I saw Scott set off down the path to the outhouse, so I sprinted straight to the washhouse and ferreted out the firecracker I’d hid there the week before. As I headed back around to the path through the vegetable garden, I got my matches out. Coming round the side of the hacienda I’d just seen the outhouse door shut, so I approached it quiet, making sure my spurs didn’t make a sound. I waited a minute, standin’ amongst the cabbages, before I struck a match on my boot and lit the penny bunger. I crept forward and when I judged the wick was burned just right, I pitched the cracker under the door and then scooted back.
Three things happened almost at the same time. I heard Murdoch’s voice say ‘What in the- ?’ - the bunger exploded - real loud - and Scott stepped out from behind the plum tree in the corner of the garden. He was buttoning up his fly.
I looked aghast at Scott, who was looking shocked at the noise coming from the jake, which now was trembling some, whether from the firecracker, or Murdoch’s displeasure, I didn’t know.
“JOHNNY!” Murdoch’s voice bellowed out like a bull that had just been kicked in the cojones.
Scott looked back at me, and his surprised look turned to one of real mean delight, and the sonofabitch grabbed his sides and bent forward, clutchin’ his belly and laughin’. The outhouse door slammed open, and I just got a quick look at a wild-haired Murdoch with his hands holdin’ up his pants, before I ran like hell.
Jesus! Not a good way to start the day.
I’d headed for the hills, riding Matteo’s horse, Soldado, which he had just finished saddling when I came tearing across the corral.
“Thanks Matt! You bring Pancho – I’ll explain when we get there!”
Murdoch had me and Matteo, and his older brother, Platon, fencing off a bog out near Fern Falls. We’d been on it for three days and so that’s where I headed. Platon was the second son of Cip and his wife Aletta. Andres was the oldest at nineteen, then Platon, eighteen, Gervaso seventeen and Matteo fifteen, like me. Platon treated me the same as he did his little brother, which was bossy and scoring us continuous about not working hard enough or fast enough or smart enough. Matt would fire up and give him a mouthful, and then Plat would threaten to gut him belly to brisket. The day before they’d ended up rollin’ around punching each other for ten minutes before Plat pinned Matteo face down and then rubbed muck through his hair. It was real entertaining.
I got to work soon as I got to the bog, and about an hour later the brothers arrived. They were leading Conall and Corc, two of our big wagon horses. Murdoch said those were Scottish names which meant ‘powerful’ and ‘heart’, which suited them beauties. They took to grazing while us three took to fencin’. We planned to finish up the job by noon and then hitch the horses up to the wagon and be home in time for lunch. Not me though. I had decided on avoiding the homestead till supper time, hoping by then that Murdoch woulda got over his little surprise in the jake in the mornin’. Both brothers thought it was hilarious that I’d thrown a scare into Murdoch by mistake, but they were both worried that I’d get skinned for it.
“Naw, Murdoch will’ve got over it by the time I get home tonight. “
“You hope, Muchacho…” Plat laughed as he pulled the wire tight before wrapping it. “After last week I thought you would want to stay out of trouble, for at least a little while.”
Matt and I exchanged a look.
The week before we had been stringing wire with Gervaso in charge. We usually worked with someone older than him as jefe, but the ranch was real shorthanded so Murdoch sent the three of us out together. We were talkin’ mighty vulgar, and that got Gervaso hot under the collar, and hot elsewhere besides, and he decided to skive off and go and see his new girl. Said if he didn’t go and kiss her right then and there he would die. Matt and me kept working till lunchtime and then we headed over to the creek to eat, and sluice ourselves down. Trouble was Matt produced a jug of pulque that he’d swiped during a fiesta two weeks before, and we decided that this was the perfect opportunity to have us a nip of that with our roast pork tortillas.
We’d both had tequila and mezcal when we could get a drink on the sneak, but neither of us had had pulque and we were ripe to try some. Matt said as how it was supposed to be real good for you, almost like medicine. Ladies who were hatchin’ babies even drank it.
Our first swills of the bottle didn’t impress us at all, as the milky coloured liquid had a sourish taste. We decided it must be pretty tame so we had a bigger swill, and round about then we both started to feel buzzy.
“It ain’t half bad, you know. Prefer tequila myself, but this goes down better than popskull. Here Matt, give us the jug back.”
See, you got to be real careful when you try a new liquor like that. By the time you come accustomed to the taste, the varmint likely has creeped up on you, and it’s easy then to lose sight of the fact that one more gobful might make you also lose sight of being exactly sober. And that’s what happened.
With each swig of that jug Matt and me got more relaxed and more full of the thought of how well we could handle our chores, our drinkin’, our lives, and the whole goddamn, fuckin’ world around us. We discovered too, that everything the other one said was the funniest thing we had ever heard, and we were rolling around under the peppercorn trees, holding our sides and hardly bein’ able to breathe, we were laughing so much.
Gradually we calmed down, only chortlin’ every few seconds, and pretty soon Matt said he was going to have a leak behind the tree, and then he was goin’ to have a little siesta before we went back to work. I did the same, amazed at how hard it was to walk in a straight line to get behind the tree, and even how hard it had been to undo my buttons and stand still long enough to wet the tree trunk. By the time I meandered back Matt was stretched out and sound asleep. I intended to stay awake and guard us, but the last I remembered was lookin’ down at my fly and seeing two rows of buttons, and none of them fixed in their right buttonholes.
Four hours later, I jerked awake when someone kicked my boot. I grabbed for my gun, but it was not in its holster, which was just as well, as it was Cip I woulda shot. I looked up at the big, long length of him towering over me, and I meant to spring up, but it seemed my arms and legs were weighted down, and my spring was nowhere to be found. Cip reached down and grabbed a handful of the front of my shirt and hauled me up, and then he kicked at the boot of his youngest son.
“Vete al infierno.” (Go to hell) Matt mumbled, as he rolled onto his side, eyes tight shut.
I chanced a look at Cip’s face and was sorry I had. His mouth was pressed thin and his skin was goin’ darker and his eyes were shooting more sparks than Murdoch’s forge. As he bent down and grabbed Matt’s collar I saw that his other hand held the empty pulque jug. Jesus. Matt’s eyes sprung wide when he heard his father’s voice.
“Matteo, mi hijo…” Cipriano’s voice was soft and carressin’. That was real dangerous, I knew.
I could see that Matt was maybe hoping he was dreamin’, which hope was gone real quick when Cip roared.
Matt looked into the face of his daddy and suddenly all the colour bleached away and Cip saw what was about to happen and hasty turned his son sideways, just in time so that when Matt unloaded his lunch it wasn’t down the front of his father’s shirt.
Matt heaving like that was the end of me. Seein’ and hearin’ and smellin’ – well, I dropped to my knees and cast up my accounts as well. Christamighty, that pulque musta been off, the way I felt and the way it all came up and brought my gizzards up with it, felt like.
Cip couldn’ta been nicer the next ten minutes. Returning my gun, getting our canteens so we could wash our mouths out, and dipping our bandanas in the creek so’s we could wash off our faces. We weren’t fooled though. We both knew comeuppance was bearin’ down on us like a mad Mexican bull. We watched Cip go to our horses and tighten the cinches on each one and then lead them over to us. Matt and me looked at each other and he looked as rattley as I felt. Cip stood in front of Matteo.
“Donde esta tu hermano? “ (Where is your brother?)
Cip was finished with bein’ sweet, and his tone was harsh and so was the look he pinned Matt with.
“He had to go and do an errand, Papa.” Matt dropped his eyes as he spoke.
Cipriano stood there relaxed, his arms folded, and one knee bent. He kept his eyes on his hijo’s head for a moment, and then he sighed, and he dropped both hands to his belt buckle and started undoing it. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and Matt glanced up and saw what his Papa was doing and looked even sicker than he had just a moment before. I wondered did Cip plan to whup me next. Maybe he was fixed to take care of us himself. But that wasn’t what he’d decided.
He didn’t take his eyes off Matt but he spoke to me.
‘Juanito, you will go straight home. Now. You will tell your father exactly why you and my sons have not completed the work assigned to you today. Comprende?”
Cip looked at me then, as he doubled his belt and held it between his two hands. I went to say a yes to him, but damn if my voice didn’t break and a fuckin’ squeak came out. He raised one eyebrow, as I cleared my throat and tried for a more manly sound, and then he jerked his head in the direction of home.
Jesus, I didn’t need telling twice and I swung up on Pancho and lit outta there like my tail was on fire. Which of course it kinda was, later that evenin’ once Murdoch got through with me. Although just when the licking had started to bite, and I’d gritted my teeth, Murdoch had jerked me back upright and told me that shirking my work was one thing, but drinking was quite another, and if I did that again then I’d just got a taste of what I would be in for. He had sorta went easy on me, all things considered, which surprised me. Murdoch had a way of surprising me quite regular.
