Val and I had been on the road a week. Some nights we camped out under the million stars above California, and other nights we stayed in whatever town was on out path. We’d stayed in Sugarpine Creek the night before, and ‘cause of what had transpired there I was still sulkin’.
We’d had a bath and a shave before goin’ to the Silverseam Saloon, and having us a real decent meal of steaks and fried potatoes and Brussels sprouts. I’d pushed those aside, but Val said if I ate them he’d let me have another beer, so I ate ‘em, even though they tasted green, and like dirt. I was gettin’ a good eyeful of the two ladies that worked the place. They were wearin’ the usual saloon gal get-ups, tight and colourful and nice low cut. Val shook his head at me, but his eyes was laughin’. One of the ladies came over not long after we was seated, and she ran a hand over Val’s shoulders and asked if us boys wanted some company. I was happy to say we did, but Val shook his head and just said not right now thank you m’am, just food and drinks. Real polite.
When she brought our drinks she gave me a big smile, but it was spoiled by the tooth she had missing to the side. When she served the food though, she leaned right towards us both and her bubs just about fell outta her dress, and I forgot all about the missin’ tooth. When I looked up, Val was lookin’ at me real amused, with his eyebrows up. He annoyed me, but I ignored him and just concentrated on the plate it front of me.
Before we’d finished eatin’, that lady had snaggled herself a customer, and I watched her with a skinny fella in a threadbare suit who she hauled up the stairs behind her. I made my beer last, account of not wantin’ to sit there with a goddamn sarsaparilla or somethin’, while Val followed his meal with some tequila.
“I’ve had plenty of tequila, Val. I can handle one drink, for fucks sake.”
Val’s easy slouch in the chair changed straight away. He only had to sit forward, fast and straight, and I regretted my mouthing off. He gave me this hard stare and I looked down, not wanting to meet his eyes, but fumin’ that he could make me feel like I was still six.
“I’m goin’ out back. Order me another tequila, Johnny. You can have another beer, and think yourself lucky.”
Soon as he was through the back door, the other workin’ girl left the table she was at, and made a beeline for me.
“Feel like havin’ some sport, little darlin’?” she breathed real low.
I didn’t much care for the ‘little’ but this was my chance.
I’d been feelin’ like havin’ some sport for about two years, without hardly a let-up, seemed like. Felt like I’d just about worn myself out, havin’ sport all on my lonesome, and now I had the chance to do it with a real live female. I stood up so fast the chair almost toppled, and she giggled as she grabbed my hand. She didn’t have to haul me though, I was movin’ so fast I overtook her by the time we reached the bottom of the stairs. I thought on how much money I had in my pants, and that made me think guilty like, that that money was Murdoch’s, but my blood was startin’ to heat and I dismissed thinkin’ about Murdoch real quick.
Jesus, but Val had a shockin’ loud ten mile voice when he’d a mind, and in that small space it crashed around everyone.
“You get back down here and out that door! Right now!”
I coulda shot him. I was madder than a cut snake, and I was mortified beyond belief. He was standin’ by our table, one hand on his hip, the other pointing straight out the front doors. Every person in that place was laughin’, except Val and me, and the lady. She wrenched her hand outta mine with a startled gasp, and she flew down those stairs and behind a curtain.
I’d thought on defyin’ Val, but now I didn’t have no-one to defy him with, and all thoughts of wick-dippin’ had fled. I couldn’t get outta that place fast enough, and didn’t even look his way as I shot out the batwing doors and headed across the road where we was booked for the night. I was so mad I thought of changin’ direction, and going and saddling Pancho and lighting out with him and Sera, leavin’ Val behind. I was breathin’ hard, but I realized I was not of a mind to run off. Runnin’ off had been what had led me away from Lancer and family, and Val was my family too. As angry as I was for him interfering, I was determined that I should stand and deliver as far as family went from now on. I would do like I was told, or I would fight against things I felt deep about. But I had to stop runnin’. I was not goin’ to be like Mama had been.
I was leanin’ against the wall of the hotel, and when I simmered down, I looked back across the street. I could see the outline of a tall cowboy, and the glow of the smoke he was havin’. It was Val, and even though he looked relaxed, hand in pocket, I knew he was watchin’ me and waitin’ to see what I aimed to do. I moved into the edge of light coming from behind Val, so he could see me clear, and then I slowly raised my thumb up to my mouth and bit it as I flicked it towards him. He stepped straight towards me off the boardwalk, but I turned my back on him and dignified walked into the door of the hotel and up to the room we’d got. He didn’t come after me, so I spent some time cleanin’ my Colt, and then my rifle, and then I went to bed and started readin’ this book by a man named Edgar Poe. I’d bought it back in the General Store in Red Bluff. I was asleep when Val came back later, but I woke when he tapped on the door to let me know it was him. He knew I’d have a hand full of Colt if he didn’t.
So next day I was still sulkin’ ‘bout my missed opportunity to bed that saloon gal. I’d protested to Val over breakfast, but he just said for me to wait till I was a bit older, and to get my brother to take me to a cleaner establishment. And no way was I goin’ to be beddin’ whores while he was in charge of me, and when it was my old man’s money I’d be paying with. That riled me quick and hot, and I told him he was not in charge of me, and he said if I didn’t settle down and eat my breakfast pleasant he would drag me out the back of the hotel and he’d show me who was in charge and make no mistake about it. The people at the next table were lookin’ over by now, and I could either storm out or shut the hell up. I cut a look at Val, and Jesus if his eyes couldn’t pin me in place like nothin’. So I shut the hell up and finished my eggs and flapjacks. But I held tight onto my sulk.
