(Sequel to “Travel and Travail with Jebediah Pevensey”)
Oh, I know I lost my temper, and ran off from home without hearing Murdoch out. But him talkin’ about me gettin’ schoolin’ was enough to rile me up something fierce. So what with running off, and then stumblin’ across a distraction while I was off being cantankerous, I was gone five days. I arrived back at Lancer with Scott who had fetched out after me while Murdoch waited and worried at home. Murdoch was out workin’ when we finally arrived back, so’s the first thing I did was go straight to the kitchen to see Maria. She bawled and yelled and whispered blessings to the Mother of God, and shook me and hugged me and kept hittin’ me anywhere she could reach. Then she fed me and Scott.
We went back out to the barn then to tend to our horses, plus the horse I’d borrowed from Mrs. Conway. I’d turned Pancho out to the pasture and was brushing Clipper until he shone when a shadow fell across us. A big man like Pa throws a huge shadow. I turned my head and my stomach clenched up on all those vittles I’d just eaten. I couldn’t see Pa’s eyes under the brim of his Stetson but I knew he was looking at me real intense, ‘cause the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. He turned to Scott then and walked over and put one of his giant hands on Scott’s shoulder.
“Good to see you safe at home Son.” Scott nodded and smiled as Murdoch gave his shoulder a little fond shake.
Earlier that day when we’d neared home and I was getting fidgety, Scott had turned to me and told me he knew exactly what “would transpire” once we got home, and as it unfolded, he was pretty much dead to rights.
Murdoch came over towards me and stood a few feet behind Clipper. I stopped brushing and wrapped my arms tight around myself though it hurt my sore left elbow. I couldn’t look up, had my chin on my chest.
“Come here Son.”
I put the curry brush down while I tried to swallow, and then I walked the few feet to Pa. He reached out and took hold of my shoulder and pulled me in and gave me a quick hug and then held me at arm’s length.
“I’m glad you’re home Johnny.”
I still had my head down and my arms huggin’ myself.
“Look at me.”
I looked up even though I felt like my chest was all crushed and my mouth was dry and my eyes felt prickly. Murdoch gave me a shake then, but he smiled at me too.
“Come on inside. You’ve got some explaining to do young man.”
Inside I sat on the settee and Murdoch eased down into his favourite chair.
“Scott would you like to pour us a drink?”
When Scott had turned eighteen, not that long ago, Murdoch had begun to ask him to join him in having a drink of scotch sometimes. He’d been letting him have wine or a beer for a long time. I got nada. Scott went straight over to the drinks cabinet and poured two drinks and then came back over and gave one to Murdoch. He turned to come over to the settee but Murdoch’s voice stopped him.
“Scott go back to that bottle please and tip half of your drink back in.”
I think Scott was about to roll his eyes but he saw Murdoch’s expression and instead just nodded and did like he was told. I’d taken a look at his glass and ol’ Boston had tried to get away with a having a big belt. Seein’ Scott getting it in the neck for a change, I couldn’t help the smile that crept on to my face, but Murdoch wasn’t havin’ that either.
“Johnny you can wipe that smile off your face. You have made some very poor decisions these past few days, and that’s what we are now going to discuss.”
Great. That did wipe the smile off my clock. And my stomach grinched me again.
“But first I want to make something quite clear to you.”
I chanced a quick gander at Murdoch’s face. He spoke very firm, but he looked calm as he swirled the whisky in his glass. He was looking at me and I manned up and kept my eyes on his even though I was wishing I was somewhere in Mexico right about now.
“The other night when I asked you if you would like to have some schooling, I had no intention of you attending the school in Green River –“
I sat forward all sudden and rigid and opened my mouth but Murdoch held up his hand and continued speaking in a slightly louder voice.
“or any other school, for that matter. “
Well, I’d just puffed myself up, but now the air dwindled right out of me and I sank back into the cushions deflated and flat as a tortilla. That night he was referrin’ to, I had bust a blood vessel just about, yelling and cussin’ at Pa. Then I’d lit out and ended up getting in all sorts of skirmishes off the ranch. And all because I let my temper have free rein on me ‘stead of hearin’ Murdoch out and then doing that negotiatin’ that Scott was always advisin’ me to do with our Papi.
I wrapped my arms round myself and studied on the trail dust still clinging to the hairs on my arms. I heard Scott take a breath to speak but Murdoch spoke first, and his voice was quietish for him, but it was like every word was made out of iron.
“Now John, I wish to hear why you left, where you went, and what you have been doing. I want you to tell it straight, and don’t leave anything out. Start talking.”
On the ride home I’d studied some on what I was goin’ to say when this moment came, as I’d known it would. Sometimes Pa would question you like a goddamn lawyer, but mostly he would call you out to give him the full story of whatever you’d been up to. It was pretty sneaky I’d worked out, ‘cause sometimes you hung yourself when you didn’t have his questions to hedge around.
I’d also worked out that using that word could soften him up some. I heard Scott scoff into his glass and I glared at him.
“Well you see I know I shouldna taken off that night like I did. Lo siento…”
Scott coughed and I glared at him again, but then Murdoch made this impatient noise in his throat, and I looked and he had crossed his great big, beefy arms across his chest. And he’d started scowling. I resigned myself to gettin’ the deed done.
“I’m sorry I lost my temper. I’m sorry I was disrespectful. I’m sorry I cussed. I wasn’t runnin’ off. I just wanted to go somewhere and think quiet. When I got to the line shack there was a runaway kid there. He was twelve and a babe in the woods, so I figured I couldn’t leave him to fend for himself. I wanted him to come back here with me, but he was a stubborn little cuss -“
This time Pa and Scott both snorted. Yeah, real funny.
“- and he was all fired to head for his kin in Redemption. So I borrowed a horse for him from Mrs. Conway. Scott caught up to us close to Redemption and we took the kid to his Aunt Maisy there. I was minding the kid when we accidentally fell through a roof. The sheriff put me in jail even though I was hurt bad.”
Murdoch sat forward and dropped his hands to his knees and studied me at that. I tried to look as injured as I could, and I put on my best grieved look and nursed my left elbow. Seems though Pa had already given me and my moving about the once-over, something he did every time I got home from anywhere. Plus he’s wise to the fact that I only complain of bein’ injured when I’m not, and I just want sympathy, or treats from Maria. So he just sat back and took another swig of his drink, the hard- hearted bastard. I cut my eyes to Scott and he was quirking an eyebrow at me, like to say that it was a good try, but bad luck, no duck. I sighed and put as much sad into it I could.
