Sunday was Maria’s day off, less’n we had guests. Murdoch would cook breakfast at eight in the morning, and if you wanted it earlier or later, you got your own. He would cook porridge, which he said was a ‘braw’ breakfast he’d had every day as a boy in Scotland. I couldn’t stomach it without slathering it with honey and sugar and raisins. Then he’d mix eggs and milk, dip big slices of stale bread in it, and fry those drippy slabs in butter. We’d slather the fried bread in honey and it tasted wonderful. I’d never eaten so much good food, and plenty of it, before I’d come to live at Lancer.
Pa and I had finished eatin’ and he was on his second cup of coffee when we heard Scott appoachin’ the kitchen door from the direction of the barn.
The footsteps halted and I looked towards the back door, and then winced when I heard Scott start heavin’ his insides out. I cut my eyes to Murdoch, but he sipped his coffee, and apart from a narrow of his eyes, he didn’t move.
Since turnin’ eighteen, Scott had taken to stayin’ in town some Saturday nights. He would go into town with some of the hands, or meet up with friends he’d made from other ranches. They would spend the evening downstairs in the saloon, but end it upstairs. I couldn’t wait till I could get up there, and I would press Scott for details, but he said gentlemen don’t discuss their relations with ladies. I said those ladies weren’t no ladies, but Scott would just laugh and tell me to mind my own business. Real frustratin’. Sittin’ there with Murdoch was not the time to be thinkin’ ‘bout those ‘ladies’, otherwise I’d have to make a quick exit to find me some privacy. It seemed to be all I could think about lately.
Scott still had not appeared in the doorway. I was finishing my glass of buttermilk when we heard Scott start to heavin’ again. This time Murdoch clattered his cup into the saucer and jerked up to his feet and strode out the door. I was hard on his heels, but stayed back in the doorway to watch the action.
Scott was over by some bushes just off the porch. He was half hung over them bushes. He had his right arm wrapped ‘round the verandah post, and was groanin’. He retched again just as Murdoch laid his big hands on him.
“Sir…” was all Scott got out .
Murdoch hauled Scott’s lanky frame over to the water trough and then held Scott’s head under the pump and commenced to workin’ that pump real vigorous. I leaned up against the doorframe and folded my arms. Old Ced was makin’ his way to the barn and he looked over to me and we both grinned. He shook his head a little as he watched Murdoch pull Scott upright.
Scott’s blonde hair was plastered to his head and he was streaming water. Murdoch gave him a little shake, and Scott did his best to square his shoulders and walk dignified towards me, with Pa shepherding him. I scooted back to my chair. Sure didn’t want to miss this if ol’ Boston was goin’ to get roared at instead of me for a change.
Murdoch guided Scott to the table.
“Sit,” was all he said.
He grabbed the dish towel and rubbed it quite rough over Scott’s head and Scott groaned out a protest.
Murdoch threw the towel into the washing basket near the back door, and then he grabbed up the coffee pot, poured a mug, and set it in front of Scott.
I don’t think Scott even knew I was there – he didn’t seem to want to open his eyes.
“Good morning, Brother,” I said a lot more loud than was really necessary.
Scott still didn’t open his eyes.
“Shut up Johnny,” was all he said.
Now Scott is such a polite fella, so it was obvious that he was as unhappy as could be. He was as white as a sheet, with two red spots high on his cheeks. Trickles of water were still slowly making their way down his pale face. His hair was stickin’ up all over the shop, something you never see with neat ol’ Boston. He had a faint bruise on one side of his jaw, and I noticed the hand gripping the mug was swollen on the knuckles.
Murdoch was spreading a piece of bread with honey and he put that on the plate in front of Scott and gave another order.
Scott barely opened one eye and looked at the bread as he sipped another mouthful of the black coffee.
“I don’t think I ca-“
“Scott, that wasn’t a request.”
I was enjoying myself immensely. Scott glanced at Murdoch and sighed and picked up the bread and took a small nibble, and followed that with a chug of the coffee again.
Murdoch had dropped back into his seat, and poured himself another cup. I thought he woulda been gettin’ all red faced and yellin’ a blue streak by now, but he seemed quite calm.
When Scott put his mug down, Murdoch topped it up.
“Finish the bread and coffee and then, Young Man, you had best go to bed.”
I couldn’t help a chortle, but that only drew Murdoch’s attention to me.
“Don’t you have chores to do Johnny? I take it you are not coming in to church with me?”
“Now Murdoch you know a good Catholic boy like me cain’t go goin’ to no other church.”
I gave him my best innocent look.
Murdoch did that ‘hmmmph’ noise he makes as we both got up and left Scott sittin’ there as miserable looking as you could imagine.
Murdoch went in to the church service every other Sunday. Sometimes Scott went too, and they would either ride or take the buggy. Maria told me that Murdoch had stopped goin’ to church when Mama and me had disappeared all those years ago. So him goin’ nowadays was a new thing for him.
After he left and Scott had gone on up to sleep off his drunk, I lit out and went to a wash I knew where I could practice shootin’. I did this once or twice every week. Had to keep my edge. I hadn’t had much call to shoot fast and accurate since I’d come home the year before, but I still got real twitchy if I didn’t have my gun strapped on, or if I hadna practised for a few days.
Me and Pancho took off after that, and had us a good flat out gallop and did some explorin’. I’d told Ced the general direction where I was goin’ before I’d left. That was one of Murdoch’s thousand of rules, that you didn’t go off without lettin’ someone know your intended whereabouts. I’d always been used to rangeing on my own for years, so it took me some time, and some lost hide, to get used to this particular rule. Course I wasn’t always exactly where I’d told I’d be, but that was my business I figgered. A man has to make his own decisions. Can’t be tied to no apron strings when you’re fifteen. Murdoch didn’t see it that way at all, but I had enough sense by now not to deliberately fire him up. Most of the time.
Plus Murdoch had never seen me as anyone but Johnny Lancer. He was not no way in awe of Johnny Madrid, who I’d used to be. I couldn’t bluff him physically, cause he was a huge, imposin’ man, and I had found I couldn’t bluff him with my gunfighter ways either. If I tried he would just laugh, or give me this real determined, narrow eyed smile, or else he would raise the rafters with his roaring. And if none of that made an impression on me to drop my contrariness, then he would raise more than his voice, and my rear end would pretty smartly send a message to my brain that Murdoch’s way of proceedin’ was probably quite fittin’. I told Scott I mustn’t be Madrid any more, cause he woulda plugged anyone even tried to whomp him. Scott said no, even Madrid knew the difference between abuse and discipline. I said I didn’t know about that, but whatever it was called, it hurt like a sonofabitch.
When I got back to home Scott had managed to crawl outta bed, and he had Maria’s big pot of soup on the range. Murdoch was buttering biscuits, and over our supper, he told us we were both to attend church with him the next Sunday, as the Flitch baby was to be christened, and we were invited.
The church service went on forever, and I couldn’t help but squirm after the first ten minutes. My string tie was chokin’ me, my shirt and suit collar was pokin’ me, my pants was itchin’, and the dress boots was pinchin’. I was miserable. The preacher loved the sound of his own voice, and damn if I reckoned any of those fellas in the bible coulda sat and listened to him dronin’ on. Then we hadda listen to him again as he carried on about that baby that he was christenin’, talkin’ about its future as a soldier of God. The way that baby squalled, he wasn’t enjoyin’ the proceedings much either. All that caterwaulin’ was givin’ me a headache, and Murdoch thumping me on the back of the head every twenty minutes wasn’t helping. Scott kept smirking, and I ended up putting all my weight down on my left hand as I shifted, and somehow trappin’ an inch of Scott’s skinny leg down onto the pew. That made him jump and yelp, so Murdoch gave him the death look as well, and Scott went red and gave me the same glare.