Apart from how bossy he was, travelling the country with Val was a pure pleasure. We didn’t ride the grub line; we stayed in towns, and when we camped out we had plenty of store bought vittles. We were real comfortable with each other, and could talk about most anything. Or not talk at all. I hardly knew nothin’ about Val’s life, account of being only a shaver when we’d lived together, so finding out about what all he chose to tell me was interesting to me. The fact that he had hired out his gun when he was younger meant that he understood the life I had led, before I’d commenced livin’ at Lancer. Murdoch and Scott both accepted me and my unrespectable past, but neither of them knew much about it, and I aimed that they never would. I didn’t talk much on it with Val, but just knowin’ that he understood what that life was like, well, it made me easy with talkin’ ‘bout other things.
I was able to talk to Val about Javier, who had been one of the few people who I had been safe and happy with while growin’ up. I still hadn’t ever told Murdoch, or even Scott, about my time livin’ with Mama and Javier. Hell, I’d told them not much at all, when I thought on it. I told Val a bit about Murdoch and Scott, and he listened close when I did, while he would roll a quirly with one hand, and then study on the glowing tip of it, and just sometimes nod, or grunt. But one thing I could count, and that would be the warm I would see in his dark brown eyes, when he would light them on mine every now and then. We laughed a lot too, when he would insult me and I would insult him right back.
We coulda stayed in hotels every night, with Murdoch’s money, but Val wouldn’t abide that. When we didn’t camp out, he insisted on payin’ half for every room and he paid for every meal.
“Just shut up about it, and think like it’s ya Christmas present,” he had growled, “as I doubt you been a good enough boy for old Saint Nick to have paid you much mind.”
We talked lots about horses, him being as appreciatin’ of them as I was. He’d owned an Appaloosa once, but he said Serampion was the finest of that breed he’d ever seen. He was tickled to hear about the water breakin’ that me and Will had finally used to break Sera. When we reached Senor Cabrera’s spread we both thought we’d died and gone to heaven. His set-up was what I wanted to have at Lancer. I woulda been happy to get rid of every single steer at our ranch, keep only the milk cows, me being so fond of milk, and had horses instead. Val said as how he’d once planned that he would spend his life raisin’ horses, but things hadn’t panned out the way he had intended.
The Senor had heard from Murdoch that he should expect me, so me arrivin’ to leave Serampion with him was no surprise. Meetin’ the two mares that Sera was goin’ to be getting acquainted with was the most pleasure I’d felt since Val had walked through the door of his house back in Bluffs Crossing. Back into my life. Val and me spent the night with the Cabrera family, and we both relished the Mexican fare that was put before us. The Senor and Senora were real hospitable people, and their family was spread from four sons in their twenties, down to their youngest who was an eight year old girl. Eight kids in all. There was also an abuela, two daughters-in-law, and two grandbabies, so it was a helluva shindig at every meal. Once having seen the lay of things at their ranch, I was easy in my heart about Sera having himself a fine old time while he stayed there. It still wrenched me some, sayin’ goodbye to him, but I knew it was what I had to do. Hell, what I shoulda done in the first place.
Val and I sat easy on our horses, both of us looking down at the beautiful sight that was Lancer. Val whistled soft, and I felt swelled up that all before us was my home. It was pleasin’ to be able to show it to Val, and I was lookin’ forward to him meetin’ Scott. I didn’t know how I felt about Murdoch meetin’ Val. It had occurred to me how they had both lived with my Mama, and how she had left both of them. I was feeling rattley inside too, about seeing Pa. Last time I’d pitched a fit and left the ranch, he’d tromped my britches. I sure wasn’t looking forward to that, but I felt like it was probably in store, and a lickin’ weren’t much to complain about after all was said and done. I was more frazzled about seeing Pa’s face, and still couldn’t get past the worry that he would look at me disgruntled. The thought of that felt like something twisting my innards.
I looked at Val, and realized he was not looking down across the view now, but was fixed on me.
“Johnny, I don’t know what sort of man your Pa is, but I sure know what sort of man you’re going to be. And I know that you want to be back with your family, so you and them both deserve to get across any troubles that life hitches up. Next hour, it might hitch up a few…”
Val looked down at the hands he had folded on the pommel of his saddle.
“Son, I can leave now, if you’d druther face your Pa by yourself. I’m happy to camp near, or head into the nearest town, which I plan on doin’ later, anyway. You tell me what suits you, Boy.”
“Naw, Val, I want you to meet Murdoch and Scott, and Maria. I – I – don’t know what’s goin’ to happen. But hey, maybe you bein’ there, and bein’ a sheriff and all, maybe the Ol’ Man won’t want to kill me with such a witness!”
Val give a snort and shook his head.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Johnny, was I your Pa, I wouldn’t worry none on whoever the hell was a witness – I’d wear you out.”
In answer I slowly put my thumb up towards my mouth to bite it, while I fixed Val with the most insolent smirk I could frame.
“You lookin’ to get knocked clean off your pony, you damn pup! Let’s go!”
Val took off and I took one big breath and followed.
Geraldo and Felipe both waved to me as Val and I passed under the Lancer arch. Heyton was ahead of us, drivin’ the wagon which I saw was full of timber. He turned as we came up behind him, and he grinned and waved at me. I saw other hands around the corrals all stop and turn to watch us comin’ in, and then I saw someone run out from the front side of the barn. Scott.
He stood stock still, and then as we neared, he suddenly bent forward, and he rested his hands on his knees. I didn’t take my eyes off him, as Val and I pulled to a halt at the front of the house. Walt was suddenly there, pounding me on the back and tellin’ me welcome home. He took Pancho’s reins from me, and I gave him a smack back, but I still watched ol’ Boston.
