Ride 'Em Cowboy (mm mc)

Copyright © 2004

Written especially for Hyptrance

View the dream cast for Ride 'Em CowboyHank stood out on the dusty ground of the ranch, casually spinning a large lasso in intricate swoops and swirls and making it look easy. Years of practice with the rope had brought Hank's level of expertise to that of a master. That suited Hank just fine, as he considered himself a master in other ways, too.

Hank rarely had the time to just stop and enjoy his rope work anymore, as his tasks and responsibilities as one of the top hands at the Geddyup Dude Ranch were pretty demanding. Hank was a well-built man, with the arms and chest of a weightlifter, or more accurately a cow puncher, since his physique was hard-earned through honest toil rather than under the direction of a personal trainer. His jaw was squared, his eyes sharp, his hair dark, his face clean-shaven. Hank didn't cotton to the notion that a real cowboy had to be scruffy and unkempt. Besides, looking too mangy would frighten away some of their many tourist ranch guests and undermine the whole enterprise of drawing so many city folks out to the country for a real old West vacation experience.

Hank's appearance did much to bring that feeling of the old West to life. Beyond his impressive build and handsome features (to say nothing of his skill with a lasso, nearly matched by his ability to ride and shoot), Hank always dressed the part of the cowboy. Even now he stood in dusty jeans and chaps falling atop well-worn cowboy boots. He wore no shirt, but only a leather vest and large, loosely-knotted red bandana around his neck. He had a pair of short rustler's gloves on his hands, and a dark brown Stetson on his head. Hank made sure to don a clean shirt before interacting with the guests, although on his earliest mornings out, he had been known to forego the blue jeans as well and wear only the chaps. That little secret in attire was strictly between Hank and the cactus, though.

Hank gazed out at the landscape that so many told him looked desolate, with it's burning sands, lifeless rocks, cactus, and foreboding distant mountain range. To Hank, it was as alive and vibrant as anyplace could possibly be. This was the frontier that boasted that it could turn boys into real men. Hank had done his part to keep that legend alive.

Hank breathed deep of the clean, crisp morning air. He had tasks a' plenty to tend to before noon, more after that to tackle before sundown. He'd already finished off his own personal chores before sunup, thus allowing himself time to hone his roping skills. For now he was waiting for something in particular. Something was occupying Hank's mind, and he knew if he didn't get it taken care of, it would distract him for the rest of the day. It was only a matter of time before he was given the opportunity to address it. He didn't have long to wait.


Hank grinned. Right on schedule. Hank turned around easily and smiled at the approaching ranch foreman. The man was squat and rotund, his girth pressing against his giant belt buckle to make it stand out like a plate. Even with his cowboy hat on, it was apparent the foreman was bald as an egg, a detriment he made up for with a bushy gray mustache sometimes likened to Wilfred Brimley's. "There a problem, Pete?"

Foreman Pete huffed and puffed. "Hell yes, there's a problem! Same damn problem we have ever cotton-pickin' time you hire new hands! When in the Sam Hill are you gonna get wise, stop using yer head for something other than a hat rack and hire some experienced cattlemen when the time comes round for additional staff? Why don'tcha tell me that??"

Hank kept smiling, winding down his rope trick. "The new boys not quite up to snuff, are they?"

"I've seen better cowhands at a Tupperware party, dammitt. They're screwin' up every job we give 'em and they're puttin' the rest of the staff on edge. Now you need to get them boys squared away or get them gone!"

Both Hank and the foreman knew that this show of temper and frustration was just that; show. Hank and Pete had known each other for years, and Pete knew the only reason Hank hadn't already used that rope to string him up was they years of friendship they shared between them. Just the same, Pete knew that Hank was the best man in four counties for turning a greenhorn into a cowpoke, and in record time, too. Pete just had very little patience for the time in between.

Hank spun the rope easily back into his hand, where it seemed to loop back into his palm of its own accord. With an index finger, Hank pushed his hat up on his brow by half an inch. "I'll go have a talk with 'em."

Hank sauntered off, anxious to start what he considered his most important job on the dude ranch, and the one cowboy skill at which he excelled above all others.

”And you might give some thought to throwin' on a shirt fer yerseff, too!"

Without turning back, Hank tossed off a friendly wave, indicating to Pete that he'd already thought of it.




The two new ranch hands were not having a good day. To be fair, they hadn't had a good day since they started work three days prior, so it's not as if they had any contrasting experience for comparison. Both boys were covered in dust and stray bits of straw and grass, signs of the handful of tasks they had attempted to tackle unsuccessfully that morning. They were sweating profusely, huffing and puffing with frustration at their repeated failure which they knew was not from lack of trying.

The first boy, lean and trim and in his early twenties, brushed a shock of blond hair out of his slender face. Muttering, he remarked, "Hey, I know! Man, let's get jobs at that one dude ranch this summer!" He rolled his eyes and sneered at his friend while reaching for a shovel to scoop away a mound of gravel at his feet.

The second boy, of slightly larger build and defined physique, puffed right back. He was the same age as his buddy but had youthful features that made him appear a few years his junior. He pressed his mussed dark hair back against his scalp with a dusty palm. "Okay. I get it. Taking these jobs was not the smartest move I could've suggested. How long are you gonna rub it in?"

"Till we get to the end of this day and put in our notice. Or until we drop dead from exhaustion, which may come first. Watch your head."

The blond boy tossed a hay bale over his friend's head with a grunt, sending it through the air to land atop its brethren bales in the loft just three feet above the boys' heads. There it teetered, along with its amber fellows, creaking slightly as it swayed, seeming to be deciding whether to settle or tumble back to the earth.

The dark-haired boy turned back and gaped at the swaying pile of hay bails. "Oh, man, don't even--!"

But it was too late. The bales had evidently opted to dive back to where they came from, and the entire stack tumbled forward to crash unceremoniously upon the heads of the two boys, knocking them flat amidst a wild spray of loose stray and a choking cloud of dust.

"Goddammitt!", the blond boy cursed. "That is it! I'm out of here right now! Screw waiting until the end of the day! I'm done, game over!" He pushed the mass of hay and dirt aside and climbed out from the wreckage. "You're on your own."

The dark-haired lad looked up from the hay and dust under which he was still partly submerged. He blew furiously to get the bulk of loose straw away from his mouth. "No way! You can't just leave me here like this! I'm not cleaning all this up by myself! Get your ass back here!" He tried to free himself from the mess, stumbled, fell backwards into the hay again with a small burst of yellow straw exploding beneath him in impact.

The blond boy brushed his pants off angrily. "Forget it. This was your idea, you deal with it."

"I didn't even toss the bail that caused this!"

"No, you just tossed us into this stupid job in the first place!"

The baby faced brunette clambered out of the hay, concerned. "Come on, wait. This ranch is like the biggest part of this whole community--the entire town relies on it. You know how much money this place donates to the university? If word gets back to the chancellor that we bailed on a summer job most kids would kill for--"

The blond boy kicked at the mound of hay. "Baled?" His eyes held no humor, despite his making a joke.

His dark-haired friend began to speak, to reassure his pal that it would all work out, that they'd get the hang of being ranch hands. That this was just a beginner's slump. But he sighed, knowing that it was hopeless for two college boys to become competent enough cowboys to avoid getting themselves canned or killed within the week. Best to leave now and face the stigma of walking off the job than be thrown out by a couple of real cowboys. The boy nodded slowly, ready to concede their failure.

"Having a little trouble there, fellas?"

The two college boys looked up to see the man who'd hired them standing in the doorway of the barn. He stood easily, one arm resting against the doorjamb. His was the kind of presence that filled a doorway, and would have done so even without his imposing cowboy outfit. Hank took off his hat and swatted at the air, breaking up the clouds of dust. He stepped into the work area, sunlight from behind him spilling over his shoulders and adding to his impressive appearance. Hank had lost the chaps and put on a shirt, although enough of the buttons were left undone that he almost needn't have bothered. His lasso still hung upon a clip on his belt.

The boys shuffled uneasily in the mound of straw and looked at their feet. The dark-haired one apologized. "We're sorry, sir. We'll get this cleaned up, I promise."

Hank put his hat back on and looked the boys over. "You didn't answer my question, son."

The blond boy answered for him. "Yes, sir. We're having all kinds of trouble." His companion smacked him on the arm, firing a look of outrage at his friend for so openly revealing their shared incompetence. The blond glared back. "Well, we are!"

The dark-haired boy looked at Hank, trying to find words to explain himself. "Look, it's like this, Mr.--"

"Hank's fine."

"Um, okay. Hank, we're trying our best, we really are."

"If I didn't believe that I'd have tossed you both out already."

Thrown by Hank's terseness, the dark-haired lad fell silent. His pal began to add, "It's just that we're so far out of our element. We want to keep these jobs, we appreciate you hiring us and all--"

"Then I would suggest we get to work on cleaning up this mess before we do any more jawin'." Hank pulled out a small cell phone/walkie talkie that had been clipped to the back of his belt and pressed a button on its side, talking into it. "Clem? You on the line, come back?"

There was a soft hiss of static and then a voice with a thick drawl responded. "Yeah, I got my ears on. Talk to me, Hank."

"I'm gonna spend the day breaking in the new breed here. You handle things without me for the next 24?"

"What, those college boys or yorn?", the voice came back, not without some audible scorn. "You can have the next 72 hours if it'll help whip their sorry asses into shape."

The boys fidgeted uncomfortably at hearing this, but Hank pretended not to notice. "24'll be fine. See ya at chow time." Hank shut off his talkie before waiting for another cutting comment. Looking back to the boys, he said, now let's make short work of this mess o' hay, you two and then we'll--" He stopped, trying to recall their names. He pointed to the blond boy. "Sorry son, what's you're name again?"


Hank blinked. "I'm truly sorry about that." Ralph's face fell. Hank looked at the dark-haired boy. "And you're--?"


Hank shook his head. "Now, that's just plain unfortunate." Hank stroked his chin, thinking. "Tell ya what. We don't have name tags or anything like that around here, so next time anyone asks you, guests especially, your name", and he pointed to Ralph, "is Jody. Got it?"

Ralph nodded, but his eyes showed that he was uncertain about it. "Yes, sir."

"And you ", Hank indicated Dudley, "are gonna answer to--" Hank looked upward, mentally trolling for a decent cowboy moniker. "--Zeke", he decided.

Dudley swallowed hard. "Um, okay."

Hank retrieved three pitchforks and tossed one to each of the boys. "Let's get this mess cleared away. You've got a lot of work ahead of ya. I'll see ya through it." After Hank ran through the proper way to use the farm implement a few times, the two college kids caught on and were able to mimic his actions, if not fairly accurately, then at least to the point that they had little fear of stabbing each other.

"After this is taken care of, boys, we gotta get you into some proper ranching clothes. Those monkey suits you boys got on now not only ain't fit for ranch work but they'll end up getting you beat up 'round here."

The boys stopped and looked at themselves. "What's wrong with our clothes?", Ralph asked, a bit offended. Ralph work a powder blue hoodie with the name of his university emblazoned across the front. His jeans were an expensive, high-ends brand, and had been "distressed" for effect. His shoes were $200 athletic sneakers better suited to the basketball court than the barn.

Dudley was too self-conscious to be offended. "Do you really think the other workers are gonna get beat us up?" Dudley was dressed in a college T-shirt which he wore beneath an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt of firey orange, canary yellow, neon green, and electric blue. His gray khaki shorts had twice as many pockets as his shirt had colors, each pocket having its own button-down flap. His shoes were black Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars.

Hank frowned. "Not if I can help it."



Dudley and Ralph stood in the barracks that they were to use during their tenure at the ranch. With Hank leading them, they had cleaned up their mess in the barn in record time. Now Hank was laying out clothes on their beds. A couple pairs of denim jeans. Cheap, durable. Two pairs of shirts. Two plaid, two plain. All four in Western style, with shoulder yokes and snap-up fronts, three additional snaps at the sleeve cuffs. two pair of cowboy boots thudded onto the floorboards at the foot of the beds. Nothing fanciful about them. Now elaborate stitching or silver tipped toes. Just well-made and rugged boots that had already seen a bit of wear and would no doubt last through considerably more.

"Jody, Zeke", Hank said, "you two boys are gonna dress like this from now on. How you dude yourselves up on your own time is up to you, of course. But on my time, and while you're on the ranch grounds, you are gonna be cowboys and you are gonna look the part. We clear on that?" The boys nodded.

Hank reached into an ugly canvas knapsack and pulled out two handsome cowboys hats. "And you will wear these at all times, except when you're dining indoors." Hank placed the dark brown Stetson atop the tow-headed Ralph, and the straw-colored hat on the brunette Dudley. "They'll not only help to keep the sun off of you, but it'll help you feel the part on top of just lookin' it." Hank turned toward the door and nodded once at the two green ranch hands. "Now get changed and we'll hit your chore list. We'll make cowboys outta you, yet."

Hank departed, closing the door behind him. Dudley and Ralph quickly stripped off their dusty and hay-strewn attire to suit up for their new roles. Once alone, they felt safe enough to comment on their assigned wardrobes. "Thought I was done with company uniforms when I quit Burger World back in high school", Dudley remarked.

"It's just costumes to help the guests feel they're really out in the Old West, I suppose", Ralph shrugged. "Maybe this will help us get more into our jobs. Who knows?" Then, to himself, he mumbled, "But it's gonna take a shoehorn to squeeze into these pants."

Neither of them felt very confidant that a new wardrobe would be of any help, but neither did they feel confidant enough to say so.




As the sun began to drift lazily toward the horizon, Dudley and Ralph were ready to race it to the ground by falling over from exhaustion. Hank had put them through their paces, having Dudley and Ralph tackle chores both difficult and complicated for seven hours straight, with only a brief break for lunch. The boys were spent, and though in their new clothes they looked very much like cowboys, as ranch hands they made great university students.

"We sucked at everything we did today", Dudley gasped, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. "If Hank doesn't shitcan us now, it'll be a damned miracle."

Ralph was bent over, bracing his hands on his knees, panting right along with his friend. "Don't say that! You have no idea what Hank's impression of us was. He knows we were busting our asses today. We don't know for sure yet that we sucked at everything."

"No, Jody, that's a pretty fair assessment." The boys turned to look at their mentor, who was not only not sweating much, he looked ready to go another seven hours at ranch labor with no trouble at all. "Zeke pegged it. You boys sucked something fierce. It's gonna take a helluva lot more'n a change of attire to whip you two into shape."

Dudley lowered his head. "Guess maybe Ralph kinda blew things when he knocked over that whole fence line."

Hank saw Ralph bristle at the remark. "That wasn't your finest moment, no", Hank conceded, taking care to refer to both boys in his response.

Ralph snapped at Dudley. "Or it could be what wrecked it for us was when Dudley let all those cattle loose near the breakfast buffet!"

Dudley's face went red. "That would never have happened if you knew how to secure the damned gate!"

"If I was the one who was supposed to secure the damned gate, you mean--!" Ralph got up in Dudley's face, ready to fight.

"Zeke! Jody! That'll do!" The two boys stepped back from one another, silenced by Hank's strident address of their assigned cowboy names. Hank shook his head. "Nobody's been fired yet. I didn't hire either of you because you screamed 'experienced ranch hand' during your interview. I hired you based on what I saw as your potential. Which, I might add, is dwindling pretty rapidly." The two boys shuffled their feet in the dirt, looking ashamed. "Put away the tools in that loft above the shed." Hank indicated a nearby equipment shed and the ladder nearby they were to use to reach its upper storage area. "I need to think for a minute." Hank walked a few paces away from them, hands on his hips, head lowered and shaking slightly side to side, his back to the boys.

Dudley and Ralph gathered up their tools and went to the shed, convinced that their new mentor was seconds away from giving up on them. Ralph climbed the ladder while Dudley braced it with one hand and passed his friend up the tools with the other. What neither boy could see was Hank's face, which was split into a wide grin, showing how pleased he was with the boys performance, or complete lack thereof. As far as Hank was concerned, things could not be going better. All he needed was one last screw up to seal his plans for the boys for the evening. And as if on cue, he saw it coming their way.

"We are so totally out of a job now", Ralph muttered to Dudley.

"Well, you were the one who was gonna walk out on the job this morning, so don't start blaming me for this."

Ralph snatched the two hoes Dudley was handing him. "There's a big difference between walking out with dignity and being thrown out on your city slicker college boy ass!"

Dudley hissed threateningly, "There's a pitchfork within arm's reach down here. Watch your tone, man."

Before Ralph could jibe back, another voice interrupted them. "Hey, cowboys."

Both boys turned to see an attractive guest of the ranch sauntering by. She was 5'10", slender, with long, straight auburn hair and perfect skin. She wore a sheer, floral dress that hung around her shoulders, revealing a very attractive neckline. She was barefoot, carrying her sandals in one hand. "Looking good, fellas." Her eyes danced as she smiled at them, flicking her hair over one shoulder with a tilt of her head.

Dudley and Ralph stared blankly at the lovely young lady as she passed, thrown off guard by her flirtatious comment. As they both craned their necks to watch her pass, hank's anticipated screw up unfolded. Ralph lost his grip on the hoes and struggled to catch them as they fell from his hand, making him lose grip on the ladder. The hoes bashed into Dudley's arms, making him jump back, letting go of the ladder as well. Ralph had one last moment to scramble in attempt to reaffirm his hold on the ladder as it tipped backward. He was able only to clutch a few stray farm implements from the loft, yanking them towards him. With a crash of tools and college boys, the ladder tumbled backward pinning the two greenhorn ranch hands under the old wooden ladder and an avalanche of tools. Through whatever miracle, the boys sustained no injuries worse than a few bumps and bruises. And complete humiliation.

Hank towered over the twosome and glowered. There was a moment of painful silence as the duo looked up at the silhouette of their superior, backlit by the evening light. Before either boy could open his mouth to offer an apology (or assign blame to his companion), Hank spoke, his voice edged with deliberate control. "Zeke, Jody, you have one last chance to prevent immediate and permanent dismissal. You will do exactly as I tell you, got that?"

The boys began to speak, but Hank cut them off. "Don't say a word. I don't want to hear it. Do you understand me?" Badly frightened, the two boys simply nodded. Hank continued. "Good. You will clean this mess up, then you will clean yourselves up and get some evening chow. You will then meet me at the old campfire site past the blacksmith's shack. You know where that is?"

The two boys exchanged concerned looks. It was apparent they had no idea. Hank said gruffly, "Get directions from Jed in the kitchen when you finish your supper." Hank looked at his watch. "I'll be there at seven-thirty. That doesn't give you much time, so you better get busy. If you're even a minute late, you're gone. Got that?"

The boys began to speak simultaneously, but Hank interrupted again. "All I wanna hear from either of you is 'Yes, sir'. Now, do you got that?"

Dudley and Ralph swallowed hard. Then, with one voice, they answered, "yes, sir."

Hank nodded curtly then turned away. As the boys hurried to free themselves of the tangle they'd dropped themselves in and see to their assigned tasks, it was all hank could do to maintain a steady, masterful pace as he walked away, fighting the urge to run and skip, delighted as he was at how things were turning out.




Ralph and Dudley sprinted over the final hillcrest, grass yellowed and brittle from the summer sun crunching under their boots. They shared concerned looks, hoping they'd gotten Jed's directions right, but neither of them certain of their bearings on this unfamiliar portion of the ranch, and in the fading light. The two college boys stumbled as they skidded down to the bottom of the hill, seeing a solitary figure seated on an overturned log, facing the horizon, his back lit by the glow of a small campfire. they could tell from the man's posture and build that it was Hank. The boys quickly made their way to the other side of the campfire and stood there, waiting. Finally, Dudley looked to Ralph and whispered, "Are we late?"

The soft click of the gold pocket watch made them both jump as Hank looked down at the heirloom's face, twisting at the waist to make use of the light from the fire. "Two minutes early, as a matter of fact." Hank slid the pocket watch back into his vest and turned to face the nervous boys. Hank gestured to the log lying on the ground opposite him. "Have a seat."

Dudley and Ralph did as bidden. Hank fussed with a toothpick between his teeth, sizing up the fidgeting boys with a discerning eye. "Fellas, I get the impression that you two really want to do a good job out here. Am I right?"

The boys nodded. "Oh, yes, sir", said Dudley.

"Really. We do. That's right", Ralph agreed.

"But you do know it's gonna take more than me holding your hand and walkin' you through it for you to settle in, don't you?"

Dudley and Ralph looked puzzled, the looked at each other, both conveying with a look that neither knew where hank was going with this. "What do you mean?", Dudley asked.

"Boys, why did you apply for these ranch hand positions, anyway?"

Dudley shrugged. "We thought it would be a fun way to spend the summer", Ralph offered.

"And are ya havin' fun?"

Ralph lowered his head. "Not much", Dudley admitted.

"How about if you two could catch onto things a lot faster, get a better feel for the work and get real good without all the mess ups and embarrassment along the way?"

"Well, sure!", Dudley beamed. "Who wouldn't?"

"If I could promise you an increase in your proficiency on the job, would you be willing to stay?"

"Absolutely", Dudley said quickly. "If you can promise that, then yeah!"

There was something in Hank's voice that gave Ralph pause. "What exactly did you have in mind? What are we supposed to do?"

Hank leaned over and reached into an old saddle bag that the boys hadn't even noticed until now. "You aren't really supposed to do much of anything", Hank said. "You just have to relax, listen, and let yourself learn. I'll take care of the rest." Hank pulled from the saddle bag a gleaming and polished old cowboy's spur. It hung from a thin but stout rawhide strap and swung ever so gently back and forth. Hank smiled as it caught the light of the campfire, taking on an orange hue and glistened all along its edge from the last rays of the setting sun.

Dudley squinted at the dangling spur, still uncertain what all this meant. Ralph was a bit quicker on the uptake, springing to his feet. "Whoa there! Wait a minute! Are you saying what I think you're saying? Are you gonna try and hypnotize us?!"

Hank nodded. "Out in these parts we call it mesmerism. But that's right, yeah. That scare you, Jody?"

"It's Ralph, and yeah, it does! I don't want you messing with our heads! I don't want to fall asleep and then wake up bow-legged and chewing 'tabacky' with a hankering for chitlins and Tammy Wynette music!" Hank laughed.

Dudley's expression shifted from one of piqued interest to genuine concern. "Is that right? Did you plan to, like, reprogram us into redneck cowhands or something?"

Hank waved the idea away. "Nothing could be further from my mind. Besides, It's not possible to make somebody do something they don't want to do under hypnosis."

"Mesmerism", Ralph corrected him.

Hank nodded. "Just so. All you can do with it is bring to the surface what's already there. Amplify it."

"What part of us is it that you intend to amplify?", Ralph asked pointedly. "Which of our many incompetent screwups do you think would work better if it was increased in intensity??"

Dudley, still seated on the log, tugged at his friend's shirt. "Dude, you're gettin' a little intense yourself, here. Hank just wants to helps us out is all."

Hank gestured gently for Ralph to take his seat, which he reluctantly did. His gaze remained watchful. "Why do you think I worked you two so hard today? Why do you think I tried to force so much information and so many new tasks into one day?"

"To see if we were ready, to see if we'd pick up on it all, I thought", Dudley confessed. Ralph merely shrugged.

Hank explained, "To give you as much bare bones learning as possible. To squeeze as much of your jobs as I could into your minds. And you did pick up on what we were doing today. You boys made an honest effort."

