Scott would get letters, and sometimes parcels, from all these places other than just Boston. He knew people from school, from his time in the cavalry, from his trip to Europe when he was sixteen, and from his Boston club which was called the Anthology Club. People he knew had moved all over the country, so his letters would come from places I’d never heard of. Murdoch got mail all the time too, but I’d never had a letter in my life until me and Val started to writing.
Murdoch usually sat at his desk and read his stuff. I would read my letters from Val the minute they arrived, wherever I was when it was put in my hand. I would read it again after supper when I was sprawled out in front of the fire or on the sofa. So as I could ask Scott the meaning of words that Val would use that I didn’t know of. I didn’t ask Murdoch ‘cause he would make me go look them up.
Scott would read his mail in the Great Room after supper, unless the letter was from his blackmailing ol’ sonofabitch Grandfather. He would take that up to his room, and I would get antsy as hell waiting for him to come back downstairs and tell us he had to go back to Boston ‘cause his Grandfather was dying or some other piddling thing, which would all be lies anyway, I knew. One night he’d come down and I’d happened to see Murdoch had his hands clenched so tight on his book that his knuckles had turned white. So that made me see that Murdoch felt about those Harlan Garrett letters just like I did.
It was a cool night and the fire was warm where I was sittin’ on the floor in front of the sofa, applying the second coat of neatsfoot oil to a snakeskin. I’d shot the snake a few days before at the end of the work day. I’d stayed back to do some shooting when the others headed for home. I still practised my draw, and hitting my target, at least once a week. So when the snake had spooked Pancho, I had been able to shoot its head off from the back of my rearing horse, as I was so sharp from my practice.
I was plannin’ to make some hatbands out of the skin. I’d spread an old blanket on the floor and was using a brush, being careful not to spill none. Murdoch was reading and Scott was opening the two letters he’d got that day. One was from a friend in San Francisco, and he told us what that man had written about the big fire they’d had at the sugar refinery there. Then he looked at the postmark on the second letter.
“This one’s from Branch Ferry. Where’s that, Murdoch?”
Murdoch looked up, just as I nearly knocked over the bottle of oil.
“Johnny, for God’s sake, be careful. Maria will have your hide if you get one drop of that on the rug.”
I just nodded and kept my head down.
“Scott, Branch Ferry is on the rail line about a hundred miles east of San Francisco, I believe. On the Stanislaus River.”
Scott nodded as he unfolded the letter, and I looked up, curious to hear who Boston knew there. As I slowly brushed the snakeskin, I saw Scott’s face flood with colour. I stopped brushing, as I could see from Scott’s eyes that he was shocked by something in that writing. Just as fast as the blood had rushed into his face, now it left, and so he had gone real white.
“Scott - what is it?” I quizzed him, worried about how rattled he was.
Murdoch looked up quick then, and he sat forward.
“Son, what’s happened?”
But Scott didn’t look up. He slowly folded the letter and I could see he was fighting to breathe normal and get his face settled.
“Scott?” Murdoch was real worried.
“It’s nothing, Sir. Just…unexpected.”
“Didn’t look like nothin’ to me, Boston.”
I stood up, but Scott shook his head, and he stood too. He slowly and carefully put the letter into his shirt pocket.
“I believe I will retire early. I’ll say goodnight.”
“Jesus, Scott, if it’s bad news, why’nt you just tell us?” I was worried, which made me annoyed.
“Son, you know you can talk to us, or just me, if you need to?”
Scott just nodded quick like, but still didn’t even look up, and then he went walking out brisk, but still with shoulders slumped, which was not like my brother at all. I went to follow, and didn’t even notice I’d nudged the bottle of oil which had tipped over.
“Johnny – let him go. He obviously needs some time alone. “
I stopped and looked down, and then I saw the bottle.
I grabbed it up and then had to listen to Murdoch squallin’ at me about why I hadn’t had the bottle on the middle of the blanket, ‘stead of the edge, which was neglectful of him not to have said earlier. He yammered on as I tried to sop up the mess, but I knew that was nothin’ compared to the hell I’d catch from Maria next mornin’. Murdoch knew she’d give him an earful, too.
After that to-do, I decided to go to bed too. I went pounding up the stairs straight to Scott’s door and knocked, and went to open the door. The bastard had locked it!
“Scott! Open up, wouldya?”
I kept knocking, but soft, so as not to bring any more of Murdoch’s yellin’ down on my head.
“Go to bed, Johnny. “ Scott sounded terse.
“Boston, open the damn door. “
I used my coldest Madrid voice, but like usual, it didn’t work a damn on that hardheaded, stubborn brother of mine. Never had, but I kept trying.
“Get to bed, John.”
Jesus! He sounded like Murdoch sometimes. It always made my stomach grinch when he did that, and he knew it, too.
I gave the door a savage kick, wishin’ it was Scott’s scrawny backside I was kicking. I knew he wouldn’t talk till he was ready, and I knew I wouldn’t get one wink of sleep, worrying about him worrying. When I was in bed and I heard Murdoch come up I listened hard. Sure enough, Pa knocked at Boston’s door and asked was he okay. Scott must’ve answered, ‘cause then I heard Pa say a few words, too low for me to catch. Soon as Murdoch trundled off to bed, I went downstairs and fetched out the apple pie from the pantry and had two slices to try and settle my roiling innards. After two glasses of milk, I went back to bed, and finally fell asleep.
I was only asleep two hours when Scott woke me, soft calling my name from the doorway. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, and then belched on account of all that pie and milk.
“Charming.” Scott’s voice was real dry.
“Pardon.” I decided to be polite, as I needed to keep Scott agreeable to get answers. “At least it came outta my mouth.”
“God be praised.”
Scott walked in then, and stood at the end of my bed. That’s when I noticed he had his jacket on and I came full awake.
“What the hell is going on, Boston? Where do you think you’re goin?” I hissed.
“Johnny, I need you to tell Murdoch that I’ve been called away –“
“Damnation, Scott! You ain’t goin’ nowhere until you tell me what you’re doing! Tell me or I’ll holler a blue streak and bring Murdoch in here.”
Scott sighed, but came round and sat on my bed. I was fuming mad.
“I need you to trust me, Johnny. I assure you I am not going to be doing anything dangerous. But I need to handle this…problem. And I need to do so on my own. Now I could have left without waking you, and left a note, but I wanted to talk to you so you could assure Murdoch that I’m not in, er, not in trouble. And that I will be back as soon as I have-er…arranged… matters. “
It wasn’t like Scott to be stumbling over his words, so that added worry to what was already a huge pain in my innards. I was the one usually flying off into trouble – not my smart and sensible brother.
“I’m goin’ with you.” I threw back the covers, but Scott put a hand on my chest and thwarted me.
He ran his other hand down his face.
“I told you I need to do this alone. Please just do what I ask. I’ve backed you many times, Little Brother, and I think you should have the decency to respect my wishes on this.”
Christamighty, when he put it like that he hogtied me. But I was not happy.
I sat back and sulked up a storm.
“And Johnny, please tell Murdoch I’m sorry but I’ve borrowed five hundred dollars – “
“- and I’ll reimburse the money when I return.”
“Boston, I swear you are one hell of a pain in my backside. Secrets and skullduggery – that ain’t like you.”
“No, it’s more your style.” Scott reached forward then, and put his hand on my head and gave it a shake.
“Don’t worry about me, and make sure Pa doesn’t either. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
He tried to smile, but it came out more like a grimace. He got up then and quiet as anything left the room. I got out of bed and stood at the window, shivering with the cold. Soon as I saw Scott enter the barn I started getting dressed and throwing things in my saddle bags.
