All he saw was the white of her eyes.
As soon as his shoulder dug into that rump, the heifer fought hard to turn her
head to him, but she couldn’t do it. The rope hauling her out of the gully was
keeping her pointed in the right direction and it was all she could manage just
to keep up. Her hooves were scrambling for traction in the muddy incline and she
was moving forward, but she didn’t seem nearly as grateful as she should have
been. She just kept eyeing whatever it was that kept shoving against her bony
rear and bawling at him for the indiscretion.
Scott Lancer didn’t like it any better.
His boot slipped just as the heifer lurched over the edge and he went down against the mud. The bits of rock poking out from the sheer wall only slowed him, and he rode down, mostly on his hip, and landed with, a backward stumble at the bottom. He grabbed at his hat as gravity kept it sliding, then resettled it at the back of his head. Swiping at his pants with his gloved hands was worse than useless and he only managed to smear the mud into a dark stain. “Got her?” he shouted up into the blue sky showing above the rim. There wasn’t any answer. “Johnny?”
The face that looked down at him a few seconds later seemed as disgusted as that calf. “You gonna stay down there all day?” Johnny asked, pretty much in the same tone of voice he’d used all morning. All week, really.
Scott frowned up at his brother. “You could give me a hand instead of just complaining.”
Johnny knelt and hung his arm down, while Scott eyed his most likely footholds and launched himself up the mud. Their hands clenched and he felt himself dragged the last few feet. He fell across the grass and rolled onto his back, looking up at his brother. “Thanks...I think.”
A smile flickered across Johnny’s face, but it was gone before Scott had pushed himself to his feet. “Figure there’s any more of those animals brainless enough to get themselves stuck in the mud?” Johnny asked. “Ceptin’ you?”
”Apparently the rest of the cattle are adequately intelligent. At least the ones in this pasture.” Scott started toward Charlemagne. “Hopefully the ones in the North pasture had the good sense to stay put during last night’s storms.”
”North pasture, huh?” Johnny was walking beside him, staring down at the pale grass sparsely covering the ground. “Not much of a herd over there. Think maybe that could wait? Least until tomorrow?”
”Not hardly. Murdoch has spoken.” Scott took his horse’s reins and watched Johnny do the same with Barranca. “Is there some reason you want to delay it?”
”Nope.” Johnny swung into the saddle and tugged his hat lower across his brow. “No reason. If the old man wants us to check the north pasture, then I guess I ain’t got no choice, do I?”
”Not if you want any peace tonight at dinner.”
”Yeah, well, the odds aren’t always real long on that.” Johnny scowled. “You gonna stand there arguing all day or are we going to get this done?”
”There. That’s the charming attitude I’m used to hearing from my little brother.” Scott added a patient smile and waited for the reaction.
It took a second or two of glaring, but in the end Johnny just gathered his reins and gazed off toward the horizon. “Scott, you think maybe…” he started in wistfully, then his tone hardened again. “Let’s get this done.”
”Are you feeling all right?” Scott mounted and stared at his brother. His color was good, although maybe a little flushed with the unseasonable heat of the day. At least Scott hoped it was unseasonable. It was only April and the days were already sticky, even more so when the night’s rain came steaming up from the soaked ground and turned to sweat on their backs. “You didn’t eat breakfast, did you?”
”That ain’t none of your business.”
”Is that the way you feel about it?”
”That’s the way it is.”
Scott inhaled a deep breath and was just ready to expel it again in a few satisfactorily colorful words when he caught himself and resettled his hat instead. He leaned his forearm against his saddle horn. “If you’re not sick, then you want to tell me when you’re going to stop snapping everyone’s head off?”
”What’s the matter, Boston? Can’t handle it when things aren’t all nice and pretty?” Johnny grimaced up at the sun, which was almost straight up now. “Well, out here it ain’t always so easy.”
Glancing down at the mud encrusting his pants, Scott nodded. “I can see that, but you still haven’t told me why you’re behaving like an old mule.” He half smiled at the look Johnny shot at him, then straightened and kneed his horse forward. “You coming?”
