Murdoch’s old friend Eb Corner was coming to stay and bringing his 14 year old son Josh. They had a ranch in Nevada but had been to a wedding some place south of our ranch, and were staying a week with us on their way home. Cause Josh was the same age as me, Murdoch was expectin’ me to make a compadre out of him, but I was not thinking along the same lines. I didn’t have an upbringing like I woulda done if I’d grown up at Lancer with Murdoch, so didn’t imagine this Josh and me would be anything near alike. Scot said that if Josh knew how to swear and ride, and sass his Pa, then we should get on fine. I just jumped on Scott’s back and we had a real good tussle until he overpowered me. Scott may look like a skinny Eastener, cause he is, but he’s a lot stronger than you‘d think. Plus he’s three years older than me and so he’s still much taller. I aim to grow a lot taller than him though, and he says the way I put food away he don’t doubt it. Murdoch says the ranch stopped making any money the day he brought me home to live here, and I started eating all the profits. Real funny. I went hungry a lot growing up so when I started living here that’s the second thing I noticed – good food every single day.
Of course the first thing I noticed was just how bossy Murdoch was. He sure likes to have his own way, and for everyone at the ranch to toe his line. Trouble is, I sometimes have my own ideas about which line I want to toe, so things around here get a might heated on occasion. When I said to Scott that I’d never met anyone as bad tempered and stubborn as Pa, Scott just bust out laughing and got me in a headlock and said,
“Little Brother, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!”
I was real surprised Scott admitted how he’s stubborn. Usually he just goes on about how he’s the perfect example of manhood and how lucky I am to have him as my Big Brother. I never let on that I agree.
Eb Corner and Josh arrived on the stage and Murdoch collected them in the buggy and brought them back to Lancer. Scott and I came out and met them and then showed them to their rooms. Mr. Corner wasn’t as tall as Pa, hardly anyone is. He was a pretty solid man though, with a big moustache. Josh was taller than me but light on weight, and his hair was the colour of Cip’s dun horse. His hair hung in his eyes like Cip’s horse’s mane does too.
He hadn’t even put his bags down in his room before he looked me over and asked
“Do you smoke?”
I raised my eyebrows and said,
He just smirked.
“What’s the grub like here? ‘M starving.”
“Maria’s a great cook. Supper’s at six.”
He threw himself on the bed and pulled his hat down over his face.
“I’ll see you then. You can get lost.”
I thought about turning and leaving but sometimes my temper just comes out of nowhere, and it seemed a much better idea to throw myself on top of the smart mouth pendejo and wrassle him off the bed and onto the floor. He might have been surprised but he was ready to brawl straight away, and we rolled across the floor pummelling each other. Our legs tangled with the washstand and the next thing there was an almighty crash as the wash bowl and jug smashed on the floor. The jug had emptied all over us, drenching both our heads.
We sat up spitting and spluttering, just as the door crashed open and Pa and Scott and Eb all squeezed through the door, all scowling, ‘cept Scott who just rolled his eyes at me.
“What the hell is going on in here?” Pa thundered as he grabbed me up by the scruff of my neck.
“Nothin’” I scowled right back.
Mr. Corner hauled Josh to his feet and grabbed him by the chin. Josh’s left eye was swelling already.
“Not here five minutes and fighting already! Did you start it Joshua?”
Josh jerked his chin out of his father’s hand.
“Weren’t fighting – just a friendly wrestle” he muttered.
“I won’t have you rough housing in the house. You’ve damaged Mr. Lancer’s property – you apologize now.”
“’M sorry Mr. Lancer” Josh mumbled at Pa while giving me a dark look.
I glanced up at Pa and he was also giving me a black look, mouth set hard. He nodded to Josh and then gave me a shake.
“Johnny, you know better. Clean up here and then dry off and get your chores done before supper.”
Murdoch gave me light tap on the back of the head, just letting me know he wasn’t pleased.
Pa and Mr Corner left but Scott stayed and helped me collect all the broken shards of crockery. He swiped a towel over the floorboards. Josh meanwhile had gone back to stretch out on the bed, cool as you please, with his hat back over his face.
Scott looked at me with raised eyebrows and then asked Josh if he wanted ice for his eye.
Not even a thank you! I started toward the bed but Scott took ahold of my arm and swung me around and straight out the door.
“Nu-uh little brother, that’s enough excitement for now – don’t you think?”
I scowled but stomped off upstairs to change my shirt and towel off my hair.
At supper Murdoch and Mr. C. talked non -stop, while Josh and I ignored each other completely and Scott tried to make conversation. After that he played checkers with Josh while I worked on a good sulk. A whole week of Pa talking to Eb all the time and Scott baby- sitting this fool. I was not happy.
The next day Pa took the Corners on a tour of the ranch. I was told to come even though I told Pa I had a whole lotta work I wanted to get at. Pa put his big hand on the back of my neck and squeezed just hard enough for me to accept his kind invitation. As we prepared to leave the house we all took our hats from the coat stand and next we strapped on our gunbelts – and Josh looked at mine in shock.
“You wear a gun!” It wasn’t a question. “He wears a gun!” He practically yelled that.
Mr Corner looked uneasy and Murdoch looked right discomfitted.
“Josh, if Johnny had grown up with me he wouldn’t be wearing a gun till he was sixteen, but he needs to wear one now, even though I don’t like it.”
Josh had gone all red and was looking at his father all fiery like.
“Well I should have one too! I’m –“
Mr Corner cut him off right quick.