“Scott,” I said, real soft.
Scott straightened up then. Damn! Looked like he’d growed another inch! He looked at me as he put his hands low on his hips. He had his mouth in a straight, hard line, and as he considered me he started to shake his head slow, and then he dropped his arms and started walkin’ slow straight to me. Now he was close I could see his eyes, and I could see a world of pain and anger.
So I shouldn’t a been surprised when he hauled off and gave me one helluva smack right across my mouth – Jesus! I staggered back and mighta fallen if he hadn’t jumped me and grabbed me by the front of my shirt, only to give me another wallop on the side of my head.
“You little bastard, Johnny! You fucking, selfish, inconsiderate, little bastard!”
Well, it was on then. I guess I deserved it, but him doing me that way, I just naturally roared on back and tried to land a good solid punch on him, while cussin’ him out for bein’ a fuckin’, bad tempered varlet of a whore-monger’s son. We were rolling around scrabbling to land blows on each other, and Val’s horse skittered away and whinnied as we rolled against his legs. The dust was in my mouth, my blood was up, and I was mighty offended that Scott wasn’t using his fists, but was tryin’ to slap me like I was a kid.
Big hands grabbed me then, and I was jerked up and backwards, and Scott was too. Cip had pulled Scott up, and Boston sure looked a mess, all scruffy and a trickle of blood runnin’ down from the left corner of his mouth. His eyes were blazing and he looked something fierce, and I was reminded that Scott had a mighty temper, for all his polite manners.
I’d just noticed that Val was leanin’ on the hitchin’ post, casual as you please, with an amused look on his clock, like he was enjoyin’ the entertainment we were providin’. But he became a blur as I was spun around and I realized that the giant hands holding me hard by my upper arms were Murdoch’s. I looked up into his face and my breath hitched.
Murdoch was looking hard into my face. His eyes were searchin’ mine with this hungry look like he was in pain, and then his eyes got wet, and I got such a lump in my throat I was like to choke. So when I spoke, my words came out thick as I tried to talk and breathe past the lump.
He crushed me to his chest then, and it took every ounce of strength I had not to start to bawling like a girl. He held me so tight I couldn’t hardly breathe, but I could smell the tobacco he smoked, and horses and cattle and soap. And home.
He was breathin’ so heavy, but so was I, and his heart was pounding away under my cheek, and I could feel his big, square jaw resting heavy on my head. He took a big shuddering breath, and then he held me back out where he could see me again.
“Welcome home, Son.”
I dropped my head and nodded, suddenly full of shame for the hurt I had obviously caused, once again. But he shook me, and he dragged me back to his side, one arm locked around my shoulders. I looked up as a smiling Cip came to us, and he put one of his big hands on my head and told me he was glad to see me at home with my Papa and my Hermano. Cip clapped his hand on to Murdoch’s shoulder, and then he strode off towards the barn.
Scott was standing with his head down, and I could see he was breathin’ all jerky. Murdoch pushed me then, towards my Brother, and Scott looked up and looked square at me, and I looked the same at him.
“Jesus, Johnny, I could kill you, Boy.”
I looked down at my boots, and Scott whipped his arm around my neck, and had me in a headlock. We scuffled some as he rubbed his knuckles solid across my head, and we both hugged each other hard and spillin’ over with feelin’, while we pretended we weren’t huggin’, that we were wrestling.
“Boys!” Murdoch hadn’t lost none of his booming voice while I’d been gone. “Johnny! Quit that, and introduce your guest.”
Scott and I broke apart, but I gave him a swift playful punch in the gut that whooshed some breath outta him.
“Murdoch, this is Sheriff Val Crawford.”
Murdoch and Val each stepped forward, shaking hands, and then I introduced Scott and they shook too, while Scott apologized polite for our ‘unseemly behaviour’.
“Well, Scott, I thank you for your apology, but I’ve known your brother for some time, so I’m well acquainted with unseemly behavior.”
They all laughed it up, while I scowled, and then the Ol’ Man invited Val in, so we all stomped off inside. Murdoch still held me tight at his side, until we got inside and he turned me loose. He headed straight for the drinks tray, while I headed to the kitchen to see where Maria was. I was yellin’ for her, and when I found the kitchen empty I went on out the back door and round the corner to the kitchen garden. Maria was bent over hauling out a carrot, and she spun around when she heard me call, the carrot dangling from her hand.
Both hands flew to her mouth, one still holdin’ that carrot which had dirt all clinging to it. I rushed over to her and she commenced to cryin’ fit to be tied, and she hugged me and rocked us both from side to side, sweet talkin’ me and scoldin’ at the same time. I’d struggled not to cry like a girl when Murdoch had hugged me, but tryin’ not to while Maria cried all over me – Jesus, but I was overwrought something terrible. Maria and I sat on the bench outside the kitchen door and for the longest time she worked me over. She held my hand hard, but she spoke soft, and the scoldin’ she gave me about family, well, it raked through me and every word dropped a smouldering coal onto my conscience. When she finished with me, I felt some wrung out. She and I both washed our hands and faces at the basin by the door, and then she sent me inside with a promise for a grand supper. I paused at the door and looked back, and watched as she sank back down on the bench, closed her eyes and crossed herself, and commenced to prayin’ quiet to herself. Jesus, I sure needed to appreciate what I had at Lancer.
When I got back into the Great Room, Scott had just come down the stairs. He’d washed up and brushed his hair and changed his shirt.
“You sure look pretty, Boston!”
He shook his head at me as he licked at the split lip I’d given him. His eyes were laughin’ though, and I felt lighter than I had since I’d left Lancer, a whole month gone. He dropped an arm around my shoulders, and he jostled me over to the settee and pushed me down. He started for the drinks tray, but then stopped and turned around and folded his arms, looking grumpy. That made me remember his pledge to Murdoch that he would not drink hard liquor for three months. He still had two to go.