I went back to the window and could make out a horse and rider not far from the back of the barn. I scribbled a note for Pa, and then I slipped downstairs and over to the barn, buckling on my gunbelt as I went. Whatever was ailing Scott mightn’t be dangerous, but he was barely a year out of the settled East, and there was no way I was letting that boy go traipsing off into the dangerous West all by himself.
By the middle of the morning I was so hungry my boots started looking tempting. I’d eaten some jerky early, and right about now I was thinking of what Maria would’ve cooked for breakfast, and then what would be served at lunch.
It was easy to trail Scott. The ground was pretty soft from all the rain we’d had over the last month, and Boston wasn’t trying to hide his tracks. He thought I was back at Lancer doing my morning chores. I hoped he’d stop for a meal soon, and maybe then I’d show myself. Though I was probably better to wait till he stopped for the night, so we’d be a big ride away from home. I didn’t care how riled he was – I was not goin’ to be sent packing.
Scott pushed hard all day. Finally his tracks veered west towards the river, and I knew he was goin’ to make camp. As I approached the thick, green growth closer to the water I dismounted and tied Pancho to a branch. I soft footed it until I picked up the sound of Kirkland grazing the lush grass. He looked up at me, curious, but when he saw it was me he straight away dropped his head back to munching.
I kept hid from Scott and waited till he was all organized and had got to cooking up some coffee and beans. Scott’s camp was just like his room – everything neat and laid out proper. Even the stones around the fire looked to all be the same size, like he’d picked them particular.
Soon as the aroma of the food and coffee reached me I let Boston know I was there. I started low whistling a song he’d taught me that he’d learned at school. Called ‘Klondike Kitty’, it was about a whore and was real vulgar.
The minute he heard the first note Scott’s head shot up and his hand dropped to his gun. I was pleased to see him so alert. Within seconds though, he recognized the song. His expression went from alert to furious in half a beat. He kept his hand on his gun and stood up, staring intent in my direction. I called soft then, that I was coming in.
“You damn blasted little bastard! I thought we had an agreement?” Hot dang, was he mad.
“You had an agreement, Brother, not me.”
“I ought to beat you senseless!” I’d hardly ever seen him quite so het up, but I stood my ground.
“You can try Scotty, but you’ll get the worst of it.”
I tried to sound calm and easy, hoping that would make Scott pull in his horns and settle some. He was breathing fierce, and I was tense, wondering if he’d jump me. He was taller and a bit stronger than me, so it was me who’d get the worst of it, I knew. Instead of waiting, I quick set myself down, hoping he wouldn’t start for me if I was at a disadvantage.
“Why’nt you just cool your embers, Big Brother. I’m starving hungry. Ain’t had nothin’ but a square of jerky the whole damn day.”
Scott groaned and threw himself down. He took off his Stetson and belted it onto the ground next to him.
“You can stay the night, but in the morning you’re to go home.”
I started dishing up and eating beans as he spoke, so my mouth was full when I answered.
“No, I ain’t.”
“You’ll do as you’re told!” Jeez, it was like listening to Pa.
“No. I won’t.”
Scott jumped to his feet again, arms by his sides and fists clenched. I gulped, but didn’t let him see.
“Boston, if you don’t wanna tell me what your trouble is, then that’s up to you. I’ll stay right out of it and let you deal with whatever it is. And I’ll never breathe a word. But you’re not going alone. I’m going to be as close stuck to you as fleas on a hound. That’s all there is to it.”
I kept my head down and kept shoveling in beans. I was listening hard to Scott’s breathing, which at last started to change. Again he sat, and he reached over and pulled the plate from my hands. He started eating then, so I poured myself a cup of coffee.
Scott kept his eyes on his plate as he spoke to me with his voice all edgy as hell.
“I hope you took the time to leave a note for Murdoch?”
“Course I did. You think I’m irresponsible?”
“I know you’re irresponsible. What did you say?”
I took a slurp of coffee and squinted up my eyes as I thought.
“Well, I said you took off with five hundred dollars and I went after you.”
“Oh my God! Tell me that’s not all you wrote!?” Scott looked real horrified.
“No, ‘course not. I said we’d be back soon, and to please put another coat of oil on my snakeskin.”
“Oh Lord, God save us,” Scott grizzled as he put the plate down and dropped his head into his hands.
I hastily picked up the plate and finished the beans, and then dished some more. Scott seemed real upset so I didn’t say anything else till I’d finished eating and drinking. He just sat there, head still in his hands. I poured another cup and nudged him with it.
“Here, drink this. I gotta go fetch Pancho.”
I figgered it was best not to say a thing to Scott in the morning. By the time I’d settled Pancho the night before, ol’ Boston had been rolled up tight in his bedroll, so I’d sacked in as well. Neither of us had got much sleep the night before, and had been on the move the whole day, so we’d slept well. I didn’t have any nightmares either. The longer I was at Lancer, the less those godawful nightmares seemed to plague me.
I’d made bacon and beans for breakfast, and we ate and then packed up. It wasn’t till we were mounted that Scott spoke up.
“Johnny, I want you to return home. Please.” He looked me in the eye as he said it.
I felt frazzled. I knew he had the right to take care of his own problems. And I knew that he could take care of himself. Mostly. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that he should have me at his back. I was studying on my pommel as I thought these things. I had survived a lot of things in my past, and a lot of times it was from going with my gut feeling. So that’s what I had to do this time. I looked up at him and shook my head.
“I won’t interfere, Scott. But I’m goin’ with you. I need to. Sorry.”
He sat there regardin’ me. His mouth got hard, but I kept looking him in the eye, and I think he could see that I did feel that I needed to. He looked off into the distance and the sound of the bits and the birds and the river were like music around us. I watched as he dropped his gaze and fiddled with his gloves before turning Kirkland north.
“Come on, then.”
He said it soft. He mighta been talking to Kirk, but I took it that he meant me, so me and Pancho followed him.
It took us four days to reach Branch Ferry. It could’ve been a nice trip, being with Scott and travelling through some fair country. No chores and no Pa riding shotgun on us. Free and easy like I’d once been. Able to see new sights every day, and to run my own life.
But Scott was sure worried about this ‘trouble’ that he wasn’t in, in that town. So he wasn’t in no mood for jawing or chiacking or tussling or anything. I was relieved he’d accepted my company, so I wasn’t going to be pushful by quizzing him or ragging on him.
We’d only stopped briefly in one town, Grantem, to have a meal and a beer one day, and to get some more trail rations. I was sick of those, and the long days in the saddle, so it was good to get where we were goin’ and check into the Fancy Branch Hotel and Café. Scott hightailed it to the bath house soon as we signed in, and came back dressed real pretty.
“I’m going to meet someone now. There’s no danger, so you can relax. Maybe go downstairs and eat while I’m gone.”
“Nope. I’m going with you. I’ll keep my distance, but I’ll be close if you need me.”
By now I was thinking that Scott was glad of my company, even though he could hardly admit it even to himself. So he didn’t get mad, just nodded, and we both headed out.
We walked towards the end of town and Scott found the address he was lookin’ for. It was a neat clapboard house with a sign at the front gate. ‘Madame Cousineaux Boarding House. Reasonable Rate and Delec Table’.
“What’s a ‘delec’ table?” I asked Scott.
He was jumpy though, and just looked at the sign and grimaced.
“Johnny, please stay right here.” His tone brooked no argument.
Also he looked skittish as hell. He’d gone pale and had a sweat-damp face, even though it was a brisk sort of day. When he looked straight at me my heart went out to him.
He wheeled around and was at the front door in a flash. Like he had to hurry or else he would turn and flee. He lifted his hand to knock, and I saw that he hesitated, and dropped his head. Then he squared his shoulders and knocked firm.
