“I ain’t going to school! I don’t care what you say – I fuckin’ain’t goin’ to no fuckin’ school!”
I had been sprawled across the settee, drowsy and relaxed after a real good supper. Murdoch had been talking about the school in Green River and I had hardly been payin’ attention, just listenin’ to his voice drone on, and Scott’s answer every now and then. Then out of nowhere it seemed Murdoch’s voice had started in on me and what all I had in the way of schoolin’ when I was living with Mama. I’d mostly grown up in Mexico, with Mama, between the ages of two and twelve, and then by myself after she died. First I sleepily mumbled to Murdoch how it was not a real lot, but I’d learned the basics, but then he’d dropped the real casual question that had made me explode right up off the settee.
“What do you think about having some more schooling Johnny?”
I know I had a temper, and I had been trying real hard to keep a rein on it when I had arguments with Murdoch. I seemed to have a good handle on it when I was dealing with other people, and when I’d been fending for myself, mostly by hirin’ out my gun, I’d been pretty good at acting level headed. I’d had to be, people don’t take a fourteen year old gunfighter seriously. I had to act as cold and mean as I ever could, and then once they saw how good I was with my Colt, they ignored the fact that I was still a skinny kid, not full growed, and they respected my ability, and hired me on. I’d been in gunfights and won every one, and it was often because the one I was up against was also young, but foolish, or they was older but thought I was no threat to them.
It wasn’t hard for me to act cold and mean either. Growing up in border towns, poor, often hungry, and trying to avoid getting knocked around by some of Mama’s men, I was not real happy with life. When Mama was living with a decent man, life was much better. There’d be food on the table, Mama would be happy, and I would get the affection that I yearned for from her. Mama would teach me my figures and letters, and if there was a school I would sometimes go. Often though when she thought I was in school, I was off somewhere else. I never was too good at doing what I was told.
The best time I remember was when I was still little and Mama took up with a Texican. We were with him till I was about six, and that was like bein’ in a real family. He was the one taught me to speak English, stead of just Spanish. He taught me to ride, and he got me my own pony. He was so good with horses, and me, and I learned everything proper I know just about, from that man. He was strict with me, but he was like a real Pa, so I learned to mind him, and I felt wanted. Then he had to go on a cattle drive and was goin’ to be gone for quite a while. When he rode off I was so scared that I would never see him again, and I bawled like a baby. Mama could not be alone. At seven I already knew that. She would start getting angry and start to drinkin’. She started goin’ in to the nearest town and not comin’ home. About two months after the Texican left she came home with a new man and she packed us up and we left with him. I cried again because I knew I would never see my stepfather or my pony again, but that was the last time I cried like that, where someone could see me.
When Mama died I got put into an orphanage. I stayed there for three days, eating everything they put in front of me. Then I lit out. I went back to our house and got my gun from where I had hid it. It was the Texican’s spare gun, and I’d taken it with me all those years ago, and kept it hid from Mama so she would never sell it when we were desperate for pesos. Next I stole a horse and took off back to the only home I could remember. Five weeks later I topped the rise above the house I’d been so happy in, and I could see smoke curling up from the chimney. I whooped as loud as I could and rode fast as all hell down to the house. But I was in for a mighty big disappointment. It was a real nice family had bought the ranch years before. They bought it from the Texican, and when they asked where he was headed he had told them he had a hankerin’ to see Mexico. I knew then that he had tried to find Mama and me.
The rancher asked if I wanted to stay on, and work for my keep. I could not stay in that house. It tore me up inside being in there with strangers. I thanked them kindly and didn’t even stay the night. I walked my horse for miles and made a lonely camp. It was the first of many lonely camps over the next two years as I made my own way. Practising with that gun, and getting so good I could beat anyone I came up against.
That life was all in the past for me now. But in my temper about what Murdoch was suggesting I felt like the last place I wanted to be was at Lancer, doing what my Pa wanted me to do. I was standing there rigid and wild, my fists clenched tight against my sides as I faced him. He was sittin’ straight and angry looking, his eyes blazing at me.
“Don’t you dare raise your voice to me Boy! And you watch your mouth!”
Well he sure had no trouble raisin’ his voice…
“The fuck I will – “ I began, but he cut me off with another roar.
“Go to your room!!”
So I did. I made sure I slammed the door to my bedroom as hard as I could, and I stomped across the room and threw myself on my bed and yelled out my own roar of frustration. I felt a mite better then, and calmed down some. I glanced at the door, half expectin’ Murdoch to come through it like a bull and grab me up and tan me. It had happened before, so I was starting to get a bit edgy. But either he was too angry to deal with me, or Scott had put a soothing word in his ear and saved my hide, but I seemed to be safe. For the moment anyways.
I lay there thinkin’ about the prospect of butting heads with Murdoch about schoolin’, and it was enough to make my blood start to boil again. I couldn’t believe he could expect me to go to a school. After the life I had led and the things I had done, the thought of sittin’ in a schoolroom with little kids who had lived safe and innocent lives? Well it just was not goin’ to happen. It was the stupidest thing I could imagine. And I was angry, but I was hurtin’ too, that Murdoch would expect me to do that, and that he was ashamed that I didn’t have the education that Scott got growin’ up in Boston with his Grandfather.