“Joshua that’s enough! Go and get mounted right now!”
Josh looked real ornery, fists clenched and body rigid, and I thought he was going to buck, but he could see his Pa was not about to fold so he turned and threw himself through the door, growling under his breath in a real temper.
Mr. C. sighed and glanced at Pa, who gave him a sympathetic look and we all left, me keeping my head down so they couldn’t see how smug I looked that Josh was riled.
We rode easy all morning and at first I steered clear of Josh, but gradually he and I got tired of all the old man palaver, and we ended up riding near each other. I could see he was burning up with questions. Finally he talked at me from a real set mouth.
“How long you been wearin’ a gun?”
“Since I was 12.” I didn’t look at him as I said it, acting real cool like.
He could hardly believe it, and I could see from the corner of his eye that he was smartin’. I didn’t tell him how much I wished I hadn’t of never had to touch a gun so young.
We rode in silence after that. The day had started out fresh but by lunchtime the heat had really built. Maria had packed lunch for us all and we broke to eat by a waterhole just after midday. It was at a real pretty part of Lancer, and a great place to swim. Pa suggested us boys have a swim before we ate and that’s just what we did. I always just shucked everything but I noticed Josh kept his long johns on so I decided maybe I’d better too, cause maybe they were holy rollers or something. I know those people don’t approve of nakedness.
The water was deep and cool and felt fine. Josh swam like Scott, real powerful strokes and pretty fast, whereas I make a lot of noise and splashing, and like to duck and weave. If Scott hadda been there I would’ve been dunking him and wrassling him. I was tempted to duck Josh and hold him under for a spell but our fathers were watching.
Finally I’d had enough and lay out on a nice flat rock and had me a siesta. When I woke, Josh was sitting Indian style next to me while pitching stones into the water.
“How good are you with that gun?” He asked it real low.
“M’okay” I mumbled.
And then I don’t know why but I asked him if he wanted me to show him how to shoot. He looked at me real uncertain, like wondering if I was messing with him, and then he said, quiet like,
“Would ya? I’d like that.”
He glanced over to where our fathers were both asleep under the trees, both snoring like grizzlys in hibernation.
“I have chores all morning, but we can ask if we can go swimming after lunch. I’ll show you then. Don’t say one word about guns to your Pa, otherwise he might get suspicious. Pa hasn’t told me not to teach you, so I won’t be disobeying him. I don’t like to defy Murdoch unless it’s necessary. I want to keep my hide.”
He nodded. He looked excited and I next learnt how much he was because he let out an almighty Commanche yell and launched himself back into the water. Murdoch and Mr Corner both came awake with a fearful start, both reaching for their guns as they jumped up.
“Christamighty” Josh’s Pa gasped, stumbling around in shock.
Josh surfaced and saw them both pointing their guns every which way and I rolled around that rock laughing fit to be tied, it was that funny. His Pa yelled at him some as guns were holstered, and Murdoch looked real disgruntled at me. We rode back to the ranch with Mr Corner grumbling at Josh as a pestiferous brat, and Pa shaking his head at me every time I pictured their startlement and broke out laughing again.
That night Josh and Scott and I played cards for matches while Murdoch and Mr C. gabbed on endlessly. After everyone had gone to bed I slipped back downstairs and helped myself to the spare rig in Murdoch’s desk. I filled up on some leftovers in the kitchen while I was at it.
Josh helped with my chores next morning. We’d asked about swimming at breakfast and I think Murdoch and Mr. C. were pleased that we seemed to be getting along. After breakfast I made sure I listened real close to the orders for the day so I’d know where Josh and I could get some privacy away from any of the work crews. Scott noticed I was listening and quirked an eyebrow at me. Before he headed out he came and found me in the barn where I was mucking out the stalls. He nodded at Josh and folded his arms.
“OK Little Brother, what are you up to?”
Scott’s real good at reading me so wasn’t fooled for a moment. He glanced at Josh who straight away avoided Scott’s eyes. He couldn’tve looked more guilty if he’d tried.
“Whatever it is Johnny, for God’s sake be careful and try and use your brains would you?”
I gave Scott my best innocent smile.
“Scott you know how sensible I am!”
“I do. That’s why I’m worried boy!”
I made to stab him with my pitchfork but he was too quick, and he laughed as he sidestepped and then made off.
Later Maria packed some thick beef sandwiches and some oat cookies, and Josh and I set off for a nice little wash I knew would be far away from the day’s work crews. He was so excited he kept taking off at full gallop and me and Pancho raced him. We always beat him. He’d brought his makins’ and smoked some whenever we slowed to a walk. He’d offered me some but I’d lost interest when I was ten. I’d swiped a cigar from Mama’s man and he caught me just as I lit it up. First he dusted my britches and then he made me smoke the whole cigar and of course I got awful Goddamn sick and heaved my insides out. I was never temped to try again after that.
By the time we reached the wash we was both powerful hungry and ate every scrap we had, washing it down with water from our canteens. When I produced the rig from my saddle bag Josh tried to hide how happy he was, but he was practically shaking, he was so het up. Once he’d strapped it on and I got it adjusted proper I began teaching him the way I’d been taught.