"Just not a very successful one", Ralph said. Dudley nudged him to be quiet.

"I'll admit", Hank said, "that there are a few more experienced workers here who wouldn't shed a tear if you were shown the way off the ranch. I'm not one of 'em." Hank leaned forward. Unconsciously, the boys did the same. "Look, all I'm suggesting is helping you focus on everything you did today. Bring into your mind not just what was done, but how you could do it right. This is meant to relax you and help you focus, to let your minds improve on the skills you only just started to learn today."

"I'm so beat it won't take too much effort to relax me", Dudley said.

"That's the other reason I worked you so hard. To get you into a tired state so that you'd be that much easier to put under if it came to that."

Ralph looked at Hank. he could tell that Hank was telling the truth about that, and in fact he was. Ralph paused a moment, thinking. "And what if we'd really started to catch on to our jobs?"

"Then we wouldn't be sitting here and you being so tired would result in you sleeping like a coupl'a logs tonight." Ralph thought about that, then nodded, feeling satisfied by that response. "You two boys are starting to look the part", Hank said, pointing to their clothing. The boys had cleaned up before getting supper and joining Hank. In their Western shirts, blue jeans, hats and boots, they did look like they belonged on the ranch. "But looking the part is only the first step. You need to live the part. If you're ready to do so."

"After today's debacle, I'm ready to try anything", Dudley confessed.

Ralph held up a hand. "And you're sure this is safe?"

Hank smiled warmly. "How do you think I learned?"

Ralph's eyes widened and Dudley blinked. "What, really?"

Dudley asked, "You mean, you were, whatayacallit, a 'greenhorn' just like us once?"

Hank laughed. "Oh, dear God, I was worse'n you two ever dreamed of bein'. Ask Jim Bob sometime to tell you about the kid who fell down the dried up well." Hank jerked a self-deprecating thumb back at himself.

Ralph felt all the tension go out of his shoulders. He'd found a kindred spirit. "So you're telling us you weren't raised out here?"

Hank's mouth twisted into a wry grin. "Heck no. I'm from Hoboken. 'Course they used to call me Henry back then. Hank works better out here."

Dudley and Ralph shared a satisfied smile. It was suddenly clear to them that the reason Hank was so willing to fight for them was that he once found himself in the same position. Ralph pushed his cowboy hat back on his head and asked, "What do we do?"

Hank held up the shining spur and said in a calm, steady voice, "Just relax, and I'll talk you through it."




There were no coyotes howling in the distance on Geddyup Dude Ranch as the sun slipped silently over the horizon, pausing briefly to paint the few low-hanging clouds in the night sky a vibrant pink and fiery orange. No buffalos trampled the underbrush on the other side of the hills. Most of the stereotypical sounds one associates with old West scenes were absent. Although there was the occasional soft hooting of an owl. And the lone, confident voice of an experienced rancher speaking slowly and calmly to his two young charges.

"Just start out by taking deep, slow breaths", he instructed. "In through the nose, fill up your belly with air, out through the mouth." Dudley and Ralph followed Hank's directions, eyes as wide as those of the nearby owl as they wondered what would come of this unusual cowboy training exercise. "Keep breathing steady, and keep your eyes on the spur. Watch it as it swings gently, back and forth." Hank gave the polished silver spur a light flick with his wrist, letting it sway lazily from its leather strap. It glinted in the firelight that flickered and crackled between Hanks and his subjects. The wide eyes of the college boys began to lose some of their trepidation and follow the casual movement of the spur.

"Thaaat's the way", Hank encouraged. "Just watch the shiny spur. Back and forth. Baaack and forth. Baaacck...and forth. Have you ever seen such a shiny, gleaming thing? Look at how the sharp edges of its star catch the light. Look how you can almost see your face in its surface as it passes. It makes you sleepy to watch it, swaying there. Back and forth. But you can't keep your eyes off it. So pretty, so shiny."

Dudley and Ralph were staring blankly at the swinging spur now, their breathing coming naturally and deeply. hank watched as the tension completely left their shoulders and they began to slump a bit where they sat. But their eyes remained on the spur. Even as their lids began to flutter, their focus stayed right where Hank had told them.

"It's so relaxing to just watch the spur, isn't it? You can feel it beginning to sooth away your tensions of the day. You can feel it starting to relax the muscles in your body. You can feel it starting down in your feet, inside your boots..."

Hank talked the boys through a series of standard deepening prompts. Relaxing their feet, then their ankles, their calves, knees, thighs, and so on up through their entire bodies. As he went through his narrative, he watched the boys closely. he wanted to be sure that they were indeed going under and were accepting his directions--and later would be equally responsive to his implanted suggestions and commands--without bothering with some of the usual tiresome verifying tests.

Hank had hypnotized quite a few subjects, all men, over the years, and could now tell with some certainty when someone was truly going into a trance state and when someone was faking it, or just dozing off to a nap. From what he could tell, Dudley and Ralph were truly going under. At first the expression of their eyes could be described only as one of abject stupidity. Both boys looked confused, yet fascinated by the pendulum swing of the gleaming spur. Their eyes wide, their mouths slack, their breathing deep, their vacant expressions indicating that the lights were on and nobody was home. "It feels so good to watch the spur", Hank told them. "It feels so good to relax. So good to just let go and trust me. Listen to me. Listen and relax."

The boys' eyelids were fluttering quite a bit now as they began to drift away into their initial trance state. Both boys' mouths curled into dopey grins as they continued watching the spur through slowly closing eyes, their bodies even beginning to sway slightly in time with the movement of the spur.

Within another twenty minutes, Hank had relaxed the boys all the way up to the tops of their heads inside their cowboy hats, and let them sink down into their own bodies, their minds adrift on the warm evening breeze. Dudley and Ralph slumped forward slightly, their arms and legs as limp as wet rags. Hank reached forward and tapped each boy's shoulder lightly, causing the two to slide into each other, shoulders pressed together, the wide brims of their hats cushioning their respective brows between them. Hank let them sleep that way for a while, letting them sink deeper into their receptive trance state as they did.

"How do you feel, boys? You can answer me."

Thickly, the boys responded. "...feels goood...", Dudley slurred. "...greaatt...comf'able..." Ralph concurred.

"Good. That's what I like to hear." Hank leaned forward, his forearms resting on his thighs, and spoke with a more commanding tone than he had while entrancing the two college boys. "You two are going to remain in this nice, comfortable sleeping state for a while. In fact, the longer you stay this way, the deeper you'll be able to feel yourselves sinking into this relaxing, soothing state of mind. In it, you'll hear, understand, and accept everything I tell you. You follow me?"

The sleeping boys did their best to respond, but it was clear they were already responding to Hank's suggestion and were sinking even deeper into their trance states.



"You'll stay asleep and responsive until I tell you to wake up. No matter what I tell you to say or do, you'll stay deep asleep. You got that?"

Now drifting deeply, the two boys only nodded, almost imperceptibly, their chins bobbing perhaps a quarter of inch up and down only once.

"Open your eyes."

Dudley and Ralph, the adorable snoozing greenhorn cowboys opened their eyes. They remained slumped together, their bodies limp. It was apparent from their lifeless arms and vacant stares that they were still sound asleep. They continued to breathe deeply, in and out, as if they were in the midst of r.e.m. dream sleep.

"I want you to repeat after me", Hank instructed. "Say that you're a cowboy."

In unison, the boys responded. "...'m a cowboy..."

Hank frowned. It was obvious to him that the boys were responding like robots. They may as well have said that they were bunny rabbits or ice cream sundaes. Hank restated his command. "You will envision yourself as a cowboy. Think of what that means. How a cowboy acts, how he carries himself. See his confidence, his know-how, his bearing." Hank watched as a certain understanding crept into the boys' eyes, even though they remained glazed and dull.

Hank's voice lowered by an octave. "Now see all that a cowboy does. But don't see it as if you are watching him. See it all through the cowboy's eyes. See what he's capable of, the respect he commands, the way others look up to him. You are that cowboy." Hank felt himself begin to grin as the blank expression of the boys' eyes began to be replaced by one of pride. "Now say it again. You are a cowboy."

Again, the boys repeated their phrase, this time their voices were crisp and clear, even as their eyes gazed at some invisible point on the horizon, past the campfire. "I am a cowboy." Hank heard what he was looking for. A measure of pride in their voices. Dudley and Ralph's eyes lost their dull glaze and shone with conviction.

"Yes, you are a cowboy", Hank agreed, addressing each boy simultaneously. "Now I want you to remember everything you were taught today. But see it again through the eyes of the cowboy. See yourself accomplishing each task as that capable, confident ranch hand."

For the next twenty minutes, Hank walked the boys through their day again, reinforcing what they'd learned, dismissing their mistakes and bolstering their courage. By the end of the induction, Hank was quite certain the boys' work would improve a hundredfold by the next day. As he completed his work, Hank saw that even as they slept deeply with their eyes open, the two formerly clueless college boys had begun to sit up straighter, and exude a relaxed assurance in themselves. Hank knew he could slowly revive them and his work for the evening would be well done.

But Hank had other plans.

In a confidential whisper, Hank spoke again. "Now, cowboys, I have something to ask you. You will answer truthfully because a real cowboy is always honest and forthright. Do you understand?"

The two new cowboys nodded confidently. But as Hank continued his hypnotic work, the two boys' eyes glazed over again, their strengthened shoulders sagged, and their expression became slack-jawed and confused. They remained that way for another forty-five minutes, until they felt themselves slip into a warm and welcoming darkness, later to awaken in their cots at sunrise, clad in only their boxer briefs, feeling they'd had the best night's sleep of their young lives.



Neither boy could fully believe not only how much better they had become at their jobs, but how very much at home they suddenly felt on the ranch. They each noted that they had a greater understanding of what needed to be done, a willingness to do so, and a growing confidence about the job and themselves. Even the old hands on the ranch who only a day before had sneered and ridiculed them eyed them with a grudging appreciation, if not respect.

The old hands weren't the only ones doing the eyeing. Dudley and Ralph had been sharing knowing glances all day, enjoying their continuing success at their jobs and enjoying the fact that they were sharing this success together. After nearly every chore, the two instinctively turned to one another and shared a smile and a wink. They felt at home in their previously unaccustomed western wear. The gloves, boots, and snug jeans now felt like clothes instead of costumes.

By mid-afternoon, the two young ranch hands were busy making serious headway on their stable chores that weren't due to be done until sunset. Dudley and Ralph worked side-by-side, pitching hay and cleaning the floors. Their bodies worked in perfect unison, their skills seeming to improve whenever they were in close contact with one another.

"This is fucking awesome", the Dudley said, his baby face appearing even more youthful for the constant grin..

"Y'know, I can't believe I agree with you on that", Ralph said, "but I really do. And I was so ready to hang it up yesterday."

"Hell, me too!" Dudley stepped back and set aside the rake he'd been using to clear muck from the stable floor. He began to unbutton his shirt. "It is a bit stuffier in here, though."

Ralph paused, watching his friend. Dudley seemed to move in slow motion, unsnapping one button after the other on his shirt, revealing his smooth, firm pecs, sliding the shirt off his muscled arms, pausing a moment to blot a bit of the perspiration trickling down his flattened abs with his sleeve. Casually, Dudley tossed the shirt over a nearby stable divider and yanked his gloves back on.

Ralph wasn't sure why this action was so hypnotic to him. Why he couldn't take his eyes off Dud. Or why he suddenly found himself stroking his own chest with his fingertips. Dudley looked up and saw Ralph was staring.

"Ralph? You okay?"

Ralph blinked, as if being roused from an afternoon nap. "Huh?"

"Hey, you're not getting heat stroke or anything, are ya? Hank warned us about the heat. You kept your hat on all day?"

Ralph shook off his strange stupor. "Oh. Oh, yeah! Sure I have." He reached up and adjusted the brim of his cowboy hat. "It's just, I was thinking that taking my shirt off while we work in here would feel pretty good, too."

Dudley raised an eyebrow. "Dude, you already have taken your shirt off."

Ralph looked down and saw that, sure enough, he had indeed already removed his shirt and slung it over a nearby peg on the wall. Ralph gulped. He had no memory of taking his shirt off. Just of watching Dudley.

But now Dudley was watching Ralph. Ralph was not as big as Dud, but he was very trim and taut. Dudley swallowed, looking over his buddy's smooth, lightly tanned skin, almost entranced by the beads of sweat sprinkled across his firm shoulders.

Softly, Dudley said, "Um, we better get this cleaned up now or we'll lose momentum and never get it done."

Ralph only nodded, retrieving his rake and returning to the job at hand. In a moment, Dudley was beside him and the two were back into a perfect rhythm, arms stroking in time with one another as they cleared a path along the stable floor.

They were going strong and making fine headway on the stable when they moved a bit too close to one another and their bare shoulders brushed together. Both boys felt a rush surge through them at the physical contact.

"Sorry", Ralph said, taking a step to one side.

"My fault", Dudley answered back, moving in the opposite direction just as quickly.

The two fell back into step and were raking even faster, trying to shake the feeling of that brief contact of skin on cowboy skin. Their increased pace actually improved their efficiency, and they neared the end of the stable faster than either had expected. It was near the far end that they brushed against one another again. This time, the full lengths of their arms touched as well as their shoulders. This time the boys audibly gasped at the connection. Their bodies were so hard. Their arms, already kept in fine shape, were getting a remarkable workout from the strenuous ranching chores. And their skin was so warm.

The two boys slowly turned their heads and looked at each other. But they didn't separate. Dudley swallowed again. Ralph licked his lips. The warmth radiating from their skin was reflected in their eyes. For another moment, the two boys just stood there, rakes still on the ground, gloved hands gripping their handles, gazing at each other, shirtless and perspiring under the shade of their wide-brimmed cowboy hats, sweat rolling down their skin. For a while the only sound heard was that of the horses moving about their stalls and the two boys' shared breathing.

Finally, Ralph spoke. "Zeke, your arm feels really good."

Dudley's eyes widened. "Huh?"

Ralph felt his breathing become a bit more ragged. He swallowed, trying to clear his throat. "Your...your arm up against mine. It just, it feels really good, is all."

"You called me Zeke."

Now it was Ralph's turn to pause. "What? Did I?"

"My name's Dudley, man. Hank's little assigned names are just for like the guests and all that. When it's just us together, you should call me by my real name."

Ralph did not break eye contact with his friend, nor did either boy move their arms. "I...thought I had."

Now Dudley--Zeke--was feeling it too. His breathing was becoming shallow, the sensation of his best friend's skin upon his was suddenly far too intense. There was soft brush of rough fabric against Dudley's shoulder and he looked down to find Ralph's gloved fingers there, gently stroking the length of his arm.

"I need some air", Dudley said suddenly. He dropped his rake and headed for the large stable doors and the wide open freedom that lay beyond.

Ralph was hot on his heels. "Me, too!"

But upon exiting the stable, it was apparent that Ralph was not pursuing his pal to maintain contact. The two boys immediately put a distance of about fifteen feet between them, lingering at opposite sides of the tall double doors. Both were equally shaken by the odd feelings that had come upon them inside.

"Hard to breath for a minute in there", Ralph said, leaning against the open door, panting slightly.

"It's the mustiness", Dudley offered. "And there's all that loose straw, and those methane vapors, you know, from all the horse droppings and stuff." He leaned forward and braced himself with his palms upon his thighs.

"Right, right", Ralph concurred. "Gotta be. Indoors the heat and smell can really get to you."

"Especially when you're working hard", Dudley added.

"Oh, yeah", Ralph was quick to agree. "Especially then."

Dudley gazed at the horizon, taking in the countryside and the lower position of the sun. "Yup. Heat and must and strenuous labor. Can make you disoriented. Think you're feelings things you're really not."

"Or thinking things", Ralph added.

The two boys looked at each other and there, in the fresh air and the slight warm breeze, they felt the spark cross between them again. They were quick to look away.

"Excuse me, young man?"

The voice of the older woman startled the two ranch hands, who jolted a bit as if they'd been caught doing something they shouldn't. Dudley straightened himself up and touched the brim of his hat in greeting. "Yes, ma'am? What can I do for you?"

"I'm a little turned around", the elderly tourist said. "I'm supposed to meet my husband and grandson at the riding trails and I'm not sure where that is. Can you point me in the right direction?"

The boys quickly snapped back into customer service mode, equally grateful for the distraction from whatever was happening between them. "Why yes, ma'am", Dudley said. "I'd be happy to. You see, you just go--" And Dudley found he had to pause. Where the hell was the riding trail? His mind was a blank. He turned to Ralph with a look of concern. "Umm--?"

Ralph titled his head. "The riding trail, was it?"

The old lady nodded. "That's right."

Ralph looked at Dudley, clearly as confused as he was. "Uhhh...riding trail. How to get to the riding trail..." After an uncomfortable moment, Ralph's eyes brightened and he held up one finger. "One moment, ma'am." Ralph darted back into the stable and came back out a second later. "This might help."

Ralph handed her one of the glossy fold-out maps that were scattered at different locations throughout the ranch. "Oh, thank-you, son", she said. They opened it together and Ralph pointed to different spots along the map to help the woman gain her bearings.

"Okay, you see we're here", he said, indicating the drawing of the stables. "And you want to get here, to the trails", and he traced a line to the riding trails, acting as if he knew all along where she needed to go, but wanted her to have a visual to go by.

"Oh, I see now!", she said, delighted. "I thought for certain I needed to take that path back by the big tree, but that would've taken me right to the archery range instead. My, that would've been a disaster."

Dudley stepped forward and pointed out a small bus-shaped icon not far from where they were. "If you head just past that fenced-in meadow there, ma'am, you'll find a shuttle area. One of the folks will be more than happy to get you there by golf cart. You'll be there in no time."

She was giddy to be back on track. "Oh, that would be lovely! Thank you so much, gentlemen! How wonderful to find such helpful and handsome young men out here in the great outdoors!" And she toddled along, waving once with her map as she departed.

Dudley looked at Ralph. "Where did you find the map?"

"There's a dispenser of them just inside the stable. I saw 'em when we came in."

Dudley shook his head. "Close save. I just blanked there. Like I'd totally lost my bearings."

"The heat?", Ralph offered.

"Naw, it's more than that. All the stuff we learned about ranching from Hank has been slippin' on us. I'd swear I knew the layout of this place like the back of my hand this morning, but now it's hard to remember much of anything, Jody."

"We need to get hypnotized again", Ralph said. "Make sure all that learning sticks. I don't wanna go back to being a greenhorn." Dudley nodded. Then Ralph added, "You realize you just called me Jody?"

Dudley paused. No, he hadn't. "Let's get to the last of the raking up."

The duo reentered the stable and made short work of their cleanup. As they put away their tools, checking repeatedly with the charts on the back wall to make sure they were putting everything in its proper place, they began to feel the charge grow between them again. Trying to ignore it, they kept themselves occupied with unessential busywork. They peeled off their gloves and straightened and swept where it was needed as well as where it wasn't. Until simultaneously, the two of them both reached to straighten a rake that hung crooked from its pegs.

Dudley's hand grasped the handle of the slightly rusted metal tool just as Ralph's hand came to rest upon his. Dudley turned to Ralph. "I've got it."

"I know."

And they just stood there.

"So why don't you move your hand?", Dudley asked.

Gently, Ralph began to run his fingers down the back of his friend's hand. The soft touch of his strong digits sent small sparks of electricity down Dudley's arm. As Ralph's hand made its way down past Dudley's wrist, Dudley began to pull away. Ralph stopped him by holding onto his hand. Gently, but with enough firmness to keep Dudley from continuing to pull back. Instead, he took a step forward, first gazing into Ralph's eyes and then staring at his bare chest.

Ralph's breathing seemed to grow louder. He let his hand slide down the surface of Dudley's arm to caress and massage his shoulder. Then he slowly reached over with his other hand and began to stroke Dudley's other arm. This time Dudley did not pull away.

"God, Jody--I mean, Ralph--what's happening to us?"

Ralph shook his head. "I dunno. I really don't. But damn, you look so beautiful, so handsome, Zeke. Your bare chest, all sweaty from a hard day's work, your hat, your cowboy boots...all rugged."

"Oh, man, you too, pardner." Dudley, now feeling more like he was Zeke, was only dimly aware that he'd just called his friend 'pardner'. Now he was reaching over to grab hold of his pal's waist, to run his fingers along his ribs, to reach around behind him and massage his shoulders, drawing him closer.

Zeke leaned his mouth towards Jody's, reaching up to remove his cowboy hat. Jody lightly touched his arm, stopping him.

"Leave the hats on."

Together, each boy simply slid his hat back on his head to make it easier to lean forward without bumping brims. They had no idea what had come over them, but they no longer cared. Distant harmonica music and the faint howl of a coyote which may or may not have existed outside their imaginations seemed to egg them on.



"So how are you two getting on?"

The two young cowboys leapt apart as if a snake had bitten them and looked to where the voice had come from. There stood Hank, only about ten feet away, all smiles and supportiveness. "How's things going there, boys? You getting along better today than before?"

"Oh, God yes", Ralph said before he could stop himself.

Dudley shot him a 'shut the hell up' look and Jody began to shuffle about, rearranging tools that had already been put away properly. "It's been ten times better today than yesterday, Hank. Thanks, man."

"Twenty times", Ralph corrected.

"Well, you boys are way ahead of schedule on your chores, I'll give you that. And I've been checking up on your progress. Everything done just right, all the seasoned hands are purty darn pleased with your showing today. They're all ready to have you stay on."

The boys looked truly relieved, and gratified. "That's awesome", Dudley said. Ralph smiled brightly.

"Well, I'll leave you boys to it. Finish the last of your cleanup here and you can have the rest of the afternoon off. Maybe I'll see you at chow time." Hank turned to leave.

"Hank, wait!", Ralph yelled after him.

Slowly, Hank turned around. "There something else?"

Ralph flinched. "Dudley had something he wanted to tell you." Dudley gaped at his friend. Ralph shrugged, then busied himself with more needless straightening.

"So what is it, Zeke?", Hanks asked.

"Um, I just wanted to say, that is, thanks for everything you did last night. What you did to us with your hypnosis stuff. It really helped us a lot."

"Mesmerism", Hank corrected. "And I did that with you, not to you."

Dudley agreed quickly. "Right, right. We just really appreciate it. We wanted you to know that. That we appreciate it."

"I appreciate you saying, Zeke." Hank turned to leave again and Ralph swatted Dudley's arm with his hat. Ralph said nothing, but his expression of raised eyebrows and clenched teeth conveyed what he need to. Dudley was not to let Hank get away.

"And we were just wondering", Dudley said, his voice rising a bit with urgency, "can you do it to us--I mean, with us, again?"

Hank turned back slowly. "How do you mean?"

Dudley looked to his friend for support. "Yeah, how do we mean, Ralph? Uh, Jody?"

Ralph took a step forward. "Um, we just thought since you did such a great job helping us out last night you could maybe do it again. Guarantee our proficiency on the job. Like that." Ralph offered a weak smile to Dud.

Hank aimed a level look at the boys. "It was only intended to give you a kick-start at your jobs, boys. Build your confidence. I'd say it's done that. You know what you're doing. You can see you've got the know-how." Hank turned away again.

"But it's slipping!", Dudley said. Hank turned back to them, an eyebrow raised.