Scott musta taken up for me, because now that the blood wasn’t roarin’ in my ears I could hear Murdoch’s loud voice. He musta been arguing with Scott, and that made me mad too, cause I hated that Scott was always having to step in and try and calm Murdoch down when he and I got into it. I could fight my own battles. Hell, I’d had to do that practically my whole life, but I sure did appreciate that ol’ Boston never hesitated to stand up for me. And standing up to Murdoch was a helluva brave thing to do when he was on a rant. And he was a man who was mostly used to gettin’ his own way in things, so he knew how to work up a good rant.
Suddenly I came to a decision. I decided that I needed a few days of peace and quiet on my own. I was used to digging my heels in when Murdoch wanted to rein me, but I usually came to see things his way, one way or the other. But I was sure and certain that I was not goin’ to bend on this, and I could see some big arguments and explosions from that moment. Maybe a few days alone would give us all time to see how me and school was a bad idea, and not worth the tussle. Maybe Murdoch would feel bad about making me leave home. Maybe he’d regret upsettin’ me. Maybe I wasn’t thinkin’ straight…
Since Murdoch and Scott had brought me home to Lancer ten months previous, I had not ever run. Thought about it the first few weeks when I was healin’ from a gunshot, but somehow Murdoch and Scott had been able to get under my skin. And there’d been other occasions, after a lickin’ for instance, when I had thought about life on the open range bein’ quite appealing. But I had found me a home, and I realized I had found me a family, and I knew I wanted it and wanted it more than I wanted to quit.
So I wasn’t plannin’ on leavin’, just taking me a little spell. A “strategic withdrawal” is what Scott would say.
Four hours later I wearily dismounted outside one of our lineshacks. It was east of the hacienda, and the closest one now, since a month before when the one that used to be closest got blown to smithereens. But that’s another story. I’d chosen this one because I knew there was an outcrop of rock nearby that would shelter Pancho while I stayed there. I didn’t want to leave him in the leanto as that would show any visitors that I was stayin’ there. I was certain sure that Murdoch or Scott would come lookin’ for me, but should either one turn up tomorrow or the next day I would be keeping myself scarce. I only planned to stay a couple of days. Just to show Murdoch how determined I could be. And that I was running my own life.
Tonight though I bedded Pancho down in the leanto and then I entered the shack. I struck a match to light the lantern and it was then I heard a scuffle. I had my gun in my hand and was spun and crouched in a heartbeat. Before my eyes had lit on the dark shape in the corner I heard a scared voice.
“Don’t shoot! Please don’t shoot!”
I could see the shape had its arms in the air so I slowly straightened up. I lit another match and held it high.
“Who are you?”
My eyes had adjusted to the dark and with the help of the match I could see a scruffy boy, maybe about twelve or so.
“Names Jebediah Pevensey Mister. I ain’t armed.”
He looked and sounded real nervous.
“You just keep still there while I light this lantern.”
He nodded and kept his arms up. I put my gun next to the lantern while I lit the wick, keeping my eye on the kid. The room lit up and I could see the kid clearly, and he was obviously no threat. I holstered my gun and told him to drop his arms and take a seat.
“Whatcha doin’ here kid?”
I stood on the opposite side of the table from him, my arms crossed and my hat shielding my eyes as I studied him. He was almost as tall as me, but younger. Brown hair and needing it cut. He had on a jacket that was dirty and threadbare, as were his trousers. He looked none too clean.
“I’m on my way to Redemption Mister. I come across this here house and just wanted shelter for the night. I et some food, but when I get some money I’d be pleased to pay for it. This your folk’s home Mister?”
“Kid this is a line shack on my old man’s ranch. My name’s Johnny. “
I took off my hat then and sat down.
“Why you’re just a kid too Mister. I was real worried when I heard you arrive – thought you might be some desperado!”
I snorted at that.
“I ain’t no desperado kid, but I ain’t no kid either. I’m staying here for a few days, checking the fences for my Pa. You’re welcome to stay, and you’re welcome to eat, but I’m a light sleeper, so don’t get no ideas about stealing nothin’. Now I’m going to bed down and you do the same. Don’t go creepin’ around or anything. I’ll shoot first and ask what the hell later. Got that?”
“Sure Johnny. I’m wore out from travel so I’m achin’ to sleep too.”
I woke next morning with the smell of coffee brewing. I played possum until I’d checked out what the kid was doing, which was making some food.
“Smells good kid.”
I swung my legs outta bed and holstered my gun and stretched mightily. After I’d been outside to relieve myself and wash my face I took care of Pancho and moved him to the rock shelter. Jeb had breakfast dished when I got back, but he also had the place filling with smoke.
“What the hell!”
I dived at the stove and opened up the flue and then the windows and we flapped the blankets to clear the smoke.
“I’m sorry Johnny-“
“Ain’t you never used a stove before? You tryin’ to burn us out?”
I was real exasperated, but he looked mortified, so I just shook my head and we took our breakfast outside to eat sittin’ on the porch. We ate in silence and he kept his head down, embarrassed like.
“So where are you headed Jeb? You runnin’ away from home?”
