I rode hell for leather until I reached the arch at the entrance to the homestead. One of Murdoch’s thousand rules was that you had to ride real easy once you were inside the arch. I always followed the rule – when I knew he was at home.
I reached the barn intending to ride on in but the door was shut – not usual during the day. As I dismounted I heard some unmistakeable sounds coming from inside. I was so surprised I backed up straight into my horse Pancho. He whickered in protest.
Someone was getting a licking in the barn. I thought straight away that our Segundo Cipriano must be in there with one of his sons. Matteo, I guessed. He was fourteen like me, and like me he had a way of finding trouble where anyone else had lost it. And like me he was foolhardy enough to pick that trouble right up and run with it.
I led Pancho over to the hitching post outside the hacienda and stood beside him. I pulled my hat low and stood and watched as the barn door opened. I think my mouth dropped open when it was Murdoch who came out, and my then stomach dropped when I saw he still had his belt in his hand. I was half hidden standing next to Pancho like I was, and he didn’t see me at first. His face looked troubled. When he tanned me his face usually looked real righteous, like a band of angels was standing alongside him, all nodding approval.
He noticed me then, and nodded as he passed me and went on inside.
My eyes followed him in and then returned to the half open barn door. I stood with my hands resting on Pancho’s saddle. We waited together for nigh on ten minutes and then the barn door creaked open.
Scott stepped out and stood by the door. Even though I’d figgered it was going to be him, I still felt shocked. My seventeen year old, Boston raised, gentleman brother didn’t look his usual neat and calm self. His hair was mussed and his face was flushed. His shirt was all untucked. He noticed me straight away and hitched his chin up at me in a real small move. Then he commenced to walk towards the hacienda, kinda careful and slow but real dignified, and he walked past me and on inside.
I was mightily shaken up. In the few months I’d been home at Lancer with Murdoch and Scott, I’d had a few sessions in the barn where Murdoch had painfully impressed on me the error of my ways. But I’d never even heard him threaten to lick Scott like he was always promising me, usually at least once a week.
I led Pancho into his stall to settle him for the night. Then I quickly did my chores before washing up at the kitchen door and going inside. Our housekeeper Maria slapped my hand as I reached for some cookies.
“Your hermano needs you chico” she said.
I nodded and went up the back stairs. Scott’s door was shut so I knocked and then barged on in before he could say for me to go away, which I always ignored anyway.
He was on his bed, on his stomach. He’d taken his boots off and was lying with his feet on his pillow and his head down the bottom of the bed, and he had his face buried in his folded arms. I sat in the chair next to the bed and waited, but he didn’t say a word.
“Well brother? What did you do?” I finally asked.
He turned his head then, and looked at me through half shut eyes.
“I went after that cat.”
“Not by yourself! Tell me you didn’t go after it by yourself Boston?!”
Scott just expelled a deep breath and turned his face back down into his arms.
I jumped to my feet and the anger flowed through me with a hot burst that nearly took the top of my head off.
“Fuck Scott! You goddamn pendejo! Jesus! What the hell were you thinking? You deserve every lick Murdoch gave you! I hope he didn’t hold nothin’ back, you stupid, mule -headed stubborn ...”
I remembered quite a few Mexican cuss words I’d thought I’d forgotten and then my rage left me and I thought of Scott out there alone with a big damn mountain lion stalking him. I collapsed back into the chair breathing heavy and feeling sick.
I thought back to one night at supper the week before when Murdoch and Scott and me had talked about there being a big cat in the area, and how it had already taken down two of our steers. Boston was all fired up to go after it as he was a good rifle shot, and had won prizes for sharp shooting when he was at that fancy Boston school. Murdoch had nipped the idea in the bud right off, pointing out how dangerous these animals were in their own “natural habitat” and it was nothing like target shooting at school. Scott was his usual polite, reasonable self but he still insisted he would like to try and that’s when Murdoch had put his big foot down hard and he told Scott to not even think about it. He was going to get a couple of the men to track the cat and get rid of it.
I remembered now how Scott had gone all quiet, but had got on that real stubborn look that I was beginning to see was a lot like one Murdoch got on his face real regular.
My breathing had finally calmed down and I looked down at Scott and saw he was watching me through his eyelashes.
“Well Johnny, I think I can state quite categorically that our Father held nothing back whilst administering corporal punishment to me in the barn.”
I laughed then, all the fear and anger had burned down. Scott smiled. He shifted on to his side and the smile turned into a grimace. He propped his head on his hand and sighed.
“So,” I asked him, “Did you find the cat?”