“Mrs. MacRorie – that’s Aunt Maisy – she paid the bail the next mornin’. And she paid for the timber to fix the roof, which Scott and Mr. Pevensey – that’s Jeb’s Pa – fixed while I was laid up in bed, real hurt. She musta paid the Doc too, now I think on it.”
I looked at Scott and he nodded. I chanced a quick look at Murdoch to see how my story was farin’, and see if my trials had stirred up any sympathy so far. Hmmm…
“Mrs. MacRorie and Jeb’s Pa were real grateful that I had helped the boy out. They couldn’t thank me enough for bein’ so helpful. Wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t get a letter from them both, to tell you what a help I was -”
My layin’ it on thick came to an abrupt stop when Murdoch suddenly got to his feet and made a beeline for the scotch bottle. He filled his glass but didn’t offer Scott a second. Then he came over and stood in front of the fireplace and fixed his gaze on me. Very discomfittin’.
“So it seems I need to reimburse Mrs. MacRorie for your bail money, your doctor’s fee, and half the cost of the roof timbers. With Scott gone four days we’ve been shorthanded here. Scott, I shall get the change from the money I gave you for expenses when you are ready –money I wasn’t expecting to outlay.”
Murdoch is a Scotsman who keeps a tight hold on the purse. A Scotsman who can get loud enough to raise the dead when he chooses, and right about now was when he chose. He put down his drink, and started in loud and ended up sounding like a wounded bull.
“Johnny while I am pleased that your defiant flight to the line shack resulted in the boy being looked after, running off was still reprehensible behavior on your part. I am disappointed that you had a tantrum and ran off like that in a temper, and without regard to how it would worry all of us. And I believe I asked you for a full account of what you’ve been doing and not to leave anything out. Yet I’ve heard no mention of your deception of Aggie, your destruction of her entire vegetable crop and the ruination of half of her linen! Nor have you explained what on earth you would be doing on a roof in Redemption!!! I’d like an explanation too, as to why you didn’t hand that boy over to Aggie, AND LET A RESPONSIBLE ADULT DEAL WITH HIM?!!!!”
The louder he got the more I cringed, but funny thing, when he made me nervous like that it would then get my dander up and then I would get rambunctious too. So I shot up to my feet feelin’ hot angry, and I clenched my fists by my side and started to get red in the face like he does.
“Well seems there’s no point in listenin’ to me tell it when you already know everything I done from all your spies!” I hollered.
The hollering was never as effective as Pa’s though, when my voice cracked like it had just done. It was infuriatin’!
“Don’t you take that tone with me Boy!”
Jesus Fucking Christ, here we went again!
Murdoch took a step towards me and I tensed up ready for him to lay hands on me and drag me out to the barn. But he pulled up and started breathin’ heavy, and then he closed his eyes and put his hands on his hips and tipped his head down. Scott had got to his feet too, and was standin’ off to the side, wary like, and lookin’ from me to Pa.
Pa seemed to get calm which sort of threw me. Scott too. They both sat down all sudden. I cooled down quick too, but I was still too twitchy to sit. I crossed my arms and looked real close at my dusty boots. When Pa stood up and came over to me it was all I could do not to flinch. He put his hand on my shoulder and guided me to sit back down and he sat next to me.
“Johnny, you are to ride over to Aggie’s every Monday morning for the next month and spend the day helping Estralita establish their new garden beds. You will take a sack of our vegetables with you for their household. And you are to help Estralita with the washing.”
“Yes. Women’s work which you will do thoroughly and cheerfully. Apart from your working at Aggie’s, you are not to set foot off the ranch for the next month, unless I give permission. You will also dig three new outhouse pits here to earn some money which will go towards the expenses you have incurred on your little ill advised adventure.”
I looked at him appalled. I musta got a ferocious scowl on my face ‘cause I heard a stifled snigger from Scott which made me turn my fury on him. But I only mouthed my advice to him. I was in enough strife and knew cussin’ right now was a foolish idea. I guess I was learnin’.
“Son, I’ve made it quite clear time and again that I won’t stand for disobedience, defiance and disrespect. And you know that you have to learn to control that hot head of yours. I will not have you ignoring the ranch rules and running off all over the country because you don’t want to do as you’re told. You and I are going to go out to the barn right now and the seat of your pants is going to feel the effects of my displeasure.”
I hunkered down even further into the settee, if that was possible, and if I looked anything like I felt I musta looked like thunder. So far everything was playing out pretty much just like Scott had predicted to me. I knew myself that it was what I had expected would happen and I’d known it within one hour of lightin’ out from the homestead that night. Didn’t mean I wasn’t goin’ to try and avoid it though, so I protested, and even I knew I sounded like a sulky kid. Truth to tell I reckon I was often less nervous of bein’ in a gunfight when I was livin’ as Johnny Madrid, than I was of facin’ Murdoch when I was in the wrong.
“It ain’t fair Mudoch. Scott does anything wrong and you just tell him you’re disappointed and to do better. I do anything at all and I get a lickin’. You don’t treat us the same.”
“That’s rubbish Johnny, and you know it. Last time Scott went off alone and without telling anyone, a licking is exactly what he got.”
That’d happened a few months back when Scott had sneaked off tracking a mountain lion. I looked up through my eyelashes and saw that ol’ Boston was looking down into his empty glass and I could tell he was not fondly remembering the aftermath of that little incident.
“Scott you may as well go and draw a bath for yourself and then one for Johnny. I’m sure you’d both like to soak all that trail dust away. Please ask Maria to hold off supper for a half hour. And let her know that Johnny will have a tray in his room tonight.”
I didn’t look up as Scott put his glass back on the tray on the drinks cabinet, and headed out to the kitchen. Murdoch stood up and stretched to his full goddamn height which made me feel as big as a damn bug. I wished with all my being that I would get my full height soon, and that when I did I’d be taller than Scott, and at least as tall if not taller than the Ol’ Man. Said old man took a hold of my right arm and hauled me up, and then there was that warm, heavy hand on my neck again, only this time it was guiding me the other direction, back out to the barn and my fuckin’ doom.
Pa was a man who always did what he promised. So a couple of hours after coming outta the barn, my rear end was still feeling the effects of his displeasure and it was hurtin’ like a sonofabitch. I’d had my bath, standing up, and I’d had my supper in my room, standing up. When Maria brought up the tray she had bent over the bed where I was lyin’ on my stomach. She petted my hair and run her hand backwards and forward across my back. She told me she was sorry I was hurtin’, but that she and my Papa and my hermano all loved me, and needed to guide me. She kissed the back of my head and then left.