He held the coffee cup in both hands and blew the steam up in to his face. The morning was a might chilly.
“My Ma died of a fever about three months back. They put me in an orphanage, but I got kin in Redemption. The orphanage wrote to them, but I got sick a waiting to hear back and I just took off. Figure to go there myself and see if they want me. If’n they don’t, well I’ll just keep right on going.”
I nodded, real familiar with what he was saying.
“You come far?”
He looked a bit wary then.
“You don’t got to worry about me Jeb – I’m sorta on the run myself!”
“Jehosaphat! Why would you leave a rich family Johnny? “
I looked down into my coffee at that. He wanted to be with family, and hell, I’d wanted to be with family for years. Years before Mama died truth to tell, because she weren’t real good at making you feel like I’d felt when we were living with the only man I’d then ever considered a father. And now I had me a real father, a real brother, a real family. I felt uncomfortable sitting there thinking about that. But then I thought about Murdoch and schooling and I got angry again. And anger mixed with guilt is a mixture that will rile a man.
“Hell Jeb, I’m too old to be being told what to do. I like to make my own decisions, and I’ll be damned if I’ll do something I’m set against just because my old man thinks I should! Now he or my brother might be coming here looking for me, so let’s clean up and get outta here. I’m going to track up the stream this mornin’, check for blockages, and then go swimmin’ after lunch – why’nt you come with me?”
He dug his hands deep in his pants pockets and looked down, thinking.
“I was intendin’ to keep going this morning. I guess you’re heading the same direction though, so I might stick with you for a while.”
We cleaned up so there was no trace we’d been there, and then I fetched Pancho and saddled up. Jeb climbed on up behind me and we set off. We stuck close to the stream as we could, and kept an ear out for changes in the flow. It was a crisp morning and everything around us was fresh and sparkly, so it was no chore to be doing what we were. Couple of times I found places where the stream was getting clogged with fallen branches and I got in there and cleared and Jeb helped. Later in the morning I shot a rabbit and at lunchtime we set a fire and had a good meal. We got to jawin’, and he told me he was twelve, and had left the orphanage the month before.
I had turned fifteen a few weeks before this. Murdoch had given me a saddle, the first new saddle I had ever owned. Maria had cooked all my favourite foods the night of my birthday, and Murdoch and Scott had toasted me. Murdoch had made a little speech about it bein’ the best year of his life since I was two, and how as he was so happy to have Scott and me back at Lancer with him. He said he was proud of us both, and real proud of how we had both taken to ranch life when it was not how we’d grown up. I thought about that night as Jeb drifted off to snoozing, and I lay back there under a spruce and looked up through the branches.
Hell, I started feelin’ bad about lighting out of home and leaving Murdoch and Scott and Maria worryin’ about me like I knew they would, even though I knew damned well I could take care of myself. Scott woulda had to do all my chores that morning. And he and Murdoch woulda set out lookin’ for me which meant that the normal ranch work would be neglected. I glanced over to where Jeb was softly snoring in the dappled shade. Here was a kid crossing rough country afoot, fixin’ to find himself a family. And here was me, with a real rough past but a good future because I had me a family, and what was I doin’ runnin’ off from them because of my ornery temper. I dropped my hat over my face. I was going to have a siesta and then a swim. Then I was going to talk Jeb into coming back to Lancer with me today. We would find out about his family but until then he would be safe with us. I knew Murdoch would let him stay while we found out. I was pleased with my mature thinking and drifted off to sleep.
When we woke Jeb and I enjoyed that water for around a good hour, ducking each other and just enjoyin’ being free to play around with no-one to please but ourselves. I didn’t exactly tell Jeb to wash, but I’d brought along some soap from the shack, and suggested he might like to use it before potatoes started sproutin’ from his neck and ears. His clothes had got their first wash in a coon’s age because when he was sitting pulling his boots off I had just up and tackled him and chucked him in the waterhole. He’d cussed a blue streak before he clambered out and shucked everything and they were all now spead over bushes drying in the sun.
The water hole wasn’t that deep, but there musta been a hole cause suddenly Jeb disappeared under the surface. I expected him to bob up but all that came up was his hands and they were flailing mad in the air. The water was roiling and I realized that Jeb was in trouble and I made haste to get to him and haul him up. He was splutterin’ and spittin’ and looked frantic.
“Jesus Kid! Don’t you know how to swim?”
“Sure I can!” He was breathing hard. “Just not in deep water!”
He sounded real offended.
We got out of the water then. I lay on the bank considering him as he lay on his stomach, still breathing a bit laboured. He had obviously never had to take care of himself, and after the stove incident, and now nearly drowning himself, I wondered how long he could last on his own.
I talked to him about coming back to Lancer with me but I’d met someone who was pretty near as stubborn as me. He was determined to keep going to Redemption. I had seen his ribs sticking out, and I knew he had a hard road behind him and another ahead on the thirty miles he still had to go. His boots had holes in the soles. No food , no money, no horse, no gun. And not too much sense. I made up my mind.
“Jeb it suits me to stay away from home till my Pa cools down.”
