“It hurts, Pa.”
Jesus, as I came to my senses I realized what I’d just said, and how I sounded like I was four goddamn years old. I felt the blood rush to my face as I struggled up in bed, and I couldn’t look Murdoch in the face, as he helped me.
I’d fallen asleep earlier, even though my left ear had been achy, and now I musta yelled out powerful loud for Murdoch to have come into my room.
“I know, Son. That’s what gave you a nightmare – earaches will do that, especially with fever.”
I just nodded, sitting up cupping my ear, and trying to get a grip on the hot needle pain my ear was givin’ me.
“I’ll just go get something that will help,” Murdoch said.
He left my room, and then Scott appeared in the doorway. He was in his drawers, and looked still asleep, trying to look at me by tipping his head back so he could peer through his barely opened eyes.
“Johnny, you okay?”
“M’fine, Scott. Go back to bed.”
Scott was rubbing at his eyes with the heels of his hands, yawning. He came into the room, and plunked down on the end of my bed. A shiver went down the length of him, and he crossed his arms and legs and hunched over trying to keep himself warm.
“I told ya I’m fine, Boston – go back to bed. Murdoch’s gone to get some damn thing for my ear. You can’t do nothin’.”
“For God’s sake, Johnny, you sounded like you were being scalped. If you’d done as Murdoch told you before you went to bed –“
“Dios, Scott, I ain’t in any disposition to listen to you squall at me!” I complained.
Scott shut his damn mouth, thank the Lord.
“You’re right. Sorry.”
I was too peevish to tell him it was alright, ‘cause it weren’t, but Scott let me know he weren’t offended by givin’ my leg a whack as he got up and scarpered.
Sonofabitch, but my ear was griping me, and where I had been hot, now I was cold. Murdoch came back in as I was haulin’ up the sheet. He set a bowl down on the bedside table and then pulled the sheet and quilt up to my neck.
“Lie down on your right side, Johnny, while I put some of this syrup in your ear.”
I hunkered down and Murdoch used a spoon to dribble this warm stuff in my ear, and that sure felt good. He rested his other hand on my head to keep my hair out of the way. His hands were so big that the one on my head just about covered my whole noggin, but though it felt heavy, it also felt warm and gave me this feeling of being…sort of safe. I had big hands too, so I hoped when I got my full height I would probably be tall like Murdoch. As long as I got taller than Scott I’d be happy.
“What’s in it Murdoch? It sure don’t smell too fetchin’.”
“It’s an old remedy my Ma used to use on us boys. I cooked an onion and tobacco leaf in vinegar and this is the syrup. It should help in a minute or two.”
He put a real warm pad of cloth over my ear, then tied it in place with a bandage around my head. I wondered if he tied a bow on top and made me look like a fuckin’ girl, but right then I couldn’t a cared less.
“There’s some chamomile tea here. It’s brewing, and I want you to drink it as soon as it cools.”
He went and sat in the chair by the window, and I realized he intended staying.
“Jeez, Murdoch, you don’t got to stay.”
“I’m well aware I ‘don’t got to stay’, my Son, but I am staying, until you have finished every drop of that tea. “
He hunkered down some, folded his arms across his chest, and closed his eyes. I lay still, feeling that gripe of unease that still niggled me when I was bein’ cossetted. Murdoch helping me, just because he wanted to, shoulda been a pleasure to me. But on account of not havin’ people do that for me for most of my life, I instead would get irate, because I would just natural be on guard, thinking they was goin’ to take advantage, or fool me or something. I’d been home at Lancer almost a year and I knew damn well that Murdoch did want to look out for me. But that feeling would still come on me times like this, and I would have to try and tromp it down. I wondered how long I would have to live with Murdoch before that feeling would never come, or if maybe I had it forever.
My ear was easing, and I could see that Murdoch’s breathing had evened out, so he’d dropped off. I sat up to grab the mug and drink the tea, and that was enough for him to wake. He sat up and rubbed his hands over his face, and then came and took the empty mug.
“Ear any better?”
I nodded. “Yeah, thanks, Murdoch.”
I shimmied down and pulled the bedclothes over myself, quick like, as it made me feel like a kid when he did it. He hesitated, like he wanted to tuck me in, but instead he put the back of his hand against my forehead, and then he told me to call him if I needed anything, and he went off to his own room.
I slept good then, for a few hours, until he came in and did all that doctorin’ again, and I was glad of it as the ear still was painin’ me, but not so bad.
When I woke next it was full daylight, and no-one had woke me. My ear felt much better, so I quick got up and washed up and dressed, discardin’ the bandage and pad from over my ear. Murdoch looked up from his desk when I slid down the banister and landed in the entrance to the Great Room.
“I take it you have recovered?”
Murdoch’s voice was grouchy, but a quick look at his clock and I could see he weren’t really fussed.
“It’s good, Murdoch. You let me sleep in.”
“I thought it best.”
He stood up and headed towards me.
“Come and eat. Maria left the makings out for you. I’ll dose that ear again, and hopefully that will finish it.”
I let him do the cookin’, seein’ as how he was also cooking up his Ma’s syrup for another go at my ear. It sure did smell foul. While I ate like a hungry hound, seeing as how I hadn’t eaten well at supper the night before, he told me he wanted me to come into Green River with him. He had to order timber for two new bridges over Squaw Creek. He’d given Scott the job of working out the best places for them bridges, and had been very pleased with how Scott had tackled the task. And how well Scott had accepted that neither place he chose was right, and why.
He chugged down some coffee and looked at me over the rim of the mug.
“We’ll get Sam to take a look in your ear.”
“Fu - Jeez, Murdoch, it’s nearly better. Ain’t no need to trouble Sam.”
“Humour me, Son. You can get a haircut while we’re there, too.”
I gave him a dark look, but he only raised his eyebrows, and I knew it wouldn’t do no good to grouse. Murdoch was real neat, and even though Scott wore his hair much longer than he used to, he was also always a tidy sort of fella. My hair usually hung down over my nose in front and well over my collar in back, before I’d be bothered with the barber. Only time I had it real short was after a week in jail in El Paso, when I cut it short on account of it bein‘ full of chiggers. I’d thought how lucky I was to have a new mattress on my cot, but turned out the fuckin’ thing was full of fresh grass, and that was full of the little red bastards. Sonofabitch, but I’d nearly gone crazy itchin’ that week.
Thinking about that made me feel crawly all over, and I started scratchin’ until Murdoch gave me another questionin’ look, and I tried to think of something else.
Me ending up in trouble with Murdoch, well, that wouldn’tve happened if not for that fuckin’ earache. I wouldn’t have been in town, and I wouldn’t have seen Theron Murphy.