Soon as he was let in I made my way up on to the porch. I sat down on the boards with my back to the wall by the front door. I checked my gun and I waited.
I sat there for close on an hour I reckoned. The morning sun was warm on me, and the bees were busy in a big pot of some blue flowers which sat at the end of the porch. I was balky though, wondering what was happening inside, and if any minute I’d have to jump up and rush into the house with my Colt in my hand.
The door opened at long last, and Scott peered out, lookin’ down the path.
“Right here, Brother.”
Boston held the door open wider and waved his hand for me to come in. He still looked unhappy as I stepped past him. A small, sturdy lady with shiny plaits bunched up on her head came towards us from the long passageway. She gave me a sharp lookover and then extended her hand. I gathered she was the French owner.
“Madame Cousineau, I’d like to present my younger brother, John.”
“Well, my fine laddybuck, it’s grand to meetcha!”
She was as Irish as Paddy’s pigs.
“M’am – er – Madam.”
I stumbled, not my usual smooth self, which got me to colouring up, as I gave her hand a shake.
“Madame, darlin’, but it’s no nevermind.”
She spoke to Scott as she swung her skirts around and headed back down the hall.
“You’ll all be ready for tea now. I’ll bring it into the parlour.”
Scott stepped forward and opened the door on our right and I followed him in.
The room was crowded with furniture, most of it covered in lace and green velvet. The smell of lavender was thick in the air.
On the sofa facing the door was a girl. She had a mess of carrot red hair all tied up with a green ribbon, same colour as the sofa. She was real pale, so her freckles stood out clear. She had been crying so her eyes were red and so was her nose.
She was beautiful…
And her belly was real swelled up.
Scott went straight to her and stood there and looked at me with this determined sort of look.
“Johnny, I’d like you to meet –“
“Open the door, gentlemen!” Madame C’s voice interrupted proceedings.
I quick opened the door, and the landlady sailed in and put this big tray on the table in front of the sofa. It had a teapot and such, and a plate piled high with buttered bread.
“The barmbrack is fresh made. Just halloo me should you need anything else. I’ll be leaving yer to it!”
She nodded pleasant to me and smiled as she waddled out, and her accent was thick as she spoke to each of us.
“John. Mr Lancer, Mrs Lancer.”
I goggled at the two of them across the top of the plate of barmbrack. The girl was looking down at her hands which were clenched in front of her big belly. Scott looked straight at me.
“Johnny, I’d like you to meet Camille.”
The girl looked up at me then, and her eyes were brimmin’. I nodded, but my voice seemed to have deserted me. I cut a glance at Scott, and then looked at my boots as I tried to get a grip on the thoughts swirling round in my noggin.
“Johnny, Mrs Cousineau thinks we’re married, but we’re not.”
I jerked my head up at that.
“But we will be, just as soon as the –“
He stopped and ran a hand over his face. Seemed to me that his hand was a mite trembly.
“Just as soon as our baby is born.”
That’s all it took for the girl to bust out in tears, and Boston quick dropped down next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. He was making comforting noises, but looked and sounded powerful uncomfortable. Not like a happy fiancé and expectant daddy at all.
Which obviously he wasn’t. I slowly lowered my caboose down onto the chair nearest me. Ol’ Boston had been sowing some wild oats, and a baby had caught, and now he was goin’ to be a husband and father.
“I need a drink.” I looked around for something better than tea, but couldn’t see nothin’.
Camille spoke for the first time, as she sat forward and tried to pull herself together. Her belly wasn’t all that big when she sat up, and I wondered how far along she was.
Scott sat forward too, and started arranging cups and saucers.
“You sit back and rest. I’ll do it…Dear.”
That last word came out strangled, and Scott went scarlet red, and Camille started on crying again. He sat back and started doing his awkward comforting, and I tried to brace up by pouring the damn tea.
“Jes- ah – Jehoshaphat, Scott – when is the…baby… due?”
“The doctor believes it will be any day now.”
I was pouring the tea, and when he said that I looked up, but kept pouring and then realized the tea was going everywhere. There was another round of blubbing from the girl, but Scott gave up on her and took over the serving.
He handed around the cups and saucers, and we all sat there in silence. When a cuckoo clock bust out its racket we all jumped and spilled tea.
My stomach was rolling some, so I took up a slab of the bread and hoed in. It was full of dried fruit, and it was delicious. I took another slice, and tried to break the tension in the room.
“Ah, where did you two meet?”
Scott eyed the girl, but she didn’t look like she wanted to talk, so he did.
“You know that Mr and Mrs Talbot’s daughter had twins?”
“Yeah, months ago, when I was just arrived at home?”
“Camille is Marigold’s friend, and she stayed with the Talbots when the babies were born. We met there.”
He turned to Camille and asked if she wanted some more tea, and she nodded. He poured more all round, and I had another slice of the barmbrack, and told the two of them to try it. They did, and Scott scoffed his but the girl just nibbled.
I had me so many questions, but wasn’t goin’ to ply them in front of the girl, so I was glad when Boston stood up.
“Camille, I’ll head to the store now, and buy what you – we, need. I have to wire my Father, too. I don’t want you to worry – I’ll take care of everything. You just – ah, take it easy, and I’ll be back.”
She put her cup down and gave a quick look up at my brother, and I did feel sorry for her. She looked scared and guilty and grateful, all in a mix. Scott stood there turning his hat in his hands. He leaned forward a little and I thought he was goin’ to drop a kiss on her head, but he hesitated and just patted her twice on her shoulder, and then he made for the door. I asked her if she wanted the last two pieces of bread. Soon as she shook her head I folded them in half and put them in my coat pocket. I headed for the door and saw the look on Boston’s face.
“What? I’m hungry…”
The landlady musta kept an ear out constant ‘cause as soon as we stepped into the hallway she straight away opened the end door and asked would we both be back for supper. Scott said yes as I said no, but Scott assured her we would both be there.
Once we were walking back to the centre of town all my thousand questions had gone. Scott still looked pale, but he had this determined cast to his mouth which I knew all about.
He kept walking, suddenly all Lieutenant Lancer.
“Let’s get a drink.” I suggested.
“Yes, that’s –“
Suddenly he stopped and turned into an alley. He slumped against the wall, head down. I hotfooted in after him and put a hand on his shoulder and tried to see under his hat.
“Scott, you don’t gotta marry that girl. Help her, sure, but we got to figure out something else. And another thing, Brother…you are sure that it’s your baby she’s got in there? I mean, you know Scott, is there any chance…?”
Scott was struggling to keep himself together. It hurt my insides to see him so grieved. I just kept squeezing his shoulder. I tried to see his face again, and it was then I saw how his bottom lip was trembling. I never even thought about it as I wrapped one arm tight around his shoulders, and put my other hand flat on his chest. I’d never done that to him ever. Of course I’d held him tight when he was injured, but that was different. We’d given each other quick hugs, mostly when we were tussling, and we often punched and prodded at each other to show a bit of approval that we liked each other. But when I felt a shudder go right through Scott, I owned up to the fact that I was on the true hugging him, and that I didn’t feel strange about it. He’d immediately tensed up, and I was about to drop my arms, but then he actually leaned into me a little.
We only stood like that for a few seconds, and then he pulled in a big breath, and I let go, just keeping my hand on his arm still. He scrubbed at his face and seemed to have got himself back.
“I think a drink is a very good idea. Let’s go.” He turned back to the street.
In the saloon I found a seat at the back and Scott got a whisky, and tequila for me. That was another first – usually he’d only ever buy me a beer. I guess he figured we both needed a stiff drink. He was right.
Soon as we’d both downed a good swill Scott took a list out of his jacket pocket and opened it on the table.
“I need to buy all of these supplies.”