The reality was that Murdoch would not cool down. The longer I stayed away the hotter his temper would get, I knew. But I couldn’t see my way clear to leavin’ this kid to make it to Redemption by himself. I would see him to his destination and then head on home and face Murdoch. That was not something to look forward to. Disrespect, defiance, insolence. These were all words I’d heard quite a bit since living with Murdoch. Plus I’d cussed. And it was a huge safety rule at Lancer that no-one left the homestead unless someone knew where you were headed. I quickly shut off thinking about what was in store for me back at home, and instead concentrated on the present.
“I reckon I might just like to see this town you’re headed to.”
Jeb sat up and looked at me and then away.
“Ain’t no need for you to come with me Johnny. I can take care of myself, if that’s what you’re thinkin’.”
That he couldn’t take care of himself was exactly what I was thinkin’. How he’d made it this far was a puzzle to me.
“Naw, that ain’t it. I’m not ready to go home yet. I know where we can borrow a horse for you and we can make good time. I’m goin’ with you.”
He was still looking down and I could tell he was struggling to accept my offer. I never like anyone thinking I need help so I understood, but hell, this kid was younger than I was when I was twelve.
“Come on, time’s a wastin’. Friends of ours have a ranch just near here and I’ll tell Mrs. Conroy that Pancho got lame and she’ll lend me a horse.”
He was sitting there hugging his knees to his chest, and he looked up at me and had a real uncertain face. I thought he was still unsure about me going with him.
“Yeah. A horse.”
He put his head down on his knees.
“You can ride can’t you?”
“Course I can!”
He jumped up all offended again and started dressing while muttering to himself.
“Johnny! Nice to see you – but what are you doing here - on foot?”
I had left Jeb with Pancho backaways, out of sight.
“Howdy Mrs. Conroy, nice to see you too. Pancho is about a mile back, pulled up lame. I was wonderin’ could I borrow a horse to get home?”
“Why sure Hon, but first come up to the house and have some lemonade and cookies. What are you doing this way anyway?”
Lemonade and cookies. Boy did that sound good. But I couldn’t leave Jeb waiting while I took to visitin’, and I was also aware that either Murdoch or Scott could arrive at any time and that sure would put a damper on our little tea party.
“Thankyou M’am, but water will do fine. I was out checking the stream hereabouts for Murdoch. I want to finish up and head back home. You know how Murdoch don’t like you to be late for supper.”
She laughed at that. She and Murdoch had been neighbours for years and were real good friends.
She chattered on to me while we got me a horse saddled, and I thanked her kindly and set back the way I’d come. Jeb was squatting in the shade leaning on a tree trunk, and soon as he saw me he went and fetched Pancho from where he was grazing. We were right close to the Conroy house, closer than I’d told Mrs. Conroy. I was tightening the cinch on Pancho when I turned to Jeb just in time to see him go to mount his horse from the right hand side. I was taken aback and opened my mouth to challenge his claim that he knew how to ride, when his horse thought just about the same thing and skittered away tossing his head and snorting with surprise. Jeb mayn’t ever have ridden before, but he was game for it, and even though the horse wasn’t co-operating, Jeb got his leg flung over the saddle. He musta pulled harsh on the reins though cause next thing poor old Clipper’s head was jerked real hard to the side and that was just too much for him to put up with.
He bolted. I was amazed that Jeb didn’t come flying back and land at my feet. I was still getting my head around that Jeb had lied about riding, like he had about swimmin’ too. Clipper had already put some distance between us before I finished tightening the cinch and swung up and took off after them. Mrs. Conroy knew I was real fond of good horse flesh so she hadn’t given me some ol’ plug to ride. Clipper was a fine, hearty roan, and he loved a gallop. And of course he loved home, like any well cared for animal, so that’s where he was headed. And if he could dislodge the fool who was clinging to his back and digging his heels into his belly and practically pulling his mane outta his head, well he would do it.
I don’t know how Jeb hung on, maybe cause Clipper kept fairly straight, even though he seemed to find a few low hanging branches to head under and hope that they would skin his no-account rider right off. Jeb even had a branch trailing from his neck like a pretty, green necklace, but he was plastered against his horse so hadn’t been peeled off yet. He was yellin’ his fool head off, sounded like he was being scalped, and that was fretting up his mount to spook at even greater speed.
I was closing on them as Clipper reached his home and I thought he would pull up near the barn. Unfortunately Jeb sensed the easing up and that made him try to get control of the reins again but all it did was send Clipper in the wrong direction. That horse was real put out at being mishandled and he picked up speed straight away as he headed on the angle from the house. Mrs. Conroy was on the bottom step leading up to her porch and had turned and was staring open mouthed at the two Pony Express riders who had suddenly run straight through her front yard.
I looked from her to the mad horse and caterwaulin’ mudsill in front of me. It was not good. Clipper ran straight through the washing line back of the house. Musta been wash day at the Conroy’s cause it was full of sheets and suchlike. They had been all hanging nicely but now they were a long string of tangle behind horse and rider. And the vegetable garden? Well that washing line and all that was still attached to it cleaned up that vegetable patch like it was ploughing time. The line came loose and all the washing came to rest in a big muddy mess. Guess someone had done a good job of watering those plants so’s they’d have a good harvest soon. Guess they were wrong. At least the dragging of the wash line had finally pulled Clipper up, and he stood there huffing and snorting and stomping the last three cabbages in the whole plot.
