DYING TO LIVE

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy;
for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die
to one life before we can enter another.

Anatole France

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Every minute of every day, you know how different this life is from the one you left behind. You can feel it in the way you ache from the hard labour you've never done before, you can see it in the blisters on hands that once were well-cared for, you can smell it in the air and taste it in the very food you eat. You're getting used to it, you say, and the corner of your mouth tilts up in a smile. The smile's a bit crooked and as wry as alum.

You say you're getting used to it, but you don't say that you like it.

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Everything changes. The only time things stay the same is when you're dead.

And you don't mean to be dead for a long time yet.

Although as you roll in cow dung, wresting a calf down while the vaqueros shout and push in their efforts to help, and Jaime throws himself down beside you, holding the wriggling animal still while your brother brings the branding iron, and your face is full of dirt and dust and animal hair... well, at that moment, you almost think being dead won't be so bad. At least, they won't put a stinking calf in the box with you.

And then, only inches from your eyes, a boot comes down on the calf's haunch, helping hold the animal still. Your brother's boot, dusty black leather caked in mud and dung. He stoops swiftly, the iron in his gloved hands, and now your face is full of the smell of burnt hide. The calf bawls and bucks, bawls louder when Cipriano's hand flashes in between the calf's back legs with a bloody penknife, and the animal almost bucks you and Jaime off. You let it go and roll clear.

"Lancer steer!" yells the tally-man, as the calf pushes up onto spindly legs and staggers off back to its mother, bleating of its misery and maiming.

You lie there gasping for a minute. A gloved hand is waved in your face, and you grasp it. He has a strong grip, your brother, and you can see the muscles bunch and flex under his shirt as he pulls you to your feet. He's laughing, eyes bright, his mouth curved into a smile under the dirt and dust. He claps you on the shoulder and turns to push the branding iron back into the fire, picking up another that's ready.

The Lancer L glows cherry red.

Over to your right is the line of fires, two or three for each ranch in the round up. The men at each fire look like devils as they dodge the flames and sparks, red-hot irons in their hands instead of pitchforks. At every fire there's a group of hands bringing down, branding and castrating the calves. There's a lot of noise. The flames crackle and hiss as they eat the piled up brushwood; the men are shouting, cheering, laughing, cursing; cattle are lowing and the calves bawling. A man can hardly hear himself think.

Behind you, two more vaqueros have a calf down. You step to one side to watch and catch your breath, wiping the sweat out of your eyes. The calf struggles under the vaqueros, your brother steps in, nimble and quick, one booted foot on the calf to steady himself. There's the deft jab with the branding iron, and another bellow from the calf echoed by one from the tallyman as he marks his book with a pencil.

Everywhere you look, there are men and beasts: men and cows, men and horses. They're all rushing around, so fast and furious that it's almost impossible to make out what's going on. It's like a dance. The men on the clever little ponies dart in and out of the herd, ropes whirling, dust clouds almost hiding them, and suddenly they're right there beside you, pulling a calf roped by its hind legs towards the fires. The waiting vaqueros wrestle it down. But it's a big one and it fights, throwing the men around, bucking and kicking.

You throw yourself in, hoping your weight will help hold the animal still, rolling and swearing and yelling with the rest of the men. You can barely see the calf for the dust. Your brother's branding a calf a few feet away and another man runs towards you, an iron in his hands. He's as dirty as you are and his gloves are black with soot. Another bawl from the calf, another waft of burnt hair and hide, and yet another Lancer steer is claimed.

When you stand up again, you look down and can barely recognise yourself. Once you cared about what you looked like. You were never a dandy, no matter what other people might say, but you had a certain style. But now you're filthy with blood and dust, calf-piss and sweat. You even have cow shit in your hair.

There's no time to worry about it. Your brother hands you his gloves and gestures to the fire. He takes your place beside Jaime ready to grapple the next calf to the ground, leaving you to run to the fires. It's your turn with the branding iron and all you can think is that it was just what you needed, adding soot and smuts to the mix.