He didn’t, not for the first few seconds anyway. Scott tried to keep his eyes forward, facing north. He could still see the flash of gold coming up on his right as Barranca came loping up beside him.
”Scott,” Johnny called out over the beat of the hooves. “You go on. I’ll be back... I got some things to do.” He reined his horse around and spurred him into a gallop, definitely heading the wrong way. By the time Scott overcame his flush of exasperation and got his brother’s name shouted out, all he was looking at was a flick of a white tail, a splatter of muddy clumps, and Johnny’s back.
”Not again,” Scott said to the still air.
He could be in Boston right now, maybe taking Julie out in a fine surrey, soaking in the tender warmth of spring. She’d have a new hat and that smile. The one that seemed so demure, but never fooled him. Underneath that public poise he could see what she barely kept hidden, a tantalizing promise of private pleasures. And later, they wouldn’t be in public anymore. He could be there, but instead he was sweating alone under the California sun, watching his new-found brother disappear and wondering how the hell he could keep Murdoch from exploding this time.
”Damn you,” he muttered, again to nobody in particular. “You owe me, baby brother.” Scott pulled his hat more firmly onto his head, spun his horse, and galloped south.
Long before he passed under the Lancer arch, he’d slowed Charlemagne to a canter. Still, the horse was well lathered and he reined him to a walk, trying to cool him before they got to that hitching rail. At least that was a good excuse. The truth was, Scott still hadn’t decided what to tell his father. He was praying hard that he wouldn’t have to say anything—that he’d find Johnny sitting at the kitchen table, wolfing down one of Teresa’s sandwiches and ready to finish the job as soon as he had his belly full. That could happen, he tried to convince himself, but a memory kept crowding the possibility out of his head. One with Johnny looking sullen and worn, nursing his whiskey in the Morro Coyo saloon. He’d be dead before he was thirty, Scott had told him. Well, Johnny had said, that comes to all of us. Scott watched the ground move under his chestnut’s hooves and sighed softly. To all of us, baby brother, but you sooner than the rest if you stay so hell-bent on the road to
Barranca was nowhere to be seen. That’s the first thing Scott noticed when he tossed his reins across the rail. The second was Murdoch’s voice bellowing out from the shadowed entry of the hacienda.
Scott took a deep breath. “No, sir. Pulled three head out of the mud, but the creek over in the west pasture looked to be good shape.” He crossed to the front door with several long strides and gazed placidly at his father as he slipped past him into the house. “I don’t think the storms did too much damage up there.”
Murdoch followed him into the great room. “What about the north pasture?”
”The north pasture.” Scott slipped his right glove from his hand and slapped it idly into the other. “We haven’t made it over there yet.”
”We?” Murdoch glanced toward the closed door and back to Scott. “Where’s your brother, then?”
”I was hoping I’d find him here.” Scott sat against the arm of the divan and examined his father’s expression. He could tell from the way his mouth was clamping into that thin line that there wasn’t much reason to ask his next question, but he gave it a try anyway. “I don’t suppose he got here ahead of me?”
”And why would Johnny be here?”
”It is lunch time and I couldn’t tell that he had anything to eat this morning. Did you see him have any breakfast?”
Murdoch just shook his head. “No, or much dinner last night.” He gave an exasperated sigh. “But that’s no excuse, Scott. If Johnny’s sick, he should say something and I’d get someone else to do his chores, otherwise he has a responsibility to this ranch and I’m tired of losing him to that saloon.”
”That’s not fair, sir...”
”Not fair!” The veins in Murdoch’s temples pulsed first, then the red spread across his face. “What’s not fair about expecting Johnny to do his share of work around this ranch?”
Scott’s own anger was edging up his throat and he had to swallow hard to keep it out of his voice. “I only meant that we’re short-handed and Johnny might not have felt that he could take the time off, even if he was sick. Half the hands are in church today for Good Friday and there’s nobody else to do his chores.”
