(Sequel to ‘Trying To Manage Sons’)
I’d never been on a train before, but I pretty soon decided I would much rather be on a horse. The train sure could cover a lot more distance, but I wasn’t really liking being stuck in a carriage with a whole lot of people. It was better that travelling by stagecoach though, I had to admit.
I was sitting right in the corner, where I could see everyone and also see whoever came through the doors at each end. Scott was next to me with his head resting on the back of the seat, and his mouth open, as he had fallen asleep. Soon as Pa got up and went off to stretch his legs, I grabbed the frilly baby bib from the bag at my feet and gentle as could be I arranged it under Scott’s chin.
Tansy was sitting opposite Scott, and she put her hand over her mouth, but her eyes were laughing.
“Johnny, that’s so mean!” she fussed at me.
But she coulda reached across and snatched it off, and she didn’t. She sure was a treat for me to look at. The whole trip I had to drag my eyes away from admirin’ her face and how well put together the rest of her was.
It was still hard to believe that she was comin’ back to Lancer with us. Murdoch had hired her to look after Armando. He’d been to visit with Tansy’s Ma, Miz Dolan, to talk on how he would take care of Tansy like she was his own daughter, and how she would have Maria to chaperone her once we were back at the ranch. Once Armando was settled with a family, then Murdoch would personally escort Tansy back to Branch Ferry. Murdoch had taken Orla Cousineau with him on the visit to the Dolan’s, and she had spoke up for us all as respectable.
It was lucky she didn’t know how un-respectable I was.
Tansy’s Pa was away fighting in the war that Scott had fought in. Miz Dolan had two younger sprouts to take care of and she was pleased that Tansy could earn a regular wage for a few weeks. I was too, although Scott had already ragged on me about me being sweet on a girl. I gave him a mouthful but he just laughed, and that made me mad as hell. I was about to jump him but Murdoch had come back into our hotel room just then, so I’d had to pull in my horns.
Before we boarded the train, Murdoch had bought a goat so the baby would have milk. Me and Scott had to go to the baggage car to milk the blamed thing. I had to show ol’ Boston how to do that, him never having had to do such a chore before. He reckoned he’d milked a cow, but from what I saw, he’d not done that either, and poor little Gert bleated something pitiful when Scott put his cold hands on her. I sassed him about it, and he said I was a ‘vulgar, unmannerly child’. I woulda loved to scrap him, but the milk pail might have got tipped over, and Amando needed his food.
On the seat opposite to me the little fella was sleeping real contented, nestled in Tansy’s arms. Hot dang, but I wished I was there, right up against her b-
“What the he-“ Scott clipped off the cussword as he snatched the baby bib off his front. I quick looked out the window, but he could see my shoulders shakin’ as I tried not to hoot.
“Very funny.” Scott tried to sound not bothered, but instead he sounded real grouchy.
I glanced around and saw that Tansy was lookin’ down at Armando’s head and she was doing her damndest to not smile. Boston had a displeased eye fixed on me. We all turned to look across the aisle when we heard a girl giggling like a goose. She was a brown-eyed, brown-haired girl who looked a bit older than Scott. She wasn’t a beauty, but she had a sassy look about her that was real appealing. I’d seen her and Boston cutting looks at each other before he’d nodded off. Now she tried to stifle her laughin’, and that made the colour fire up in Scott’s face.
After all the trouble that Scott’s romancing of Melva had caused, you’d a thought he would shy clear of females for at least a few days, but ol’ Boston obviously still had just as much fire in his pants as I did. Every minute of my life, seemed like.
But he didn’t get an opportunity to spark the sassy passenger, as she and her mama got off at the next stop. Considering Scott’s recent troubles with women, and the bawling out he was in for from Murdoch once we got home, it was a good thing that more female temptation wasn’t around. At least not while Murdoch was also around to see it, and probably bust a blood vessel tryin’ to keep his sons from becoming fathers until they were all hitched up nice and legal and respectable, and a bit older than the two of us was at present. We neither of us was at all interested in being daddies, but both of us were hot to practise with just about anything in skirts. Murdoch had once been young, a million years ago, so he knew it.
I looked over at Tansy again, and my blood started to stir, and I wondered if fifteen was too young to get married. Havin’ my way with her, two or three times a day, all legal like…Jesus!
I jumped up and over Scott and rushed to the jake fast as I could before I disgraced myself.
Lester met us at Cross Creek and we all piled into the wagon. Girl and goat and baby and lots of baby trappings. Even the cradle Scott had bought when he thought the baby was his sprog.
It was good to be home at Lancer. It still unsettled me some when I found myself seeing that huge house and ranch as my home. Murdoch fitted it perfect, and Scott - even when he sometimes wore back-East type of things – he still seemed fitted to it all. Me though? I’d been born on Lancer, and I looked more like the hands than Scott ever would, but somehow I still got these uneasy feelings fleet across me. I’d sort of hold my breath and wait for Murdoch to turn to me and say ‘Madrid, what makes you think you’re anything to do with me? Get out, and don’t ever set foot on my land again.’ But if Murdoch was near and I looked at him, waitin’ for those words to come at me, they never did. Murdoch would catch me looking at him, and sometimes he would look like he was goin’ to smile, or sometimes he would look like he wondered if I was up to no good. But the thing was, that whichever expression he had on, his eyes would always look warm at me. And then my roiled up innards would ease.
My head knew that Murdoch and Scott would not like to hear about me havin’ those thoughts at all. But I guess all those years hearin’ Mama tell me that we’d been thrown out, well they must’ve left tracks inside me that would still take a while to fade.
I started at the sound of Murdoch’s voice, and looked at him while the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
“What’s got into you? Do you think you could stop gawping and do what I asked and get down and take the baby?!”
I gathered my wits and scrambled down from the wagon bed and reached up towards the seat to take Armando from Tansy. She was just about to hand him to me when a ruckus bust out behind me and I was bustled out of the way by the stormed up arrival of Maria.
“Aqui mi querida nina, dar el pequeno preciosa para mi!” (Here my dear girl, give the little precious to me.)
Tansy didn’t speak any Spanish, I knew, but she couldn’t mistake Maria’s outstretched arms and shining face, and she handed the baby to her with a smile. Maria commenced to cooing and ahhing away like she usually did to me, and I found myself feelin’ a bit peevish. Maria usually fussed me like that, but she hadn’t even looked at me. I realized I was bein’ foolish just as she turned and grabbed me by the back of my head and planted a big smoosh on my cheek, and that left me grinnin’ like a fool as well.
Armando weren’t that impressed though, and commenced to howling, but instead of quickly handing him back, Maria coo’d even more, laughing and talking like the little banshee was doing something amazing. Women sure act real touched in the head when they get their hands on a baby.
Most of them, anyway…
Murdoch had decided to bring the little tacker back to Lancer as he said he knew of a home where he would fit in perfect. I tried to get him to keep him with us, but was told that if anyone should know how much a kid did best when he had a Ma and Pa and brothers and sisters who were all there from the start, then we three should know and want that for Armando.
First day we got back Murdoch set Scott to cleaning the bedroom nearest the kitchen. He had to do all the scrubbing and dusting and polishing and setting up the beds with fresh linens. Maria kept all the rooms clean and tidy, but Murdoch made sure Scott had the room sparkling before the ladies moved in. Scott knew not to kick about it, and he didn’t protest one word when he was also set to spending an hour every morning and some more time at night tending Osana’s garden and goats. All this extra work was on account of Scott’s poor behavior which had got us all involved in Armando’s birth and life.