Next day me and Matt worked diligent as all gettout, with Plat doing the supervising. Matt said his Pa sure didn’t go easy on him, seeing as how he had behaved poorly ‘in his position’ as the son of the estancia’s Segundo. When Gervaso got home he had got a hiding as well, so we all hoped that he’d got a kiss from Marquilla, and that he thought it was worth it. We blamed her, her being such a hot tamale and all, which fact had led to all three of us men ending up in trouble with our Pa’s. Women.
So that was all what Plat was referrin’ to when he jibbed me about riling Murdoch with the firecracker in the outhouse.
Murdoch had already been givin’ me and Scott the rounds of the kitchen that morning, even before I chunked that firecracker. The night before he’d gone into town to have dinner with some visiting yahoo, and he’d told me and Scott that he would stay in town. So we got real relaxed and by the time we’d gone to bed there’d been boots and jackets and popcorn and mugs and glasses lyin’ spread out from one end of the Great Room to the other. We’d planned to clear up in the morning, being too exhausted from the popcorn fight to do it when we were ready to sack in.
Murdoch foolishly decided to come home to sleep, so it weren’t our fault that he tripped over my boots in the entrance way, or that he skidded some on a few harmless bits of the popcorn. He didn’t see it that way, of course, and was a real grouch about it.
Scott made some comment about how at home the servants picked up after him, and Murdoch chewed his ear off about how the ladies who helped run out home had enough to do without picking up messes made by thoughtless and untidy youngsters. That made ol’ Boston fire up and say he certainly didn’t expect the ladies to pick up after him, he was ‘merely making an observation’ about how different things were out here, and also he was hardly ‘a youngster’. Which comment made the ol’ Man then rasp back that if he wasn’t a youngster he wouldn’t object to being called one, and what was a mountain of popcorn doin’ spread all over the floor, and such like.
It didn’t help us that in the morning we’d slept in, not expecting him to be there at the crack of fuckin’ dawn, so he was peevish about that as well, telling us both we’d better pull our socks up. When he said if we didn’t appreciate living in a clean and tidy home then maybe we should move into the bunkhouse, I’d said I’d like that fine, but that only made the hollering worse. There was no pleasin’ him.
So I was glad to be well away from the homestead, and I was enjoyin’ being part of the crews that worked all around Lancer every day. I’d stopped having lessons with Clayt Aubrey on account of him going to San Francisco for about three months. He was goin’ to have some tidy up surgery on his leg that had been injured in the War. The damage had been bad when it had happened so they’d had to cut it off under his knee. That had been a rush job in a field hospital, so now they were going to try and improve things for him somehow.
Clayt had talked to Murdoch about keeping me reading and figgering, and Murdoch had listened too well. I had to read a chapter of a book every night and then write down a list of what was in that chapter. And I had to write down any word I didn’t know and then look it up in the dictionary and write the meaning next to it. Mierda, it took forever. Murdoch set me problems from ‘Warrens Intermediate Geography’ and ‘Coulburn’s Arithmetic’, and Clayt had given Scott his copy of ‘The Tutors Assistant’ by some jape called Walkingames. That was because Scott was the one who got tasked with checking my answers and explaining anything I didn’t grasp. I’d protested long and loud about all this, but Murdoch said I either shut the hell up and got on with it, or words like that, or he would ‘engage the Widow Hargis to continue your education’. So I shut the hell up real quick.
I thought on understanding as little as possible and getting Murdoch and Scott so frustrated they’d quit. Murdoch didn’t fall for that ploy at all, as he told me Clayt had said how I had a very quick mind.
“My gunhand is quicker.” I’d offered, but that was not appreciated by the Ol’ Man at all, and I’d had to duck quick to avoid his trying to swate me.
“You put your mind to the set work, Young Man, or you’ll spend every Saturday catching up on the work you pretended not to understand. Clear?”
After Platon and Matteo had hitched Corc and Conell to the wagon and left for home, I’d ridden over to the new pond Murdoch was having dug at Squaw Bottom. Darby had a crew there which I joined and worked on till quittin’ time. Scott was supposed to be there, but Darby said as how Ced had come out to fetch him just half an hour before I got there. I wondered if Murdoch had got wind of Scott’s fracas in town on Friday night. He’d had a fight with Pearly Gate over Pearly’s disgraceful behavior to Big Jen. Big Jen could handle any cowboy, any way, but ol’ Boston was real particular about manners, even to the ladies of the line, and he’d snotted Pearly a good one. Pearly had retaliated with a punch to Scott’s gut, and Scott’s ribs were some bruised. At least his pretty face hadn’t got a mark on it, which was why Murdoch hadn’t seen that his first born had been brawlin’. Again. Murdoch didn’t take too kindly to us brawlin’.
Soon, what with shoveling and pick axing rocks all afternoon, I forgot about Scott and his temper. And I put Murdoch and his temper outta my mind, too.
The whole crew were all pretty filthy, but I seemed to be the dirtiest. So when we got back to Lancer I decided I couldn’t avoid a bath. I smelled to high heaven from the rank mud where I’d ended up at the pond site.
I saw a buggy tied up at the house, and my stomach had tightened when I thought it was Sam’s, but then I realized it wasn’t. Ced offered to take Pancho for me, and I let him as I wanted to see who was visiting. Murdoch hadn’t said nothin’ about expecting anyone, and it was late in the day for a social call, so I was wary of trouble. I checked my gun on the way over to the house, and checked my derringer as well. I approached very quiet and from the side portico. Through the windows I could see Murdoch standing at the fireplace, and he looked grim.
Scott was sitting on the couch so his back was to me. He and Murdoch were both looking at a big man who was also on the couch, so I couldn’t see his face either. I slipped through the door, and Murdoch looked up and his face lightened a bit, but not much.
“Come in, Son.” He motioned me forward with the hand that held a drink.
Scott and the stranger both turned to me, Scott with a big smile that looked more like relief, and the stranger, who I could see now was real old. He didn’t smile. He looked grim too.
“Harlan, I’d like you to meet my youngest, Johnny. Johnny, this is Scott’s grandfather, Mr. Harlan Garrett.”
I was real shocked, and glanced at Boston, who gave me that strained smile. Ol’ Garrett had started to hold his clawed hand towards me, but his eyes swept me from dirty hair to muddy boot and he quickly withdrew his hand. I hadn’t offered mine.
“How do you do, young man.”
The words were said in this icy, raspy voice that told me in no uncertain terms that as far as he was concerned, I did very poor, and it was nothin’ to do with the dirt all over me either.
“Mr Garrett.” I wanted to spit the words out as cold as him, but I didn’t want to upset Scott.
“My God, Johnny, you smell to high heaven! You worked on the pond I take it?” Scott stepped away from me, fanning his hand in front of his nose. Murdoch stepped back, too.
“Son, you’d better head straight for the bathhouse – and you’d better backtrack so Maria doesn’t see you!” Murdoch’s voice had softened, but still sounded strained as hell.
I got outta there very smart, and made a beeline for the washhouse. It had been wash day and the place smelled strong of soap and starch and lavender, and there was just enough hot water left to three- quarters fill the tub. I sure scummed up that water by the time I’d scrubbed off.
I was half way outta the tub when Maria knocked, but then barged straight on in.
“Jesus Maria! I’m naked here, in case you didn’t notice!”
I’d dropped back into the tub which sent a wave over the side.
“You think I haven’t seen your culo (bottom) before, pequeno (little one)?” She scoffed.
I hoped that’s all she’d seen, ‘specially her sayin’ ‘little one’ like that, for fucks sake. She was putting some clean clothes on the bench, and she turned and held up a bucket which she’d also brought in.
“Here nino, I’ll rinse your hair.”
And before I could shut my mouth she dumped the water over my head. At least it was nice and warm, but I still swore before I could help myself, and of course that got me a none too gentle whack to the back of my head.
“Juanito!” and she rattled off a scolding like she always did when I cussed.
By the time she finished scoring me I was in a real strop, what with thinking about ol’ Harlan and all, and noticing that there was a tie laid out on top of my ‘company’ clothes.
“Maria,” I finally got a word in, “did you know ol’ Garrett was coming?”
That shut her up. Her eyes went dark and her mouth went into its best peevish clampdown.
“No, I did not. If I had known that Senor Scott’s abuelo was coming, he would not have found the hacienda in such a state!”
The only time the hacienda was in a ‘state’ was when Scott or me had been brangling when Maria was finished for the day, like the previous night when we’d had our popcorn fight. Or when Maria was in a fit of what Murdoch called ‘spring cleaning’. Rest of the time it was so clean and tidy the King of Spain woulda pinned a medal on Maria.
“Senor Garrett arrived most unexpectedly. Your Papa is…disturbed.”
Maria was too polite to say that Murdoch was in a fuckin’ fit.
“Hurry and get dressed, Nino, and drop all of those clothes podrido (putrid) in the tub to soak.”
Maria suddenly bent forward and planted a kiss on top of my head.