Val and Murdoch were talkin’, drinks in hand, and they stopped when I came in.
“Johnny, Sheriff Crawford has just been telling me about his tenure at Bluffs Crossing.”
“Yeah, it’s a real nice house, Murdoch.”
Scott grinned, and Murdoch smiled into his drink.
“Your Pa’s talkin’ about my time working as a sheriff at Bluffs, Johnny,” Val said. “I told him three years there have got me feeling restless. I plan to have a look see at the towns ‘round here, see if they would suit me if they need a sheriff some time.”
“Why Val, that’s a great idea!” I couldn’t keep the excitement from my voice. “I’ll take you round to each town, starting tomorrow, hey?”
“Now you just hold on, Young Man. You just got back from traipsing all over the state! We’ll discuss –“
Val interrupted Pa straight off.
“It’s okay, Mr Lancer, I’ll be leaving soon as I finish this drink –“
“I won’t hear of it, Sheriff. You’ve accompanied Johnny all the way home, and hearing that you were doing so, in that wire your Deputy sent, well, that saved us here a great deal of worry. I’d be grateful if you would stay with us until you’re ready to return home. We’d be pleased to have you as our guest.”
“Well, I do thank you, but I’ve been away long enough as it is. I plan to stay in Morro Coyo tonight, then take a look see at Green River tomorrow. I would like to come back here and talk to you and Johnny the day after that. I’ll check the lay of Spanish Wells on my way back north.”
“Surely you’ll at least stay for dinner, Sheriff Crawford?” Scott asked.
“I’m much obliged, but I won’t Scott. “ Val downed the rest of his drink and put the glass down on the nearest table.
I jumped up and went and stood by Scott, huggin’ myself. Murdoch moved to stand next to me, and he put a hand on my shoulder.
“Sheriff, would you at least join us for dinner Wednesday night? We can talk, and you could stay the night and set off fresh Thursday morning?”
I couldn’t look up, but I looked through my eyelashes, and saw that Val was looking at me. I knew that he wanted to leave us all to sort out being together again. He hesitated, but then he nodded.
“I’d be pleased to, thank you.”
With that he strode across the room and grabbed his hat from the stand, and me, Scott and Murdoch all made haste to follow him. Outside he shook hands with Murdoch and Scott, and then he reached out and took a firm grip on my shoulder. I was still huggin’ myself, and I just could not look up.
“I’ll see you Wednesday night, Johnny.”
He turned away and went and mounted Rip. I looked up then, and he nodded to Pa and Scott, and tapped two fingers to the brim of his hat at me, real solemn, and then he rode out.
I stood and watched him leave, not aware that Murdoch had stepped towards me till he once again dropped a hand on my shoulder.
Walt came over with the saddle bags he’d taken from Pancho. I thanked him, and then yelled another thank you to Cip’s youngest, Matteo, who had called a welcome home to me.
“Johnny, come inside.”
Murdoch guided me back into the Great Room. He went and poured himself another drink, while asking Scott to go fetch some lemonade for himself and me. I caught the roll of eyes that Scott threw my way.
“Son, I can’t tell you how relieved we are that you’re home safe.”
I nodded and studied my boots.
“I gotta say, Murdoch, that I sure didn’t mean to cause you any worry. I’m – I’m real sorry that I left like I did.”
Murdoch nodded, and looked down at the top of my head. I was sittin’ on the settee, both hands under my legs, and I felt ansty. Scott came in with glasses of lemonade and handed one to me, which I chugged straight down.
“We lost your trail the next day, Son. I sent wires to all the towns that surround Lancer, and I wrote to every sheriff in the San Joaquin, and surrounds, I’d say. Some of those letters are probably still on their way. Scott and I took two trips after false leads. I alerted the Pinkertons as well.”
“Dios, Murdoch, I feel bad you went to so much trouble –“
“Johnny, I’m not telling you so you’ll feel bad. I’m telling you so that you know how determined I am that you will live here with Scott and I. Grow up at Lancer as you should have done, both of you, and as I am determined that both of you will from now on. Do you understand that? Do you understand that I don’t care how many times you lose your temper with me, I will come after you and bring you home where you belong? Do you understand that, John?”
I nodded as I heard the truth of that in Pa’s voice. He heaved a big sigh and dropped into his favourite chair. Scott sat on the settee next to me, and gave me a punch in the arm. I cut a glance at him and tried to return his grin with a smile of my own, but I was struggling to deal with all the emotions in the room, and in me.
“Johnny, you’re not the first boy, and you won’t be the last, who gets to around your age and starts to think he’s a man, and that his father is a fool for not realizing it. When I was fifteen I thought my Father was the most obstinate, overbearing tyrant that I had ever met.”
He ignored the look that Scott and I couldn’t help sharin’.
“ I’d got a hiding for drinking –“ Murdoch and I both took a look at Scott, who suddenly coloured up, “and that night I slipped out of the house and headed for the docks.”
“What happened?” Scott and I both asked at the same time, and Murdoch smiled with a bit of a grimace as well.
“I was planning to stow away on any ship bound for the Americas. I was actually extremely lucky I wasn’t press ganged. I got caught by the First Mate on the Lucia. He recognized me from church the week before. He’d been one of my Father’s students not that many years before, so he had chatted to Father after services, and been introduced to us all. Well, he collared me, and he locked me in his cabin. Father and my two older brothers arrived to scour the docks first thing in the morning. They all knew of my plans to one day go to America.”
Murdoch sighed, and finished his drink.