Murdoch had ordered ol’ Boston into the study the first night home. Even though I was concentrating hard on sparking Tansy and playing with the little sprout as we all sat in front of the fire, I’d still kept an ear out to hear the hollering my brother was sure to get. It was real disappointing when I couldn’t hear one word, so obviously Pa was controlling himself. Yet when Scott came outta that room he did look like a whipped pup. He disappeared straight up the stairs, but when supper was served Murdoch sent me up to fetch him and tell him he was not excused from the meal. He didn’t eat much, or say much, and he looked pale and cast down. I felt a bit sorry for him, ‘cause I knew that Murdoch woulda torn strips off him because he expected the two of us to behave so as to make him proud, but even more – to be proud of our own selves. Scott behaving like a rip and almost finding himself with a side-slip was not acceptable behavior. That was made real clear.
Usually it was me got the angry-as-hell trimming down, but Scott was no angel, and he had crossed the line with Pa enough times to know that what he called ‘furious parental retribution’ would rain down on either of us if we did. So he accepted his bawling out and his extra chores, and that he was not to put himself about for the foreseeable future.
Murdoch had asked Osana to share a room with Tansy and Armando while they were both with us. Osana was Cip’s mama, and she had been at the ranch before Murdoch had bought it three years before Scott was born. She was a tiny lady who was stricken in years now, but still knew more about the hacienda and every person on the spread, than anyone else. She still talked to Cip like he was a kid, and me and Scott loved to see her lecture him and the way he would not ever answer back or dare to not do like she told him. She lived with Cip and Aletta and their four boys, and she ruled them all. She was Bowie-sharp and didn’t put up with no nonsense, but she was kind as could be. She mostly just worked in the family vegetable patch and tended the goats. Her hair was still pretty black, but it had a wide streak of white over the left ear. The tip of that ear was missin’, and she said as how she had lost it fighting off a bandido when she was young, but Murdoch said Cip told him she’d got in the way of a scythe when she was a nina.
She loved bein’ back in the hacienda where she’d been the duenna to the daughters of the previous owner’s. And she sure loved crooning old Spanish nursery songs to Armando, and to fussing over Tansy too. When I commenced hanging around their room, pretending it was just the baby I was interested in, Osana wasn’t fooled for a moment. She told me to git, and she made sure I was quick about it by whacking at me with her walking stick. She was so old, and only came up to my shoulder, but she could still pack a wallop, and I beat a hasty retreat. Scott happened to be just coming down the back stairs and he heard the whole thing.
“Johnny Madrid meets his match. A Mexican granny no bigger than a twelve year-old!” he chortled.
“I ain’t fuckin’ denyin’ it Brother! You wanna try goin’ in there, huh?”
Scott looked down his Boston dandy nose at me and smiled in this uppity way which never failed to rile me. And if that weren’t enough, he talked all high and mighty at me like I was an annoying little kid he was obliged to edify.
“I’d be perfectly safe from Senora Estrada because if I went in there she would immediately discern that my interest was in the infant. She would see that it was not my engorged member leading me in lustful pursuit of the charming Irish lass who is in her care. She would-”
He never got out the rest of the ‘shewould’ jawing because I stopped his mouth for him. Sometimes Scott could light my temper like no other person ever had done. I wasn’t that sure of all he’d just said, but it was clear he’d insulted me and my upright feelings for Tansy and my embers raged up and overwhelmed me.
I leapt right into him and had his head wedged tight under my arm and had punched him a good one on the nose before he even knew what was what. Scott had a fierce temper too, which he mostly kept on a tight leash. Most times I flared up he would pin me down and talk sense to me till I got calm, but those times I landed a hurtful blow, it was a sure thing that all bets were off and he would come back at me and usually pound me into being calm.
This was one of those times.
His long right arm swung up and punched me so hard in the ear that my headlock on him loosed and that was all he needed. The two of us fell into the kitchen locked in battle. Battle for me always meant cursing a blue streak. Scott had landed a blow to my belly that felt like it pushed my gizzards up into my throat, but I’d brought my knee up hard intendin’ on flattening his scullions, but he’d twisted in time and instead I’d knee’d his left duff cheek so hard he’ d actually yelped. Very satisfying.
As we tussled I realized there was a lot of screaming going on, and it was all female, much as I’d have liked it to be my brother.
When a stick landed hard across my legs I knew Osana had joined the fray, but I was busy trying to stop Scott getting my arm up my back, so her smacks didn’t mean nothin’.
“You sonofabitch Scotty-“
Before I could tell him what a fuckin’ low-down skeesick whore-mongering swine he was, our fight ended real abrupt.
Both of us were well aware of what a powerful man Pa was, even though he was so old. We’d talked about could we two of us even take him, and we were pretty sure we couldn’t. Not yet, anyway… He showed us right then just how strong he was. We found ourselves caught by the scruff and torn away from each other like we was two Mexican marionettes. I saw a blur of bright skirts as Pa strode out the rear door of the kitchen. My toes were just skimmin’ the ground, and I musta looked like one of them ballay-rona girls Scott had told me about - the ones that danced along on the tips of their toes.
All thoughts of what we must’ve looked like disappeared when we reached the kitchen garden’s water trough and I found my head plunged under the water. Twice. And if that weren’t enough to cool our embers, then the scowl on Murdoch’s face was when he turned us loose. I was panting from the fight, and was sweeping the water off my face as it streamed down from my hair, and I saw Scott was doing the same. He had blood trickling from one nostril, and he looked very trepidated. I surely was.
Both of us flinched when the yelling started.
“What in God’s good name do you two think you’re doing?! Brawling like two nyaff loons! (worthless scoundrels) And in the house no less! And under the feet of the women folk and of our guests! What has gotten into the two of you? Scott you’re old enough and too recently in trauchle (trouble) to be behaving like a misleared, (badly brought- up) glaikit bam! “(stupid hooligan)
Pa saw the smirk which I couldn’t stop from creeping across my face. Him thunderin’ at Scott in his old language always tickled hell outta Scott and me. Pa’s stinging clip of my ear wiped my smile off smart though. Murdoch drew himself up even more then as he remembered himself and that he was no longer in Scotland, but in sunny California.
“And you John, your temper is as unruly as ever, and your mouth worse! Am I right in assuming that you threw the first punch?”
I chanced a look at Scott. He had pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and was holding it to his nose. Dribbles of water made their way down his face. He narrowed his eyes at me, challenging me to lie to Pa.
“Well, yessir, I did. But it sure weren’t without provcalation!”
Scott snorted, which made his nose bust out more blood. Pa ran his hand down his face, and seemed to let go a bit of his fury.
“The word is ‘provocation’. And I don’t care how provoked you were, you will not respond with your fists. Now the two of you go in and apologize to the ladies and clean up the mess you made. Then get cleaned up yourselves. And next time you feel like beating each other senseless you would do well to remember that I will do some beating of my own, and neither one of you will sit with any comfort after.”
He was boring his eyes into Scott when he said that, and I was delighted to see how ol’ Boston coloured up, him being so superior and sure that Murdoch would never tan him now he was eighteen. Which I knew he wouldn’t, but just him threatenin’ Scott with it was a pure satisfaction to me. The threat was enough to rankle Scott’s pride which was bigger than Texas and twice as prickly.