You’d a thought Jeb woulda fallen off any time but now. Now that Clipper was almost still, Jeb seemed to go boneless and just slipped down real slow and fell in a heap on top of some squashed pumpkins. I could hear screaming and looked back and Estralita, the housekeeper, was coming from the back of the house. She was wringing her hands and then shaking her fist and a stream of Mexican insults reached my ears. Further back I could see a couple of vaqueros starting to head our way.
He just lay there like a stunned rabbit, eyes glazed and hands gripping thin air like he still had the reins in them.
“JEB!!” I roared this time, and he slowly turned his head to face me.
“For Christ’s sake you fool! Get up behind me! Before we get caught here!’
He sat up but still looked unhinged. Cussing a streak under my breath I reached down and hauled him up, and then he saw Estralita nearing us. She’s a hefty lady, and with her face red and her eyes a blazing, she looked pretty damn frightening. But I think it was when he saw the big wooden spoon she was holding like a goddamn sabre that he realized the need for a quick departure. Suddenly he was all action, and he shoved his foot into the stirrup I’d loosed for him, and he swung up behind me. I quickly edged over to Clipper, who had commenced to graze on some tattered green beans, and I reached forward and grabbed ahold of his reins.
Just then Estralita reached us. She was giving me a mouthful in rapid fire Spanish, telling me what was going to happen to my gizzards after she and Murdoch and Senora Aggie were finished with them. As she got within striking distance she swung at Jeb’s backside in a mighty powerful fashion. Poor Pancho had just moved though, and he received the blow full on his rump, and with a frightened squeal he bunched his hindquarters and leapt forward in a spring I’d never experienced before. Lucky I had good hold of Clipper’s reins, and Jeb had good hold of me, cause we took off like hellhounds and were heading for the hills before we could say christamighty.
Soon as we were outta there I pulled up, turned in the saddle, laid hands on Jeb and pitched him on to the ground.
“You thick-headed, lyin’, useless, sonofabitch!”
Jeb scrambled around in the dirt and quickly got to his feet and backed up aways.
“Watcha mad at me for, huh Johnny? Weren’t my fault that blamed nag bolted like he done –“
I gave him another mouthful while I called into question his claim to knowin’ how to ride. I’d met some yahoos in my time who could stretch the truth. Heck, Scott and I knew how to edge around and over the truth of the matter if Murdoch was breathing down our necks. And I’d just spun a deceiving tale to Mrs Conway. But this kid didn’t seem to have no conception of straight talking at all.
“Look Jeb, I’ve come this far, plus I’ve winkled a horse outta Mrs Conway, so let’s just get goin’ to Redemption and then we’ll be shot of each other.”
I walked Clipper in a circle and then instructed Jeb in the right way of mounting, keeping a firm hand on the reins myself. Jeb was looking mighty disgruntled and peevish, with me and the horse, but he mounted and took a firm hold of the saddle horn and we set off with me leadin’.
We travelled steady for two hours like that before Jeb got over his mad and decided to speak.
“I didn’t want to tell you I couldn’t ride Johnny. Truth is my Ma never let my Pa teach me cause of her little sister Maisy gettin’ killed in a riding accident when she was a young ‘un. It set my Ma’s mind against horses from then on. “
I glanced back and sighed. I shook my head and commenced giving him some instruction as we meandered on our way. He was real eager to learn.
Not long after that I was busy with the riding lesson, but didn’t mean I wasn’t still alert, and it was clear to me that there was a rider galloping towards us. The drumming of hooves was getting closer when I turned Pancho to face back the way we’d come, with Jeb behind me. I tied Clipper to a tree so’s he wouldn’t get skittish. I drew my rifle from the scabbard and pulled my hat low on my head and set there easy like and waited. I had a good clear view back of the way we’d come.
Soon I could see the rider and horse, and when he realized I was sitting waiting, he eased up on his mount. It wasn’t long before I pushed my hat back on my head and put away the rifle, and sat back. I could pick out Scott a mile away. While I waited for him to draw near I had a drink from my canteen.
Scott rode up and drew his horse to a standstill, a big grin on his face.
“Hello little Brother, I thought I’d take longer than this to overtake you!”
He glanced over to Jeb and Clipper. They both looked uneasy.
“Boston this here is Jebediah Pevensey. “
I waved between my two fellow riders.
“Jeb this here is my brother Scott.”
They nodded to each other and then Scott fixed me with a steely look.
“Where’s Murdoch at?” I asked softly.
“He headed for Green River to send wires to the local sheriffs. Then he was going home to wait for either or both of us to return. We followed your tracks till we were sure you were headed for the east line shack and he sent me on to check it. He’s really upset Johnny. You owe him an apology for taking off like that. It was totally uncalled for and you know it.”
I did know it, and Scott’s quiet, angry voice made me feel ashamed. I couldn’t look up, just studied my hands gripping my saddle horn.
“I was mad as hell Scott, but I was not leavin’. Just wanted to go off and think some, and I was going to head home today, but this kid needed help so that’s why I’m headin’ away from home. You come from Mrs Conroy’s did ya?”