I didn’t want to hear what happened next, but Scott asked. I kept my eyes on my boots, but I could feel Murdoch’s eyes on me as he answered Scott.
“Three hours later Father and my brothers had got word as to which ship I was on. Donal and Caillen stood guard outside the cabin door, while Father once again used his belt to wear out the seat of my breeks.”
I cut a look at Murdoch then, as my stomach grinched me. If he was goin’ to do it, I wanted to get it over.
“You goin’ to get Scott to keep guard outside the barn door, Pa?”
Murdoch put his empty glass on the mantel, folded his arms, and then looked at me.
“Don’t you think you deserve it?”
I knew I did, but Dios! No way could I meet his eyes, and I leaned forward with my arms resting on my knees. I felt jumpy. And bad.
“Son, if I’d caught up with you the first few days, you wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a week. And now, when I think of all the tears Maria shed…and the look on your Brother’s face at the end of every day that passed and we had not got any word as to where you could be…”
I felt real bad.
“…but Johnny, you made your own decision to come home. You also surrendered that horse as I had told you you had to. I’m very unhappy that you let your temper, and your selfishness, override your good sense. I’m unhappy that you have been God knows where, doing God knows what. And I’m extremely unhappy that you have caused so much pain to the very people who love you.”
Fuck! I felt like the lowest sort of a flea bitten mongrel.
I jumped up and wrapped my hands tight ‘round myself, my head down and my chest heavin’.
“Jesus Murdoch! Please stop talkin’, and just wallop me!”
Murdoch came to me then, and I thought he was goin’ to take hold of me and march me out to the barn. Instead he put one of his huge paws on my shoulder and pressed me back to sittin’, and he sat next me. He kept his hand on my shoulder, and it felt heavy and warm.
“No Son, I’m not going to tan you. In this instance I don’t believe that would be productive. I think you need to work through your misgivings for the way you’ve acted. I think you have already done that to some extent, and that is why you are back here where you belong. Warming your britches would be very satisfying for me, I can tell you, but I think you have learned a lot and will learn more this time, if I don’t. Your Brother and I, and Maria, we’re just so relieved to have you safe back with us, Johnny. I really hope that that is the last time you will leave like that.”
Murdoch looked across me to where Scott sat on my other side.
“Scott, did you ever run off? Apart from when you left to join the Cavalry, I mean?”
Scott was sitting rolling his empty glass between his hands, and he was lookin’ at the glass, but then he glanced up at us.
“Yes Sir, I did.”
There was a pause, and I thought he wasn’t goin’ to say any more. None of us Lancers were all that forthcomin’ about what our pasts had been like.
“When I was fourteen, I got into a fight at school. I was punished at school, and a letter was sent home. Grandfather gave me such a blistering lecture, and I felt it was unjust. I was incensed that he would take me to task like a child. I packed a bag and left. I was lucky to have a friend whose father talked sense into me, and he took me home. I’d been gone three days.”
“What was the fight about, Son?”
Scott put the glass down on the table in front of him. He didn’t look at us as he replied.
Murdoch’s hand tightened on my shoulder, before he realized, and then he dropped his hand and got up. He picked up Scott’s glass, and paused, and put his other hand on Scott’s head. It was only for a few seconds, and Scott seemed to tense up, but then he went real loose. Something about that big hand, resting on Scott’s hair, both of them still, and only the sound of us breathin’, well, it sent a shivery, warm feelin’ through me, and my chest got tight.
Murdoch made a beeline for the drinks tray.
“I need another drink.”
I looked at Scott, and he was still sitting looking down, but then he put his hand to his head, and he left it there a moment. When he realized I was watchin’ him he quickly removed it, and then he gave me one of his big smiles.
“You must have a lot to tell us, Boy! Like how the sheriff of Bluffs Crossing came to have you in custody?”
“Boys, you’d better both go get cleaned up for supper. Johnny, we want to hear a full account of your activities for the last month. You’d better get it all said, because with all the extra chores you’re going to be getting, you won’t have time to bless yourself for the next month.”
I didn’t even groan. I knew I deserved a whole lot more than a few goddamn chores. I was swelled up in my heart to be home. To have Murdoch growling at me, Scott smilin’ at me. Hell, even Scott belting me one. I thought I’d been a man when I was livin’ as Madrid, but I was startin’ to think that living as Johnny Lancer, well, it was going to take me just as much hard work and guts to turn him into the man I wanted to be, and that Murdoch and Scott expected me to be. From now on I was goin’ to be mature and responsible.
Well, I did have good intentions…
Murdoch wasn’t joshin’ about all the extra chores. What with my regular jobs, being back at lessons, and all the extras, I barely had time to scratch myself. Murdoch and Scott gave me a powerful grillin’ about what I’d done and where I’d been. I didn’t lie, but those ‘sins of omission’ the priests used to spout about were all over me. So all what I told them was that I had gone to Bluffs Crossing, got a job at the Tuttle Ranch, met Val on the trail (never mentioning it was on the trail of a filthy horse-stealin’ pendejo), and Val had said he had business in Green River, which is how we come to travel back together. All true, after a fashion. The only part of the whole tale that I spared no detail on, was our visit to the Cabrera Ranch. I talked Murdoch and Scott’s head off ‘bout that. I sure envied ol’ Serampion, havin’ relations with those pretty mares.
Thinkin’ on that reminded me of something Randy Bass had told me last time I’d seen him. I remembered I’d told him I’d meet him on the road to Spanish Wells, but I’d gone off adventuring instead.
I started figgering when I could have a word to Randy as soon as I could.