Pa went stomping away then, and the two of us sorry looking characters did as we were told, plum meeked down to nubbins.
And after supper when we headed in to lounge about the fire and enjoy some company with Tansy and Pa and the baby, he told us our presence was not required and we should retire to our rooms and ‘ponder the benefits of a peaceful life’. We stood there like gawks, and I saw Tansy look down and smother a laugh, and Osana didn’t try to smother nothin’ – she smiled smug as you please and nodded her approval.
We slunk out with our tails between our legs. I was in a real strop, mad as hell at Pa. He sure could be a damn hard twist. I was sore tempted to plant my boot right in the middle of Boston’s breeks, but I was not ready to meet my maker – or Pa in the barn - so I controlled myself.
Sometimes life was frustrating as hell.
Nothin’ was goin’ to plan for me at all. Next night I lay on the floor in front of the fire, my hands behind my head, my ankles crossed, and my thoughts real peevish. Didn’t matter how much I tried to talk the Ol’ Man into keeping Armando, he insisted that he knew best. The next day Isidro’s cousin and his missus were coming to meet the baby. Soon as they did I knew they would want him. Casimiro and Domitila already had two little bambinos, and a couple of months previous Domatila had had a baby but it had died only a few days after the birth. Maria reckoned Doma was meant for mothering, and the loss had been real hard on her, and having Armando would do them all the world of good.
The other grief I had was that I expected that having Tansy staying with us I was going to make her think I was the only man on earth. I had spent every minute I had spare in doin’ things to dazzle her. She’d seen me rope better than I ever had in my life. I had held her chair for her at every meal. I had scrubbed my hands and face, hell, even my ears, till I was just about raw. I’d combed my hair thorough every single mornin’. Even had two baths in one week when I wasn’t even that dirty. I’d showed her my snakeskin and offered to let her put the final coat of oil on it. She’d leapt back like the blamed thing was still rattling, but then she’d laughed and said how it was amazing how I knew exactly how to charm a lass. I wasn’t too sure if she meant that though.
I thought by now she should be falling into my arms and saying how she would die if I didn’t kiss her.
But no – nuthin’.
Oh, she chatted and laughed and would give me the most heart-thumpin’ smiles. She always looked pleased to see me, and she clapped like crazy when I jumped Pancho over the corral fence. And when Murdoch roared at me for jumpin’ that fence, she looked like she was going to cry she was that worried for me.
But if I tried to sweet talk her she would laugh and say ‘ah be goin’ on with you’ and just swish away humming. And when I twined my finger through one of the curls by her face, and I leaned in closer and closer ready to catch a kiss, she poked her tongue at me and went off into peals of laughter. Not only that but she swept her foot out and took my feet right out from under me – only because I was already unbalanced from angling in to her. When I fell flat on my duff she nearly died laughing. I was too taken aback to think to scramble to my feet, and so I was still sitting in the dirt when Cip came around the corner. He reached down and pulled me to my feet. The amused look on his face made me mad as hell, and I guess I was mad at Tansy too, and I told Cip to mind his own fuckin’ business.
Jesus, weren’t that a mistake. Tansy stopped laughin’ real abrupt, and she looked shocked. Cip knew I had a mouth on me, but I was not foolish enough to run it at him in the usual course. His big paw landed on my left shoulder and squeezed tight, and I was relieved when he used Spanish to bring me up short. I sure didn’t want Tansy hear him tell me that if I ever spoke to him like that again he’d lay his quirt across my backside, and he would do it whether the pretty senorita was right there to see it or not. Tansy mighn’t have known the words he was sayin’, but she could see I was getting a set-down, and she could see how the colour rose up in my face.
“Now Juanito, apologize to me and also to the senorita.”
His hand still had a tight grip on me, but even without that I knew I should anyway.
“Lo siento, Cip, lo-“
“You cursed in English. You will apologize in English.”
“I’m sorry for the cussin’, Tansy. Sorry Cip.”
He nodded then, and let go of me. He gently patted me on the cheek as he gave Tansy a warm smile, and she smiled a bit unsure at him. He turned back to me and said very mild in English for me to return to my chores, and he gave me a gentle nudge. I prayed he wouldn’t send me on my way with a crack, and was relieved as all gettout when he didn’t. How was she ever going to see me as a man when everyone on the damn ranch treated me like I was still a fuckin’ kid? Didn’t anyone even remember I was Johnny Madrid?
So my quest to win Tansy’s heart was goin’ nowhere. That was bad, but something worse was afoot. I started to realize that where I got these happy, friendly grins, someone else was getting happy, tempting smiles…
Gervaso was seventeen. Cip’s son number three. He was tall as Scott, and slim like him too. Where Scott was fair headed and blue-eyed, Gervaso had hair black as pitch, and his eyes were a golden brown, just the same colour as a young Mexican grizzly I once tangled with near Lick Skillet in Texas. He didn’t look anything special I thought, but after he’d brought some casks to the kitchen I saw the way Luisa looked after him as he left. She was old, about thirty, and a married lady, but I could tell she weren’t thinkin’ on her husband as she watched Gervaso retreat.
“Whatcha looking at, Luisa?”
She started and cut a glance at me, flushed up a tad.
“Ah, chico, I remember when Alberto looked like that!”
She shook her head.
“Gervaso se parece a un ángel, pero que es muy atractivo, y todas las niñas desmayo cuando smulders en ellos con los ojos diabólicos!” (Gervaso looks like an angel, but he is very enticing, and all of the girls swoon when he smoulders at them with those devilish eyes.)
“Incluso a mí, una vieja matrona casada!” (Even me, an old married matron)
She laughed then, and said I would understand when I was older. Older!! Jesus, she thought I was a kid too. That bastard ‘Vaso was only two years older than me, for fuck’s sake, and I sure couldn’t see nothing enticing ‘bout him. But it did seem that maybe Tansy did.
Much as I wanted to disapprove of ‘em, Casamiro and Domatila Vega were fine folk who took straight to ‘Mando, and he didn’t seem to have no objection to them.
Senor Vega owned a store in Locust Shade, two days ride east of Spanish Wells. He did silversmithin’, had charge of the post, and sold clothes that he and his esposa made. Senora Vega’s younger sis lived with them and helped out, and they had left their kids with her. Senor Vega gave Murdoch a pipe as a gift, and the silver work on the band ‘round the middle was as fine as could be.
I was out herding the year-old heifers when the Vegas arrived, but Tansy told me later it was all dandy. The little fella was sound asleep when they got there, but Murdoch invited them to go and see him, all on their own, and they both came out all soft-eyed.
The couple were a bit jittery to be stayin’ with a big bug rancher like Pa, and being in such an imposin’ hacienda like Lancer was.
Murdoch, and Scott too, had a way of making everyone feel comfortable and welcome. Pa had told Maria not to put on the fancy dog at all, so while we – me, that meant –was expected to be clean and smartish, the table was laid out simple and the food was all Mexican – I was as happy as a swine in rut.
Isidro and his wife Antonia both came to dinner. Tansy arrived in the Great Room after me, and just about took my breath away. Maria had stitched up a new dress for her, account of us havin’ visitors. It was blue with darker blue little flowers all over, and hot dang, did she look a treat in it. I was real glad when the Vegas said as how the journey had tired them out and they went off to bed not long after we’d eaten, and Isidro and Antonia scarpered as well. Murdoch stayed to give Armando his feed. He was on the sofá, his long legs almost reaching the hearth. That little bub sure did look damn tiny when Pa had him. Watching the Ol’ Man fussin’ over a baby was just about the only sight could tear my eyes away from Tansy. I hoped Pa and Scott would both go to bed and leave me alone with her. Old Osana had the toothache and hadn’t come out of her and Tansy’s room.
