The Joys of Branding by Desert Sun

Word count 2,842

Note:  The following story was written in November of 2004 and posted to the Lancer groups on Yahoo at that time.  I don’t recall what prompted me to write this.  It could have been for a challenge on one of the Lancer fan fiction groups.  I did quite a bit of revising in September of 2014 in preparation for adding this to the files at the Lancer FanFiction group on Facebook, but the story is the same.

*****

Over a thousand head of cows and their calves milled about inside a circle of riders.  The constant trampling of hooves pulverized the ground and clouds of dust soon shielded the surrounding hills from view.  For Scott Lancer, the scene brought back memories of the fog that often moved in over Boston Bay and hid the harbor.

A short ways from the herd, red coals of a fire cradled the ends of several branding irons.  Their handles lay fanned outward like spokes on the hub of a wheel.  Scott stooped, blinked at the sting from the rising smoke, and grasped one of the metal rods.  He rubbed the back of his other gloved hand across his eyes and walked over to where Johnny, his younger half-brother, sat on the shoulder of a struggling calf that had three legs bound together.

Johnny Lancer looked up and scowled.  “What’re ya waitin’ for, Scott?  We ain’t got all day.”

Scott shot a glare at his brother and lined the Lancer “L” over the calf’s right hip.  With a grimace, he settled the branding iron into place and tried not to breathe.

The hot metal sizzled through the hair and sent up a stream of smoke.  Scott’s lungs cried for air, and he took a small breath.  The stench that penetrated the collection of dirt inside his nose instantly reminded him of the atrocities of war.

An enraged bawl erupted from the calf’s gaping mouth.

More memories assaulted Scott.  His breakfast surged into his throat, and he fought the urge to toss the iron into a far bush.

“Do it again,” Johnny said.  “Ya barely touched his hide.  In a few weeks, we won’t even be able to read it.”

The thought of branding his bossy brother passed through Scott’s mind, and the iron wavered in the air.  He resisted the temptation.  This was part of being a rancher.  He had dealt with the horrors of war without running.  Surely he could make it through this.

Gritting his teeth, Scott centered the iron over the mark on the calf’s hip and pressed down more firmly.   His mind shifted to another place and time.  Booming cannons and crackling gun-fire mingled with men screaming in agony and the thundering of hooves as horses in mad retreat from the raging battle raced through a stand of trees–branches ripping at clothing and snatching some of the riders from their saddles.  The urge to get away from the smell of death was overwhelming.

“Hey!  Ya tryin’ to burn a hole clear through him?”

Scott felt the rod being ripped from his grasp.  Sweat dripped down his face, and he swiped it away with the back of his other hand.  He would have given anything to be in Boston where smoke came from the chimney of houses or factories, not from the burning of an animal’s hide.  Already he detested the whole ordeal of branding, and he had only finished his first calf.        

“You all right?”

Scott detected a touch of concern in his brother’s softer tone.  He swallowed, squared his shoulders, and spoke in a sharp tone.  “I’m fine.”  The flex of his brother’s jaw brought him instant regret.

Johnny let out a low snort.  “Sure ya are.  Ya always look a little green.”

“Are you going to get another calf . . . or stand there diagnosing my health?”  Scott folded his arms across his chest.  The last thing he wanted was for Johnny to see that his knees were trembling or suspect how queasy his stomach felt.  His western-raised brother and the ranch hands found enough things to tease him about as it was.

Johnny shrugged and dropped the branding iron in the dirt.  He knelt, removed the cord binding the calf’s legs, and slipped the noose of his lariat off over the animal’s tossing head.  The calf lunged upward on wobbling legs and bolted back toward the herd where its mother was trying to dodge past a vaquero on a cagey cowpony.

Scott returned the used iron to the fire, got it positioned, and looked up.  Johnny had dragged another calf near and was dismounting.  The squalling critter was grabbed by the flank and flipped to its side, and three legs were quickly lashed together.

All hope of having time to recover his composure fled.  Scott snatched up another hot iron and ran to slap it on the calf’s hide.  The sickening odor and wailing calf again reminded him of the war, but he fought the memories and focused on the work at hand.  Soon he lifted the branding iron and a blackened circle-L was plainly visible against a backdrop of light-red hair.

Johnny grinned.  “Looks good.”

Scott smiled weakly.  “Thanks.”

The next calf was a bull.  Johnny slid a knife out of his boot and waved it at Scott.  “Want me to do the honors while you watch . . . or ya want me to walk ya through this?”

A chill crept up Scott’s spine and his shoulders shuddered before he could stop them.  The thought of cutting into flesh and smelling the blood brought back memories long locked away in the darkest reaches of his mind.  He had no desire to dredge them up.  It looked like he would have no choice, though.  This was another part of the job that had to be done.