”All the more reason to carry his weight.”
”Don’t you think we should find out where Johnny went before you condemn him?” Scott tugged the second glove from his hand and tossed them both onto the table, then looked back at his father.
”As if we don’t know.”
”No, we don’t.”
Scott watched his father pace toward the French doors, turn and set his hands on his hips. “What did Johnny tell you?” he finally asked.
”Just that he had some things to do and he’d be back.” Scott frowned as his father let out an exasperated snort. “Murdoch, I don’t know what’s eating at Johnny, but he’s been moody all week and I’m wondering if there’s something really wrong.”
”Do you have any idea what that might be?”
Murdoch stared down at the floor and shook his head. “Find him, Scott...and I’d suggest you look in the saloon first.” Lifting his eyes again and losing his anger to a weary rumble, he added, “If that’s where he is, I don’t know what we’re going to do this time.” He moved behind his desk and sat heavily in the big, leather chair there. “Just find him.”
”Yes, sir.” Scott gathered his gloves back into his hands, gave one longing glance toward the kitchen and then looked back at his father. He was slumped forward, head in his hands and elbows propped against the desktop. The furrows on his face hung down and a wisp of gray hair dangled across his forehead. Not for the first time, Scott wondered how old his father really was. Just one more question that hadn’t been asked, but it wasn’t the time for it now, either. He left him to his solitary thoughts and headed back out into the mid-day heat.
Nobody passed him on the road to Morro Coyo and by the time he reached the edge of town, it was already obvious that life was uncommonly quiet there, too. One woman raised her hand to her brow,
watching him pass as she let her laundry billow in the breeze. A dog pawed at a spot near the livery, then slunk off as Scott’s horse trotted nearer. That was it, though, the entire liveliness of the
town, at least until he came nearer the saloon. Three horses were tied to the rail there, necks drooping low and tails flicking away the flies. None of them was a palomino.
Scott left his horse with the others and crossed the planked walk. The batwings barely reached up to his chin and he paused for a moment just outside, peering over them into the dusty dimness of the saloon. From what he could see, Friday afternoon was a long way from turning into Friday night and the saloon was just about as dead as the rest of the town. He pushed through the doors and strode to the bar.
”What can I get you?” The lanky bartender took one more swipe at the rim of the mug he was holding, tossed the towel over his shoulder and leaned into the bar. Scott set his foot on the rail and leaned, too, then swept his hat from his head and set it on the counter.
”A beer, Gus.” Scott scanned the tables. Most of them were empty, but two cowboys returned a disinterested glance and then went back to their poker game. Another stranger, well dressed but bleary-eyed, emptied a mug and started pouring another from a half-empty pitcher. Scott brought his gaze back to the bartender. “And some information. Where’d everybody disappear to?”
Gus pulled a thick watch from his pocket and flipped it open. “One twenty,” he said. “I figure the padre’s half-way through his sermon about now, but he’ll have them locked up over there at his church for another hour, maybe. The Catholics, anyway, and with this town...well, that’s about half of them.” He slid the watch back into his vest and filled the mug. “Those that aren’t toting some sort of saint’s medal around their neck, they’re either giving Reverend Hansen his say or just enjoying the quiet.” The bartender set the beer on the bar as a lather of foam slid over the rim and left a wet trail down the side of the glass. “I don’t mean any blasphemy, but Good Friday isn’t so good for business.” He raised his eyebrows questioningly. “You looking for someone?”
”Johnny.” Scott took a big swig of the beer. “Has he been around?”
”Haven’t seen him since Saturday night, but if you want to wait around for him, I’d sure be glad of the company.”
Scott shook his head and smiled. “I’d like to oblige you, but I don’t have the time. Between riding herd on my brother and wrestling the stupidest animals on earth...” He downed half the mug in one
”Why do you think I took up bartending?” A grin cut a crevasse across the man’s cheek and accented the angular look of his face. “Suits you though, doesn’t it?”