I was propped on the edge of the ottoman, fiddling with the beads on my wrist. Scott had just put his coffee cup back on the tray and Tansy was sitting demure-like on the other side of the fireplace.
“Tansy, I must say you look very comely in your new dress.”
Jesus, Scott’s words grated me to death. I was cussin’ myself for not having said nothing about how good she looked. I’d been too busy looking to think of it.
“Why Scott, thank you. It’s just the prettiest dress I ever had – I’m so grateful to Maria. And Mr Lancer, I would like to thank you, too.”
Pa grinned as he hoisted the shaver over his shoulder and commenced whackin’ him on his tiny back.
“I can’t take any credit, my dear. Maria is the thoughtful one, and I didn’t even know we had that bolt of cotton in the attic. You do look very pretty in your new dress, but you look just as pretty in your plain ones too.”
Madre de Dios! Now Pa was being charming enough to draw a skunk to a wedding! And him as old as Methusalah! Where in hell had he learned that? With all these compliments flying thick and fast, Tansy was smiling fit to bust. Me though, I was starting to get peeved as hell. My temper got even further put to the test when Scott decided to spur me.
“Johnny, don’t you think Tansy looks delightful? Have you noticed that she is wearing a new dress?”
If my gun hadn’t been hangin’ useless on the coat stand in the hall, I woulda plugged him. He knew well that I had a fancy for Tansy, and the mocking smile he was bending my way made my hands curl into fists. Now anything I said would sound like he’d started me to it, but neither could I say nothing when everyone, including her, were waiting for me to say something nice. I said the first thing I could think.
“I reckon Murdoch’s right. It ain’t the dress so much as the way you fill it.”
Fuck, Murdoch yelled so loud Armando started howling and I toppled right off the ottoman. The ruckus brought Maria rushing in from the kitchen.
“Cielo de, qué es? Juanito es dolor? Es el bebé?” (Heavens, what is it? Is Juanito hurt? Is it the baby?”)
Maria was panicky as hell, Pa was mad, Tansy was chilli coloured, Scott was scarlet also, from trying not to laugh, and I was rubbing my banged up elbow and wondering what the hell I’d said so bad as to cause such a brangle.
Maria scooped up Armando and once she’d cast a dark look at us three men she went sweeping out, clucking in the baby’s ear. I looked wary at Pa and tried to ignore Scott strangling his laughing in the corner. If Pa hadn’t been sitting up rigid and looking so grim at me I might have forgot myself and snotted Scott right in his clock.
“John, that was an inappropriate remark to make to a young lady. You can apologize and then I think you had best retire for the night.”
Maldita sea! So much for being alone with Tansy – and now I was being sent to bed like a sprout, being treated like a kid in front of her when all I wanted was for her to see me as a cool customer. But Murdoch was fired up, and it would do me no good to defy him. It would only make it all worse. He was getting impatient as I dragged my feet.
“Well? We’re waiting – and you can wipe that scowl off your face!”
“Jesus Murdoch, I wasn’t meaning to be disrespectful. I’m sorry, Tansy. I guess I shouldn’tve noticed what a fine figure you got-“
I’d thought I was making a nice speech, but Murdoch was turning purple, Tansy upped stakes and rushed from the room, and Scott fell on the floor gasping.
Murdoch got to his feet and ran his hand down his face. I stayed on the floor, figuring that was the safest place to be.
“Go to bed Johnny. We’ll discuss this in the morning. Scott – perhaps you could gain control of yourself and make your way upstairs too. Your brother may have reason for his lack of social graces, but you do not, and I am not pleased at your exacerbating the situation. So you and I shall talk in the morning also. Now both of you – get!”
Scott dragged himself up, snorting and chokin’ as he skeddadled. I hauled out of there too, giving Pa a wide berth.
Jesus wept, my wooing of Tansy was going fucking nowhere.
After orders next mornin’ Pa had a few words to say to Scotty, and then it was my turn to enter the study and face the old grouch.
“You surely can get a truculent look about you, but you don’t have to be on guard, I’m not going to rouse on you – this time.”
That took me aback right off, and the surprise on my clock must’ve amused Pa ‘cause I saw his mouth quirk.
“Sit down, Son.”
I dropped into the chair and slouched back and crossed my arms, still wary of what the Ol’ Man was planning to say.
“I was angry with your comments to Tansy last night, but once I got over the embarrassment I felt on her behalf, I realized it was not so much censure you required, as guidance.”
“Jesus Murdoch, can’t ya just use some plain English talk? Plain American talk?” I grouched.
“And can’t you refrain from cursing and blaspheming?” he replied, but quite mild.
I just scowled and started fiddling with the beads ‘round my wrist, waiting for the lecture.
“Johnny I talked to you about carnal relations between men and women, but I should have also given you some advice about courting, and social expectations-”
“I don’t need any advice thank you. I got on fine with every skirt I ever met-“
“Don’t interrupt! And referring to ladies as ‘skirts’ is ample evidence that you do need guidance in acceptable behaviour and speech with regards to members of the opposite sex. So keep quiet and listen!”
I sure hadn’t got on with every skirt I’d ever met, but I didn’t intend letting Murdoch in on that. So I had to sit there and listen, and didn‘t matter how much I grimmed and muttered, I got browbeat with all this guff about manners and sparkin’ and what was permissible and what wasn’t.
“Now Son, I am well aware that from about thirteen on, men find a woman’s face and figure of endless interest. However, propriety demands that we pretend that we only notice a woman from the neck up. So you mentioning Tansy’s figure was out of line. You need to remember that we males may only compliment a woman on her charms above the neck – but it is perhaps also safer not to mention her mouth.”
“Dios! Are you serious?!” I was flummoxed to my boots.
“Yes, Johnny, I am. As much as you will notice and admire a womanly figure, you must never allow a lady to know that you do, until of course, you are engaged to be wed.”
“So as soon as you are gettin’ hitched you can notice all the good bits and mention ‘em?”
Murdoch was looking a bit strangled, but he took a breath and kept on.
“Johnny by the time you are old enough to become engaged you will also have more experience in proper behaviour with young ladies. But I would advise you to wait until you are safely betrothed before you start commenting on your wife’s good – er – that is, before commenting on any parts at all.”
Pa seemed to be having trouble with his throat, coughing and rubbing his fist across his mouth.
“Now, Young Man, I hope you will remember your manners from now on. If you have any doubts about how you should behave just come to me. And I’m sure Scott has had quite a deal to do with the charming of young ladies, and would be more than willing to give you any advice you need. Conversation and flirting – within reason – are both very enjoyable when with an attractive member of the opposite sex. Most ladies, young or old, enjoy it as much as we do. Just be mindful of the girl’s reactions, and I’m sure you will become very adept at it – you are a Lancer after all!”
I think Pa was meaning that he was good at it, which thought was pretty disturbin’, but he seemed pleased with the way his lecture had gone, and I was glad it was finally finished.