When I’d first come into my room I’d kicked my pants off and could barely stand to still have my drawers on. Then I’d pitched down onto my bed and bawled like a baby. This was something new to me. I’d been hurt many times before livin’ at Lancer and had not shed a tear. Hell, I’d been shot and had never cried. I know I had cried a very few times when I was sick and alone, or full of grief and alone, or just got overwhelmed with how alone I was. But a couple of times now after Murdoch had whomped me I had kept as quiet as I could while it was happenin’, but then later, alone in my room, I hadn’t been able to stop bustin’ out in tears. I didn’t understand why it happened. Hell, I should be grown up, not growin’ backwards. When Mama’s men would knock me around, I would hate them and be full of rage. But I would never cry about it. Yet when Murdoch tanned me I hated it, but never hated him, and I wouldn’t get enraged, just tired and sorry for myself and relieved when it was over. It was a puzzle to me.
When I couldn’t puzzle things out these days I knew who to talk to. I could trust Scott and talk to him ‘bout things I’d never spoke about with anyone before. Hell, that was a new thing for me too. Havin’ anyone I could trust like I did Murdoch and Scott. I hadn’t had that feeling since I was about six, and me and Mama had lived a time with the Texican. I still thought of Val sometimes, and wondered where he was. I wondered if he remembered me. Prob’ly not. I was just the little mestizo son of the woman he was livin’ in sin with. I remembered what a brat I was. But I remembered his strong arms around me too, and all the things he took the trouble to teach me.
Scott knocked and came in then. I made haste to turn on my side ‘cause he thought it was real amusin’ to whack my backside when he knew it was vul – vulnerb – hurtin’.
He looked like he’d stepped out of a bandbox, as usual. All spruced up and shiny clean after his nice, leisurely soak. He had on that smile he gets when he thinks I’m funny but he doesn’t want to rile me. Wants to gentle me like I’m a damn green-broke pony. He pulled a chair round next to my bed and flopped down into it.
“Well Little Brother, did our Father make an impression on you this time?”
“Real funny Scott. You know damn well he don’t never do nothin’ by halves. I’m fuckin’ dyin’ here.”
“You’ll live.” Scott scoffed.
I shot him a disgusted look, and straight away could see he’d noticed my red eyes and was surprised. He sat up and crossed his arms and looked down at his knees like they was real interestin’.
“You ok Johnny? Murdoch didn’t overdo it did he? I’ll speak -“
“Naw Scott, I’m fine. Well, I will be in about ten weeks. I just…”
He looked up then, and I could feel his eyes studyin’ me, like he does when he gets into that Big Brother protectin’ stand.
I had my head restin’ on my right hand, and I concentrated on watching my left hand pulling fine threads out of the comforter. Maria would thump me when she found the hole I was makin’. Scott didn’t press me for an answer. He knew I had to sort things through in my mind before I come out with anything. Finally I took in a breath and tried to tell him what was troubling me.
“I used to get hurt, real bad sometimes. Some of Mama’s men were real rough with me. But didn’t matter how bad, I wouldn’t get to cryin’ ‘bout it. Lately when Murdoch gives me what for, I come up here and end up bustin’ out in tears and I’ve tried to stop it but don’t seem to be able to. A real man don’t cry! Jesus Scott, I’m startin’ to think there’s something wrong with me. It’s like Johnny Madrid is leavin’ and he’s leavin’ a fuckin’ girl in his place!”
I felt real agitated talkin’ like that to Boston, and if he’d even smiled I woulda knocked him into next week. But I chanced a quick glance at him and he was far from laughin’ at me. Fact was he looked more sad than anything. He’d been leanin’ back in the chair with his arms crossed and looking relaxed, but now he hunkered forward and he had his arms resting on his knees with his hands dangling down. He was looking at the floor, and his hair was falling down to his eyes. Then he turned his head to me and started speakin’.
“Johnny, strong men feel deeply about important things. Like hating cruelty and injustice. And caring for and wanting to protect those they love.”
“You sayin’ I’m not strong Scott?”
I couldn’t look at him. He suddenly reached over and put his hand on my calf and I looked up and he was lookin’ at me intense.
“Johnny you are one of the strongest men I have met.”
Well that sure took the wind outta my sails. I’d just fessed up to being a bawl baby and he comes out with that? I rolled back on to my stomach and buried my head in my arms while I tried to swallow the lump in my throat.
“Johnny I’m saying that real men, strong men, feel things strongly, and even though they mostly keep their tears inside, sometimes they cry. Sometimes they need to cry. There’s no shame in it. It’s weak men who hurt women and children, and hurt other men who can’t defend themselves. Or hurt animals. Those men who hurt you Johnny were weak men. Now you are learning to live with Murdoch who is trying his best to be a proper father to you. And to me. You know that he is. And even though you aren’t used to that, and don’t like being told what to do, I know you respect him. When those other men hurt you on the outside, you wanted to keep all of your inside feelings locked tight because you probably despised those men. Now you are living where it’s safe for you to let your normal feelings out. Believe me – it’s perfectly normal to cry after being punished by a father. Or as it generally used to be in my case, a grandfather.”
I rolled onto my side again and commenced makin’ that hole in the quilt bigger.
“Well, I don’t like it.”
Scott laughed and relaxed back in his chair again.
“You can pout all you want Little Brother, but you’ll find that feelings aren’t to be denied forever. I know you’re used to being in control. In control of nearly everything in your life. It’s hard for you to relinquish that. But your life has changed dramatically, and you know it’s for the better. I’ll tell you something else. I’m sure you would agree that Murdoch is a prime example of a ‘real man’? A ‘strong man’?”
I glanced up and nodded, wonderin’ where this was leadin’.
“Well I can assure you that Murdoch cries.”
Well, that made me sit up, but sittin’ gave me such a jolt of hurt that I quickly changed position while I hissed out a curse. Scott just smirked.
“Johnny the night your fever broke after that bullet wound caused you to get so ill, Murdoch went out to the porch and cried so hard he put his back out. Maria had to send Walt into town to bring Sam out.”
This was so hard for me to imagine. ‘Specially when I thought back to those early days when I’d come to live at Lancer. I was willful now, I had to admit it. But I knew back then I was a very ornery cuss who was determined to give Murdoch hell, make him suffer, and then leave and take on back to my old way of life as soon as I was healed up. Back then I had believed that Murdoch had thrown me and Mama out when I was just two. So I had some cause to hate him, until I found out that Mama had never told me the truth about anything.
I was still pondering all this that Scott had told me when there was a knock and Pa came in. Scott got to his feet and offered Murdoch the chair.
Pa stood at the end of my bed though, with his arms folded, and rocked back and forth on his feet.
“Johnny I’d like to talk to you. It can wait if you don’t feel up to it?”