Wednesday night I was itchin’ to see Val. When I got home from the Aubrey’s, I thought about riding out on the Green River road, but Murdoch told me to get to work in the coldstore until it was time to wash up for supper. I was helpin’ Ced replace every shelf in there.
When Val arrived Ced told me to get, and I tried to sneak up on Val, but just as I was about to pounce him, he turned and hooked my feet out from under me and I fell flat on my backside. He stood over me with laughing eyes, his thumbs hooked in his pockets, and he talked severe at me.
“You gotta do better than that, Buddy. You lost your touch, Boy, livin’ like the gentry like you do!”
“Aww Val, least you didn’t draw on me.”
“I never been a hot- head like you, Johnny.”
He pulled me to my feet and I started brushing off the seat of my pants.
“Here, let me help you with that.” He said kindly, but of course he helped by landing his hand so heavy I pitched forward, and he was laughin’ when Murdoch came out and greeted him. They shook and we went inside.
Murdoch fixed drinks for them, and Maria brought out lemonade for Scott and me. I introduced her to Val, and she was encantado (delighted) when Val held her hand in both of his and spoke Spanish to her easy, like he always had been able to do. She thanked him for comin’ all the way home with her precious bebe, and Val told her that having now met her he understood why the nino con problemas (troubled child) loved her so much. Maria’s chest swelled up and her eyes filled and she clutched Val’s hands with both of hers, and then she turned those wet eyes on me, just like Val intended, and I ducked my head. But not before she saw from my face that it was the dadblamed truth. Maria swept over to me and showered me with kisses, and then she went rushin’ out, and I looked up, plumb flustered, to see Val and Murdoch both enjoyin’ themselves immensely.
Scott arrived then, and there was more greetin’, and then he grabbed some lemonade, with only one longing look at the scotch bottle.
“So, Sheriff, what did you think of Morro Coyo and Green River?” Murdoch asked.
Val told us how he’d met with Alan Creane in Green River, and Alan was going to write to him when the job was due to come vacant. Seemed Sheriff Creane’s wife was encinta (pregnant), and after she’d had the baby, their third child, they were plannin’ on movin’ back to Nevada, where they both hailed from. No-one knew about the coming baby yet, so Val asked us not to say anything.
I was real excited. I was having a lot of trouble with Val leaving. Now that I had found him again, I wanted him close, but I could see that I had no business asking that of him. But if he wanted to come and live in Green River, well, it might only be a year and he could be back.
We had a bang-up dinner. Murdoch insisted that Maria sit and have dessert with us, and she asked Val a lot more personal type of questions than any of us would. Scott had trouble keepin ‘ up with the Spanish, so when I put my foot square in my mouth, and the whole table went silent, he was swivellin’ his head around, completely lost.
I had said that ‘Val’s era la primera pistol que dispare’ (Val’s was the first pistol I shot)
Murdoch didn’t even hear Scott. He was looking from Val to me and back again.
“You’ve met before? You knew each other before Bluffs Crossing? Johnny? That’s why you went there?”
“Naw, Murdoch…I didn’t know Val was there. I told you, Rabby’s from there, and he always talks ‘bout it.”
“But, you two do know each other? From the past?”
Val wiped his mouth and looked at Murdoch. I studied my spoon.
“Johnny and his Ma lived in the same place I lived a long time ago. Johnny was only five at the time – six when he and his Ma moved on. Hell, when I saw him in Bluffs, I couldn’t believe it.”
“Why, Johnny, you didn’t say anything.”
“Awww, Murdoch, it was a long time ago.”
“And Sheriff, you showed him how to fire a pistol?” Scott asked, sounding dumbfounded. He’d caught up to what we had all been sayin’.
“No, I most certain did not, Scott. Your brother helped himself – and he didn’t do that again, I can tell you.”
Val quickly turned to Maria, and asked if he could possibly have another slice of peach pie, and as she flew to the kitchen, he asked Murdoch about Spanish Land Grants, and so he did a fine job of steerin’ the talk away from his and my past. A past that included him bein’ with me and my Mama, something neither of us wanted to be talking about at Lancer.
What he did want to talk about though, he brought up over coffee when we had settled in the Great Room.
“Mr Lancer, I know Johnny ain’t the most voluble kind of fella –“
“Whatcha want to go insultin’ me for? ‘ I interrupted.
“Voluble, Johnny,” Scott grinned, “It means ‘talkative’.”
It was Val’s turn to grin at me. I looked back disgruntled, and wary about what he was goin’ to mouth off.
“What I’m getting at is I don’t guess he’s told you he saved my life back in Bluffs?”
Murdoch swift as anything shot a look at me. He picked his cup and saucer up, and leaned forward.
“No, he did not.” He looked at Val then. “Will you, please?”
“Val there’s no need –“ I protested, but he cut me off.
“Yes, Johnny, there is. Your Pa and Brother don’t need me to tell them you ain’t voluble, but you are valuable. They already know that, but I want them to know what you did.”
I grumbled and hunkered down in my seat, while Val gave them a short story of the rope dancin’ party in the forest. I kept my head down, but I could feel the top of my head burning with the attention it was getting from Murdoch and Scott. When I heard Pa’s cup start to shaking on the saucer, I chanced a look at him and saw he was gripping it fierce, and he looked sorta pale.
“Jesus, Johnny.” Scott’s voice was shocked.
“Ahh…Don’t make too much of it. I knew one of them couldn’t shoot to save himself, and the other three were third rate, hack bandits.”
Val directed his next talking to me.
“They were low-life no-goods, but they were dangerous, and they were out for blood. Mine. So even though it was a damn reckless and foolhardy risk you took, Johnny, it was uncommon brave, and your family should know about it. That’s all I’m goin’ to say – and I guess you should be thankful that that is all I’m goin’ to say – hey?”