“Well, I went looking, but it was more a case of the cat found me. I took a shot, but I was riding that skittish bay and he startled and dumped me on my head and took off. So I was out there near Black Mesa with my rifle, but no horse and no spare bullets.”
“Jesus Scott, you dumb bastard.” I offered
Scott nodded, not bothering to disagree with me.
“Fortunately Cipriano and Walt were tracking the cat and they heard my shot and came and found me. Cip told me that he would leave it to my Father to point out how foolish I was, and that if the Patron didn’t follow the lecture with a sound thrashing, then he, Cipriano, would.”
I whistled softly. Cip’s a big man, like Pa.
Scott pulled his knees up and the movement made him wince.
“They brought me home and Murdoch listened to Cip’s account and you know what Pa’s like, getting redder and redder in the face, and then he roared – You! Get in the barn! – so loudly I think the President of Mexico must have heard him.
“I thought he would be in straight after me, but he must have taken some time to calm down, because I was waiting in there for half an hour before he joined me. He gave me a lecture all right, just about melted the ears right off my head. And then he took his belt off and escorted me over to those two hay bales in the corner he keeps for your visits.”
Scott sighed again.
“You know the rest.”
I sure did, and I whistled again.
“Well Brother, I’d better get down to supper. Don’t wanna be late with Murdoch already all riled up. I guess you’re not coming down?”
“Murdoch requested that I not show my face until breakfast. He’s going to ask Maria to bring my supper up. I don’t particularly feel hungry right now anyway, but yes, you had better get down there.”
“I’ll come up later Boston, bring the checkers if you’ve a mind to play.”
Scott just grunted and dropped back onto his stomach and buried his head in his arms again. I pulled the door shut behind me.
I rode the banister downstairs and slid into my chair at the dinner table just as the grandfather clock started to strike. Murdoch arrived and sat down and looked at me from under his brow.
“How is he?”
“I think he’s real sorry Murdoch.”
Murdoch made that hmmph sound.
“Sorry he got caught!”
“Naw, well, yeah, that too, but I think he realises now it weren’t a real bright thing to do. Jesus Pa, it makes me sick to think what coulda happened.”
Maria was putting my dinner down in front of me and she suddenly crossed herself and muttered “Madre Dios!” and she went on a rant all the way back to the kitchen, going on about reckless, disobedient sons who needed their father’s firm hand.
“You know son, he admitted he’s slipped off three times this week and gone after that cat.”
I looked up shocked and started to get riled again, which at least got me my appetite back, so I started stabbing at the food on my plate while I fumed.
“He shoulda asked me to go with him!”
Straight away I regretted busting out with that, and I got all still and looked up at Pa through my eyelashes. Sure enough he was looking at me like thunder.
“I know Pa. I won’t.”
Murdoch did that hmmph thing again.
“Cip and Walt are going out again tomorrow, and you two boys can just concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing. Now that’s an end of it.”
We finished dinner talking about anything but mountain lions.
Later, when Pa was reading by the fire, I collected the checkers and moseyed on up to Scott’s room again. I barged on in and he was lying on his side reading. His dinner tray was on the dresser and the plate was clean.
“I see you got your appetite back Boston!”
He grinned and shut the book.
“How is Murdoch?”
“He asked how you were.”
He grunted and then hooked the chair with his foot and drew it up next to him and I flopped down in it and we had us a couple of games. I won.
The next couple of days Pa and Scott were real polite around each other and I watched them both as they watched each other. Scott knew he’d got what he deserved, and Pa knew he knew it, but Scott was real proud and felt that he was getting too old to be getting a tanning, even if he had it coming. Pa didn’t. So Scott felt sorta embarrassed, and that made him get his Boston dander up.
Then Cip and Walt arrived back at the hacienda with the pelt of the mountain lion. Everyone who was at the homestead gathered around to watch as they laid out the head and hide of this huge cat. The teeth were wicked and the claws were worse. Everyone was congratulating Walt on the clean kill and commenting on the size of the animal.
I looked up and Scott was not saying a word, and looking all kinda pale and tense. I noticed Murdoch then as he stood just behind Scott. He was not looking at the pelt. He was looking at Scott’s bent head.
It was then that he put one of his big hands on the back of Scott’s neck. Scott started and glanced up and I saw him look at Murdoch’s face and then down. But then he looked back up and Murdoch’s eyes smiled. I saw that Scott’s whole body relaxed then and he leaned back ever so little into Murdoch’s hand.
I felt suddenly that my heart was too big to fit inside my chest and I swept my hat off my head and whacked Walt with it and bust out with
“Fuck Walt! That’s the biggest fucking kitty I’ve ever seen!”