“Ay, querido, seeing you in the tub like this reminds me so of the past! What a preciosa bebe you were! Tan gordita! (So chubby) Such eyes! Such eyelashes - thick and long as a girl’s! The smile - and the dimples! I still see the dimples in your face, chico, and you still have the other one in your left nalga. (buttock)”
“Dios, Maria!” I dropped my face into my hands, wishin’ the water was deep enough to dive under.
She just laughed and clucked at me.
“What a blessing to have you back, Juanito. I thank the Virgin every day. Now, I must go and organize a feast. Ay ay yi! If only I had known!”
And Maria grabbed up my muddy boots and went sailing out the door, still talking ten to the dozen. I sat there hunkered down and thinking about what that old bastard Garrett was up to, sneakin’ in on us like that. If he thought he was goin’ to steal Scott away again, then he was going to find that there was a gunfighter close by who was going to set his sun for him.
I looked over at the tie and swore. Then I got dry and dressed and kicked the tie under the bench. I swiped my spurs through the scummy water till they was clean, and then attached them to my spare boots, Scott’s old ones.
I forgot to drop the dirty clothes in the tub, ‘cause I had too much on my mind.
When I went back to the Great Room, Garrett was sitting there alone, like he owned the place. I stomped in and went and got myself a belt of whisky and then stood in front of the fireplace.
Garrett eyed my glass and his mouth went pruny. Before he could say anything I downed the drink and put the empty glass behind the clock on the mantel so Murdoch wouldn’t see it.
“Scotty told me about you. His half-brother. Madrid, I believe?”
“Well, it’s not Madrid anymore…Sir. It’s Lancer.”
“Forgive me – of course.”
I tried my damndest to be charming like Scott would be.
“Scott’s talked my” – I paused, as I thought I probably shouldn’t say ‘ass’ to this old man “- ear - off, about you, and Boston.”
Garrett was studying me, like a snake about to eat. He didn’t see Scott come in behind him.
“Let’s see now. Your mother was a –foreigner- now, wasn’t she?”
I paused. The words sounded innocent enough, and the old bastard looked like he was just showin’ interest, but I could feel the contempt underneath. He was like so many Americanos I had dealt with my whole life. They had this idea that only people with white skin were worth a damn. He was making sure I knew that he didn’t consider my brown skin equal to his. I was used to pendejos like him though, and I kept my eyes soft and my tone too, as I inclined my head and gave him a look that let him know he hadn’t insulted me, even though he’d intended to.
“Ah yes, yes. Yes, I understand that she was a very lovely woman.”
“Grandfather – shall I fix you another drink?” Scott gave me a worried look before he rounded the couch to address his Grandpa. Garrett looked surprised that Scott had come in, but he recovered quick.
Murdoch came back in then too, and I checked quickly that my empty glass was out of sight. Murdoch headed straight to the drinks tray and made drinks for all of them. I flopped down into the blue chair, glad that I didn’t have to be host any more. Murdoch handed round the whiskeys, and scowled at me as he touched his own tie, letting me know he’d noticed I didn’t have mine on.
Over drinks and dinner, which was some slap-up feast that Maria had conjured up, we got the story of how Garrett had had business to transact in San Francisco and had decided to surprise Scott – that is, Scotty- with a visit. It was a load of pigswill and neither me nor Murdoch was buyin’ that bellywash for one minute. He was always writing letters demanding that Scott get his little keyster back home to Boston, which fact Scott had told me, and said as how he would write back and not even acknowledge the ‘invitations’ to return. I could imagine that Garrett was a lot like Murdoch in that way – that he was not used to not getting things his own way. Scott and me, we were both teaching Murdoch how to accept defeat graceful-like, but ol’ Harlan, he had yet to learn that lesson from us. But I was determined that I was goin’ to teach him.
I escaped off to my room pretty early, already finding that Garrett’s creepy, oily voice gave me the fantods. It was hard for me to think of that hard, calculatin’, old buzzard rearing Scott. Scott was such an open and honest hombre who saw the best in everyone. He didn’t judge anyone by their colour or their ‘station’ in life, and he was no way mistrustful like I was.
Murdoch had told both of us how much we looked like our Mamas. Scott’s Mama must’ve looked like old Garrett’s wife, ‘cause Scott sure didn’t look like Harlan. They were both tall, but that was all. Garrett had thick, wavy peppery sprinkled hair, which would’ve been darker once. It was starting to creep back. Scott had thick hair, but it was straight and very light. Scott’s eyes were blue and Harlan’s were too, but his were so dark they looked like the inside of my Colt after I’d oiled it. And just as dangerous, too. Harlan had a bigger sort of nose, and thin lips, where Scott had this fine snooty nose, and the only time his mouth looked thin was when he was riled at me. I knew for a fact that lots of girls in the valley looked with favour on my brother, but I doubted anyone would ever have liked the look of old Garrett. Scott’s abeula musta been near-sighted I reckoned, to have slept with that old buzzard.
Mostly the biggest difference was that old Garrett was a fuckin’ old varlet and Scott was worth a thousand of him.
Once I’d got in my room I shucked all those uncomfortable duds and stood at the window, looking out and scratching my belly. The curtains blew against me, and even the soft, sweet smellin’ night air didn’t ease me. I wanted to punch something. Or someone.
There was a knock on the door before it opened a little, and Murdoch’s head appeared. He came in then, and as he dropped down to sit on the bed he put ‘Alton Locke’ on my bedside table. After hearing Murdoch and Scott talkin’ about ‘The Scarlet Letter’ I’d wanted to read that, but Murdoch said ‘Alton’ was more suitable for me. Sometimes he seemed to forget that I had just about seen it all before he brought me home to Lancer, and that I was not goin’ to faint if I read about a little cooching in the other book.
“I thought you might want to read before you go to sleep, Son. You can skip the writing tonight though.”
“You left Scott alone with that old bastard?”
“Watch your mouth.” But he said the words mild, and I knew he thought Harlan was exactly that.
“Your Brother has a right to visit with his Grandfather, and I know that Scott knows his own mind. I need you to try and understand that Scott feels very differently about Harlan than we do. I know I can rely on you to mind your manners, Johnny.”
He raised an eyebrow at me, ‘cause we both knew he probably couldn’t rely on me at all, really.
“I know it will be hard to do – Harlan is not an easy man. But we both have to think of Scott, and I want you to realize that being patient with that man will be hard for me too. He and I have already had words, before Scott even arrived back this afternoon. But we have come to a…an agreement… of sorts.”
Murdoch sure didn’t look too happy about whichever agreement he’d got into.
I was still standin’ at the window drawing the curtain material through my hand as I listened, wondering at whether to go on and ask what was on my mind.
“Murdoch, you know… I know it was hard for you to locate me down in Mexico after all those years… you know, trying to locate one stray boy…”
“Took time…” Murdoch’s voice was so soft it made me look up. He looked real strained.
“Yeah.” I tried to calm my breathin’.
I felt rattley, and when I spoke again my voice sounded nervy even to me, but I wanted to keep going and ask something I’d puzzled at a long time, and that I knew Scott never talked about but musta been on his mind from little things he said and looks I’d seen on his face sometimes.
“What I’m wondering about is…you knew where Scott was all the time.”
Murdoch was real still, and his face suddenly looked old to me. Old and wretched, but I kept going, couldn’t hardly help myself.
“What…took you so long?”
Murdoch looked away, but he didn’t look like he was seein’ what he was lookin’ at.
“I tried.” His voice was hardly there. “I tried.” He said it again and I felt a bit worried.
He’d got up slow and he came and stood at the other side of the window, and he was gazing out into the darkness, but still not looking at what was there. I let go of the curtain and went and sat on the bed where he’d just been, and the warmth he’d left on the quilt seeped into me and was a comfort. The sounds of the night came through the window. The quiet lowing of the steers, a faint sound of a guitar. The sharp little call of a yellow warbler.
I watched Murdoch’s back, trying to read this man who had got close to me even though I had not wanted him to.
I’d grown up listening to how he didn’t want me, didn’t want me or Mama, and I had hated him. Even after the truth of Mama leavin’ of her own want, and taking me from him and the home I shoulda had, I had still not wanted to have nothing to do with him. I’d been alone, and I’d been wary of everyone for so long, that accepting that Murdoch wasn’t going to turn on me – well, that took a long time. Truth was, sometimes that thought could still fleet through my head, even though now I knew what sort of man my Pa was. I still didn’t understand him, or some of his ways. When I was on my own, and sellin’ my gun, I’d had to learn quick how to read men. But I found it hard to read Murdoch, and even when I thought I had the heft and reach of him, he would do something or say something and I would be left with all these questions again.
What I did know, that understand him or not, I could trust him. I knew for certain now that he wanted me and he wanted Scott.
But there were still questions I had, that Scott had, and I knew Murdoch had too, and none of us had got to the nub of all of that. Sometimes I wanted to ask him a hundred things, and sometimes I just wanted to forget every question that had ever plagued me. But sometimes the wanting to know just surged up and boiled out, or seeped out like just now.