That night you almost fall asleep eating your stew, and someone jogs your elbow to rouse you so your plate doesn't slip to the ground. You can hardly keep your eyes open long enough to stagger over to the fire where your bedroll waits. The cold hard ground feels as good as a feather mattress. You look at a sky so clear that it's hung with stars bright as lamps, so close over your head you think they're stooping down to touch you. Then your eyes close and you're asleep almost the instant your head touches the saddle that does duty as your pillow.

And no matter what your brother claims the next day, you do not snore.

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They look to you, the vaqueros; they look to you and to your brother.

The day you arrived, you were surprised by the welcome you got. You didn't have much expectation of anything from your father. You didn't know him, and what you did know of him, what you've been told about him, didn't lead you to think he'd care that much about having his son—no, having his sons, both his sons—back. He hasn't cared for more than twenty years. If Murdoch was delighted to see you and your brother, he hid it well. No, to be fair, you know now that he does hide well.

But the vaqueros didn't hide, then or now. They waved their hats and cheered when they saw you both arrive, driven by Teresa on that damned wagon, and their faces were open and smiling, bright with joy and relief.

They're still like that. They don't bow and scrape, but they hold their hats in their hands and duck their heads when you speak to them, and answer with a Yes, Señor, or a No, Señor. The air is heavy with the weight of their expectations and their respect.

Cipriano explains it. He tells you the estancia needs its heirs; that the hands and their families need the assurance that the estancia will always go on; that the estancia is their home as well as yours; that you, both of you, both of Patrón's sons, are needed to take on the burden and the responsibility. The vaqueros are rejoicing because even when change comes, they and theirs can look to you and yours and it won't all end with the Patrón.

It's about endurance, according to Cipriano, and weathering whatever comes against the hacienda, and it's about prevailing and it's about strength and certainty.

You don't know what to say, and from the expression on your new brother's face, neither does he. You think that it's hard enough coming here to meet your father, finding that you have a brother, learning how to be a rancher... all these things are hard enough without having the men look to you for orders, for assurance, for a knowledge and skill you don't yet have and sometimes wonder if you ever will.

It's not that you haven't been in charge of men before. You have. But then you knew what you were doing, and still men died while you had the care of them. Here you know less than they do, but still they look to you with respect, dark eyes hopeful and loyal.

You have to trust that you can change the man you used to be, the man who wanted only responsibility for himself, and take on the duty that they expect of you now. Trouble is, you aren't sure that you, or anyone else, should have trust in anything so unlikely.

There's a shout from the corral, and two of the new hands, hired for the roundup, are squaring up for a fight. The corral is full of half-broken horses brought in from the range. The horses, already nervous, are jibbing and snorting, dancing back uneasily at the raised voices and the way the two hands are stalking around each other, arms waving. One of the horses, more skittish than the rest, rears and comes down hard on its front hooves, raising little clouds of dust. And then they're all off, running around the corral in a tight bunch, just inside the fence. All it will take is for one to stumble and the ranch could lose half a dozen good horses, horses worth more than the two new hands put together.

Cipriano steps back, his face calm. He's watching both of you, waiting for you to decide what to do. But you don't have time to think about it. You're racing across the sun-baked earth and you push between the two men before they can see you're there, shouldering one aside to stop the fight. You hold them apart with both hands. You have to dodge a couple of blows, but the fists aren't aimed at you. You don't think that at first they realise you're there. But when they do, and they see that the rest of the hands come running, they stop.

Both of them are talking at once, complaining at once. It's about who gets to choose a horse first... no. That's not it. It's about both of them wanting the same bangtailed mousy dun for their string, a pretty little horse that you know your brother has already eyed with interest.

The other hands gather in a circle, watching and listening, not even pretending to hide their interest. You don't shout. You never shout. But you know how to make your voice soft and angry, how to use other weapons to make the men feel small. And by the time you've finished with them, by the time you've finished with telling them what you think about their stupidity and their likely parentage, and after a diversion into their personal appearance and how a bath wouldn't hurt either of them, the other hands are laughing and the two men look sheepish. You tell them neither of them gets the dun, and you were just out at the backhouse and a new hole needs digging and by then they're shuffling their toes in the dust and holding their hats in their hands. They won't look you in the eye and the tips of their ears are red.