Scott moved towards the door.
“I’m going to head to bed now, Sir. I’ll see you in the morning. ‘Night Little Brother.”
Scott left and I looked up at Murdoch. He didn’t look angry or disappointed or anything, but I felt pretty beat, tired, I meant, so I was a bit wary.
“Well Pa, I gotta say I don’t feel up to much. Are you goin’ to yell? Or lecture?”
Murdoch laughed and came and sat down.
“No Son. I think we’ve covered all of that now.”
“Murdoch, did Mrs. Conway tell you about all that damage?”
“Aggie came over because she was concerned. She didn’t mention the damage, only that you said you needed a horse to get home, but then headed in the opposite direction with a boy she didn’t recognize. She assumed, quite rightly of course, that you were heading for trouble. She’s a good friend to me Johnny, and to you boys too. I heard about the damage from Cip. His cousin’s daughter, Alodia, is married to Estralita’s son. I call it the Mexican Telegraph.”
Murdoch laughed. I wondered if there were any Mexican cousins living in Redemption. If there were then Scott’s not so secret visit to the whorehouse might come to Pa’s ears and lead Scott to a real embarrassing interview.
“Johnny I want to talk about you having too much time on your hands. That saying that ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’ seems to apply to you all too often Boy.”
Great, this was goin’ to lead nowhere good.
“Last month you were giving illicit shooting lessons to Josh Corner every afternoon. Then of course there was the blowing up of the line shack.”
I was feeling sorry for myself already, and now Pa was going to bring up every little bother that had happened? By now the hole in the quilt was big enough to put my hand through. Murdoch noticed and put his huge paw over mine and firmly moved my hand to rest on my leg. I kept my head down, and suddenly felt tired as all get out.
“I’ve told you and Scott how proud I am of how you’re both learning ranching. Scott puts in a full day’s work Johnny, but I don’t want you doing that before you’re fully grown. Boys your age who aren’t full grown are usually in school, or learning a trade. I’ve been happy for you to have a light load of yard chores and such because I knew this was a complete change of lifestyle for you to get accustomed to. And I wanted you to enjoy a bit of the childhood you should have had here. But it’s time for you to improve your knowledge because there is more to running a ranch like ours than fencing and herding.”
Now we were gettin’ to it, and I could feel my dander rising. But I was too recently ‘chastised’, as Scott would say, for my dander to rear its ornery head too hard and fast.
“Johnny the other night when I mentioned schooling, I was about to talk to you about having private lessons with Clayt Aubrey.”
“I don’t wanna.”
Murdoch sighed and rubbed his hand through his hair as he looked around the room. Then he rested his arms on his knees and clasped his hands together, and fixed me with that determined look of his that I had got to know oh so well.
“We can talk about the how and the where Son, but you will be having these lessons. That is not up for discussion. Mr. Aubrey and his family are having dinner with us Saturday night so you can meet him. You will begin lessons on Tuesday afternoon and go each afternoon Tuesday to Friday from now on –“
“But Murdoch –“
“There are no ‘buts’ Johnny. This is not a punishment Son, this is an opportunity. You can pout all you like, but you will have these lessons.”
Now he sounded like Scott’s echo. I tried my damndest to haul my lip in but sometimes it has a mind of its own. So instead I just rolled over onto my stomach, and buried my head in my arms again. Yeah, real mature Madrid.
The chair scraped the floor as Murdoch got to his feet. I expected him to walk out and maybe slam the door. Instead I felt his hand on the back of my head.
“Johnny, I want you to trust me to know what is good for you. I want this for you, and I hope you will give Mr. Aubrey a chance. Goodnight Son.”
He scruffed at my hair and then he left me. I lay there sulking one minute and then feelin’ guilty the next, and then I fell asleep. When I woke next morning the spare comforter from the wardrobe was tucked tight around me.
I was real peevish and didn’t care who knew it the next few days. I noticed everyone I complained to seemed to be in a black mood too. Didn’t matter how much I groused, Murdoch would not discuss his plans for me at all, and Scott kept telling me to shut up. He was in a poor temper for some reason. I came in to the corral Saturday afternoon and I was in no mood for his cantankerousness. I’d just spent two hours startin’ to diggin’ that fuckin’ pit for one of the outhouses, and I was hot and mad and dirty and still hurtin’. I’d hardly said more than a few words to Scott when he suddenly turned on me with his temper firin’.
“Johnny you say one more word about those lessons, and I swear I’ll slap you to the ground!”
I boiled up with indignation. Him talkin’ to me like I was a snotty kid! So I ploughed right on into him and we both fell to the ground. We were rollin’ around trying to land hits on each other and I could hear some of the hands whistlin’ and heehawin as we tussled and the dust rose all around us. I was cussin’ and Scott was yellin’ at me and I got a mouthful of his fist which fired me up even more. But before I could get the upper hand I felt hands grab me up. Cip had a hold on me I couldn’t break, even though I kept trying. Frank had pulled Scott to his feet and Scott was standin’ across from me rubbing his fist and lookin’ all messed up like a scruffy, no-account drifter. Cip gave me a shake then let me go, and I launched myself straight at Scott again. Cip was too quick and got me by the scruff. I tried to twist outta his grip so he tightened it, and with his other hand he grabbed the seat of my britches and lifted me right off the ground.
“Juanito! Sufieciente! Iportate bien!” (Enough! Behave yourself!)
When I kept fighting to get free, he took three big strides and then dumped me in the horse trough. Fuckin’ bastard! I came up spittin’ a fountain of water outta my mouth. But if he thought my temper had cooled…I tried to stand but my boots went out from under me what with the slippery bottom on the trough. I shook my head ‘cause my hair was a lot longer than Murdoch approved of, and bein’ wet it was pert down over my nose and I couldn’t see a damn thing. When I flicked it out of my eyes, it was Scott’s hand in front of me, offerin’ me a boost up. So I took it, and stepped out, and let go, and then swung round and punched his shoulder hard enough that he tipped and with the slightest shove from me, he was the one in the water.
I was pleased with myself for about half a second, and then I found myself upended and looking at Cip’s left spur. Cip had me wedged tight under his arm and started in on whacking me. Sonofabitch! He only landed a few smacks but Jesus! I was still feeling delicate back there, and Cip was not bein’ gentle. He jerked me upright like I was a rag doll or something, and then he shoved me towards the house. I saw that Scott was just disappearin’ round the side heading to the bath-house.
“Nino desobediente!” (Disobedient boy!)