He sat and studied the list, and then gulped the rest of his drink. He straight away went and got another one, and a beer for me. He pushed the list to the side, and after another mouthful, he sat looking at the whisky as he tipped the glass back and forth.
“I have to compose a wire for Murdoch, too. Any suggestions?”
He looked up at me then, and I looked back, and his mouth quirked when he saw the horrified look on my face.
“Fuck Scott, I think the three – um – four of us should head for Canada.”
“Four of us. God, Johnny, I can hardly believe that that girl is…in the family way…let alone think of an actual baby being here.”
He got this panicky look on his face, and quickly threw back the rest of his drink.
“All your talk about bein’ careful, Scott. How come you didn’t use one of them French Safes?”
“Finish your beer.”
“You know, you ain’t answered any one of my questions.”
“I think I’ll just tell Pa that you and I are here, and everything is…fine…and we’ll be back soon.”
“This girl got any family, Scott?”
“Yes, she does. Her father sent her away to a convent in Sacramento, to have the baby, and leave it there. She ran off last month and came here, but she hardly had any money. She wants to keep the baby, Johnny, that’s why she wrote to me.”
I opened my mouth to ask more, but Scott was up and off. I chugged down the last of my beer and followed him out.
I’d never bought nothin’ for a baby before, and neither had Scott. We got all this flannel sheeting which would be made into diapers. Pins, shawls, little nightshirts with ribbons on, and the smallest socks and mittens and hats I’d ever seen. The pins were special ones called safety pins, real clever. The clerk said as how he would bundle it all and send it on over to the boarding house. Scott was about to pay, when the clerk asked did they have a family cradle they were planning to use. We looked at each other. I guess there was a cradle at Lancer that I woulda been in. It was strange for me to think of that. Scott shook his head and paid out for a wooden cradle on rockers, and more for a tiny mattress and a rubber sheet to cover it.
At the telegraph office Scott sent off the wire he’d talked of, and then he wanted to go back to our hotel. He looked done in.
We both stretched out on our beds, but then I sat up and studied on him until he cut a look at me.
“Well? You goin’ to tell me what you’re plannin’? And how this happened?”
Scott turned on his side, away from me. I didn’t know whether to push, or to hold back. I lay back with my hands behind my head, pondering. I wondered how many times Scott and the girl had done it before she caught. Then I thought about my one and only cooch with Mabel back in Spanish Wells, and instead of worrying about the French Pox, like I had been, another dreadful idea popped into my head. I bolted upright, and Scott looked over his shoulder at me.
“Christamighty, Boston. Do you think Mabel is too old to have a baby?”
What a ghastly thought.
“No, she’s only about thirty, Johnny. Maybe a bit older, but still…”
“But I was only… in her… for a real short time – surely she wouldn’t…?” I was feeling sick.
“Good God Boy! As long as you completed your part of the act, then a baby is possible. I’m sure Mabel uses any measures possible to prevent it, but those don’t always work. That’s another reason why you must wear a sheath. I know they cost a dollar each, but you can usually wash it and then get a few wears out of it. Make sure you test it each time before embarking on any amorous adventures though. If there’s only a tiny hole in it, then it might still protect you from catching anything, so it’s better than nothing. But if you’re with a girl who you absolutely can’t get with child, then don’t use it. Understand?”
“Test it? You mean…?” and I did the usual hand motion.
Scott rolled his eyes.
“No, I mean fill it with water, you blockhead.”
He lay back down, and so did I.
“Anyway, should Mabel fall in, the father could be anyone, including her own husband, so you have no cause for concern on that account.”
“Well it sure is a pity you didn’t take your own advice when you tumbled that girl, Brother.”
He turned back to face me. He closed his eyes, and sighed.
“Yes, a huge pity…is an understatement.” He sounded bitterly unhappy.
“I don’t want this to be happening, Johnny, but it is. Camille doesn’t want this to be happening either, of course. I have to face my responsibilities. As soon as she can travel, after the birth, we are going to San Francisco and quietly getting married. Then I’ll take her – ah, take them, back to Lancer. Murdoch will not be happy with me, but he will accept the situation – I know it.”
“Not happy with you? Jesus, Scotty, Pa-urdoch is goin’ to kill you!”
“Thank you for reminding me of something I am already well aware of.” He sounded real sarcastical. “Now, I just want to sleep for an hour. Then we’ll have to go back there.”
Miz C. was a cracking cook. Me and Scott and the two boarders all ate hearty, but Camille ate like a bird. We had stew with mashed potato which had butter and cabbage mixed in it. Miz C called it ‘colcannon’. She put a big loaf of buttermilk and soda bread on the table, and I was surprised to taste garlic in it. It was real good. Then she brought out a baked barley pudding which I thought would be tasteless, but it was full of cream and raisins and cinnamon, and us men finished off the whole big bowl.
She chatted away to all of us, and Scott did his best to seem relaxed. The bank clerk and the land agent who boarded there threw in a word now and then, but mostly they just ate. Camille hardly opened her mouth, to talk or eat. The landlady tried to encourage her, but it weren’t done to say anything about that she was in the family way. Not in front of unmarried men, particularly.
Soon as we’d eaten we went off to the parlour to have our coffee brought to us there. The two old geezers drank theirs down and disappeared pretty quick. Once it was just the four of us, Miz C. got out her spectacles and her knitting. She was making some baby thing.
“Now Mr Lancer, I am sorry that your room only has single beds, but my two permanent guests had the pick of the rooms, of course.”
Scott just about choked on his mouthful of coffee. Camille blushed bright and I raised my eyebrows at Boston, who was trying to avoid lookin’ at me. Miz C. peered at him over the top of her glasses.
“Now, I have a wee room off the porch which I have put a cot in for the laddie –“
“Oh, no M’am, I’ll be stayin’ at the hotel. Thank you, but –“
“Johnny, you will not be staying at the hotel. You’ll be staying right here.” Scott gave me a peevish look.
I was giving him one back, and the landlady was looking from him to me. When I crossed my arms and sat back, she gave a chortle.
“Ah, sweetin, you’ve a pout on you that would rival a wee bairn’s! Your brother is quite right. ‘Twould not do for a young laddie such as yerself to be staying anywhere unsupervised. And, you’ll be wanting the decent cooking I’ve been about these fifty year – not the swill that Theo Spall serves up in that dining room!”
She turned to Scott.
“The rooms are cheaper by the month Mr. Lancer, but my daily rate for room and board is seventy cents for gentlemen, and fifty cents for ladies. The laddie has a man-size appetite, but as he is in the store room, I shall charge fifty cents for him, too. Is that agreeable?”
Scott nodded as he put his cup and saucer on the table, and took Camille’s from her.
“Johnny and I will go and collect our belongings. If you’ll excuse us, ladies.”
Scott was real uneasy about sleepin’ in the same room as Camille, but couldn’t see that he could avoid it without arousin’ suspicion. I pointed out that he wasn’t going to be ruining that girl’s reputation – he’d already done that. I meant it to make him feel better, but it sure didn’t. I grizzled about staying at the boarding house, but Boston pointed out that as I had only two dollars on me, and still owed him five, then I would stay the hell where he told me.
We gathered our gear and then checked out, and the old casper didn’t even charge us. When we stepped out of the hotel door, a real tall, skinny fellah heyed us. My hand went straight to my gun as I checked him over. He was perched on the hitchin’ rail, arms folded, and he was wearing a sheriff’s badge, so I relaxed a bit.
“Sheriff.” Scott was wary. I nodded.
‘I’m Sheriff Peele. You boys leavin’ town?”
“No, just the hotel.” Scott pushed his hat on to the back of his head.
“I’ve been told you’re Johnny Madrid. That right, son?” He was staring at Scott, and looked dubious.