”Most of the time. I’ll let you know after I get this day out of the way.” Scott drained the rest of his beer and slid the mug across the bar.
”How long have you been out here now?”
”Three months.” He dug out a coin and slapped it down.
The bartender picked up the dollar and flipped it in the air, then shoved it in his pocket. “Well, I hope you stick around. I always hate to lose a customer.” He grinned again. “Can I get you another?”
”No.” Scott pushed away from the bar. “If you see Johnny, will you hog tie him for me?”
Scott left him polishing his woodwork with his well-used towel and stood once again on the boardwalk outside the saloon, this time scrutinizing the nearly empty main street of Morro Coyo. A few more souls were going about their business. There was a wagon, loaded with feedbags and heading south. A pair of cowboys plodded their ponies into town and Seth Cantrell was washing down the windows of the Blue Rooster Cafe. None of it gave him any clues as to where to find Johnny, but Scott had an idea. It wasn’t the kind of idea that seemed likely. It was just the timing, more than anything. Didn’t sound much like his brother, but how much did he know about him, anyway?
He loosened the reins from the hitching post, mounted Charlemagne, then turned him toward the north end of town. There weren’t any shops out this direction, just some small homes and a few patches of garden. He passed those quickly and came within sight of his destination. It was a compact frame building, almost pitiful compared to the fancy cathedral back home in Boston, but definitely Catholic. There was a bell tower just to the right of the door and a simple cross on the roof. The churchyard was filled with buggies and horses, testament to the faithful that must be filling the pews inside. Scott urged his chestnut closer and wove his way through the waiting horses. A few snorted softly or shook their manes, but the rest just eyed him lethargically. Too hot to do much else.
Scott swept his eyes across the churchyard one more time, smiled gently and shook his head. If that’s the kind of hunch he was betting on, then maybe he should stay away from those poker tables.
There was a little alleyway behind the church, with a narrow winding road that led down past a copse of live oak trees and back into Morro Coyo. Scott guided Charlemagne down the path and was just about to make the curve toward town when something shifted in the shadow of those trees. He glanced into the dappled shade and reined his horse up short. This was worth at least a moment’s consideration and he gave it that, resettling his hat toward the back of his head and staring at the palomino. Barranca stared back, lifting his head and flicking his ears toward him. The horse was tied to a low-hanging branch under a particularly leafy oak. Trust Johnny to see that his
horse was comfortable while he was making his peace with God. Or arguing with his maker. Or whatever Johnny was doing in that church. And brother, Scott wondered, what are you doing in that
Not that Murdoch would believe it anyway. Scott hesitated for a few seconds more, wishing he could just keep riding. Something about it wasn’t right. Even with all those people crowded into that little building, Scott had an overwhelming sense that Johnny wanted to be left alone. But he couldn’t give him that solitude, not and convince their father that he really wasn’t hiding out in some saloon.
Scott tied his horse near the others and entered the church.
It was drenched in black. Black cloths covered unseen objects in the niches of the walls. Black mourning dresses obscured the women kneeling in the pews. The priest was in black, his long, dark robe sweeping the steps to the altar. There weren’t any candles lit and the meager light falling through the stained glass windows was swallowed into the dreary, stark interior.
The voices filled the emptiness. “Benedictus Deus in sacula,” they said as one and Scott sifted through the sounds, resurrecting them again from his almost forgotten Latin. Forever. A blessing to the eternal God. “In spiritu humilitatis,” the priest proclaimed before his words were lost into the ancient mystery and the meaning slipped through Scott’s failing grasp. In humble spirit, Scott repeated in his thoughts, and he searched the dark heads bowed there, so many of them. He finally spotted him.
Johnny was nearly hidden behind a burly, fleshy-faced farmer. From his position just inside the door, Scott could see his brother’s head ducked down and his hands loosely clinched and dangling over the back of the next pew. The other voices were still answering the priest’s prayers, but Johnny’s lips didn’t move. He was unnaturally still.