First I had him moving his arm slow and steady, keeping his elbow close to his body and his finger pointing in a straight line from the elbow to the target. His black eye wasn’t so swollen now so he could see ok. He was mighty impatient to get his hand full of Colt, and I remembered that feeling myself. Eventually I let him start drawing the gun out, but real slow, as he got used to grabbing the butt and lifting his thumb when drawing and cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger. I made him do that over and over, always slow, until he could do it pretty smooth. It wasn’t till I was satisfied that I let him load the gun. I kept having to slow him down. Everyone’s the same, want to draw quick straight away.
He’d been using a rifle since he was twelve, but firing a Colt for the first time really made him so happy it made me smile as well. I thought he might be a jackass and not listen to me, but he was patient and listened to every word and tried to do exactly what I said. After two hours I’d only let him fire six bullets. I hadn’t fired a one. He wanted to stay longer but I told him no. We still had to swing by the pond for a quick swim to cover our backsides. When we got to the waterhole I shucked everything. No way was I gonna ride home in wet drawers. He saw the good sense in that and did the same.
After the heat of being down in that wash the water was mighty welcome. And later that day when we were asked how we’d enjoyed the swimming we could answer righteously that it had been real good.
Next day Murdoch and Mr. C. were going to inspect the mill near the ranch so we were able to slip away again. Pa had asked Scott to go in to Green River to pick up supplies, and to take us along. After the old men had left Josh told Scott he felt poorly and I told Scott I had better stay and look after Josh. Scott shook his head and told me I’d better think hard about whatever it was I was up to, and that he expected me to unload all the supplies when he got back with them.
As soon as he was out of sight we took off, and I had Josh practise for two hours again, and he was getting the hang of it. We got home in time to greet Scott and unload the wagon, then we all got ready to go to the Saturday social our neighbour Mrs Conroy was having. I tried to get out of going, telling Murdoch I had a bellyache, but he ignored me.
There’d been a couple of dances and socials since I started living at Lancer and I did my best to not go. I didn’t like being crowded and I told Murdoch it wasn’t the sort of dancing I was accustomed to. He knew I was referring to gunfighting and was real put out and gave me a mouthful of free advice in his loudest voice. What I was real interested in was getting any one of the girls alone, but I knew the girls at those wingdings were kept close to their Mamas. So what use were they. I got plenty of female attention at those shindigs, but it was all from the older ladies, all wantin’ to feed me up and pat my cheeks and tidy my hair. It was real smotherin’. But the worst thing was you had to check your rig in at the door and I couldn’t stand being without it.
When we got to the Conroy Ranch Murdoch laid down the law.
“Now listen up boys. Mind your manners – no swearing, no drinking. Scott you can have a beer, but no hard liquor. We’ll be leaving the dance at eleven sharp, so make sure you’re at the wagon then.”
As usual, this was all directed straight at me. Mr. Corner pinned Josh with a stern look.
“That all goes for you too Josh, hear?”
Pa fixed his eye on me and I mumbled the same as I tugged at the goddamn string tie he insisted I wear.
I hung back in every dark corner I could find, avoiding talking to Murdoch’s rancher friends. He and Mr. Corner mostly stood around talking to the other men, although Murdoch always had a few dances with some of the ladies. Scott liked to dance with all of the females, young or old, and they all loved his fine manners. Josh just singled out the pretty girls and they all seemed glad to dance with someone new. He came and found me just when I’d got jawing with Randy Bass who worked for Mrs. Conroy. He was about sixteen and had come to California from Georgia. He told me to follow him outside to where he had stashed a jug. I didn’t need telling twice, and Josh’s eyes had lit up and he was hard on my heels.
Well we only intended having us a couple of quick swigs, but next thing I know, between the three of us, that jug was empty. Randy and I stayed behind the wood shed, shooting our mouths off, but Josh was rarin’ to get back to those pretty girls, and he disappeared.
He musta’ found a real willin’ one, because suddenly there’s a helluva commotion and Randy and I walked, a might unsteadily I discovered, back towards the barn to see what was happenin’. Two fellas was holding Arley McMasters back from trying to fight on Josh. Josh had a cut above the eye I’d already blacked. People were spillin’ out of the barn, including Murdoch and Mr. Corner. Arley had a split lip but was still able to yell fierce at Josh, and then Mr. McMasters arrived.
“Arley! What’s the meaning of this?”
“That blasted varmint had his hands on Ginny Pa!”
I noticed then that Ginny McMasters was standing with her back to the corral fence, and she was looking right peaked. Mr. Corner grabbed Josh by the scruff of the neck and shook him.
“Is that true boy?”
“We was just talkin’ Pa.”
“You damn liar! You had her pinned against the fence!” Arley roared.
“And she was enjoying being pinned!” Josh roared back.
Ginny bust out crying.
Even in my fuddled state I knew that Josh had done said the wrongest thing you could say to a girl’s brother, and it was only the drink that made him talk so foolish. Arley lunged at him again, but Mr. Corner swung his son out of the way and Mr. McMasters grabbed his son.
“Arley you calm down and go fetch your Ma. Ginny – you get to the buckboard – git!”
Mr. Corner stepped forward then.
“I want to apologise for my son’s behaviour. It appears he‘s been drinking. He’s fourteen and I assure you I will deal with him severely for his poor conduct. I hope you will accept my apology, and his.”
That said Mr. Corner roughly presented Josh to Mr. McMasters, and Josh mumbled an apology, and then hiccupped.
Mr. C. and Mr. Mac shook hands.
Mr. Mac nodded, saying,
“I have four sons, so I know about boys, let me tell you. I’ll leave it to you to discipline yours.”
The gawkers drifted off and I was about to melt out of sight when Murdoch spotted me.