He stood up and told me to get on out to the work waiting for me with the crew at Morro Lake, and I skinned out of there. I knew Cowdrey and Barney and Jose were out there, and that I sure would not have to watch my manners or my mouth when I was with them. Cowdrey reckoned he’d been with more whores than anyone in California, and he felt obliged to describe every one he’d ever tupped.
And I couldn’t remember him ever even mentioning any part of them above the neck...
Saying goodbye to Armando was hard for all of us. The Vegas had stayed with us for two days and we had got to see how on the straight they were, and how much they had taken to the baby. Seeing the little sprout all comfortable in Senora Vega’s arms gave me a mix of warm and sad, which feeling I couldn’t untangle. But seein’ the same mix in Pa’s eyes gave me thought. Scott and Tansy both were beaming happy, and Maria was chattering fit to bust as she loaded the family up with grub for the journey back. As they drove off I felt an arm slip ‘round my waist and I knew Maria’s comfort by now not to even have to look see whose arm it was.
“Nos mantendremos en contacto querida, y siempre gracias a Dios que el pequeño ha encontrado su hogar. Al igual que usted y su hermano tiene. Ven Juanito, llegado tener unos churros.” (We will keep in touch my darling, and always praise God that the little one has found his home. Just as you and your brother have. Come Juanito, come have some churros.)
Maria knew that churros wouldn’t ease the achy feeling I had, but I would still enjoy eatin’ ‘em.
Murdoch arranged that he and Tansy would start back for Branch Ferry the following Monday. That meant my time to win her over was real short. Two days was all I had now to see could I get her to kiss me. I was determined I was goin’ to get somewhere with her if it killed me. So I was fuming mad that afternoon when Gervaso called on Pa before supper to ask could he have permission to borrow the buggy and take Tansy into Green River next afternoon. He was as polite as could be and Pa had no way of knowin’ that Gervaso was not to be trusted alone with my girl. Or maybe he did have an inkling...
“Gervaso, that is very thoughtful of you. It would be nice for Tansy to get off the ranch for the afternoon. I had intended taking her myself but I’m sure I can trust you to take good care of her.”
Like hell he could!
“I wouldn’t trust him with a toothless loon if she was a female one!” I bust out.
“That will be enough from you John! “
It was all I could do to stop from jumping Gervaso and sending his mangy hide dripping blood out the door.
“I do trust you to behave like a gentleman, Gervaso, but of course your grandmother will act as chaperone. I’ll speak to her and to Tansy and let you know.”
Murdoch wouldn’t let me drive the buggy anymore as he reckoned I was reckless. He’d not long had it all painted up fresh seeing as how Scott was often sparking girls over half the valley. So I was snotty that he was lettin’ Gervaso have it, let alone taking Tansy out in it.
Jesus, time was running out, and now Vaso was goin’ to have Tansy all to himself, almost.
Well, not if I had anything to do with it.
“What are you up to, Young Man?”
I flinched when Scott said those Murdoch sounding words. He’d come up behind me where I was slouching near the front door. I was waiting for Tansy to come out, but I wasn’t about to tell Boston what my plans were.
I looked him over real cool, but I could see the laughing in his eyes.
“I think, Little Brother, that you are just going to have to accept that your mesmerizing charms are just not influential enough to sway the affection of Miss Dolan.”
“What the fuck are you bleating on about Boston?” I had an idea though, and it smarted.
“You need to concede the field to your rival, Johnny. It appears that Tansy finds young Gervaso rather more appealing than your own rustic self.”
“I’m only rustic ‘cause fuckin’ Murdoch keeps me on such a short leash. If he wasn’t watchin’ me like a damn hawk I’d get as much practice at fuckin’ as –“
“Rustic, Johnny! It means unsophisticated, as your vulgar little tirade just demonstrated!”
“Well, that sonofabitch Vaso had better not be pondering on being vulgar around my-errr-that girl, or Murdoch will gut him top to toe, and I’ll wrap his gizzards around his lyin’ throat-“
“Good grief! Settle down! I’m sorry, Johnny, I didn’t mean to get you so stirred up. I know you’re attracted to Tansy, and I can see why, so I shouldn’t be needling you about her. But I’m afraid she sees you as just a friend. She goes home on Monday, so her liking Gervaso is neither here nor there, anyway.”
Scott put a hand on my neck and gave me a rattle. It didn’t make me feel no better. Even if she was going home, I still hankered for her to take a shine to me, and I weren’t sure why.
Scott bid me goodbye and headed out. Not off the ranch though, as I knew he was also on a short leash which was being held very firm by his daddy at the moment.
As I watched him make a beeline to the barn, Vaso appeared, and as he got near me he grinned real happy all over his stupid face.
I couldn’tve said it any colder, but the bastard was too pleased with himself to even notice. He started to ask was Tansy ready when she and Osana came bustling out the front door. Tansy had on the blue dress again, and looked as invitin’ as warm socks on a cold morning. She gave me a big smile, but it was Vaso’s arm that she took, and I felt a hot pain grinch me from my chest to my stomach. I tore my eyes away from the grating sight of him helping her up into the buggy. Osana was fussin’ with her shawl. Vaso was coming back to escort her out, but she held up a finger to him to wait and turned back to the house.
Now, Scott had taught me something about women which fact I had been counting on. When him and me and Pa were all waiting in the buggy for Maria, as usual, Scott had laughed and said how I should learn patience. He said men had to wait ten minutes any time they asked a woman if she was ready to leave. Didn’t matter if the female was five or fifty, soon as you said those words, that female would decide to use the jake. Murdoch had laughed and said how ‘astoot’ Scott was.
Osana was real old, and even I had noticed how often she disappeared out to the jake. So now she was doing exactly what Scott had said, just as I’d hoped. I told Gervaso I would wait and bring his abuela out to the buggy. He said his gracias and went back to bore Tansy while they waited.
I hot footed it straight out to the outhouse behind the kitchen garden and sure enough, the senora was just shuttin’ the door. I padded silent as a Commanche and quietly slipped the outside bolt into the keep. I took some pliers from my back pocket and with one turn of the wrist I bent the end of the bolt straight up. Feelin’ very satisfied, I sped back to the kitchen where Lola was baking, and told her that Murdoch wanted her to go up to Scott’s room to collect his sheets, as Scott had wet the bed. The look on Lola’s face was worth whatever trouble all these stunts and lies was goin’ to bring down on my head later.
Once back out on the portico, I waited. Gervaso started looking my way, and soon he was looking my way with one eyebrow raised. I shrugged. Five minutes went by, and I saw Scott headed out, and about then is when Lola came stumping down the stairs. Next sound was feet running back of the house, and Lola pretty soon after came runnin’ towards me.
“Juanito! Ven rápido! Senora Estrada está encerrado en el retrete. Ella está gritando sangriento asesinato.” (Come quick! Senora Estrada is locked in the outhouse! She is screaming bloody murder!)
Well, it was all working perfect. I yelled at Vaso, and he come a running, and Lola was yelling at him, and the two of them went pounding off into the house. I pulled on my storm strings and my hat rose up my back and I settled it on my head as I sauntered out to the buggy and leapt up next to Tansy. She was looking all round-eyed and flustery as she peered towards the front door and back at me.
“Johnny – what’s happened? Is everything alright?” She sounded a bit rattled.
I released the break and hied up Delilah with a snap of the reins and a click of my tongue. She set off jaunty, just like I felt. I reached into my back pocket and grabbed out the pliers and dropped them on the floor of the buggy.
“Tansy, everything is just fine.”