Finally we were released, and I quick as I could avoided Murdoch’s grasp and got outta that place. I didn’t want to wait in line and be introduced to that preacher fella. I made my way straight around the back of the church to check Pancho, and to also avoid all those people. Pretty soon I was joined by a couple of fellas I knew from other ranches in the area, and Ambrose Cotter, whose Pa was the gunsmith. We jawed a while, until Mr. Cotter came and called up Ambrose, and the other two got called by their older and younger brothers to come join their families. I knew Scott wouldn’t be far behind, so I ambled over to the area behind the outhouse, to put off having to go and mingle at the box lunch.
A girl about twelve came outta the outhouse then and made a beeline for the horses. She was wearing pants and shirt and boots, but she had on a girly bonnet. As I watched she pulled that off, and a mass of springy curls turned loose. She stuffed the bonnet in the canvas bag she had with her and she didn’t see the ribbons from the hat fall behind her. I decided to mosey over and pick them up for her, as she didn’t look to be real prosperous, and I thought she might be upset to lose some ribbons. Girls set a lot of store in geegaws like that.
“Hey, kid, here’s your ribbons.”
She was at her horse, tightening the cinch, and she turned. She had these big eyes, dark brown with these little pale brown flecks around the black middles. She gave me the once over with those eyes and then nodded and then took the ribbons from me.
“You know me?”
“No. I call everyone Johnny. Even the ladies.”
She said it as sassy as can be, but her eyes were laughing. She was about the same height as me, but she still managed to look down her nose at me, and if she hadna had those laughin’ eyes I woulda been riled.
“Ok, Miss Smarty, so what’s your name?”
She turned to hook the bag she was carryin’ on the saddle horn and then she looked back at me.
“I’m Theodora Cheswick. I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Well, Miss Smartymouth Cheswick, ain’t you comin’ to the lunch?”
“No, Mr Highnmighty Lancer, I ain’t.
“I been called a lotta things in my time, but never high nor mighty!”
“Doesn’t your Daddy own the biggest spread hereabout?”
“He does that, and he’s also got the biggest box lunch in the state, and it’s waitin’ back there to feed about thirty people. Why’nt you come over and share it with us?”
I don’t know what got into me invitin’ this mouthy girl to eat with us, but she had an easy smile about her and she sure looked skinny enough to need some good grub. Most of the girls I’d met at shindigs were always gigglin’ and shrillin’ and lookin’ at me with either primmy faces, like I was a bug, or with sickly smiles like I was their next meal. Theodora seemed to be thinkin’ on my invitation, while chewin’ her lip.
I turned around to see Scott had come round the corner of the church and had spotted me. He stood there with his hands on his hips. He’d pushed his hat back onto the back of his head and was standin’ all straight and tall like he does, with a big grin spreading over his face.
“Excuse me Little Brother – I didn’t realize you were conversing with a lady friend.”
“Well Boston, you must be blind as well as stupid, cause there ain’t no lady over here – “
I’d barely finished that last word when I felt a boot rest on the back of my waist and then it shoved with so much force I was sent staggering forward. I was so taken by surprise I lost my balance and went down to my hands and knees. I heard a great peal of laughter from Scott as I leapt back to my feet and spun around to face that bratty girl. She was lookin’ down her nose again, and before I could think of a thing to say, she reached up for the bag from her saddle and started marching back to the outhouse.
“I shall just change back into my church clothes and join you presently.”
She flung those words over her shoulder without even a look at me, and I felt dismissed. Scott was still laughin’, and I started to brushing all the dust from my knees and my hands. I walked towards him, and unfortunately he annoyed me so much I had to tell him to shut the fuck up, and of course that would be the time that prissy Missus Lawrence came around to use the outhouse and heard me. She turned straight back and headed for Murdoch, and she was complainin’ to him as Scott and I approached.
I heard the words ‘disgrace’ and ‘hallowed ground’ and I could see the deep scowl on Pa’s face. I decided to head off but Scott’s hand clamped down on my upper arm and he propelled me forward to Murdoch. Missus Lawrence was lookin’ at me like I was a skunk, and her nose was pinched and her mouth was tight into a prune shape.
“Johnny you will apologise to Mrs. Lawrence this instant.”
Pa fixed me with a real annoyed frown on his face. I got a real considerin’ one on mine.
I gave him a challenging look. Sometimes I don’t act in my own best interest.
I thought Murdoch was goin’ to roar, but he glanced about at all the folks millin’ around, and instead he hissed.
“You know very well what for! And unless you want to get what for in front of the whole congregation, you’ll do well to make your apologies!”
I gave Pa a slow look, really pushin’ it I knew, but then I turned even more slowly to the old bag at his side and swept my hat off and did a half bow.
“Miz Lawrence, I do believe I am sorry that you were listenin’ to the private talk I was havin’ with my brother.”
Well that weren’t in my best interest at all. She drew in a sharp breath and her mouth got even prunier, and of course Pa lost it and didn’t care none who overheard our private conversation.
“John Lancer! Apologise now!”
Everyone within a hundred feet stopped jawin’ and turned our way.
Scott gave me a dig in the back . I turned to the old bag again.
“Miz Lawrence, I apologise for my bad language.”
Well, by now Missus Lawrence had had enough of me, and my apology meant nothin’, and she and Pa knew that, so she made these tetchy noises and went flouncing off. Pa grabbed my arm and steered me away from the crowd, and I wondered if he was goin’ to make me pay, but he turned me loose and stalked off to join Mrs Conway.
I straightened my jacket and smirked at Scott. He shook his head and then gave me a shake.
“Boy, you do like to dance with danger, don’t you. Now I’m going to chat with Prue – you be a good boy and go and fetch our lunch basket from the vestibule, and find a place to spread the rug. And Little Brother, I do believe that’s your young lady friend making her way towards us, so you had better turn on that charm of yours and make amends for your boorish comment earlier.”
Theodora came over to me then, all dressed in girl clothes again. Now that she had on her dress I noticed her chest weren’t flat, and I realized she was older than I thought.
“How old are you?”
“You ain’t even seen fourteen yet.”
“I’m fourteen and a half!”
“Well, Miss Fourteen and a half, whyn’t you find a flat spot for the blanket and I’ll go fetch the lunch basket.”
I headed back into church, wishin’ I was anywhere but here. People were friendly enough, mostly, sayin’ howdy, but I didn’t like being amongst so many. I also hated bein’ without my rig, but Murdoch had stood his ground about not wearin’ it in church. I had my derringer in my front inside pocket, and my knife in my boot, but still felt uneasy. I had my rig in my saddle bag and would put it back on for the ride home.
Back under the trees Theodora was waitin’, and I spread the blanket and plonked the basket in the middle. Families all around were doin’ the same.
“How come you’re at church by yourself?”
She sat there all lady-like, spreadin’ her dress around her.
“Mama died two years ago, and since then Pa hasn’t been to church. My older brother doesn’t want to attend either, but I like to come. I like to listen, and think, and sing, so I started coming again about six months ago. I haven’t seen you here before – your Pa lets you stay home?”
I told her how I was a Catholic, and had got out of coming that way. Pa and Mrs Conway arrived and greeted Theodora like they knew her, which they did, and we started unpacking the basket. Then Scott came at us from behind the tree, and stood there grinning down at me. The sun was straight on top of his head and makin’ a shiny halo around his blonde hair. Maybe that’s why when Murdoch introduced him to Theodora her eyes went all shiny too, and she seemed to lose the ability to speak all of a sudden.
“How do you do, Miss Cheswick. A pleasure to meet you.”
Scott took her hand, and did this polite little bow he does, and I looked at the kid’s face and saw her colour up something fierce. She stuttered something back, and then Scott dropped down to the blanket and started chatting generally. Mrs Conway and I talked about horses like we always did, and she joshed me about how Estralita was missin’ me helpin’ with doin’ the laundry every Monday. That had been one of the chores Murdoch had made me do recently, on account of a fracas I’d been involved in that he didn’t approve of.