The Old Man and me had rode in, and were outside Quincy’s Barber and Bath Establishment for Gentlemen, and Murdoch was giving me my orders, as usual. He was going to the mill at the other end of town while I got scalped, and then I was to meet him at Sam’s. Damn if he didn’t even give me instructions of how much hair I was to have removed. I just nodded, like I was listening. He gave me a dime and then mounted Chieftan and moved off, touching his hat when he saw Miz Cadley smiling up at him. She was always doing that. She was so busy showing Murdoch her good set of teeth, she never even noticed me there on the boardwalk as she walked right past me. I stood there with my hands low on my hips, watching her sashay off. Damn, but I loved the way a woman’s hips swayed their whole selves that way. Even some of those old ladies like her, forty at least, could swing their rigs enticin’ to set a man’s thoughts to… warm skin. I bit my lip, closed my eyes, and quick turned my thoughts to Brussels sprouts, to try and get old John Thomas to stop from rearing up like he was threatening to do. Sometimes that worked, like now.
I opened my eyes then, and first thing I saw was Theron.
He was being helped off his horse, in front of Sheriff Creane’s office. Being helped, ‘cause his hands were in handcuffs, and also he seemed a bit wobbly. He was with a tall lawman, and the two of them went into the Sheriff’s office.
I hadn’t seen Theron Murphy since I’d just turned fourteen, about eighteen months gone. I had had a few jobs hirin’ out my gun, but it was real hard to get work on account of being such a skinny kid still. Men would brush me off, until I showed what I could do, and then they would take me on, but I got paid very poor. I knew it would take time, and I knew it was also a matter of putting on some height and weight. I had to take what I could get, and I hadn’t been particular fussy neither, about the right and the wrong of any job. Hell, I was set on being a gun hand, and I needed to eat, and I needed money for bullets. But mostly, I needed to feel like my gun would keep me safe from any man who might want to hurt me. Men had done that to me, and to Mama, but I had decided that havin’ that Colt in my hand would make sure it never happened again.
I had worked with other hired men on jobs, and I was certain sure that some of my bullets had found their mark – but I hadn’t been called out, not until that day in Tampico. That was the day I met Theron. I had gone into town after finishing working for a local business man. He’d hired me and a couple of third- rate pistoleros to shoot up his rival’s warehouse, down at the docks. I was so green that I didn’t know enough to get a lot of distance between me and a finished job. I no sooner set foot in the cantina than this skunk, who worked for the rival, recognized me, and came straight for me. I made my next mistake by pullin’ my gun on him, and telling him to back off. He maybe was just intendin’ to give me a brawl, but once I pulled my gun, he got filthy mad, and he told me if gunplay was what I wanted, gunplay was what I’d get.
I stood there in Green River, remembering back to that day, and my stomach tightened, the way it had then.
I had left that Tampica cantina, knowing that the day had finally come when I would find out if I was going to be a gunfighter. All my practising, all my hating, all my wanting to be good at my trade – was that going to finish in a dusty Mexican port? Was Johnny Madrid going to be lying in the dirt, lying in a pool of his own blood and mess, like I’d seen happen to others?
I’d taken up position, the sun behind me, close to the shadows on one side of the street. I hadn’t felt anything once I faced him. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t heartsick. I wasn’t sorry, and I wasn’t aware of anything outside of him. Another green mistake. I watched him with everything in me, waiting for that tiny breath, that flicker of his eye, the narrowing of his nostrils – any of the gives that would forewarn me. Sudden and slight it was, but I saw the way his slightly open mouth suddenly closed, and his gun was in his hand - but not fast enough. My bullet found his face. It hit him right under his nose, and his head rocked back, with his body following.
I could smell the gunpowder, and I could taste blood in my mouth – I’d bit my cheek inside. I realized I’d spun sideways, making myself less of a target, and I was glad of it, knowing I had done it without thinking, like I had practised, over and over and over.
I still didn’t feel nothing of anything, it only being maybe three seconds after he’d fallen, when another gunshot split the heavy, damp air. I jerked around in shock, my pistol at the ready for this new threat. I saw the shooter, a gringo, but he was no threat to me, as his gun was pointing past me. I spun to check what he had fired at.
From the alley next to the cantina, a dirty, greasy-haired pistolero staggered out, hands twisted in the front of his shirt. Blood was spreading from under his hands. I looked back at the gringo again. He was still half crouched, gun steady in his hand. As the pendejo who’d tried to ambush me fell face flat, the gringo straightened and turned to look at me. He slowly holstered his pistol, and nodded at me.
Theron and I skinned out of Tampico within half an hour. The policia we spoke to didn’t have a problem with us leaving. He was glad two more dirty inmundo reprobos (filthy reprobates) had been disposed of, and was glad to see us young guns scarper as well.
Half an hour out of town I suddenly needed to get into the bushes real quick. My innards had turned to water. After a horrible, griping ten minutes, I pulled up my pants and went to the stream to wash my face and hands. I had sweated something fearful. I tried to walk back to my horse, but had to lean on a tree. I’d got powerful weak, and then I’d started to shaking like a goddamn leaf, couldn’t get ahold at all. Theron could of just rode on, but he came looking for me. I was fumin’ that I was being so weak, and that he saw it, but he didn’t say nothin’, just turned back. I thought he was leaving, disgusted with me, but he’d gone to fetch our mounts. He led them past me, down the hill into the trees, and then he’d come back for me. He wrapped a blanket around me, and he led me to a rock by the stream. He propped me there, and he gave me a belt of whisky. Then he started on building a fire.
When he had a fire going, he’d made coffee. I cradled that cup in my hands, and with that and the whisky, I had slow like stopped shaking, and my gut had stopped grinching me.
“First dance, huh?” Theron, didn’t look up from pokin’ at the fire as he asked the question.
“I wasn’t even scared.” He knew I wasn’t braggin’ on myself, just flummoxed.
“Bein’ scared comes later, when you’re safe, kid.”
He chugged on his coffee.
“First man I killed, I started casting up my accounts, not five minutes later. Was on my hands and knees, couldn’t even get myself upright, and ended up lying curled up next to my own gutstew, too weak to even roll away from the mess.”
Neither of us talked any more about it. When he finished his java, he’d gone and tended to our horses, and then he’d stretched his long frame out, head on saddle, Stetson over his eyes. He’d dumped my saddle next to me, and soon I was asleep, too. I was curled around on myself, and I kept my Colt in my hand. It was a comfort to me, with its warm wooden grip, its heavy, solid weight, it’s shielding power of protecting me from a world that didn’t seem to particularly care for me. I’d slept hard, and didn’t even dream. The nightmare of that man’s bloody face coming for me, that would come over a week later, and it would come to me many times over the years, but gradually in faded colours.
Theron and me, we’d stayed together for about three months, and I’d learned more of what I needed to know about my new trade. He was seventeen, and like me, he’d had some tough times behind him. Neither of us talked much on our growin’ up. He was from Utah, from a farming family he said, and he was on the drift, and wanting to make his way with his gun, just as I did. He taught me a lot of what I needed to know about the dance, and the rest of it. He was a real good teacher of drinkin’ and gamblin’ too, impressing on me how to keep both to the least I could, account of always needing to be on my game.
One thing I’d hoped he’d lead me to, but he wouldn’t, was whores.
“They’re sinful, Johnny, and it’d be mortal sinful to lie with them. It’s your business, but I won’t lie with them, and I surely won’t lead you to that path.”