"It's true", Ralph said. "We were just kickin' ass all day today, but now, it's like we're reverting or something. We're losing the skills you implanted us with last night. And we felt so good this morning, all day really, and we did such a good job at everything--we just want to keep at it."

"We don't wanna, like, lose our cowboyness", Dudley added.

Hank hooked his thumbs into his front pockets. "It was never intended to change who you are", Hank told them. "Just remind you of what you you'd been taught and let you let yourselves do the work. To believe in yourselves." For the first time, there was something in Hank's voice that rang as untrue, but the boys registered it more as suspicion of their own intentions in making the request to be hypnotized again.

"We just had such a great second day", Dudley said honestly. "We wanna keep doing what we did today. We know you can help us with that."

"Will you help us again, please?", Ralph asked.

There was such genuine sincerity in the boys' request that Hank had to be swayed by it. He scratched his head and said, "Okay, tell you what. I'll put you under again and reinforce what you had going for you today."

"Yes!", Ralph cheered, ecstatic.

"Oh man, that is so great, Hank!", Dudley beamed. The two boys dashed over to a nearby hay bail and sat down upon it, leaned their backs against a stall railing for support. They began taking deep breaths and rolled their shoulders in preparation. Hank just stared at them, incredulous.

Ralph looked up at him from beneath his cowboy hat. "Ready whenever you are, Hank. crank up our cowboy factor."

"We're set", Dudley agreed.

"Not now", Hank said. The boys looked up at him, crestfallen.

"What?", Dudley said, confused. "but you just said--"

"Jody, Zeke, you may be all done with your day's chores ahead of schedule, but I'm right on time." Hank paused, then pulled out his pocket watch, which he flipped open with a soft click. "No, I'm actually running a bit late now. I have to get back to work." The boys began to splutter, not wanting their mentor and hypnotist to abandon them. Hank held up a hand. "We can meet just like we did before, same spot, same time. You'll just have to hold out until then." Hank leaned forward a bit. "C'n you do that?"

The boys answered without conviction. "Uh, sure." "Yessir."

"See ya tonight, then", Hank said, tossing off a quick wave as he left the stables and the two young cowboys sitting there on the hay.

Dudley and Ralph let out a deep sigh simultaneously. "Don't know if I can hold out that long", Ralph said.

"Me neither", Dudley said. "But let's at least finish up here--"

"What little there is to finish."

"--and we can maybe explore the ranch a little", Dud suggested. "There's gotta be something fun for us to do until chow time." He patted his friend's hand, and they shared a smile, somehow feeling better for this shared contact.

Neither of them realized they were still holding hands until some twenty minutes later, as they made their way down one of the walking trails and attempted to walk around a tree on opposite sides, their intertwined fingers bumping against the rough wooden bark.

Dudley and Ralph paced back and forth around the small campfire. The sun had already set and they were alone at the spot where they had met with Hank the night before. They were cleaned and scrubbed, both of them smelling faintly or aftershave and clean linens. Both boys were clad in clean cowboy attire, Western shirts, tight jeans, boots, dusted hats. Dudley had included a vest with his ensemble, which suited him. Ralph wore a neckerchief. As they passed one another for the eighteenth time, Ralph shot an accusing look at his friend.

"Is this even the right spot?"

"I'm pretty sure. It damn well better be. Where is he??"

"He might've come by earlier and given up and left when he saw we weren't here yet."

Dudley's boots stomped a bit heavier as he paced. "He said to meet him at the same time as yesterday. That means seven-thirty. We were frickin' here already at six forty-five!" Then he added, grumbling, "Took you long enough to get the campfire lit."

"Me?! I had to take over after you botched it like a dozen times, Dud! If not for me, we'd be standing here in the dark!"

"We're not standing. We're pacing." And Dudley kept pacing.

Ralph stopped. "Well, if we are in the wrong place, just standing around--or pacing around--isn't gonna help us. For all we know Hank's sitting over the next ridge cooling his jets waiting for us to show up. One of us should scout around for him--!"

"Without our cowboy training reinforced? We'd get lost before we made it ten paces! Besides", Dudley snapped, "if Hank was just over the next ridge, he could hear us yelling at each other!"

"That'd be no surprise", Ralph shot back. "The whole damn ranch can hear you!"

The two boys stood glaring at each other from opposite sides of the small fire. They panted a bit, their frustration showing. Then they began to watch each other. The fire flickered, glinting off the button-up snaps on their shirts, giving their respective faces an orange glow. The undersides of the hats framed their faces in reflected light. Dudley's firm pecs could be seen beneath his open shirtfront, outlined by his vest. Ralph's taut neck muscles stood out beneath his red neckerchief. Dudley followed the line of Ralph's neck with his eyes, meeting his gaze across the firelight as their eyes met.

"Your eyes look really pretty in this light, Jody", he said softly.

Ralph, feeling more like Jody, gulped, not averting his gaze. "Yours too, Zeke."

The boy shuffled forward, the tips of their boots scuffing against the ring of rocks which encircled the campfire. Despite the snap and crackle of the kindling in the fire, they could hear each other's breathing.

"You look so good like this", Zeke whispered, barely louder than the sound of their breathing.

"Oh man, you too, pard."

Slowly, the two young cowboys began to sidle toward one another, making their way around the fire, their strong arms hanging limp at their sides, their fingers flexing and unflexing, a sure sign they didn't quite know what to do with their hands. Soon they stood face to face, the forward brims of their cowboy hats lightly touching.

"Hank may not even be anywheres near here, Zeke", Jody said, his hands reaching out for his friend's.

"But we are", Zeke answered, his hands taking his friend's, his thumbs gently caressing Jody's palms.

"See you boys found the spot again alright."

Ralph and Dudley jumped at Hank's voice, quickly stepping several feet away from one another. Ralph shoved his hands into his pockets, Dudley clasped his behind his back.

"W-we were beginning to think you weren't coming", Dud stuttered.

Hank paused a moment, eyeing the boys suspiciously. But if he wondered what they might have been up to as he approached, he opted not to pursue it by asking. "Got tied up at the main cabin reservations desk. Sorry to keep ya. Not the best example after my preachin' yesterday about bein' on time."

"Don't worry about it", Ralph said. "We're just glad we found the right spot again."

Hank grinned. "So, you to ready to--" That was as far as he got and the two young cowboys dashed to their log seat and sat down next to each other, wide-eyed and eager. Hank stuck his tongue in his cheek. "Guess that answers that."

"Did you remember to bring the spur?", Dudley asked anxiously.

Hank swung a knapsack off his shoulder and produced the gleaming item. "Start your breathing", he prompted. "In through the nose, out through the mouth."

Both boys leaned forward a bit on their log, anxious to experience the trance state again. Hank had to remind them twice to let their shoulders sag, to allow themselves to relax and let the induction do its work. As before, Hank worked them into a drowsy state starting at the feet and moving upwards. Unlike before, Hank began to speak to them as he was describing the relaxing sensations moving up into their torsos.

"It feels very good to let yourself relax, doesn't it?"

Dudley and Ralph were already quite sluggish, but were able to respond in sleepy tones. "Ohhh, yeaahhh..." and "Feeellsss sooo goood..."

"This is one of the reasons you were so anxious to be put under again, wasn't it?" This time the boys simply nodded. Hank went back to his induction and moved the release of all muscular tension up into their chests, down their arms, up their necks. As Dudley and Ralph's heads began to loll a bit as they drifted deeper down into their trances, Hank spoke again of their desire to be put back under.

"You want to regain your abilities as competent ranch hands too, don't you?" This time the boys' nods were barely perceptible, as sleepy as they were. Hank brought the relaxing induction up into their heads, letting the boys feel themselves fall backwards into their own bodies, setting their minds adrift in a sea of peace, to be floated easily into whatever direction Hank saw fit to send them.

After some more deepening exercises, Hank had the boys open their eyes. Both Dudley and Ralph looked to be in a happy stupor. Their eyelids drooped a bit, and the corners of their mouths curled slightly in a near-intoxicated grin. "Do you realize that your desire to be hypnotized again and your loss of ranching skills are more closely related than you thought?", Hank asked. The boys stared blankly, happy to just be in a trance state, content to listen to whatever their mentor had to say. Hank rested his forearms on his thighs as he spoke. "You wanted to be hypnotized again because I programmed you to want it. And you lost your skills because I implanted those in you with a deliberate time limit."

The boys eyes widened ever so slightly. They were still very much asleep, but the meaning of Hank's words was sinking in. Were they hearing him right? Had he played them?

"You see", Hank went on, "I gave you the posthypnotic command that as the sun set today, as would your ability as ranchers. As the sky grew dimmer, so would your thoughts in relation to your work. I only gave you the skills and confidence to use them for one day. And that was your signal to desire another hypnosis session. To desire it very much. And it does feel good, doesn't it, boys?" The boys stared, their eyes quite wide now, the glaze of confusion returned. "Zeke? Jody?"

The boys answered together. "...yesss..."

"You made damn fine cowboys today, fellas. You want to be good cowboys again? Zeke?"

Dudley responded, "Yes, please."

"How about you, Jody?"

Ralph answered, "Yessir."

"Good. Then you will. And this time your abilities will not fade. Let's review what you knew all day today about being a cowboy. What you'll remember that you know again." Hank reviewed their training with them, reinstating their skill as cowboys and competence as ranchers. He even added a few new skills. And true to his word, Hank made sure that this time the know-how would stay firmly in place in both boys. He even reinforced it three times.

When he was finished, Hank asked his first important question. "One at a time, now. What are you? Zeke?"

With renewed confidence and a fire behind his glazed eyes, Dudley said, "I'm a cowboy."

"And Jody?"

Ralph sounded just as confident, his eyes flashed the same. "I'm a cowboy."

"That's swell, fellas. Now, you remember what it felt like at sundown today, that craving you had to be hypnotized by me again?" The boys nodded. "Well, tomorrow that feeling's gonna increase to three times as much. You'll keep your skills, you'll still be cowboys, but you will want--in fact, you'll need to be hypnotized again. You got that?"

The fire that shone from behind Dudley and Ralph's eyes darkened a bit, a glint of fear dancing there. But they answered back, "We'll need to be hypnotized..."

"How badly?"

"Three times as much as we needed it today..."

Hank nodded, satisfied. "And one more thing, cowboys. I've caught way too much of this whole 'Dudley and Ralph' business when you thought no one was watchin' you. Those ain't cowboys names, no-how. As long as you are dressed as the cowboys you are, you will go by your cowboy names. Understand? Now, why don'tcha introduce yourselves."

Dudley felt himself smile as he responded to his command. "Hey y'all, I'm Zeke." Hank raised an eyebrow, pleased with the unrequested addition of Western phrasing.

Ralph grinned broadly as he answered back. "Howdy, I'm, Jody."

"That's the way", Hank said, clearly pleased. "That's what I like t'hear." The boys continued to smile, feeling genuine satisfaction at Hank's compliment.

Hank paused a moment as the two young cowboys, looking like self-satisfied robots, sat on their log, bodies limp and relaxed, eyes wide and faces smiling, awaited further instructions. Hank spoke again, his voice taking on a soft, conspiratorial tone. He asked his second important question. "Now, cowboys. D'you know what it takes to be the best cowboy you can possibly be? Do you know what kind of man it takes?"

The boys' smiling, confident looks began to fade. Their eyes went blank again, a dim light behind them searching for an answer they did not have. "You don't rightly know, do you?" Very slowly, the boys shook their heads, just barely. One inch to the right, two inches back, then staring blankly straight ahead. The volume of Hank's voice dropped a bit more. "Y'see, I think you do know. I think you've already begun to feel it throughout yer day today. You wanna know what it takes to be the best cowboy ever?"

Again, the boys barely moved their heads, this time in a nod of 'yes'. Their eyes now seemed eager, even hungry. They were anxious to learn, to be taught. To be programmed.

Hank said, "First of all, I want you to know that to become the best cowboy--to become the type of man who makes the best cowboy--is perfectly okay. What you'll be feeling, the things you'll experience, are all alright. You got me?"

The boys stared blankly, not sure how to respond. So Hank just added, "You trust me." It was not a question. Though still uncertain of what was to transpire next, the boys nodded. "Sleep deeper", Hank commanded. Zeke and Jody let themselves slip deeper into their trance state, their eyes going utterly blank and mindless, their expressions looking totally submissive. Hank then moved around the campfire and reached out to the shoulders of the two young cowboys. Gently, he pushed the two boys together, until they slumped against one another. Their shoulders pressed together, their heads rested softly temple to temple. Hank then draped the boys' arms around each other. One arm around the other's shoulder, the other resting on the inside of his friend's thigh.

Hank took his seat. "And now, Zeke, Jody, let me tell you what kind of man it takes to be a real cowboy."


The barracks was flooded with brilliant shades of yellow as the early morning sunlight poured in through the open window. The window had been left open all night, and a warm breeze drifted in on them now, giving a tiny bite to the temperature which already rose towards eighty degrees. Dudley and Ralph stood side by side, taking in the impressive scene of new light spilling over the landscape, painting grass, trees, and fences with glowing rays and stretching shadows outward in ever-increasing bands.

Dudley closed his eyes and took a deep breath, feeling the warmth on his bare skin. Ralph stood beside him at the window, their bare arms touching, neither one moving aside upon contact. "It's funny", Dud observed.

"What's that? How beautiful dead grass can look under the first rays of light?"

Dudley shrugged. "Besides that. I meant that until we got here, I never slept naked before."

Sure enough, both college men stood before the morning sun in the all-together, having slept, and slept well, wearing nothing at all. Now the golden light spread across their pecs and abs, intangible beams highlighting every tone and definition.

Ralph made a sincere frowny face. "Me neither, now that you mention it. It just, I dunno--"

"Felt right", Dudley offered, completing the thought.

"Yeah, it did."

Dudley turned to look at his best friend. It was equally odd to him that he felt so relaxed next to Ralph while being so completely exposed. Both of them preferred to change clothes at home when working out at the gym rather than expose themselves in the locker room. It felt too awkward. But this felt so natural, so innocent. Ralph returned Dudley's glance, and smiled.

"You look good in this light", Dudley said.

"You too", Ralph agreed. He reached up and ran his fingers over Dudley's bicep. "Damn, and you're hard. You been sneaking in workouts without me?"

Dudley smiled bright. "Nope." He rested a hand on Ralph's shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. "You don't exactly look weak either, cowboy."

"I go more for tone, though."

Ralph turned to face Dudley, who now caressed both of Ralph's shoulders with his strong hands. Ralph traced his friend's chest with the tip of his finger, enjoying the electric tingle of the light contact, the slow spread of Dudley's grin as Ralph's fingertip moved down closer to his navel.

"We should get dressed for the day's work", Ralph suggested. "Cowboyize ourselfs."

"Yee-haw", Dud smirked. He then slapped his buddy hard on the ass.

"Asshole!" Ralph jumped back, both boys laughing at each other. The two naked ranch hands sauntered over to the foot lockers at the ends of their neighboring bunk and flipped them open. "What should we wear today?", Ralph asked.

Dudley was staring into Ralph's foot locker, then stared into his own. His eyes seemed to sparkle and he was grinning like an idiot.

Ralph frowned at him. "What?"

"How about if we pick out each other's outfits today?"

Ralph almost protested, then reconsidered, seeing how that could be fun. "Okay, cowpoke", he said.

The two each stepped over to his friend's foot locker and made a selection of jeans, shirt, boots. Dudley tossed his choice of attire onto Ralph's bed, Ralph did the same for Dudley. "Put those on, Dud", Ralph told him.

Dudley looked down at the clothes laid out on his bunk. Then, another quirky thought flitted across his mind and he spread his arms wide. "Suit me up, pard."

Ralph stopped. "You're kidding, right?"

Dudley shrugged. "Why not? We picked 'em out for each other, we should put 'em on."

Slowly, Ralph reached over and picked up the tight-fitting jeans. He then squatted down before his friend and said, "Right foot first." Dudley stepped into the pants as Ralph began to laugh. "Damn, what the hell are we doing?"

Dudley laughed back. "Hell if I know. But it's fun."

Ralph started pulling the jeans up Dudley's muscular legs, then stopped as he reached his friend's crotch. "Whoops. Forgot the underwear. Where you keep 'em?"

Dudley looked down at his pal. "Would a real cowboy even wear underwear?"

"Good point."

Ralph went on dressing Dudley until he got to the boots, which were nearly impossible to put on someone else without his help. Then Dudley had Ralph step bare-assed into the jeans of his choosing, then buttoned him into a crisp red checked shirt. In short order, the two were nearly ready to go, save for the finishing touches. Ralph put a leather vest around Dudley's shoulders, Dudley tied a bandana around Ralph's neck.

"I've never done anything like this before", Dudley commented. "So why does it feel so right?"

Ralph looked him in the eye. "Do we care?"

Dudley began to lean forward, his eyes locked with Ralph's, his lips parting as he inched toward his friend's lips. Before they made contact, Ralph set Dudley's cowboy hat atop his head. "Hang on. Gotta complete your look, Zeke", he said, deliberately over-pronouncing Dudley's cowboy name, lingering for a second on the 'k'.

Zeke smiled, snatching up Ralph's hat. He then set it firmly atop his friend's head, remarking, "You too, Jody." He pronounced it "JHOAD-ee".

Jody and Zeke looked at each other, smiling and feeling wonderful without being quite sure why they felt that way. "What say we hit those happy trails, huh, pardner?", Zeke said, giving Jody's shoulder a gentle smack.

Jody smiled back brightly. "Yippee-ki-yay, buckaroo."

Zeke and Jody were unstoppable. For the rest of the day, they not only met but excelled at every task that was put to them. Working the stables, mending fences, even building additions to storage buildings seemed like child's play to Zeke and Jody. Mid-morning found them summoned to the riding area, with its fenced-in arena of small hurdles and large barrels, as well as the obligatory grumpy old ranch hand. His name was Buck, and he was a balding little tyrant with a bristling moustache that seemed to be perpetually trying to fly free of the crusty upper lip to which it was precariously attached. Buck was invariably accompanied by Vern, the only one who could stand to be near him for any length of time. Vern had the build of a gorilla and a disposition to match. Neither Buck nor Vern really needed any extra help on the riding range that day, but they had heard of Zeke and Jody's miraculous turnaround and wanted to see it (read: disprove it) for themselves. The ranch foreman had no objections, as most of the guests had complained about the foul attitudes of the team of Buck & Vern to the point that even the duo's expertise with horses was doing little to balance the ill effects of their presence. It was determined that two amiable and attractive college men, even they were hopeless bumblers, would be a welcome break from the ornery riding instructors. It was decided that if Zeke and Jody made a mess of things, the foreman would smooth things over with the guests as Buck and Vern cleaned up the mess.

The foreman needn't have worried.

Zeke and Jody strode up to the fenced riding arena for their first time since arriving at the Geddyup Ranch, but behaved as if it was the most familiar place in the world for them. Buck trod over to the pair of university students, his eyes already sharp for any mistake, his foul mindset eager to point out the slightest sign of ignorance. Buck held a beautiful dark brown horse by his reins. "Now lissen up, college boy", Buck snarled, "this-here's Bandit. He's a good horse, used to ridin'. So unless yer a complete incompetent, even you should be able to handle--"

Zeke didn't allow the old coot to finish. "Got it. Bandit. Thanks." With what looked like practiced ease, Zeke put one foot in the stirrup and slipped into Bandit's saddle. Buck stood staring, silenced both by the surprise of watching a city boy so easily mount a steed as by the disappointment at being denied the chance to bawl him out for his failure to do so.

Zeke leaned toward Bandit's neck and patted him gently. "Hey, Bandit. You and me, we're gonna get along fine, buddy." Buck opened his mouth to instruct Zeke how to handle the reins, but with a quick jerk of his hands and a soft "click-click" at the corner of his mouth, Zeke had Bandit turned around and making his way across the arena. Buck scowled, watching him go. He then spun around and pointed a crooked finger at Jody.

"You there! Get on over here. What'cha waitin' fer, an engraved invitation?"

Jody walked over to the fuming Buck with a confident gait as Vern brought in a second horse through the open gate.

"Now this here's Lady", Buck was saying, but Jody didn't appear to be listening. He stepped up onto the stirrup and into the saddle as easily as Zeke had.

"Beautiful animal", he commented. "Thanks, I can take it from here."

"Now just hold on one cotton-pickin' minnit, you stupid idjit college boy!", Buck snarled. "I was about to tell ya, if'n ya'd shut up and lissen, that Lady--"

Again, Jody cut him off. "--is a girl horse. I caught that. And as such, I'd better make sure that while both Zeke and I are riding, I keep Lady's rear end away from Bandit, less he try to get romantic with her." Jody gave the reigns a gentle tug and began to back Lady up, away from the irritable trainer, who was at hesitant to let go of her harness. Jody met his gaze. "That was it, wasn't it?"

Buck screwed his mouth up into an angry knot, biting back a foul response. He finally let go of Lady's harness with an angry snap of his wrist. "Somethin' like thet, yeah."

"Thanks for the heads-up", Jody said, easing his horse into a trot down the arena. Buck watched him go, and then looked over at Zeke as he casually guided Bandit over the low-riding hurdles and rode him back toward the trainers.

"Ya kin tell who's been trainin' them", Buck observed, more bitterness in his voice than there should have been. He had been looking forward to humiliating some inexperienced university students in front of the guests and his fun had been quashed. His eyes darted from one boy to the other, taking in their posture, their control of the animals. To himself, Buck muttered, "Both o' them been ridin' afore. No one picks up that much in one day of talk-learnin'. Even from someone like Hank."

Vern grunted his agreement from behind Buck as he leaned over the fence. Buck turned to make another comment but was distracted by something else. "You brainless ass! You left the damn gate open!" He swatted Vern upside the head, most likely doing more harm to his withered hand than to his companion's melon-sized noggin. "That's all we need is to have these greenhorns loose control of the horses and go galloping all over the ranch, trampling who knows what before they get a grip! Close it, close it!"

Zeke was approaching astride Bandit as Buck launched into his tirade and couldn't resist the opportunity to add insult to Buck's injury. "I've got it, Bud!" Zeke pulled a lasso from his hip--he had no recollection of bringing it along, but there it was--and with what appeared to be no effort, lassoed the fence gate and pulled it shut with an easy tug. Zeke then gave the rope a quick flick of his wrist, both setting it free of its mooring and allowing the gate latch to drop into place, locking it tight.

In less time than it takes to tell, Zeke had rewound his lasso and reattached it to its clip. Bandit gave a gentle puff of breath through curling lips and sent a small stream of horsey spittle splashing on the ground near Buck's feet. The horse and rider duo sauntered back the way they came.

Buck was twice as furious as he'd been before. He called after Zeke, "And the name's Buck, not Bud, dammitt!" Zeke gave an absent wave over one shoulder by way of apology, clearly not caring one way or the other. Buck marched over to the gate and yanked at it to verify that it was indeed shut tight. It was. To satisfy himself, Buck still unlatched the gate and closed it again, as if it hadn't been done properly and would never hold without his authoritative oversight. Vern stood standing nearby--he knew not to get too close to Buck when he was fuming--and gaped as Jody made his run through the hurdles and around the barrels, looking as much like an experienced equestrian as Zeke. Buck looked back at the gate he'd reshut and said aloud, "Fuckin' ropes like Hank, too. Bastard's probably related." Buck spat on the ground.