I wasted no time gettin’ away from Cip. I knew he wasn’t concerned that Scott got a little damp. No, he was angry that I had disobeyed him. I could hear the laughs and comments of the hands who’d been enjoyin’ the show. They scattered after a terse word from Cip. As I got near the porch, I was blusterin’ full of righteous indignation. I looked up and noticed Murdoch standing there, his arms folded and a grim look on his face.
“You goin’ to allow that Pa? Anyone on this ranch allowed to beat on me?” I huffed out the words.
He seemed to be considerin’ it, and he put his hand to his chin, and shook his head.
“No Johnny -”
I started to smile.
“- only the adults.”
Yeah, real funny.
I stomped through the kitchen trailing muddy water and Maria started yellin’ but I was too full of mad to care. When I got to my room I stripped off all my wet duds, ‘cept my drawers, and I waited to hear Scott go into his room before I headed downstairs and back through the kitchen to the bath-house. Maria’s seen my drawers before. Hell, when she’s nursed me she’s seen all I got, and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. I had my bath and then realized I hadn’t brung my clean clothes with me. I wrapped a towel around me and stomped back upstairs. I saw that Scott’s door was ajar, and I hesitated, and then bowled on in. He looked at me coolly and then started back to fixing his string tie.
“You didn’t knock.”
“Door was open.”
I kept a clutch of my towel with one hand and with the other I fiddled with all the things on top of Scott’s dresser.
“You gave me a fat lip.” I groused.
He didn’t answer and I glanced over to him. He was still fussin’ with his tie.
“You mad at me Boston?”
He sighed then and turned to me, crossing his arms and shakin’ his head.
“Johnny you’ve driven everyone crazy the last few days. All that complaining about lessons. Everyone on this ranch has things to do they’d prefer not to. You need to act like a man and accept what you cannot change. And you know you will not change Murdoch’s mind about this. Now why don’t you go and get dressed and if you need help with your tie I’ll help you.”
He quirked that eyebrow at me, and I stood there thinkin’. And I decided to follow his advice. Be a man. Get dressed. Get him to help with the fuckin’ tie.
We heard the buggy pull up outside the front door. Murdoch had already given me an earful about mindin’ my manners. And not only that but I was to be pleasant. Or else. Murdoch went to greet our guests. I was not lookin’ forward to meeting this old geezer who was to be instructin’ me. Didn’t want to meet his ol’ wife neither. The few school teachers I’d had in the past were mostly ancient old priests or nuns who were quick to use their canes if you weren’t payin’ attention, or didn’t answer their questions right.
This couple came through the door. Old, musta been well over forty, like Murdoch. I heard Scott growl low outta the side of his mouth for me to wipe the ‘mutinous’ look off of my face. Scott’s always usin’ those words that half the time I’m not sure what he means. I often have a pretty good guess though. Behind the old couple came a younger man, twenty-fivish maybe. He was using a cane, and I glanced at his feet while he was shakin’ hands with Murdoch, and I could see one shoe, and one something else. They all came over to meet Scott and me. Murdoch introduced them as Mr. and Mrs. Aubrey, and their son, Mr. Clayt Aubrey. This took me aback. Here was I thinkin’ the old customer was my teacher, but it was the younger yahoo.
“Very pleased to meet you Johnny. I am looking forward to starting your lessons next Tuesday. I hope you are too?”
What could I say to that (and not get killed by the Ol’ Man?) So I just shook his hand as hard as I could and nodded, and threw a filthy look Pa’s way. He threw a filthy one back and started offering drinks to everyone but me, as usual.
The night just went downhill from there, far as I was concerned anyway. Turns out Clayt lost his lower leg in the War between the States. He had finished his time at the University of California when he joined up. He was living with his family because of his injury. He couldn’t work on the ranch so he was doin’ bookwork for businesses and such, because he had plans to grow grapevines on the Aubrey land and start makin’ wine. He needed a stake to get started though. He and Scott hit it off real well, what with all their education, and the war service in common. Scott had finished secondary school when he ran off and enlisted in the Union army by telling them he was eighteen when he was only sixteen. He served with General Sheridan and was made a lieutenant in the field ‘cause of heavy casualties. He’d just turned seventeen. His grandfather tracked him down and sent word (and money) to the authorities. When they were told his actual age he was honourably discharged. Apparantly Sheridan himself sent a Captain with Scott to make sure he got on a train outta there. Instead of goin’ back to his Grandfather in Boston, Scott headed the other direction. He’d decided he wanted to meet his Father, so here he was.
Maria had put on a fine spread so I enjoyed that, and just kept to myself as much as possible. I was mindin’ my own business when Mrs. Aubrey asked what I enjoyed doin’. There was a gap in the conversation about then, so I looked at Pa while I answered.
“I like guns.”
Murdoch closed his eyes and I felt Scotts boot connect with my shin, so I jumped and gave him a dark look. Then Murdoch surprised me.
“Johnny is a natural with horses, Mrs. Aubrey. “
I looked back at Pa and he was lookin’ at me real steady. Mr. Aubrey was sayin’ something about horseflesh, but Pa and I weren’t listenin’. We had our eyes locked and there was a battle only Scott and Pa and I knew was happenin’. My jaw was clenched tight. But then the skin around Pa’s eyes crinkled and I saw his eyes lookin’ warm at me, and Dios, I couldn’t help it. I smiled. I heard Scott’s breath whoosh out, and then everyone seemed to be yappin’ at once.
By the time I came home from Mrs. Conway’s in time for supper Monday night, I could tell my life was goin’ to hell in a hand basket. That morning I’d returned Clipper to Mrs. Conway and I’d made my apologies which she accepted with her eyes twinklin’ like they did when she was outbidding Murdoch at the horse auctions. We’d then had a nice civil talk about what a fine animal Clipper was, and horses in general. Then she’d ushered me towards the kitchen, but she didn’t come in, just gave me a good luck and a wink and she’d hightailed it away. I’d had many years of dealin’ with irate Mexican ladies so I went into the kitchen with my hat in my hand and my head down. I peeked through my eyelashes and saw Estralita turn from the stove and her eyes narrow. Her mouth got firm and she crossed those big arms of hers. I straight away went into my spiel about how sorry I was, how I was a worthless, good for nothin’ hombre, and how much I wanted to atone for my wrongdoin’. I presented her with the sack full of vegetables from our patch at Lancer, and I got a real convincin’ tremble goin’ on my lower lip. Always works a treat on Maria.
Then I had to listen to a fast and furious lecture while Estralita shook her finger at me. At the end she got a more soothin’ tone, and said how she wouldn’t slap my ears because she knew that my father had already given me una paliza (a beating). Jeez, didn’t a man have any privacy? So she would gladly accept my help, but first I must sit and have some lemonade and churros. I gladly sat down and even though I’d not long had breakfast, I ate till I nearly bust. All it took was a comment that they were the best churros I’d ever had, and Estralita immediately was happy to think that her churros were better than Maria’s, and I was set.