“Johnny, what on earth has happened? If it’s anything serious we must go back!”
“Ain’t nuthin’ at all. I’d take you straight back if it was. Senora Estrada just needed some help from Vaso, so he was happy for me to take you out.”
She fussed a bit more, but all my stretchin’ of the truth soon had her settled. I was a bit sore though, that she seemed disappointed that Gervaso wasn’t taking her on this outing.
She was happy quick enough though, glad to be out on such a pretty day. Trouble was, soon as she settled I started feeling a mite edgy.
Murdoch was gone for most of the day. He was over at the Talbots, talking about some land they were haggling over. Cip was at home, but he wouldn’t be coming after me as he’d sprained his knee the day before and was laid up. Gervaso mightn’t have run to his daddy telling tales, but I sure as hell knew that all the mama’s would have hot-footed it to him, all squawking like a gaggle of geese. And all of them after my hide.
So someone would be on our trail soon as a horse could be saddled. And whoever followed on horseback would be cutting across country, not sticking to the road like we had to.
I had already planned that soon as we reached the section of road around from the overlook high above Lancer, I was going to veer off on a side track which anyone following would not expect. By the time they realized we were not on the main road ahead, I’d have headed through a stand of peppercorn trees and swung ‘round and be headed to Morro Coyo from the south. Our tracks would blend in with those of the stagecoaches, and we’d have made a clear getaway.
I had Delilah moving brisk so as to put as much distance between us and whoever was sent out to fetch us back. The faster I urged her on, the more quiet Tansy got, until she all sudden grabbed at her hat to hold it on and started in protesting.
‘Johnny this is supposed to be a pleasant ride – not a race!”
I eased up, but not too much. When I smiled at her and she smiled back my heart did a thump. Her eyes were all sparkling, her skin was pinked up and her mouth, the one I wasn’t supposed to comment on, was slightly open. Her bottom lip was as shiny as a polished cats-eye. Dios, but she looked like an angel. An angel I was longing to kiss.
“Tansy, all I want to do is kiss you.” I had blurted it out before I even knew my mouth was open.
“Why, Johnny, go ‘way out of that! You’re too young to be talkin’ so!”
There was something about the way her lips formed up some of them words, and there was the laughing light in her eyes, and there was the challenge. And hot dang, there was the way the wantin’ surged up from my toes to the top of my head. It just took all reason and all caution with it, and my right arm swept around her shoulders and before I could stop myself I’d planted my pulsativing mouth plumb on hers.
She squirmed some and started to draw back, but just as our lips were on the point of losing contact, she sort of sighed, and damn if she didn’t move in to me with her mouth pressed into mine. Madre de Dios, we were doing what I’d wanted to do since I’d first set eyes on her...and I never wanted to stop.
I’d enjoyed kissing girls as frequent as I could, but kissing this girl was something else. There was this sweetness that tugged in my chest where usually the only stirring was much further down. Having Tansy in my arms seemed like the best thing in the world, and I kinda forgot where we were, something I never usually did. I wanted to hold her even tighter, and that’s why I swung my other arm up to wrap ‘round her and make us even closer. ‘Course, that weren’t the brightest thing to do, seeing as how that hand held the reins, and so I jerked poor ol’ Delilah’s head just about clean off her neck.
Maybe anywhere else on the road that wouldn’t have mattered a damn. When the reins jerked, they jerked Delilah’s head right around and in that one second of my foolishness the buggy swerved just enough to leave the fine ruts I had it lined up with.
Me and Tansy both startled and she grabbed one hand on the seat and one on my arm. I concentrated on trying to correct our path, but the right wheel had lit on shale and we slipped sideways before Delilah could pull us straight, and that same wheel then ploughed into a mess of rocks all piled like they was there waiting to smash that wheel. And smash it they did.
Tansy gasped and grabbed me tighter as we teetered over. I hauled leather and somehow we remained upright, but the screeching coming from under the buggy did not bode well. I spun ‘round and saw that the buggy was resting on a big rock with just the very top of the wheel.
I was awful horrified at the sight. My stomach dropped to my boots. But I hasty turned back to Tansy and took hold of both her shoulders.
She wasn’t all soft-eyed now, but neither was she set to bawl like most girls woulda.
“Jaysus! Your Pa’s beautiful buggy! Johnny, I’m thinkin’ he’ll be quare upset with ye!”
Like Pa and his Scots talk that broke out when he was in a temper, Tansy’s Irish had flooded into her speaking.
Pa upset with me? Jaysus was right. I scrambled over Tansy, jumped down and reached and helped her out of the buggy. First I went to Delilah and fussed her a bit, talking calm and telling her she was a good girl. Next I checked how bad the damage was. When I saw that the wheel was shattered and that there was a deep scrape in the side of the buggy, I fell to my knees. I woulda prayed, but that sure had never done me any good, so instead I cussed.
I kept it low, mindful of my company.
Once I’d got the top off my temper I looked up. Seeing Tansy unbuckling the harness I pulled myself together and went to her to help.
“I never heard such cussin’ in me life! Your daddy ought to wash your mouth out!”
Perhaps I hadn’t been as quiet as I’d thought. At least the worst of it was in Spanish.
“I’m real sorry, Tansy. ‘Bout the cussin’, and this mess I’ve got us into.”
“Begorrah! What was I thinkin’? Lettin’ you kiss me! And kissin’ you back! Ahhh Johnny! It’s ashamed I should be. I promised me Ma I’d be pure, and here I am out riding alone with a boy, and kissing him when he’s hardly older than ma wee brother!”
“What! I’m-“ Dios – how old had I told her I was, when we were back in Branch Ferry? “I’m seventeen!”
Phew, that had been close.
“Oh, be going on with you. You’ve only just turned fourteen! Gervaso told me.”
She looked troubled, and I felt troubled. That fucking pendejo Gervaso! I’d set his sun for him soon as I could.
“I am fifteen.” I tried to sound calm and honest. It was hard.
“Ooohh! So neither one of you is to be trusted! Oh, Mary, Mother and Joseph, after being treated so decent - like the gentry to be sure – by Mr Lancer, and now I’ve repaid him by seducing his youngest and wrecking his buggy! The disgrace! How will I face him? And me Ma?”
Mierda – she hadn’t gone to water when we’d almost tipped the buggy, but now she was blaming herself for the wreck, and the kiss, and she started to blubbering like a real girl. I stopped unhitching and took hold of both her arms.
“None of this is your fault. I planned it all. I locked Senora Estrada in the outhouse. I kidnapped you. I kissed you, and I smashed up the buggy. It was all my doin’, and believe me, my Pa ain’t goin’ to blame you one bit. You listenin’? You understand what I’m tellin’ you?”
She hitched a sob and took a shuddering breath and looked at me with her big brown eyes all washing with tears. Even feeling the weight of all I’d done, and how Murdoch was going to kill me dead, I still couldn’t help but feel mighty soft in the head at the sight of those eyes.
Or her mouth, which was trembling.
“You locked the Senora in the outhouse?”
“Yes, I did. And I’d do it again, if it meant getting that kiss I took from you.”
She blinked then, and two fat tears brimmed out and rolled down her face. A small smile tried it’s best to break, and she reached and put a hand gentle on my cheek.
“Johnny, you are the sweetest boy I’ve ever met.”
