Nothing rolled out the welcome wagon quite like the stench of a working ranch. Several thousand turkeys, and a couple hundred head of cattle, plus a few dogs, each with their own piquant perfume - manure, grainy feed, animal sweat and hair.
“Hat up, girl.” Hank loomed over me, out of nowhere. His cap twisted sideways on his long head. The, I’m already hammered and it’s only noon, signal.
“Huh?” Spending time with my mother’s new husband was the last thing I wanted to do. Drunk at home, drunk at someone else’s home. I’d had enough.
“We saved the last ones for you gals.”
“Last what?” I didn’t know where this led, but I knew I didn’t like it.
“Bulls.” Hank slapped his dirty hands across his dirt covered Levi’s. “You’re gonna hold the bucket.”
“The nut bucket.” Hank tromped toward the chutes.
Every year the neighbors, and the not so neighborly, swarmed the Cox’s turkey farm carrying country hams, potato salads, chocolate sheet cakes, and all the usual picnic grub. The Cox’s supplied the homegrown barbecue to thank the guys who helped cut the bulls. Out on this highway town nothing said “hoedown” like separating a bull from his balls.
Donald Cox handed me a metal bucket. “Here ya go, little gal.” He looked as happy as I’d ever seen him. “Where’s your partner in-”
“I’m here. What the-” Libby loped up, breathless.
I was sure she’d been pried from her new boyfriend’s grasp. I’d been avoiding her since she’d snatched him, but now I felt relieved to see her. “Thank god,” I said. She smiled big at me, like she always used to, before boys arrived on our horizon.
“Come on, sis,” Earl, Libby’s dad said. “Grab your side of the bucket, and get a move on.”
Earl and Hank milled around by the cattle chute next to the bullpen. I didn’t do a headcount. A campfire roared, with a couple branding irons and knives in it. You didn’t have to know your way around a ranch to recognize either one. Jefferson Davis, the youngest of four Cox sons, (all the Cox boys bore presidential names, no one clued them in that the South never rose again) tended to the ironworks, shifting them around in the flames, their orange and gray tips glowing, silvery ashes floating upward like tiny angel wings. The smoky, hot smell of scorched steel and burnt wood wafted up.
I felt nauseous.
“You ever done this before?” I asked Libby.
“Nope.” Libby flicked her long hair back, over her shoulders. “But, we gotta pretend we’re pros. Can’t embarrass ourselves in front of these assholes.”
On this, we agreed.
“Alright ya’ll, the bulls are gonna hustle through the chute…get branded and cut. Theodore Roosevelt does the cuttin’, and the droppin’. You stand…right here.” Donald grabbed us by the arms and planted us outside the ass-end of the chute. “When they hit the bucket - stay still. Don’t drop it. Can’t have dinner fallin’ in the dirt.”
I’d forgotten - on purpose - that these inbreds ate the balls…mountain oysters. Right, that sounded better.
“I don’t think Delilah's ever eaten a mountain oyster.” Hank jerked his cap off by the bill, wiped the moisture from his wrinkled forehead. “Have ya, sis?” He’d never called me “sis” before. Earl called Libby that all the time. Something warm under my breastbone spread across my chest and shoulders. I smiled, surprising both of us.
“Nope. Don’t plan to start, either.”
“Hank, you need to set that little gal straight,” Donald said. “She ain’t-”
“Ya’ll knock it off. I never seen no girl eat mountain oysters.” Jefferson Davis had his hat off, and his courage up. “Never seen one holdin’ the bucket neither.”
Donald humored his youngest son’s gallantry. “You’re right, son. Ain’t no gal worth a damn eats mountain oysters. But, a little bucket holdin’ never hurt anybody.”
Jefferson Davis put his hat back on, and turned his attention back to the fire.
I couldn’t believe it…of all the boys in the world to come to my aid. Stupid Jefferson Davis - the dork.
“I think you’ve got a boyfriend, Delilah.” Libby giggled.
No, you’ve got my boyfriend. “I’d rather eat fried balls.” I prayed Jefferson Davis would get in the way of the knife, and Mrs. Cox would finally have a daughter.