I couldn’t work out how he felt that whoring was too sinful to abide, and yet killin’ was not. I was such a shaver though, and without his backing me, I was still too shy to take that particular step by myself. Theron was tall, broad across the shoulders, and had a angly sort of face with a thatch of hair the color of buckskin, even with some of the dark hairs like in the mane and tail of that horse. The girls in every cantina always lit on him soon as we sat down, but he would polite, but real firm, tell them to please leave us alone.
He would read his bible at night, and he wrote letters too. First place we went for in every town was the post office, so he could send his letter off. He would hold it next to his heart, with his eyes shut, and then he would hand it over, and pay for it to be sent to Utah. I thought he was sending letters to a sweetheart back home, until I once saw the name Mrs Roison Murphy.
He was no holy roller though. He told me the funniest and the dirtiest stories I’d ever heard, and we would both laugh till we were breathless. He seldom cussed, but he never said one word about my constant cussing.
At the end of three months, he told me he was going home.
“You’re welcome to come with me, Johnny. I am sick of wandering, and of gunplay. I want to leave this life, and try and return to my home. Would you like to try, as well?”
I did think about it, but only for a minute. I judged that Theron was a good type of person, and we had rubbed along well together. But I was always wary, and I felt that the longer I knew him, the more likely it was that he would soon disappoint me. He probably wouldn’t mean to, but it was bound to happen, and it would be a hurt to me. Also, he had lived with a family, and no doubt they was a good lot, if he was intendin’ to go back to them. So him turning up with someone bad like me, well, I didn’t think I could stand to see what they would think of me - a no-account breed with blood on my hands. Theron had killed, I knew, but he was their son, so they could maybe forgive him.
No, best I stay in the game, because I could rely on me, and only me. And I was still fixin’ that maybe one day I would settle accounts with one Murdoch Lancer, too, for all that he had deprived me and my Mama out of.
No, I wasn’t goin’ to give up my gun, not for nothin’.
I thought back on that time as I looked up the street in Green River. I cast my eyes in the direction Murdoch had gone, and then I swiftly walked slanty ways across the street, away from the jail. I ducked down an alley next to Letitia’s Genuine French Ladies Costumery, and once at the back of all the stores I made my way back to the alley alongside the jail. I grabbed a wooden packing box that the undertaker used to sit on outside his side door when he smoked, and I quietly placed it under the window of the second cell of the jail. I climbed up, and sure enough I could see a pair of boots at the end of the bunk under the window. In the background Sheriff Creane was talking to the lawman.
“Theron?” I whispered real low.
The boots uncrossed, slow like, and then Theron sat up. He didn’t move for a minute, and I kept my head just at the edge of the window. Then he got up, casual, and put both hands, still shackled, on the bars of the window and took a big breath.
“It’s me - Johnny Madrid, Theron.”
I heard a quick intake of breath, and then he turned away from the window, but leaned on the wall. He could listen to me, and watch the men as they talked.
“Keep still, Johnny. They’re leaving in a moment.”
Sure enough, both men headed for the front door, and it slammed behind them. Theron jumped straight up on to the cot and grinned at me through those bars. He had a black, swollen eye, and his mouth was busted some too, but he greeted me with an excited voice.
“Johnny! How are you, Boy? You come to hear a good ol’ dirty story, hey?”
We both laughed, and he studied me, and then spurred me.
“You still look like a skinny shavetail – but I’m certain sure it’s good to see you still alive, kid!”
“That’s some thanks to you, I’ll give you credit!” I told him with a grin, “But tell me, and hurry about it. What’s he got you for?”
“They’ve gone to have lunch, so we got a while. Soon as he’s eaten we’re going on. He’s taking me to Brooks Bend, Johnny, to stand trial. He’s trying to pin a robbery and assault charge on me, and I’ll tell you straight, it weren’t me. I can prove it if’n I make it there, but he’s already givin’ me a go over. He’s a real, mean bastard, I’ll tell you, and the sooner I get away from him the better I’ll like it!”
I didn’t even have to think about it.
“Theron, be ready tonight. I’ll trail you, and I’ll step in if he gets outta line. Otherwise, I’ll wait till he’s asleep –“
“Johnny, I don’t want you getting in no trouble over me –“
“I don’t plan to – he’ll never know it was me. I’ll see ya.”
He called to me, quiet and urgent, but I stepped down off the box, nearly going sprawling as my spur caught on the edge. I hopped a couple of paces before I got my balance, and then I took the box back to Mr Underwood’s, whose name was just meant for him to grow up to build coffins. When I’d first seen that name on his shop sign, I’d asked Murdoch if his first name happened to be Bodie, and Murdoch had shaken his head and swiped at me.
Murdoch would soon be making his way to meet me at Sam’s. I wasn’t going to just disappear and leave him that worry, even though I should be home by the following night. I’d been living at Lancer long enough now to know that he would not be happy, and there would be a passel of trouble when I did get back home. It was in my interests to at least leave a message though, so I quickly skirted back the way I had come, and stuck my head in at the Bathhouse.
“Hey there, Johnny! Come on in.” Clarrie waved his scissors above little Evan Hoppler’s curly noggin.
“Clarrie – do me a favor, wouldya? When my Pa comes here lookin’ for me, tell him that I had to go outta town on business, and not to worry, wouldya?”
Clarrie’s smile dropped right off his face.
“Outta town, Johnny? Will he –“
“Clarrie, just tell him I’ll be home sometime tomorrow, wouldya?”
But I was already gone.
I kept my eye on Theron and the Sheriff the rest of the day, without them knowing I was trailing them. When they pulled off the trail and made camp, I made my own preparations. I made my own fire, but didn’t light it, and I arranged my trap. It was a coil of rope attached to a tall but young tree - neat and very effective - I hoped. Once all that was arranged, I went and checked on their camp. Theron was lyin’ stretched out with his handcuffs hitched to a rope which was tied to the tree closest to him.
The Sheriff was nursing a cup of coffee, and it smelled real good. All I’d had was some jerky and water, so my stomach was rumblin’ so much I peeled away before it alerted my quarry.
I went back to my camp and lit the fire, setting it up as though I was about to cook. The heat was good as I hadn’t worn a jacket into town and now was feelin’ the cold. I cleared my throat, took a big breath, and then I started to sing. I chose ‘Charlotte the Harlot’, it being a rollickin’ song that carried aways, and gave the impression that I was a happy drifter just going about my business settlin’ in for a night.
Above the crackle of the flames, and the rustle of the wind in the sycamores, I could hear the faint sound of movement. I kept my head down, hat pulled low, and some of my hair over my eyes. I didn’t intend that the varlet should get a good look at my face. I was singin’ away happy, and pokin’ at the fire and was reaching into my saddle bag when he spoke, clear and no-nonsense.
“Keep both hands where I can see them, sonny.”
I didn’t care for the ‘sonny’, but it suited my plan for him to see me as harmless. I sat up straight, slow like, and answered him, putting worry into my voice.
“Look mister, I don’t want no trouble.”
He stepped forward into the firelight then, and pulled the edge of his jacket back to show the star on his chest.
“I’m Sheriff Sweeney, boy, and you just do what I say and there won’t be no trouble. Take your iron out nice and slow, and toss it over here.”
