Unlike the day before, there was no relegation of duty on this, the first full day of work. Before Gene hardly had time to consider his late humiliation and his hike back to Sheridan, he found himself on a hay wagon.
While the rotund and good-natured brother-in-law drove the tractor through the pasture, Mr. Carlson and I walked along on either side and “bucked” the bales from the ground up to the wagon. For the first two rows or so, we were able to place the bales on the wagon ourselves and stack them in a way that would interlock the load. After the second row, however, Gene was up. When a bale was thrown to him, he was expected to use his hay hook and drag it into place on the wagon. This, of course, took some getting used to and the struggle between the Barney Fife look-alike and the hay was hilarious. Most of the bales probably outweighed him. Beyond a doubt, this was the first real work Gene had encountered in his life. Pumping gas and picking cherries did not prepare him for it. Even tossing brush in Canada was nothing compared to hauling up a ninety pound bale of hay every ten seconds under a blazing sun while trying to maintain your balance on a moving wagon. But for most of the day, my buddy seemed determined to prove his manhood and escape his disgrace.
Late that afternoon, after we had already loaded and unloaded ten or more wagon loads and were working on our last haul of the day, Gene was obviously on the verge of total collapse. Although Mr. Carlson and myself had the truly hard jobs of tossing the dead weights five and six rows high, Gene was so exhausted by this time that he could barely get his hook into the hay to help pull it up. Long forgotten in his misery was the manly attempt to prove his mettle. Of course, Mr. Carlson and myself were thoroughly fatigued and quite miserable ourselves. With some of my last energy, I struggled to hoist up a bale that felt like solid lead.
“Come On! Get it up here!” Gene snapped sourly.
Needless to say, that pissed me off. When I came to the next bale of hay laying on the ground, an aroused sense of strength came over me. Grabbing the bale by the twine, I hurled it up at Gene with all my might. The weight and force of the bail knocked him over and almost off his perch.
“You son-of-a-bitch,” he hissed.
“Well you deserved it!” shouted the ever-observant boss from the other side of the tractor.
By the time the wagon was unloaded, we were all too exhausted to be angry at anyone or anything. Curiously enough, roles were reversed at the supper table that evening; I was the one this night who ate like an animal and Gene was the diner who could barely hold his fork. Also that night, back at the trailer, there was no cussing tirade or mention of walking back to Sheridan. Both of us were asleep in five minutes.
For the next seven days, this was the routine. When we had cleared one pasture of “dead soldiers,” we’d move on to the next. Over the week we adjusted to the backbreaking work. Even though Gene was given the easier tasks such as stacking, no job on that ranch was easy and my friend more than carried his weight. Between slave labor and sleep, there wasn’t much time left for anything else. Although we saw the antelope and deer coming out of the hills each evening to drink from the creek as we were returning from the pastures, neither Gene or I had time to admire the beautiful Big Horns that towered to the west; nor did I have the requisite energy to slip over the fence and catch Brown trout from the nearby stream. We worked hard, we slept hard, and somehow, we managed to eat hard.
Neither before or since have I ever seen so much food as was spread on the Carlson table in that kitchen. In the morning, there were pancakes, biscuits, gravy, fried potatoes, eggs, ham, bacon, and sausage. For lunch and dinner, the table groaned with bowl upon bowl of mashed potatoes, vegetables, stuffing, relishes, pickles, and fresh rolls. Since they were a ranching folk, they were also a meat-eating folk. I recall that there was as much elk, antelope, and venison on the table at any given time as there was beef, pork and mutton. And now, since Gene felt he was earning his lawful right to eat like a horse, he ate like a horse. Despite this, I do not think he added one ounce of muscle to his thin frame
“What’s wrong with him? Why is he such a scrawny little runt?” Carlson nudged me one day as Gene walked across the lot to the trailer. “Is it the cigarettes…or does he just jack off too much?”
Since they were visiting and thus did far less work on the ranch, Mrs. Carlson’s sister and brother-in-law were much more lively and talkative at the table than the rest of us. Their home was in the California desert near Indio. Every autumn during dove hunting season, the actor, Clark Gable, and a few friends would come with sleeping bags and camp in the couple’s back yard.
“Oh, yeah,” said the brother, “he’s a heck of a guy…a man among men.”
The Carlson’s brother-in-law was a “heck of a guy” himself. He took a shine to both Gene and myself and was full of fun and life. He tried to pitch in and help us, but years of easy living and good food had made him soft. One day, as we were trying to repair a water pump down by the brook north of the house, the wrench the brother was turning with all his might suddenly slipped. Belly first, the little man flopped full into the water. In truth, the stomach was so big and the pool of water so small, that most of the latter splashed out. Though the brother cussed and fumed, neither Gene or I could hold back our laughter.
In her own domain, Mrs. Carlson probably worked harder than any person on the ranch. Her sister stepped in and helped, but the overloaded old lady was seemingly baking, cooking and cleaning up from dusk to dawn. From her chilly demeanor toward Gene and I, it was evident that she didn’t think either of us was worth the princely sum of $5 a day or the extra work she was forced to do on our behalf.
After lunch one day, Gene and I noticed that Mr. Carlson was standing with his favorite horse in the driveway. The golden stallion (above; Mrs. Carlson, Oscar Carlson, Gene, me) was a progeny of “Trigger,” Roy Rogers’ famous trick horse. As we walked by I could see that the animal’s rear legs were spread far apart.
“Oh boy, he really loves this,” laughed Carlson. He was energetically scratching the horse’s testicles.
“Did you see that?” said Gene after we got to the trailer. His eyes were wide with disbelief. “Did you see that sick son-of-a-bitch scratching the horse’s nuts? Man, that fucker’s crazy…crazy!” This was all the evidence Gene needed to convince himself that Carlson was not only despicable, but depraved.
On our last day at the ranch, when all the hay had been bucked and stacked, Mr. Carlson saddled a couple of pack horses, handed us the reins, then told us to ride wherever we would. Although he cautioned us not to run the animals, as soon as we were out of sight, that’s the first thing that we did. After years of watching TV Westerns, we couldn’t imagine a horse walking anywhere. By the time we rode back to the ranch later that day, our buttocks were so tender that we could hardly sit in the seats of the Corvair when we got ready to leave. After the brother-in-law took a few Polaroid snapshots, Gene and I bid everyone good-bye and struck off once more.
As we turned down the road toward Buffalo, I mentioned to Gene that the old man had asked me to come back that autumn; he needed help on the ranch as well as someone to drive broken down horses to the glue factory in North Platte, Nebraska.
“Did he say anything about me?” Gene looked over anxiously.
“No, he just said me.”
“That son-of-a-bitch,” sneered Gene. “Anybody that would scratch a horse’s nuts….”