As they passed one another coming and going, Jody and Zeke exchanged a high-five, both as pleased with their friend's performance as with their own. By this time, a small cluster of guests had gathered around the arena, eager for their chance to ride to begin. The two boys made a few more passes around the arena, this time to the applause of the guests who were certain they were watching two skilled young cowboys who'd no doubt grown up on a ranch. Zeke and Jody brought their steeds up side by side to face the fine folks who waited on the other side of the fence.

"I didn't know you could ride a horse", Jody said under his breath.

"I can't", Zeke said, sounding for a minute like Dudley. Then, his voice changing slightly, he added, "Well, obviously I can, we both can, but I guess I didn't know it until today."

Jody smiled a brilliant smile at his friend. "The thing you can pick up during your summer job. Man, I feel like I belong up here", he added, patting his saddle.

Zeke nodded. "Yup."

Jody looked back at Zeke to say something else and immediately forgot what it was. The stance of Zeke in the saddle, his confidant expression beneath that hat, the gentle ruffle of his shirt in the morning breeze, the tightness of his jeans as they hugged the curve of his horse, all left Jody speechless. Zeke realized his pal was staring and looked at him for a moment, waiting to see what the problem might be. Jody said nothing.

"Jode, what's up?"

"You look fucking incredible like this, Zeke", Jody said, his affection very clear in his voice. "Like this is how you were meant to be."

Zeke felt his heart melt as he took in his friend. The few stray locks of golden hair on his forehead from under the brim of his hat, the way his shirt fell against his defined chest with the soft push of the wind, that adorable bandana he wore, and how it accented the nape of his neck, it all made Zeke gulp. "God, you too, good buddy."

"Hey, mister! Can you teach me to ride a horsie like that??"

The boys looked back at the cluster of guests gathered around the fence. A small boy of about 8 leaned in from the railing. He was done up in full cowboy costume, his baggy pants tucked into bright red pointy-toed cowboy boots, his Western shirt had little dangles along the yoke. Toy six-guns hung at his sides and the day-glo hat atop his head was plastic, held in place by a strip of party hat elastic.

Jody and Zeke flashed a smile at the young'un and he giggled back. The boys touched the brims of their hats as they greeted the morning's guests.

"Morning, all", Zeke said. "I understand that you folks would like to have your very first riding experience today, is that right?" The cluster of ranch-goers responded with excited agreement.

"Well, first of all, you need to know that know of you will be jumping hurdles or cantering like you've seen us do", Jody announced. "Even little 12-inchers like these present too big a danger to newcomers like yourselves." A few faces fell, particularly the tiny cowboy. "But you will all get a chance to ride!", Jody added quickly, his face lit by a smile.

"We've got a wonderful riding trail", Zeke told them, indicating a dirt road off to his left, not far beyond the riding arena. "And everyone will be able to enjoy a wonderful morning ride which will take us quite a ways through the ranch and past some breathtaking surrounding countryside."

"There's gonna be plenty to see", Jody agreed. "So let's line you up over by the gate, and we can teach you how to saddle up, and how a rider communicates with his horse. Be sure to pay close attention now, y'hear?"

The eager guests lined up by the gate as Buck and Vern brought out the horses with the most serene dispositions who'd been specifically selected for trail rides like this. Extra ranch hands arrived at that moment to assist people with their first riding experience. Jody adjusted himself in his saddle and turned to face Zeke.

"I didn't know you could rope like that either, dude."

Zeke kept watching the guests line up, but his eyes showed a measure of surprise. "That makes two of us. That was my first time." He then looked at his best friend and wiggles his eyebrows, making them both laugh.

As Jody caught his breath, he said in a flat monotone, "Yee-haw."

Zeke snorted back another guffaw. "Amen, brother."

At the gate, an overweight guest with a trim moustache and glasses helped his eleven-year-old son into a saddle as he prepared to walk the trail run alongside him. The father looked at Buck and whispered, "That whole rope trick with the gate, after it was accidentally"--he made quotation marks with his fingers--"left open, that was all staged, right?"

Buck looked at the man, his eyes burning, then realized this was his chance to save face, if only a bit. "Course it was. All part o' the Geddyup experience."

The man slapped Buck playfully on the shoulder. "I knew it! You do good work here!" As the jovial man walked off with his son astride his horse, Buck squinted his eyes tight and made an extended grunting noise comparable to something emitted by Vern.



Jody and Zeke oversaw no less than three trail rides that day, interspersing them with small exhibitions of their own riding skills in the arena as different groups of guests came and went. By mid-afternoon, the boys had developed a pattern. As one of them would gallop around the arena and have his horse hop over the hurdles, the other would watch him, taking in the strength of his friend's arms, the power of his stance, the confidence in his demeanor.

By the workday's end, Zeke even twirled his rope and did a few simple tricks Will Rogers style as he spoke to the guests. Buck and Vern had left in protest at that point, leaving the two boys alone to tend to cleaning up, hosing off, and brushing off the horses themselves. "You got 'em all sweaty, you clean 'em up", Buck ordered. They were glad to do it, if only for the opportunity to spend some time alone together. As Zeke and Jody tended to the horses with all the skill of practiced stable hands, Buck trudged off, mumbling, "College boys my ass."

After removing the saddles from the horses and getting the hoses flowing with a steady stream of cool water, Zeke removed his shirt and vest. Jody stared at him, his bare shoulders catching rays of golden light streaming in between the cracks of the stable walls behind him, stray bits of dust dancing in the amber beams. "It's a little warm in here", Zeke commented.

"It is that", Jody said, removing his own shirt but keeping his eyes on Zeke. Jody's hands absently reached up to untie the bandana around his neck.

"Leave the bandana on", Zeke said suddenly, his voice stronger than he'd intended. "Please." Jody's eyes refocused on his friend. Zeke's eyes met Jody's, a look of yearning there. Jody's hands lingered at the knot of his bandana. Zeke amended, "I mean, it looks so good on you. That's all."

Jody let his hands fall to his sides. "Okay."

Zeke busied himself with brushing down Bandit, Jody cooled off Lady with the hose. As each boy worked, they kept checking out one another, watching muscles at work, arms reaching, legs standing firm. Several times they met each other's eyes and stopped briefly just to stare. The first few times ended with furtive glances away and a renewed energy in their respective tasks. But after that, all shared looks ended with broad smiles and soft laughter. Jody and Zeke stayed at work in the stables a bit longer than necessary, to prolong the moment. The horses enjoyed the extra attention.

Zeke and Jody slammed hard against the back of the woodshed. Still shirtless, the two boys had their arms entangled around each other in an anxious embrace. They barely had time to duck behind the shed near the stables before they began kissing each other hungrily. Zeke spun Jody around to face him even as Jody pressed Zeke's shoulder's to the wall of the shed. Zeke held Jody, one hand reaching around to touch his firm, smooth back. Zeke's other hand caressed Jody's neck, his fingers at play with Jody's bandana. Jody clutched Zeke's shoulders, squeezing the muscular arms. Both boys kissed the other within creasing passion, not quite certain when their affection, their attraction for one another had reached this point, nor when it might stop.

"Shit-fire, Zeke, you look so damn hot", Jody gasped in between kisses.

"Oh, buddy, you too", Zeke panted back. "You too."

The light of evening grew dimmer, the reflections of which highlighting Jody's hat and Zeke's arms, both illuminations exciting the other boy to fever pitch. Pressed tight together, they kept on kissing, tongues probing, arms holding strong. After about fifteen more minutes of kissing, Jody began to move down Zeke's neck, kissing his friend's shoulder. Zeke's hand traveled around Jody's waist, caressing his buttocks and then sliding around to push against his crotch. Zeke grabbed the front of Jody's jeans and gave a hard tug. There was a metallic pop as Jody's belt came undone and the front snap of his jeans unfastened. Jody held onto Zeke's neck, now kissing his bare chest, and Zeke's hand felt into Jody's pants, reaching with eager hands toward his goal, knowing there'd be no underwear to bar his path.

"I understand you boys did a fine job today."

With a rasping breath of horror, Jody and Zeke looked up from their amorous encounter to see Hank standing there, watching them. The boys stumbled away from each other clumsily, trying to collect themselves. Jody hurried to refasten his jeans and Zeke tried to catch his breath. It was clear to both boys that it was blatantly obvious what they'd been doing. Hank spoke as casually as if he'd come upon them in the crowded lunch hall.

"I've heard nothing but good things about your performance today. Fine work with the guests on the riding trail. Very fine. I'm pleased as punch with the both of you."

"Um, thanks, Hank, sir. That's swell", Jody said, hurriedly rebuckling his belt.

"Glad we could do right by you", Zeke added, his face flushed.

"The only one who wasn't all that thrilled was Buck, but that was just because you didn't give him anything to bitch about." Hank chuckled to himself. The two boys, still too shaken by the interruption, didn't join him.

Hank turned back toward the stables. "I'm gonna check out the work you did with the horses, but I doubt you'll need much correctin'. If so, the pointers can keep until later." The boys nodded, still silent. Hank turned back to face them. "But say, seeing how successful your focus training has been going, what do you say to the idea of me hypnotizing you one last time, just to solidify everything? That sound okay to you two?"

Both boys beamed, their embarrassment at possible discovery forgotten. "Oh, man, does it!", Zeke cheered.

"That would be the best, Hank", Jody agreed. Both boys locked eyes, the hungry look they held for each other replaced by a hunger to be mesmerized again. Jody added, "We can meet you back at the campfire spot tonight right after chow--"

Hank continued as if he hadn't heard him. "Now, tonight's out because I'm so darn busy with manager stuff. Kind of a pain, but it's gotta be done."

The boys quickly deflated. "What?"

Hank looked up at the sky. "And tomorrow night I've got that landowner's meeting to attend in town with the landlords and the ranch foreman. So, whattaya say to one last session of mesmerism day after tomorrow, same time and place?"

The boys could only nod mutely, their pangs to be hypnotized again growing more intense at the thought of having to wait so long to be realized. Hank seemed to register their concern. "Say, you boys aren't experiencing any kind of loss of the training like you did before, are ya?"

"Nossir", Zeke said, crestfallen.

"We're retaining it all", Jody confirmed.

"Well, that's good then. Get plenty of rest tonight, we need you out at the big barn come sunup." Hank strode off toward the stables, giving one last holler back. "Keep on doin' what'cher doin'!"

As Hank disappeared into the stables, Zeke and Jody fell against the back of the shed and flopped to the ground. Zeke let out an exasperated breath. "Day after tomorrow. Shit. I hadn't even thought about it till he mentioned it, but boy-howdy, it's like I want to get hypnotized twice as bad as I did when we lost all our learnin' before."

"More like three times as much", Jody said.

"Yeah, that's more like it. Three times", Zeke concurred upon consideration. "We should've just told 'im we were losin' the training. He would've made time to put us under tonight."

Jody looked at Zeke, a bit surprised at the suggestion. "We can't lie to him, Zeke. He's Hank."

"No, we rightly can't", Zeke answered. knowing full well it was true. Zeke pulled off his cowboy hat and set it in his lap, feeling a new wave of concern wash over him. Had he really been kissing Ralph? Had he been trying to--to get into his pants?

Jody followed suit with his pal and removed his hat, running his fingers through his thick blond hair. No sooner did he do this than he too felt a renewed sense of worry wash over him. In his mind, he once again felt his lips traveling down Dudley's neck, across his chest, so lovingly, so intently.

Dudley, staring out at the darkening fields beyond the wood shed, pondered aloud, "I can't believe he didn't see what we were doing."

"I'm not sure even I believe it", Ralph said back.

Slowly, nervously, Ralph leaned over to rest his head upon Dudley's shoulder. Dudley flinched at first, then let his friend lay his head there. A moment later, Dudley reached up behind Ralph's head and began to lightly stroke his hair. Ralph gently placed the palm of his hand upon Dudley's chest. The two college student cowboys stayed that way for the next half hour, sitting and thinking, feeling the warmth of each other's body pressing close.

The next day's dawning found the boys already at work on their assigned task clearing out one of the barns on the ranch's outskirts. The job was simply luck of the draw as jobs for newcomers tended to rotate, and the boys' names had simply come up. The fact that they'd have little contact with the ranch guests was no concern for either of the young cowboys. Neither of them had slept very well. Thus they had no problem rising just before the sun and setting out to begin their chores early.

They stood now amid more hay than they had ever seen in their lives, both loose and in bales. Their job was to pitch, pile, and stack what they could and sweep away the rest. Both boys stood bare-chested with his cowboy hat on, work gloves tugged on tight and ready to get to business. Or rather, ready to do anything to get their minds off the wait they had to endure until their next hypnosis session.

Jody adjusted his hat upon his head and remarked, "Maybe we could just do it ourselves."

Zeke touched his own hat brim and reached for a pitchfork. "We'd damn well better, since we're the only ones assigned here today."

"I didn't mean the hay", Jody corrected. "I mean the hypnosis thing. we've been through it a couple times already. We remember a lot of it, I bet. Why can't we just do it to each other?"

"And say what while the other's under?", Zeke asked pointedly. "It's nothing to play with. It'd be too easy for us to screw up if we don't know what we're doing." Zeke shook his head. "We're just gonna hafta wait for Hank is all."

"I know", Jody said, conceding the point. "It just seems that--well, even though it was like I wanted three times as bad to be hypnotized, now it's like--"

"Twice again that much. Six times the craving", Zeke said, finishing the thought. "Best not to think about it. How big is this barn , anyway?"

"Big. Let's hit it."

Zeke indicated another pitchfork for Jody to use and the duo set into motion side by side like a well-oiled machine. In short order the boys' muscled forms were slick with beads of perspiration as they switched to handheld metal hooks to pierce and lift the bulky bales of hay. With grunts and groans of effort, they lifted and tossed one bale after another, gaining more momentum with each throw. Up until the moment they caught sight of each other.

It happened when Jody paused to gulp down a slug of water from his sports bottle. His rhythm broken, he was able to get a good look at Zeke. His body moist with sweat, his muscles straining as he lifted and carried, his eyes focused and intense. Jody licked his lips as he watched his friend work. Then Zeke, realizing that he was no longer seeing twin bales make their way through the air as he labored, turned to see what had become of Jody. There Jody stood, not ten feet away, lit by the dusty shafts of light spilling in through the dirty window behind him. His trim, toned body was also perspiring, a stray bead rolling down his chest and over his abs. Jody breathed heavier than usual, as he often did when working hard. He brought his sports bottle up to his lips to drink, but kept staring at Zeke. As a result, he spilled his water down the front of his bare chest. Zeke set down his bale hooks and watched him.

Jody looked down at himself, feeling a bit foolish about spilling his water on his own chest. Then, realizing he enjoyed the cooling sensation, he slowly poured more of the water from the bottle over his chest, sending clear rivulets down his front and into the top of his jeans. He then offered the bottle to Zeke. "Want some?"

Zeke stood there a moment, breathing hard, then answered, "Yeah, that sounds good."

Zeke walked over to Jody and took the bottle from him. He then made as if to take a drink, but instead poured more water down Jody's chest. Zeke then moved in close and slowly slurped up the water from Jody's moistened skin. Jody shivered slightly at the contact, resting his hands upon Zeke's bare shoulders. Zeke took hold of Jody's arms and kissed his neck. They nuzzled there together for a few moments, Zeke's face pressed against Jody's neck, then Zeke raised his lips to those of his friend and kissed him slowly.

Zeke and Jody pulled away from each other, a moment of concern alive in both their eyes. What was happening? What were they doing? Zeke looked at Jody and said, "Whatever's happening, whatever we're feeling, it's okay." Jody blinked at him, and Zeke asked, "Isn't that right?"

Jody nodded. "Yeah, that sounds right somehow. Whatever this is, it'll all be alright." They kissed again, not with abandon, but with a deliberate force to show they knew full well what they were doing. After a minute or so, they parted, their breathing a bit ragged, a brief tremor of chills rippling across their backs.

Jody stroked Zeke's cheek lightly with one hand. "We should get back to work. Or else we'll still be finishing up when Hank finally is ready to hypnotize us again."

Zeke flashed a warm smile. "Good thinking."




By mid-afternoon, having taken only a brief break for lunch, the boys had worked for nearly nine hours straight. They were spent, and the now-tidy barn showed that they had made an honest effort. Zeke and Jody hung onto the handles of their push brooms which they'd used to sweep away the last of the loose straw and copious piles of dust. They breathed heavily, their skin coated with a fine layer of dust and stray bits of straw, all held in place by a sheen of sweat. The two boys looked at each other, finding their friend just as much, if not more, attractive than he had earlier.

Zeke panted. "I'm beat."

"We did a good job", Jody said. The duo just stood there for a while, staring at one another, breathing heavily, waiting.

"The only reason I'm not all over you right now is that I think if I were to leave go of this broom I'd fall over", Zeke gasped.

Jody let out a heavy breath of air. "I'm right there with you."

"I need a serious nap", Zeke added. "I slept for shit last night."

"Yeah, me too", Jody began, but then stopped, looking over his shoulder towards the back of the barn.

Zeke noticed his friend's distraction. "What?"

Jody set the broom against the wall and curled a forefinger as he walked away. "C'mere. I got an idea." Jody led Zeke to the large hay bin in the back of the barn, down one of the side walkways. It was a wooden enclosure, perhaps fifteen by twenty feet or more, with a wooden lip on the outer edge three feet high. Inside the bin was piles upon piles of loose hay kept there for feeding purposes or whatever other means might be needed. The boys had spent a good portion of the day filling it up. Now a giant sloping hillside of hay filled the open-front bin, the far side of which almost reaching the barn's ceiling. And though this section of the barn had a lower ceiling than its central area, the towering size of the hay was still impressive for reaching as high as it did.

"What are we doing back here?", Zeke asked, leaning against the wall to support his sleepy body.

Jody didn't answer. He simply flashed a smile at Zeke and then launched himself into the hay. With a soft 'WUFF!' Jody landed amidst huge drifts of hay and sank down several inches. He laid back in the soft hay and stretched out his arms, almost ready to make a "snow angel" shape. Instead, he pulled up his knees and yanked his boots off, tossing them blithely onto the floor past the bin's outer lip. "I'm taking a nap", Jody grinned, finally answering Zeke's question. He titled his hat down over his eyes and put his hands behind his head. "Wake me up at chow time."

Zeke was about to protest, but then turned back to see the tremendous job they'd done cleaning and straightening the hay barn. He shrugged. "Hell, I'd say we've earned it." Zeke pulled off his boots and dove in beside Jody. "Ahh", Zeke sighed. "Seems like that Little Boy Blue fella in the kids' storybooks had it goin' on." Jody laughed. Zeke adjusted himself, piling up a bit more hay under his head, adding a few more clumps beneath Jody as well.

"Much obliged, pard", Jody drawled.

"Pleasure's mine", Zeke said. Zeke lay there beside his friend and just watched him as he began to drift off to sleep. Zeke nudged a bit closer to Jody. Tilting his hat back on his head, Zeke leaned over and kissed his friend very gently on the ear. Jody let out a contented sighing sound at the contact. Zeke then nestled in beside his pal, letting his arm fall around Jody's shoulders. A moment later, Jody's arm slowly came away from behind his head and found its way around Zeke's shoulders as well. With his free hand, Zeke pushed his hat down over his eyes and the two dusty, shirtless ranch hands fell asleep in each other's arms.




Through whatever miracle, the boys woke up two hours later, and though groggy, were able to get cleaned up in time for the final dinner bell. Rejuvenated by their showers, they ate ravenously at dinner, and felt exhausted again immediately afterward. Less than an hour later, they lay awake in their bunks, naked, unable to all asleep. After more than forty minutes of lying there staring at the rafters, it was apparent that sleep was not soon in coming.

"Dud, you awake?", Ralph asked.

"Yup. Can't doze off."

"Me neither." Ralph rolled onto his side and propped himself up on one elbow. "Maybe we just need to be hypnotized in order to sleep through the night on the dude ranch."

"Not sure I buy that, Ralph. We did sleep like bricks after working all day."

"It was easier sleeping in the hay bin."

Dudley smiled at the thought of the two of them together in the old wooden bin, surrounded by soft mounds of yellow sheaves. "Like a huge waterbed, only with hay instead of water." Dudley rolled over onto his side next, to face Ralph. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

Even though Dudley couldn't see Ralph's face in the dim light, he knew his friend was grinning ear to ear. "Lets' do it."

In less than a minute, the two naked cowboys had jumped into jeans, boots, and shirts. Grabbing one another's hats, they placed them upon the other's head. "Shall we git to the barn, Zeke ol' buddy?"

"Let's git, Jody my pal."

In record time, the two cowboys made their way across the ranch to the hay barn. Zeke snagged a lantern-sized flashlight at the barn's main door so they could find their way through the deep shadows back to the bin. Once there, Zeke set the light upon a nearby window sill and began to strip down.

Jody looked puzzled. "What, are we--?"

"I ain't sleepin' in my clothes, Jode." Jody nodded, and he too stripped off his shirt, boots and jeans. Clad in only their cowboy hats, the two boy leapt into the hay pile, where they rolled, burrowed, and wrestled playfully for a few minutes before finally settling in. Zeke blew away a few loose bits of straw from his face as he lay beside Jody. Jody slid his hat back a bit on his head and let his fingers play along Zeke's arm. Zeke rolled over and began to kiss Jody's body. He began on Jody's belly, slowly making his way upward. Kissing his abs, his chest, then his lips. The two naked cowboys kissed tenderly there in the hay, arms groping each other's smooth, muscled bodies.

Absently, Zeke reached up and took hold of Jody's hat, removing it as he ran his fingers through his friend's hair. He tossed the hat across the bin to have it land perfectly upon a wooden peg in the wall, spinning once before settling there. Almost immediately after his hat came off, Jody grabbed Zeke's, sending it whizzing though the air to land just as precisely upon a neighboring peg. For a moment more, the two boys held and kissed one another, all thought of sleep forgotten. But only for a moment.

Ralph sat up suddenly in the hay, a look of shock on his face. Dudley sat up as well, not as quickly, but looking equally surprised. The two college students looked at each other in the orange lamplight of the electric lantern, breathing hard, not certain what to do next nor what they'd been doing up until then.

Cautiously, Dudley reached over and touched Ralph's bare leg. Ralph didn't pull away, but he did look down at his friend's hand with an expression that indicated he was prepared to do so. Dudley stroked a small area of Ralph's smooth, muscular leg. Under his breath, as if fearful of being heard by some hidden eavesdropper, Dudley whispered, "It's okay."

Very tentatively, Ralph lowered his hand down onto the back of Dudley's. With his thumb only, he rubbed his friend's hand. Ralph closed his eyes and said back, just as quietly, "I want to believe you."

After a few moments, Ralph removed his hand and Dudley saw this as his cue to pull back as well. Ralph swallowed once, then said, "I'm really tired again."

Dudley nodded. "We should get some sleep."

Ralph rolled over with his back to Dudley. After a while of lying that way, Dudley moved a few inches closer to his friend and pressed against him. Ralph did not pull away. Some time later, Dudley gathered the courage to put his arm around Ralph's waist. Ralph stiffened at the contact, but allowed Dudley to hold him. Eventually, both boys relaxed. They lay that way, in the artificial glow of the large flashlight, until they both fell asleep. The flashlight burned until an hour before dawn, when its batteries finally gave out.