Scott moved around in his saddle and pushed his hat back and wiped his face.
“Little Brother, you surely do know how to create chaos in your wake – I’ll give you that.”
“Never mind. Suffice to say that you’re lucky Mrs Conroy is charmed by your boyish guile, and that she would no more complain of your behavior to our Father than fly. But I’m afraid that Estralita will be giving a full accounting of your activities to Maria.”
I groaned and looked up then, and Scott had a half grin on his face as he shook his head.
“Now, Johnny, who’s this kid, and where are you headed?”
It was nigh on dark as we ambled our horses along the main strip of Redemption. Scott had been leading Clipper for some time, and I was riding drag. I was sitting real relaxed and easy in the saddle but was checking every building as we passed. Old habit. There were squares of light spillin’ across the street from the saloon and the sheriff’s office, and from upstairs of a couple of buildings. There were five horses tethered outside the saloon, and diagonal opposite there was a real old, shabby lookin’ buggy hitched to an even older lookin’ horse. Well as soon as Jeb’s eyes lighted on that sorry sight he startled us and our horses by suddenly urging Clipper on. Scott’s a fine horseman, so apart from a quick cussword he soon had his horse and Clipper settled and we all reached the end of the street before he turned on Jeb.
“What is your problem? What did you see?”
“That horse ‘n buggy – they’re from home.’ He paused and looked down. “The orphanage…”
Scott took a deep breath and then dismounted.
“Well, I’m numb from the waist down from all the hours I’ve spent in the saddle today. And I’m starving. We’ll book into the hotel and Johnny and I will eat and bring some food up to you in the room. Let’s see to the horses, and in the morning, hopefully, we can find your relatives and talk to them privately.”
I nodded, and Jeb scrambled not too elegantly down from atop Clipper. He disappeared into the shadows off the alley we was near, and Scott and I went to the livery and heyed up the owner. Lucky Scott had money with him cause I only had three dollars with me. Jeb stuck close to us with his hat pulled down and he didn’t calm down till he was safe in the small room we’d got at the hotel. Scott and I wasted no time in making a straight line for the saloon where we got ourselves some beef stew that sure filled the spot. Scott had a whisky but wouldn’t get me any. At least he got me a beer which Murdoch would not have been happy about. It felt nice to be sitting in a saloon with my older brother, both having a drink, and far from Murdoch’s reach.
There were two girls wearin’ those tight dresses that respectable ladies never do. Dresses with feathers, and low in the front, showin’ what God gave them. One of them was playing cards with three men. I watched as the other one headed up the stairs with a cowboy in tow, and my mouth got dry and I had a big swig of my beer. I noticed then that Scott was watching too. The girl playing cards was old, probably more than twenty-five, but the other one was young looking, and she had a pretty look to her.
“Come on Johnny, let’s get this stew up to your young friend before he starts eating the furniture.”
Jeb was so grateful for the food and wolfed it down in no time. There was only two beds in the room, but the manager had given us a pallet and blankets so Jeb could sleep on the floor for twenty cents.
“I’ll be back later Johnny.” Scott jammed his hat back on his head.
“Well where you goin’?”
“Back to the saloon. I’m going to play cards for a while.”
“Well I’ll come too –“
“No you won’t. I’m not buying you another drink. You stay here and keep your young friend company. I want to be up early so I can send a wire to Murdoch as soon as the telegraph office opens. Then we need to find Jeb’s family. I’ll make enquiries while I’m playing cards. The sooner we head home the better.”
I was going to grouse, but it was me had hooked up with the kid, so figured I should stay with him. And after not havin’ much sleep the night before, and all that had happened that day, I was looking forward to a good night in a soft bed. So Scott left us there and I immediately pitched down stretched out on one of the beds.
Jeb went and stood at the window overlooking the street.
“Johnny I cain’t see that buggy from here. I’m goin’ to go down and see if’n I can see it from cross the road. See who’s drivin’ it.”
“What difference? Whoever it is ain’t goin’ to hang around waitin’ for you to show up. Soon as they leave you can talk to your kin an’ see if they’ll take you in-”
“Well I’m agoin’. You stay here. I won’t be long - only till the lights go out where they is.”
I rolled off the bed groanin’.
“I’ll come with you. You’re like to get your fool head shot off or something, and then Scott will be lecturin’ me from here to Kingdom Come, ‘ bout responsibility and such. I swear he sounds just like my Pa sometimes.”
I put my rig back on and grabbed my hat and we headed off.
When we got closer we found that there was nowhere private to observe from. The saloon and two upstairs residences threw light on the street across from where the buggy was outside the shop. The horse was gone now. Anyone coming out of the saloon or the shop would see us. Jeb backtracked and disappeared down the nearest alley and I followed him. Halfway down the alley he started climbing a fire escape and the next thing we were at the roof.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea kid, seems a lot of trouble to just get a look at someone-“
But Jeb was already making his way cross the rooftops, and I followed him, thinkin’ to keep him outta trouble. That was the plan anyway.
