(Sequel to “Learnin’”)
Scott’s rapid knocks on the door woke me as usual.
“Johnny! Rise and shine…”
I’d jerked awake, but groaned and dropped my face back into the pillow. I was so warm, downright cozy. I’d never in my life had such a comfortable bed. Hell, I’d never had much of anything until I’d come to Lancer two months before. I was likin’ it a lot, and pondering whether I maybe should stay, and have it always.
The day started early on the ranch – something I was having a real lot of trouble gettin’ used to. I sighed and flipped over onto my back.
Soon as my rear end hit that mattress I was reminded of what my Ol’ Man had done to me the night before. I’d been knocked around by some real rough types in my past, but it had been years since I’d had an honest-to-God tanning like Murdoch had delivered me.
I gingerly got outta bed and made my way over to the wash basin. Jesus, I was feelin’ the damage with every move. Murdoch’s a big fella, and had a swing on him like a goddamn blacksmith. Course, I knew I’d made things worse, because he woulda stopped whackin’ sooner, if I had not kept cussin’ him out. But the thing was, I was not no way used to having anyone telling me what to do. And what not to do.
I’d been so long bringing myself up, even before Mama died, so this obeyin’ Murdoch was aggravatin’. He took the view that at fourteen, I had no business drinking, swearing, gambling, fighting…the list went on. It wouldna mattered what he told me – it was bein’ told at all that griped me.
The smell of eggs and bacon, and biscuits, came drifting into my room, and I realized how hungry I was. Starvin’. I quickly washed and dressed. As I headed for the stairs I tried to work up a good mad against Murdoch. Even a surly sulk. But I just couldn’t seem to. I’d been red hot with anger when he’d grabbed me, and beyond furious when he’d dragged me into his study and started in with his belt, but somewhere after that, I’d lost that rage. Guess I’d accepted that I was a son getting his comeuppance from his Pa, just like in any family I’d ever seen.
Hell, it was nothin’ like the many backhanders, and punches, I’d had from some of Mama’s men. Or having a cigarillo put out – but I wasn’t goin’ to think about that. Only twice before had there been decent men, who Mama had stayed with long enough for me to feel like they was bein’ a daddy to me.
When I was a little tacker, there was Val. Then, when I was about ten, there was Javier Delgado Herrera. Neither of these men had ever frightened me, or been brutal. But they sure as hell didn’t take no guff from me. Val had dusted my britches plenty. I was a wild one when he met me. He soon straightened me out. Later, when Mama met Javier, when I was about ten, I had long reverted back to bein’ an outta control little yahoo, doin’ whatever I pleased, and not listenin’ to one word Mama told me.
Mama ended up movin’ us in with Javier, and callin’ him my ‘stepfather’, even though he weren’t really. He sorted me out real quick. He taught me some manners by whompin’ me, and he was just as strict as Val had been. Taught me everything he knew about horses, too. What was the same about Val and Javier, was that both these men had made me feel safe. There was something in them that something in me got stuck to, that’s the way it seemed to me. Trust, I guess. So even in the middle of a lickin’ from either of them, I mighta been howling up a storm, but I was not feelin’ frightened.
I’d thought some on all this on those long, lonely nights I’d spent on various prairies, or deserts, or in the mountains, the last couple of years.
In the end, Mama had run off from Val, and poor Javier had got some massive pain in his head one day, when he was tending to his horse’s front left hoof. He’d staggered over to Mama at the washin’ line, and he’d died in her arms. He was the only man I’d ever seen Mama mourn.
I had both those men locked inside me, and when I’d had bad times, and felt like the world was black, I could reach in to them and get a glimmer of light.
Comin’ down the back stairs to the kitchen at Lancer that morning, I hadn’t been part of a family in years, and I was still figurin’ things out in my head, and wondering about how I had started stickin’ to Scott, and to Murdoch, and Maria, and could I stay stuck. Gettin’ stuck to people seemed a big risk to me.
When I couldn’t work out exactly what I was thinkin’ and feelin’, and why, I did what I usually did, and got cocky instead.
I swaggered into the kitchen. Murdoch paused with his cup halfway to his mouth. Scott got real still.
“Mornin’.” I nodded at them cool like.
I walked past the table to where Maria stood at the stove stirring the scrambled eggs. I put one arm around her waist and with my other hand filched a bit of bacon. Maria’s brown eyes bored into mine, and her concern and kindness warmed me up like always.
“Buenos dias, Nino. Como es su trasero?” (How is your bottom?)
Jesus, Maria, get right to the point why doncha?
“Hurtin’ like a sonofa-“
“Juanito!” Maria turned her eyes on me, blazing now.
Murdoch cleared his throat behind us.
“Johnny. Come and sit down, Son.”
I did another swagger, over to the table, shoving my hands into my waistband.
“Well thank you kindly for the invitation, Old Man, but you’ve made it pretty nigh impossible for me to sit down anywhere.”
I kept my voice ordinary, but threw in the sass to let him know I was not scared of him. Even though I was a bit, much as I woulda denied it. Scared still ain’t the same as frightened…
Murdoch put his cup down and he returned my look with the beginning of a smile about his eyes. He didn’t look away and neither did I.
“Johnny, my Father would have made me sit and suffer. But I’m a modern father, so I’m not going to make you do that. “
Like he coulda!
“You can eat your breakfast standing up. And let us both hope that it’s the first and last time you will ever have to do so. I certainly hope so, Son.”
Our eyes were still locked, but then Maria appeared next to me and handed me a plate.
“Here Chico, stand here at the bench and eat your food. You are too thin. Come Juanito, be a good boy.”
So I stood at the bench and ate, and drank my buttermilk. Scott gave me a big smile, and immediately started talkin’ about me helping him with the birth of a foal, which fact we were both looking forward to.