Zeke and Jody led a group of teenagers and few younger brothers and sisters down a beautiful wooded hiking trail. The morning sun beamed lances of gold through the leafy overhead awning, and the only sound to be heard outside of the crunch of twigs and dry grass beneath booted feet was the breeze rustling the bushes and the musical cry of passing birds.

Zeke and Jody, like the rest of the line of hikers, wore slightly heavier clothing than their usual fare for added protection from both their surroundings and the cooler temperatures at this different altitude. Although the cowboy leaders wore plaid flannel, whereas the teens and their siblings were dressed in hoodies and brightly silk-screened sweatshirts. The pair of cowboy guides had trim backpacks slung across their shoulders and moved as if they spent every day walking through forested areas across uneven ground with several extra pounds strapped to their backs. Some of the teens in tow hunched forward under the weight of their packs. A few others, the younger ones mostly, would stumble here and there due to the uneven load shifting about in their poorly-packed bags.

"There is a lot of beautiful countryside we're going to get to pass through", Zeke announced to the group. There'll be plenty of spots that will be perfect for picture-taking, exploring, and picnics. We'll do our best to see to it you get to every one of 'em."

Jody looked back at the group and added, "Be sure to stick together until we get to those spots, now. Won't do to lose any of you along the way." Jody nodded toward the other ranch hand who'd accompanied them, a lanky fellow named Mitch, who always seemed to dress only in browns and tans. Mitch acknowledged Jody's nod with one of his own, indicating that he'd keep an eye on things from his position at the back of the line.

Jody picked up his pace and joined Zeke at the head of the group. The two of them added a few cowboy strides to their gait and in a moment were a few feet ahead of the rest of the hikers, close enough to be followed but just far enough ahead to prevent being overheard.

"My little pack mule", Jody chided his friend.

Zeke smiled, then glanced over at Jody. In a hushed whisper, he said, "It was great waking up next to you this morning in all that hay. The two of us cuddled together, naked as jaybirds. Best start to the day I'd ever had in my life."

Jody grinned too. "Next time we bring an alarm clock. We nearly missed morning chow."

"It was worth it, to wake up beside my Ralph."

Jody stopped walking, watching Zeke with wide eyes as his cowboy pal kept on trudging down the trail. With a few quick steps, Jody was back beside him, keeping pace. "You mean Jody. Waking up beside your Jody."

Zeke made as if to readjust his cowboy hat on his head, but lifted it completely off his head, if only by and inch. Before returning it to his scalp, he reiterated, "No, I mean my Ralph. I mean you."

His friend looked ahead, down the trail, into the thick green of the woods. "I go by Jody."

Zeke smiled. "Compartmentalizing is great when you're spiffying up a barn. But you don't need to do it with everything in your life, buddy." And he looked at his friend. "You are you, no matter what name you go by. Jody, Ralph, whoever. I was with you. And I loved it." Zeke (Dudley?) took a few steps ahead as the trail narrowed between two thick trees straddled by heavy underbrush, allowing only one person at a time to pass. As he cleared the slender path, he glanced back at his friend over his shoulder. "And I know you loved it, too."

Even after the trail opened up again leaving room for two people on its path, Jody stayed a step behind his friend until the next stop.




It was nearing lunch time when the hikers took off their packs and made their way around an open camping area, enjoying the chance to stretch a bit, get water from a nearby old-fashioned pump, or raid their various backpacks for lunch. Zeke spoke tot he group.

"This is a fine spot to unwind a bit and enjoy some lunch. You ladies feel free to make use of the picnic tables over yonder." Zeke pointed toward some well-kept wooden tables with attached benches that sat in a sunny glade just outside the main area. The girls smiled, grabbing their packs and heading toward the tables, already giggling and chatting.

Jody took the cue from Zeke and began to inform the group about the various things to see, great spots for photos, overlooks, unusual plant life, and warning anyone from wandering off alone. "We'll enjoy a nice lunch here then head further along the trail where we can show you a lake entirely enclosed by surrounding rock and its natural waterfall. It's a sight to see."

"We'll stay on this route and it'll circle back to the ranch eventually", Zeke added. "We'll have a full day on the hiking trail, and we'll have you all home in time for supper." Zeke then sauntered over to Jody, hoping to ease some of the tension he'd felt between them since his comments on the trail. "Tell me something", he said. Jody looked at him with some suspicion in his eyes. "How are those hypnosis cravings going for you?"

Jody relaxed a bit at the question. This topic was safe. He grinned sheepishly. "Around three times as bad as it was yesterday", he confessed.

"Which was three times as bad as the day before", Zeke emphasized. "Me too."

"Well, tonight's the night." Jody looked over at a couple younger boys trying to get the pump to work, hanging from its handle, staring up into its spout. "You need to get behind the handle and give it a good push, fellas. Mitch, give 'em a hand, would'ja?" Their third number gave a curt nod and moved to assist the boys. Jody's eyes were on the group at the water pump, but his mind was elsewhere. "I miss the hypnosis sessions. It's like we haven't been put under in weeks."

Zeke stared at Jody. Even in the thicker flannel shirt, his muscle definition was clear to see. The rustle of his loose hair sticking out from beneath his hat as it was caught by the slight wind almost sparkled in the light. Zeke noticed his eyes, their brightness, they way the danced as Jody was lost in though. And inevitably, Zeke's eyes drifted down to Jody's lower regions. His dark denim jeans hugged his tight, firm ass so perfectly. Zeke found himself wishing the front of Jody's jeans were as snug. Jody hooked his thumbs into his belt loops, standing tall in his cowboy boots, looking all the more impressive for the fact he was not trying to.

"That's not all I miss", Zeke said. "Or all that it feels like weeks since we've done."

Jody turned to say something, but upon meeting Zeke's eyes, couldn't recall what he was going to say. Zeke's eyes were intense, penetrating. They would appear almost predatory were they not offset by his wide, boyish grin. With two fingers, Zeke reached up and tugged at his shirt collar, popping it open by two buttons. Jody swallowed as Zeke traced his neck with his fingers and let his hand slip down the front of his shirt, loosening two more buttons as he went. Zeke's smooth pecs and abs were accented by the soft shadows that fell over them, defining every muscle's curve. Zeke hooked his thumb around his silver belt buckle, letting his fingers dangle down by his crotch. Once he was convinced Jody was watching his hand (he was), Zeke began to slowly circle his crotch with his fingers, making lazy circles with playfully dancing fingers. After three travels around that spot, Zeke grasped his crotch with his hand, holding tight. Jody's eyes shot back up to Zeke's. Zeke wriggled his eyebrows and his grin went from boyish to devilish.

"Hey, Mitch?", Jody called to their fellow worker, his voice squeaking a bit. "You wanna keep an eye on things here for a spell? "Um, Zeke and me wanna see something further up the--um, just kinda around that bend in the--ah, thataway."

No sooner were the handsome cowboys out of sight of the group than Zeke slammed Jody up against a tree and threw himself against him.

The two boys clung together beneath the canopy of trees, kissing and stroking one another, tearing away their shirts. Zeke kissed Jody's face with abandon, knocking Jody's hat from his head to land in the thick grass. Ralph pushed away from Zeke, gasping for air.

"What are we doing? What's happening to us out here?"

Zeke twirled Ralph around, pushing him up against the bark of another tree, still touching him affectionately. "Hell's bells, I dunno, Jody. It just feels so right. God damn, it feel so right, just being like this with you."

Ralph planted a palm firmly against Zeke's chest and tried to push him away. "Dudley. No. We can't do this. Seriously, we can't."

Zeke held onto Ralph's wrist and kissed his forearm. "Not Dudley. Like you said, it is better this way. Call me Zeke. I'm Zeke--" Ralph reached out to pluck away his friend's hat, but Zeke was too fast and clutched at the brim, holding it tight to his brow. "No!" Zeke's eyes met Ralph's, a flash of concern rising there. "Leave my hat on." Then Zeke looked around. "Where's yours? Where'd it get to?"

As Zeke groped along the grass to recover his buddy's hat, Ralph took a step away. "Dud, we can't. We said before that we'd never do anything like this agai--"

Zeke was suddenly eye-to-eye with Ralph, his expression intense but caring. "We never said anything. We never even mentioned it. We wouldn't let ourselves. You know that."

Ralph licked his lips, swallowed. "I know that it nearly ended our friendship. We couldn't even look at each other for weeks, after that. But we had an agreement, even if it was unspoken. And it's still there, and you know it."

Zeke looked his best friend in the eye and said softly, "Maybe it's time to put that agreement to an end, Jody, unspoken or otherwise."

"Ralph! My name's Ralph! Like YOU said! And you're Dudley! This role-play thing is getting way out of hand! I'm done with it! It's a mistake! Like what happened back then was a mistake!"

Zeke reached out and very gently touched Ralph's shoulders. In a voice devoid of affected accent or country slang, Zeke spoke with Dudley's voice. "But what if it wasn't? What if what came afterward was the mistake? What if all those years of shutting everything up, acting like it never happened, what if that was the mistake? Have you thought about that, Ralph?"

Ralph nodded, his eyes squinting shut, his eyes beginning to tear. Almost inaudibly, he whispered, "...all the time..."

"Whatever this is we're doing, it feels so right. Maybe playing the parts of Zeke and Jody are just what we need. Maybe this is who we were meant to be all along." Dudley leaned in close to Ralph and said, not an inch from his face, "I am falling for you, Ralph. I've been falling for you." Dudley reached down and retrieved Ralph's hat, placing it upon his friend and lover's head. Ralph watched as he did so, doing nothing to stop him. Then, Dudley said in even tones, "I love you, Jody."

Ralph looked back at Dudley with longing in his eyes and said, "Oh, God, I love you too, Zeke."

The two kissed again and this time neither one of them held back. They lowered themselves to the ground and rolled in the grass, stripping themselves down to only their hats and their boots. They played there in the thick green for the better part of an hour, fully aware of what they were doing, fully aware that anyone from the hiking group could discover them at any time. They cared not a whit about either.



That evening Hank sat at the campfire site waiting for his two charges. He knew full well that with the extra two days to simmer on their suggested hypnosis cravings that by now the boys would be nearly ten times as eager to be put under as before. Hank knew he'd have no trouble finalizing the transformation--or perhaps it could better be termed actualization--of the two college kids into a pair of queer cowboys. Hank sat prepared to see the two boys come racing over the ridge, stumbling all over themselves, shirts untucked, hats spilling off their heads, as they pleaded with their new mentor to put them under again "right quick". He was not prepared for what really happened.

Zeke and Jody came over the crest alright, but they were neither harried nor disheveled. Both boys were clad in crisp, clean cowboy duds with their freshly-dusted hats atop their respective heads. They walked with an easy, confident stride that takes most men years to develop. The manner in which they carried themselves spoke of a certain degree of self-understanding and a considerable amount of focused purpose.

Hank looked at the two boys and saw that they walked holding hands. Hank gulped, nearly swallowing his gum. "Evenin' lads", Hank said, trying to sound for all the world like the boys were acting just as he'd expected them to. "I trust you two are ready for your final session of mesmerism--" Jody did not allow him time to finish.

"This--whatever it is we've been experiencing, can you make it stick? I mean, make it permanent?"

"So we're always like this?", Zeke reiterated.

Hank looked up at the young cowboys with a serious expression. He fiddled with the campfire with a long stick and then looked back up into the eyes of the two boys. "Yeah, I can do that."

Hank indicated the log across from him with an open hand and the boys took their seats. "You know the whole deep breathing routine by now, fellas, so why don't you get right to it." Zeke and Jody began to inhale deeply through their noses, fill their bellies with evening air, and exhale out their mouths. Hank doodled in the dirt at his feet with his stick. His eyes were on the boys, however. Even seated with eyes closed and breathing as they were, they still held hands. Hank stroked his chin, pondering something. He got up and walked silently over to the boys. He studied their faces, growing more peaceful with each breath. Testing a theory, Hank lifted Zeke's hat just partially off his head.

Zeke's eyes fluttered slightly, but his expression remained passive and relaxed. Hank put the hat back down on Zeke's head, pushing it back a bit on his head, making it seem as if Hank had merely wanted to adjust it for him. Then Hank moved over to Jody. Again, he lifted the boy's cowboy hat off of his head by barely an inch. This time, the reaction was more pronounced. Jody flinched, his eyes opening wide, looking disoriented, as if he'd been jarred suddenly from a nap. Hank gave the side of Jody's head a gentle brush with the back of his hand.

"Ya had a little shmutz in yer hair. Just prairie grass." Hank set the hat back down on Jody's head, restoring both his cowboy look and his composure. Hank looked down and saw that his theory had been correct. Upon losing his hat, Jody had let go of Zeke's hand. He let go of his friend's (lover's?) fingers as if they were a snake that might bite him and jerked his hand over to set it in his lap. Now, a cowboy once again, Jody's fingers inched their way back along the log to feel for Zeke's.

Hank set his hands upon both boys shoulders, and leaning close said, "You're gonna wanna keep your hands free. Just let 'em relax at yer sides, fellas."

The boys let go of one another and let their arms go limp. Zeke seemed less willing to relinquish his grasp. Hank returned to his seat on the opposite side of the small fire and instructed the boys to open their eyes but continue their deep breathing. "You fellas know the drill", Hank said. He held up the shining spur and let it swing easily back and forth. "Keep your eyes on the spur."

It was more than apparent that the two college boys truly wanted to be hypnotized. As they watched the gleaming spur make its lazy arc, both boys' eyes looked dreamy, their expressions languid and peaceful. Hank went through his indoctrination a bit slower than usual, both to verify that they were going under to his satisfaction, and to let them enjoy it. By the time Hank was describing the relaxation in their torsos, the young cowboys had already closed their eyes, their expressions looking almost euphoric. As he relaxed their facial muscles, Hank decided that for this final session, he would take them farther than they'd been before.

"Now you can feel your entire body is completely relaxed. As relaxed as it's ever been." Hank spoke deliberately in the singular, for though he addressed both boys at once, each felt Hank was speaking only to him. "But you're now finding that this stage of relaxation is only a beginning. You feel yourself dropping farther and farther into this blissful state. Your body is more than relaxed. Your body is utterly at peace, as are you. Your muscles have lost all tension, even your bones feel warm, soft, and pliable. The farther you sink into this wonderful sensation, the better it feels. It's almost intoxicating. Every part, every molecule of your body is so happy and at peace. So contented and flowing."

The two boys had never felt so wonderful, so calm. Their bodies sagged on the logs, as if transforming into gelatin. Zeke's head slumped forward and Jody's fell back. Quickly, Hank leapt to their sides and guided the two into one another, with the intent of propping the mesmerized cowboys up against each other's shoulder.

But that was a bust. The boys were so relaxed, so deeply asleep, that their bodies may as well have been liquid. They flopped in Hank's arms like rag dolls, their limbs no sturdier than heated wax. Thinking fast, Hank hopped in front of them, and let the lads slump forward into his arms. Hanks then planted one boot upon the log on which they'd been seated before they started to flow off of it. With one firm push, Hank rolled the log backward by six feet, turning up bits of dirt, grass, and pebbles s it moved. Hank then quickly switched his position, moving like a jackrabbit to grab the boys from behind before they could fall forward and tumble into the camp fire. Gently, almost lovingly, Hank lowered the two entranced boys down to the ground, resting their heads against the log for support.

If the boys minded having so hard a surface for a pillow, their expressions didn't betray it. They looked so happy and complacent, as they drifted further into sleep as easily as a toddler in his playpen. Indeed, Hank noted that the two cowboys looked even younger this way, their boyish features taking on an air of innocence, even purity, in sleep. Hank hunkered down beside his inductees and for the next fifteen minutes, spoke softly to them of how deep they were sinking, how joyous it felt to be submerged in this hypnotic state. By the end of the lengthy induction, both Zeke and Jody's expressions looked like still photos of college boys captured at the height of orgasm.

Hank settled down onto the ground beside them. "Now", he said, his voice a bit stronger. "I'm talkin' directly to your minds and hearts now, boys. This is a level of trust, of truth, that you've never felt before. When I ask you something, you answer easily and immediately. No fear. No doubt. You answer from the heart. Ya cain't help it."

Hank waited a beat, letting that sink in. Then he asked, "Are you a cowboy?"

Both boys answered as if floating on a cloud. "...yyeeeeesssss..."

"You like bein' cowboys?"

"...ohhhhhhh yyeeeeeessssss..."

"You like each other?"


"You love each other?"

This was the only response that differed. It was more intense. "...y-yessss, yeeeessss...yeeesss..."

"Okay then." Hank got up and walked around behind Zeke. "As you feel me touching you, you know I am speaking to you alone. Answer me." He rested a hand atop Zeke's hat. "What'cher name, son?"


Carefully, Hank slipped Zeke's hat off, taking care to cradle his head so it wouldn't thump against the log. "What'cher name now?"


"You two diff'rent people then, or what?"

"...nnooo...stiilll meee...boorrnnn duuuudlllleeyyy...prefeerrrr zeeeekke...c'll me...zeeekkke..."

"You know what it takes to be a real cowboy, Zeke?" Just barely, Zeke nodded. "So have you got what it takes, Zeke? Are you a real cowboy?"

Zeke's face split into perhaps the biggest, stupidest grin that Hank had ever seen. "...ohhhhhhh yeeeaahhhhh...." Zeke began to giggle and snicker as if he were drunk. "...howdy...pardner...." Zeke snorted, laughing a bit harder.

Hank put Zeke's hat back on. "Sleep." Zeke's laughter faded and he fell back to sleep quickly and deeply. His grin didn't fade, though.

Hank moved over to the slumbering Jody and placed a hand atop his hat. "How about you, son? Got a name?"


Hank plucked Jody's hat from his head. "How 'bout now?"

Jody's face changed slightly. Not enough to seem pronounced, but Hank noticed it. After another beat or two, Jody answered. "...'m...rraaaalllphhh..."

"Okay then. You know what it takes to be a true cowboy, son? You know what kind of man's the best cowboy?"

Ralph nodded, his mouth slack. Hank chose his next words carefully. "Is Jody a real cowboy, then? As we defined it?"

"...ssuuuurrrree...joooddeee's reeealll...cowboooy..."

"And what about Ralph? Does Ralph have what it takes to be a real cowboy? Is he the right kinda man?"

Ralph began to look uncomfortable. His body was as useless at that moment as a puddle of spilled glue, so there was no visible flinching. But Hank could see the eyes under the lad's closed lids moving rapidly back and forth. Ralph was searching for the answer. He was searching his heart. The boy's brow furrowed, only for a split second, only slightly, but Hank understood that this meant there was a monumental struggle going on inside this boy's head. A search for the truth."

Hank laid a hand on the troubled lad's shoulder. "That's enough, Ralph. You don't need to answer that question. How's about this one. Do you love your friend Zeke? Dudley?"

The look of peace returned to his face as he answered. "...yyeesssss..."

Hank bent down low and whispered his last question into the college boy's ear. A brief look of concern flashed across Ralph's face as he said, in a low whisper that Hank almost missed, "....God, yeesss..."

Hank patted him on the shoulder and returned his hat to his head. "Good boy", he said. Then upon consideration, he amended, "Good man."

Hank returned to his seat upon the ground beside the slumbering, entranced duo of would-be cowboys. Hank adjusted his own hat upon his head and said firmly, "Now. Let's you an' me talk about who you guys really are, inside and out. And who you can be."


The following morning, Hank strode across the ranch towards the boys' barracks. He wanted to give them their morning's schedule in person rather than have them read it on the assignment board. Plus he had something he wanted to share with them. He gave the wooden door of the barracks a couple quick raps with knuckles then walked on in without waiting for a response.

Hank loved the look of the barracks first thing in the morning. The light from the windows saturated everything and made the paneled walls seem alive with brilliant yellows and twinges of orange. Hank made his way past the few extra bunks that remained empty or were used as convenient resting places for books and duffle bags. His two college ranch hands had their beds at the end of the room, by the largest windows.

"You fellers decent?", Hank called, then stopped in his tracks upon seeing his answer.

Both boys were also enjoying the morning light of the barracks but were doing so au naturale. Zeke stood buck naked, leaning casually against the wall beside the window. His legs were crossed at the ankles. He wore only a pair of cowboy boots. Jody sat upon the sill, equally bare-assed, but minus the western footwear.

"Mornin', Hank", Zeke grinned.

"Beautiful day", Jody smiled.

"Uhhh...it is that", Hank agreed, still thrown by the state of the two young men. "All your outfits in the wash or sumthin'?"

"Naw." Zeke nodded his head toward his bunk and Hank saw that his clothes for the day were already neatly laid out. Hat, shirt, jeans, no boots, obviously.

"We always start our day like this", Jody explained. "Just feels great to have the sun on your skin after a good night's sleep. Fine way to greet the day." Jody made a casual gesture toward his own bunk, indicating that his wardrobe was laid out as well.

"I'll bet", Hank said, beginning to see their point as the warm yellow light of morning fell with warming fingers over their smooth, muscular bodies. "Buuttt...", Hank inclined his head toward Zeke's cowboy boots, implying that standing there naked but for a pair of boots was a little strange.

Zeke shrugged. "My feet were cold."

"That's why I sit on the sill", Jody smirked, kicking his feet back and forth in and out of a shaft of sunlight.

"Something up?", Zeke asked.

Hank cleared his throat. Holding up an envelope, he said, "Was going through the mail and I came across this. Thought you two ought'a read it. Go ahead." He extended the envelope to Zeke, but as he reached for it, Hank yanked it away. "Think you might trouble yourselves to put some pants on first?"

Zeke looked down at himself, almost surprised by his nakedness, as if he was so at ease with the situation that he'd already forgotten he was still in the all-together. "Oh. yeah, I guess we can do that."

Hank rolled his eyes. "Much obliged."

Jody hopped down from the window sill and went straight to Zeke's bunk. Zeke snatched up the pants from Jody's bunk. Just as Hank was about to ask them if they'd gotten mixed up and taken the wrong clothes, Jody hunched down and held the pants out for his friend. "Hup!" In a blink, Zeke kicked off his boots and jumped into the blue jeans, which Jody quickly yanked up his legs and zipped for him. Zeke was back into his boots before Hank could register what the hell they were doing.

In return, Zeke held out Jody's pants and prompted him with a "In ya go!" and Jody too popped into his dungarees with his buddy's help. Zip, snap, and he was clad in his snug jeans.

Still barefoot, and seeming to prefer it that way, Jody strode over to Hank with arm extended. "Let's have a look." Hank handed him the envelope as Zeke sidled up beside him. He saw Hank was staring at them.

Zeke shrugged again. "What? It makes getting dressed more fun."

Jody held up the envelope to his friend. "It's from the university."

Zeke looked concerned. "We in trouble?"

"Just open it", Hank ordered.

Jody plucked the tri-folded paper from the envelop and began to read aloud.


Dear Mr. Atwood & Management of the Geddyup Ranch,

We cannot thank you enough for all the good word you've sent our way in regard to the two upper classmen from our institution who are taking part in your summer work program. To get such a glowing response from an employer is rare treat enough, but to have enclosed notes and comments from so many of your guests is extraordinary indeed. Dudley and Ralph


Jody stopped reading. "Dudley and Ralph? Who the hell are they? I thought we were the only guys from the university working here this summer."