Murdoch hadn’t moved. He was so still, seemed to be barely breathing. Then I saw his hand clenching the window frame tighter and tighter and I started to get worried.
“Murdoch?” No answer. “Pa?”
He suddenly mumbled something and turned towards me, and because his face looked pale the blood starting into it was real noticeable, and I asked him what did he say.
“Say? About what?” He looked confused.
“About Scott. And Boston.”
“Oh, that. That was nothing.”
We were so intent on each other we neither of us had saw that Scott had appeared in the doorway.
“What about me?” He sounded very disgruntled. Me and Murdoch both shuffled where we were. Murdoch said again how it was nothing, what he said, and Scott came in, shut the door behind him, and perched on the end of my bed.
“Had a pleasant visit with your Grandfather?” Murdoch kept all tone outta his voice.
“Most of it.” Scott’s voice was cranky, but then he seemed to calm himself. His next words were determined even though they were said pretty quiet.
“Murdoch, I think you and I are overdue for a little talk.”
I made to leave but Scott was sitting up against my pants, and when I went to pull them from under his arm he grabbed them and pitched them down on my pillow, and just shook his head at me. I didn’t know whether that meant he wanted me to stay, and I hesitated, and then the two of them got into it. I drifted over to the dresser and leaned against it. I wasn’t surprised at how frustrated Scott got, ‘cause I felt much the same, listenin’ to them. Scott sayin’ as how the past didn’t stay in the past, and Murdoch sayin’ to let it, and as how he’d wanted to take Scott with him but couldn’t. Scott standing up, getting riled, and asking why Murdoch never came to collect him, and why did he let another man raise his son.
When he said that, my throat got tight, and then when Murdoch took a grip on Scott’s arms and asked him not to make any decisions in anger, well, anger and worry welled up in me, and I felt like runnin’ straight at the two of ‘em and flattening them both to the ground. Decisions? What decisions?
Scott was looking for answers in Murdoch’s face, and I think Murdoch was tryin’ his damndest to show those answers, but why didn’t he just come out and speak? Him and Scott both of ‘em had ten times more schoolin’ than me and yet they couldn’t find any right words? Jesus.
Murdoch dropped his hands, and Scott kept looking for those answers for another moment, and then he turned and left. Murdoch looked after him with this pained look on his face, and then he looked down at the floor.
He’d had no answers for me before Scott had came in, and he’d sure not given Scott any either. This family business was confusin’ the hell out of me. Murdoch looked up when I moved over to the bed again.
“So Murdoch, no answers, huh?”
Murdoch ran a hand down his face. He took in a big breath, and headed out of my room.
“No simple answers, Johnny.”
I waited till I heard Murdoch’s door close, and then I padded across the hallway and knocked on Scott’s door and asked was he alright. He said he was and that he would see me in the morning. He had his Lieutenant Lancer voice going, so I didn’t barge on in, just went back to my room and tried to read my book which was about some other family’s troubles.
At breakfast Murdoch told Scott if we weren’t so short-handed he would give him the whole day to spend with his Grandpa, but once Scott had helped get the west herd rounded up and headed over to their new pasture, then he could have the rest of the day off. Scott said as how Harlan had stated his intention of going into Green River on a money matter, and had refused Scott’s offer to drive him in, so Scott would put in a full day, thank you very much sir.
That ‘sir’ was usual with Scott, but the tone he said it in was not, and Murdoch and I both looked up. Scott ignored us and drank his coffee with a steely look on his face.
“Well,” said the Ol’ Man, “I’ll see you both out there in ten minutes.”
He threw down his napkin and then fixed his eyes on me.
“John, I am going to the outhouse. I do not wish to encounter any firecrackers, skunks, dynamite – anything untoward at all. Clear?”
“Yessir, it’s clear.”
Murdoch nodded once and left. I looked over at Scott and he was grinning at me over the rim of his cup.
I was so happy to see him smilin’, I couldn’t think of any disgusting thing to say about jakes and such, which was not like me at all.
Dinner that night was a real strain, again. Ol’ Harlan talked about Boston the whole time. About Scott’s friends, about tea-dances, balls, swa-rays, whatever the fuck they were, and boating and clam-parties and concerts and plays. Scott asked lots of questions about all those people and places, and Murdoch and I didn’t have to look at each other to know what we both thought of Harlan’s tactics.
Scott didn’t even try to include us, him being so peeved with Murdoch. I got peeved too, and my temper started to build. Any time Scott mentioned anything that happened in the San Joaquin, Harlan would say ‘rustic’ in this real belittlin’ way. We’d all worked hard all day, and had got clean, but not suited up, and the old bastardo said something to Scott about how the ‘rustic’ clothes he was wearing would amuse some girl Scott had been hoping to court before he ran off to war.
“She must be some real empty headed perra (bitch) if she laughs at how a man dresses.” I said angry.
Garrett wouldn’t a known the Spanish, but he knew that what I was sayin’ and my tone of voice was ‘impertinent’, and he looked angry as hell, but so did Murdoch.
“Johnny! Apologize right now. You will not be insolent to any guest at this table.”
“Well he don’t have no trouble being insultin’ to us at this table!” I fired back.
Harlan looked angry, but smug at the same time which made me madder.
“John – apologize.”
“No way am I apologizin’ to that old sonofa-“
Murdoch sprung to his feet and Scott did too, only Scott looked like he was goin’ to hold Pa back. Pa and me glared at each other, and then Garrett spouted off his smarmy mouth.
“Murdoch, that boy is in dire need of a good thrashing.”
He dabbed dainty at his mouth. I wanted to jam that napkin down his throat.
“What discipline my son – sons- need, is entirely my decision, thank you, Harlan.” Murdoch fumed.
With the furious look he cut at me, I knew exactly what he felt like doing to me, but I still started to smile, thinking Murdoch was switched to my side. Dios, but the Old Man wasn’t that easy to head off.
“John – wipe that smile off your face, and apologize!”
I saw that Scott was looking pretty unhappy, so I swallowed my pride and most of my anger.
“Lo siento.” I said quiet, looking completely unsorry, straight at Garrett’s third button on his vest.
“In English.” Pa sounded like a grizzly.
I raised my eyes to the old buzzards cold eyes. He saw the cold in my eyes and didn’t look so smug.
At least the rest of the meal everyone kept mum, ‘cepting Scott who made a few mild remarks. One good thing was we didn’t have to listen more about how good back East was and how ‘rustic’ California was. I meant to look up that word later. Soon as we got up from the table Murdoch told me to get my book readin’ done over at his desk. Scott dropped his hand on my shoulder as he crossed my path, and that made me feel mollified.
I’d no sooner sat down than there was a knock at the door and Harlan said as how he was expecting company, and he would get the door. Murdoch said for him to invite his guest in, but Harlan said they were not making a social call, and he would speak to them outside. Murdoch looked a bit surprised, but of course didn’t interfere. Ten minutes later old Garrett came back in and asked Scott if he would be so good as to ‘step outside’ as he wished to talk to him privately.
Scott went out, and Murdoch and I looked across the Great Room at each other.
Half an hour later, they both came back in, and Harlan looked like he was pleased with himself. Scott just said would we please excuse them both, and they headed for the stairs. I got up but Pa said for me to please finish my work before I went to see Scott, so I dropped back into my seat. Took me nigh on an hour to finish up with that book learnin’, and by then the hard day of moving the herd had truly caught up with me. I thought I’d drape over the ottoman just for a spell, but musta gone out like a light, ‘cause it was some time later when Murdoch tapped at my boot with his. I stirred up befuddled, but then lay back down and closed my eyes. But not for long. I heard Murdoch’s voice, and Scott’s reply.
“Well, go on.”
“I’ve decided to go back to Boston with my Grandfather.”
I jerked my head up and twisted around then, hardly believing what my ears had heard. But sure enough, Scott stood there next to Harlan, who had his claw around my hermano’s shoulders. Scott looked like misery out of cholera, but the old goat was fairly lit up with pleasure, and let us know it.
“It was a surprise to me, too. I must say - a very pleasant surprise.”
He sent that oily voice over us as he patted Scott hearty on the shoulder. Murdoch was sitting with a big book open on his lap. He shut it with a thump. He looked so sad my heart pulled tight. I jumped up and followed Scott, only pausing by Garrett’s side long enough to look at him with all my dislike there in my eyes. ‘Course, he couldna cared less, he was beaming his satisfied smile straight at Murdoch.
Fucking sonofabitch bastardo.
I knocked at Scott’s door and he told me he didn’t want to talk, and I said if he didn’t unlock the fuckin’ door I’d kick it down, and he said for me to go to bed. I kicked at the door a few times, but the blamed doors in the hacienda were solider than in a fort. Which fact meant my foot hurt like a sonofabitch.