The quizzical look on Johnny’s face said there wasn’t time to ponder.  Scott swallowed.  “Why don’t you do this one?  I . . . I wouldn’t want to make a mistake.”

Johnny chuckled.  “Okay.  Don’t guess he’d like it much if you cut the wrong thing.   He’ll holler bad enough as it is.”

Following Johnny’s instructions, Scott sat astride the calf’s shoulder and held onto the one hind leg that wasn’t tied. He forced himself to watch the deft movements that were accompanied by his brother’s words.

When Johnny sliced into tender skin, the calf let out a bellow.  Scott shivered despite the sweat dripping down his cheek.  He was more than glad when the operation that turned the calf into a steer was over.

Johnny took Scott’s place at the calf’s shoulder.  He wiped the bloodied blade of his knife on the animal’s neck and lifted an equally bloody hand toward Scott.  “Here.  Toss these in that bucket on your way to get the iron.”

Sticky pouches of flesh, hardly bigger than his thumbs, were dropped into Scott’s outstretched hand.  Again, his stomach revolted and his nose wrinkled.  He was sure what he had eaten for breakfast less than an hour earlier would end up in the dirt at his feet.  What could possibly be the purpose of keeping these?

“Scott?  Are you okay?”  Humor colored the sympathy in Johnny’s tone.

“Yes,” Scott whispered.

Scott felt an overwhelming sense of revolt at the entire branding operation and turned away from his brother’s prying eyes.  He lifted his chin, squared his shoulders, and strode to the fire to get a hot iron to finish the job.  Along the way, he gladly deposited the slippery nuggets into the bucket Johnny had pointed out to him.

One by one, three more heifer calves were brought to the fire.  The smell of burned hair and hide was far from pleasant, but Scott determinedly performed his assigned task.  Then he looked up from once again settling the iron into the fire, saw Johnny drag a much larger calf toward him, and his resolve faltered.  Was this another bull calf?

Johnny battled to get the calf thrown and three legs cinched together.   He looked up, his chest heaving and breaths coming in little gasps.  “This one’s yours, Boston.”  He grabbed the fourth leg and held out of the way while his palomino horse, Barranca, backed a step to keep the lariat around the calf’s neck stretched tight.

Scott pulled the knife from his brother’s boot.  He sucked in a deep breath.  Carefully, he took hold of the bulging sack between the calf’s hind legs and slit the outer skin as he had seen Johnny do.  His stomach rolled, but he ignored the wave of nausea.  He could do this.  It couldn’t be any worse than amputating Billy’s arm when the fifteen-year-old boy had developed gangrene while the two of them had been confined in that Confederate prison camp during the war.  He’d had no more choice then than he had now.  The doctor had been to drunk to operate.

Time seemed to creep.  At last, the task was done.  Scott wiped the blade of the knife and stepped back while his brother freed the calf.  It trotted away to meet its mother and both were herded through a gate to join the other newly branded calves in the field on the other side of the fence.

Johnny gathered Barranca’s reins and looked over at Scott.  “Not bad for your first try.  A little more practice an’ you’ll be a top hand at this.” 

“You think so?” Scott, with the knife still in his hand, took a step toward his brother.

Johnny’s feet didn’t even touch the stirrups as he leapt into the saddle and sent his mount racing toward the main herd.  Scott smiled for the first time that day and called out, “Coward.”

The day wore on.  Calf after calf was thrown and branded. As Scott determinedly went about his work, memories of the war gradually faded.  That didn’t make him grow any fonder of the job.  When a lunch break was taken at noon, he found he had little to eat.  With the lingering smells of blood and burned hair in the air, food had lost its appeal.

By sundown, Scott had lost track of how many bulls he had cut and how many calves he had burned with the Lancer brand.  He really didn’t care.  All he wanted was a chance to clean up and get rid of the dirt and splatters of blood on his face.

Camp had been set up at the upper end of a large meadow that was in the foothills of the mountains to the east of the Lancer ranch headquarters.  Scott sought out the nearby stream and knelt beside it.  He was sure that if his grandfather could see him, the man would be appalled at the sight of his present condition.

The water helped remove the dirt and grime from Scott’s face–how much of it, he couldn’t be sure without a mirror.  There was nothing, however, to be done about the filthy condition of his attire.  If he had been at the ranch house, he would have had a bath and changed into clean pants and shirt before supper.  That wasn’t an option, here.  The creek was too shallow for bathing, and he didn’t have any other clothing with him.  His father and brother had both warned him that whatever he wore would be stained with blood.  It had seemed senseless to ruin more than one outfit.