Zeke nodded. "Yeah, I was feelin' real good about myself until you got to that part."

"You are the only ones working here", Hank assured them. "They meant to say Zeke and Jody. They're talking about you, trust me."

Jody shook his head. "But it says--"

"It's a typo. Keep reading", Hank insisted.


Dudley and Ralph have certainly done an exemplary job not only as part of your fine establishment but also as representatives of this university. Although they had contacted you through our summer job placement program, they will be happy to know that we are treating their time with you as an internship and as such they will be receiving full course credit for it. In this rare instance of displaying such excellence at their jobs we feel equal treatment is due them upon their return in the fall season. Please be good enough to inform them of


Jody stopped reading. "Holy shit. Is this for real?" Hank nodded, beaming with


Zeke was as stunned as Jody. "Who even told 'em what we were doing out here, anyway?"

Hank reached into his back pocket and plucked a handful of loose notes, memos, and messages jotted from the office answering machine. All of them were from ranch guests who spoke glowingly of the job being done by "Zeke" and "Jody". "Your university got photocopies of all our notes about you two. This is just some of 'em."

"Hey, I remember this lady", Jody said. "She had the scared kid who was afraid of the horses that day at the riding arena."

"Not after you helped him out", Hank said.

"Jode, look!", Zeke said, "It's from that old lady we helped find the riding trails that day at stables." Jody nodded, flipping through the rumpled sheaf of papers. "Damn, there's a ton of these!", Zeke observed.

Jody plucked one from the stack. "Shit fire! This one's from Vern!" He looked at Hank. "Vern the Gorilla Man, Vern??" Hank shook his head, laughing, then confirmed that yes, it was.

Zeke leaned in and noticed something. "Howcum our names are always in quotes in all 'a these?"

Hank took back the notes quickly. "Fellas, if you'll be good enough to finish dressing and join me for breakfast, I have a very special ranch hand's task for the two of you today."

Zeke gave Jody's shoulder a friendly slap. "Ha! I should' a known. This was all a big butter-up so he could stick us with a godawful drudge job."

Jody shook his head. "Guess we'll be shoveling horse patootie today until hell won't have it."

"Don't tempt me", Hank said. "But it's not that kind of task. Just get yourselves into shirts, and boots," the last part was directed at Jody, "and meet me for morning chow."

As Hank turned to leave, Zeke turned to Jody. "Guess the two of us deserve some kind of reward for doin' such a good job, huh? I got just the thing." He shared a silly look with Jody, indicating some kind of inside joke shared between the two of them.

"You gots just the thing I need", Jody grinned. The two shared a brief laugh, the kind that's intensified by excluding others from your own private gags.

By the time Hank was at the door, the two boys were leaning on each other's shoulders, trying to stifle their mirth. Waving the envelope over his head, Hank called back, "Now get a move on, I won't wait to eat if'n you ain't there on time." Hank made it about ten paces out the door when a thought--more a suspicion--struck him. Quietly, he walked back to the barracks and silently eased open the door. He peered in to see the two young cowboys lost in a slow, loving kiss. Hank smiled.

Then he hollered across the room, jarring them, "You two stop to go at it like bulls in heat, you'll miss breakfast." Zeke and Jody leapt apart, clearly startled, but hiding it with nervous smiles. Clumsily, they started pulling on their shirts, dressing themselves this time.

Hank stepped back out, feeling a bit guilty about scaring them, but he did note that they seemed far more casual about having been caught kissing than they would have been only a week ago. He could also hear them laughing again before he was even twenty feet away.


With bellies full of a good country breakfast, Zeke and Jody rode in Hank's jeep across the ranch to its outskirts and the task that awaited them there. The jeep ride was a new thing for the young cowboys. Ordinarily, everything they'd done up to this point had been within walking distance of their barracks.

"So where are we goin', Hank?", Zeke asked.

"Yeah, I don't think I've ever been out this way", Jody commented. "What's out here?"

"A surprise. And your job for today."

It was few minutes later when Hank stopped the jeep in front of a large and weathered-looking barn. It was not one the boys had seen before. It was painted a pale blue with white trim on the doors and windows. Although most of the windows were so coated with dust and grime that seeing in or out was impossible. The paint was cracked and peeling in most places, and cobwebs festooned the corners, making the building appear as if it had been moored down to the thick weeds and shrubs creeping up from the foundation.

The boys hopped out of the jeep and looked the place over. "Okaaayy", Zeke drawled. "What are we doin' out here?"

"You're not gonna be out here", Hank corrected him. "You're gonna be in there", and he jerked a thumb towards the barn. he started walking toward the main entrance of the barn and saw that the two boys were still standing by the jeep, staring at the rundown old building. "Well, come on", Hank said. "Let's git to it."

Zeke and Jody followed their mentor around the building, passing the large double-door entrance with twin images of dancing cowboys painted in white against the pale blue background. The cowboys were mirror images of one another, almost caricatures in their stance and gestures; a six gun in one hand, a twirling lariat in the other. They kicked up their heels in a buck and wing. Oversized sheriff's stars straddled them on either side. The legend GEDDYUP RANCH ROOTIN' TOOTIN' COWBOY ADVENTURE 'N SHOW arced below the twin cowboys in old fashioned playbill lettering.

"What the Sam hill is all this?", Zeke asked.

"Come on with me", was Hank's only reply.

Beside the massive double doors was a small side door, comparable in size to that of the boys' barracks entrance. On it was an old padlock held in place by a hinged metal arm, securing the door to the wall around it. Despite its obvious age, it was clear that the lock was still sound and would take some doing to get past. Hank, however, had a key. As he worked the key into the stubborn lock, he remarked, "Time was you could read that sign on the front of this barn from clear across the way. Paint's faded since then. Used to be a brilliant blue. Looked sharp." With an angry clack the lock gave way and Hank pulled back the metal arm and opened the door. "Take care you don't step on that broken glass."

Very slowly, the two boys followed Hank inside, uncertain about what they might find there. Hank saw them lingering in the doorway and said, "Well, come on inside now, so's I can show you around."

Furtively, the boys peeked into the barn's interior and then cautiously stepped inside. Zeke felt his jaw drop and muttered, "Holy frijoles."

Jody added his agreement tot he sentiment by way of a "Whoa, doggie."

The inside of the barn differed greatly from the outside. For starters, it was clean as whistle. Not a cobweb in sight, no dust, no disarray. The interior was vast and for the most part, open. The walls were rich with a brilliant blue color that must have been what formerly covered the walls of the outside walls. Sturdy wooden braces stood proudly against the walls and connected with an intricate web of rafters above, every board whitewashed and gleaming. Covering nearly every inch of the wall was old posters and wooden signs showing all manner of cowboys, rodeo acts, and scenes of heroic cowboys with stars on their vest standing up to black-mustachioed villains in classic saloon settings. All of the signs bore different logo styles and captions, every one boasting the virtues and attractions of the Geddyup Ranch Adventure 'N Show.

Sunlight streamed in from above them, and the boys looked up to see four rectangular skylight windows, crystal clear and polished, letting in the morning rays.

The back wall of the barn was covered with neatly-hung props and cowboy costumes. Six-guns, bandoliers, ten-gallon hats, lassos, chaps, saddles, you name it, it was there.

All along the outer edges of the room and piled three or four high along the back were wooden crates labeled in crisp black paint with such phrases as "Puppet Show", "Big Shoot Out", "Branding That Moo-Cow", and an assortment of others. The floor was partly concrete, which was smooth and without cracks, its surface covered in a glaze of clay-red epoxy. A large section of the floor was covered in floorboards more akin to a standard barn, which had been set down on top of the glazed concrete, probably for use as a stage. At the end of the floorboards sections of a white picket fence leaned against the wall, and some carefully stacked hay bales sat beside them.

Hank sauntered over to a light switch on the wall beside the side door in which they'd entered. With a sharp click, followed by a momentary hum, more than a dozen overhead lights came on, illuminating the room beyond what the skylights could provide.

"Hank, what is this place??", Zeke asked.

Hank walked over to the boys and rested his arms upon their shoulders. "This, fellers, is what the Geddyup Ranch used to be." He looked around with nostalgia and then let go of the boys to walk around the open space. "When I was just a kid, even younger'n you, the Geddyup was geared more toward little ones and their families. Like a Western Disney World, without the six-foot mouse in red pants. It was more theater types then, as opposed to actual cowboys, but they put on a helluva show."

Hank walked over to one of the crates and ran his palm across the top of it. "My folks brought me here once, and this is what gave me my love of the west. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a cowboy."

"And here you are", Jody said.

Hank nodded, appreciative of Jody's comment. "Here I am."

"The place sure is well kept up", Zeke observed.

"That'd be my doing", Hank said. "Some of the ranch folk talked about just tearing it down and tossin' this stuff, but I couldn't let 'em do that. So I told 'em if I kept it neat and tidy, we could use it for extra storage as need be. Once or twice we even did." Hank pointed to the far corner of the room, and the boys turned to see a few actual ranch and farm implements that were clearly not part of the original theatrical assortment. "You can see I took pains to keep the 'real' stuffed tucked out of the way."

Jody was still marveling at the glistening floor, now seeming to sparkle under the overhead lights. "Sakes, Zeke. This floor is clean enough to eat off of."

"Funny you should mention that", Hank said. "Wait here." He walked out the door, leaving the boys to shrug in confusion, and returned not two minutes later with a picnic basket. he tossed it to Jody, who caught it easily, though he still looked puzzled.

Zeke peeked inside the basket. Hank described what Zeke saw by remarking, "A fully stocked picnic lunch. Ready to go whenever you want to dig in."

Zeke looked back at Hank, still puzzled. "Hank, what exactly are we doing here? I mean, this place is great, but--what?"

Hank moved to the wall with the light switch and pulled a clipboard and plastic bag from a peg which was below the switch. "I've done a fine job keeping the place spic and span, but even I have no idea what all's in here." He tossed the clipboard and bag to Zeke. The bag held a thick pad of sticker labels, numbers and letters of the alphabet, all about four inches tall apiece. "You boys are gonna catalogue the room. Give us a workable inventory. Or at least get one started."

Jody set down the picnic basket. "Wait a minute. You want us to organize all this stuff?"

"Already organized. Just not sure what's what or where it is. Label it and write it down on the clipboard pad."

Zeke looked around, a bit overwhelmed. "What, the posters too? The props, the costumes, the--"

"Do what you can. Do the best you can", Hank said. "And if the two 'a you should decide to pause here and there to, oh I dunno, have a little fun cowboy playtime along the way...well, I cain't see no harm in thet." He smiled.

Zeke and Jody shared a wide-eyed look of two tots who'd been given the keys to the candy store. "We're the men for the job, sir!"

Hank nodded. "Kinda figured you were. Now, there's a couple bottles of sarsaparilla in the picnic basket, but you got a whole big cooler of bottled water over yonder by those crates." Hank pointed to the plastic cooler against the back wall. "There's a walkie-talkie by the cooler. You boys have any problems or need anything, you give me a call." Hank plucked a duplicate walkie-talkie from a clip on the back of his belt and held it up. "I can be here by jeep in like fifteen minutes." The boys nodded, indicating they understood and that they were eager for Hank to leave.

As Hank exited the door, he stopped short and said almost casually, "And will ya lookie this. There's a big deadbolt right here on the inside of the door. Guess those actors were real serious about not havin' anyone bust in on their rehearsals. Well, you boys tae care and have fun, now."

Zeke let out a deep breath and dropped the clipboard and sticker pack down on top of the picnic basket. Jody was already at the far wall going through one of the crates. He was sifting through some costumes, clean and pressed and still in their plastic dry cleaning bags. Zeke came up beside him and stared at all the props on the wall.

"Jody, you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Yeah. Bolt the door."


Zeke stood tall in his borrowed cowboy costume. He flexed his arms and puffed out his chest, showing off his considerable physique, which had actually gotten bigger due to the strenuous ranch work he'd been pursuing wholeheartedly since coming to Geddyup. He wore a rust-colored cowboy hat, whose brim he flicked casually with one finger. He had on a matching vest pinned with a sheriff's badge, and chaps that wrapped around his legs and strapped in front with an impressive silver belt buckle.

And that was all he wore.

Zeke's shirt, jeans, and boots lay tossed in a corner as he strutted around the barn barefoot and bare chested, with his manhood swinging openly between his legs. He made little "ching, ching" noises as he walked, simulating the spurs of an old Western hero. He rolled a cinnamon toothpick between his teeth and, hooking his thumbs into the belt of his chaps, let out a big "Yee-HAW!"

There was a dull clank of metal on concrete, and Zeke looked down to see a prop six-gun at his feet. "Draw, pard!" Zeke looked up to see Jody standing there with a gun belt tightened around his trim waist, both side holsters empty. One of the six-guns was in Jody's gloved hand, the other was at Zeke's feet. And like his shoot out opponent, Jody was dressed (or undressed) similarly to his cowboy boyfriend. He wore the gun belt, short gloves, a tall tan cowboy hat, and nothing else. Jody was every bit as happy, as playful, and well endowed, as his buddy Zeke. His member swung a bit as he strode a few steps closer to Zeke.

"This town ain't big enough fer the' two of us."

Zeke snatched up the gun and pointed it at Jody. "Thar's a stage a' leavin' at high noon. Be on it!"

The duo started shooting at each other with mouthed "per-chow!, "pa-kow!"s, jerking their revolvers back and forth to simulate an onslaught of hot lead. In no time, they had their guns down by their ever-hardening penises, the sight of his boyfriend in seminude gunfighter guise making each cowboy increasingly aroused.

Finally, Jody threw up his hands. "Okay, I give, pard. I keep this up, I'm-a gonna shoot."

Zeke looked at him, puzzled, still aiming his six-gun at Jody. "What do you mean? That's what we're doing--!" Jody pointed to his member, which stuck out straight in front of him, bobbing slightly, leaking precum. Zeke got the picture. "Oh. You mean shoot that." Zeke dropped his fighting stance, saying, "Let's call it a draw." Simultaneously, the boys twirled their guns in their hands and smoothly returned them to their belt and holster, respectively.

"Let's see what else we've got in here to play with", Jody said, sounding more like a giddy schoolboy than a rough-and-tumble cowboy.

Jody's tone was fitting enough, as they soon came across a costumer's mannequin clad in the bonnet and printed floral dress of a school marm. In short order the seminude (mostly nude) cowboys had shucked off their previous outfits and traded them for the white and black of traditional good guy and bad guy. Zeke grabbed the black hat and matching gun belt, Jody seized the white. Of course, had the school marm been genuine, she would've fainted dead away at the sight of both hero and villain wearing only hats, bandanas, and gun belts.

Zeke growled out in a gruff voice, "Yer rent's late, Mizz Colfax! I'm a'gonna tie yew ta th' railroad tracks!"

Ignoring the fact that Zeke's play-acting ventured away from the venue of the Old West and into Canadian Mountie melodrama, Jody spoke in a stentorian voice, "Fear not, ma'am! I'm-a comin' to yer rescue! H'YAW!!"

Zeke drew his six-guns, but to his surprise, Jody produced a long lasso and began to twirl it about in a fashion as intricate and controlled as Zeke--or more accurately, Hank--ever could. Zeke spluttered, "What in tarnation--?" But that was as far as his villainous protests got, as Jody sent the stout rope across the room to swoop gracefully down atop his buddy, ensnaring his midsection and pinning his arms to his sides. With a sharp tug, Jody brought Zeke stumbling forward by six feet, his toy guns flying off in opposite directions. "Whoa! Jody, what're you doing??"

Still using his overblown heroic voice, Jody answered, "Sumthin' I've been dreamin' about ever since I done saw you rope up that gate at th' horsie arena, pardner!" Not allowing Zeke a chance to brace himself, Jody pulled at the rope again, twirling his friend around so his back was to Jody, and wrapping the rope around Zeke yet again. As Zeke staggered there, Jody yanked the rope backwards, then jerked it forwards, pulling Zeke clean off his feet and then sending him tumbling down to the floor. The floor was scattered with costumes and packing material at that point, so Zeke was unhurt, but he was more than a little disoriented. Taking advantage of that, Jody dashed over to Zeke and with a few deft movements, hog-tied his best friend so that his arms and legs were held firmly behind his back, tied at the wrists and ankles.

Zeke lost all pretense of their playing when he realized how truly helpless he was. "Holy shit, Jody! When the hell did you learn how to do that??"

Jody shrugged. "Probably around the same time we learned how to ride horseback."

Zeke smiled. "And how to clean stables, and pitch hay." He laughed, then said, "Okay, so untie me already."

Instead, Jody settled himself down atop his friend. "Naw, I think I like you this way, buddy." Jody began to run his fingers along Zeke's taut arms, to play lightly across the skin of his shoulders.

"Jody, I'm serious! Turn me loose!"

"I'm serious too", Jody snickered, now caressing Zeke's behind, kneading his cheeks and loving the feeling that Zeke could do nothing to stop him.

"Dude! I'm not liking this!", Zeke protested.

"That's not how it looks from where I'm sitting", Jody teased him, fingering Zeke's extremely erect member as it rubbed against the floor, leaving streaks and droplets of precum.

"Okay, okay! You win, I get it! This is turning me on! But if'n you don't get off 'a me, I'm gonna end up hosing down the floor!"

"I can think of better places for you to fire your hose", Jody said.

"Well, so can I, so get up already!"

Finally, Jody relented. "Oh, alright." He got up off of his hog-tied pal and with a nudge from his foot rolled Zeke over onto his side.

"So you gonna untie me or what?"

"Naw, I'm gonna leave you thet way for a spell. You look too darn cute all helpless like that."

"Terrific." Zeke struggled for a moment against the ropes but knew that any effort to get free was futile. "You know you are so fucking dead when I git outta this."

"If you git out."

Zeke struggled against his bonds again to no avail. "Yeah, if", he mumbled under his breath.

"Hey, lookit this!", Jody called.

"Uh, I'm a little tied up here."

"Scoot over to your left."

Zeke tried to scooch his bound mostly naked body over to face the direction of Jody's voice.

"Your other left."

Grumbling, the hog-tied cowboy scooched the other way, ready to fire off a snide remark to his buddy about how badly he'd pay for this indignity, but his words caught in his throat when he saw what Jody was holding.

"How awesome is this??" Jody held up a large sign no doubt used in the Adventure 'N Show. It was a thin plywood with creases in two places which Zeke took to be folds or hinges to collapse the sign for storage. In an old-fashioned font was the legend "Double Bull's-eye Ranch", with the simple graphic of two circles being pierced by two arrows. Twin cowboy silhouettes danced beneath the logo. "Dig it", Jody said, covering up the lower shafts of the arrows with his hand. Blocked thus, the double bull's-eyes took on the appearance of an intertwined double male insignia with arrowheads protruding from twin circles. The image of the dancing cowboys instantly took on a whole new meaning.

"Somehow I don't think thet was the original intention", Zeke observed. "now untie me."

Pretending not to hear him Jody ventured further into the crate where he'd gotten the sign. The crate was the one marked "Branding That Moo-Cow". Jody produced a prop branding iron of hard plastic and soft rubber, which bobbed and swayed in his hands. The rubber brand bore the double bull's-eye insignia. Jody looked at his helpless pal with a wicked glint in his eye. "Say pard, since you's all done up like a l'il doggie, maybe you's ought'a be branded like one."

"Don't get any brilliant ideas", Zeke warned, but there was genuine concern in his voice. He had no desire to get smacked by that floppy rubber branding iron prop.

"Oh, I got me a brilliant idea", Jody grinned. He then reached behind the crate and with a metallic clatter, brought out a tool box he'd discovered. From the old box he brought out a sharp utility knife, Zeke's eyes widened with fright until Jody started carving away at the prop brand. In short order, small bits of rubber went flying off the prop to scatter upon the floor. Jody whirled the branding iron back toward Zeke to reveal that it had been modified to look like the classic gay symbol of the intertwined male insignias. "You done ought'a be branded with this!"

Zeke laughed, relieved that's all Jody had in mind. Then Zeke saw Jody staring intently at his ass. "What?", Zeke asked. "What are you thinking?" Jody disappeared behind the crates and for a minute all Zeke could hear was rustling around and the clunk of what sounded like old tin cans. Then Jody reappeared with a can of set paint. Bright pink. Jody used the utility knife handle to pry off the lid and then slowly dunked the branding iron prop into the thick pink paint. Zeke knew where this was going.

"No way! No fucking way, man! You are NOT branding me with that thing!" Zeke squirmed and struggled along the floor, making no more headway with his bonds than before, and worse, getting caught up on his toy gun belt.

Jody approached his victim friend, brandishing the dripping rubber brand. "Just take it easy, l'il feller. Strugglin' only makes it worse."

"Jody, I am not kidding here! Back off!"

Jody straddled his roped pal, facing his rear end. "You ready to give up?"

"Okay, I give! I give!"

"You admit you're a big ol' cowboy queer?" The brand hovered low over Zeke's ass.

"I admit it! I'm a big ol' cowboy queer! I'm queer as a three-dollar bill!"

"Guess we'd better brand you, then", Jody said flatly, reeling back with the brand.

"You asshole!" Zeke's protests were unheard and too late. With a moist squish, the rubber brand pressed against Zeke's firm ass, marking his right butt cheek with a bright pink double-male gay brand. Jody remained on Zeke's back for a few moments afterward, not wanting Zeke to be able to rub the mark off by rolling around. Within a few moments more, Jody lightly patted Zeke's ass where the brand was.

"Damn. This stuff dries fast." Jody dismounted Zeke, laughing.

"Ohhhhh", Zeke moaned, "there is no way to calculate how fucking dead you are, Jode."

"Mebbe", Jody said, finally reaching down to undo Zeke's ropes, "but at least I'm not branded a fag." Jody knelt down, letting go of the ropes to knead Zeke's buttocks.

"Hey, you were untying me! Get back to it!", Zeke scolded.

"In a minute." Jody massaged Zeke's behind, running his fingers down along his crack and kneading his inner thighs. Then Jody's fingers played firmly along the length of Zeke's bound legs, caressing his outer thighs and tracing the muscles of Zeke's calves.

Unable to resist or pull away, Zeke was fast becoming aroused. "Jody, git up, man. I'm serious."

"I'm serious too", Jody whispered, his hands drifting over the roped which bound Zeke's ankles to his wrists, then gently rubbed his way down the length of Zeke's arms to knead his shoulders. "You have no idea how serious." Pressing tight against Zeke's bound limbs, Jody ran his hands over his friend's smooth chest.

Zeke moaned softly as Jody traced the six-pack of his abs, kissing the back of Zeke's neck. With the weight of his friend atop him, Zeke had no release from the steady pressure of his erect member pressing against the floor. Slowly, as Jody's hands played across Zeke's abdomen, the free boy turned Zeke's boy slowly toward him, lifting him partway off the floor as he rolled onto his side. Zeke let out a breath of relief, feeling the constant pressure of the floor on his penis finally relent. Then he felt the new, warmer pressure against it.

Zeke looked down to see Jody's hand wrapped around his penis. "Jody, no, hold up", Zeke begged. "I dunno how long I can hold it." He began to gasp, panting out protests that went unheard as Jody stroked him with increasing attentiveness. The power in Zeke's limbs that moments ago had strained against his bonds left him. With each breath, with each stroke, Zeke felt his strength leave him, his body growing ever more limp as his member grew ever more stiff.