I went barreling downstairs intending to rant at Murdoch, but he’d holed up in his study, and said the same – for me to go to bed. I woulda kicked that door a few times too, only for the sound of grief I heard in Pa’s voice. Jesus, I was full of rage and disbelief, and no-one to vent it at. I went back out to the drinks tray and downed a tequila. Then I had another one. I was pouring a third when Murdoch’s hand closed on my wrist. Jesus! For a big man he could move quiet as an Indian. If that tequila hadn’t already started hittin’ I wouldn’t a got surprised like that.
“If I can’t drown my sorrows, Son, then you are most definitely not going to be drowning yours.”
“It’s either get drunk or go upstairs and shoot that old pendejo, Murdoch –“
“You get upstairs but just get yourself into bed.”
“Murdoch there’s something not right –“
“Johnny, I am not going to discuss this while you and I are both in a state. Please do as I ask.”
Murdoch had this voice, and this look, that even Madrid woulda been hard pressed to defy. I cussed under my breath and went to my room. I felt powerless, and that and the tequila made me feel real weak.
I tossed and turned all damn night, and then fell asleep and slept right through cock crow. When I stumbled downstairs, I couldn’t believe that Scott and Harlan were already packed and taking luggage out to the buckboard. Pa was standing in the portico, looking stricken, but very still.
I leaned on the hitchin’ post support, pressin’ the pointy top of it into my belly to try and stop the griping I felt inside. Scott didn’t look at any of us as he carried two bags to the back of the buckboard. Harlan had climbed up and was watching, now, like the old hawk he was.
“So just like that huh, you suddenly decide you’re going back to Boston?”
“That’s right.” Scott sort of breathed the words out.
“What’s amatter, Big Brother, you, ah, get a little sand in your boots and you… gotta run home?”
“Johnny.” Murdoch said at me, his voice tellin’ me to quit it.
“I wanna know why, Murdoch – that’s all!” I wasn’t exactly yellin’, ‘cause I was holding in.
I sure didn’t intend to hide my anger. I felt like it was all running out of control, slipping away and there didn’t seem to be nothin’ to grab hold of, and Murdoch was just letting it go. What was the matter with all of them?
Scott was tying bags down like there was a tornado threatenin’. I sure felt like there was a tornado in me. He answered me, with this real measured calm voice, but I knew he wasn’t calm at all.
“I’m just not cut out for this kind of life. That’s all.”
“Ohhh, psht.” If Murdoch heard what cussword that was replacin’ he woulda had a fit.
“Anyway, you got along without me before, you’ll do just fine from now on.”
I moved away, couldn’t stand to be so close to this disaster that was happening. I picked up a small rock and tossed it from hand to hand, tryin’ to contain my roiled up feelings.
“I’m sure Scotty feels a deep regret. But after all, he did live over sixteen years of his life in Boston.”
Harlan’s fake feelin’ he put into his voice was enough to make me want to puke up my guts.
“There’s no reason you can’t come to Boston, visit me,” said Scott.
There was no mistaking the real feelin’ in his voice.
Murdoch stepped forward at last, askin’ about travel plans, as if anyone gave a fuck. It was like they were both achin’, but neither one of ‘em could reach the other, and it was painful just to see it.
Then Murdoch moved in closer, but still like he didn’t feel like he had any right to. He held out his hand as he said ‘Son’ and gripped Boston’s hand.
“Take care of yourself.” He looked like the words were hurtin’ his mouth.
“Yeah.” Scott looked over at me, like looking at Pa was too painful, but then he looked quick away from me, too.
“If you ever feel that you…” Murdoch’s words were hesitatin’.
I couldn’t look at them, looked down at my boots. Harlan’s voice cut through again.
“Scotty, we’d better be on our way.”
Scott looked over at me as he climbed into the buckboard and took up the reins. Behind us all the cattle were sounding as mournful as I felt. The look that Boston threw my way made me go still, and I just said my goodbye quiet, not even knowing if he heard the words as the buckboard pulled away, taking my new brother out of my life after not even one year of having him in it.
That thought made the anger surge up again, and I looked away from the dust left in their wake, over to Murdoch. I started tossing the rock in my hand, and looked back at the dust in the distance and ground out my anger at Pa.
“Seems to me Murdoch you coulda tried a little harder.”
I looked straight at him.
“You coulda put up a fight.”
“He’s not a little boy, Johnny – it’s his decision.”
“Well that may be good enough for you – but it’s not for me!”
I chunked that rock as far as I could. The hair fell over my eyes with the movement, and I angrily jerked my head to toss it clear as I stormed off. I didn’t know where the hell I was goin’, but I had to get away from Murdoch and the emptiness that would be in the house.
I went and saddled Pancho and headed out. I thought on how even though Scott hadn’t got the answers he’d wanted from Pa, and he’d been mad about it, he hadn’t shown any way that he was goin’ to pack up and leave. No, he was cantankerous sure, but I hadn’t got any feelin’ that ol’ Garrett was making headway in getting Boston back to Boston.
It wasn’t till that knock on the door the night before, and Scott going out to talk to whoever was out there with the old bastard. When he’d come in I’d seen his pinched look, and he had not let me get near him since.
Sonofabitch! It came clear to me. He didn’t want me near him ‘cause he knew how good I could read him, and he was hiding something from me. Not that he was going back East, that was plain, but why he was going. Fuck!
Scott had said to Murdoch that they were going in to Green River to collect a few of Harlan’s belongings he’d left there. So that’s where I turned Pancho to.
I sneaked into town on account of not supposed to being in there. One because I wasn’t supposed to go into any of our nearby towns unless I was with Pa or Scott. Pa thought that that would lessen down the chances of me being singled out as Johnny Madrid. Maybe it worked, even though I had been called out once, even with Pa being close by. The other reason was that I was told by old Judge Beedly to keep my keyster at Lancer for three months. That weren’t up yet, not hardly, so I had to make sure Sheriff Creane didn’t spot me.
I snuck back of Ambrose Cotter’s blacksmithin’ set-up, and I tied Pancho there and then glided into the shop real quiet. With Mr Cotter clanking away that wasn’t a trial. Sure enough Ambrose Junior was working alongside his Pa, shapin’ a leaf spring. The smell of coal smoke and sweat and hooves and leather was a real familiar mix. I waved my hat to catch Ambrose Junior’s eye and his eyebrows nearly disappeared up under his roan hair. I quick slipped back out and a couple of minutes later Amb came out the back. He took the opportunity to have a leak, while I asked him if he knew where Allan Creane was at. He didn’t, but said he would scout for me. I squatted down in the shade, leaning up against the back wall. Half an hour later he was back, and I could hear him having words with his Pa. When he came back out I told him I didn’t mean to get his Pa grieved with him but he just rolled his eyes and said his Pa was grieved with him six days of seven.
“Sheriff Creane is out at the Hennessey’s, Johnny, trying to sort out that brangle Colley and Peggoty Flower have still got going over her sow. He only left just before nine, so he’ll be gone awhile. ‘Specially if Peggoty has made him a gooseberry pie!”
I nodded and gave Ambrose a punch on the arm to say thanks, and told him I’d be back directly.
At the hotel I leaned on the desk and asked Mr Hillingham about Garrett’s doings when he’d stayed the night before coming out to find the ranch. He told me how Garrett had met up with two men, strangers called Deegan, who were livin’ it up on Garrett’s tab. He’d put one hundred dollars on the tab for them to live high off the hog. This morning Garrett had come and gone not long before I’d arrived, to talk to them again. So that was why they were still there, still drinkin’ in the bar. Mr H. came from round behind the front desk and pointed the two out to me from behind the screen that separated both areas. I thanked him as I headed to the bar.
I paused and turned.
“Your Pa know you’re here in town?”
I grimaced and put a finger to my lips, and he just shook his head.
I stepped through the bead curtain between the entry and the bar area, and I held back while I figured how to play it. The two skeesicks Mr Hillingham had pointed out were slouched on the counter, half-full glasses in front of them. They looked to be in their early twenties or thereabout. Shabby dressed, dumb looking critters. I went and stood near to them and waited for Telly to notice me. When he came down to me he kept polishin’ the glass he held while he considered me, his face serious.
“Johnny, your Pa know you’re here in town?”
Jesus! The time where Johnny Madrid could go wherever he damn well pleased was long gone.
“Awww, Telly, what he don’t know don’t hurt him. How about you give me a beer – a man that has been chasing steers all morning deserves to wet his mouth, don’t he?”
“Johnny, you know I’m not allowed to serve under age fellas, so I’ll draw you a sarsaparilla. It’d be illegal to serve you anything stronger, and I also don’t hanker to answer to your daddy, even if you’re willing to risk it.”
“Shit, barkeep, give the kid a beer why don’tcha? Here – we’ll treat him.”
Just as I’d hoped, the yahoo next to me was pleased to be generous to someone younger who he could seem a big man to, and to also help a kid defy his pappy. Telly looked unhappy, but he drew me a beer, plonked it down in front of me and shook his head disapproving at all three of us.