“My name is Scott Lancer. This is my brother, Johnny.”
The sheriff shifted the wad of chaw in his mouth and turned and spat into the dust. He’d barely glanced at me.
“Appears my information was wrong. Someone got a mite excited.”
I stepped from behind Scott, folding my own arms as I did so.
“I used to go by Madrid.”
Again the sheriff barely glanced at me.
“Sure, kid. Sorry to trouble you, boys.”
He was lazily lifting himself off the rail when Scott spoke up.
“Sheriff, Johnny was Madrid, but he’s left that behind. He doesn’t hire out anymore.”
The sheriff was as tall as Murdoch, but half as solid. He looked down on us both, and kept chewing.
“Well, jiminy, that’s a big bite to swaller. How long are you two plannin’ to stay here? The boy’s already been recognized – I don’t want no trouble.”
“I can assure you that we don’t either. We’ll be gone just as soon as my…wife…can travel. She’s about to have a child.”
Sheriff Peele settled back again.
“That so? She the redtop girlie got off the train two weeks ago? Lodging with Orla O’Banyan?”
“Yes, and if Orla is Madame Cousineau, then we’re on our way there now.”
“Waal, you boys keep your heads down. ‘Specially Saturday night. Agreeable to that?”
“Certainly. Good night, Sheriff.”
I sure was surprised to have been recognized this far north of the border. Scott had enough problems without Madrid mixed in.
I did enjoy seeing my ‘married’ brother come to the breakfast table with his ‘wife’. Scott couldn’t meet my eye, and Camille never did. Now that she had stopped crying every five minutes her nose wasn’t red and her eyes weren’t swollen, and she certain sure was one good lookin’ girl.
She and Scott spent the morning in the garden out back, sorting through the baby vestments which Boston had bought. Scott was writing a letter to Murdoch, as he thought that was a better way to break the news of a surprise daughter-in-law and grandchild. Scott said as how he would also have to write to his Grandfather. All Scott’s money was in something called a trust, in Boston, but Scott thought that it would all come under his control once he married.
I went a good way out of town and practised shooting. Me and Scott was not accustomed to not having work keeping us busy all day, which had been the case at Lancer. He borrowed books and the chess board from Miz C., and after lunch we men went for a ride to give our horses and us some exercise.
“Jeez, Boston, this waiting around is goin’ to be a chore, ‘specially now we can’t spend it in the saloon.”
He just grunted.
“How’re you two gettin’ on?”
“She sure is a looker, Brother.”
Scott cut a look at me, his mouth all pruney with disapproval.
“You two talked on names for the baby?”
This time he ignored me completely. I tried again.
“You two talked about anything? Anything at all?”
He pulled Kirk to a halt then, and I reined in.
“Johnny, we talked when I arrived. She’s ashamed to be expecting a child out of wedlock. She’s humiliated that I feel that I have to marry her. She’s mortified that she feels that she must marry me. She misses her father and younger brothers. But as awful as she finds all of those things, the thing that terrifies her most is worry about the birth.”
Scott was talking low and steady, and I dropped my head as I thought of what that girl was going through.
“We men take our pleasure with just about any girl who’ll allow it. And then we can walk out the door and never give that girl another thought. But unless a girl is hoping to conceive a baby, her pleasure is always accompanied by the risk of getting with child. Nine months of carrying that baby, and then usually half of her life raising and worrying about that child, with or without the help of the father.”
Scott looked off into the distance. I looked at my hands on the pommel. Jesus, I’d thought a whole lot about cooching for me, but never a thought for the girl really. Scott’s voice broke across my thoughts.
“You’ve never thought about it that way, have you? Well, I’ve known quite a few girls-in the biblical sense, I mean-and neither had I, until I met with Camille yesterday, and saw what our…dalliance…had wrought.”
“What the fuck is ‘in the biblical sense?’”
You know-‘and Paul knew Sarah’-“
He saw my blank look and rolled his eyes.
“’And Paul tupped Sarah…”
Why was life so complicated? Seems that my life as a hired gun had been a lot simpler than this business of living with a family. I’d thought I was a tough hombre who knew all there was to know about people and what life- and death- was like, but turns out all of that was not what real living was about. And I sure didn’t feel tough, or want to be tough, when Boston was hurtin’.
The next four days went the same way. Scott talked about me catching the train to Sacramento and then on to Cross Creek. I told him Murdoch wouldn’t like me travellin’ all that way alone and Scott said as how that was the first time he’d ever heard me concerned about what Pa thought. I said that no way in hell was I going to be around Pa while he got used to the idea of his first born getting a girl in trouble and having to get hitched to someone he didn’t even know. That stopped Boston’s mouth straight away.
I’d got some leather from the saddler, and was working with that while Scott struggled with writing his letter to Murdoch. Camille sewed hems on diapers, every day.
I got a start when she spoke to me for the first time.
“Johnny, what are you making?”
“It’s a headstall.”
I glanced up and saw how pretty her eyes were when they hadn’t been bawling. They were the colour of a robin’s eggs.
“It’s really fine, with the two colours braided like that.”
“You like ridin’?”
“Oh, I do! At home-“ She stopped, and bit her bottom lip.
“We got some beautiful horses at Lancer.” I spoke quiet, and didn’t look up for a moment.
When I did she was looking at me with a trembly smile.
“Are you two going for a ride today? I think I’ll just go and rest.”
“We will, but we won’t be long. Shall I walk to the room with you?” Scott always spoke to her very kind.
“No, and take as long as you like. I’ll be fine.”
“What’s it like sleepin’ in the same room as a girl?”
We left Pancho and Kirk at the livery and headed back to the boarding house. I would’ve loved a cold beer, but Scott hustled me past the saloon.
As we opened the door to our temporary home, Orla was just coming down the corridor with a tea tray.
“Ah, you’re back. I’ll go and get some more cups. Here, young Mr Lancer, take the tray in for me. There’s a grand surprise awaits you - in you go!”
I wondered had Camille had the baby while we were gone. Scott p’raps thought the same, ‘cause the tray was jiggling all over the shop as he stepped into the parlour. I peered over his shoulder.
That was no baby on the sofa with Camille.
That was Murdoch.
Scott just stood there. His head fell forward. I stepped around him and headed for the chair opposite the sofa. Murdoch had got a high colour in his face, but Camille was pale. Funny thing was though, that even though Pa’s lips were in a hard line, his eyes looking at Boston had gone all soft.
“Scott, come and sit, Son.” His voice was soft, too.
That softness surprised Scott, and his head shot up and he looked at Murdoch.
Jesus, who’d a thought just a look could say so much. Like he was telling Murdoch that he was ashamed, that he was sorry, that he was scared. It hurt my gizzards so I jumped up and grabbed the tray and set it on the table. That got Scott moving, and he finally sat down. Murdoch bent a look on me.
“Scott, your lovely…wife…and I are just getting acquainted.”
They had suddenly all turned so red they looked like a bunch of Cherokees who’d painted up.
Miz C. came bustling in with the extra teacups. I’d drunk so much tea that week that my waters had changed colour. But the barmbrack was on the tea tray so I was lookin’ forward to wrapping my insides around that.
“Well, Mr Lancer, I can see where the laddies get their fetching looks from! Tis a pleasure, it is, to meet the father of two such handsome boyos. And with such a pretty lassie as its ma, your first grandchild is sure to be a bonny baby.”
She was beaming at Murdoch, and also flutterin’ her eyelashes which took me aback. Old people flirtin’ always made me real queasy. Murdoch gave her a nice smile, but his eyes then drifted to Boston.
“Well, just give me a shout should you need more tea. I’ll be going on and leave you to blather - er, talk.”
She bestowed another toothy smile on the Ol’ Man and then shut the door behind her.