“Johnny! We’re leaving now! Where’s your brother?”
I woulda sobered up some if I’d had that extra hour and some coffee, but I was still a bit the worse for wear, and just stood there lookin’ like a hoot owl. Murdoch looked at the retreating backs of Mr. Corner and Josh and then looked at me sharpish.
I concentrated real hard and eventually put one foot in front of the other, but then tried to put the same foot forward again. Drink will do that to you.
Next thing Murdoch had me by the scruff and fairly lifted me off the ground as he marched me over to our wagon. Mr. C. was already up on the seat with his arms folded, and Josh was sitting in the back with his head in his hands. Murdoch tossed me in the back like a sack of grain. I could hear someone vomiting over beside the trees near us. Pa was about to head off and look for Scott when the vomiter stepped out from the shrubbery and groaned loudly,
“God, give me strength...”
In a Boston accent.
Pa stopped dead. He turned around real slow and then bellowed,
Scott’s head jerked up, and his eyes tried to fix themselves on Murdoch.
“Shir! How nii-i-sh to shee you!”
Scott sort of wavered around from side to side and his blond hair fell in his eyes. When he shook his head and tried to flick the fringe away he staggered sideways.
Murdoch’s mouth set in a hard line and he reached Scott in about three strides and then Scott was tossed up in the wagon next to me.
“Eb, I’ll just give Aggie my apologies, and if you’ll turn the wagon we can take this bunch of miscreants home.”
We didn’t stop on the way home, even when any of us was heavin’ over the sides. I blame the quality of the rotgut for our poor health. When we pulled up outside the barn we all clambered down, all a sight more sobered up after all the fresh night air and all the heaving.
“Murdoch, Josh and I will put up the team. He and I have some unfinished business. When I come in I would appreciate a drink if you don’t mind.”
Murdoch nodded and then barked out,
“You two – my study – now.”
Scott was looking real poorly, but he followed Pa in with an attempt at his usual straight back. I kept my head down, but still tried to swagger, but I was a mite in fear for my life, which tends to hamper a good swagger. Thinking about what was in store for Josh, and might be in store for us, was putting a real damper on my spirits. Pa stopped at the front door and Scott pulled up behind him but I still had my head down so barrelled into Scott who pitched into Pa just as he opened the door. So the three of us shot through the door and all nearly ended up in a heap. Pa grunted and recovered himself and then swung around and towered over us.
“You two disobedient, unmannerly, drunken, clot-heids!”
I had no idea what a clot-heid was, but was certain sure it was no compliment.
“Consider yourselves fortunate you’re not out in the barn with me whaling the tar out of you!”
I glanced at Scott who’d gone pale, or should I say, paler. He had had Murdoch whale the tar out of him just two months before. It had been his first licking from Murdoch, and I knew he was not aiming to ever go through that again. Me, I sorta expected it was bound to happen, cause it was hard for me to do what I was told.
“Both of you – get to bed! I’ll talk to you in the morning. And I expect to hear a damn good reason why I shouldn’t wear you both out.”
Scott and I wasted no time hot-footing it up to our rooms. I rinsed the foul taste out of my mouth, washed my face and then shucked my clothes and climbed wearily into bed. I spared a thought for poor Josh out there in the barn with his angry Pa, but then I turned on to my stomach and was asleep in a breath.
At breakfast next morning Murdoch and M. C. ate like bears, but Scott and I both drank lots of coffee and only managed a couple of biscuits. Josh was excused to eat his breakfast out on the patio, cause he couldn’t sit down we all knew. He and his Pa headed for church straight after breakfast – guess Mr. C. decided they both needed some guidance. Mr. C. borrowed the buggy and Josh borrowed a cushion. As soon as they left Murdoch ordered us into his study. Scott and I glanced at each other and then followed him in. I went to drop into one of the chairs and Murdoch growled for me to stand, and stand up straight. I wrapped my arms around myself and studied the rug.
“Well, I would like to know why you both drank last night after I specifically told you not to?”
Scott was ramrod straight as usual.
“Sir, I want to apologise. I certainly had no intention of drinking anything except beer, but then a friend offered me what he indicated was a very superior moonshine. I only intended having one drink, but I didn’t realise how strong it was, and, well, I lost my resolve. I’m sorry.”
“Scott, the minute you took that first drink you disobeyed me. I thought after you defied me two months ago I made an impression on you about consequences?”
He sure did. He made a big impression on the seat of Scott’s britches with his belt. Scott closed his eyes and looked down.
“Awww Murdoch, I met a friend too, and it seemed real impolite to refuse when he –“
“Enough! Scott, you’re on pigpen duty for the next three months. I want that pen cleaned till it shines and whitewashed and then cleaned every weekend.”
Scott’s breath whooshed out and I realised he’d been holding it.
“Johnny, I was pleased with your behaviour this week. You got off to a shaky start with Josh, but I was happy to see that you made an effort and neither of you got into any trouble.”
I knew Scott was observing me through his eyelashes, cool as you please, cause he knew Pa had no idea I’d been up to no good. I kept my head down and arms wrapped, and picked at the seams of my shirtsleeves.
“Well, you certainly disappointed me last night. You’re on chicken coop duty the next three months, same rules. Now get moving, and remember you’re both skating on very thin ice and I won’t tolerate any more trouble from either one of you.”