I knew what Val was getting at, and I was glad he wasn’t going to mouth off about anything else that had happened in his town, so I looked quick at him and nodded.
Murdoch cleared his throat, but before he could speak, Val said as how he had enjoyed having the evening with us, but was ready to retire as he needed to set off home early next morning. Murdoch went and poured himself a bit belt of scotch, and gave Val one to take up to his room.
I showed Val to the room Maria had got ready for him. He told me to set a spell, and he sat at the table under the window, sippin’ his drink. I threw myself across the bed, careful to keep my spurs off the quilt. Maria’s a bear about those quilts.
“Seems like you didn’t tell your family too much about your trip away, didya, Son?”
“Naw. I don’t add worries to Murdoch if I can avoid it. He’s already got a lot of grief about me and Scott. And I reckon all the past is best left there. Ain’t nothin’ any of us can do about all that, Val.”
Val swirled the scotch around in his glass, studying it.
“Well, that’s for damn sure,” he said in a sad and quiet voice. “They’re real good people, Juanito, real good. It’s a comfort to me to know that you have a home with them.”
I nodded, but I found I couldn’t talk.
“You ever need me, you know where I am, but I best not hear of you runnin’ off from here again. You listenin’?”
I nodded again, and then I lay my head down on my left arm. I could see Val through my eyelashes. My right hand was down my side, pickin’ at the seam of my pants.
“Did your Daddy give you a whippin’?”
I shook my head.
“Well, he’s a better man than I am, seems. I woulda.” He gazed at me, and then he sat back.
“Your Pa, he would have to be a determined type of man, tough as a nickel steak, to build up a place like this. A man some accustomed to havin’ things his way. And I know you, Johnny, you’re made similar. That’s bound to make for some friction. But I know you’re learnin’ that friction, well, it can burn, or it can warm. You understand what I’m trying to say here?”
“Val, you don’t got to worry about me. “
He just snorted. There was a tap at the door, and when I called a come in, Scott stepped in, but only as far as to stand holdin’ to the door.
“Ah, Johnny, I just wanted to ask you to say goodnight to Murdoch before you go to bed?”
“Sure, Boston.” I rolled over and sat up, leanin’ against the headboard. “He still in the living room?”
“Well, no, that’s just it. He took his drink into the study. He looked a bit shaken up.”
Scott half smiled an apology at Val, and Val nodded and took a swig.
“Johnny, go talk to your Pa. I’ll see you in the mornin’.”
I rolled back across the bed, and me and Scott both mumbled our goodnights, but Val asked Scott if he would sit and visit while he finished off his drink, and Scott said he would like to, and headed for the chair the other side of Val.
I smacked the study door with the flat of my hand and barged on in. I caught Murdoch slumped in the chair behind the desk. Don’t think I’d ever seen the Ol’ Man slumped anywhere before. He straightened up quick smart, stood right up. He still held a full glass, so he hadn’t even touched it.
“You wanta play chess, Pa?” I dropped into one of the chairs.
Murdoch put the glass down and came around and perched himself on the corner of the desk.
“What I want, my Son, is to stop picturing you bracing four armed men.”
“Aww, Murdoch, forget about that. It ain’t the first time I been up against a few.”
I’d mumbled it out, as I rubbed at one thumb with the other. Murdoch hitched a big breath, and ran a hand down his face. I decided on the spur of the moment that the best way to stop him from this maudlin’ fix was to rile him. I was a master at that. I jumped up, hands deep in my front pockets.
“Hell, Ol’ Man, that weren’t nothin’! Ain’t nothin’ like takin’ on a passel of no account skeesicks like that, to make your blood sing! Why, I’m lookin’ forward to the next time! Any fuckin’ pendejo wants to take on Johnny Madrid, he’d better be fuckin’ ready –“ but I got no further.
I could see Murdoch’s face getting that nice, ripe tomato colour, and I never even had time to take my hands outta my pockets when he grabbed me and pitched me face down across his left leg and whacked me so hard my teeth rattled. I hadn’t expected him to do that, and was shocked into yowlin’.
“You said you wasn’t goin’ to tan me!” I protested.
“Johnny my Son, this is hardly a tanning.”
But he smacked me twice again before he jerked me upright, still hangin’ on hard to big handfuls of my shirt. I musta had a pained grimace on my clock that he thought was comical, ‘cause he was now smilin’, looking real satisfied with himself.
“That, my Son, was me working out the knots in my neck that were giving me a headache.”
He let go of me and sat back all relaxed, and crossed his arms.
“I feel so much better,” he grinned at me.
“Jesus! Well I don’t!” I groused as I rubbed at what was hurtin’.
Murdoch got up and put and arm around me, and swept me outta that fuckin’ study.
“Come on, Son. Let’s have that chess game.”
Maria outdone herself at breakfast next mornin’. We ate at the dining table, ‘stead of the kitchen like usual, on account of havin’ Val as a guest. Maria had already taken him into her heart. She prepared a load of food for him to take with him, too. Val was a whole lot neater than usual, but I realized that even when he was his usual scruffy self, he only had to break out with that toothy, gappy smile of his, and ladies went all soft in the head around him.
I noticed how Scott seemed to be studying on Val, and I wondered what all they’d talked about the night before. Murdoch and I had started a chess game when Scott had come out and joined us. He’d been reading a bit, and watchin’ our game a bit. When Murdoch was considerin’ what move he should make, he’d started rubbing hard at the back of his neck, and Scott asked if he was gettin’ ‘another headache.’
“No Scott,” Murdoch smirked, “As a matter of fact I’ve found a really effective remedy for my tension.”