”Lava me, Domine,” the priest said and Scott knew those words. Cleanse me, Lord. The priest raised his arms and his black robe swept out like the wings of a dark angel and Johnny’s eyes lifted
toward the altar.
Scott stepped softly backwards, turned and edged silently through the church door.
It was a long, hot ride home to Lancer. He’d barely got Charlemagne stalled when Murdoch showed up looking for an answer. Scott didn’t think he’d given him one, not really. He just told his father where he’d found his brother and Murdoch mumbled a lame response. “Church?” he’d asked, with that one brow cocked. Scott just kept grooming his horse and Murdoch walked away. That was it, only Scott couldn’t shake the sense that something inside him had shifted. It wasn’t a good feeling, either.
Maybe it was the storms, he decided. They’d been building up all afternoon and they weighed heavy in the air. The lightning started just after sundown. It was too far away to hear the thunder, but it lit the horizon and illuminated the mountains in a manic display. Johnny hadn’t come home yet, but after dinner was over and Scott had read five chapters of “The Count of Monte Christo”, Murdoch went to
bed and, reluctantly, Scott followed.
The cool breeze blowing through the open window didn’t do much to ease his nerves. Scott hadn’t bothered with his nightshirt and he’d fallen onto the sheets in only his underwear. The air felt good against his bare skin and he let it ripple over him as he lay in bed, chasing half-remembered images from the dark. Familiar voices whispered in the rustle of the leaves and he turned his ear to the pillow, shutting them out again. It’d been months. They’d left him alone for so long, why now?
He shoved against the pillow, wedged it tighter against his neck, and closed his eyes again. The room closed in. He knew it was treacherous imagination, the kind of memories he thought he’d mastered, but the sounds echoed in the hallway. The footsteps of the guards. And the stench of the dead seeped into the breeze.
The steps grew louder and a rumble of thunder filled the room.
Scott took a deep breath and lay listening to the storm move closer. It was a long time before sleep came.
He wasn’t sure what woke him again. The lightning, most likely. The curtains were reaching toward him, lifted by the wind and the blowing rain. The fine mist dampened his face and chest as Scott rolled from the mattress and padded in his stockinged feet to the window. He slid it closed, then leaned his forehead to the glass and let its cool touch soothe him. A crash of thunder made him jump and he took a hurried step back, grabbed his robe from the hook by the wardrobe and pulled it on.
With the window shut, the room felt like a tomb. Scott left it and headed downstairs.
There was lamplight coming from the kitchen. Scott heard a dish clink and the sound of a chair squealing against the floor. He stopped in the dark for a second, hesitating, then rubbed a hand against his eyes, cleared his throat softly and kept going toward that light.
Johnny looked up when he came in. “Doesn’t anybody sleep around here?”
”I could ask you the same question.” Scott pulled a chair out from the table and sank into it, then watched his brother take a big bite from an overstuffed sandwich. He was slouching in his seat, his
shoulders relaxed and his head leaning back against the top slat of the chair.
A crumb dangled on his lip and Johnny swiped a sleeve at it as he mumbled, “Only time a man gets any peace . . . what are you doing up?”
”What is that? Roast beef?” Scott picked at a piece of meat that had fallen behind on his brother’s plate and bit into it.
”There’s more over there.” Johnny pointed toward a towel-covered platter on the sideboard and chewed off another mouthful of his dinner. “Bread’s on the shelf.”
Scott rose again, grabbed a plate from the cupboard and cut a slice of bread. As he moved, he felt the thick fabric of his robe slapping against his legs and he looked down at it, then back at his brother. There was a gleam in Johnny’s eyes as he also surveyed the ornate embroidery on the trim and the deep purple hue of the velour.
”Latest style?” Johnny asked.
”Be careful, little brother.” Scott forked a hunk of meat onto his bread. “Haven’t you ever heard of hand-me-downs? You could be wearing this next.”
A grin snuck across Johnny’s face and slid crooked as his head tilted lazily to one side. “Ain’t likely, Boston.”