By the time Scott and I finished what we could in our pens that day we were real tuckered out. We both had our lunch away from the house after Maria took one look, and whiff, of us, and produced sandwiches and told us to git. Josh had come looking for us but he weren’t no fool and once he saw what we were doing he put a lot of distance between us. Mucking out when you have a ripe hangover is downright disgusting, and even after a bath I could still smell the goddawful stench.
Supper was real quiet as Scott and I were plum exhausted and feeling poorly, and Josh was also feeling poorly and finding sitting, even with a cushion, was not to his liking. After supper I put the checkerboard on the floor and Josh draped himself across the big ottoman in front of the fire, and we had us a game. Scott talked to Murdoch and Mr. C. about college. Mr. C.’s older boy was at some university in California.
After a second game, Josh said to me to come to his room and see something he wanted to show me. He pulled a bag out from under his bed and opened it and moved some duds aside. My eyes just about bugged out. He had four sticks of dynamite in there!
“Jesus! Where did you get those?”
“In San Francisco. My uncle does building or something and I swiped these when we visited a site he’s doing.”
He gave me a real excited grin.
“What can we blow up?”
Now there’s nothing a man loves as much as a nice big explosion, so I put my mind to it straight away. And the answer came immediately.
The oldest line shack on Lancer was the closest to the homestead, about ten miles distant. Murdoch had had Scott and Walt and me strip it out only a month ago, and he was planning to burn it down as soon as the weather got cooler. Why, if Josh and me was to blow it up we’d be doing him one big favour! Course, I was pretty sure that Pa wouldn’t think that Josh and me should be in charge of such an undertaking, so we would have to do it independent like. I told Josh my thoughts and he got all fired up.
“You betcha Johnny! We’ll do it tomorrow while our Pa’s are over inspecting that bull they been blathering about. They’ll never know we did it! And maybe I can have a last shootin’ practice as well?”
It was a perfect plan.
The following morning Murdoch invited us to go along with him and Mr. C. and Scott, but I told him I wanted to get started on the whitewashing, and he looked real pleased. Mr. C. knew no way did Josh want to sit a saddle so didn’t press him to go. Josh again helped me with my morning chores and then we set out. Josh mostly stood in his stirrups till we cleared the homestead and then he pulled a cushion out from his saddlebags and eased back down onto that.
“Jesus Johnny, I swear my Pa’s belt gets thicker every time he whups me. He’s the meanest sonofabitch in California and Nevada and eight other states.”
“He wouldn’t hold a candle to my old man” I scoffed, “he’s making up for twelve years of lost time, so he seems to think every licking he gives me has to include twelve I missed.”
Josh laughed at my black scowl which made me grin too.
“Well Johnny it was purely almost worth it. Do you know that girl Ginny let me press up against her so close I could feel her bosoms stick into my chest! And I was just about to kiss her when that bastard of a brother grabbed me by the hair and tried to stomp me. Boy, that’s the closest I’ve been to a woman and I cain’t wait to again! How far you got Johnny?”
I thought back to a ranch I was helping to protect not long before Murdoch and Scott found me. The rancher’s daughter was sixteen, and every chance she got she had found me and she‘d taught me all there was to know about kissin’. She was getting real willin’, and I reckon the day I started unbuttoning her dress she woulda been mine. But like Josh that’s where the story ended, because the rancher found us and gave me what for. That was the end of that job. And I never got paid neither.
“I been as far as you can go more times than you’ve had hot biscuits...” I drawled real casual, lying through my teeth.
Josh bust out laughing.
“You know Johnny, Ginny said her friends cain’t hardly wait for you to get older. They all think the Lancer boys are the prettiest things in the whole valley! You sure are lucky I ain’t livin’ round these parts ain’t you!”
I stored that little bit of information away.
“She started on talkin’ about your eyelashes.”
“My eyelashes?! What was she talkin’ about eyelashes for?”
“Ain’t got no idea, girls sure talk about some strange things. I wasn’t listenin’, I was just thinking about how close our chests were, and how old John Thomas was wide awake!”
Josh laughed and then lit up a smoke, and we kept on at a steady pace and reached the shack in time to hunker down and enjoy some lunch. I’d been working extra hard so was happy to sit down and relax while I ate, but Josh couldn’t wait to strap on the rig. He drew that gun over and over, eating while he practised. He sure loved being armed.
As soon as we finished eating we set about laying those sticks of dynamite evenly around the shack. We were both getting real excited about the prospect of blowing that building to kingdom come. We laid the fuses in long lines all meeting at the front door. We were real sensible and moved our horses well back and chose ourselves a good shelter behind a huge, fallen tree that still gave us a mighty fine view of the explosion to come.
Josh’s eyes were dancing around now, and he was singing little bits of songs which usually ended each time his voice cracked. My voice was still doing that sometimes, and it was purely aggravating when it would happen when I was trying to stand my ground with Murdoch over something. Murdoch’s mouth would quirk and his eyes would get a real amused glint which would rile me something fierce.
Finally we were ready. We each struck up matches and lit the fuses. Josh’s hands were shakin’, he was so gleeful. The fuses took and we hot footed it back to behind the fallen tree and hunkered down with just our eyes clearing our shelter. We could hear the hissing of the fuses as the flames flickered along them and we were both holding our breaths and concentrating on what was about to happen.