Maria had packed one helluva lunch, which I remarked on, and got nothin’ but a cuff for my trouble. It was all real friendly, with people stoppin’ regular to say howdy. But once Scott had arrived it was hard to get one word out of Theodora. If he spoke to her she coloured up and would speak back soft, and she would dip her head down. I thought maybe it was Scott’s Boston way of talkin’, and his educated and polite way, that maybe had made her feel awkward, like it does some people.
Scott had a lotta reasons he could feel superior to nearly everyone in California, and beyond, I reckoned, but he was not no way that sort of fella. He and I couldn’t have been more different in our upbringin’ and education, and yet Scott had treated me like I was valuable to him from the first time I’d met him, the year before. He treated everyone like they were equal, until they proved otherwise by not bein’ honourable.
Scott and me, we were still chowing down, when Theodora thanked us for invitin’ her to lunch, and said she best get goin’ home. As she stood up Pa and Scott both rose to their feet, but I was eatin’ some berry pie so just called see ya to her.
“Johnny, put down that pie please, and see Miss Cheswick to her horse.”
Pa was lookin’ at me with a displeased frown, but Scott and Mrs Conway were both lookin’ down and smilin’. I looked at the pie in my hand and sighed, and put it back on the plate and got up.
“Scott, you touch that piece and I’ll pound you.” I gave him my best mean Madrid scowl.
“Your food is safe, Little Brother – you don’t need to hurry back!”
Theodora was sayin’ polite things but I just grabbed her elbow and hauled her off with a ‘come on’ growl and stumped off to the pasture where the horses were. Soon as we got away from our group she seemed to start bein’ her normal self again. She pulled her arm away.
“You can get lost Johnny Lancer! I don’t need a bad tempered boy to escort me anywhere!”
“Well, you got one! And I ain’t no boy! I’ll do what’s expected and take you to the outhouse.”
I thought that was right gentlemanly of me, but she gasped and stopped.
“Indeed you will not!” She stopped dead and stamped her foot.
I stopped and looked at her and then scratched my head.
“Well, you go to the outhouse and I’ll go get your horse ready for you. Okay?”
She looked down that little straight nose of hers and after a few moments, she nodded, and then she went stompin’ off.
When she joined me fifteen minutes later she was dudded up for ridin’ again, and she mounted and looked down at me.
“Johnny – are you up for an adventure?”
Her eyes were sparklin’ with mischief. That got me interested straight up.
“Maybe. What you got in mind?”
“You know where Pa’s spread is? It meets Lancer on your east border, just near where the Conway place ends? If you meet me there I can show you a really exciting adventure. That is if you’re game?”
“Sure I’m game! When?”
“Can you get away Wednesday afternoon, say around two?”
Wednesday that time I had lessons with a private tutor Pa had hired. I thought for maybe two seconds, and then I nodded.
“I’ll be there.”
She laughed and she reached over and scruffed my hair like I was a damn kid, and then she was off, and not in a gentle trot either, and she called goodbye as she took off down the road.
At breakfast next morning Murdoch told me I was to come in to town with him soon as I’d finished my chores. We had to collect supplies, and he had to go to the bank. I was to get a haircut from Mr. Clapton, and if I didn’t then Murdoch would cut it for me soon as we got back home. I complained and groused, but knew he had me cornered.
I was even more cornered sittin’ up there on the seat of the wagon with Pa, and I’m sure that had been his plan. We had barely got through the Lancer arch when he commenced to givin’ me this shockin’ talk about women. As if I didn’t know it all! And as if I would want to hear any of it from an old man. Madre de Dios!
“Johnny, I want to have a talk to you about men and women.”
“Well Murdoch, thank you, but I sure don’t want to talk to you about none of that stuff. I know all I need to know and I’d thank you to mind your own business!”
I musta said that last bit a mite sharp, cause Murdoch turned and clipped my ear.
“Don’t take that tone with me Young Man, or there will be trouble you don’t want to know about!”
I finished rubbin’ my ear and folded my arms and hunkered down far as I could, and I pressed my lips together and sulked.
Murdoch cleared his throat and clucked to the horses, and tried again.
“Johnny I’m not going to insult you by assuming you know nothing about the facts of life. No boy can live on a ranch and not see the way that male and female animals fit together to produce offspring. To my everlasting regret you did not grow up with me, so I don’t know what you have been exposed to before I found you.
I do know that while we encourage the mating of our animals, we most certainly do not encourage the same with young men and women, unless they are married. Right?”
“Well you sure didn’t worry none about those rules with my Mama, didya?”
It was out before I could even think. I could hear my own angry breathin’, but I could also hear some particularly heavy breathin’ comin from next to me.
The creak of the wagon, the jingle of the harness, the hoof strike, the birds. All those sounds felt like they were louder than ever before. But then Murdoch cleared his throat again and spoke, quite calm.
“I fell in love with your Mother within twenty-four hours of meeting her Johnny. I loved her even when I wanted to hate her for taking you away. But love isn’t something you can just switch on and off, and you’ll no doubt find that out yourself one day.
Having you arrive in my life, well, I can never regret that we put the cart before the horse, as it were. But if your mother hadn’t married me because she was with child, perhaps she would have grown up some more, and had a better life with someone she was happier with. But once a baby is beget, Son, that baby should be the most important consideration for both of you.
Which is precisely why I am advising you to be very careful about having intimate relations with any girl who you can’t imagine living with the rest of your life.”
I was still hunkered down, my hat tipped over my eyes and my arms tight around me, but I was turning things over in my mind.
“Johnny, the Church insists that people stay chaste until they marry. I would like to think that you would, for my own peace of mind, but I am aware that that is unlikely to be the case. “
Damn straight, I thought.
Murdoch was clearing his throat more now, and fidgeting worse than me in that church. I kept real still.
“When a man, particularly a young man, finds himself in a position with a woman, and it seems imminent that his carnal needs are going to be met by that woman – “
He looked down at me but no way was I lookin’ up.
“Are you following this Son?”
“Immigrant carnal what?”
Murdoch sighed and wiped a hand over his face.
“When a young woman is about to let a young man have intimate relations with her - you understand what that term means?”
Murdoch’s breath whooshed out of him, and he took another one in.
“Precisely. But you know very well I don’t want you to use that word, and it is not a word that anyone in polite society uses for the act of lovemaking.”
It was pretty much the only one I’d ever heard for that, but I decided not to point that out to Murdoch, him being so prissy and all.
“Anyway, as I was saying, when a young man is about to have intimate relations with a willing woman, he often finds that his body’s needs will over-ride his brain, and that is when the couple can find themselves a lifetime of trouble. That is why it is best if the temptation is avoided. That is why after a certain age, boys and girls from nice homes are supervised quite closely. Of course there are girls who are less scrupulous about their morals. They may be wanton, or they may be hoping to land themselves a husband. I’m afraid Son, that as we have a successful and quite substantial holding, you and Scott would be seen by some as quite desirable marriage prospects –not just for your Lancer good looks and charm!”
I know Murdoch was smilin’ down at me, but I was so not wanting to be there, having this conversation with him, and I couldn’t raise me a smile, or even my head, if you’d offered me a thousand dollars.
I was hopin’ though, that it wouldn’t be too long before I met one of those ‘wantin’ girls.
“Now without the benefit of a woman to relieve a man’s needs, what a young man does in the strictest of privacy is a matter that is in his own – “
Murdoch stopped sudden and sounded like he was going to choke. He swiped his forearm across his forehead and tried to get comfortable on the seat again.
“Well, I think you get my drift…anyway, all I will say is that the medical profession believes that such activities should be kept to a minimum.”
Murdoch’s voice had got a bit crackly, like mine sometimes still did. By now I was wishin’ I could just melt away to nothin’ and not listen to no more of this dreadful talk. But he weren’t finished.
“When you are older – much older – you will probably be tempted to partake of intimate relations with the women who are available, for a price, for that very purpose. What I want you to do should you decide to do that, is to always protect yourself by using sheaths. Do you know what they are, Son?”
There he went again, lookin’ down at me, and I could feel his eyes piercing straight through the brim of my hat, it felt like.
“I seen ‘em.”
Boy, was I relieved when he didn’t ask me where.