All three of us Lancers talked at once. Scott said Murdoch’s name, he said Scott’s name, and I asked a question -
“Anyone want some barmbrack?”
Murdoch stood up to his imposin’ height and talked quiet but firm.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have this afternoon tea, and yes, Johnny, I would like some barmbrack. I haven’t had any in years. Then, Scott, I would be pleased if you would accompany me to the hotel so that I can get a room. I’ve been travelling by train and horseback since I received your wire, and I am very weary. Johnny, please pour.”
He sat down again and I started to pourin’, but made such a hash of it that Murdoch took over. Even though he had these huge - and hard, I well knew - hands, he handled the teapot and dainty little cups and the tea leaf-straining doodad without a hitch.
He made pleasant conversation, like this little gathering happened every day of his life. He did what I’d done, and asked where those two had met. I was surprised that Camille answered this time. He nodded as she spoke, and then raised considering eyes to Scott, who immediately gulped his tea which commenced him to choking. Murdoch ignored Scott’s distress and calmly sipped his tea.
Once he’d had two cups and I’d finished off the food, then he rose up and turned to Camille, taking her little hand in his.
“It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Camille. I’ll see you tomorrow, if that is agreeable to you?”
“Yes Sir, it is f-f-fine with me.” She stuttered it out, looking awkward as hell as Murdoch let go of her mitt.
“Scott?” Murdoch raised one eyebrow.
Me and Scott both got up, but Pa’s hand landed on my shoulder and squeezed.
“Johnny, you stay here please. I want to talk to your brother privately, thank you. You see that bible over there?”
I looked where he had nodded to, and saw a big bible on its own stand.
“You can find some paper and copy out Jeremiah 35.12. The sermon on Sunday was on that particular passage.”
“Watch your mouth.” Murdoch squeezed harder before letting me go.
I was grimacing, but Scott looked a lot more frazzled than I was. He gentle said a word to Camille, and then he started towards the door.
That’s when his baby must have sensed that his Daddy was in danger of getting skinned alive by his Grandpa, and so he decided to help.
There was a loud gasp from Camille and we all swiveled ‘round in time to see her clutch at her belly with one hand, and drop her cup ‘n saucer from the other. Scott and me both stood frozen, but Murdoch went straight to her.
“Just take a big breath.” His voice was firm and kind, and he put his hand on her shoulder.
He looked over at Scott.
“Go and get your landlady.”
Scott didn’t move, until Murdoch added ‘now’ in a rumbling voice. Boston shot out the door. Murdoch sat next to Camille, who looked all wide-eyed. She suddenly reached for his hand, and he wrapped both hands around hers, and I felt like I hoped I could one day be half the man Pa was.
Orla was soon on the other side of the girl, and Scott came and stood next to me, and Murdoch did as well. Orla was asking questions, soft, and Camille was answering. Orla looked up.
“Young Mr Lancer, please go and turn down the bed. And push your bed out of the way. Johnny, would you go to Dr Howell’s and see if he can come? You remember where his office is?”
“I’ll go with you,” Pa said straight off.
We grabbed our hats on the way out. Soon as the door shut behind us, Pa growled out a question.
“That girl was only at the Talbot’s for one week, if my memory serves me. Has your brother seen her since then?”
Now I was glad that Scott hadn’t told me nothing about how he’d got himself into this whole fandango. I was able to tell Murdoch the truth, that all I knew was that Scott had got a child on her, and that he was planning a quiet wedding soon as she could travel some place where no-one knew them or about the baby.
“What!? You’re telling me they’re not married?”
“Well…no. They ain’t had the opportunity, yet.”
“And they’re sleeping in the same room!”
I didn’t care to look at him, just kept walking.
“Well, I guess that’s - I mean in her cond - “ but he just finished with some Scottish word I’d never heard before.
“God in Heaven.” He sighed, and he sounded very upset.
I thought he woulda been ranting and raving, but when I cut a look up into his face he looked worried more than anything.
The Doc’s wife said how he was out on a call, and she would send him soon as he returned. We trundled back and found Scott sitting in the parlour, looking worried, and nursing a whisky.
“Scott, tell the ladies that the doctor will be here as soon as he can.”
Boston nodded and put down the drink as he left. Pa picked it up and scoffed it.
“Johnny, this usually takes quite some time. You can sit over in the corner and keep yourself busy with that bible.”
“I’m in no mood to listen to your blaspheming and defiance…I suggest you do as I ask.”
I sat in the corner and pretended to read that bible. I looked up the numbers he’d said earlier, and saw it was all about sons doing what their father told them, and I shut the book in disgust.
The next two hours the three of us sat there. The boarders came home and soon as Pa introduced himself and said that Madame C was assisting with a birth, both those men left the house in a hurry. Mrs C came out once and asked Scott to bring the big pot of hot water and leave it at the bedroom door. Camille never screamed, but we started hearing this low and anguished but very carryin’ grunting and groaning. The first time that sound came through the walls, Scott went green and rushed out the front door, and we could hear him unloading his lunch on the front garden.
I got hungry and went and made sandwiches out of meatloaf and soda bread and relish, and Pa and I ate those, but Scott wouldn’t eat a bite even.
The cuckoo clock was such a trial I was tempted to shoot it.
Scott went and found the bottle of whisky, and he and Pa had another belt, but I got none. So I made coffee, and at least Boston drank that.
It was nine o’clock, the fuckin’ cuckoo had just told us, when there was a knock at the door. Murdoch went to answer it. When he returned it was with Sheriff Peele and some old jasper. Peele headed straight to Scott.
“Mr Lancer, this gentleman is Mr Boxhall. He’s looking for his daughter, Melva. I believe you can help him.”
Melva? Pa and I and the sheriff and the old man all looked at Scott, who got to his feet. Scott nodded.
“Thank the Lord.” Boxhall whispered, and then he sank down to sit. “And married. Oh God, thank the Lord,” he repeated.
Scott reddened up then, and looked real uneasy, and me and Pa both looked at our boots.
“I’ll leave you to it. Goodnight.” Peele plonked his hat back on and Pa showed him out.
Another moan came through the walls, and Boxhall’s head jerked up.
“Sir, Melva’s ah…confinement has begun.” Scott didn’t look too good, again.
Pa came back in just as Boxhall asked another question.
“How old are you, boy?”
“I’m eighteen, Sir.”
Boxhall put his thumbs next to his eyes and started rubbing hard.
“Lancer? Your name’s Lancer?”
“Yes Sir. Scott Lancer. This is my father, Murdoch, and my younger brother, Johnny.”
Boxhall looked around vaguely. When his eyes set on me, they narrowed slightly. He looked tired as gettout. We each of us gave him a nod.
“I know of the Lancer Ranch. My ranch is over near Franchotville.”
Murdoch offered him a whisky which he accepted and gulped down. Then he asked was the doc with Melva, just as a strangled sort of cry came to us from her room. We all looked uncomfortable. Yeah, poor us, I thought.
Miz C called out for ‘young Mr Lancer’ to please bring more hot water. When he came back he said she’d told him it wouldn’t be too much longer. Mr Boxhall said as how he’d been searching every town along the rail line since he’d learned that Melva had run off. A wire from Sheriff Peele had finally caught up with him two days before. We all lapsed into silence, with only the sound of the clock and Melva’s pain.
At midnight Pa told me to go to bed. Said Melva’s labouring could still go for many hours. Instead I went to the kitchen and made another sandwich. On the table was a sewing basket with a little nightgown on top. I put my hand in it like a puppet and looked at how small it was. And weren’t that embarrassin’ when Murdoch appeared and saw me. He just shook his head with a smirk, and started on making another pot of coffee. He groused on me for not being in bed, but didn’t say nothin’ when I followed him and the coffee back into the parlour.