The thunderous noise was first and then the spectacular sight of the line shack exploding upwards in a million chips of timber that shot into the sky and seemed to hang there way above the trees for an age. My heart was thudding and we whooped and hollered and kept watching as all that cloud of wood chips started to fall like hail all around the clearing. We covered our heads with our arms, holding on tight to our hats. The timber shower seemed to go on for an hour, but was probably only five minutes, and then Josh and me leaped up to our feet and whooped some more. We were both laughing fit to be tied, and we started towards the wreckage. Just as we did another explosion blew up from what had been the back corner of the building, catching us completely unawares and bringing our celebration to a dead halt. Our hats blew off and the heat blast on our faces singed our eyebrows and eyelashes and hair, and with a whoosh we were both knocked flat on our behinds.
Then we were being pelted with all the debris this last explosion had disturbed, and we both lay out flat and shocked to the core. The debris was settling all around us and fine bits were floating in the air. When the ground beneath us started to vibrate I thought for a dazed moment that we might have set off a quake.
There was a quake coming, a Murdoch one. The vibration in the ground was three horses thundering into the clearing, and on those horses were Murdoch, Mr. Corner and Scott. I shoulda been paying attention as to where they were going to inspect that bull, cause it was Aggie Conroy’s, and the line shack was right on the short cut between our ranches. So here they were, arriving like the devil himself had invited them right on time to catch us in “the midst of our folly”, as Scott was to call it, much later.
All three of them were off their mounts and on us like fleas on a dog. Pa and Mr. C. scooped us up in a breath, and the next thing I knew, Pa was running his hands over my head and face and neck, and then all over my body. It was real embarrassin’. I was still too surprised by the turn of events to protest.
“My God Son, are you alright?” Pa was saying over and over.
Finally I nodded and was able to gasp out,
Pa let me go then, and walked over to the wreckage. Scott held his canteen to my lips and I had a quick drink and then he wet his bandana and ran it over my face. I looked over and saw Mr. C. was holding Josh by the shoulders and they were both looking at each other real shocked like. Then Mr. Corner gasped out,
“A gun Joshua – you’re wearing a gun??!!”
Pa and Scott both looked over at them, and then looked back at me. I dropped my head. I was starting to realise I was in some kind of trouble. I wrapped my arms around myself and studied my boots. I noticed then that my shirt and pants seemed to have lots of little holes in them.
Scott strode off towards the horses. I glanced up through what was left of my eyelashes and saw that Murdoch stood facing the wreckage, so I couldn’t see his face. He kept running his hands upside his face. Then he turned and looked at me, then put one hand over his eyes and just stood there.
That’s when we heard a loud crack, and we both looked over and saw that Mr. C. had taken off his belt and had commenced whupping Josh. I hardly had a moment to feel sorry for him before I felt Murdoch’s hand on my arm and he was dragging me over to the fallen tree. He hitched his left foot up on it to make himself a knee which he pitched me over. Then he whaled the tar out of me. He was real thorough.
Now Murdoch had the biggest, work-hardened hands I’d ever seen. But a few months before this I’d discovered how gentle they could be. A couple of weeks after he and Scott had fetched me home a fever had come on me sudden. One night I’d felt his hand cradle my head and his callused thumb had started running up and down my cheek, slow and gentle as a feather. I’d pretended I was still sleeping, and then he’d started brushing the hair back from where it fell over my eyes. Well, I’d never been petted like that as long as I could remember, not even by Mama, and I had had a hard time not getting all choked up like a damn baby. When he’d felt me stir he’d taken his hand away swift like.
I wished now he would take that hand away as it was not being gentle at all, and my backside was hurtin’ like holy hell. Finally he jerked me to my feet, but instead of turning me loose he suddenly grabbed me to him and nigh on crushed me to death. He had his left arm tight around my shoulders and his right hand on the back of my head, and he held me like he never wanted to let me go. And he was trembling.
Well, I could hardly get a breath, and one of his shirt buttons was digging in my cheek, and my rear end was painin’ me something shockin’, but inside of me a cold, hard stone that had been in there for years just melted right away, just like that. Since coming home to Lancer I had come to realise that Murdoch loved me, but I hadn’t trusted that he always would. I’d thought if I didn’t turn out like he pictured, he might stop loving me. Or maybe he’d just get sick of what an ornery cuss I could be, and he might stop loving me. Now I’d just blown up some of his property, and I’d defied him and his old friend, and taught Josh to shoot. But standing there in that clearing with him that day I realised that Murdoch loved me for all time, and if I coulda loosed my arms I woulda hugged him back.
A loud sob caught our attention. Mr Corner and Josh were huggin’ too, and they were both crying like kids. Between sobs Josh kept sayin’,
“I’m sorry Pa.”
Murdoch turned me loose then, and we both dropped our heads. I put my hand on Murdoch’s arm, and with head still down I said it too.
“I’m sorry too, Pa.”
He put his hand on the back of my neck and squeezed real soft.
Then Mr. C.’s voice blew up with,
“And you’ll be sorrier when your Mother hears about this! Now get over there to my horse!”
And with that he sent Josh on his way with an almighty whack to his rear. I glanced up at Murdoch and decided to put some distance between us, so I scooted double time over to where Scott stood with his horse. Well hang me if he didn’t swing his arm back and just about lift me off the ground doing the same! I couldn’t believe it!
“Fuck Scott! What do ya think ya doin’? You bastard!”
“You damn brat Johnny!” he roared, “I ought to kick your backside all the way back home!”
Well, I take my licks from Murdoch, but damned if I’d let Scott treat me like a kid. I was about to launch myself at him when Murdoch stepped between us.
