He wore Levis. Sitting on the top of the corral fence, balancing his weight where the log rail hit the back of his thighs.
The folded strap of old stirrup leather cracked loudly against the faded seat of his jeans, the sound and sting making him jump and scramble for purchase on the rails. His assailant watched, expressionless but for an imperceptible twitch of his lips.
Levis dropped from his perch into the soft, beaten mix of earth and manure and swung himself fluidly over the lower bar of the fence, ducking between the rails with the grace and ease of long practice. He looked up, brown eyes meeting grey ones creased with laughter and sun. But there was no laughter in them now. A warm hand, callused and roughened with work, closed on the nape of his neck. It guided him firmly down the dirt track to the old barn.
He studied its weathered paint and the battered metal hinges of the doors. He studied the grass, beaten and faded under his boots. He studied his boots, stained with dirt and water, powdered with fine dust… Good boots. Working boots.
Then they were stepping through the open doors, mingling scents of leather and sweet hay swallowed the tang of manure and dirt on their clothes. His heart beat faster now, he swallowed, and his breath came shorter.
At the tack room door, his breath caught. He remembered even as the soft words came to his ears.
“Feedin’ time was six-thirty…”
He closed his eyes. He said nothing. There was nothing to be said. He’d forgotten… It wouldn’t happen again… But there were no excuses in this life. Excuses were for easier lives. Lives he hadn’t chosen.
The firm hand guided him to the center of the room. The walls were lined with bridles and bits, reins and halters. All smelled of horses and leather and oil. The floor was cool cement, swept clean every night by his own hands. He breathed the comfort of familiar smells. But the old strap of stirrup leather he knew as well. Thick and heavy, oiled and pliant in the strong hands. And he knew the look in the grey eyes lined with laughter that did not laugh today.
Dust drifted lazily in the slanting motes of dying sunlight. A spider had worked tirelessly rebuilding once more a web swept down each night. It gleamed. A thousand prisms shining gold. His eyes caught a hundred details in a heartbeat but two words tolled in his ears.
“Come here.” The voice was deep and soft and gentle and powerful and filled with promises of painful reckoning.
He fought a surge of shame and anguish that pressed against his lungs. He studied his boots as he walked forward.
The saddle was set on end on the smooth concrete floor. The frame required to hold only its weight was still strong enough to take a man’s. He studied the boots of the man waiting there for him. Older and broader than his own. Stained with dirt and water, powdered with a fine dust. Good boots. Working boots. Waiting…
He hitched a breath and worked the Levis off his hips. Hesitation, always a hesitation. His eyes flickered to the waiting boots. Then his thumbs hooked into his briefs and jeans and pushed them down to hobble his legs. His belly felt the cool, smooth surface of the barrel. He reached down to the rungs. His fingers flexed and tightened around the wood.
The first lick hit his mind like the icy water of a first spring swim. He gasped. His head jerked up. Soon his breath was coming hard through his teeth. His punisher spoke no words but for the crack of the strap. And those words were strong, powerful, convincing. The boy bucked, fighting to keep his hands on the wooden bars. He knew his silence would fail him. He knew his courage would break. But he would not fight. He would not plead. And he would not forget.
Soon his voice betrayed him as he hissed, grunted, cried out. Then his body as his hands flew from their grip, his feet tangled in their denim shackles, tears streaked his cheeks and dampened the floor.
Then the crack of leather quieted , leaving his grating sobs the only sound echoing among the still shadows.
“Don’t want to do this again. Those animals get fed at six-thirty, hear?”
His release. The boy eased himself to his feet. He was shaking, dizzy. He gulped for air. A firm hand grasped his shoulder, steadying him as he bent for his knotted jeans. A clean cloth appeared for his face. Slowly, he rebuilt himself. But as the final pieces of his pride and his manhood came back into place, one remained shattered. He stared down at the boots before him. He couldn’t meet the eyes with the lines from laughing. He couldn’t swallow the shame that burned his face and tightened his throat.
“Look at me.” The deep voice rumbled, tempting with promises of forgiveness.
Hesitation. Always a hesitation. Lingering disgrace. A warm hand, callused and roughened with work closed on the nape of his neck and pulled him forward into strong arms and absolution.