I acted young and impressed, thanking the two for treating me. It didn’t take hardly any time to wheedle enough out of them to find out that these two were all flush with money they’d got from doing’s with ol’ man Garrett, who we all drank a toast to. It was also thanks to one Murdoch Lancer, but when I asked one too many questions, they got skittish, and asked who I was. I thought about lyin’, but could see that they had clammed up, even though they were not exactly sober. I’d eased my gun out with my hat covering it, and I tried to bluff them with that, but they got loud and drew everyone’s attention to me holding a gun on ‘peaceful citizens’, so the bastards called my bluff.
I holstered my gun and told them as to how I would come after them should they cause us any trouble, and then I left.
I did my best to stay outta sight, but when I got to my horse, Mr Cotter braced me.
“And just what are you doing in town, boy? Your daddy don’t know you’re here – I’d bet my nubs on it.”
“You’re right, Mister Cotter. But I’m headed back right now and plan to tell him.”
“Is that so?” The hard voice behind me belonged to Sheriff Creane. Fuck!
I spun around, but Allan Creane already had me by the collar and was shakin’ me, real annoyed, which annoyed me, too. But this was no time to smart off my mouth.
“What the hell are you doing in town, Johnny? Didn’t my belt give you even
a bee’s dick of respect for the law? Do you need another go round? Do
“Jesus, turn me loose so I can answer, for fuck’s sake!” I was riled.
“Watch your mouth, Son,“ he growled.
But at least he let go of me, and I tried to straighten my clothes some as I fumed.
“I only came in because Scott left to go home to Boston this morning, and I needed some information. I’m goin’ home now I got it, and I’ll tell Murdoch where I’ve been. But I need to get home to give him the information I got. There was no other way, Sheriff.”
It galled me to be telling our family business to him, and Mister Cotter like that, but I needed the Sheriff on my side so’s I could get back to Lancer and find out what the hell the Deegans had to do with us.
Allan stood there looking thoughtful.
“You being straight with me, Johnny?”
“Okay. But next time you need information or any other damn thing, you send someone else in to get it. You need to abide by Judge Beedly’s instructions, and I should really take you in…but I’ll overlook it – one time only. Understand?”
“Sure I do! And thanks – thanks a lot.”
I swung up into the saddle as Amb came out behind his Pa. Mr Cotter looked skeptical at me, but I gave him a real innocent smile as I touched my hat to the three of them and headed back to Lancer.
Pa was in the corral when I got back, and soon as I told him where I’d been he commenced to fussing, until I told him what I’d found out. He went over to the pump and dippered some water from the bucket and drank it, while he rolled the name Deegan round his mind. I stood waiting, my hands tucked in the back of my pants. He perched on the edge of the trough, and I could see he was remembering back as he told me about Deegan – the father of those two swill peddlers I’d just met.
Seemed eighteen years before Murdoch had been ambushed by the elder Deegan, who musta intended to rob him. Murdoch had been cutting through badlands on his way to Carterville where Scott’s Mama, who was travelling to San Francisco, had commenced to have Scott earlier than expected. Murdoch said as to how he had just wanted to disarm the man who attacked him, but his bullet had killed him. Murdoch had gone on to Sacramento and reported what had happened to the Federal Marshall, and had been cleared of any wrongdoing. They knew Deegan, and told Murdoch that he had a wife and two young boys.
I said it was a shame Murdoch hadn’t ever told us that story, and he said killing a man was something you didn’t want to remember. I knew he was still lost in his thoughts of the past, so I didn’t say nothing about how many men I had my own struggles with disremembering. We all three of us still knew so very little about each other. And now Scott lost to us – and when could we get him back and start the learning of each other again?
I was perched on the other side of the water trough, but I got to my feet and firmly got my hat snug on my head.
“So Garrett found out and used it as an axe over Scott’s head, huh?”
“That’s my guess. Scott went along with it because he thought he was protecting me from a murder charge.”
One of Walt’s horses was running up and down the fence of the corral, giving a whinny at me each time he passed. I watched him as I thought about that conniving old grandpa of Scotts. Murdoch got to his feet and pitched the dipper back into the bucket by the pump.
“Come on Johnny, let’s go meet a train.”
I looked up, delighted. Looked like Murdoch was finished acceptin’ that he should sit back and let Scott and old man Garrett decide what was happenin’. Now we could act and get Scott back where he belonged – at Lancer, with me and Pa.
We rode hard, cutting straight across country. Scott was driving the hired buggy Garrett had come out to Lancer in, so he had to stick to the road that went through Green River and then on out to the train halt at Cross Creek. I’d already been in to Green River and back, so they had hours start on us. We knew though that the train wasn’t due through there till around three, so Scott would be taking his time.
One hour out of Cross Creek we heard the shots. We changed direction, heading for them. It was steep and rocky and we had to wend quick down towards the road, and it was then I saw Scott on the ground. Jesus, my heart clenched up inside me shocking, but at least he was moving around, though he didn’t seem able to get upright. I was off Pancho and over to Scott in a heartbeat, and I knelt down and grabbed him to me as he tried again to make his arms and legs work. He was floppy as hell, and struggling against me as I held him tight to my chest. Murdoch was next to us and had one hand on Scott’s arm, trying to still him. I could see the blood in Scott’s hair. He was strong still, ‘cause it was hard for me to keep him from breakin’ away from me.
“Ambush.” He breathed out with this upset voice, and then, “I gotta help him.”
“You’re not going nowhere.” I growled at him.
“Yeah – I’ve got to help!” He was pullin’away from me. And he was still thinking of that old bastard!
“Stay down!” I bit at him.
“Laver’s ranch is right over the hill – get him over there.” Murdoch’s voice was terse with worry as he jumped up.
“Get my horse.” I breathed out, as I got to my feet hauling Boston with me.
He was hard to manage as he couldn’t get his feet to work properly, and he was taller and heavier than me. Murdoch had Pancho next to us real quick, and we ignored Scott’s mumbling about helping his Grandpa. With a mighty effort I slung Scott up on Pancho, getting a swipe from him across the back of my head which knocked off my hat. Murdoch was holdin’ Scott and Pancho steady as I grabbed my hat up and jammed it on before mounting behind Scott, who was still being cantankerous and telling us he was set on helping Garrett, even though Scott couldn’t even sit without me holding him. Murdoch was mounted and lookin’ real troubled.
“Hurry up – get him over there, Johnny.”
But he was turning his horse away from us, and I realized he was goin’ to help the old bastard.
“Murdoch! Stay here!” I yelled, angry. No way did I want him in danger.
“Get help.” Murdoch called at me as he dug his legs into Chieftain and took off.
“Murdoch!” I yelled at him angry as gettout, but he was gone.
Pancho was skittering around, balky at carrying two of us, and probably could smell blood. I had my hands full getting him under control and keeping Scott from plunging off. I was mad as hell at Murdoch but couldn’t do nothin’ about it, so I put my heels into Pancho’s sides and got him headed to the Laver’s place.
Back over the hill I could see a ranch house in the distance. Between me and it though, was a party of seven men all heading the same direction as me. I made straight for them, and it only took a minute to explain the situation. They all knew the Lancer name, so they were willing to help right off. One of them hauled Scott onto his horse, and I led the rest of ‘em back to help Murdoch.
Once we all arrived, riding hard and firing, the Deegans tried to make a run for it, but those two mudsills didn’t have a chance. I herded one and knocked him to the ground, and when the other one, Billy, turned tail and made off running back between our horses, one of the Laver hands took after him with his lasso flying and brought him down real quick, and hauled him back to us. I saw Pa and Garrett step out from the rock they’d been firing from behind. Both looked unhurt.
I left the hands to take care of the Deegans and I trotted over. Harlan looked rattled and shook, and he was speaking intense to Murdoch. Murdoch looked calm, and as big and solid as the rock behind him. Harlan didn’t even notice my approach. As I halted I heard Pa’s voice, quiet and warm, as he replied to something Harlan had said.
“I’ve got no troubles, Harlan. Not anymore.”
Harlan looked like someone had punched him in the gut, ‘cause the breath whooshed out and he looked down, and slumped. The sight of it shoulda made me gleeful, but while I was glad his scheming had come to naught, and mad he’d got Scott and Murdoch in danger, he sure looked like a sad old man right then, and it did twinge me.
Murdoch looked up at me then, and we both smiled, and for a few seconds, with the sky blue and the birds commenced to singing again now all the gunfire had stopped…we were both happy.
“Come on, Son, let’s go and see to your big brother.”
Miz Laver had Scott’s head cleaned and bandaged by the time we got there. He was white as a sheet, but as we all trooped in his eyes opened panicky-like until he saw us and his Grandpa all safe. Harlan rushed to his side and grabbed his hand.
“Scotty, thank God you’re alright.”
“No thanks to you!” I couldn’t help it.
“Johnny, that will be enough.” Murdoch’s voice was mild though. “Go and see if the buggy horses are fit to make it home, please.” Then he turned to Miz Laver.
“Marion, thank you so much for your help.”