“Mount up Scott. And you, young man, are in enough trouble – don’t add any more. And watch your mouth.”
With that he pitched me up on to his horse at the front of his saddle, like a damn baby. He mounted behind me, and even though my rear making contact with the saddle had about taken my breath away, I tried to protest.
“Can’t I ride behind you Pa?”
“No you can’t. I want you in front where I can keep my eye on you.”
Mr. C. appeared next to us.
“I take it this is yours Murdoch?”
He handed the rig to Murdoch, but his eyes were on me.
“I’m sorry Mr. Corner.”
I hadn’t apologised to anyone in years, and here I’d done it twice in a few minutes.
“Let’s get home,” said Murdoch.
Mr. Corner nodded and went and mounted, pulled Josh up behind, and we set off home. We were halfway there before we found our spooked, runaway horses. Scott and Josh had a hard time getting near them as they were still pretty nervous. When I tried to slip off Pa’s horse to help he held me in place and growled for me to stay right where I was. Josh finally mounted his own horse and glanced over at me. He looked a mess, and we exchanged a guilty look. I was too sore and too rattled by preceding events to even feel embarrassed that Murdoch was practically nursing me.
As soon as we got back to Lancer Pa sent one of the hands to Green River to rustle up the Doc. He told Josh and me to get inside and wait for them to come in. Our fathers came in about fifteen minutes later and Murdoch headed straight for the drinks cabinet and poured two big drinks. They came and stood in front of the fireplace and directed Josh and I to sit on the settee. We lowered ourselves real reluctantly on to the seat. Mr. C. downed his drink in one swallow and then fixed his eyes on Josh.
“Well son, spill it.”
Just then Maria came in with a tray with two glasses of lemonade, and we gulped that down faster than Mr. C. had downed his drink. Maria handed us each a wet cloth. I washed my hands and face and rubbed it through my hair. My hair was full of leaves and sawdust. Josh washed up too, and then Maria gathered everything and left, murmuring to me all the while. I could see she was fighting tears, and that hurt more than the licking.
“Josh.” Mr Corner said it quiet.
Josh gulped and clenched his hands together between his knees.
“Pa, I took some dynamite from Uncle Clint’s worksite. I was just thinking as how I’d like to explode something.”
Mr. Corner was breathing so heavy I thought he might explode.
“Well, it just happened that Johnny knew that Mr. Lancer needed his line shack blown up –“
Pa snorted and just about choked on the drink he’d just taken. I glanced up and then dropped my head real quick and hugged myself.
“John, do you have any idea of what danger you two just exposed yourselves to?”
I shook my head and studied my boots.
“How many sticks did you set?”
“Well, there were four, but we were real careful, and took good cover, but after the first explosion we got up, and there was one we just wasn’t expectin’.”
I snuck a look up at our fathers through my singed eyelashes and saw them exchanging a dark look.
“You could both have been killed.” Mr. Corner said it very quietly.
“John, I want to know when you gave Josh the gun?”
“And you have been teaching him how to use it?”
“Yeah, I have.”
“Yes sir, I have.”
“Even knowing his father had told him he was not to wear one?”
“Go to your room!” he roared.
I didn’t need to be told twice. I wanted to get as far from Pa and Mr. Corner as I could. In my room I threw myself face down on the bed, burying my face in my arms. I fell asleep almost straight away, and didn’t wake until Doc Jenkins arrived and shook my shoulder.
“Johnny, I need you to sit up for me son.”
I groaned as I did what he asked.
“Where does it hurt boy?”
“My rear end,” I moaned.
Sam snorted as he began checking me out.
“Well, if it’s any consolation Johnny, I told your Pa that the next time you blow yourself up, he’s not to paddle your behind until I give him the go-ahead.”
“Doc, there ain’t gonna be no next time.”
“Why Johnny, you surprise me. Don’t tell me you have actually learned a lesson today?”
“Real funny, Doc.”
“There’s absolutely nothing funny about this young man...”
Sam proceeded to give me an angry as hell lecture while he checked my eyes, ears, and the rest of me. When he was finished he went and opened the door. Pa and Scott came straight in, Pa giving the Doc a hundred questions. I rolled back onto my stomach and buried my head again. Scott sat on the end of my bed and I felt his hand on the back of my calf.
Sam clicked his bag shut.
“His eyebrows and eyelashes will grow out fine, and his eyes and hearing and everything else seems to have survived his latest foolishness. He’s one very lucky young man. Keep him close a couple of days – sometimes there’s a delayed reaction – but given Johnny’s history I don’t see that happening.”
Sam and Murdoch went off to check Josh, leaving me with Scott.
“Johnny.” Scott’s voice was hard.
“Not talkin’. Specially to you.” I sulked.
“Turn over little brother, or I’ll whack your backside again.”
That made me fuming mad, but I wasn’t going to risk another blow to my pride, so I rolled over as slow as you please, wanting to aggravate my bossy brother. I scowled at him.
“I want you to quit doing dangerous things. What the hell is wrong with you? You’re not stupid, even though you have the thickest head in creation.”
“Scott I swear I’ve had enough lectures to last me a lifetime. We were real careful, but after what happened I don’t ever aim to fool with dynamite again. ‘Kay?”
I’d been pulling at the broken threads around one of the larger holes in my pants, but I stopped and looked up at Scott. He looked right inside my head it felt like, and I could see the worry behind the mad, and I sighed.