When they've been herded off by Cipriano's son, Eduardo, to find shovels and all the other hands have been sent back to work, you take a deep breath. Cipriano nods his approval, stroking his moustache to hide his smile, and all the hands are grinning as they go. You watch them all leave. In the corral, the horses mill about, calming, slowing to a stop.

An arm snakes over your shoulders, the hand ruffling your hair as it passes, and your brother is there, grinning, and his voice is soft in your ear saying something like well done, brother, because that shows the hands who's boss.

You grin back. It does, doesn't it?

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The hardest thing to get used to in this new life is riding beside you now, neck and neck across the meadows towards the hacienda.

Such a surprise, to find you have a brother. A surprise that still takes your breath away.

You've been an only child all your life. You grew up knowing that you were the only child of a man who didn't want you or care for you. And however untrue you've found that charge is against your father, being an only child is still a truth that's shaped you. Lucky for you, there was someone else to want you and care for you, and to them you were all they had. You got all the attention, all the affection, all the expectations were on you. You had no brother to share with, to be compared to, to compete with, to fight with; no brother there then for the rough and tumble, push and shove scramble of growing up.

You learned to be a child, a boy, a man all on your own.

It's made you solitary beneath the friendliness you offer the world. And now you're learning to share, to be compared with him, to compete with him, even to fight with him. It's hard, learning you aren't solitary any more.

Murdoch pairs you up with him most days, and together you've strung fences and cleared streams, moved cattle and chased wild horses. Today though, you separated early to work your way up one of the creeks that flow down from the mountains west of the ranch, with him taking the main stream while you followed a smaller creek feeding into it.

You cleared half a dozen small blockages, mostly brush wood snagged up against larger branches, before you reach the head of the little stream and can cut cross-country to find him, riding through the foothills. He's in a little valley where the creek throws itself down stony cataracts and dashes through tumbled rocks in a rush of white foam. The grass is a rich and lush green, sprinkled with hardy little flowers, white and pink and yellow. Behind him loom the mountains, purple in the distance, hard-edged against the sky. One mountain wears a cloud like a rakish hat. Rain's coming.

He's working on a bigger blockage than any you've found so far today, and for a moment you sit and watch him. He has one end of a rope tied to a big branch, and the other is belayed around his waist, held firmly in his gloved hands. He takes care of his hands, but no man would pull on ropes like that unprotected. That would be stupid, and neither of you is stupid.

He strains against the rope like a horse throwing its weight into the harness, all muscle and strength. You can see how he drives down with his legs, using them to push forward, the rope taut behind him. One step. Two. The rope is more taut than a bowstring. Slowly the branch behind him moves, the mud sucking at it, smaller branches twisting in with it. A third step, a grunt and one more effort. The branch comes free with a suddenness that has him stumbling into a clumsy run to stop himself from falling, and when you laugh he turns his head and sees you.

His face is red and sweaty. His shirt is wet, too, and the knees of his pants are muddy where he's fallen once already. But he grins when he sees it's you, and straightens up, letting loose the rope with a sigh. He stretches up and back, easing his shoulders and rolling his head, wiping his face on his sleeve. His neck must ache.

You dismount and offer your canteen. When he tastes the contents, his eyes light up. You find out why when you have some yourself. Every day Teresa fills your canteens and wraps your lunches in red bandannas. She's given you cold tea today, flavoured with sugar and a little ginger. It's spicy and satisfying.

It's his idea to race home when you're finished for the day, trying to beat the rain. Your horses are on a par, matching each other stride for stride. He's laughing, his head thrown back, and his hat flying behind him held only by its storm strings, hair streaming in the wind. He looks over at you, full of joy and life, his eyes shining with it.

Some things about a brother aren't so bad, you guess.

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Of course you have some regrets. You were a man coming to a new life, not the child who wondered why his father didn't want him or the boy who might have needed him; but a man full grown. Too late now for Murdoch to mould you.

Still, you were moulded by the ones who were there when Murdoch wasn't, and by the things you've seen and done. Accepting this new life means you're denying some, at least, of the old. It's a sort of birth, you suppose, and like all births there's pain and blood and toil involved. And like all births, there's hope and potential and a new beginning.

Every minute of every day, you know how different this life is from the one you left behind. You're getting used to it, you say. You don't say that you like it.

But you do.

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~end~
2955 words
August 2011