I didn’t have to look up from the chessboard to know Murdoch was lookin’ straight at me with a big grin on his face.
Now this morning we finished eating and we all spilled out the front door. Val had gone into the kitchen to take his leave of Maria first. Now he planted his hat on his head, and thanked Miguel, who had brought Rip over from the barn. He and Murdoch shook, and Murdoch said again how much he appreciated me bein’ accompanied home, and how he hoped to see Val take up the position of sheriff of Green River in the future. Val thanked the Ol’ Man for his hospitality. Scott made polite talk, with a lot of warm to it I noticed.
“Murdoch, I’m just going to ride to the arch with Val,” I said. Murdoch nodded.
Val checked the cinch, tied his bulging saddle bags on, and then swung up onto Rip’s back. He kicked his foot out of the stirrup and held his hand out to me, and I swung up behind him. Pa looked surprised. Val called adios and kicked off, and we rode easy out of the yard area. Halfway to the arch I looked over my shoulder, and Murdoch had not moved.
Soon as we got there, I slipped down, and Val dismounted. He opened one of the saddle bags and took something out.
“Val,” I didn’t intend to whisper, but I couldn’t seem to get a deep breath. “I wish you were stayin’.”
“I do too, Johnny, but I got to get back and ride herd on Jim for a while. And you don’t need any distractions while you’re learning to be an obedient, respectful son, which fact is bein’ your main aim in life now. Ain’t it?”
“Johnny, I expect to get a letter from you once a month till I come back. I don’t care if it’s one line, but I expect it – you hear? Now, come here.”
He dragged me into a powerful hug, and I didn’t even hug him back on account of my arms huggin’ myself. He was breathin’ real jerky, and then he pushed me out to arms length, his hands holdin’ tight on my arms.
“Here,” he said, and he took one of my hands and dropped something into it. I was blinking rapid, but when I looked down, I saw it was a bracelet. It was rawhide strips, with some silver and a couple of beads between. I had last seen it when I was six, wrapped about four times around my skinny wrist. I could hardly believe I was seein’ it again.
“It was next to your bed, Johnny, the only thing left behind. I kept it, thinking many times that it would be all I would ever have left of you. I’m purely happy to be able to give it back to you. “
I nodded. His hand squeezed my shoulder, but he might just as easily have been squeezing my heart.
Val’s breath came out jerky again, as he turned and mounted.
“Look at me, Boy.”
I tightened my hand hard around the bracelet and struggled to swallow before I looked up. Val was frownin’ like a grizzly, but his eyes were glistenin’.
“I’ll see you, Kid. You stay outta trouble, you hear me? I mean it!”
That was Val – scowlin’ and grousin’ and grumblin’. I tried to smile.
“Sure, Papi. Just like always.”
Val shook his head, his mouth tight, and we looked at each other while Rip started to fuss. Then Val dug his heels in and strangled out a yah and he and his horse took off like the hounds of fury were on their heels. He didn’t look back. I stayed stock still, watchin’ them get small, and I could feel the beads of the bracelet diggin’ into my palm.
Finally I turned around, and I felt the grief wash over me, and I went and leaned my back on the arch. I waited for the feelin’ to pass, but it didn’t, and I slowly slid down the adobe until I was sitting in the dust. I pulled my knees up to my chest and buried my head in my arms, and every time the tears leaked I angrily brushed them away. I don’t know how long I sat there, but when I finally looked up, Val had disappeared completely. I scrubbed at my face, and then I took the bracelet and wound it around my wrist and tied it, pulling at the knot with my teeth.
I was sitting looking at it, rolling the beads around and around, when I heard a horse approachin’. When the shadow of a horse and rider fell across me, I looked up.
“Little Brother – can I interest you in a lift?” Scott’s voice was soft, and it was kind, and it killed me.
I jumped up, and I stood and looked out along the road out of Lancer, and then I looked up at Scott.
Scott reached down and I took a good grip around his elbow, and I waited for the right moment, and I used all my weight to plummet him right off his horse into a shambled heap on the ground, and I leapt past him and was up on his horse, and I took off.
“You little bastard, Johnny!” Scott roared behind me.
I was so bustin with too many feelin’s that needed some action, so taunting Scott was a good relief. I kept returning to him as though I was goin’ to pick him up, and then I would skitter his horse away again. Scott didn’t hold with bad language, but being some time in the cavalry had given him a fair education in it, and he was having no trouble stringing some pretty ripe words together to describe me.
“Why, Scott Garrett Lancer, I’m surprised at you!” I spurred him. “You better not let Pa hear you cussin’ like that, or he’ll warm the seat of your breeks!”
He cussed at me again, and by now we were closer to the front of the hacienda, close enough that behind Scott’s insults I heard a bellow from the Ol’ Man. I looked back and could see he was still standing where I’d left him, but now he had his fists on his hips. Maybe it was time to be nice. I turned back to look at how close Scott was, and damn if I didn’t get hit full in the face with a clod of dirt. I was sputterin’ and shakin’ my head and trying to blink away the grit, when Scott launched himself at me, and we both landed hard on the ground, him landing on me and knocking the wind outta me. That sneaky bastard!
I struggled to get my breath and get to my feet, but Scott had got the best of me. I heard his triumphant yell as he leapt up on the chestnut, and he took off. He took off away from the house, probably going to join some work crew.
That left me stranded. I shook my head again, and more bits of dirt flew outta my hair. I looked back to where Pa was standin’. He raised one hand, and I could see the finger beckoning me. He had his other hand on the back of his neck, and looked like he was rubbin’ at it. Mierda!
I looked down at my wrist, and I rolled the beads there with my thumb. Then I started towards the house, stomping across the good soil of Lancer, to go to Pa.