I was dozing in the chair when I woke because of hearing a strangled howl from the back of the house. I looked around groggily, and saw that the other three were all sitting up straight, faces turned to the back wall. Scott was white. We all were holding our breath, but the next sound made us all whoosh it out. That was the sound of a baby crying. It sounded mad as hell, so I took it that that meant it was healthy.
Scott stood up, but Pa put a hand on his arm and said for him to wait. That there was ‘other details that would need attending’, and that he should wait till he was summoned.
The blasted clock cuckoo’d three times, and it was still a good while after that that the door finally opened, and Miz C stood there. She looked wrung out. Her eyes were jumping from one to the other of us, skittish as anything, and she looked like she didn’t want to be there.
“Well?” Boxhall asked.
She looked at him, confused.
“I’m the girl’s father.” He explained.
Her eyes went wide at that, and she put her fist to her mouth.
“They’re both fine.” She whispered. “It’s a boy – a healthy boy.” She crossed herself.
Scott stood up again. We all knew something wasn’t right, so we were all waiting.
“The father… yes, the father can come see his bairn, now.”
She looked straight at me.
What the hell was she lookin’ at me for? And that made Scott and Pa and Boxhall all turn and look at me too. They were all frownin’.
“Go on, Scott,” I said, squirmin’ real uncomfortable. Orla still hadn’t taken her eyes off me.
Scott headed for her so she turned and hot-footed it ahead of him. Pa and Boxhall looked at each other, still frowning. Boxhall sat back and closed his eyes. Pa looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I shrugged.
Scott had left both doors open, so we clear heard the sound of frenzied cryin’. But it was Melva/Camille’s – not the baby’s. We all stood up.
“Tarnation! What’s the matter?! I’m going in!” Boxhall raced out of the room.
Well, a right old ruckus bust out then. We could hear him yelling, Scott yelling, Melva crying and ranting, and Orla swearing. Pa looked quick at me and then took a step to the door, but nearly got knocked off his boots as Boxhall burst through the door lookin’ like he was primed for a kill. He was – and it was me he wanted to kill.
He was on me before I could shut my mouth that had fallen open. He ran at me so hard that he and I both went backwards over the chair I was on. He was slapping at my head and face as he tried to untangle from me, and he was roaring words like ‘cuckolder’, ‘fornicator’ and ‘despoiler’.
Murdoch wrenched him off me and threw him fierce into the sofa, and he grabbed me by the shirtfront and hauled me up. Scott was standing in front of Boxhall, his fists up, daring him to move. Orla was wringing her hands, having a conniption about her messed up parlour.
“What the hell is going on?!” Pa lifted the ceiling.
“That – that fornicating little half-breed bastard has cuckolded his own brother!”
Boxhall was shaking and sweating and pointing, his eyes fixing me with a glare full of disgust.
“You stupid old fuckin’ pendejo! (dickhead) I only met your girl last week!” I roared back, rubbin’ at my face.
“Then you explain that baby in there! You lying little sonofabitch.”
“I don’t gotta explain nothin’ to you, you tonto boludo!” (stupid idiot)
“Hold on! Just hold on!” Murdoch’s voice musta been heard back at Lancer.
Everyone was breathin’ like freight trains, and in the back we could hear both Melva/Camille and the baby crying.
Murdoch was mad as a cut cat, but he was going to get himself some answers. He ran a hand through his hair as he looked around at everyone and got his mind sorted.
“Am I to understand that you believe that that baby in there has Mexican blood?”
Boxhall collapsed forward, his head in his hands, and groanin’ like he was delivering a sprout.
“Mr Lancer, I think I can venture me own opinion on that.” A soft Irish voice rolled over us.
Orla had drawn herself up, and was trying for some dignity in all this shambles.
She cut a look at Scott, full of sympathy, and then faced Pa again.
“That babby has jet black hair and brown skin. And…blue eyes.”
She seemed to be trying not to look my way, but couldn’t help herself. Pa and Scott did, too. Even though Scott knew this was all nothin’ to do with me. Orla kept on, and we looked at her as she tried to be calm and reasonable.
“ I’m thinking there is indeed no doubt, no doubt at all, that young Mr Lancer did not father that child. Two people with the colouring of himself and the lass - . No Mr. Lancer, it is not Scott’s child, and I’ll leave it with you to decide if it may still be your grandchild.”
“I tell you it’s not!” I yelled again.
Mr. Boxhall was moaning continuous. Murdoch all sudden- like sat down, and then he pinned Scott with a look.
“Scott, you obviously had reason to believe it was your child.” It was plain talk, not a question.
Scott’s face flushed up and he dropped his eyes, and then did this jerky little nod.
Pa said, quite steely, “I see.”
Boxhall groaned louder.
Scott dropped into a chair, and Pa turned to me.
I shook my head, my face riled. I looked Murdoch right in the eyes though, and was relieved and pleased when he straight away nodded, and put a hand on my leg.
“Madame Cousineau, you have been a great help. It sounds as though Mel-er-your patient needs you.”
“Indeed she does, Sir.”
Orla knew when she was being dismissed, and she pulled the door shut behind her.
We all swung round to fix on Boxhall when he said that. He sat back, looking beat.
“I kicked that bastard off the ranch nine months ago. First I punched him right through the barn wall, and then I told him to go back to Mexico and never come near Melva again. I’d come on them kissing in the barn. She swore that’s all they’d done. She fretted constantly, but I told her he had gone back to his own country. It was five months later she told me she was carrying a child. She told me she’d been seeing a boy from Cinder Flat, but she wouldn’t say who. I packed her off to Sacramento, telling everyone she was going to school there. I thought she was barely two months gone, but of course now I know she was much more than that.”
“Boxhall, I think you should go in there and see your grandchild. Talk to your daughter. You have a lot of mending to do.”
That man who’d looked so beat started to change. His face got this real stony look, and he slow got his back straight and made his hands into fists sitting on his knees.
“Lancer, do you have daughters?”
Murdoch glanced at us two. He looked like he didn’t particularly want to own us right then.
“No. Only these two boys.”
Boxhall nodded as he studied on his fists.
“That girl in there has lied to me. She’s snuck around behind my back, layin’ with God knows who. Your boy, and even worse, with a Goddamn Mex.”
He quick added a ‘no offence’. I’d heard bigots too often to let it bother me. Pa’s eyes got disgusted and he checked my reaction, but we both knew that Boxhall was pretty much at the end of his rope, so it was no time to learn him nothing.
“Now she’s got herself a mestizo kid. Well, I won’t have it. If she’d done what I told her, and left the baby at the orphanage, then I’d have accepted her. But she’s defied me again. I won’t have that jezebel and her child in mine or the young’uns lives.”
He rose to his feet, and so did Murdoch.
“She’s still your daughter, man. That baby is your grandson. Don’t make any decisions while you’re angry. Talk to her -“
“I’ve left my ranch and my three boys to ransack the country looking for her. Spent the past three weeks on her trail. Well, she’s your son’s wife now. And you’re all welcome to her!”
“Sir-“ Scott tried to speak.
“Yes, I know. She’s deceived you, too. Maybe you can get her to put the baby in a home. It’s not yourn, so you’re entitled.”
He made for the door, and Scott stepped towards him, but Murdoch put an arm out to stop him.
“You’ll do no good talking to him tonight, Son.”
“He can’t just go and abandon his daughter and her baby!” Scott was mad.
“He’s not, is he? He’s leaving them with you.” Murdoch’s voice was mild, but his eyebrow was up.
Scott looked powerful uncomfortable.