That didn’t help with the awfulness of the chores I had to do all day. The work in the garden was bad, but helpin’ with the laundry was the worst job in creation I reckoned. Beat me why ladies liked doin’ it. Though I did get to wonderin’ by the fourth week, if maybe they didn’t like it?
Tuesday mornin’ I did my regular chores before having lunch and then heading over to the Aubrey spread. Murdoch and Scott were out doin’ a man’s work, and here was I, Johnny Madrid, formerly a respected gun for hire, goin’ to lessons. What would Texas Joe and Isham think if they could see me? But then again Texas Joe was probably six feet under by now. He wasn’t as fast as he thought he was, and never had good sense. And Isham? Isham was a couple of years older than me, and he was always tellin’ me I was fast, but that my heart wasn’t cold enough to last in the trade.
As I arrived at the homestead old Mr. Aubrey leaned on his pitchfork and greeted me. He took Pancho from me.
“You go on up to the house, Son. Clayt’s waiting for you.”
Mrs. Aubrey came out on the porch and welcomed me, and then invited me in. Clayt Aubrey was standin’ by the table and we howdied each other. Playin’ with blocks on the floor was a real little fella, with red hair and big saucer eyes. Mrs. Aubrey bent and fussed with his hair and smiled up at me.
“This is my baby, Johnny. His name is Braxton.”
I hunkered down and said howdy to him and then Clayt spoke.
“Come through to the parlour Johnny. We’ll work in there.”
The parlour wasn’t as big as the kitchen but it was a nice feelin’ room. Not that I was feelin’ nice about anything. Just seein’ a blackboard propped up next to the table and chairs made me feel disgusted. There were books and paper and pencils laid out on the table. We both set down and I commenced to learnin’. Well young Mr. Aubrey commenced to teachin’. I hadn’t decided yet whether I would learn a goddamn thing.
We worked at what young Mr. Aubrey called ‘assessing my scholastic level’ till about four in the afternoon. There suddenly was a ruckus in the kitchen with lots of young voices. I looked towards the closed door, and young Mr. Aubrey grinned at me.
“That’s the other children home from school. They are all dying to meet you. Let’s take a break and have some coffee.”
I couldn’t get outta that parlour fast enough. In the kitchen there was three more kids. A girl about twelve and two younger boys with corn colour hair. They all turned to look at me real interested. All those three of them had lots of freckles, and I turned back and looked at Clayt’s face and saw he had plenty too.
They were all havin’ milk and cookies, and Mrs. Aubrey smiled as she handed me a glass of milk as well. Clayt took the cup of coffee she handed him and then he did the introductions.
“Children I’d like you to meet Johnny Lancer. Johnny this is Estelle, Thad and Silas.”
“How do,” they all murmured polite like. Then Thad, who looked about ten, noticed my sidearm and his eyes got big.
“Johnny can I hold your gun?”
“No you most certainly cannot Thaddeus!” Mrs Aubrey had that scoldin’ tone all Mamas got down perfect. “Now finish your milk and you can all go outside until you see Johnny come out of the house. Take your cookies with you. Scat.”
They all skedaddled and Clayt and I returned to workin’ till five when he finally released me. Soon as I set foot on the porch the boys swarmed me and walked with me to where their Pa had Pancho saddled for me. I made my goodbyes and lit outta there like Commanches was after me.
I was in the barn tendin’ to Pancho when Scott came in whistlin’ ‘Red Wing’. He does that ‘cause he learned early never to come on me unawares when I was armed. He told me to hasten up so I could get washed in time for supper. Murdoch don’t like you to be late ever. I could see the devilment in Scott’s eyes so shouldn’t a turned my back ‘cause he wrapped his arms ‘round me and had me pinned. And he started talkin’ low in my ear with his laughin’ voice.
“So was little Johnny a good boy in school today?”
“Let me loose, you bastard!” He bust out laughin’ loud then.
“I hope you didn’t get sent to the corner, Young Man? Or earn yourself a paddling?”
I was strugglin’ fierce but he held me tight, and then he flung me away from him hard as he could and he took off runnin’ to the house. I cussed him out and run after him but he reached the French doors before me and immediately halted to a casual walk straight to Murdoch’s side. I come barrellin’ through the door. I was red in the face and breathin’ hard, but skidded to a stop when I saw Murdoch’s face. Scott stood there lookin’ real smug. The Ol’ Man looked at Scott’s face and then looked back at mine, and I could see a flicker of a smile, before he growled.
“Go get washed up Son.”
I gave Scott a ‘you’ll pay’ look and headed for the wash bowl outside the kitchen door.
Murdoch had been full of questions the night before after I had spent the day doin’ my chores at the Conway Ranch. Tonight though he didn’t ask one thing about my afternoon at the Aubrey spread. I knew he didn’t want to open no can of worms. I didn’t volunteer anything, decidin’ to bide my time. Scott had already put his spurs into me ‘bout it, and no way would he want to see any friction between Pa and me, so he never said a word on it neither.
Three weeks later Pa’s plans to keep my idle hands busy were workin’ a treat. I didn’t barely have time for nothin’. What with my own chores at home plus working for Estralita every Monday, and lessons on the other afternoons, I was getting tuckered out. I was still cleaning out the chicken coop every Saturday, that on account of trouble I’d been involved in a couple a months back. At least I was nearly finished diggin’ that third fuckin’ outhouse pit. I also hadda read a chapter of ‘Moby Dick’ every night so’s I could then read it out loud to Mr. Aubrey next day. Murdoch and Scott went traipsin’ all over the valley, but I was only allowed off the ranch if Pa invited me – and he only invited me to church. I was so desperate I almost went.
The only good thing that had happened was I grew taller by over one inch, the beginnin’ of a ‘growth spurt’ Murdoch said when he noticed. And then he bought me my own shavin’ kit ‘cause all this fuzz started appearin’. I didn’t know what looked worse – the fuzz or the damn cuts I got usin’ the razor. Shavin’ wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“Keep this up Little Brother, and I just might be able to get you in upstairs at the saloon!”
That got my blood to runnin’ hot, but Scott just laughed and we had a fine old wrestle all over the Great Room until we nearly knocked a table over and Murdoch came in bellowing.