Scott was like a cushion between me and the Old Man. Always looking for the best way to keep us comfortable around each other. I’d seen how tense he was when Murdoch and I had been talkin’, and how relieved he was that we hadn’t had a big blow-up.
Murdoch was throwing in comments about mares birthin’, and every time Maria passed me she petted me, touching my hair, or patting my arm or my face.
Sometimes my head was swirlin’, while I tried to look normal and talk normal. It felt like I was in an eddy in the river, not sure which way I was. I was my own man, but Murdoch was being boss of me, and had whomped me, and here was I havin’ breakfast with him. Scott was a Boston swell, educated and fine mannered, and yet he always treated me like I was the only brother he could ever have wanted. Me, without much of any schoolin’, and having led the life I had. So much death. He knew it, and Murdoch knew it too. Why would they want me around?
Yet Murdoch looked at me with kind eyes - when I wasn’t riling him up that was. And then there was Maria, who I knew loved me. On the true. She’d cared for me, hell, they all had, from the moment I’d arrived at the hacienda. Maria’s love wrapped around me like a blanket. I know my Mama had loved me, but she had sure never made me feel safe and warm like Maria did.
Murdoch took up the napkin and wiped his mouth and then chucked the cloth back on the table.
“Orders in ten minutes, Boys.”
He headed for the front hall, where our hats and rigs hung on the hat stand.
Scott took a last mouthful of coffee and stood up, patting his mouth with his napkin. I kept shovellin’ food in fast as I could.
“Slow down, Boy. You’ll give yourself indigestion.”
He came around the table and perched on the edge of it, facing me. He folded his arms, and put his head on a bit of a cant.
“Did you sleep well?”
“I always sleep well.”
He looked down, grinning. Both of us had nightmares, sometimes.
“You know Little Brother, I did try to warn you.” He said, soft.
“The other day when we were riding. I told you I’d detected that Murdoch was at the outer margin of his limited patience, and that I thought that physical chastisement would be imminent.”
“Jesus, Scott, is that what you was spoutin’ off about? I though you was talkin’ about Murdoch havin’ a bad back. I sure hope if I’m about to be bit by a rattler, that you ain’t the one to warn me!”
He looked down and grinned, and then spoke again.
“What about the next day when I said if you didn’t watch yourself, Murdoch would take you in hand? That was pretty plain.”
“Yeah, that was. Trouble is, I thought I had him dancing to my tune, him wantin’ me to stay, seemed like. I only got half that right, I guess.”
I chugged down the last of my milk, watching Scott’s bent head as I did. He looked up, serious now.
“Johnny, I was afraid you would run.”
I picked up my empty plate and licked it. Scott rolled his eyes and we both grinned.
“I thought about it, Boston, but that Old Man is gettin’ on – why he could barely lift that belt! He’s goin’ to need my help runnin’ this ranch. ‘Specially with only a skinny, tenderfoot, dandy to help him. A fuckin’ pendejo who don’t know one end of a steer from the other. And who don’t appreciate Maria’s fine Mexican cookin’.”
I added that ‘cause Maria had just come to fill my glass with more buttermilk. She gave me that pleased smile and patted my cheek. Lucky she hadn’t heard me swear at Scott, else she woulda cuffed me.
Scott was laughing, but then he looked up, and his hand suddenly shot out, and he smacked my face! I was shocked! Obviously the look on my face was real comical to him, ‘cause then he bust out laughin’. I decided to return the favour, and shot my hand out, but the bastard was ready, and he caught my wrist, and used that to swing me sideways. Next he had me in a fuckin’ headlock, and he started rubbing his damn knuckles hard on my head. Maria started fussing at us, but I could tell she weren’t really worried.
I struggled hard as I could, but that skinny, Eastern dandy was stronger than he looked. I was hollerin’ at him, callin’ him some pretty choice names too, but he just kept laughing, and without me even knowin’ it he’d dragged me right outta the house and we emerged from the portico. He was laughin’ and taunting me, and I was swearin’, but couldn’t help laughin’ too, at the ridiculous things he was sayin’ to me. Like ‘who’s a sweet, little gunfighter’ and such foolery. We was both struggling, and grunting and sweating, but then a mighty bellow cut through all our chiacking.
“Scott! Let your brother go! And the two of you get over here, now! You’re late!”
Murdoch’s bellow could lift the roof, it was that powerful. Scott turned me loose straight away, and he started straightening himself up as he walked over to where all the hands were gathered in front of Murdoch. He didn’t hurry though, and I thought as how he had his own bit of defiance in him. I was all mussed up, but I sauntered over, and didn’t even bother to straighten my hair or clothes. Murdoch was lookin’ pretty mad, but when he saw me stand there with my hair all over the shop, and my clothes all twisted about, my arms folded and the smirk fixed on my face, well …
I looked him right in the eye, my sass there for him to see. Showing him he was not the boss of me, that I maybe would stay, but on my own terms, ‘cause I weren’t afraid of him. My eyes dared him to try and squash me down. He was dealin’ with Johnny Madrid, and he better not forget it.
He was red in the face, and his jaw was rigid. But then, like Scott, he did something I was not expectin’. Instead of a roar, or even layin’ hands on me, the bastard smiled. I could hear the hands around me, shuffling, coughing, one lighting a smoke. The surprise in my eyes just seemed to tickle Murdoch, and his smile got even bigger. I didn’t know what to do, and I felt my face get red too, and I looked down at my scuffed boots, and I felt the sass get all blunt. I looked back up, and Murdoch seemed to have forgotten all about Orders, ‘cause he was still smiling straight at me, and now his smile was not just happy, but it was warm, it was laughin’.
Jesus, I couldn’t help it. I smiled, too.