“Well, ah, yes, ah, good. Sam gets a regular delivery of them from San Francisco, and he leaves them for sale with the barman at the saloon. The use of them not only prevents the begetting of a child, but it protects the man from contraction of certain diseases. It is very important that you use them should the time come…”
I was sweatin’ fierce by now, and had to unfold my arms so’s I could have a swig from the canteen. Murdoch took it from me and did the same.
I got back into my former position to ride out the rest of the lecture.
“The last subject I want to cover is respect.”
Well, as if I hadn’t had that word drummed into me by Murdoch, by word and deed, a thousand times before.
“I expect you to treat all women with respect, Johnny. And I mean all women. Those women who sell themselves for money, well, we should not go judging them. But you’ll meet other women who may not deserve respect either, but a gentleman will treat them with respect nether the less. Clear?”
“Jesus Murdoch, yes it’s clear. We done now?”
“Why Johnny, I’m surprised at you being uncomfortable discussing a few matters of physical relations! And you being such a man of the world and all, as you’ve told us so many times.”
He was laughin’ at me now, and of course I hated him to get away with that, so I mouthed off.
“So have you given this fucking and whorin’ talk to Scott as well, Pa?”
He pulled the horses up hard then and I realized I’d overdone it, so as he turned to grab hold of me I scrambled back over the seat, intendin’ to get out of reach down the end of the wagon bed. Course I forgot he had the whip in his hand, and what a dead shot he was with it, and just as I was about clear he flicked that whip and it cracked as smart as you please across my backside. It hurt like a bastard! I howled and grabbed the seat of my britches and rubbed like a loon, not that it did any good.
“Jesus Murdoch! “
He just looked real pleased with himself and he calmly turned back and flicked the whip over the horses heads, and the wagon jerked me just about clear off my feet. I went and climbed back over the seat and sat down with a grunt, folding my arms tight and angry in front of me.
“Johnny, my Son, when are you going to learn that the Ol’ Man always wins?”
Wednesday found me sittin’ up there in the corner of the ranch, lettin’ Pancho crop the grass. I had my knee curled around the saddle horn and was chewin’ on a piece of grass myself. I shoulda been at the Aubrey homestead an hour past, havin’ the lessons with Clayt that Murdoch was makin’ me take. I’d been goin’ there for a couple of months now, and damn if I hadn’t actually started to learnin’ things, even though I had not intended to. Clayt would be wonderin’ where I was, and I was wonderin’ how I was going to explain to him and to Murdoch why I hadn’t showed. Murdoch would hear about it, probably when he went to pay Clayt, and Clayt would have one lesson less on the bill.
I was studying on different ways round the problem, when I heard a horse approach, and saw Theodora amblin’ her pony towards me. I uncurled my leg and gave her a howdy.
“Now what is this adventure you got planned Kid?”
“Kid yourself, Johnny Lancer – why you aren’t any older than I am!”
“I’m fifteen you know. And in life experience I’m probably another fifteen years on top of that!”
“Well, a mature type of boy doesn’t brag on himself the way you do – I think I know that! You just follow me Sonny, and I’ll show you this place to have some thrilling fun!”
She led me on a winding trail which criss crossed a stream on her Pa’s property, moving upwards steadily. As we neared the top of the rise the sound of rushing water began to get deafening, and I became eager to see what this mystery thrill was. She was glancing back at me every now and then, with that sparkling mischief in her eyes which had got me interested in the first place.
“We have to climb the last part.” She had to yell to make herself heard.
We both dismounted and ground tied our horses, and then we went scrabbling up the rock covered slope and rounded the bend.
The stream which was pretty quiet further down the hill, here was gushing violent past a cut through the rocks. It was coming down from much higher up and from a wide expanse of water, so when it reached this narrow cut- through, the water was forced. This meant it gushed through and formed a great big spurt of frothing, white water.
“Whooeee! Ain’t that somethin’! But where does the adventure come in?”
Theodora’s eyes was shinin’ as she laughed at me. Quick as you like she skipped across these rocks that jutted out near the start of the water spurt, and dang if she didn’t start shucking off her clothes! I was not expectin’ that at all, and think my mouth fell open with the shock.
“Come on Johnny! You’re not scared are you?”
She was laughin’ and had shed the pants and shirt she had on, and then she dropped to sit on the rock while she pulled off her boots.
I started unbuttoning my shirt kinda slow, wonderin’ what the hell she was thinkin’, and if she maybe was one of them ‘wantin’ women that Pa had been talkin’ to me about just two days ago. I was never so confused in my life, but pretty quick decided that there was no way I was goin’ to be havin’ no relations with this young kid.
I was on the wrong track entire as it turned out, cause Theodora, in her chemise and drawers, turned away from me and went fossickin’ in the brush near the top, and then produced two lengths of rope. They both had loops knotted in the end, and before you could say christamighty, she had one loop over her head and under her arms, and then she stepped off that rock and straight into that spurt!
Someone had studied the best way to use those ropes, and Theodora was on the end of one, laughin’ her head off as the water sluiced her around and gave her a ride like a bronc, but without the hurt. I got outa my clothes in a trice then, and I pulled the other rope on, and after givin’ it a mighty testing tug, I swung over into that spurt as well. The water was freezin’, but sure enough the thrill was so excitin’ that you soon forgot that, and it was like this wild, intoxicatin’ ride that made you feel real alive and happy. I was laughin’ like a fool, and when the water every now and then bumped us agin each other it was so funny we were both whoopin’ and hollerin’ and couldn’t stop laughin’.
We stayed in there for about half an hour before the cold started to get to us. Theodora jerked her thumb at me and she grabbed the rope above her head and started this swinging motion. I copied her and soon found it got me swinging away from the main force of the water, and then I was able to grab at a big limb to the side and haul my way out on to that. I looked around and Theodora was doin’ the same, and as I slid outta the way, she grabbed the limb and hauled out too.
We clambered over the side of the fallen tree there, and in no time we were both back onto those jutting out rocks. We were both breathless from all the laughin’ and from the exertion. I don’t think I ever felt cleaner in my life!
“Well Kid, I gotta hand it to ya! That was some fun! How did you ever think to put those ropes in there?”
“Aw, Johnny, I didn’t. My older brother and his friends rigged it up a couple of years ago, but he would never let me try it. I only knew about it because I followed him one day, and I watched them all have rides on it. I told him I’d tell Pa if he didn’t let me go with him, but he told me no way was a girl going to do it. I’ve been dying to try it, and when I met you at church, I thought that you would enjoy it too. I know enough not to try it on my own, so I’m sure glad you could come!”
Sittin’ there on that rock with the sun beatin’ down was drying us right quick, and the steam was risin’ from my drawers and from her underthings too. Her hair was dryin’ into a big mess of tight curls which she kept runnin’ her hands through to air out and let dry quicker.
“You want to do it again on Saturday, Johnny?”
“Sure – at two again?”
She leapt to her feet and headed over to her clothes and started putting them back on.
“Two would be fine.”
She was buttoning up her shirt and lookin’ at me pensive.
“Johnny, you’re welcome to bring Scott. That’s if you want to of course. And if you think he would enjoy it?”
“Ol Boston would get a real lot of pure pleasure outta it, I think. I’ll ask him anyway.”
I was still damp, but I knew my clothes and hair would be all dry by the time I got home, so I dressed and the two of us headed back to our horses. We walked Pancho and her horse, Hasty, until we came to the turn-off to her home. She was real easy to talk to, not like a girl at all, and when she set off up the track back to the Cheswick spread I thought what a good stick she was.
I made my leisurely way skirting around Lancer until I was comin’ at home from the direction of the Aubrey’s, where I shoulda been all afternoon. I was still wonderin’ how I was goin’ to explain away my absence to Clayt and to Murdoch. I had found I could not outright lie to Pa, but I was pretty clever at skirting the truth when necessary. And Scott, well he was a master at doin’ that. Maybe I would put the problem in front of him, get him to ponder on it for me.