The full moon helped us see our way as we crossed from the first building to the next. I was not unfamiliar with crossing rooftops so was real careful with my footing. I shoulda known that Jeb was not real bright at doin’ anythin’ by now. Using a proper indoor stove, swimmin’, ridin’ - the list went on, and now I discovered crossin’ rooftops was another area he was hopeless at. It was as we reached the third and final building that it happened. Jeb was perched on the edge of the parapet and the yahoo decided to jump – jump! – down onto the centre of the roof! I lunged forward hoping to catch him and at leastaway pull him horizontal so’s his feet didn’t hit the timbers flat down, but all that did was unbalance me. As his feet crashed down I heard the wood give with a horrendous shriekin’ sound. Or maybe that was me… Anyway, both of us tangled in a big ball of arms and legs and I hardly had time to think of the pain of landing before we did.
The wind was knocked right out of me with the weight of Jeb on top of me and his elbow in my gut. We’d crashed onto a bed, I could hardly believe it, but the bed had broke flat beneath us. I couldn’t see for all the dust billowin’ around us, but I could sure hear. A lady was screamin’ fit to be tied, and then I heard a man’s voice.
“What in God’s name!”
I was tryin’ to cough and breathe and choke all at the one time, and I rolled over onto my hands and knees. Then another voice, deeper this time was yellin’ real loud, loud as Murdoch can yell, and whoever it was didn’t sound pleased at all. Hands grabbed me up and I finally got in some air, but then I was bein’ shaked senseless. I still couldn’t see from all the sawdust in my eyes, but I knew Scott had grabbed whoever had me, and Scott was yellin’ for him to let me go.
Another voice boomed out then.
“What in tarnation Clarry?”
I could hear Jeb then, coughin’ up a lung sounded like. My right eye cleared just enough then as I was turned loose and I woulda staggered back if Scott hadn’t taken aholt of me.
In his drawers.
I was still gasping but now I could see what was in front of me. Scott wasn’t the only one in his drawers. The young saloon girl was in her drawers too, and she was clutchin’ another bit of her underthings to her chest. She was coughin’ too, and lookin’ wild eyed, but at least she was stopped screamin’. I looked back at Scott then, and the thought popped into my head of how he’d claimed earlier that he was numb from the waist down. Guess that feelin’ had passed some. I recognized the barman then, and he was haulin’ Jeb up to his feet, still yellin’ at us both and cussin’ a mile a minute. In the doorway was a smaller man, wearin’ a badge, and behind him were a couple of cowboys. They were lookin’ right amused. I looked back at Scott. He didn’t look too amused at all.
Now the barman was givin’ Jeb a shake and yellin’ at the sheriff.
“Sheriff arrest these two devils before I lose control and beat them both senseless! Look at the damage to my roof! Who’s going to pay for that?”
Scott was coughing, but he and the sheriff both took a breath to speak when another spectator joined the men at the door and bust out with the loudest voice of the night so far.
“Jebediah Aloysius Pevensey!”
Everybody in and outta that room, and in Mexico and Canada I guess, took a step back.
Now I knew I was still pretty befuddled in the head from the fall, but I was also pretty damn sure that orphans don’t have fathers. I looked from Jeb to the Pastor – yes, Pastor, at the door, and then back at Jeb. I heard Scott’s snort from just behind me.
“Jebediah! Two weeks I’ve been searching for you! Your Mama and the wee ones are all besides themselves with worry son! And now I find you! In a whorehouse!”
That last bit was the only part to come out real soft.
Well that’s when the girl in the room suddenly shot right outta there with a strangled sob left in her wake. But now another, much more respectable lady arrived at the door and there was another gasp.
“Jebby! Thank the Lord, Jebby! You’re safe!”
Jebby and the rest of us fixed our eyes on this lady who had her hands clutched in front of her.
“Hello Aunt Maisy.” Jeb hung his head down.
I looked at him again. Maisy? Weren’t that his Ma’s little sis who had got killed in a horse riding accident?
Clarry had had enough of all this touching family reunion stuff.
“Sheriff I want these delinquents locked up and not released until full reparation is made for the damages –“
Everyone got to arguing then. The Pastor wanted to take Jeb to his sister-in-laws and have a doctor look at him. Scott wanted to take me to the hotel and have a doctor check me. Sheriff Berwick decided to get us in the jail and the doctor over to check us both there. Aunt Maisy started crying and Pastor Pevensey was comforting her and checking Jeb over at the same time. Scott was doing that to me while I was pushing his hands away. Everyone seemed to be talkin’ at once and I realized my left elbow was painin’ me bad, and I was gettin’ a godawful headache to boot. I looked over at the poor, little orphan Jebediah and my sore eyes narrowed even more. I had been boondoggled by a twelve year old. I wanted to throttle the little bastard.
Next mornin’ Scott and Pastor Pevensey arrived at the jail and bailed me out. Cause Jeb was only twelve, plus his Pa and Aunt was there to take him, the sheriff had let him go out on bail the night before. The Doc had given him the all clear. That no-count kid didn’t have a scratch on him, thanks to landin’ on a handy soft body, which was me. I had a sprained left elbow which was now strapped up and still hurtin’ like a bastard. I also had a lump on my head the size of a tombola, which is why I still had a headache. I was covered in scrapes and bruises. The sheriff hadn’t let me out as they none of them knew Scott and me from a bar of soap, and there was still the matter of the damages to be paid.
