”
You, Heff thought. “I don’t know.”
“Sure, you do. Tell me and maybe I’ll get it for you.”
You’re the only one who can.
“I… I don’t know,” Heff said. “I’ll like anything I get.”
Garland half twisted in the saddle as the gelding plodded forward, unfazed. “Come on. There’s got to be something extra-special that you want.” Garland craned his head to the side and squinted.
I think I love you. Heff’s heart raced as the thought jolted him, though it wasn’t the first time he thought he might be in love with Garland Zayne. But this time, the thought felt stronger, more… serious.
Heff ducked his head, afraid of Garland seeing his heart in his eyes. “I-I’ll have to think about it some more,” he mumbled.
“Well, don’t think too long.” Garland faced forward again. “This weekend is coming up fast.”
“Hey.” Garland slowed the gelding and pointed ahead. “We’re coming to a steep part in the trail, better hold on tighter. Put your arms around me so you don’t slide off the back.” He chuckled.
Heff stifled his excitement and let loose of the belt, slipping his arms around Garland’s waist, lacing his fingers against the man’s hard stomach. The day was warm, and the heat of Garland’s skin burned through his t-shirt into Heff’s hands, his back hot as a furnace as Heff pressed his cheek between his shoulder blades.
I could ride like this for hours.
Heff closed his eyes and smiled, breathing in Garland’s musk cologne until he felt drunk on the man’s scent.
“Just over the hill is the spot I was telling you about. A cool shady spot by a pool. The pool isn’t very big but it’s deep enough to cool off in.”
Heff was in no hurry to get there; he didn’t want to let go of Garland. But moments later, they were over the steep hump in the trail and approaching the pool of water. Heff reluctantly loosened his hold when Garland reined in the gelding.
“Here.” Garland reached around and hooked Heff’s elbow, lowering him to the ground, then hopped out of the saddle and wiped his brow. “Damn, it’s hot.”
You sure are, Heff moaned to himself, a bit self-conscious about his slight erection.
Garland tethered the horse in the shade then turned back to Heff. “No cause to dilly-dally.” He grinned and stripped off his shirt. “I need to cool off.” He unfastened his belt and jeans, kicked off his boots, and stepped out of his Wranglers.
Heff tried his best not to stare, but this was the first time he’d seen Garland in his underwear. He’d seen him in swimming trunks, but never his skivvies—and these hugged the man’s goods much snugger.
“Don’t be shy.” Garland teased. “If you don’t strip down, I’m gonna throw you in fully clothed. Your choice.”
When Heff continued to hesitate—not because he didn’t want to get half-naked with the man, but because he was growing harder by the second—Garland rushed him, scooping Heff onto his shoulder.
“Fully clothed it is!”
Heff squealed as Garland raced to the edge of the grass and launched into the water, taking them both below the surface. When they came up, Heff splashed him in the face, laughing. “You jerk!”
“I warned you!”
Garland was right about the pool not being very big. There was hardly swimming room without the two of them bumping into each other. Garland started a water fight that evolved into a playful wrestling match, seeing who could dunk the other. Heff was at a disadvantage, as he was smaller and weaker than Garland. When the man dunked him for the second time, he accidentally gulped some water and came up coughing.
“Shit.” Garland grabbed him, his humor vanishing, replaced by concern. “Heff, are you okay? Shit, I wasn’t trying to drown you.”
Heff laughed and coughed. “I know. It was my fault. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.”
Garland cupped his wet face, thumbs stroking his cheeks. “Still, I’m sorry.” He stared into Heff’s eyes with genuine remorse.
“It’s okay, really.” Heff ducked his head, coughing a couple more times. “I’m fine.”
“Okay. Good.” Garland kissed his head and released him. “Come on, let’s go lay on the grass.”
When they climbed out of the pool, Garland stripped off Heff’s shirt, wrung it out, and laid it on the grass. “The sun will dry it in no time. You should wring out your pants, too.” He smiled. “So, you don’t have to ride home in soggy drawers.”
The cool water helped “soften” Heff’s arousal, and he peeled off the wet jeans, wrung them as best he could, and spread them on the ground beside his shirt. Garland was staring at him when he straightened up. Heff shifted. “What?”
“Nothing.” Garland wiped his mouth and shrugged. “It’s just… all that manual labor around the ranch is paying off.”
Heff smiled uncertainly. “Really?”
“Yeah. Look at you, gettin’ all buff.”