I did like he said, but when I tossed it I sent it right into the middle of the rope circle. The rope was well hid under leaves and such. I prayed he’d step over and pick up the gun, but if the trap didn’t work I’d have to go on back to his camp and think on something else. But my plan worked perfect.
He headed straight to my Colt, keeping his eye and his own piece trained on me. As he entered the circle, I slow as molasses stood up, and as I stood I also gentle pulled the rope which had that springy tree tethered down.
He didn’t know what hit him.
The tree shot back upright, and took that big ol’ Sheriff with it. He was whooshed up into the air so fast his surprised yell got left behind, and so did his gun. So did the knife he kept in his boot. I was tickled to the point of bustin’ out laughin’, but I was quick too, and raced over to pick up my gun and his. I pulled my bandana up over my nose, and I stood with my hands on my hips, enjoying the sight of him swinging upside down, struggling and cussin’ a blue streak.
“You little sonofabitch! Cut me down this instant, you little scullion! Confound you!”
He was red as blood, and seein’ as how all his blood was rushed into his head that weren’t any wonder.
“Now, now, mister, you just settle down. You’re getting yourself all in a pucker for nothin’. I aim to cut you down, soon as you calm yourself, and nice and polite put your hands behind your back so I can tie ‘em.”
“You –“ and the swearwords that came outta that man’s mouth almost put me to the blush.
“Tch tch! Mister, you ain’t doing yourself no good cussin’ like that! What would your mama think? I’m just going to leave you for a moment, give you a chance to gather yourself. When I come back I hope you have seen your position, and realize that it’s best if you stop being so crotchical, and just co-operate with me and Theron.”
His cussin’ followed me all the way back to his camp.
Theron was on his feet, all agog at hearing the commotion. When I appeared he got a big grin on his face.
“Johnny Boy! How’d you do it?”
“He’s back there, swingin’ upside down from a tree!”
I sliced through the rope that tethered Theron, and led him back to the Sheriff.
Sweeney was quieted down, but Jehoshaphat, did he look like he was ready to kill.
“Put your hands behind you, mister, nice and polite.”
I didn’t think he could get any redder, but he did. His mouth under his big, fat moustaches, was in a hard line. But he knew he was licked, and he put his hands behind him. I used leather thongs from my saddle bag and tied his hands. Then I took the key for the handcuffs from around his neck, and I set Theron’s hands free.
“Joh- ah, Boy, we aren’t goin’ to hurt him – I don’t want him hurt – but I see you already seen that.”
Theron was rubbing at the marks on his wrists.
“We’ll leave him bound, Theron, but loose enough he’ll be free in a few hours. Help me lower him.”
We both worked on bending that sapling down till Sweeney ended up on the ground. I cut free the ropes I’d used and coiled them up, and while we worked he blathered at us.
“I’ll find the two of you, be sure of that. Murphy, you’ll face more charges now, and you, you little skeesick, you’ll wish you were never born when I get my hands on you! I’ll give you a lathering you won’t never forget, before I hand you over to court.”
I had a feelin’ he couldn’t outdo Murdoch in that department, and the thought grinched on me, but I just told Sweeney that was the very reason I had freed Theron, him and his fists, so he should shut his mouth and be glad we were leavin’ him in one piece.
Theron went and saddled his horse and I kicked over my fire. I led Pancho around out of Sweeney’s sight, not wanting him to catch sight of the Lancer brand. I built up his fire so’s it would keep goin’ for hours. I checked the ties on the lawman’s hands, tied his feet, and put his gun and knife up in a branch where he couldn’t get to them till he’d got his hands and feet loose. Then us two lit out. We travelled for about four slow hours, covering our tracks as much as we could, and then we made a cold camp and slept for about four hours.
I’d had a broken sleep the night before, with the earache and all, but sleepin’ rough on the trail like that, I was snoozing but still aware of what was going on around me. I knew when Theron roused out, but I stayed tucked in, and probably slept better the next hour knowing he was up and about. The smell of fish fryin’ got me up, seein’ as how I’d missed lunch, and supper, the day before.
“No coffee, sorry Johnny.”
We tucked in and I told him I was going to eat and then light a shuck for home.
“Johnny, you got a home now?”
I told him about Lancer, keeping it short as we both knew he had eight hours start, maybe, on the Sheriff, so he needed to hustle along.
“Boy, I’m mightily pleased for you, finding your family like that. It grieved me that you wouldn’t go home with me that time. I knew you were fast, but I also knew you were like me, and not cold in the heart like you gotta be to survive in that game.”
“I was cold in the heart, Theron, but turned out it was more temporary than I thought.”
He nodded, as he shoveled some more trout into his mouth. He told me he’d gone home to Utah, and glad of it, but had only stayed six months. He was too restless to be a farmer, and he had gone to cow punching. I told him that once he’d cleared his name he was welcome to come and work at Lancer, and he said the idea appealed to him.
He thanked me very genuine as we shook hands and parted. He headed west and I at first kept goin’ north. If Sweeney tracked us this far, he would have to decide which of us to follow. I did a big circle round until I hit the main road which led down to Spanish Wells, and I knew he would lose me amongst so many other tracks. When I got there I had enough money for a meal in the cantina. I asked Senora Ariza for a tequila and told her I’d pay later. She knew she could trust me, and she nodded, but when she came back it was with a glass of goat’s milk. I got ready to gripe but one look at her face and I shut my mouth and concentrated on eating my pozole and tortillas, and drinking my milk. The only money I had left was the dime for a haircut Murdoch had given me, not enough for a card game or nothin’ more exciting, and I was plum tuckered anyway, so I wandered over to Rogelio’s livery and me and Pancho stayed there the night.
I was lookin’ forward to being back in my own bed, but not the rollicking I knew I was in for from Murdoch…Jesus.
It was some rollickin’, too. He thundered away at me, mad as hell, as I’d knowed he would. Me sticking to my story that I had had word that a friend needed my help, but wouldn’t tell him nothing about it, well, he was some displeased, and I figgered I was lucky to peel out of that study with my hide intact. He told me not to set foot off the ranch alone or he’d skelp me, which I took to mean him also bein’ displeased that I still hadn’t got a haircut, till I remembered him sayin’ once how that was Scottish for a hiding. Either way it weren’t good, and I was planning to stay on the ranch and keep my head down.
I was an angel, or close to, for two weeks. On time for meals, went with Scott and got my hair cut neat as a pin, didn’t sass Murdoch much at all, and didn’t light into Scott once, even when he ordered me about when we were building a new adobe wall around the goat enclosure.
Murdoch was calmed down, and he was pleased with me, and pleased too, with the first bridge over Squaw Creek, and he was ready to build the next one across the same creek, but way up on the north of Lancer.
Scott and me drove the wagon to Cluney’s Mill, on the outskirts of Green River to pick up the next lot of timber. We were no sooner there than Scott disappeared. I was helping load the timber, wonderin’ if Scott had got caught short, but he hadn’t gone to the outhouse, but to the main house.