My heart swelled up and I thought she was goin’ to lean forward and smoosh me right on the mouth. This time I would try and press my tongue in to her mouth. I put my hands up ready to clasp her shoulders and bring her in close to me.
She used the backs of her hands to slap mine away. Her eyes narrowed and her face got stern. She dashed the tears from her face and turned abrupt to Delilah.
“A sweet boy who has behaved just like a boy! A bratty boy, exactly like one of my brothers! Now help me unhitch this horse so we can get back to Lancer as quick as we can.”
All my hope and excitement leaked away and I stood there feeling desolated.
“Well, don’t stand there like a great gawp! Help me, and be quick about it!”
Not for the first time in my life I wisht I could fly. Tansy was not goin’ to admire me; she thought I was sweet, but sweet like a kid. She sure wasn’t goin’ to be swept off her feet by me. All my plans had ended in a set down from her, and a banged-up buggy for Murdoch. Which meant I was in for the lecture to end all lectures, and the hiding to end all hidings.
Yeah, I wisht I could fly. South America might be far enough away to be safe from Pa.
But probably not.
I settled the lap rug from the buggy on to Delilah’s back. Tansy placed her foot in my hands and I lifted her onto the mare’s back.
We set off for home, neither of us talkin’. I led Delilah who didn’t mind her new role, being a ridin’ pony for a pretty girl. I figured it would be at least three hours before we got back to the ranch. If we came across anyone out scouting, it would be a lot less. Getting home was not something to look forward to, anyway.
Not that long previous, Scott had taken the wagon where he shouldn’tve, and done a heap of damage. Murdoch had given him a right trimmin’ down and set him to tasks that no-one could stand doing. My sins were far worse, so the consequences were going to be hellacious.
I was brooding on all this as I tramped along. Tansy had offered to take turns, but of course I wouldn’t hear of it. She tried to cheer me up some ‘cause she knew how gloomin’ I was, but unless she was willing to run off to South America with me, there was no liftin’ of my spirits.
I had got myself into a whole mess of trouble, and it was all on account of wanting a girl to lose her head over me. A real nice girl, who deserved better than me using all my sneaky wiles to get her alone so’s I could kiss her. To do that, I had lost my head, forgettin’ myself to the point that I lost track of all my cautious ways, and had finished up by putting her in danger. Murdoch was right, and weren’t that a grinch to my guts to admit. I was reckless. Fuck, I had behaved like a kid, just like everyone was treatin’ me.
An hour into our journey I saw riders in the distance. I kept watching until I recognized the big horse and big frame of Murdoch. My stomach dropped down to my boots. When they got a bit closer I knew his partner to be Miguel. Soon as they spotted us they spurred their mounts and came on at a rush. That’s when my stomach came back up from my boots and nearly choked me.
As Pa drew near I could see the worry on his face. He came to a sliding stop and was off his horse faster than I’d ever seen him move. The dust he’d stirred floated all around us as he grabbed me by one arm, frantic, looking the two of us over.
“You’re both alright?” he ground it out as he kept lookin’ from me to Tansy.
“We’re alright. We’re not hurt, just afoot-”
“Never mind that. Tansy, are you alright, Dear?”
“Yes, Mr Lancer, I’m perfectly fine – Johnny has taken care of me-“
“Not another word, please.”
Murdoch turned me loose and went to Tansy and held his arms up to her. She let him lower her to the ground, and she started to smoothing down her dress and brushing the dust from it.
Pa went straight back to Chieftain and mounted up.
“Johnny, help Tansy up behind me. Tell Miguel roughly where the buggy is, and what’s needed to get it home. Then ride Delilah back to the buggy and wait there for him.”
“Murdoch, I’m sorr-“
But Murdoch had already turned Chieftain away from me. Jeez, he sure didn’t spare no time or effort when he was mad. I held Chieftain’s stirrup still so Tansy could get her foot in it. Soon as she was up behind Pa, he set off home, with nary a glance at me. I stood and watched them leave, and Miguel ambled his ride over and soft said my name.
I didn’t look at him, was still lookin’ after Pa.
“Juanito, your papa, he was worried and angry that you had taken the girl without her chaperona. Then when we saw you on foot, he was sick with fear that either of you were hurt. Be thankful that it will be hours before you are home. It will give him time to cool down.”
I cut a glance at Miguel, and he shook his head and sighed.
“One day you will have sons. Then you will know what happiness is, but you will also become familiar with worry and anger, believe me. Your papa will make sure that you regret your foolish actions, and then he will forgive you. Now, tell me what I need to know.”
Miguel’s sons were still only little tackers, but turned out he already had the experience with boys to know what he was talking about.
By the time he’d fetched out an old wheel which we could afix to the buggy, and got it home, it was suppertime.
I gave Delilah a thorough good brush down, and a big helping of oats in her bran mash. I was in no hurry to go inside and face Murdoch, but he took that outta my hands by arriving in the barn just as I was pulling all the hair outta the brush. The hair was drifting down to the floor, and I tensed up all over, knowing full well what was goin’ to happen next.
He closed the door behind him, and he headed for the centre upright and took down a short length of harness strap that was hanging from a nail there.
I concentrated on the brush as he came and stood close.
“Look at me.”
I had to drag my eyes up as all of me felt like lead, heavy and cold. Pa’d crossed his arms, and the strap was danglin’ under his left elbow. That sure was some disconcertin’.
“Johnny, I promised Tansy’s mother that I would care for her as if she was my own daughter. She deserved to be cared for with respect, and warmth. Every person on this ranch treated her that way. Everyone, that is, except you.”
Mierda, when he said it out like that I suddenly felt like a low-down scutter. I dropped my head, guilt washing through me and making my bones ache.
“You do well to hang your head. I’m very disappointed in you.”
“Jeez, Murdoch, I didn’t think about it like that. I respect Tansy, and I certain sure feel warm to her-“
“You didn’t think about her – I’m well aware of that. You were too busy thinking about yourself. You were determined to have your own way and disregard what you’d been told. About Tansy and about the buggy. The buggy isn’t the issue. It will be fixed, but Tansy, and you too, could have been hurt. And the young lady’s wishes, and her mother’s, they were not considered at all.”
I kicked at the ground, and hugged my arms ‘round my middle. Murdoch took hold of me and my innards grinched up as he took me in charge. I found myself in a place way too familiar...wedged tight under Pa’s left arm.
“Next time you feel inclined to behave in a selfish or foolhardy way, I hope the remembrance of this hiding will bring you to your senses.”
Miguel’s words came to mind.
If Pa had cooled down any, it sure weren’t all that apparent. But before he was halfway finished wearing me out I had regretted my foolish actions, and was regrettin’ any foolish actions I might ponder taking for the next fifty years.
Before Pa left the barn, he had put his great big hand on the back of my neck and told me to take my time comin’ in. When I did he expected me to make my apologies to Tansy and Senora Estrada. And next day I was also to speak to Gervaso and set things right with him.
I was strugglin’ hard to keep myself buttoned up, which endeavour I nearly lost when Pa suddenly cradled my chin in his hand and lifted my face up. I kept my eyes down though.
“Son, it grieves me to take you to task like this. But boys make mistakes and fathers correct them. I know you think I’m hard on you, but it’s because I know that there’s a good man going to grow out of an errant boy. Through no fault of your own, you’ve grown up with very little guidance. I have to – I want to keep you on the right path to being the man I know you’re going to be.”
His voice was real gentle. Jesus, I chanced a look at his clock, and though he still looked sober as a judge, his eyes weren’t stern at all.