As one, a crack of thunder and an explosion of lightning burst through the room, rattling the windows and making Scott jerk his eyes toward the rain pouring down outside. A second flash, farther off this time, lit the transparent wall of water and set off a low-pitched roar that fell away into the night. Scott pulled his gaze back into the kitchen and sat down with his sandwich.
Johnny hadn’t moved. He did then, though, leaning forward and sliding a cup toward Scott, then filling it from the pitcher on the table. “I knew a man once,” he said, and he slouched back again. “He kept a flask of tequila in his pocket and when the skies started lighting up like that, he’d take that flask out and raise it up high . . .” He lifted his cup, then lowered it again. “And he’d make a toast. To the gods, he’d say . . . may we live to see another day.” He smiled softly. “Kinda liked that old man. He had one leg that wasn’t right, got it half blown off fightin’ with the army up in Texas. A cannonball, I think he said. But he could whup just about any man half his age and he always shared that tequila.”
Scott stared down at his plate.
”Does kinda remind you of that, don’t it?” Johnny asked.
”Hmm?” Scott tensed and raised his eyes to his brother’s.
”That thunder . . . it sounds like cannonballs. At least, that’s what old Cardenas said.” Johnny set his cup on the table and fingered the rim of it. “Down in Mexico . . . well, we didn’t go looking for any more troubles than we already had, but I heard some stories about your war. That what it sounded like?”
Scott watched his brother’s hand rub the edge of the cup. “I guess,” he said quietly. “That was part of it anyway.” He left it at that, remembering the other sounds—the screams of the fallen horses and the sharp whimpers of the dying men—and then he listened again to the failing echo of the thunder. “That was a long time ago.”
Johnny nodded. After a stretched-out, silent moment, he took a sip of water and set the cup back on the table. “You didn’t have to come lookin’ for me, you know.”
”What?” Scott immediately regretted the guilty edge that sharpened that word. “You could have told me where you were going.”
Scott was beginning to know that smile well, the small one his brother wore that day in the saloon. He’d seen it often since and he was looking across the table at it now, too. Johnny tossed his sandwich onto his plate. “So what’d you think about the mass?”
The smile might have been gentle, but those blue eyes were staring right through him. Scott tested his words before he said them, not knowing if he had any of the answers those eyes were looking for. Not knowing if he had any answers at all. “I didn’t expect it to be so somber,” he eventually said.
”That’s because He’s dead. Christ . . . God . . . whoever.” Johnny dropped his eyes to his cup again.
”That’s certainly looking at the dark side of things. What about the resurrection?”
”Yeah, well, they’ll get to that.”
”What about you?” Scott let his own eyes fall to the table. “What did you think about the mass?”
It was silent for a long time and Scott waited his brother out, letting him find his own time to come up with an answer. Finally, Johnny sighed. “I can’t see it, Scott. He didn’t hafta let them do it. He knew He was going to die and He just let them take Him. There’s no sense in it. If it was me . . .” Johnny’s voice trailed off.
”How close, brother?” Scott lifted his cup to his lips and drank in the cool water. “Down there in Mexico, in front of that firing squad? How close was it?”
”Close,” Johnny softly said.
Scott suddenly realized that the storm had lessened. The clatter of rain against the window had slowed and the thunder was still rumbling, still loud, but fading and moving away. “Johnny?” he asked. “Do you think Cardenas is somewhere out there raising a toast right now?”
”Nope.” Johnny shook his head slowly. “He’s dead. The rurales shot him that morning.”
”I’m sorry.” Scott bowed his head and wrapped his hands around his cup. He took a deep breath and smelled the sweet spring air, cleansed by the storm and fresh again. And then his lips curved into a wry smile. “I guess we’ve both had our wars to fight.” He raised his cup and looked toward his brother. “To the gods,” he said.
Johnny slowly smiled back, then he lifted his cup to clink against Scott’s. “May we live to see another day.”
Karen “KC” Campbell