Jody whispered in his ear. "Just let it go, l'il doggie. Yer branded as my property now. Let me take control." Zeke began to shake his head, but realized it was pointless to resist. He'd been hogtied and branded, and now he was being milked. And he liked it. So Zeke simply nodded, eyes closed and mouth hanging open, submitting to Jody's skilled fingering. Jody played him like a master, drawing Zeke almost tot he point of orgasm, then allowing him to soften slightly as his captor massaged his chest and shoulders, softly kissing his neck, his ears, the side of his face.

Finally, with balls buzzing and head spinning, Zeke begged for release of a different kind. "Jody, th-thet's it...cain't take it...cain't take no more..."

Jody rolled Zeke all the way over and with a passionate kiss on the lips, jerked his friend off with several mighty yanks. Zeke shot buckets all over his chest and the underside of his chin. He felt as if he came for days. Once spent, he gasped for breath like a man coming up from a deep underwater dive, his eyelids fluttering, all strength gone from his body. Jody allowed Zeke to flop over onto his belly again, his bound arms and legs sticking up in the air behind him.

"H-h-holy...shit, Jode!", Zeke panted. "Thet was fucking incredible!"

Jody untied his friend. "I only did it so's you wouldn't kick my sorry ass fer tying you up and paintin' a fag mark on yer butt."

Zeke's freed arms and legs flopped onto the floor in front of him and behind him. He spoke into the polished floor. "Ohhh, I'm still gonna do thet."



By midday, the two naked cowboys enjoyed their picnic lunch on a thick red checkered blanket while referring to their clipboard to verify what little work they had actually accomplished during intervals in their horseplay. Zeke even tried to remove his pink brand with some moist towelettes Hank had provided. No good. The paint had bonded to Zeke's skin. It wasn't going anywhere.

Once their bellies were full, Jody lounged on the picnic blanket as Zeke shuffled through the crates in search of tools for his revenge.

After a bit of digging, Zeke looked to his pal and said, "To pay you back for tying me up, you'll wear any costume I give you. Got that?"

Jody nodded. "I'm all yours. 'Cept if'n it's a dress. No girlie stuff." Zeke made a 'yucky' face, indicating that he wanted nothing to do with playing with a girl or someone dressed like one.

Zeke tossed Jody a bundle of clothes from the same crate where the prop brand had been discovered. "Put these on."

"Yessir", Jody said with no trace of irony. In short order, Jody stood clad in a new cowboy hat, 14-inch gauntlet gloves, vest, chaps, and boots. The entire outfit was of a soft white suede material covered liberally in black blotches reminiscent of a dairy cow or the box a particular brand of computer came in. Two yellow foam horns protruded from either side of the cowboy hat. The tips of the fuzzy boots were designed to look like hooves.

"I'm a cow-boy", Jody grinned. "Do I hafta moo now?"

"It came with pants which I conveniently discarded", Zeke confessed. Sure enough, Jody's member hung low before him, cow-patterned chaps on either side. "It also came with this very specialized belt", Zeke said, holding aloft a mock gun belt, painted white with black blotches, with a huge rubbery pink utter in front in lieu of a belt buckle.

"Thank you so much for not insisting on thet", Jody said.

"I got somethin' better", Zeke smiled, wiggling his eyebrows. "C'mere."

Jody followed Zeke around to the far corner of the barn. "So what is it?" Jody could see nothing that interesting in this area, as it was the stash of leftover ranching and farm equipment. In fact, he couldn't see Zeke, either. "Where'd you go?"

"Back here."

Jody squeezed himself around more crates, stray hoses and rope, a couple saddles, a variety of metal canisters, and some old sawhorses draped with heavy riding blankets. "Were we even supposed to take stock of this stuff? What all did you find back here?"

"I found you!" Zeke appeared from behind a large crate, startling Jody, making him easy prey for Zeke to shove him off his feet. Jody tumbled backwards, tripping on the hoses and ropes, to fall onto the sawhorses. The horses were bolted to the floor (for whatever reason) and weren't going anywhere. Caught off guard by Zeke's sudden appearance, it was all Jody could do to try to right himself as he lay atop the secured horses.

"What in tarnation did you do that fer?", Jody snarled, trying to get back onto his feet. His attempt came too late. Before he knew what had happened, Zeke had lashed Jody's arms and legs to the sawhorses, securing him tight. "Zeke, wait! What're you doin'??"

Zeke, down on one knee as he fastened Jody's costumed leg to the sawhorse, grinned up at his friend. "You think you're the only one Hank taught how to rope?" Before Jody could question what was happening, he was bound fast, lying on his back, his legs and arms lashed tight. Jody's arms hugged the wooden horses tight at his sides, his legs stretched out in front of him, booted toes scraping the floor.

"Okay, you got me", Jody said, tugging in vain at the ropes which held him. "And if'n it's any consolation, I now get how rotten it feels to be all tied up. Turn me loose."

"Not yet", Zeke said with authority.

Jody could feel that Zeke had planned this out, most likely as they had lunch. The sawhorses were only draped with riding blankets. Beneath them, heavy foam padding had been layered to support Jody's back, with extra padding under his shoulders and head. It wasn't painful to be strapped to the horses this way, just humiliating and disconcerting.

"First thing's first", Zeke said, appearing with the rubber branding iron, which dripped with fresh pink paint.

"Aw, man, don't even", Jody said.

"Cattle's done gotta be branded", Zeke smirked. Zeke hovered over Jody's privates, making slow circles around his ball sack, as if sizing up whether Jody's nuts would be large enough to catch all of the brand.

"No way, Zeke! Not the family jewels!"

Zeke said but one thing. "Moo." Jody squeezed his eyes shut tight. Then with a wet squish, the brand hit Jody's smooth skin, marking his hard abs, one of the double-male rings perfectly circling his navel.

Jody opened his eyes and looked. He was somewhat relieved that his balls had gone unmarked, but he was still less than thrilled with the payback. "Guess I'm a big ol' cowboy queer too", he lamented.

"Well, we knew that." Zeke tossed the prop brand aside. "But don't worry, cow cowboy. I got something else that'll make ya feel better." There was a dull clanking noise as held up an old tin cow bell on a bright blue strap.

"That?! That's gonna make me feel better?"

Zeke gleefully strapped the cow bell around his prostrate pal's neck. "Well, it'll make me feel better, anyway. But that's not what I meant." After giving Jody's new bell a playful ring, Zeke darted back behind the crates to where the old equipment had been stored. There was a squeak of old wheels as Zeke pushed a cart out to where Jody was held captive. Zeke stood next to it, all smiles, leaning against the contraption with one hand, his legs crossed casually at the ankles.

Jody gaped at the device on the cart, trying to register what he was seeing. Then, "Oh, man. That's not what I think it is, is it?"

The cart was painted black, with a large flat platform perched atop two wheels. The cart was designed not unlike a wheelbarrow in that the wheels were located in the front only, with metal stands and the push handle in back. Upon the platform rested a large silver vat with a series of thick tubes going in and out of it, along with a small black mast topped with what appeared to be a faucet, a dial, or similar mechanism. Two smaller containers sat between the main vat and the push handle. There was a rectangular, white plastic jug and an oblong metal drum, both attached by more hoses. Above them was a large gauge fastened to a gold cylinder. All the tubes and wires connected to a sizeable gray box with two large switches on it, one red and one green. The red was depressed. extending from the metal drum were a pair of durable black rubber hoses topped with broad silver nozzles and with wide, ribbed black lips.

Jody swallowed hard. "Dude, that's not a milking machine, is it?"

Zeke held up a stout white electric plug and jiggled it in front of Jody. "Say 'moo', good buddy."

"Zeke! No, you can't!" But Zeke already was. He leaned over and plugged the machine into a wall outlet he'd discovered, then once again stood beside the machine on the cart. He picked up one of the shining hoses with the silver nozzle and twirled it casually in his hand.

Jody started pleading. "Man alive, Zeke, all I did was tie you up some!"

"And you jerked me off, too."

"Okay, well I did thet", Jody conceded. "But that's designed to suck off cows! What if it hurts me??"

Zeke began to lower the sparkling clean nozzle onto Jody's penis. "Then I trust you'll tell me, won't you?" Jody squinted his eyes tight, trying not to look, finding it couldn't help himself. His body clenched harshly as he felt something grip his member, then he saw that it was just Zeke's hand.

"Relax already. I just want you to be erect, is all."

Soon enough Jody was, and Zeke let the nozzle slide into place. Jody flinched. "Geez! It's cold!" Zeke fiddled with an adjustment and the wide lip of the nozzle closed firmly around Jody's cock. Jody squirmed, but it was clear that he was in no pain. Zeke then let his finger hover above the green switch, humming a happy tune. Jody watched him wide-eyed, heart thumping in suspense.



"Enjoy yerself." With that, Zeke depressed the green switch and with a whir the milking machine came to life. There was a slurp of steady suction and the hose shook slightly as it drew forcefully on whatever it could.

"WHOA!!" Jody's entire body tensed, his eyes bulging open and his mouth locked open as the milker settled into a steady chugga-chugga-chugga as it did its work. Zeke stood ready to pull the plug should Jody show the slightest sign of discomfort, but instead Jody rolled his head on his shoulders as if it were about to fall off and moaned, "Ohhhhhhhh MAN!"

Zeke walked over beside his buddy and nudged him in the shoulder. "You okay in there?" Jody's penis was still hard as a rock as the silver-tipped hose slurped away at him. By now Jody's eyes were closed and his mouth was moving but no sound was coming out. Zeke could see Jody's fingers clenching and unclenching, tugging on the ropes as wave upon wave of pleasure washed through his body. Bit by bit, beads of perspiration appeared on Jody's smooth chest, some to trickle across his firm pecs and gather in the underside of his vest. The edges of his cowbell began to fog over. Zeke watched as Jody's balls appeared to tighten beneath the milking hose, his shoulders twitching slightly and spasmodically in response to what he was feeling. Zeke fingered Jody's balls lightly, adding to his convulsive shudders.

After a few minutes of this, Jody let out a big, "MMOOOOOOOOOO!!" and the hose made a wet sucking sound as if it had just drawn thick tree sap rather than cow's milk. Zeke stepped back as Jody's hat tumbled to the floor.

Jody's body went limp, all except one part of it anyway, and he almost melted back against the padded sawhorse while the milker kept right on doing its thing. Zeke ran his fingers through Jody's hair. "You all done, Mr. Moo-cow?"

Jody's face split into a big, brainless grin. "Buddy o' pal, you kin leave me here like this all day if'n you want."

"I'll take that as a yes."




Zeke didn't leave Jody there all day, although Jody did insist on continuing to wear the milking hose, and did so for another half an hour. For the next couple hours following the milking adventure, the two naked cowboys refocused their efforts on doing what Hank had asked them to do and catalogued a great deal of the material that had been left by the Adventure 'N Show. It was half past three when the boys happened upon the box labeled "RIDE 'EM COWBOY".

Zeke and Jody shared a silent look with furrowed brows, wondering what could be inside. They opened up the crate and began to remove tiny felt cowboy hats, miniature boots, toddler-sized vests and various diminutive accessories.

"It's for little kids", Jody observed. Reaching down into the crate, Jody unearthed a toy hobby horse. Despite it's playful appearance and cartoony smiling face, it was fairly accurate in its representation of an actual ranch horse.

"Not everything is", Zeke said, pulling out a small horse's saddle and bridle.

Jody took the saddle and reigns. "Well, these are too big for the hobby horse, but there's no way this thing would fit on a real horse, even a pony."

Zeke pulled out colorful charts that explained, in children's terms, the basics of riding a horse. "Looks like this was for a kids' class on riding. The little ones would probably sit through this with some teacher while the parents went riding for real." Zeke craned his neck to peer into the crate. "Is there a larger hobby horse in there? Like, for the bigger kids? That'd explain the saddle."

Jody was still studying the small saddle. "It's shaped all wrong." He held it up to show Zeke. "See? It doesn't curve the way it should. It's almost flat along its width, almost if..." Jody's thoughts began to click.

Zeke was now leaning over into the crate, digging through more children's costumes and teaching aids. "Could be there's more than one crate for this part", he suggested. "Was there a second crate marked with the label 'RIDE 'EM--?"

Jody cut him off. "I know what the saddle's for. Stand up."

Zeke stood up, expecting to find Jody holding up another hobby horse. "What? Where does it--" Before Zeke could say another word, Jody strapped the saddle around Zeke's midsection. The saddle fit perfectly against his back, the belt secured snugly around his torso. "--go." Zeke looked at Jody in disbelief. "No fucking way."

"No, it makes perfect sense."

"Git this saddle off me."

"Wait. Think about it. What father or uncle hasn't gotten down on his hands and knees in the living room and played "horsie" with his kids? What better way to teach them how to ride? Especially the little ones." Zeke looked down at the saddle belt buckled around his midsection. He made a groaning sound. "It's brilliant, really!", Jody glowed. "If you got tiny kids that are way too small to ride safely, you kin set 'em up with a trained teacher and they can play horsie all they want without gettin' hurt."

"Dude, I'm wearing a saddle. How does this buckle work?"

"Git down on all fours."

Zeke looked at Jody with wide eyes. "Say what?"

"You heard me. Git down on all fours, horsie."

Zeke put his hands on his hips and shot Jody a look of defiance. Jody held up his hands in a gesture of prayer. Pretty please? Zeke rolled his eyes and reluctantly moved to the floor and got down on all fours.

"I'm gettin' a turn on the milker for this."

Jody hunkered down next to his now-equine pal and held up the bridle. "Now the size o' this thing makes a lot more sense, too." Before Zeke could register what that meant, Jody slipped the bridle and reigns over Zeke's face, where it fit exactly. The upper strap ran across his forehead, the lower across the bridge of his nose. Patting his pal on the head, Jody slipped a pliable bit into Zeke's mouth and mounted his saddle.

"Dis ith tho noh hap'enin oo me", Zeke the Horse grumbled.

"I promise not to ask you to whinny", Jody said. "Geddyup."

Jody rode Zeke once around the room, until Zeke bucked high like the steed of the Lone Ranger, throwing Jody backwards into a pile of riding blankets. He then stood up, spitting out the bit. "Pthoo! Your turn." Zeke tossed the reins at Jody, who caught them without protest.

"Leastways you're hung like a horse", Jody grinned. "That much is accurate."

Zeke unfastened the costume saddle from his torso and waved it before Jody. In an affected 49 voice he growled, "I'm-a gonna break you, bronco." Jody was happy to oblige.

Both boys were hard as a rock by the end of Jody's ride, but neither felt comfortable mentioning it or doing anything about it. This brand of (literal) horseplay was amusing at first, but ventured too far into country/western kink for either cowboy's comfort. It was an odd sentiment for two who'd just enacted a hogtie and then milking scenario, but there it was. Instead they both pretended not to notice their respective erections, and by focusing on their inventory work they eventually became soft, whereupon they retrieved their pants and boots and covered up for the first time in hours. They still opted to remain shirtless, which at this point felt most comfortable.

It was half past five when Hank returned to find the boys hard at work. And thankfully, hard at nothing else.




"You boys put in a fine day's work here", Hank said proudly. His eyes skimmed the many pages of the inventory clipboard, casting occasional glances at the crates marked with coinciding stickers.

"We haven't gotten it all", Zeke was quick to point out."

"But you got one hell of a good start", Hank countered. "Besides, I never 'spected you two to be able to get everything down. Not in one sitting." He pulled both boys close and patted them on the back. "You done good."

Hank lingered there a moment, his arms around Jody and Zeke's shoulders, just looking at them. No, not looking. Gazing. Hank's eyes took on a dreamlike quality as he stood there with his arms on the young cowboys' shoulders, as if he were remembering something he felt fondly about. Or perhaps wishing for something of the like.

As Zeke and Jody began to wonder what Hank might be thinking, their mentor let go of them, and in his usual strong voice said, "Howzabout we git ourselves back to the mess hall fer some chow and then you fellas can git cleaned up."

Since both young men were ravenously hungry after their day's work--and play time--they were quick to agree. They rode back in silence. It wasn't until they hopped out of Hank's jeep that Zeke asked him, "Say, Hank. Did you wash your jeep today? It looks a lot spiffier than it did this morning."

Hank shrugged. "Thought it could do with a quick rinse. Let's eat."

The boys had seconds at dinner and left feeling wonderfully full. They hit the showers and then returned to their barracks pondering whether they'd even bother to get dressed again or if they'd just hit the hay buck naked. It was not something they had to consider for long.

Laid out on their bunks was two sets of brand-spanking-new clothes. Two Western shirts, one white with a red yoke and cuffs, with gleaming silver snaps. It had the dual pattern of a noble horse's head on each breast. The other shirt was light blue, with royal blue yoke and cuffs. It had a bow and arrow design where the other's horse head patches were. Each shirt came with a smart square dancer's tie complete with polished stone clip. The red yoked shirt had neatly pressed warm gray trousers with a thin red stripe down each side. The blue shirt lay atop jet black pants with a royal blue stripe. On the floor beside each outfit was a pair of brightly polished boots. One red with black accents. The other black with royal blue stitching. The boys stood naked before their respective outfits and stared. They'd never seen anything so lovely apart from each other.

At the head of each man's bunk was a new cowboy hat. Their old hats still hung upon the bedposts, but it was clear that these were intended to coincide with their new outfits. One was white with a red tie around its crown. The other was black with a royal blue band. Without a word, the two cowboys got dressed, not sure what they'd do afterward. Zeke donned the blue and black ensemble, Jody the red and white. Each man looked like a million dollars after he was done.

Jody picked up the white hat and slipped it onto his head. Zeke reached for the black one, but as he lifted it from the bed, something fell out from inside it. He picked up the object as he placed his hat upon his head. It was a matchbook. Printed on its back was the logo-

Silver Triangle

honky tonk bar

# # #

2347 Westwood Lane

ALL Cowboys Welcome!


Jody stepped up beside Zeke and they read the matchbook cover together. Under the bar's name was a cartoon drawing of metal triangle and tong, such as those used to call cowboys in for dinner. Zeke flipped the cover open to find a handwritten note addressed to them.


Zeke & Jody,

You guys have more than earned a night out

on the town. Enjoy the clothes, they're yours.

Directions to the Silver Triangle on dash of the jeep.

It's gassed up, keys in the ignition. Have fun.



"That explains why he washed the jeep", Jody commented. Then, for some reason, his eyes felt moist. He put the back of his hand to his eyes and realized his was tearing up. Jody looked to Zeke and found his friend was similarly affected.

Zeke dabbed at the corners of his eyes with his thumb. "Hank's pretty alright, i'nt he?" Jody grasped Zeke's shoulder and gave him an affectionate squeeze.

"Sure is."



The duo found the bar with relative ease. The parking lot was filled with jeeps, trucks, and 4x4s. Zeke and Jody hopped out of Hank's jeep and started toward the door. Halfway there, Jody stopped. Zeke looked at him, wondering what was wrong.

"What's up?"

Jody paused, searching for words. "It's just--y'know, this is nice and all, and you look really hot all duded up."

"Much obliged. You too."

"Thanks. It's just--I'd really like to dance with you tonight. Can we do that in there? With all kinds 'a people around?"

Zeke took Jody by the hand and led him to the door. "We'll line dance. Side by side. Any girls come around, we'll tell 'em we're spoken for."

Jody smiled. "We just won't say by who."

Inside the saloon door, Zeke and Jody let go of each other's hands and looked around. The atmosphere was happy and warm. The place was crowded with people at tables drinking anything from longneck beers to soda pops. Snacks and appetizer baskets littered the tabletops with munchies ranging from cheese popcorn to buffalo wings. The decor was definitely Western, with wooden paneled walls, hanging photos of famous cowboy legends such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, rodeo posters, and even a cattle skull. Music blared from a jukebox that was set up to simulate a band, and a cluster of people availed themselves of the dance floor, line dancing to current country favorites.

Waitresses in attractive mini skirts and aprons glided in between tables, bringing drinks, refilling snack baskets, and making idle chit-chat. The tables as well as the bar were awash with a sea of cowboy hats. A few of the cowboys in attendance wore scruffier attire, sleeveless muscle shirts and scuffed boots, but the majority of those present wore nice-looking outfits like those worn by Jody and Zeke.

Jody tensed at the sight of all the burly cowboys, concerned that he might wind up with his face smashed in amid cries of "We don't want yer kind hyar!" if he were to slip and make cow eyes at his boyfriend. Zeke felt Jody's tensions and gave him a pat on the shoulder, followed by a reassuring look.

"Let's dance!", Zeke shouted over the music.

Jody looked at him askance, his eyes sending a silent message of protest, but as Zeke pushed past him to the dance floor, Jody understood what he meant. Zeke took up a spot at the end of a line of fellow cowboys, thumbs hooked into his belt, and joined in with the line dance. Zeke saw that Jody was still standing by the doorway and jerked his head in the message of "join me". Jody did. In two shakes he was at Zeke's side and two of them line danced straight through the next three songs. By the fourth, the duo sought out a table.

"When the hell did you learn how to line dance?", Jody asked.

"When did you?", Zeke countered.

Jody smiled brightly. "Same time I learned how to hogtie lone little doggies, I suppose." Jody leaned forward, his elbows resting on the table. "You look really, really good tonight, Zeke."

Zeke could feel his face blush. "You look good too--"

"What'll you handsome gentlemen have tonight then?"

The boys jumped back in their seats as a ravishingly beautiful waitress arrived at their table. "You two were burnin' up the dance floor something fierce. I'm impressed. Somethin' to wet your whistle with before you do-si-do agin?"

Zeke cleared his throat, then said, "A couple'a longnecks'd be nice."

"And some mozzarella sticks", Jody added.

The waitress winked. "You got it."

The two said nothing until their food and beers arrived, then they busied themselves with sipping and munching. After a while, Zeke said, "Almost forgot myself there. Came real close to just leaning over the table and kissi--"

"Yeah, me too", Jody said quickly. Then, as he swirled a cheese stick in a plastic tub of marinara sauce, he said, "Kinda sucks, don't it? I mean, us bein' cool with who we are--and it's pretty obvious that Hank don't care--but we still gotta watch ourselves when we're out together in public."

"Yeah, well, this is the price we pay to move about in mixed company. It's not like they don't let girls in here or anything." Zeke took another swig of his beer and gazed about the room at the many happy, smiling and laughing people all around them. His brow furrowed and he drew slower on his beer.

"Yep, there's pretty girls all over in...here...", Jody took in the room as well and he too felt the thought connecting in his head. "Um, Zeke? You notice anything about the girls in here?"

"Uh-huh. All the girls are waitresses."

"And nothin' else." The boys looked everywhere, and sure as shootin', the only ladies in the entire Silver Triangle were the wait staff. Men and boys crowded the room, sometimes in couples, sometimes as many as six to a table, but never, it seemed, in the company of a lady.

"Jody, is this? Did Hank send us to a--?"

Jody tapped Zeke's arm and pointed across the room behind the bar. There on the wall below the neon-trimmed clock was an upside-down silver dinner triangle, backed by a pink mounting board. A pink triangle. Carefully tucked away in an unobtrusive spot, but visible nonetheless. Zeke then smacked Jody's arm and indicated a couple cowboys in the far corner. They were built like bronco busters, with broad shoulders and impressive biceps. They were dressed in denim shirts, worn jeans, and cowboy hats. And they were kissing one another tenderly.