He let go of me and went and hung up that fuckin’ strap.
I spent a coon’s age with my face buried in Pancho’s withers. He twitched some, but reached ‘round and snuffled me and whickered, like he was sorry about what had happened.
When I finally tromped across the yard I slipped through the front door, down the passage and straight up the back stairs. No way did I want to see anyone after what’d just occurred.
First soft knock on the door came from Maria.
“Juanito querido, me quedé con algo de cenar para usted. ¿Quieres que te traiga una bandeja?” (Darling, I kept some supper for you. Do you want me to bring a tray up?)
I had my head buried in the quilt, which smelled of lemon and didn’t smell as comfortin’ as Pancho’s hide, but she heard my muffled ‘No gracias. No tiene hambre.’ (I ain’t hungry.)
She swished across the room and her hand gentled my hair.
“Chico, why do you hurt your papa so?”
“Jesus, Maria, I weren’t the one holding the strap.” I complained, my voice muffled by the bedding.
“Ay-yi-yay...you will understand... one day. Buenas noches, mi niño salvaje.” (Goodnight, my wild boy.)
Scott was next.
“Maria said you weren’t hungry? Our Father must have really given it to you if a little paddling took away your immense appetite.”
“Shut the fuck up, Boston. I ain’t in no mood for your dandified sense of humour. I’m dying here.”
“Well, dying or not, Murdoch sent me up to fetch you. He said to come down and make nice before Tansy and Senora Estrada retire for the night. He said you may as well get it said.”
I turned on my side, groaning. I rested my head on my hand and looked sourly at my older brother. Like always, he looked like he just stepped outta a picture. If I hadn’t been hurtin’ like a sonofabitch I woulda liked nothing more than to jump him and mess him up.
“Scott, what’s ‘errant’ mean?”
“Wayward. I gather Pa mentioned his belief that you are wayward, and need bringing in to line? And then proceeded to do just that?”
“You gathered right.” I grumped as I got up off the bed. Every movement and my backside protested.
“Run a brush through that haystack of hair and come downstairs. The last thing you want to do is aggravate Pa – you’ve done that enough for one day. Actually, you’ve done that enough for his whole lifetime!” Scott chortled, increasing my wish to thump him.
Instead I chunked the brush I’d just picked up. It glanced off his shoulder and he shot out a hand and caught it in mid-air. He threw it back just as hard, and it stung my hand as I caught it. I turned it over and over in my hand, studying on what I wanted to say.
“I don’t want to see Tansy. Old Osana wouldn’tve wasted any time telling her what Pa went out to the barn to do. I wanted Tansy to...like me. Now she’ll just sees me like a dumb kid who just got his britches blistered. It’s embarrassin’.”
“Brush your hair. And Little Brother, that’s precisely what you are.”
I turned from the mirror and glared at him, my best Madrid icy stare. As usual with Scott, I needn’t have bothered.
“Wipe that scowl off your face. And get brushing. And I’ll tell you something. Most members of the opposite sex see we men as dumb kids most of our lives. I heard my Godmother telling Grandfather that most men didn’t mature until they were forty, and one had to watch carefully for it, because the mature period only lasted five minutes.”
Scott gave me a grin in the mirror, his eyebrows lifted high. Then he went on.
“And as for getting your britches dusted, Tansy has brothers, so she would be familiar with that practice, and I doubt she would think of it disdainfully. You’ll probably find she has nothing but sympathy for you!”
Scott headed for the door, only sidestepping enough to lay a swate across my ass. It made me jump a foot, and he was out the door before I could grab him, so I threw the brush with all my force. It hit the doorjamb so hard the handle broke and went flyin’.
Sympathy, huh? Maybe all was not lost after all.
I’d gone downstairs and said my sorries to the Senora and to Tansy. The Senora looked severe, but then I noticed her shoot a small smile over to Pa, who was hangin’ around the bookshelves, pretending not to listen to every word. Tansy had been all choked up, eyes all misty, and she had fallen all over her words, tellin’ me she of course accepted my apology, and was sorry herself that she hadn’t made me turn back straight away, and avoided all of the ‘awful consequences’ of my ‘boyish prank’. When she said that she also had cut a look at Pa, and her expression was like she was cross with him, and not me. That was real gratifyin’.
Murdoch had done that ‘hrrmmph’ sound he was good at, and then wandered over and sat down.
“Son, Scott and I are taking Tansy to church in the morning and then to lunch at Mrs Conway’s. I’ll talk to you before we leave about some special chores I would like you to do while we’re gone.”
Jeez, it wasn’t enough that he’d just about killed me, he was goin’ to work me into the ground.
Scott had come in from the kitchen then, carryin’ a tray with hot chocolates on it. The smell of that got my stomach interested, so I had headed for the kitchen.
Pa left out the makin’s for breakfast in the morning, and I ate as soon as he and Scott and Tansy had left. I spent about three hours chopping wood. Murdoch said I’d to do an hour every day for the next two months and that would go towards all the costs of repairing the buggy.
I went and found Gervaso. He was cool with me, and pleased I’d got my comeuppance. He did say that he woulda risked a lot to get the pretty senorita alone too...
We had a farewell dinner for Tansy that night. I didn’t enjoy it for one moment. I was still too sore. Inside and out. I would like to have spoken to her, just us two, but that sure wasn’t going to happen.
Didn’t happen Monday morning either, when we all gathered to say goodbye. Scott hoisted her bag into the buggy, and Maria gave her a basket of food for her and Pa to eat on the train. Osana and her hugged a lot, and Pa said for me to assist her up into her seat. Jose was already aboard, as he would bring the buggy back from the train stop at Cross Creek to Lancer.
I put my hand out for Tansy to lean on to step up, and she took it, but she didn’t step away from me, but towards me.
“Johnny, in a couple of years you’re going to break so many hearts” she whispered, “you just have a little growing up yet. I wish I could be here when you do – I won’t ever forget that my first kiss was with you.”
She brushed her lips across my cheek and stepped up into the buggy. Everyone waved and called goodbyes, but I just stood and watched.
Her first kiss...
Well, that was something.
My thoughts were interrupted by Scott’s arm snaking around my neck and hauling me sideways. I struggled but couldn’t break his hold. He was laughing, and as I hooked my foot around his left ankle he was gabbing at me.
“One whole week, Little Brother! Seven whole days! No Pa to call the tune, and me in charge of you! So you’d better behave, or you just might find yourself out in that barn again, yelling ‘please Scott, I’m so sorry, you’re right, just like you always are-“
My foot yanked his legs out from under him and he fell with a big ‘ooof’, and we tussled in the dust, while Maria scolded and Osana commenced to whacking at us with her stick.
From over at the corral Cip’s voice boomed out for us to stop our foolishness and get to our work. We stopped fighting and both of us sat back in the dust, and Scott was grinning at me. He was properly mussed up now, clothes all dusty, and his hair hangin’ in his eyes. Seeing my Boston dandy brother looking all scruffed like that was a pure pleasure. Seeing his eyes all gleeful and fixed on me, it was enough to make me forget all my woes, nearly.
Maybe I hadn’t been able to win Tansy’s heart, but there were people at Lancer who didn’t need me to win them. I grinned back at Scott, and we both jumped up to our feet, laughing as we swatted the dust outta our clothes.
One whole week of freedom! A man could accomplish a lot in one whole week!