He came out on the front porch, and with him came Claudine Cluney. I stopped workin’ and stood there with my hands low on my hips, and I studied them both. Scott was always tidy and real finicky about his hair and clothes, and so I hadn’t taken no notice of him when we left. Now I realized he was wearin’ a new green, fine checked shirt, and new fawn pants as well. His boots were dusty when we’d arrived, but now they were gleaming. I could tell by the way he was rolling the hat around in his hands that he was a bit jittery, and I could tell by the smile plastered on his clock, that he was bein’ charming. The bastard! He hadn’t said a word!
Claudine had her head bent to him, smiling charming too. She was real shapely, and had that shiny dark brown hair that swings, and she was tossin’ her head to make sure it did.
“You helpin’ or gawkin’?”
Horace was waiting up in the bed of the wagon, on the prod.
“Gawkin’” I answered, and grabbed my hat from the wagon seat and headed for the house.
Mrs Cluney came out then, and as I reached the porch she was handing a sunhat to Claudine.
“Wear this please, Claudie, you don’t want more freckles –“
“Mama!” protested her girl, but she took the hat.
She did have a sprinkle of freckles, but they was becoming. All three of them on the porch looked to me as I arrived and took off my hat and swept it in front of me.
“How do, Miz Cluney, Claudine.”
“Hello Johnny,” they said together, one voice low and one light.
“Scott and Claudine are going for a stroll in the orchard, Johnny, perhaps you would –“
She was interrupted by the door behind her flinging open so hard that she had to pull her bustle in quick to keep from gettin’ her rear end smacked.
“Marnie! Please be more careful!” her mama scolded.
“Hello Johnny!” Marnie practically yelled, ignoring her mama and sparklin’ her eyes at me.
“Marnie,” I polite replied.
Miz Clunie tried again, this time asking Marnie to walk with Scott and Claudine.
“Sure, Mama. You coming, Johnny?”
I had planned to walk with Scott and Claudine, account of knowing that that would be sure to rile Scott, but now if I went it would be walking with Marnie, and I could see Scott’s eyes laughin’ at that. Claudine was sixteen, shapely and womanly. Marnie was fourteen, and hardly had any shape and was still gawky like a colt.
“I gotta help with the timber –“
“Nonsense!” says Scott, turning to the girl’s mother. “Johnny will be glad to accompany Marnie.”
I shot a filthy look Scott’s way, and I jammed my hat back on my head. Scott offered his arm to Claudine, and I was about to stride off when Marnie grabbed ahold of my arm and hooked her own through it. She marched off like a trooper, draggin’ me with her.
She yammered her head off continuous, all the way down to the orchard, and when I tried to disentangle my arm she just held tighter. Scott and his girl set off down one row, and me and my pest set off down the next. She was talkin’ a blue streak about cats and dresses and school, and I finally got unhitched when I told her I needed to climb a tree. Once up in the apple tree I was tempted to stay, but she just stood at the bottom of it, and kept talkin’, so it was no escape anyway.
I sat up there and ate an apple, after I tossed one down to her. From up there I could see all the red glints in her hair, and I could also see some more womanly swell than I’d expected, ‘specially when she crossed her arms. I was surprised to see that, but not surprised when straight away my mind started lightin’ on impure thoughts, like the priests were used to always warn us about.
She got fed up with me perching up in the tree, and told me to come down. I sighed and took a good hold on the branch I was sitting on, and then I swung down. I didn’t let go, though, just hung there, and it was then I got a mighty shock.
That youngun’, that girl, stepped right up to me and threw her arms around my waist and hugged me tight as a wet boot!
I let go the branch and squawked out her name, real high, and she let go – but only to step back and laugh. I was standing there like a hoot owl, and then opened my mouth to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, but didn’t get a word out as she latched on again, and her mouth landed on mine. That girl didn’t wait for no shy build up neither, she stuck her tongue straight in my open mouth and her teeth rattled on mine and she had a grip on my back and the back of my head like she was afraid I’d fall if she let go. I think if she had I woulda, I was that shocked.
I got my hands on her arms then, and I pushed her back, both of us panting. She was laughing again, and licking her lips, which gave me a jolt in my drawers which unsettled me even more.
“Marnie!” I shook her once, but she was still smilin’ all over her clock.
“Oh, Johnny, I’ve wanted to kiss you for such a long time! Did I do it right? Did you like it Johnny?”
I dropped her arms and scrubbed my hands through my hair.
“Jesus, Marnie! You hadn’t ought to go kissing a fella like that!” I sputtered.
Her smile changed to a frown, but only for a moment.
“Then show me Johnny!”
And damn if she didn’t grab hold again, and her lips, closed this time, landed on mine.
Well, I was about to shove her away again, and I was going to run for my life, but I realized how velvety her lips felt on mine, and I smelled and tasted the apples we’d just eaten, and I could also smell this lemony scent on that smooth cheek under my nose.
I didn’t mean to return her kiss, but the way her lips were moving across mine, and then the way her hand on the back of my head gentled and slipped to the back of my neck, and the soft, warm feel of that small hand – well, I couldn’t hardly help myself.
I slipped my arms around her, and I kissed her thoroughly, and our tongues were soon getting to know each other’s mouths, and damn if that girl didn’t run her hands all over my back and make me feel like I wanted to take her right there under that tree. I had to stop and draw back, before I lost control of myself, and I was gasping for breath, and trying to think of eating Brussels sprouts, but, mierda, it was nearly too much for me, looking at her flushed face, with her lashes on her cheeks and her mouth slightly open as she panted. Her eyes opened then, all dreamy, and I saw that they were brown, but a light brown like creamy coffee dregs in a white mug.
“Kiss me some more, Johnny.”
She breathed the words into my mouth, and Jesus, I had to do just what she asked.
Half an hour later Marnie was pressed up against the trunk of the apple tree, and I was pressed up against her. I’d had to stop kissin’ her again, as it was too much for me, but each time I’d stop and plan to scarper, she’d draw my mouth down to hers and we’d be off again. I had kissed all over her face and down her neck, and she’d done the same to me, her bein’ a real quick learner, and enjoying kissing real well. I was achin’ in my drawers, but knew enough not to try anything further, although I had the feelin’ that this girl was ready to try just about anything. I’d mistook girls readiness to go further before though, plus it weren’t right to be taking no liberties with a fourteen year old good girl. Plus her daddy or mine would kill me sure if I did. I was older than her, being fifteen, so I hadda be responsible.
“Kiss me again, Johnny!”
Fuck, but she was temptin’ me something shocking!
I brushed my lips across hers, but just as I did, with a low moan from one or both of us, I heard Scott call my name.
I stepped back, and Marnie quickly straightened up and started patting at her braids. She looked young as all gettout then, and now that we weren’t plastered against one another, I felt a bit foolish. But her lips looked swollen, and damn if mine didn’t feel swollen, as did other parts of me as soon as I thought on kissing her. Scott and Claudine came in sight, and when they got close enough I straight away saw that her mouth looked like it’d been busy some, too. It seemed that the Cluney’s had bred up a couple of passionate girls, and I wondered if Miz Cluney was the same, and thought how full her mouth was, too...
“We’d better be helping finish loading the timber, Johnny.”
Scott was looking from me to Marnie, and he had a quirk around his mouth that sure irked me, so I just shrugged and started to stride off. Then I felt bad for leaving Marnie without a word, and I hesitated. I was about to turn back when there was a whoosh in the air and a pebble hit me hard behind my right ear.