I talked to Scott before dinner, tellin’ him about my afternoon. He was washing up at the back door. I didn’t reckon on him going all uppity on me the way he did.
“Johnny! What the hell were you thinking Boy! Didn’t Murdoch just speak to you about the proper way to behave when you are mixing with girls?”
I was quick to rile up, ‘specially when Scott called me boy, which he liked to do regular, to show me that I was and always would be, the little brother.
“And how the hell do you know about that?” And of course I shoved him.
He came right back at me and grabbed me by the shirtfront and shoved me backwards till I was hard up against the porch wall. He was still taller and a bit heavier than me.
“Take your fuckin’ hands off me Scott!” I blazed at him.
He dropped his hands and I was straightening my clothes but he was still in my face, and his face was angry.
“Johnny you cannot go off swimming with a young lady without any adults to supervise. What do you think her father or brother would have to say about it?”
“Fuck Scott, as if we would tell them! And she ain’t no ‘young lady’ anyway – she’s just a scrawny kid who wanted to have some fun!”
Scott stepped back and rubbed his hand through his hair.
“Johnny, I’m telling you that it is not appropriate for you to go swimming with that girl unless you are supervised. It’s just not the done thing. And tell me, just what were you two wearing when you did swim?”
I was tempted to say we was in the buff, but I thought ol’ Boston might have a seizure.
“We were decent, don’t worry, we both had our underclothes on.” I scowled.
“Jesus Johnny, didn’t you listen to anything Murdoch told you on Monday? “
“Well I tried pretty hard not to, all that palaver about women and relations, Jesus, as if I need any advice! And from an old man! As if I don’t know all about it – probably more than him and you put together!”
That was what you might call an exaggeration, I knew, but hell, I was angry that Scott knew all about the lecture Murdoch had made me listen to, and I was angry that I was goin’ to invite Scott to go to the water spurt with me and Theodora, and he was instead yellin’ at me.
Scott was rollin’ his eyes now, and shakin’ his head, and walked back to grab the towel hanging next to the wash basin.
“And another thing, Little Brother – what about your lesson at Clayt’s? I take it you decided to skip that so that you could go on your ill-advised and unseemly little rendezvous with the young lady?”
“Swimmin’ Scott, swimmin’ . That’s all we rondayed! And yes, I skipped the lesson, and I was thinkin’ that maybe you could think on how I can pitch it to Clayt and Murdoch so’s neither one of them gets aware?”
Scott shook his head and threw the towel at me.
“Oh no, I’m not getting involved in your scheming. You do the wrong thing and you can just sort it out yourself. But you listen to me - ”
And here he made the mistake of gettin’ over bossy and raisin’ his finger to shake it at me.
“Do not repeat this foolish adventure again. If you wish to court this girl –“
“Court! What are you crazy? She’s a kid! And who the hell do you think you are telling me what I can do and can’t? You can just -”
And I suggested a few interestin’ things Scott could just do with his grandmother and her dog, but I suggested them in Spanish. He got the tone of the suggestions though, and he grabbed me again and chucked me on the ground. I surged up and barreled into him and we both fell back and the washbasin went flyin’ and bounced all over the porch. We were rollin’ around and gettin’ wet from the spilled water, and next we kicked over the washstand as well.
I was cussin’ him out and trying to land a good punch, but of course all that noise and yellin’ brought Murdoch and Maria runnin’ out of the house. Maria was hollerin’ at us both, and Murdoch grabbed us up and shook us like we were rag dolls.
“What the devil do you two think you’re doing?”
He loosed us both and stood there with his hands on his hips, and he looked like thunder as he pinned first one of us and then the other with dark looks.
“I’m sorry Murdoch, we were having a slight disagreement and we seemed to have become carried away.”
Scott was quick to regain his nice manners, but I couldn’t quite muster mine, and I spat out a Spanish cussword at him. Maria gasped, and then I yowled, ‘cause Murdoch’s hand shot out and smacked my ear.
“Lo siento, Maria.” I was sorry, and not just because of the ringing in my ear.
“Dinner will be on the table in ten minutes. I want this porch tidied and both of you seated by then. Get moving!”
Murdoch took Maria’s arm and ushered her back inside, making soothing noises as she muttered darkly about the disgraceful behavior of the chicos. When we were seated she served up a chicken and bacon pie which tasted like it was made in heaven. I kept my mad for a while but the smell of apple and cinnamon dumplings coming from the kitchen went aways to getting’ me back in a good mood. Maria brought in a big plateful and set it down in front of Murdoch. The custard was runnin’ down the sides of those dumplings and making my spit go crazy, and I picked up my spoon, ready.
Maria put her hands on her hips and informed Scott and me that there would be no dessert for us. And not to bother fossickin’ in her kitchen as she was taking the rest of the dessert home for the night. She swept out of the room, and Murdoch picked up his spoon with a twitch of his lips. I went to get up, real annoyed, and Scott did the same, but he pinned us.
“No – you stay right there, both of you.”
And he ate the whole damn lot without lookin’ guilty one bit.
I told Clayt Aubrey next day that I had missed my Wednesday session ‘cause I had been ‘unavoidably detained’, and that Murdoch would be happy for him to just present his normal account and would pay the full amount. It was stretchin’, but weren’t an outright lie.
On Saturday afternoon I met Theodora as planned. Scott tried to talk me out of it, but I could be as stubborn as all getout if I got my mind set on something. He thought I was meeting her to have a normal sort of swim, as I hadn’t gone the whole describin’ of the water spurt, as my plan was to surprise him when he came with me. Thea and I had a fine old time again, even though she’d been sort of disappointed not to have Scott there to show the thrill to.
I asked her to see if she and her folks could come for Sunday lunch, and she said her Pa wouldn’t likely, but she and her brother Willard would. So when I got home I told Pa that they would be comin’, and he then had to bustle to arrange for Caparina to come and cook a proper meal. He wondered where I’d seen Thea, and I just told him ‘around.’ Scott stood behind him, shakin’ his head like a preacher, and pressing his lips together into a hard line.
Scott didn’t look so uppity after dinner when he was about to head into town for the evenin’. Not when Murdoch asked to have a word to him before he left. I was just comin’ in from the kitchen and stopped in the doorway when I heard that certain tone in Pa’s voice. Pa was sittin’ readin’ the Green River Gazette, and was looking over the top of the paper at Scott.
“Son, I realize that you are eighteen, and at such an age you are entitled to make many of your own decisions about drinking and the company you desire to keep.”
“Now, I know that over indulgence of hard liquor, and a certain relaxation of high standards that often follows, well, this is frequently part of the journey towards manhood that we all take.”
Murdoch was speaking real calm and kind, but by now Scott was looking fidgety as all get out. He was smoothin’ those leather gloves along his fingers, and studyin them real close, and he had a bit of high colour mounting in his face.
“But just remember Scott, that you have been given a fine, upstanding upbringing, and you will please bear that in mind, and also the fact that you are a Lancer. I would hope that you would behave as your Grandfather, and your Mother, and I, would expect you to. And you have a duty as an older brother to set an example to Johnny, who has not had the advantages that you have.”
Jesus! Looked like Scott was never goin’ to have a good time the rest of his poor, sorry life!
Bein’ Scott though, he didn’t get all fired up angry like I woulda, he just nodded polite and told Murdoch he would certainly hope to never disappoint his family, and he and Murdoch wished each other goodnight. Scott went striding all Lieutenant Lancer, out the door, and I stepped into the porch as he headed across to the barn.
He turned at the barn door and I yelled my own advice.
“So you got that? No drinkin’! No fighten’! And definitely NO FUCKING!!!”
And if you reckon I didn’t get hauled backwards through the door and given a severe ‘dressing-down’ then you ain’t ever met Murdoch Lancer.
Next day I shoulda gone to church with Pa and Scott. I made what Scott would say was a ‘tactical error.’ If I hadda been there I coulda steered Clayt away from Murdoch. Of course, Clayt being a fine, honest fella, he told Pa he wouldn’t accept payment for a lesson I was not there to receive.