When Scott sometimes stayed overnight in town on a Saturday night I knew he weren’t stayin’ at the hotel like he told Murdoch. Scott said to me he didn’t think Murdoch believed that story either. Pa had had a private talk with Scott about ‘safe and appropriate relations with the opposite sex’, and Scott had told him he had ‘already been apprised of all those matters, thankyou Sir’. But Scott smirked and told me that he’d told Murdoch that I was in dire need of a talking too, and the sooner the better. I punched Scott for that, not too hard, but he still punched me back and swelled up my ear, and then we really got into it, till Pa dragged us apart. Scott got told to get out to the garden and use his energy weedin’, but I got sent to my room, with a crack on my way, ‘cause of my cussin’, as usual. Don’t know how a man can fight without cussin’, but Scott seemed to be able to do it.
So here I was, third week into lessons, and I was hidin’ in the Aubrey outhouse. I’d figured five more minutes and the three middle children would arrive home from school, and I’d go in and we’d all have milk and cookies before I’d have to spend my last hour readin’ to Mr. Aubrey. I heard the young ‘uns arrive and waited a minute and then set out for the back door. That’s when I heard more horses come thunderin’ down the road leading to the house. Men don’t ride like that unless there’s somethin’ real urgent to get to or get away from. Old habits die hard, and so I melted outta sight into the woodshed behind the house till I could see what was going on. The two riders disappeared out of my sight, but one look and I could tell they were not preachers. I crept outta the shed and sprinted across to the side of the house and hunkered down to where I could see and not be seen.
Old Mr. Aubrey had picked up his rifle as any cautious man would, but the rider wearin’ a real old Wasey hat barely pulled up as the two of them rode into the yard. The old man was knocked flyin’ one way and his rifle the other. I was ready to leap out then and had drawn my gun, but stopped dead when I heard the commotion on the front porch as the family spilled out.
‘Wasey’ turned his rifle on the porch as old Mr. Aubrey staggered up to his feet.
The other scum was wearing a dirty bowler hat. He got down and picked up the old man’s rifle, and then looked to the porch.
“Y’all come down where I can see ya.” He spat tobacco juice to the side. “Anyone else in the house?”
“No, no-one.” Clayt’s voice was real calm.
I could hear the family all came down the stairs and they were stood just out of my sight.
Wasey turned to the old man.
“Need two fresh horses right now. Get, or there’ll be killin’!”
He started to take all the tack from his horse and by the time old Mr. Aubrey led two horses out of the barn, he had stripped ‘Bowler’s’ horse as well. He ordered the old man to help and the two of them saddled the fresh mounts. Wasey then filled his and Bowler’s canteens at the pump and mounted. I had decided to let them go without challengin’ them. They were in too close to the family, and even when they took off there was too much danger of one of them getting a shot off and hurtin’ or killin’ one of the Aubreys.
“Grab some food.” Wasey ordered Bowler.
I listened as Bowler hurried up the steps and into the house. When he came back to my line of vision he had a sack which he tied to his saddle. He was about to mount but then Wasey spoke again, and my blood got cold.
“Get the girl.”
Old Mr. Aubrey started forward in a panic. Bein’ close up to Wasey was fortunate ‘cause the mangy sonofabitch didn’t have room to shoot so he just used his rifle butt to club the old man to the ground. Bowler moved outta my sight and then reappeared with his arm around Estelle’s waist. She was whinin’ in a strangled way. I think she was too petrified to make any more sound than that.
“Leave her! Take me instead!”
That was Clayt, but he made the mistake of movin’ forward as he said it and Wasey just raised his gun and shot. Mrs. Aubrey was already pleadin’ with the men, and now she screamed, and I heard the boys start howlin’ and the baby commenced to cryin’. It was all I could do to keep hid. Wasey started yellin’ loud as he could.
“You tell that posse to stop followin’ and we’ll leave this girl the next town we pass. If we see them on our trail she’ll be dead! You listenin’ to what I’m sayin’ to you woman?”
Estelle was thirteen and plain as a pound of candles. She hardly never said a word, while the boys chattered like magpies to me. But every time I was in the same room as her I could feel her eyes on me. When I’d look up she would look away with a small smile on her freckly face. It was real disconcertin’.
I hadn’t planned to take these low-life on, but I couldn’t let them take Estelle with them. Men like that don’t nevermind if a girl is not yet reached bein’ a woman, they could use her bad and she and the family would never recover. And it was not likely they would even leave her alive. I only had six bullets so I had to make them count.
Bowler had flung Estelle up in front of his saddle and hoisted himself up behind her. The two men wheeled the horses and set off past where I was hid. I ran straight out behind them as they passed and so had a clear shot at Bowlers back, and thanked God that he had put Estelle up in front and not behind. My first shot hit Bowler right between his shoulder blades and he pitched sideways draggin’ on the reins. He and the horse and Estelle all smashed sideways into the road. I was screamin’ to the family behind me to get down. Wasey had turned as soon as he heard my shot. He’d pulled his sidearm out as he spun but my second shot hit his hat off and threw his aim off. My third shot hit him in the arm and my fourth thudded into his chest and his horse reared up and Wasey fell back, but it was like time slowed down as he fell. I checked that Bowler hadn’t moved and I kept my eye on Wasey, holdin’ my gun steady and ready to plug either one if they moved. They were both still. Estelle was groanin’, but she was up on all fours and tryin’ to crawl away, and Bowler’s mare had struggled to her feet and moved away, and was snortin’ and shakin’ her head.
As I reached Bowler I leaned down to check him while still keepin’ an eye on Wasey. Mrs. Aubrey rushed to Estelle as I left Bowler and moved to Wasey. His chest was drenched in blood and his eyes were open, but he was dead as you can be. I still removed his Colt and a knife that he had attached to his belt, and then I went to help Estelle and her Ma. I looked back to the house and could see old Mr. Aubrey sittin’ with his head in his hands, and I could see the blood on his left hand. Thad was crossin’ to him and I looked to the left and could see Silas was on his knees and Clayt was leanin’ up against him. The baby Braxton was crawling towards his Pa, still cryin’ fit to be tied.
Estelle and her Ma didn’t seem to be hurt so I rushed over to Clayt instead. He was white and shocked lookin’, but he was able to speak.
“Johnny, Johnny, how can we ever thank you…”
I drug Clayt’s shirt up outta his pants and ripped it open. The buttons flew everywhere. I wadded a bunch of the material up to press into his side.
“Silas get me a clean dishcloth or any cloth you can! Quick!”
The Aubrey’s had an old wrangler name of Corky who helped Mr. Aubrey on the ranch. He came ridin’ in then, and climbed down from his horse and I told him to check on the old man. Silas came outta the house with a clean cloth which I applied to the wound on Clayt. It had stopped streamin’ blood now and was startin’ to clot. Thad had scooped up the baby and Corky was helpin’ Mr. Aubrey to his feet. Clayt’s Ma and sister both came to his side and between the three of us we got him up and headed for the house.