I yelped, and spun around, but Marnie spotted her little brother and his slingshot, up in a tree, before I did.
“Riley! You little varmint!”
That soft, warm and sweet breathed girl I’d just been bussing with so much pleasure, now turned into a shrieking tomboy who ran straight at the tree, skirts flying, and once there was jumping up trying to swat her brother. He quick as a rabbit got around outta her reach and then dropped down the other side from her and lit out, with her chasing him and yelling, and yelling none too polite neither.
Claudine was calling to her sister to please be more ladylike, and Scott was laughing. I was rubbing at my head, where a lump was already sproutin’ under my hand. Claudine started apologizing to me, but Scott said as how my head was too hard to feel anything but a boulder shot at it, and I was tempted to lay Scott out right there, and embarrass him in front of his new fancy. There was a chance though, that Scott would end up pinning me like he usually did, and I would be the one embarrassed.
Scott and me finished loading and tying down the timber, and then we had lemonade on the porch with Miz Cluney and Claudine. When we were almost finished, Marnie appeared around the side of the house looking real pleased, as she had her little brother by the scruff of his neck. He looked a mess. He had his hair all awry and dirt all over his face. But so did she.
Her mama and sister both gasped, and started to scoldin’ on her, and him, but Marnie couldn’t care less. She shook the kid all the way up the steps, while he yelled back at her, and then she pitched him through the front door. She slapped the slingshot down on the table and grinned at me.
“You can keep that for a while Johnny – Pa said he’d take it off him and give him a licking if he shot at anyone, so he’s in for it!”
“Marnie!” bust out her mama, “Please go inside and see to yourself. This instant!”
Marnie frowned, and seemed to realize she was some messed up. She put a hand up to her face and felt the mud on her cheek, and wiped it off. But instead of squealing like most girls would, or going all simpery, she just got a wicked look on her face.
“See you soon, Johnny?”
She gave me a smile straight to my face that made me tingle. Then she reached over and dabbed mud on the end of my nose, and spun around and shot in through the front door.
Scott whistled most of the way home. I was happy too, but pretty confused about Marnie and her being pretty much a kid, but able to kiss like that and make me feel like I had a woman in my arms. Every time I thought of that kissing I had to quickly turn my thoughts to other things, while I squirmed uncomfortable. I needed bad to get somewhere private and get some relief. I took over the reins halfway home, to distract myself, so I was the one driving as we pulled up outside the barn.
I saw the horse straight away, and recognized it. Next to it, was Sheriff Creane’s grey.
Murdoch appeared in the portico, and called for us to leave the team to Harold to take care of. My stomach tightened up, and I made sure to keep my face from showin’ that I was concerned. Scott picked up on my tension straight away, the way he seemed able to do more and more where I was concerned. He looked searching at me, and his mouth tightened. I shook my head, real small, and Scott’s eyes went from wondering, to looking like he was saying ‘Jesus, Johnny’.
Murdoch looked like he was cut from granite. I was afraid to look into his face as we approached him. But his heavy hand reached out, and it was warm on my neck. I cut a quick glance at him, and I could see that his eyes looked grim, but there was worry in them too, and he squeezed my neck with a gentle comfort which I was relieved to feel.
Sure enough, there in the Great Room, cups in hand, were Sheriff Creane and Sheriff Sweeney. Sweeney’s eyes swept over Scott, but they stopped on me, looking me up and down very careful.
“Scott, Johnny, this is Sheriff Sweeney, from Brooks Bend. Sheriff, my two sons.”
Neither of us approached him, merely nodding, and then doing the same at Allan Creane.
“That’s him, Creane. The younger one. “
“Now see here” Murdoch bristled up.
“Let’s all sit down. I’ll handle this, thank you, Sweeney.” Sheriff Creane said as he turned to a chair.
We all sat down, slow like, except Murdoch who put his cup and saucer on the mantle, and then folded his arms tight across his chest.
“Johnny…” Creane also put his cup and saucer down on the table in front of his chair. “Sheriff Sweeney said that two weeks ago he was bailed up and his prisoner was released. He believes it was you who bailed him up, Son.”
I couldn’t believe that Sweeney was there at Lancer. Had he caught Theron, and had Theron spilled it was me? I couldn’t believe he would do that. But otherwise, how on earth had he figgered it was me that night? I soon found out.
“He got reason for thinkin’ it was me?” I asked the question cool as you please, though I sure didn’t feel that.
Sweeney reached into his top pocket, and then he showed me what he held.
My stomach dropped. It was a letter to me from Val Crawford, still in its envelope, addressed nice and clear to me. I had read it many times since it arrived the month before. Last I saw it, it was in one of my saddle bags, under some leather thongs, a spare knife, a tin plate, some jerky, a postcard of a girl in nothin’ but big feathers, a quartz rock in the shape of a pizzle, a sock, and a box of ammo.
All eyes were on me, and I stayed as unconcerned as I was able to do when I faced down any shootist. I knew then though, that Murdoch knew I was guilty as hell. I felt real bad for what I knew he would be feeling right about now. I was careful not to look at him as I tried to play out my hand.
“I coulda dropped that anywhere. Think I dropped it in Green River. It don’t prove nothin’. You goin’ to believe him?”
“I know where I found it, and I know it was you that night.” Sweeney said, the words angry. He looked disgusted. “You’re a cool one alright, kid, but you’re not going to get out of this. The yahoo who held me up, he was missing the rowel on his right spur. Turn around, kid.”
I kept looking at Sweeney, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw Murdoch look down. He uncrossed his arms, and he sat in the nearest chair.
I looked down. I had had to help Theron, but I felt ashamed suddenly, that I had done something that disappointed Murdoch so bad.
Scott had been looking wide-eyed from Murdoch to me to Sweeney, but when Murdoch sat, and I looked down, he came and put his arm around me.
“Johnny?” Allan Creane’s voice was hopeful.
“It was me, Sheriff. I had to help my friend.”
Sweeney was straight on his feet, and Allan rose slowly. Scott’s hand squeezed tight on my shoulder.
“Murdoch, Johnny will have to be at a hearing in front of Judge Beedly next week. You make sure he appears there on Wednesday, ten o’clock, and I’ll leave him with you.”
“You making him post bail?” Sweeney sounded extremely peeved.
“Johnny won’t be going anywhere, will you, Boy?” Allan sounded just as peeved.
Murdoch stood then, and thanked Allan, and told Sweeney we’d see him at the hearing, as he saw both men out.
I sat down and put my right ankle up on my left knee. I spun the rowel. The new rowel Murdoch had affixed for me in the forge ten days before.
Murdoch had come back in and got me to tell him everything about why I had helped Theron escape, and how I had done it. Theron saving my life, well, Murdoch got real aggrieved hearing about that incident, my first gunfight, but he understood my wanting to pay such a debt. He got real heated though, ‘bout my doing things, and them things illegal, instead of coming to him for help like I oughtta had done. He got even more fired up when he heard about Sweeney hangin’ upside down, and me tyin’ him, and him trackin’ me and Theron, and such like.