“Pish and tush, Murdoch, glad to help. He has a gouge through his head, but it isn’t very deep – God be praised! He’ll have a headache for a couple of days though, and he’ll need a couple of days of strict rest. Change the dressing – well, you know what to do. I think it’s safe to take him home, nice and slow, but of course he’s most welcome to stay?”
“How do you feel, Son?”
Scott took his hand back from Harlan, and straightened himself up in the chair he was slouched in.
“Mrs Laver, I do thank you. I would like to go home though.”
Miz Laver smiled at him all warm and brushed the hair back on Scott’s forehead, which made Scott duck his head some. Murdoch was next to me so I couldn’t see his face, but I could see Harlan’s, and when Scott said ‘home’ the old buzzards face sort of grinched up.
Murdoch put his hand on my arm then and I looked up and he motioned for me to go do what he’d asked, which I did.
Back at Lancer, Maria just about had a fit, and she had Scott bundled off to bed before he could spit. She plied him with broth and headache powders, and she cosseted him all about with warming pans and she darkened his room. She woulda stripped him off herself, but he protested, and he tried to undress himself until Murdoch growled at him and took over. Harlan hovered around, until Scott said he wanted everyone to leave so he could sleep.
I’d ridden home leading Chieftain, and Murdoch had driven the buggy with Scott and ol’ Garrett in the back, Scott swaddled like a baby in blankets from Miz Laver.
Murdoch told me that Scott had asked what had happened, and he had said straight out that the Deegans had ambushed them, no doubt wanting to rob Harlan. He had said to Scott that their father had done the same to him, nineteen years before, and that had been why Deegan had been shot while Murdoch was defending himself. He’d told Scott that he was cleared of wrongdoing at the time, and Scott could forget any other version he had heard.
Murdoch said Harlan had immediately tried to talk to Scott, but Scott had cut him off. Murdoch put a hand on my shoulder when he’d finished filling me in.
“Johnny, I want you to sit with your Brother. But don’t talk about anything unless he broaches it. Can I rely on you to do that?”
“You’ve had a busy day, Son – I’ll bet you’re starving?”
“I could eat.”
“I’ll ask Maria to make up a tray for you, and one for Harlan, too. I really have no desire to sit and share a meal with him tonight.”
Murdoch then took hold of both my shoulders, holding them warm and tight.
“Johnny, you getting to the bottom of Harlan’s deception – I hope you know how much that means to me?”
I couldn’t look at him. I was real pleased to have him touch me warm like that, and say that, but I was still carrying some anger, too.
“I just don’t understand why you let him go so easy. I can’t figure you sometimes, Murdoch.”
He squeezed me tighter then.
“No, not easy Johnny. Don’t ever think that I could let either of you go and it would be easy. I had made a pact with Harlan not to try and influence Scott. I know Harlan is a selfish and self-serving man, Johnny, but it never occurred to me that he would not keep his side of the bargain. I will never make that mistake with that man again, believe me.”
I nodded then, realizing that Murdoch would trust someone to be honourable, just like Scott woulda. Me, I’d learned early not to trust anyone, and saved myself a lot of disappointment that way. Living with Murdoch and Scott, well, I was learning that I could trust some people.
Murdoch dropped his hands then, and I went up to sit with Boston. He was sound asleep, and didn’t even stir when Maria brought me a tray with chicken fricasse and buttered potatoes and peas and a bowl of shoo-fly pie. I ate till I nearly bust, and drank down my milk.
When Pa came in to check Scott he felt Scott’s forehead, and grunted when he found it cool. He wanted to spell me but I said I would stay, after I’d made a quick trip to the jake.
Murdoch left when I got back, and about then I felt tired as jiminy. I wanted to be there when Scott woke, so I pulled off my boots and slipped off my holster. I slipped my Colt under the pillow in case I needed to shoot Harlan, and then I eased myself real quiet and careful down on the other side of ol’ Boston. He didn’t budge. I felt his forehead and when it still felt cool I relaxed. I relaxed so good that I fell fast asleep.
I was dreaming of Maria’s neice, Sarita. She was sixteen and had suddenly got these milkers which all my amigos on the ranch agreed were the best they’d ever seen. Not that we got to see much of them, her being a real modest girl who dressed staid. But there was no mistakin’ the beautiful swell that her blouses and shawls couldn’t hide. In my dream she was wearing a blue satin dress like a dance hall girl, and Jesus, did that satin dress have a low front. Because of that old bastard Harlan upsetting me, I hadn’t abused myself in three days, a record lately, so I was prime for it. I musta groaned, ‘cause suddenly I heard Pa’s voice, and I came awake. That sure meeked my pizzle right down.
I lay still, and played possum. I realized it was full dark, and the soft glow in the room was the lamp, turned low.
“Is he awake?” Pa asked.
I felt Scott’s hand rest gentle on my hair.
“No, he’s sound, Murdoch.”
Murdoch grunted. “Well, he had a very busy day. Do you want me to move him to his own bed?”
“No. He’s fine there. He looks about ten when he’s asleep, doesn’t he.”
Ten! I was so offended I nearly jumped up. Fuck me, I’d been shavin’ for months now, and reckoned I could get away with being taken for eighteen or nineteen, easy. Pa’s next words were insulting, too.
“He looks so young, period. With that child’s face, God knows how he managed to get the reputation he’s got, but he did. I’m so relieved that even through all he endured, the boy in him survived. Although sometimes when he acts ten, I could throttle him.”
Jesus! They say no good comes of eavesdropping. Scott laughed then, and it was good to hear.
“Drink some more water, Son, and take that powder Maria left. Your Grandfather wants to come in and say goodnight – do you feel up to it, Scott?”
There was a long silence. I felt Scott shuffle a bit next to me, and then was surprised when I felt his hand on my head again. He left it there this time, and like always, I felt like this warmth that flowed out of him and into me. The silence stretched out before he spoke.
“Would you please tell him I’ll see him in the morning?”
Boston’s voice sounded wavery, and that made me want to jump off that bed and go and find Harlan and kick the old sonofabitch to Kingdom come.
There was another silence, but then Murdoch spoke, soft and kind.
“Scott, your Grandfather has behaved badly, but however misguided he has been, now and in the past, you should never doubt that he loves you.”
“Son, I think that I have also been misguided, and I want to change that. I’ll go and tell Harlan that you’re doing well, but want to sleep. When you’re stronger, I want to talk to you, to give you some of those answers that you’re entitled to. I – I should have done it before now. I realize that now. The past doesn’t lay down that easy, but maybe it will if I can talk to you about your Mother. And about how it was that another man came to raise you.”
Dios, I was feeling my heart pulling at my innards, and I could feel the tremble in Scott’s hand on my head, which he suddenly took away.
“Murdoch, will you come back and talk now? I don’t think I can rest easy. I’ve had enough of waiting. I’ve waited eighteen years. I –I… would appreciate it, Sir.”
I could hear Murdoch breathing a bit heavy. He musta nodded as he got up and his chair creaked in the silence, ‘cause Scott murmured ‘thank you’ just before the door opened and closed.
Boston wriggled some and then I heard the paper which held the headache powder rustle, and then him gulping down some water. He moved a bit more and then settled, and then spoke.
“You’re awake, aren’t you?” He sounded smug.
I kept real still, but then I gave in.
“How did you know?”
He snorted, and flicked my ear, so I raised my head and looked at him. He was smirkin’, real pleased with himself. He was still plenty pale, and with the big white bandage around his noggin and the circles under his eyes, he looked kinda frail. But he sure looked better than he had back when he was tellin’ us he was going back to Boston.
“I’ll go so’s you can talk to Pa private,” I said.
“No, don’t. I want you with me. You can play possum – you’re so good at it. Would you mind staying?”
I looked at his eyes and saw it was what he wanted, so I nodded.
“Give us a drink, quick. Here comes the Ol’ Man.”
I gulped a mouthful and then settled back, this time with my face away from Scott and Pa. When Pa came in he fossicked in the chest at the bottom of Scott’s bed and then I found myself covered with a quilt.
Pa then proceeded to tell Scott about his Mama, and how losing her and losing their baby to Harlan had just about brought him to his knees. How he’d wanted to follow Harlan straight to Boston, but he’d returned to Lancer to arrange its care, and his travel arrangements, and Harlan had sent him a wire saying the baby was frail and in need of special care. That Murdoch should wait till the baby was a few months old, and hopefully stronger. But every letter he received, Harlan claimed that the baby was sickly, and receiving the best care a big city could provide.
Murdoch was determined to go and see for himself, and bring Scott home, but in 1846 the war with Mexico was on, and Texas and California were under threat. Murdoch thought if he left he might not have a home to bring Scott back to, so he put off the trip again. He said as how wild California still was then, with the gold rush, and marauding bands, and disgruntled Mexicans, plus all the normal problems of establishing the ranch and getting beef to markets that were also wild. So he had decided to wait till Scott was older, and able to not only handle the trip across the country, but the life on a pretty remote estancia.
Then, on a trip to Matamoras, Pa met a Mexican girl named Maria.