“Johnny, my God Johnny, thank the Lord you saved my girl. God Bless you, Johnny, God Bless you…”
I think Mrs. Aubrey was in shock herself so as soon as we were inside I asked her to please start boilin’ water and to see to her husband and the baby. I told Estelle she needed to help her Ma tend to her Pa. I asked Corky to take over getting’ Clayt to his bed and told them I would take one of the horses and go fetch the doctor.
I brought both of the almost stolen horses over to the hitchin’ post in front of the house and tethered one next to Corky’s. I went to my saddle in the barn and reloaded my gun and put another handful of shells in my jacket pocket. Then I mounted the dun and headed to town. As I mounted I glanced over to the two bodies lyin’ in the roadway. I had not killed a man in over a year. Not since I had come to live with Pa and Scott. I knew I had had to stop those men from taking Estelle, and the only way to do that was by killing them both. But now that my blood was cooling down after all the necessary action, I realized I felt a bit shaken up myself. I shook myself and put my mind to gettin’ to town as fast as I could. Clayt’s blood was dried on my hands, and I wanted to wash, but didn’t want to waste time stoppin’, so I just ignored the queasy feelin’ and concentrated on gettin’ to town. When had a little blood been a problem to me?
About ten minutes before I woulda hit Green River I spied Sam’s buggy on the road leading into the town. I hied down the slope and accosted him, and quickly told my story. He turned the buggy round and I tied the dun to the back and got up next to Sam. He got me to tell him the whole lot then. He reached ‘neath his seat and pulled out his bag and told me to have a drink of water and then a slug of brandy. I poured some of the water over my hands and washed them off, and I tipped some over my head and scrubbed at my face too. Sam pulled a kerchief outta his pocket and gave it to me to dry off. He told me he’d spent the night at the Solly’s pig farm and that old Mrs. Solly had passed. Sam don’t usually talk a whole lot, but as we neared the Aubrey’s I realized he had talked low and soft the entire trip. And I realized it had been soothin’ to have his voice in my ear all the time.
At the homestead we could see there were a bunch of horses in the yard, and then we saw that there were a couple of men tending to them. I tensed up but as we neared it was obvious everything was calm. Silas was helping near the barn, but Thad was sittin’ on the top step nursin’ Brax. As we stepped down from the buggy a big, whiskered fellow stepped forward and I noticed his badge as he introduced himself as Sheriff Deacon. We nodded to him and went on through. Mrs. Aubrey saw me and bust out cryin’ and hugged me fierce and then rushed off into the bedroom where Sam had just gone to see to Clayt. Estelle was watchin’ from another doorway and she said my name soft. I asked how Clayt was, and her Pa, and she said they both were speakin’ but they were all glad to see Sam arrive. Her Pa was lyin’ down in the room behind her. I nodded and went back out to the porch. I sat down on the step next to Thad and put an arm around his shoulder.
The bodies of Wasey and Bowler were wrapped in saddle blankets and laid out just inside the barn. Looked like all the posse was preparin’ to stay the night. I realized how late it was, and that Pa and Scott would be wonderin’ why I had not arrived home for supper. The sheriff was talkin’ to one of the men, but as soon as he clapped eyes on me he came over. He leaned against the hitchin’ post, and I realized all the horses had been seen too, including the one I had ridden to town.
“Johnny the family has filled me in on what happened here. They talked of you as a ‘young man’, but hell, you’re no more’n a boy – where’d you learn to shoot like that?”
He saw me bristle up like a hedgehog and gave me a slow smile.
“Hell Boy, boy or man you did a fine job! Those two dirty scoundrels got what was comin’ to them. They killed my Deputy back in Sutters Fork. They robbed our bank, Son, and those saddle bags on the horse you rode to town got all the townspeople’s savin’s in them. We been trailin’ them hard for five days. You stoppin’ them takin’ that girlie, why you saved her life, sure as sun.”
I nodded and got to my feet. I told him I needed to get home, but would come back in the mornin’ to see how the two Mr. Aubrey’s were. He asked me to come back before they planned to depart at nine next morning, in case there was anything else he needed to ask me. I told Thad to let the rest of the family know I’d be back, and I went and saddled Pancho and headed home. I just wanted to be at the hacienda. I just wanted to see Murdoch and Scott.
I was halfway back to home when I met Scott on the scout for me. Seein’ him comin’ towards me, sittin’ up straight in the saddle like the military man he used to be, well it purely seemed to take a weight from me. When he reached me he started on to quizzing me sharp like, but when he saw me drop my head and start breathin’ heavy, he stopped speaking. He leaned forward and put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. I sat up straight and told him I’d tell him everything at home. He gave me a searching look and then we both headed back to Lancer.
You woulda thought after all that fracas that I woulda got rewarded by getting’ to choose to stop with those fuckin’ lessons, but oh no. Clayt had lost quite a measure of blood, so he was weak for a while. Mr. Aubrey had a concussion so couldn’t work for a week. So after Pa and Scott and Maria coddled me for two glorious days, I was set to work again. I was sent over to the Aubreys every day to help with their ranch chores, and Scott came over sometimes too, to help Corky and to visit with Clayt. I also had to read to Clayt every day. Soon as Clayt got strong enough, we started up them damn lessons again, only shorter hours, for a while. Thad and Silas had already thought I was mighty impressive, the way young boys do of older boys, but now the whole family was so grateful to me it was a might embarrassin’. When Murdoch had heard the whole story he’d hugged me tight and told me he was proud of me. He got choked up and damn if I didn’t nearly bawl all over his shirt. Scott had just kept thumpin’ me on the back and givin’ me that huge ol’ Boston smile that always made me wanta smile too. Maria made all my favourite food. Once the story spread Estralita did the same. On my last day workin’ with her and she got all emotional on me when I was finally finished. She had worked me hard those four weeks, but she was also a real kind lady I’d learned. It was a wonder to me that I had all these people in my life now. People who cared a damn about me, and who I was carin’ about too.
Eventually a reward of two thousand dollars arrived for me. I was shocked, and told Murdoch it felt like blood money. He said it weren’t for the death of the two men, it was a reward from the bank for the town gettin’ their money back. He showed me the letter the bank had sent him praisin’ my ‘courage and derring-do.’ He gave me the explanation ‘bout that term. He said he would bank the money for me for my ‘college fund’, and when I cussed he boxed my ears. So everything was back to normal.
Normal was good. Well, except for those fuckin’ lessons.