When he got fired up I made the mistake of gettin’ fired up too, and tellin’ Murdoch I was well able to take care of myself, and well able to handle problems from my past, and I’d be damned if I was going to run to him like a fuckin’ wet nosed shavetail every time some small, fuckin’ problem cropped up, and he had better get used to that because I was old enough to make my own fuckin’ decisions and full intended to do just that.
That was not a wise way to talk to the Ol’ Man.
He’d had a sort of handle on his temper plus a whole passel of worry, which I was always slow to see, right up till I gave him that piece of advice, but me talking to him like that, in the state he was buildin’, well, I soon regretted it.
Usually he took me across to the barn to whup me, but he seemed unable to wait the minute and a half that walk would have taken. He just laid hold of me and wedged me tight under his left arm and commenced to whale on me. He was so vigorous in doing his duty that I started to wonder if he’d finish in time for the hearing. I couldn’t help cussin’ some, but stopped my mouth after a while, when I realized that he found my cussin’ an incentive to hit me harder, which I hadn’t thought possible.
When his arm finally gave out, he turned me loose, and I staggered around the room, wondering if I’d ever sit again, and dizzy from being upended, and cussin’, but right under my breath, bein’ on the whole particularly sorry that it disturbed Murdoch so. He was breathing like a steam train, and he seemed unsteady on his pins himself, as he made a beeline for the drinks tray. He downed a big belt of scotch.
The kitchen door creaked as it slowly opened, and Scott’s head appeared. Murdoch and me both looked at Scott, who looked somewhat goggle-eyed. Murdoch poured himself another drink, then downed it and fixed his eye on me. I was standing over in front of his desk, furiously rubbing at my backside. I stopped when I realized he was watching me, intent. Then he rumbled low at me, some words that was shocking to hear.
“Go saddle your horse.”
I looked at him horrified. Scott came back into the room and he headed for the drinks as well.
“Fuck, Murdoch! You tryin’ to kill me some more?”
“Go on! And saddle Chieftain as well. And watch your damn mouth! We’re going in to Green River to see Hindley Steadman.”
Mr Steadman was the fella who did all the lawyering for the ranch.
Well, Jesus, Murdoch had seen to it I could barely walk, but I’d a preferred to walk into Green River than took that particular ride. It just about did kill me, and he fuckin’ well knew it, and did not give one good goddamn.
Although halfway there he did say as to how I’d deserved that lickin’ and more, but he was sorry that he’d done it while in temper.
A week later I was washed and barbered within an inch of my life as I appeared at my hearing. Murdoch had wanted me to wear a dark suit, but Mr Steadman said to dress me in pants and shirt and string tie, as the younger I looked, the better. Pa and Scott both were suited up though, and Maria looked a treat.
It had been a hellish week. Murdoch was a bear, and had been hard on me something fearful. But then I’d wake in the night and see him sitting by the window in my room, starin’ at his boots, and I’d feel guilty as hell. Scott said Murdoch was dreading that I would have to go to the county jail. If I ended up in Sheriff Creane’s jail, that was one thing, but the county jail was too dreadful for him to think on. I decided not to tell him I’d spent a week in a county jail when I was fourteen, and had survived that, just.
Murdoch had had two other meetings with Steadman, and had been sending and gettin’ wires from God knows where. He went in to Green River and other places just about every day.
The only high point of the week had been Scott skiving off work on the new bridge and visiting Claudine, and then that night Mr Cluney had visited Pa and thundered up in outrage. Unfortunate for ol’ Boston, that daddy had discovered Scott in the orchard with his hand ‘taking liberties’ in the front of his daughter’s bodice. Mr Cluney was of the opinion that Scott should be horsewhipped, and the mood Pa was in, I think he agreed.
“I’m not a prude Murdoch, you know that.” Bill Cluney had insisted. “But your son perhaps has been accustomed to running with fast girls in Boston. And I served in the war against Mexico, and I’m well aware of the doxies who follow the troops in any conflict. Scott was in the Cavalry, I know, but he’s amongst decent folk now, and would do well to remember it.”
Murdoch saw ol’ man Cluney off, and then he didn’t quirt Scott, but gave him such a blistering lecture in the study that I think Scott woulda preferred the licking. I weren’t eavesdropping on none of this, just happened I was in the kitchen when it took place. Lucky I had one ear protected against the doorjamb, ‘cause Maria was only able to box the other one when she found me and told me to get.
Supper that night was worse than all the week had been. Murdoch must have been wonderin’ what the hell he was thinking wanting his sons home with him. I tried to lighten things up by asking Boston if he knew the poem called ‘The Poxy Doxy’, but even though he and Pa both went an interesting shade of purple, Pa’s offer to have me join him in the barn if I said one more word sort of put a dampener on the evening.
The hearing took place in the saloon, and there was a lot of people in the room. A hearing, or court, was always popular with everyone in town.
We had a long wait while Judge Beedly read through the stack of papers that Mr. Steadman had given him. I got real familiar with all of them papers later, when Murdoch made me read every one, and write a thank you letter to every person who’d wrote a character reference for me.
Pa had wired Val, and got a letter wired back from him. It told how I had grown up to fourteen with hardly any fathering, and how I was a headstrong, high spirited boy who finally had the firm guidance I was in dire need of, and how it would be a ‘gross miscarriage of justice’ were I to be separated from the daddying that I was now in receipt of. As well as all the insults, it said he had known me since I was five, and could attest that I was a young man of stout heart and sterling character, only it was not all available to view at all times to all people. Val was thoughtful enough to not mention how when I’d last seen him I’d stabbed a miner and killed three skeesicks who’d kidnapped him.
I got a real nice reference from Clayt Aubrey, who I’d not long finished havin’ lessons with. He told of me saving his little sister one time. And even Mr Cheswick wrote how I’d saved his daughter once, and not mentioned the fact that I’d got her into the scrape she was in in the first place. There were lots of fine words written about me, which was a surprise to me and sure was a comfort to Murdoch.
Once the Judge had done with all that reading, he started on ‘what had transpired’ the night I freed Theron. When it came out how I’d rigged the snare and caught Sweeney in it, there was a lot of laughing and hootin’ until the Judge roared at everyone.
The Judge informed us all then that he’d been advised that Mr Theron Murphy had rode straight to Brooks Bend and turned himself in, and he’d had a respectable witness with him who cleared him of the charges against him. He had complained to the Judge of his poor treatment, to whit, bein’ beaten up by Sweeney, but as he’d admitted to resisting arrest, quite vigorous, then no charge was made against Sweeney.
“I would recommend to you, Sheriff Sweeney, that you be very careful in your behavior towards your prisoners, as I’m sure you remember that they are deigned to be innocent until proven guilty.”
Sweeney scowled up a storm, but he couldn’t out-scowl Judge Beedly.
Next order of business was the Judge askin’ Murdoch to stand.
“Mr Lancer, what action did you take when it was ascertained that your fifteen year old son had interfered with due process of law?”
Murdoch looked right uncomfortable, and he glanced down at me.
“Well, Murdoch – speak up man!” The Judge demanded with his raspy, impatient voice.