“O.K. Johnny. I’ll go fill the bath for you, and then you’re to stay up here, have supper here. When Sam’s done with Josh I’ll check on him. I feel it’s incumbent upon me to check on all the suffering little brothers in the house tonight.”
“I don’t know what ‘cumbent you got on you Boston, but I know I’m suffering and I feel real sorry for Josh.”
“Self inflicted little brother, self inflicted. It’s just as well they’re leaving tomorrow. You get into enough trouble without any help from another reckless, disobedient fourteen year old.”
In the morning Josh and I had our breakfast standing in the kitchen. We gave each other a guilty but sympathetic look, but neither of us had much to say. We both looked pretty rough. Singed, sore, sorry for ourselves, and truth be told, sorry for scaring our kin.
Murdoch had told me not to do my usual chores for the next couple of days, but then I was to add another three months to my chicken coop punishment. Yeah, just dandy.
“You can keep yourself busy in the tack room. Mend and oil anything worthwhile. That should keep you out of trouble till you can do your regular chores again.”
I’d decided to take my rig into the tack room to clean and oil it. Josh trailed after me, and I showed him how to take care of a Colt. Scott didn’t go out with a work crew as he was going to drive the Corners in to Green River to catch their stage. He came into the tack room to collect Josh, just as I finished strapping on my gun.
“Little brother, you sure you heard what Murdoch told you that you’re supposed to be doing in here?”
I told him just what he could do, and he and Josh laughed as Scott bent down and picked up an armful of old tack from the corner.
That corner was right where the sun was streaming through the window, so that’s why the snake musta thought it was a great place to nap. When Scott disturbed it, it woke in an instant and I saw it rear up ready to strike him. Woulda got his thigh.
Later I couldn’t stop shakin’, thinking of if Scott had come in before I’d strapped my piece back on. Was just damn luck that I was armed and able to shoot that snake’s head off before it killed my brother.
The smell of cordite filled the air in the room, and a wisp of smoke curled in front of me. I stood like I’d been pole-axed, looking down at that headless snake. Scott was looking too, and didn’t seem to be breathing. Then he and I looked at each other, and the soft look in Scott’s eyes started us both breathing again.
Josh’s outburst broke the spell and I dropped my head and dropped my gun back into the holster. Scott came over then and put his arm around my shoulders, holding me tight.
“That was real close Boston.”
Josh was looking from me to Scott to the snake, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.
“Fuck Johnny, I ain’t never seen anything like it! So fast! And dead on target! You never said you was a crack shot!”
The door burst open then and Miguel and Thomas stood there, guns drawn. Right behind them came Murdoch and Mr. Corner. The hands made way for them and they crowded in.
“What the devil!”
Scott and Josh both pointed to the floor, and we all looked at the snake.
“It nearly got me Murdoch.”
Murdoch looked at it and then us, and the shock and fear in his eyes slowly turned to relief.
“Pa! You shoulda seen it! Johnny shot it dead to rights! Fastest thing I ever seen! How come you so good Johnny? How come you never said nothin’? Why, you never even took one shot when you was teaching me!”
Josh looked from one to another of us, and none of us spoke.
“Well? How come Johnny? “
Mr. Corner sort of cleared his throat then, and Josh looked at him. Mr. Corner glanced at me and Murdoch and then spoke soft,
“Josh, Johnny learned to look after himself when he was missing, and, well, son, he did that by becoming Johnny Madrid.”
Josh was studying his father’s face real puzzled, and we all started to shuffle around, and then Josh’s eyes swung to me. He looked like he was still trying to come to grips with what his Pa had just said, and then he looked at his Pa and back at me.
“You’re Johnny Madrid Johnny?” He still looked dazed.
“Not any more Josh. I’m Johnny Lancer now. But yeah, I used to go by Madrid.”
Pa had had enough, and truth to tell, so had I. I felt real tired.
“I think you’d better get on the road now Eb, don’t want to miss the stage.”
We all hustled out then. The buggy was ready to go, bags loaded and Mr. Corner was steering Josh towards it. Murdoch called Miguel over and asked him to drive the Corners to town, and he told Scott he wanted him to work on the books instead. I think he just wanted Scott close, he was not wanting either of us too far away that day.
He and Mr Corner shook hands, both of them clasping with both hands, and they talked about seeing each other again. Josh shook hands with Scott and then turned to me.
“We sure had us a week, hey Johnny?”
I just nodded, feeling more tired by the minute. Then I stuck out my hand. Josh took it and shook it, kinda slow.
“I cain’t believe Johnny Madrid taught me to shoot. I ain’t never goin’ to forget that Johnny.”
I nodded again, and realised everyone was standing waiting for Josh to get into the buggy.
“Well Josh, Johnny Lancer ain’t never goin to forget how Josh Corner taught him to blow up a line shack!”
Josh laughed then, and shook my hand harder before letting it go. I didn’t dare look around and see what our two fathers were looking like, but Scott showed what he was thinkin’ by grabbing us both by the necks and shakin’ us, and then he pitched Josh towards his Pa. The Corners climbed into the buggy and Miguel hied up the horses and they set off.
We waved as it got some distance, and then we saw Josh standing and leaning out. He was yahooing back to us, and he was waving, and he was waving something at us, at me I guessed, and it was a cushion.
I laughed and hugged myself hard, and then Murdoch had me in a headlock, and I realised he had Scott’s head tucked under his other arm, and Scott was laughing and struggling and Murdoch was grumbling, but laughing too, and we all pitched and jostled our way towards the house.