“Load ‘em up, boys!” Donald and his little presidents took their places. “You gals hang on to that bucket and stand where I showed ya’ll…ass-end.”
“OKAY.” Libby yelled, rolling her eyes at me. “Does he think we’re as brain dead as he is?” she jeered, in a whisper.
“That a girl, sis.” Earl closed the chute door behind him and Hank. It looked surprisingly small. Theodore Roosevelt and Donald were already inside. Hank jumped up on the side, his head above everyone else’s.
“Let’s get ‘er done.” Theodore Roosevelt said.
Jefferson Davis hurried over with the still smoking, tools of the trade.
“YO.” Theodore’s call carried over the top of the chute, the gate opened, and the first unsuspecting victim got shoved in to meet its fate.
I felt numb all over. Libby and I stood like we’d been told, each of us gripping our side of the bucket handle, awaiting the grisly delivery.
Don’t run. Don’t run.
I couldn’t make up my mind if I did, or didn’t, want to look. Like watching a scary movie - I covered my eyes with the hand not holding the bucket, but peeked through the cracks of my fingers. When Jefferson Davis poked the foot-long knife through the chute I decided - but quick - and closed my eyes.
Too bad I couldn’t cover my ears. The sounds would haunt me for weeks - the blistering sizzle of the hot iron when it seared flesh and hair, the sickening squish and slice through sinewy flesh right after Theodore’s command to, “Keep that tail out of the way,” and the pathetic throaty moans of the calves, who didn’t have any room to move, or choice in the matter. They were pressed into the confines of the chute, by Earl and Hank’s full body weight with their heads held fast by the horns. If that wasn’t enough to make a girl run screaming…there was the smell - putrid and sweet - of blood, and burning skin. I could taste my sour stomach in the back of my throat and nose.
Donald opened the head end of the chute and the steer ran for its life. Mooing soprano.
Well, I lived.
I glanced over at Libby, with a weak sort of smile. My teeth, jaw, and neck ached from clenching. I felt drenched, my hand bruised from the bucket handle. My hair came loose from its ponytail and stuck, matted to my head. Libby looked as rough. We sighed heavy and started to laugh. At the same time, we looked down at the bucket then back at each other, crestfallen.
It was still empty.
We looked up to see Theodore Roosevelt climbing to the top of the chute with his gloved hand cupped, bloody. “Hoooeee...ladies, ya’ll got yourselves some mountain oysters.” He leaned down and dropped his testicular trophies into the bucket, with a wet and heavy plop.
Libby let go of the bucket faster than you could crack a nut.
Recoiling in horror myself, I was unprepared to bear the full weight with the one finger that still hung on to the thin metal handle. It tilted perilously, its innards dangling dangerously close to the dirt. Theodore Roosevelt yelled, “Shit,” and was just about to jump to the ground when I gathered my wits, and the balls entrusted to my care, yanking the bucket up toward my chin with both hands, righting its contents.
Theodore’s exclamations roused everybody out of the chute. I gripped my gruesome prize. Hank raised his cap, and winked - proud of my grit. I didn’t know why I cared that he seemed proud, but I did. I stood still, basking, for as long as I thought proper, with a bucket of bloody gonads held against my chest like a gold medal.
“Those’ll be fine eatin’, for sure.” Hank peered into the bucket, then turned back toward the chute.
“Gotta man up, sis,” Earl growled.
“Libby?” I nodded toward my pale friend. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah…sorry. I’ll know what to expect now,” she whispered, shamefaced.
“You want me to stand in for you?” Jefferson Davis turned cow eyes toward Libby.
“No. I’m fine.” She patted his bony shoulder and he sauntered back to the flames.
“Tell hop along Cassidy to mind his own business and clean his knife,” I said. “Come on, we better get back to it.”
“Yep. Plenty more where those came from.”
I tried to keep the smug look off my face. I held up under pressure, Libby didn't. She might have the guy, but I had Hank’s admiration, which somehow mattered, my dignity - and a pair of hairy, bloodied, lopped off bull balls.
Theodore Roosevelt, back in the chute with the gate shut, yelled, “Yo.”
I assumed the position.