Heff laughed softly, cheeks heating up. “Whatever.” Not whatever—Garland noticed his body!
Garland dropped on the grass and stretched out, tucking his arms beneath his head, squinting up at the clear sky. Heff joined him, lying as close as he dared without being obvious.
“What do you want to do with your life, Heff? Any big dreams brewing in that cute head of yours?”
Heff shivered. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“I was thinking… I’d like to be a writer… maybe.” He held his breath, unsure what a man like Garland would think of that. Garland and Frank were hard workers… would Garland think writing was a sissy career choice?
“A writer, huh?” Garland nodded. “Like… what kind of writer? What do you want to write about?”
“Um… I like mysteries… and scary stories.”
“The next Stephen King?” Garland turned his head and smiled at Heff. “I think that’s awesome.”
“Yeah!” He turned on his side, facing Heff. “Why wouldn’t I? I envy you. I couldn’t write my way out of a wet paper bag.”
“Seriously, I couldn’t.” Garland chuckled. “And if you can make a living without breaking your back every day—that makes you the smart one. I’ll be crippling around at thirty with aching joints and a bad back. But you’ll still be hopping.”
Heff gazed at him, a small smile on his face.
“What?” Garland arched his brow. “Did you think I would make fun of your dream? Not think it was manly enough?”
Heff lowered his eyes. “Maybe,” he mumbled.
“Is that why you haven’t told me about it before now?”
Heff shrugged, eyes on the ground.
“Listen up.” Garland leaned closer. “We’re friends, Heff. There’s nothing you can’t tell me. And that’ll never change. Okay?”
“Okay,” Heff whispered. He stared at Garland and pursed his lips.
“What?” Garland eyed him. “There’s something else, huh?”
Heff looked away and laughed. “Maybe—but you’ll laugh.”
“If it’s funny, I’ll laugh. But I won’t laugh at you.”
“Okay.” Heff licked his lips, staring up at the sky, and bit his lower lip as he suppressed a grin. “The other day, when you and Frank had some extra hands on the ranch… all those cute cowboys…”
Garland chuckled. “Uh… huh.”
“Well, I was just thinking… if I owned this ranch…” He glanced at Garland and the man stared back, squinting and smiling, waiting for Heff’s revelation. “… I would turn it into a dude ranch.”
Garland’s smile stretched. “Dude ranch?”
“A gay dude ranch.”
“Um…” Garland bit back a laugh. “Really?”
“Told you, you would laugh.”
“I’m not laughing.” Garland cleared his throat, biting his lips together.
“You are so.” Heff laughed.
Clearing his throat again, Garland chuckled. “Okay, tell me—why would you turn it into a gay dude ranch? So, you could ogle hot cowboys all day?”
“That, yes, but also…” Heff faltered.
“What? Tell me.”
“Well, I think it would be nice to have a place for gay wanna-be cowboys to go and learn all the roping and riding and stuff, without…”
Garland stared at him. “Without what?”
“Without being treated like shit,” Heff whispered. “A lot of country boys don’t like gay men. But if everyone who worked at the dude ranch was gay, then the guests could just relax and have a good time without all the crap they have to deal with out in the world.”
Garland frowned. “Do other kids at school give you crap about being gay?”
“Some,” Heff mumbled. “Mostly they just say stuff. They don’t try to beat me up or anything. But…”
“But it still fucking hurts.”
“Yeah.” Heff swallowed. “No one likes being called names.”
“No, they don’t. But remember this—anyone who calls you names, is an insecure asshole who is threatened by your courage to be who you really are. Probably half of them are gay, too, but too chicken to admit it.”
Heff sighed and raised his eyes to Garland’s face. “Thanks.”
“Any time, my friend.” Garland rolled onto his back. “By the way, I think your reasons for wanting a gay dude ranch are fantastic.”
Heff smiled. “Even the ogling hot cowboys reason?”
Garland chuckled. “Sure, why not?”
Heff stared down at the blanket, face streaked with tears. He missed his friend… now more than ever. That friend would have never called him a fairy, or queer… or even a twink. Insecure assholes threatened by your courage to be who you are. Was that Garland now? Somewhere inside him, was he jealous of Heff for being open about his sexuality? Whatever the reason, it hurt extra bad when Garland called him those names—much worse than when the assholes of the world did it.
But life was too short to hold grudges. That had become painfully clear.
Garland could hate him, resent him, whatever—there was nothing Heff could do about that. But whenever Heff looked at Garland, he would always see a glimpse of his friend from that day by the pool.