So that mudsill Jeb got to sleep in a nice soft bed in the bosom of his family, and Scott got to sleep in a nice soft bed at the hotel, and I got to sleep on a hard, stinking, lousy cot in the jail. And me the only one injured. I was feeling very aggrieved.
After springin’ me from the caboose, Scott and the Pastor took me to Aunt Maisy’s for some breakfast at her little home behind her dress-making shop. She had paid the bail money for both me and Jeb, and Scott had given her an IOU for Murdoch to honour. She had also paid for the lumber needed to mend the saloon roof, and Scott and the Pastor were fixin’ to attend to that later that morning. The Aunt and Pa were both real thankful that Scott and I had taken care of Jeb, and real sorry about the trouble it had caused.
Apparently Jeb was real sorry too. He was banished to the bedroom, and it seemed he had had a long discussion with his Pa that morning in the woodshed out back. The Pastor talked of sparing the rod spoiling the child, and I felt uneasy myself, thinking of my own “transgressions”. I’d had plenty of experience with Murdoch’s opinions of rods. His huge right hand was as hard as one, and he was handy with a belt too. The Pastor told me how this had all started by Jeb smoking in the outhouse back home in Cripple Creek, and he’d left a lit stub in there, and burned the outhouse down. While his folks and a neighbour were putting out the fire, Jeb had taken off.
Scott had sent a wire to Murdoch before he’d come to the jail. He’d told Murdoch we would stay that night in Redemption before heading home. After I had finished eating, Aunt Maisy, who we learned was called Mrs. MacRorie, had rousted Jeb out of the one bedroom and insisted that I lie down and rest on her bed. She gave me a powder to take to help with my head, and then she left me to sleep. Scott said to me how he was to clean out the wrecked upstairs saloon room and fix the whore’s bed, as the Pastor didn’t think it was fittin’ for himself to enter that particular room. Scott at least had the decency to colour up some as he told me the plans. I didn’t say a word to him, just looked at him steady as you please through narrowed eyes. Then Scott was going to help repair the roof.
Jeb and his Pa were going to set off for home in the afternoon. The Pastor was keen to get home to his family and his flock. Scott said Mrs MacRorie had insisted that we stay for supper and we could sleep in her sitting room where her brother-in-law had been camped the past three nights. Scott left me to go and get on with his constructing.
I was just getting’ comfortable when the bedroom door opened and Jeb sidled in.
I didn’t answer, just looked down my scratched all to hell nose at him.
“You mad Johnny?” He looked like a beaten pup, which really was exactly what he was at the moment.
“Don’tcha think I got a right to be?” I gave him a face full of scowl.
“Johnny I’m awful sorry about lyin’ to ya.”
I snorted. I sounded just like Scott.
“’M sorry bout fallin’ on top of ya too Johnny.”
“Kid you got no business takin’ off from your folks like that –“
I stopped then and had to swallow down my own big lump a guilt.
“You ain’t anywheres near growed enough to be out on the road by yourself, I think that’s pretty clear.”
I mollified myself by thinkin’ at least I was used to taking care of myself, whereas this kid was plum innocent to the ways of the world.
“I know that Johnny. I truly do.”
I snorted again. Truly and this kid shouldn’t ought to be in the same sentence.
“I want to thank you Johnny for tryin’ to help me. And you surely did, even though I wasn’t straight with you exactly.”
“Exactly! Why damn you Jeb not one thing came out of your mouth straight since I laid eyes on you!”
He hung his head then, looking real sheepish.
“I know it Johnny, and I’m powerful sorry. I’m glad of one thing though – I’m glad to have made your acquaintance, and your brother. Thank you again, and I hope you get better real quick.”
He stood there with his head a hanging, and I felt a bit sorry for him then. Hell, he was like a baby, and he never actually meant anyone any harm. He was just a foolish yahoo.
“OK Jeb. I heal pretty damn fast as a matter of fact, and this ain’t nothin’ really. Now I’m goin’ to have me the sleep I missed out on the last two nights. So I’ll see you later.”
Next morning Scott and I thanked Mrs MacRorie kindly for her hospitality. The Pastor and Scott had repaired the saloon roof to the satisfaction of Clarry. I was plannin’ on makin’ enquiries down the trail about whether the whore was satisfied with all Scott had done. We’d farewelled the Pastor and Jeb late the previous day. Mrs Mac had then given Scott and me a fine supper, and breakfast this morning, and had even packed us lunches to take with us. She was a good woman. Scott told her to expect payment for the bail money soon’s we got home to arrange it.
We turned our horses homewards, figuring to be back at Lancer sometime the next day. I was not no way looking forward to the talk I’d be having with Murdoch about my “poor decision making”. I knew that most of Murdoch’s “talks” to me tended to have very few actual words. More like him taking me by the scruff of my neck and marchin’ me very smartish out to the barn.
Yep, I knew Murdoch would have no plans to spare the rod in my forseeable future. But damned if I didn’t know that even so I still felt spoiled in having a home at Lancer with a Pa, and Scott and Maria. Over the last few months I had become a son and a brother, with a real home that no- one could ever take away from me. Not even me.