Pa and Scott had taken the buggy to church, on account of Pa wantin’ to bring Theadora home in it so she didn’t have to change in and out of her ridin’ clothes over and over. When the buggy pulled up outside the front door, I went out and saw that Mrs. Conway was there too. Willard was the only one astride, and Thea’s horse was tethered to the back of the buggy. They all came inside, and I was introduced to Willard. He was seventeen, taller than me, but on the skinny side, like me and Scott. He was a nice fella, easy to jaw with, which was just as well, ‘cause Thea had gone struck dumb again. I couldn’t understand why, when she was the easiest girl to talk to I’d ever met. But then Scott went upstairs to fetch a book for Mrs Conway, and when he left the room it was like she started breathin’ again, and she looked like her normal self, and even gave me some of her usual sass.
Soon as Scott returned, she clammed up and seemed like every move and every word was hard for her. Scott had been at breakfast that mornin’, all chipper and sober as a judge, so I reckoned he’d taken Murdoch’s little lecture to heart the night before. He weren’t no fool. Today he was all spit polished and charming like he could be, and I begun to see that he would look real pretty to a girl like Theodora. This was interesting, and I started to watch them both close. Scott had no idea the affect he was havin’ on her, and I started thinkin’ that this was gonna be fun. There was no end to the embarrassment I could possibly cause Scott over this.
Like when we went to all sit at the table, I rushed in front of Murdoch to hold Mrs Conway’s chair, which made it Scott who would hold the chair for Thea. Murdoch and Mrs Conway were taken by surprise by my manners.
“Why, thank-you, Johnny.”
Mrs. Conway gave me one of her smiles like she does, always like she likes me fine, but I don’t fool her none. I once heard her tell Murdoch that I was a brat, but before I could feel insulted, she followed that with how Murdoch knew how she had always loved a brat. So I was mollified some. That day she also told Murdoch that my eyelashes were the envy of every girl in the valley. What it is with women and eyelashes I don’t know. I’d heard mention before, and couldn’t figure.
Scott held the chair for Thea, and she looked red as a chilli. Caparina cooked us a fine meal which us four men stuffed ourselves with. Willard was as keen on horseflesh as me, and damn it all, he was breakin’ horses, when Murdoch wouldn’t never let me. Willard got the drift of that and quiet like suggested I come over to their spread, and have a go at horse breaking there, private. Mrs Conway yakked on to Thea about female stuff, but if Scott said anything at her, Thea just about bust her stays. Only I knew she didn’t wear none. That gave me pause. I wondered what Willard would offer me if he knew I was pulling that swimming stunt with his sister, and she in her drawers. I felt a bit uncomfortable then, but reckoned quickly that you can’t always be doin’ what your older brothers think is right.
After lunch we moved to the great room for coffee and such, and the talk turned to books, and it unfolded that Scott and Theodora had read some the same. That was the most she talked in front of him, and instead of goin’ scarlet, she just pinked up a bit and I thought she looked more like a real girl than usual. Pretty even. Scott led her over to the bookshelves that covered the whole of one wall, and he was recommending some to her, and she came back with two to borrow. Scott was looking pleased, but Thea was looking at him with these shining eyes like he was a knight in one of those books, and I think I could’ve thrown a firecracker at her and she wouldna noticed.
Murdoch and Mrs Conway kept throwin’ back coffee, but the four of us went for a buggy ride to the pond. I helped Thea in to the front seat, but then jumped in the back with Willard. That surprised Scott for a moment, but then he sat up front and drove us. Murdoch had spent the past six months teachin’ me to drive teams and such, and usually I leapt at the chance to take the reins, so that’s why Scott was surprised. Plus he thought I’d want to be in the front with Thee, him still thinkin’ I was interested in her like a girl, and not as an amigo which was the case. At the pond we all skipped stones, and Scott looked surprised again, when Thea was as good as us.
We stayed at the pond a while, and then back at home Murdoch loaded Mrs Conway in the buggy and took her home, and Thee changed into her ridin’ duds and she and Willard set off home. Thee and I had quietly arranged to meet at our usual spot the next Saturday.
Scott and I went inside and Scott went straight to the drinks tray and helped himself to a big belt of scotch. I squawked enough that he gave me a small one. After we finished we washed the glasses out and Scott went up to his room for a snooze. I was goin’ to go for a ride on Pancho, but ended up sprawled on the couch, dead to the world. I half woke when Murdoch was there pullin’ my boots off. I slept on peacefully for an hour longer, lyin’ on my stomach as comfortable as can be, until Murdoch’s giant hand cracked down hard on my rear with a sound like a whipcrack. That was sure a frightful way to wake.
“Jesus Murdoch! What was that for?”
I had leapt upright and was rubbin’ my backside, half fuddled with sleep. Murdoch was standin’ there with his hands on his hips, mouth set in that hard line.
“Don’t blaspheme! That Johnny, was for not attending your class with Clayt on Wednesday. When I played hookey from school it was six of the best with the cane from the schoolmaster, and then the same from my Father at home. So keep that in mind if you are inclined to skip any more lessons. Now get going and do your evening chores. Then wash up for supper.”
I decided that I best make one of those strategic withdrawals Scott favours, and did like I was told for a change.
After supper I didn’t even grouse when Murdoch pointed out the mountain of dishes sittin’ there from lunch, and told me he had instructed Caparina to leave them, as Juanito would be pleased to take care of the washing and drying and putting away. Yeah, right.
The next Saturday dawned cool and cloudy. There was a stiff breeze coming down from the Sierras, and it was gusting enough to blow your hat off sometimes. I met Thee and we headed for the water spurt as usual, talking and joshin’ each other. When we got there it was so cold and breezy that we almost didn’t go in. Then we decided that we may as well, and that it would be the last time for the year probably, before it was just too cold to enjoy. We didn’t know then it would be the last time ever.
We shucked our top clothes and Thea had dropped the rope loop over her head and tightened it under her arms. She gave it a mightly tug like I’d told her to, to test it was secure, and then she swung out. I was just dropping the rope over myself and laughing at her squeal as the cold water drenched her, when the unthinkable happened. Her rope snapped and then she and it went hell for leather sluiced down the fall at great speed. I nearly dropped with the shock of it, but then I acted. I slung the rope off me and went scrabbling as fast as I could down the shaley slope, screamin’ her name and prayin’ like I hadn’t done since I was a little kid. The waterfall was pretty wild where we used it, but it spread out into a wide expanse pretty quick, and just as well ‘cause if it hadn’t Thee woulda been done for. She was still in so much danger, so I was goin’ as fast as I have ever moved, keeping track of her white form in the swirlin’ water.
As I reached the widened section and plunged into the stream I saw Thea come to a dead halt ahead. The last big wash of water had lifted her against a fallen tree which was part across the stream at that place. She was hard up against the tree, and as I pushed through the waist deep water it was as if my prayers were answered, because I saw her grab an arm around the tree and I knew she was conscious. I reached her then and grabbed her, and I just about bust out cryin’.
“Jesus Thee! I thought you were a gonner!”
She was white faced and her eyes looked like saucers as she looked at me.
“Johnny, I did too. Johnny – I think I’m going to throw up!”
And she did. Half over the tree and half over me.
“Johnny! I’m so –“
“Never mind that! Let’s get you outta here.”
I wiped her face off with my hand, and then keeping tight hold on her, I ducked down in the water and washed myself off. Then I went to pull her towards me, and she yelped.
“Johnny! My foot! It’s caught on something!”
“Okay, just hold tight to the tree and I’ll free it.”
I hadda take a breath as in order to reach my hand to the end of her leg took my head under the water. The water was too stirred up for me to be able to see what I was doing, but I could feel that her foot was wedged in the fork between tree and a branch. The weight of the tree had bent the branch. How the damn hell her foot even got in there I couldn’t figure. At first I thought I would have no trouble wriggling her foot around and freeing it, but after the fourth go, I started to worry.