“It was like the sun had come up, after I’d had two years of nothing but dark. I lost my head – but I lost my heart, too. We had a whirlwind courtship, and married, and then Johnny was on the way. When he was born I finally got to hold a son in my arms. One day, Scott, I hope that you, and Johnny, will be blessed with that feeling. Holding him…it was the best feeling I’d ever had…and it only made my desire even stronger, to get you back.”
When Scott turned four, Maria – our housekeeper that is - had scolded Murdoch for not sending cards and gifts, which Murdoch had not considered doing. So he had then started sending those things every birthday and at Christmas, but Harlan never acknowledged receiving them.
Finally, when Scott was nearing five, and Johnny heading towards two, Murdoch felt able to leave the ranch in the hands of his foreman of the time, Paul O’Brien.
“I didn’t want to leave Maria for months, and it was heart wrenching to leave Johnny, but I wanted to have you with us. I wanted you two to grow up together, and my lawyer said that with a family in residence at Lancer, I now had a chance. So I went.”
He described visiting the house on Beacon Street, and how many memories of Catharine that brought back. And then setting eyes on his firstborn son for the very first time, on the day of his fifth birthday party, and shaking hands with him.
“The giant man.” Scott hadn’t said a word till then. His voice was full of wonder.
I lay there thinkin’ on how it would feel, if that was me. Me as Scott, or me as Pa.
“You remember?” Murdoch’s voice was some choked. He swallowed a couple of times, and went on.
“Scott, telling you that I tried to contact you, that I tried to get you back…it also meant telling you that Harlan thwarted me at every turn. That he threatened to drag you through the courts, year in, year out, to maintain custody. I’ve seen how painful it’s been for Johnny to realize that his mother deceived him. But even before I saw that, I was loathe to tell you that your grandfather deceived you. Do you understand that, Scott? Do you see now how that was part of my wanting to leave the past alone?”
Scott musta nodded, and I felt the bed shift some.
“I always wanted you, Son. From the time Catherine told me she was with child, till the moment you stepped off that stagecoach. That day in Morro Coyo, I had had only a couple of minutes with you in your whole life, and yet the feelings that flooded me as soon as I set eyes on you…”
It was only the fact that they were both swallowing hard that they never heard the gulping I was doing. Scott’s clock from Boston was ticking, and I could hear the faint call of the cattle. Down the hallway a door shut.
“When I returned from Boston I didn’t give up, Scott. I consulted lawyers in San Francisco, and I spoke to a Judge I met there. None were encouraging – they all said Harlan could very well make sure the custody case was long and painful. I decided I would have to wait till you were twelve or thirteen. Maybe by then you could handle court, and maybe the presiding judge would consult your wishes. I planned to take Maria and Johnny with me, and live in Boston as long as it took. “
“I hadn’t been home a month, and I woke one morning to find Maria gone, and that she’d not only left me, but she’d taken Johnny with her.”
Murdoch stopped again, and I could hear his ragged breathing. Mine wasn’t too good either, and when Scott’s hand fell soft on my head, I felt like I was goin’ to cry.
“Murdoch, you don’t need to go on.” Scott’s shaky voice was full of kindness and pity.
I could still hear Pa’s heavy breathing, and I heard it slowly even out, till he spoke again.
“You look tired, Son. We’ll talk more, but not tonight – you need your rest. Is there anything you want to ask me right now? You can ask me anything, Scott, and I’ll answer you.”
“I’m relieved we’ve started speaking, Sir, and I want to hear the rest,
“I know…it’s pretty draining.”
“Yes, Pa-urdoch- ah, um…” Scott went to splutterin’.
Well – that sure broke the thick feelings that were cluttering up the whole room, and I was so delighted that my head shot up and I laughed. See, Scott called Murdoch ‘Pa’ only sometimes to me, never ever to Pa’s face.
“Jesus, Boston! You decided to call Pa ‘Pa-urdoch’ from now on have ya?” I chortled.
And then I yowled, as Pa-urdoch’s big hand raised the dust on my caboose.
“You unmitigated scoundrel, John Lancer –“
“Aw, Pa-urdoch, I only just woke!”
I’d rolled onto my back quick to avoid further damage. I looked from Pa to Scott, and saw that both of ‘em were smiling a little, but both still looked mighty roiled. I felt roiled up myself, so figured the best thing to do was spur them up some more.
“Murdoch, I noticed you didn’t tell Scott how you got me on my Mama before you got married. Shouldn’t you have told him –“
Murdoch came towards me then, and grabbed me up and off the bed like I weighed as much as a tadpole.
“That’s quite enough out of you - I’ll molicate you, ye wee ill-tricket –“
He was shakin’ me up, but not serious, not like when he was really riled with me. He was all astew though, which fact me and Scott knew well was when he started talking like a Scotsman. He pushed me towards the door.
“Get to bed!”
“Okay, Pa-urdoch…I’m goin’.”
All the tension had gone outta Scott’s room, so I was content to go off to my own room. Everything was going to be alright. All we needed now was to see off that old skeesick Garrett.
Scott came down to breakfast dressed smart and said as how he was going to drive Harlan into Green River to catch the stage. Pa protested but Scott got his stubborn look on. We ate breakfast in silence just about, except for Maria who muttered her opinion of ol’ Garrett every time she brought food in. It sure was lucky he didn’t understand Spanish, ‘cause she was mumbling cusswords she woulda boxed my ears if I’d a said. Murdoch’s ears were red and he kept trying to hush her on the quiet, and even Scott looked uncomfy. Maria saw that and stopped straight away, and then she really made him colour up when she whispered ‘lo siento’ to him and dropped a smush right on top of his head. Garrett looked appalled, but he had given up making his ‘rustic’ comments so he kept his mouth shut.
He had been in Scott’s room first thing in the morning, and I could hear them talking when I’d come outta my room. Whatever had been said, it seemed they were both being civil to each other, but there sure was no warmth coming from Boston.
After we ate, we went into the great room to wait till Pauly came in to let us know the buggy was hitched. Scott sat on the couch, the big white bandage around his head not a lot whiter that his skin. Murdoch and Garrett were off in the alcove, talking. I started throwing the grapes I’d brought from the table at Pauly soon as he walked in, and he was dodging them, laughing and cutting glances at Pa in case we got yelled at. When he picked some up from the floor and went to throw them back I opened my mouth and the very first one went in, which made the three of us laugh. Then we started picking them up, and that’s when I saw Pa and Garrett shake hands. I sure didn’t intend shaking his hand, the old bastard.
Scott got up and called to his Grandfather that they had better hurry to make the stage. Pauly scarpered then, and Harlan headed towards his bags near the door. Scott got to them first saying he would get them and Harlan gassed on Scott still remembering his good manners. Yeah, like no one at Lancer had any. Seemed to me blackmail weren’t very good manners.
Scott stood still, holding two bags, and his face went sort of into sympathy, and he tried to be kind. That was Boston all over – couldn’t stop the kindness in him from gettin’ out.
“I’ll uh, I’ll try to get back to Boston…sometime,” he said, quiet like.
I could see that Harlan knew that getting back to Boston was not something that Scott was keen to do.
“Yes, Scotty, you do that. Sometime.”
Scott looked down, looking sad, and then he followed Harlan to the French doors. Just as Harlan opened them for him, Scott hesitated, and I saw him falter. Me and Murdoch both rushed over, and it was when Pa said ‘Scott’ that Harlan looked up and saw Scott fainting. He grabbed hold, and then me and Pa stepped in and Harlan followed as we helped Scott back to the couch.
“I’m alright,” he moaned, his eyes rollin’ round.
“You are not alright, Young Man!” Pa growled. “Johnny, fetch some brandy, quick.”
“Scotty, you’ve overdone it! Stay still.” It was the first goddamn sensible thing I’d heard Garrett say.
Pa held the brandy to Scott’s mouth and his colour got good as soon as the brandy hit his stomach. We all stood back and peered at him.
“Harlan, I’m going to get Pauly to drive you into town. We’ll leave you to say your goodbye’s – Johnny and I will be outside.”
“Yes, yes, I see that that is best.”
Murdoch and me got outta there, on our way picking up the bags Scott had dropped. Soon as we stowed them in the back of the buggy I went and stood far enough away that I would not have to shake hands or nothing, but still close enough to see the old buzzard off. Murdoch raised his eyebrows at me but didn’t say anything. He headed off to hoy up Pauly from the corral, and soon they were back, Harlan had come out, he and Pa had shook, and then that old bastard was on his way off Lancer.
I came over to Pa then, and told him my opinion, and he swiped at my head, but with a smile.
“Come on, ye wee ill-tricket, let’s go in and coddle your big brother.”
I followed him in, yelling to Scott, “Hey Boston, Pa-urdoch is planning to coddle you.”
And that’s just what we did.
*All Lancer fans will recognize which of the dialogue I’ve used is mine, and which belongs to writer Jack Turley. The wonderful episode ‘Legacy’ was directed by Christian Nyby.