I did enjoy hearin’ Murdoch gettin’ hollered at, something I hadn’t ever heard before. Only his answer caused me to be very discomfitted.
Murdoch cleared his throat and answered, firm.
“I gave him a hiding, Your Honour.”
There was lots more laughin’, as I sank down in my chair. Jesus, my credibility as a tough gunman had just been shot to pieces. I wisht I had shot that fuckin’ Sweeney when I had the chance.
“Sit down, Murdoch. John Lancer, stand up.”
I hauled myself up, studying the floorboards which were dusty and stained. The smell of sweat and beer seemed powerful, now that I noticed.
“You Young Man, are very fortunate in having a decent and respectable family to nurture you. As this has not been the case for many years, I am prepared to make certain allowances for you. I have also taken into account your youth. You are also fortunate to have many friends who have seen fit to put their support for you in writing for this court to consider, which I have done.
However, the fact remains that you have interfered with a law officer who was proceeding with his appointed duties. This is a serious matter. Had you drawn your gun on Sheriff Sweeney, I would be placing you in custody – make no mistake about that.
As you did not use force – well, not too much force – quiet in the court! –I have decided not to jail you.”
There was considerable noise from the people behind me who were pleased for me, and some loud grumbling from Sweeney and a couple of others. Judge Beedly called everyone to order again. I looked straight at Murdoch, and he had his eyes closed, but when he opened them I saw a mighty amount of relief in them. He didn’t smile, but I couldn’t help the pleased look that crept onto my mouth.
“Young Man, wipe that smile off your face and look at me.”
Dios, he sounded a lot like Murdoch when he was on a rant. I looked at him, reluctant. He was an old, rangy fella with grey hair he wore down to his shoulders, and he had a white moustache that hung down both sides of his mouth. He was looking at me stern, but had these lively eyes that glinted at me.
“John, I expect you to stay on your Father’s ranch for the next three months. Is that understood?”
“You will also write a letter of apology to this court, and another to Sheriff Sweeney. Clear?”
“Sheriff Creane, please step forward.”
Allan Creane stood and came over to stand next to me.
“Sheriff Creane, I believe this boy needs a lesson in respecting duly constituted law officers. Can I rely on you to take him across to your office and deliver that?”
There was some muffled laughter behind me, and I think it was Scott who I heard draw in his breath. Or maybe it was me. Dios, but I felt the heat crawl up my neck and flood my face, and I felt like my tie was strangling me.
Sheriff Creane sort of shuffled, but then I felt his eyes look down on me as he answered. I cut a quick look at him, and saw the smile playing about his mouth and eyes. I closed my eyes.
“Yes Judge, I can do that.”
“Good. The court is much obliged.”
Beedly smacked his hand down on the bar then.
“I declare this hearing closed. Clancy, open the bar.”
Pa and Maria sat in the front of the buggy as we made our way home. We were all quiet, all relieved that I was going home to Lancer, and not spending my first night of a jail term.
Jesus, was I hurtin’ though. Soon as we were on our way, Scott slipped off his jacket and tie, and he folded the jacket and nudged me with it. I opened my eyes at the nudge, and looked at him. He didn’t have any expression on his face, but I saw him watching me careful, like he always did when he thought I might be edgy. I took the jacket and shoved it under me. It helped some. Scott hated getting his good clothes mussed, so him letting me use his fancy jacket for a cushion was him looking out for me.
Sheriff Creane had laid into me very thorough. I knew he would, having seen him in action with twelve year old Idris McMasters one time. Idris had thrown a real pretty kingsnake into the middle of the Widow Hargis’s front parlour where there was meeting the ladies of the Green River Knitting for Heathens Circle. That had caused a caterwampus that set the Sheriff tearing down the main street chasin’ Idris. Pa and I had stepped out of the gunshop, and we saw the Sheriff when he caught Idris and wore him out right there in front of the General Store.
Jesus, I wouldn’t a given Idris that snake if I’d known he was going to scare ladies with it.
Soon as Murdoch pulled the buggy to a halt in front of the barn, Scott and me saw to the team, while Maria headed for the kitchen to make some sandwiches. I guess Murdoch woulda headed straight for the whisky. I was beginning to wonder why he felt the need to drink so much.
As we brushed down Lochie and Nessie, Boston finally broke the silence.
“I was surprised at how calmly you accepted the judge’s directive, Johnny. I was sure you’d remonstrate with the Judge about Sheriff Creane giving you a licking.”
Boston had grown up in that particular city, and all his upbringing had been so far from what mine had been, and from what most people in these parts and Mexico had had, that he saw a lot of things different, and worried about things that never occurred to me to worry about.
“Remonstratin’? That mean kick up a ruckus?”
Scott nodded, and then started pulling hair out of the curry brush.
“Scott, I know I was real lucky not to have to go to jail, so a little ol’ leatherin’ don’t hardly matter. Not that it didn’t fuckin’ hurt like a sonofabitch, but I hated the walk across the street from the saloon to the jail more. Everyone knowin’ Johnny Madrid was about to get his tail beat – Jeez, that sure meeked me down, some. Which I’ll bet you was what ol’ Beedly intended.”
Scott looked down at the brush in his hands, and then at me, sympathy in his eyes.
“Boston, you seem to see a tannin’ as a lot more that it is – maybe a dreadful blow to your pride, instead of just your ass? Out here, and in Mexico, no-one thinks anything of it. There’s some neglectful Pa’s don’t care what the hell their kids do, and some bastards that use their feet or fists on their kids. Those kids learn to run fast. Most decent Pa’s keep their kids on the straight by whuppin’ ‘em. I’ve had experience with all them sorts of men, and while I’ll sure be glad when Murdoch thinks it won’t do me any good any more, I’m not goin’ to fret about it.”
Scott started brushing Lochie again.
“Boston, didn’t you get walloped when you were growin’ up?”
“Certainly, many times. Schoolmasters with their canes, and Grandfather, well, after I turned eight, he would send me to our coachman to get strapped.”
I paused in my combing out of Nessie’s tail. Sent to the coachman? I’d never met ol’ Harlan Garrett, but my intense dislike of him deepened when I thought of that. A man who wasn’t warm and close enough to his own grandson to be the one to hold him, even for the short time it took to give him what for? Was that what Scott’s growin’ up had all been like? How had he kept that kind, trustin’ heart, full of caring for every damn person he met?
“So yes, Johnny, I did get it. But it seems to me it was very different to the way it happens out here. Back there it was very private…sort of much more formal and, well, impersonal, I guess you could say.”
“Ain’t nothin’ formal or impersonal about any lickin’ I ever had, that’s for damn sure.”
Scott rested his arms on Lochie’s back, and grinned at me.
“Well, John MacKenzie Lancer, I guess it’s just as well you have that attitude to it, because knowing you, it’s a certainty that it’s going to happen many times again before we get you ‘growed up’. When are you going to learn to consult me before you act so rashly?”
“Way I’m feelin’ right now, Brother, I ain’t never goin’ to get in no trouble never again. I swear.”
I said it as serious as I ever said anything in my life.
And yet not one week later Sheriff Creane had me by the collar, and was shakin’ the hell outta me…
Who’d a thought?