She was only in the water from the waist down, but that water was so damn freezing, and I knew that her bein’ in it, all still like she was, was the danger. I was getting angry ‘cause I was getting scared, and I tried to act calm as I had another go. But I just couldn’t do it.
I tried to be calm and think.
“Thee, I need to get a lever to see if I can lift the tree. Okay?”
She just nodded, her eyes big, and trusting, in her face. She had a tinge of colour though, since she’d chucked up. I got over to the bank we was next to and started runnin’ around looking for a straight, strong branch I could use. I found one and raced back and soon had it positioned.
“The second it moves at all – haul out!”
I put every ounce of strength I had but the tree didn’t move. It wasn’t that big a tree, and I realized that with even one other man there we could probably shift it. Even if I coulda got a horse near enough, maybe I coulda done it. But I knew now what I had to do. Fuck!
“Thee, I have to go and get help.”
We looked at each other for a moment. I dropped my head. I suddenly felt ashamed and couldn’t look at her. I was older than her, and a man, and I shoulda protected her. Instead I joined her in this risky game, and now she was the one trapped in the freezin’ water.
I looked up.
“I’ll wait here for you.”
She said it so soft, but sassy, that I shook my head at her. Then I took off, and I didn’t hardly take a breath for the next few hours.
I ran back up to where our clothes were. The wind had blown her shirt and mine into the brush. I snatched at the shirts and looked around for my pants. They were gone. Fuck. I couldn’t waste time lookin’. I grabbed my gunbelt and boots and raced back down and left them next to the water, and plunged back across to Thea. I wrapped her shirt and mine around her head and used the arms to tie it in place. I hoped that keeping her head and neck from bein’ as cold might help. Back on the bank I pulled on my boots, strapped on my rig, and then headed for our horses.
I thought maybe the Cheswick homestead was closest, but I hadn’t been there and couldn’t risk wasting time lookin’ for it. So it was the Conway ranch I headed for. I pushed Pancho harder than I ever had, and he did me proud. As we raced along the wind froze me, especially my wet undershirt and drawers, Of course that just made me think of Theadora trapped in that icy water. I soon dried off and poor Pancho was the one all wet, with his sweat.
We rode hard all the way, about forty-five minutes. As we skidded to a stop in the front yard of the homestead, two of the hands dropped their work on the haywagon, and came towards me.
“I need help quick! There’s a girl trapped in the water back on the Cheswick place.”
They didn’t say a word, just ran straight to the barn. Mrs Conway appeared on the porch as I ran towards a saddled horse tied to the hitchin’ post. She saw who I was and came rushin’ to me.
“Mrs. Conway, Theodora is trapped in the water over on her place. We have to get to her fast.”
I was already mounted, and she just put her hand on my knee and squeezed.
“Johnny – I’m coming!”
She raced to the barn and I waited in agony till she and the two men came out leading saddled mounts. Mrs Conway had an armful of saddle blankets which she thrust into the mens arms once they mounted. Estralita had come out on the porch, and Mrs Conroy called to her to please bring out a bottle of brandy.
“Johnny – are two men enough?”
I just nodded, couldn’t get my words to work.
“Should we bring a wagon?”
I shook my head no.
“You three start. I’ll be right behind you.”
I was already headed out before the last word.
I hadn’t called on Madrid in a while. But on that ride back I had to or I woulda gone mad. Thinkin’ on that girl alone in that bone cold water for what was goin’ to be well over two hours. I couldn’t bear to think. What if she fainted and drowned? What if a mountain lion had found her? I shoulda left my gun with her! I tried to drop into my Madrid hard, cold, not giving a fuck about anyone but myself, state of mind. Thing was, I nowadays did give a fuck about so many people in my life. It was something that made me warm in my heart where it had been cold for so long. But times like these that warm hurt. It was not so easy to find Madrid the way it once was.
Theodora hadn’t drowned or got ate by a lion. The weight of the three of us men on the lever branch was enough to move the tree upwards, and Mrs Conway dragged Thee out, and then we got her out of the water. She couldn’t move and she was as white as a ghost and she couldn’t talk because of her teeth chattering. Aggie and one of the men rubbed her really solid till she was dry. They removed the rope which was still around her waist, and then they wrapped her in three blankets and got some brandy in to her. Julio mounted and Clyde handed the parcel that was Thee up to him. Mrs Conway told him to head straight to the Cheswicks, and asked Clyde to ride into town and fetch the doc. They set off and I turned to go mount, but Mrs Conway grabbed my arm.
“Not so fast, Johnny.”
“I want to go with her – “
“Just a minute. She’s going to be fine, Johnny. You did the right thing wrapping her head up like that, and getting help as fast as you could.”
She looked back upwards to where the water thundered on through the rocks, and there was the second rope still bouncing around in the water. You could see where it left the water and disappeared amongst the foliage on the tree.
“They call this place Devils Spit, Johnny. Were you two in that water up there? Attached to ropes?”
I hung my head then.
“I see. Johnny I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to go to the Cheswicks right now –“
“I have ta see that she’s alright –“
“Johnny, I assure you she will be fine, but it would do her no good to see or hear you getting a thrashing from Paul Cheswick, and that is what is going to happen if you go there now.”
“I don’t care. I -I got it comin’ anyway. But I want to go.”
“You surely do have it coming, and so does that young lady if you want my opinion. But not right now. Where are your pants?”
I looked down then, and realized that I was standin’ there in my underwear and boots, with my gun strapped round my drawers. I felt myself go scarlet, and was suddenly so hot I could not feel the cold wind at all.
“Johnny you’d best find your pants. Your shirt is over there. I’m going to go on to the Cheswicks, and you are going home – not another word! And if I were you I would not go home without your pants. And you had best tell your father exactly what you and Theodora have been doing – quiet! – and I will come by later this evening. If Murdoch hasn’t killed you I will see you then. Clear?”
I nodded, not meeting her eyes. I felt exhausted, and I felt bad. Mrs. Conway suddenly pulled me into her arms and gave me a quick hug, and then she pushed me to arms length.
“Johnny, I’ve never known a boy to find as much trouble as you do! Murdoch is going to be white haired with the worry you give that man! But you are a good man – or you will be if you make it to adulthood without your father throttling you! Now get!”
She turned and headed to her horse and I went back up the hill and eventually found my pants wrapped around a sapling just down from where we had undressed.
I got home at after seven and Murdoch and Scott were both worried, so they were relieved when I dismounted outside the barn. They had watched me ride the whole way in. They could first see me a mile beyond the Lancer arch. They rushed to my side straight off.
“You alright Son?”
I nodded, not lookin’ up.
“Take care of your – well, take care of that horse, and come inside.”
Murdoch wheeled around and headed inside. Scott came into the barn with me, and he helped me settle the horse. I told him the bones of what had happened and he just groaned, and then he walked to the house with me, with his arm around my shoulders. I don’t know how, but Scott could put his arm around me, or just put a hand on my shoulder and squeeze, and I would feel this warm, comfort flow into my flesh, almost felt like hot water. It always surprised me, and it always made me feel like I could face anything when he did it.
But maybe not face Murdoch. Not when you only got halfway through an explanation, and this vein in his forehead started to beat, and his face changed colour. And then he got to pacing up and down in front of the fireplace. And then he started talkin’ real furious with all these words like ‘inappropriate’, ‘scandalous’, ‘complete and utter disregard for the propieties’, ‘reputation’, ‘reckless endangerment’, and then the one I’d heard more times than any other since livin’ with Pa, ‘consequences’. So then he marched me out to the barn and those consequences stopped bein’ a word and turned into a lickin’. And Jesus, what a lickin’.
I had been real, genuine sorry about how that adventure had turned out, but when I came out of the barn that night, I was amazed at how much sorrier I could be.