Flickering light from a fire beckoned and Scott headed back to camp.  Upon reaching the tail end of the chuck wagon, he heard his brother’s voice.  “Scott did look a little green.”

A round of laughter brought Scott to a stop.  Anger surged through him, and he had an overwhelming desire to put an end to the fun being had at his expense.

With clenched fists, Scott took a step forward.  A voice of reason stopped him.  Wouldn’t it be wiser to listen than to barge around the corner of the wagon and make a scene?

“So, Amigo . . . that is what slows you down, sí?”  Scott recognized this voice to be that of Miguel Sanchez, a young vaquero who had grown up on the Lancer Ranch.

Johnny’s soft drawl answered.  “Nope . . . he did fine.  He’s just a little more particular than some o’ you boys when it comes to slapping an iron on a calf’s rump, is all.”

Scott smiled, a warm sensation driving out some of the gloom that had settled over him.

“So, Scott did all right?” Murdoch Lancer’s deep voice asked.

Scott tensed.  Being scoffed at by the hired men, or even Johnny, was one thing.  That could be tolerated.  Somehow, his father’s disapproval was an entirely different matter and much harder to accept.  Scott supposed it was because of all those years he had been left with his grandfather, during which he had not received even one letter from the man that made proving his worth so much more important.

“You’d have been proud, Murdoch,” Johnny said.  “Scott got the hang of it real fast.  Only had to show him what to do once.”

“Good.”

Scott drew in a deep breath, the weariness of the day slipping away.  The dust and grime, blood, and gut wrenching odors he had forced himself to tolerate suddenly seemed worthwhile.  Johnny’s praise and the hint of pride in Murdoch’s single word were proof that he had passed the test for yet another lesson in ranching.  His appearance might not meet with his grandfather’s approval, but that was of little consequence.  At that moment, he felt far more satisfaction in knowing that he had proven his worth to his father and brother.

The cook’s metal triangle clanged.  After giving the other men time to get lined up for the evening meal, Scott walked around the end of the chuck wagon.  Sight of his father and brother at the rear of the line killed any hope he had of going unnoticed by them.

Johnny pointed at Scott’s right thigh where the leg of his pants was nearly covered with splatters of calf manure and smears of blood.  “Whewie, Boston.  I thought ya said ya was cleanin’ up some.  Looks like ya could’ve done a better job of it.”

Scott smiled and waved a hand at the stains on his brother’s clothing. “I hate to be out of style.”   This brought a chuckle from their father and started a bout of good-natured teasing between the brothers.

The line of hungry men ahead of Scott slowly dissolved as plates were filled and the men went to gather around the campfire.  Finally he and his brother were the only ones left. 

“Here, Scott.  You take this one.”  Johnny held out a filled plate and refused to give in to any objections on Scott’s part.

Scott noticed the cook was scowling at them.  He let out a sigh, took the tin dish, and lifted it in salute.  “Thanks Brother.”

“Well, go ahead.  Take a bite,” Johnny said.  “No need ya waitin’ on me.”

The pleasing aroma rising from the steaming food aroused Scott’s appetite.  He joined the rest of the men and decided to start with the meat, which resembled a fried oyster.  The beans looked a little greasy.

Scott swallowed his first bite and cut off another.  “Mm.  What is this?” Something about the answering silence as he took that second bite gave him a sinking feeling that he might be better off not knowing.

Johnny smirked as he settled next to his brother.  “Remember that bucket?”

Scott’s stomach rebelled.  He raised the hand holding his fork and pressed his thumb against his lips.   If it hadn’t been for his brother’s triumphant grin and the feeling that all eyes in the camp were on him, he would have taken a walk.

With great effort, Scott finished chewing the piece of meat in his mouth and swallowed it.  “Very tasty.  Reminds me of the fried oysters I’ve had at the Oyster House in Boston.”  He gave a faint smile.  In truth, it was the thought more than the taste that bothered him.

“No kiddin’?”  Johnny sounded dubious.

“They really are quite good.”  Scott took another bite and looked over at his brother’s plate.  “Aren’t you having any?”

“Nope.  I prefer beans.”  Johnny’s flat tone said the subject was closed.

Scott noticed their father was eating the delicacy with relish.  Maybe it was time to turn the tables on Johnny.  “Brother, you just have no appreciation of the finer things in life.  Isn’t that right, Murdoch?”  Scott looked over at the tall man on the far side of his brother.

Lines fanned out from the edges of Murdoch’s eyes and his head nodded.  “Quite true.” 

Scott smiled back and went on eating his dinner.  Another test had been passed.  He had won a little more of his father’s respect and had gotten the better of his brother for a change.  Maybe branding calves wasn’t so bad, after all.

~The End~
November 2004

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