Jody met Zeke's eyes. "Man, it's a gay honky tonk!"

Zeke's eyes sparkled as he set his beer down and got up from his chair. "Care to dance, partner?"

"You bet."

The two gay cowboys hit the line dancing floor again and stomped and side-stepped to "Ruby Baby". Then Zeke took Jody by the hand and directed them both to the other end of the dance floor, which had been previously unoccupied. Now as the hour grew late, cowboys a' plenty crowded the floor and danced in pairs and in groups to fast-paced country tunes. Zeke and Jody joined the excited crowd as Garth Brooks howled about how he'd be "Callin' Baton Rouge" and whooped and hollered as Josh Gracin assured them all he had "Nothin' To Lose". The crush of men on the overpopulated floor did nothing to dissuade everyone there from throwing themselves full force into the music and, more than once, into each other.

The mood of the room was upbeat and contagious. It only ebbed when the music changed tempo and a slow song came from the jukebox. Even then, it ebbed only slightly, as most of the cowboys left the dance floor for their tables, still laughing and walking arm-in-arm. A few cowboy couples remained, arms around each other's waists and shoulders as the lights dimmed a bit and a miniature mirror ball cast glints of light around the room in a slow rotation.

Jody began to move toward their table, but Zeke caught him by the arm, stopping him. "Stay." Jody looked at him with an uneasy expression. Zeke returned his look with compassionate eyes. "Dance with me, Jody."

Reluctantly, Jody allowed Zeke to lead him out to the center of the dance floor. Their movements were awkward at first, stiff and self-conscious. But Zeke eased Jody's arms over his shoulders and reached around to hold Jody's waist. The two fit together so naturally, so well, that it was only the length of a few nervous heartbeats before the two drifted close together. As they swayed on the dance floor, tiny lights at play on the walls and ceiling as other couples orbited around them, Zeke and Jody felt as if nothing in the world could tear them apart. Fittingly, the song to which they danced, "Wild Horses", captured that sentiment.


Childhood livin' is easy to do,

The things you wanted

I bought them for you.

Graceless lady,

You know who I am.

You know I can't let you

Slide through my hands.

Wild horses couldn't drag me away.

Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away.


Jody rested his chin on Zeke's shoulder, and Zeke did the same with Jody's shoulder. As the song played on, the two young men pulled apart just enough to gaze into each other's eyes. Their eyes held passion and contentment, but at the same time ached with a yearning that neither could put into words.

Without any words spoken, the two cowboys moved their mouths together and kissed each other deeply, there on the dance floor in front of everyone, losing themselves to their embrace as everything all around them seemed to drop into a slow motion rotation. It was as if every person and object in the bar was relegated to another time frame so that the momentous exchange of devotion between the young ranch hands could take place undisturbed. In that moment, that kiss, Jody and Zeke's world moved. And it changed.

Pulling apart again, the eyes of the two young men met once again. This time, they not only saw what their eyes held, but they saw each other.



The young cowboys fell together and clutched one another tight as they continued their dance. Softly, they whispered into one another's ears of what had just occurred to them, both inside and out.

"God, Dudley, I remember everything", Ralph said.

"Me too, Ralph. All of it. The hypnosis, the cowboy names, the--the--" Dudley pulled away from his boyfriend, his face ashen. "Oh shit, Ralph. Hank knows everything. He knows about us, about what we've been doing together on the ranch, and he knows--he knows about--"

"He knows about us before", Ralph confirmed. "He knows our big secret."

The two danced in silence as the song wound down, its lyrics subsiding to a repeating instrumental chord. Finally, Dudley said, "I don't think he cares. I don't think it matters to Hank that we're, you know--"

"That we're in love?"

Ralph's words caught Dudley off guard, but he could not have put it more succinctly. "Yeah. That."

"Then maybe we shouldn't care either. I love you, Dudley."

Dudley's face broke into a beautiful broad smile and he said back in a soft whisper, "I love you too, Ralph. But call me Zeke, huh?"

"Only if you call me Jody."

And the two kissed again, as if for the first time, which in many ways it was. And thus Zeke and Jody, the clumsy college students who became cowboys, held one another and shared a kiss that was a lifetime in the making. Lips locked, passions flowing, arms supporting one another, they stood that way on the dance floor of the Silver Triangle honky tonk bar until nearly the end of the next song.



The moon shone brightly through the open window of the barracks when Zeke and Jody (Dudley and Ralph) returned. The stood in the doorway for several minutes, kissing, stroking one another's chests, caressing their arms. Eventually they made their way over to their bunks, clicking on a small table lamp they rarely used. It gave just enough fuzzy yellow illumination to their end of the barracks so they could see what they were doing. What they were doing was undressing.

This was unlike any of the horseplay and silliness of dressing one another they'd engaged in previously. This was slow, gentle, careful. One snap at a time they undid each other's shirts. They took turns sliding them off the other's back, easing arms out of sleeves. The duo sat down on their respective bunks as his boyfriend slid his cowboy boots off of his feet. They stood again as they removed one another's pants, slowly, easily, enjoying the process as they stepped out of each pant leg. Soon they stood before each other naked except for their cowboy hats. They kissed once, then again. Then each young man removed his friend's cowboy hat and set it down respectfully atop the pile of clothing that had accumulated in a nearby bunk.

They eased themselves down onto one of the bunks, arms stroking skin, lips softly kissing necks and faces. They pulled the blankets back and lay upon the sheets, their firm young bodies intertwined, muscles and members lit here and there by shafts of moonlight still visible despite the small table lamp.

The table lamp was left on. The young cowboys wanted to see each other, to be fully aware of what they were doing and with whom they were sharing this experience. With amber light from their side and silver light from above, the gay cowboys made love. This was beyond sneaking a kiss or engaging in costumed role-play. This was an open expression of their love for one another, a complete surrender to who they are and who they were meant to be.

Dudley probed his best friend's mouth with his tongue, and Ralph responded in kind. Their chests pressed together, their erect members making contact, leaving liquid traces of their growing arousal. Dudley clutched at Ralph's shoulders as the blond cowboy kissed his chest, moving down toward Dudley's abs. Dudley gasped as Ralph moved his mouth over the shaft of Dudley's penis, drawing it gently into his mouth, pulling backward with lips ensnaring it, tongue tracing the underside. Ralph pulled off of Dudley's member, kissing away the precum from the head.

Then he looked up at Dudley and whispered, "Turn me over. I want you inside me, Dudley. I love you."

Dudley looked down and met Ralph's eyes. "Are you sure?"

Ralph nodded. "Ride me."

Dudley carefully turned his boyfriend over and slowly entered him from behind. he lowered himself down upon Ralph from above, allowing his chest to rub against Ralph's smooth back as he pumped his friend in and out, back and forth, slow and steady. Ralph groaned in ecstasy and Dudley joined him, the two finally becoming one together. Dudley did all that he could to prolong the experience, but it was less than fifteen minutes before he reached climax.

He began to dislodge himself from Ralph's posterior. Ralph grabbed Dudley's arms. "Where are you going?"

"I-I'm about to shoot--I can't just--"

"Cum inside me", Ralph said. "We're both virgins, it's safe. I want you to."

Without waiting for a response, Ralph tugged at Dudley's arms, pulling him back down upon him and holding him inside of him. With a few more strokes, Dudley fired inside his cowboy lover. Spent, Dudley collapsed atop Ralph. He panted, rubbing Ralph's shoulders and kissing the back of his head. A few minutes later, Dudley dismounted his boyfriend.

The two lay together in the bunk, face-to-face, kissing passionately, arms wrapped around one another. It was a while before Dudley whispered his request to Ralph. "Will you turn me over too?" Ralph stroked his boyfriend's hair, nodding. He then took great care in mounting his best friend and lover. As Ralph inserted himself into Dudley, the lyrics of the last slow dance from the Silver Triangle resonated in their heads.

Come and lay your head on this big brass bed

And we'll be alright as long as you stay with me

Dudley gasped, gladly accepting Ralph inside him, understanding at last what it truly meant to be ridden by a real cowboy. No costumes saddles, no toy reins. Just two young men very much in love with each other and willing to express it.

Ralph leaned forward as he thrust into Dudley with great care and measured strokes. Softly he whispered, "I love you so much, Dudley. Are you okay?"

Dudley answered back, "Ride 'em cowboy."


It was nearing 4am before the young cowboys stopped making love. They lay in each other's arms and talked.

"It feels like we've been waiting our whole lives to do this", Dudley said.

"We have", Ralph told him. There was a moment's silence, then he mused, "So this is like our biggest dream come true, I guess."

"And our greatest fear." Dudley rolled over and faced his lover. "All those questions we got through junior high and high school. The ones we kept avoiding."

Ralph completed the thought. "What's with you two guys, you're always together. You guys fags or something?" Ralph pondered. "We've starting getting some stares at the university, too. What do we say if anyone asks us if we are fags?"

Dudley put a hand on Ralph's head. "We stand tall and we tell them that yeah, we are fags. But we prefer the term gay."

Ralph smiled. "Cowboy Dudley."

Dudley smiled back. "Rancher Ralph."

Dudley propped himself up on one elbow. "Say, what are we gonna do about this whole name thing? Which names are we gonna go by?"

Ralph shrugged. "I've got a cousin, Norma Louise, goes by Norma at school, but at home her folks call her Louise. Grandparents call her Weezie. Her two best friends call her Nilly."


"Or Nil. For N.L. You now, Norma Louise."

"So we can just keep going by Zeke and Jody here on the ranch since that's how folks 'round here know us--"

"--and we're still Dudley and Ralph everywhere else. Works for me."

Dudley stroked Ralph's shoulder and whispered confidentially, "Just between you an' me, I kinda prefer bein' called Zeke to Dudley. If you don't mind."

"So I'll call you Zeke."

"And I can call you--?"

"Whenever you want. I'll come runnin'."

The two rolled over and held one another until dawn, whereupon they took their place on the window sill, hats upon the heads, otherwise bare naked, and watched the sun come up.



Hank leaned against the fence post, watching the two young cowboy lovers at work. They moved with a newfound energy and enthusiasm that eclipsed anything they'd demonstrated before. He smiled as they rode side by side and worked in flawless harmony on any task. He admired their ability to show affection by holding hands or sharing a quick kiss in front of the other ranch hands, and appreciated their restraint when near the guests.

All of their cowboy training stuck. They still showed efficiency--increased efficiency, in fact--in all of their skills and attacked each chore with relish. Hank also kept an eye on them as they spent their time off; riding one horse together bareback, enjoying a discreet roll in the hay (literally), and going out dancing at the Silver Triangle. The boys became regular visitors to the gay honky tonk on Friday nights. Once or twice they went on a Saturday, too. Three times they invited Hank to join them. He refused each time and they eventually stopped asking. Hank still enjoyed watching the two of them together. It did his heart good to see two fine young men so at peace with themselves and each other, able to enjoy who they are without secrecy or shame. All the same, it made Hank a little sad, too.

It was early August when Hank started to feel a bit down. He knew what was coming at this point in the summer, for it seemed it always did. It was true that Zeke and Jody were far and away the best college cowboys he'd ever trained, but Hank saw no indication that they would break what he'd come to call the End-of-August rule.

Hank lay on his bunk, his small Discman playing the country tune "Peace of Mind" on a continuous loop. It had become Hank's song for reflection. Jody and Zeke were elsewhere on the ranch tonight, he could only guess where. Maybe they'd scampered back to their favorite hay barn, or hiked to the walking trail for some moonlight kisses. They may have even traveled all the way out to the Adventure 'N Show storage building for some quality playtime. It didn't matter to Hank exactly where they'd gone so much as that they'd gone together.

Hank had told them before that he'd hired the two university students because he "saw their potential". What he had kept to himself was that their potential had nothing to do with ranch work or mastering the skills of a cowboy. Hank had seen in two young men who were very clearly hiding something the potential to face their fears and come into their own.

Hank's memory drifted back with the music to his first assurance to the boys about mesmerism. It's not possible to make somebody do something they don't want to do. But he knew the art of the true hypnotist was to find out what desires were hidden deep inside, and allow the subject to truly do what he'd secretly wanted so desperately to do all his life.

Hank had instructed the rookie ranchers Jody and Zeke to answer his question truthfully that first night. And they had. The question had been simple but probing. "Have you ever had intimate relations with each other?"

Jody and Zeke spun a campfire tale that carried Hank back with them to the basement rec room of Dudley's parents when Dudley was 16 and Ralph was 15. Dudley had returned from the downstairs refrigerator with what was supposed to be a hefty stash of beer. He held aloft one can of lite beer to Ralph.

"What, that's it?"

"That's all he had in there, I swear."

Ralph let out a frustrated breath, flopping backwards on a giant pillow. "The first time your parental units take off for a weekend and trust us to be left alone and we can't even get shit-faced? That was the big plan! We've been talking about it all week."

Dudley popped the top of the single can of brew. "We'll split it."

After half a beer each, the twosome were laughing themselves silly, more from the idea of being drunk than from any kind of real intoxication. The batted one another with the four-by-four foot overstuffed pillows and made cracks about their teachers. The local rock station blared in the background, eventually belting out a popular romantic ballad. Dudley groaned and reached to change the station, but Ralph caught his arm.

"No, don't. I like this song."

The two young boys shared a glance that screamed silently that there was something between them. They moved close together their breath still telling of pilfered beer and too many Hot Pockets. In seconds, the pair were all over each other atop the giant pillows. They never shed a scrap of clothing, but they kissed with the clumsy, searching abandon of adolescents and groped awkwardly to little avail.

The next day they could barely make eye contact. They pretended it was the beer that had done it. They were too young, too virginal, too unaccustomed to drink. Half a lite beer had inebriated them. Surely that was it. If not that, then they would have to recognize that they actually felt something for each other. Something strong, intense, compelling. Something wrong. No, it had to have been the beer.

The following week at school, it was Ralph who approached Dudley, acting as if it had never happened. Dudley didn't understand at first, but by lunchtime he caught on and adopted the same behavior. Refuse to acknowledge it, and it's as if it never happened. No, it never happened. It couldn't have. Their vow of silence was as inviolate as it was unspoken.

The two remained the best of friends either because or despite their silent pact. Hank asked them during that first session if there had been any other sexual encounters between them. There had been one other. Dudley and Ralph were seniors in high school, nearing graduation. Both of them handsome, both of them personable, both of them still unattached. They would rather spend the night together bowling than taking a girl to the movies. They both understood why, they both suppressed the urge to think about it.

One night they came to the foolish decision to rent a porno movie to watch together. A secret viewing done in solidarity to reinforce their self-imposed myth that they liked girls. As the Bad Babes of Barbados engaged in rampant depravity on the TV screen, Dudley and Ralph masturbated, safe behind Ralph's locked bedroom door. Not a word was spoken as the boys went through their meaningless ritual, neither able to get off until they stole looks at one another. Each of them knew what they were doing, each of them pretended to be fooled.

Hank had recognized the closeted boys for what they were and sought to free them. Hence his intention to have their ranch hand knowledge fade after the first day. His hypnotic sessions to help them come into their own could not be accomplished in one sitting. Thus his Zeke and Jody would need to feel compelled to come back on their own.

Hank didn't want their "training" to stop halfway.

By the second hypnosis session, Hank saw the joy and pride the two young men felt from being capable cowboys. It was then he asked the entranced twosome if they knew what it takes to be the best cowboy. That the cowboy needs to be gay and not at all abashed before the fact. He reinforced the idea that Zeke and Jody could sense that they were indeed gay, and thus candidates for cowboy legend.

It was only by their last campfire meeting that Hank realized his insistence on giving them cowboy names was causing confusion, especially with Ralph. It was creating a compartmentalizing of their psyches hank did not want. Ralph would be willing to let Jody be a gay cowboy if he could still remain a closeted straight when out of his work clothes. So Hank disposed of "Dudley" and "Ralph" altogether, if only in name, until such a time as the two college men could allow themselves to be who they are not only when alone but in public. At that moment their full memories would return.

But Hank had to be certain that this post-hypnotic suggestion would be resolved during their summer on the ranch, and not something that would fester in the young cowboys' minds and hearts indefinitely. It was then he whispered the vital question to each of them, starting with Jody.

"Are you in love with him?"

Again Ralph's answer came to Hank, in that low whisper that Hank almost missed, "....God, yeesss..."

Now Hank lay in his bunk, letting those remembered words drift into his ears past the crooning of the song from his CD player. He knew that left to their own devices as Zeke and Jody, the two would truly find each other, and they proved Hank right that first night at the Silver Triangle as they kissed on the open dance floor.

Hank closed his eyes, dreading what awaited him tomorrow, listening to his repeating song, wishing it's lyrics would come true for him.

I'm gonna keep lookin' until I find

A little peace of mind, yeah





The other ranch hands avoided Hank the next day. They knew what was coming. It was, after all, getting on toward the end of August. Hank occupied himself with the repair of a fence and waited for his Zeke and Jody to approach him. He did not have long to wait. He had been at work only a half hour before the two cowboys approached him, walking proudly holding hands.

"Um, Hank?", Zeke started. "Ralph and I have something we'd like to tell you."

Hank did not turn around to face them but kept working. "That bein'?"

"We're leaving the ranch."

Hank paused only a moment in his work to let this announcement sink in, and then continued. "C'n I ask why?"

"We'd like to spend some time together", Ralph said.

"Ain't that what you're doin' here? You're together all the time, day and night."

"That's not what we mean", Zeke said. "We'd like to spend some time together--as a couple."

Hank turned around. "So you two an item, then?"

"Yeah", Ralph said. "We sure are." He gave Zeke's hand an affectionate squeeze.

"Don't get us wrong", Zeke said quickly. "The time here has been great and we love our jobs and all. It's just getting close to the end of summer and we'd like to be together doing something other than work."

"Spend the rest of our summer before going back to school", Ralph added, "as boyfriends."

Hank nodded. "Then I guess that's what you should do. Tourist season is slowin' down a mite this far into the summer, so we should get by. Still and all, I'm gonna miss you."

"We're gonna miss you, too", Ralph said, shaking his hand firmly.

"And I liked you better as Jody."

Ralph smiled. "You can call me Jody if you want."

"Reckon I will."

Zeke shook Hank's hand next. "Thanks for everything, Hank. We really appreciate everything you did for us." Zeke's voice was sincere, despite the fact that he had no clue as to the true meaning behind his own words.

Buck and Vern approached with the horses Bandit and Lady in tow. Hank gestured to them, saying, "Kind of expected you two to vamoose. Thought you might like one last ride afore you go." The horses were already saddled up and ready.

"That would be great!", Zeke beamed.

"Thanks, pard!", Ralph chimed in.

The cowboy couple saddled up and then Zeke said to Hank, "Hey, we're going into town to the Silver Triangle tonight for one last big dance before we go. You're more than welcome--"

Hank waved the idea away with a swipe of his hand but nodded and grinned showing he appreciated the gesture. Zeke looked to Ralph and the two exchanged a look that said that it was time to "Geddyup". With a snap of the reins the two young men galloped off across the ranch toward the distant trails.

Unable to resist, Hank called after them, "Ride 'em cowboy!"

Back by the riding arena, Buck grumbled and snorted as Zeke and Ralph rode off together. "Typical! Now thet's just damn typical!" Vern said nothing, but raised an eyebrow showing that he had no clue what Buck was moaning about this time. Buck explained, "Happens every year just about. Hank don't just have good horse sense, he's got the best damn gaydar in five counties. He finds these inept, closeted college boys, turns 'em into the best damn ranch hands we could ask fer, then they go an' fall fer each other and ride off into the dad-blasted sunset leavin' us short-handed. Just damn typical, is all."

Vern grunted, either in agreement or dissention, and helped Buck secure the arena gate.

Hank watched his two cowboy protégés ride off until they were specks on the horizon. Two other ranch hands approached Hank as he busied himself with the fence again, trying to get his mind off the two fine young men. "Uh, Hank?", the first one said. Hank did not answer. "Um, Randy and I was just thinkin' thet you really should go with them boys out to the Triangle tonight. You might have a good time, is all we're saying."

The second rancher added, "Hell, we'd be happy to go with you, if'n you like. Isn't that right, Luke? We got no problem with bein' seen there. S'all right by us."

Hank gathered up his tools and chewed on his lips for a moment before answering his fellow workers. "No, fellas, I'm fine. Thanks anyway."

"But we could make a group outing of it. We'll ask Curt and Levi--"

"Guys, I appreciate what you're doing. But I'm fine." Hank walked past them, shaking his toolbox so its contents rattled. "Now whattaya say we give the ranch a little of our time?"

The ranchers watched him go, each having known he'd refuse their offer, each hoping they'd be wrong. Hank had not been kidding when he'd told Dudley and Ralph that he was a "worse greenhorn than they could ever dream of being". But he didn't mean just in terms of ranching. Hank had grown up on a horse farm well before he came to work at the Geddyup Dude Ranch. He suspected there was something very different about him at age 7, knew for sure by age 13. But Hank was still in the closet. For whatever reason, he was unable to do for himself what he was able to do for other young aspiring ranch hands. For a while now, and for the time being, he'd have to live vicariously through them.

Hank's many friends hoped that would be enough for him.




It was late afternoon some days later,Hank sat in the 6x4-foot room that served as his office in the back of the stables. He had his feet up on the desk and was admiring an old-style picture postcard that he'd just received. On it were Zeke and Ralph in cowboys hats and chaps, shirtless (although Ralph wore a bandana) astride a giant plastic bull that had obviously been set up for picture-taking. Printed across the top of the card was the phrase, "A Great Big HOWDY From the Rainbow Ranch!" In the lower right-hand corner was an inverted triangle bearing the six stripes of the rainbow Pride flag. Hank smiled. On the flip side of the postcard, the boys had quickly scrawled the classic legend, "Wish you were here." Not as much as I wish you were here, Hank mused.

The ranch foreman stormed into Hank's work area right on schedule. He was red in the face and practically apoplectic. Hank looked up from his desk and grinned at him. "There a problem?"

"There sure'n hell is! The two latest kids you hired to replace Jody and Zeke are worse than any ranch hands I've ever seen! Why in tarnation do you insist on hiring these inexperienced university boys, anyway?"

All smiles and calm demeanor, Hank got up from his desk, laying aside the farm equipment order forms. "Well, y'know, I can just recognize potential sometimes, I guess." He picked up his cowboy hat and lightly set it atop his head, adjusting the brim with his thumb and forefinger. He patted the foreman on the arm and said, "Give me a day to work with 'em. They'll be as good as any ranchers you've ever seen. Ya got my word."

The foreman let out a long breath, knowing that this was not just chin music. Hank had never let him down before, that much was true, anyways. "Ya got one day ta turn 'em around before I boot their sorry asses out of here."

"Don't you worry your scruffy little head 'bout it", Hank smirked. "I'll have our boys Clem and Travis whipped into fine shape in no time."

The ranch foreman scrunched his weathered brow and scratched his temple, his worn gloves scraping the underside of his hat brim. "Clem and Travis? I thought their names were Brantley and Stephen!"

"Not for long."

Hank could not suppress his smile as he yanked on his work gloves as he left the stables in search of the new boys.

If you enjoyed this story, please write the author and let him know so he'll write more, at [email protected]