I was deep asleep later that night, when Scott woke me and told me Mrs. Conway and Julio and Clyde had all arrived and were stayin’ the night and headin’ home in the morning. Sam had been out to the Cheswick’s and given Theodora the all clear, but she was to rest. Thee had talked to her daddy about what had happened. Mr. Cheswick had had a good talk to Mrs. Conway and Sam about what Thee had said, and about their opinion of me, and between all of them it seemed Mr. Cheswick was not goin’ to come and see me with a horsewhip and a shotgun. Well, not the shotgun anyway, Scott said, with that eyebrow of his cocked.
However Mr. Cheswick was coming to see Murdoch tomorrow. Scott said Murdoch was sure looking forward to that little interview. Scott said he felt bad about not puttin’ a stop to my ‘shenanigans’, but I told him he was a brainless sonofabitch if he thought he coulda. Scott musta still felt a bit responsible for me though, ‘cause when he said goodnight and left, he didn’t even try to whack my backside like he normally would when I was recoverin’ from Pa’s displeasure.
Mrs. Conway stayed for breakfast, which she cooked. I ate mine standing, and she gave me a gentle pat on the arm, but told me at least my Pa hadn’t killed me. I thought it woulda been less painful if he had, but of course I didn’t say so. Pa was very ‘morose’. That’s what Scott called it. Usually havin’ Aggie around made him pretty happy, but I knew he wasn’t looking forward to the talk he was goin’ to be havin’ with Mr Cheswick. Me neither.
Aggie and her vaqueros left after breakfast, and they took the horse I’d borrowed with them.
Mr. Cheswick arrived after lunch and Pa told me to wait in the kitchen while he went out to greet him. They went in to the great room, and Pa fixed a drink for the two of them. Pa straight away asked how Theadora was, and the answer was she was quite well, but miserable that her father and brother were ashamed of her poor behavior. She took her full share of the responsibility for her inappropriate and unbecoming conduct, and for her ‘dangerous antics’. (I asked Scott later what ‘antics’ were.) Mr. Cheswick said she was going to be confined to the ranch for the next three months and he hoped that she would learn to be more demure by then. (I had to ask Scott about that word too.)
Murdoch then replied that though the children’s meetings had indeed been innocent, they were certainly ill-advised, and they had both been very foolish and utterly reckless. He was appalled that John had ignored all of the rules he’d been taught about mixing with decent girls. He had been totally irresponsible and was in the deepest disgrace. He was also confined to the ranch for the next month, (the first I’d heard about that) and he had already had a good hiding.
Mr Cheswick said he was glad that Murdoch had tanned me, as he thought it was the most effective way to impress headstrong boys. He had done the same to Willard this morning. (Jeez, I thought, poor Willard weren’t even there!) Willard deserved it for rigging and using that dangerous rope system in the first place. As if life wasn’t dangerous enough without these young people seeking danger like that! Willard was to go to Devils Spit today and remove the other rope.
Mr. Cheswick was very concerned that anyone should hear that the two young people had been meeting unsupervised, and that word of their state of undress would be known, and misconstrued. Mrs Conway had assured him though, that she had spoken to Julio and Clyde, and both men had understood not to mention the incident to anyone.
Mrs Conway, and Sam Jenkins, had spoken highly of Johnny, and Theadora, and indeed Willard, had all said that Johnny would never have deliberately acted disrespectfully to Thea, and that had swayed Mr Cheswick to be of a forgiving mind. Had they not been so persuasive he had been bent on visiting the previous evening and personally flaying the hide off the boy. (Santa Madre de Dios…I sent up another prayer). He was also mindful that Johnny had acted quickly and sensibly when Theadora had ended up in peril.
Murdoch said that the Lancer family had nothing but respect for young Theodora, and now he would like to bring John out to make his apologies, if that was acceptable.
“Certainly ” said Mr Cheswick.
Scott was sitting on the kitchen table behind me, listening as he ate his way through a plate of flapjacks. When he heard the last bit he gave me a shove with his foot. Murdoch came to the door and beckoned me with one finger crooked.
I took a big breath and followed him back into the room.
Mr Cheswick was sittin’ on the couch, but as we approached he stood up and turned to face me. Jesus! He was as big as Pa, and Pa is six foot five with a build like a stone fort. Mr. Cheswick was maybe one inch shorter, but his shoulders were even wider than Murdoch’s, and he had these arms like a side of beef each. I musta gulped, and I know my face got pale. At least he weren’t carryin’ no bullwhip.
“John, this is Mr Cheswick.”
I made myself step forward, and I held out my hand, hoping I was goin’ to get it back.
“John.” He nodded and took my hand and just about pulverized it.
It was a handshake that said ‘don’t ever mess with me boy, or I will chew you up and spit out the gristle that’s all that’s left of your sorry, pathetic, puny little hide. And then I’ll really hurt you.’
Murdoch put a hand on my shoulder then, and squeezed. It was a squeeze that said ‘you had better stand up like a man, and be genuinely sorry, and try to restore the honour of the Lancer family which you have disgraced so shamefully. Or you will get another licking.’
Murdoch gave me an encouraging cough, and I cleared my throat.
“Mr Cheswick, I’m real sorry that I was meetin’ Thee – ah, Theodora, and pulling that dangerous stunt that got her in trouble. You shouldn’t blame her. I hate that she got hurt by it.”
I sure meant that. I was goin’ to add that if he wanted to pound me he should go ahead. But fuck! He had hands like anvils, and I suddenly became a coward! Johnny Madrid – weakling!
“I’m glad you are remorseful, Johnny. I see that you are, and I know your Pa has taken you to task, so I accept your apology. In three months time you may resume your friendship with Theodora, but you will do so with my eye on you. Forget that, and you and I will have trouble.”
Fuck me! I was not goin’ to be no trouble to no-one never again in my whole life, of that I was certain. Pa would never have to take me to task in that barn again. ‘Course, it never turned out that way, but right then it was what I was sure of.
“Yes Mr. Cheswick, I’ll remember. Would ya please say hello to Theodora for me? Tell her I’m glad she’s okay?”
“Son, you can go and do Scott’s chores that he did for you yesterday. And would you send Scott in please?”
I ‘yes sirred’ and was glad to get outta there still in one piece. I sent Scott in on my way through the kitchen.
“Murdoch wants you to go meet Mr. Cheswick. Think he wants to show him he’s got one civilized kid.”
Scott rolled his eyes and went to wash the honey off his hands.
That just shows you, he is the most civilized kid in the Lancer family. I woulda just rubbed my hands down my pants.
I stopped when I got out on the porch. Back in the house I could just hear the murmuring of voices from the great room. From around the homestead I could hear the sound of the cattle as they grazed and called low to each other. There was always the sound of birds. I could make out grebes and sapsuckers, and maybe a shrike. Bees were busy in the vine on the porch, and around Maria’s pots of flowers.
I could hear the faint strumming of a guitar too. Milton in the bunkhouse. He said he’d teach me more than what I already knew. I thought about heading over there, but then thought better of it. He’d hand me the guitar and say sit here. I would be avoidin’ sittin’ for a few days yet. Then the whicker of the new mare Murdoch had bought carried across from the corral. I already could pick out the sweet tone of her voice.
I could do Scott’s chores later. I ducked back into the kitchen and grabbed two apples. One for me and one for the mare. I struck out for the corral and started chompin’ into one of the apples. I started thinking about how Willard had said come over on the quiet and have a foray into bronc bustin’. I couldn’t wait. I wondered what day Mr. Cheswick went into town for supplies, and how I could find out. Or maybe if he was a member of the California Cattle Growers Association, then he and Murdoch would both be off their ranches at the same time at their meeting. Then I wouldn’t even have to wait the month till my bein’ kept on the ranch was over. Murdoch wouldn’t know I’d gone, Mr Cheswick wouldn’t know I’d been. I could break me a bronc and no-one would be the wiser.
I started to hum as I considered all the possibilities, and I gave a whoop for the hell of it, and chucked that apple core as far as I could.
There was nothin’ like a challenge to make a man feel good, and so I ignored the hurtin’ that twinged me with every step, and instead I thought about bein’ on the back of some beautiful, wild bucking horse.
Maybe even a palomino…