Poor Miz C had been up all night delivering that baby, and then had to turn around and prepare breakfast for all her boarders, plus Murdoch, who she charged twenty cents. Mr. Nuley and Mr. Bloud, the banker and the land agent, both gave ol’ Boston their congratulations for being a new father, and hoped that mother and babe were well.
The doctor arrived in the middle of breakfast. He’d come straight from another birth, so he was exhausted, too. He came outta Melva’s room and said they were both fine, and he congratulated Scott. He kept a straight expression on his face when he did – the landlady had obviously worded him up. He gave me a penetrating look which made me squirm, even though I hadn’t done nothin’. Jeez, with that comely girl, I wish I had. Scott just kept nodding and looking like he wanted to go bury his head. Orla fussed over him and excused his poorly appearance by saying how overwhelmed he was by his ‘new role in life’, and all the strangers chuckled.
Scott had visited with Melva just before breakfast, but only for a minute. Once we’d all filled our bellies, Pa said to Orla how he thought it best if he and his sons moved into the hotel, until Camille was ready for travel.
It was all getting fucking confusing.
Scott settled the bill for us Lancers, and for the other two pretend Lancers, including a fee for midwifin’. Murdoch told Orla he’d like to engage a girl to help her out for a couple of days. There was a hill of laundry to be done, and the tending to the new mother. Orla said she knew just the girl and would arrange that.
We scarpered then. Soon as we were out of that place, I chanced a look at Scott and Murdoch. They both looked pretty gloomin’. I decided to risk talkin’.
“Seems to me there’s a lot of schemin’ women out there, ain’t there.”
Both of them got even crosser in the mouth, but then Murdoch sort of did his ‘hmmm’ sound, and decided to speak.
“Yes, I’m afraid there are, Johnny. But the same goes for men. And then there are a lot of very straightforward and trustworthy people, too. You two would do well to remember that both of you have exhibited both sets of traits yourselves.”
Well, I couldn’t deny that.
“And sometimes a person feels that they have to scheme to protect someone who’s more precious than themselves.”
Pa looked hard at me, to make sure I knew he was talkin’ about Melva.
“She made a complete fool out of me!” Scott bust out with that with sudden fury in his voice.
I thought Pa wasn’t going to say anything, and that he must be thinking that, yes, she did, and that Scott was a wet behind the ears shavetail. I could just about feel the anger and embarrassment leaking outta Boston.
“Scott, do you think for one moment that making a fool out of you was what was on that girl’s mind?”
He said it so mild, but there was an edge underneath. Scott didn’t answer.
“You think about that, Son. How old is - was she, when you two…knew each other?”
I wondered was Pa meaning that bible ‘knew’.
“She was sixteen – but she told me she was eighteen. Marigold is eighteen, so I didn’t even think about Melva being so much younger.”
“And after the week she spent at the Talbots – did you see her again? Did you keep in touch?”
“No. I only spent one day with her, and never heard from her again till I got that letter.”
No way was I looking up at Murdoch, and I’m sure Scott felt the same way. The tone in the Ol’ Man’s voice was pretty clear on what he thought of Scott and the girl’s behavior on that ‘one day’.
Murdoch checked us into two rooms and suggested we all get some sleep and meet for lunch about one. We would talk to Boxhall, if he was agreeable, and we would have our own discussion. Scott sort of flinched when Pa said that. It was not usual that Boston was in disgrace and I was in the clear, but I decided not to torment him about that after all the turmoiling he’d been through the last week.
We both shed our boots and got onto the same beds we’d been resting on when we’d first come to Branch Ferry. It felt like about six months since then.
“You ever plannin’ to tell me how you met that girl and managed to, you know, know her…right under the Talbot’s noses? All in one day?”
“You know it’s not done to discuss one’s amorous exploits, don’t you?”
“I don’t care about whatever the hell that is. Just tell me about how you caught that girl.”
“Jesus, Scott, you owe it to me after all I been through. I’m the innocent party in this whole mess, yet I’m the only one that’s got punched!”
I gently touched the small bruise on my cheekbone as though it was a grievous injury
“Innocent is not a word I’d ever apply to you, Little Brother.”
“Well, sounds to me like you got nothin’ to be proud of – taking advantage of a girl who was innocent!”
Scott sat up, and for a minute I thought he was going to jump me, but then he snorted.
“Clever, very clever.” He lay back down.
I gave up, and turned onto my stomach. I rubbed my hand along the handle of my Colt under the pillow, and felt myself begin to drift.
That’s when he decided to talk.
“Alright, I’ll give you a brief outline of the events. Melva is not going to be my wife, so I can speak more frankly. And I know you keep things to yourself when I ask you to.”
I turned onto my side and propped my head on my right hand.
“I went to the Talbots to deliver a goat. A blasted goat. One of Marigold’s twins didn’t take to cow’s milk, so they were going to try goat’s milk. Apparently that happens, sometimes. I hadn’t been at Lancer that long, and Murdoch gave me an easy task to give me a break from learning about ranching. You were still not back on your feet, so you were lolling about the ranch, eating everything in sight. Nothing’s changed, has it?”
I gave him a filthy look, and he almost smiled.
“I met Marigold, and her husband, Robert, but they were both taken up with the babies, so at lunch, and most of the afternoon, I flirted with Melva. She told me she was eighteen. You’ll agree she’s a lovely looking creature, and it was good to spend some time with a pretty girl, rather than all those cursed cows that Murdoch treasures.”
I kept real still, not wanting Scott to clam up.
“That would have been the end of it. I was heading home, and Melva was returning to her father’s spread in a few days, so I wouldn’t have seen her again. She walked with me to the corral, where Kirkland was. Liddle Willie was there, repairing the gate. You know him, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Big fella. Touched in the head.”
“Well, I was touched in the head too, after he tried to pull off a length of rotted wood and it came loose and knocked me off my feet. I was out cold, and woke up in bed in the house. Mr and Mrs Talbot were mortified, and insisted I stay the night. I did have a headache, but it was having Melva offer to sit with me that swayed me.”
Scott shook his head. He pulled up to sit and lean against the bedhead.
“It was all very proper. The door was open and we never touched, but headache or not, I was very taken with her, and she seemed to be very interested in me. She even insisted on feeding me supper – and I let her. I hadn’t been away from the ranch in three weeks. Away from ornery cows, and a new little brother who was more cantankerous than every cow on the place put together. So I was relishing lying in bed and being hand fed by a beautiful girl.
What I didn’t expect was for that girl to slide into bed with me in the middle of the night.”
“Precisely. I did my best to resist, Johnny, I swear, but I wasn’t wearing much, and neither was she. I’m afraid I didn’t resist very long.”
I couldn’t imagine resisting for even two seconds, so I understood.
“She had told me she was eighteen, remember, and in bed she told me I wouldn’t be her first. Maybe I was a bit concussed, or maybe I just didn’t want to control myself. A couple of hours later she slipped back to her own room. No-one had any idea, so when the Talbots finally let me leave next afternoon, there was no objection to Melva riding with me part of the way. They sent Liddle along to chaperone us, but Melva told him to wait at the turn-off to Spanish Wells. We rode on and as soon as we found a sheltered spot we stopped. I was very late for supper, and not for the ‘concussion’ excuse I gave Murdoch.”
Dios! Rolling in the grass with that comely girl – I would give my back teeth to do that! I felt a familiar stirring, and I had to quick think of Brussels sprouts, so I could concentrate on Scott’s story.
“I saw the Talbots at church a few days later, and they said that Melva had returned home. I barely gave her another thought. And then last week her letter arrived.”
He lay back down and turned away from me.
“So there you have it.”
Half an hour later I was still thinking on all that had happened. I thought of that baby that didn’t know what a fracas was rolling all around him.
Another thought about that baby suddenly occurred to me and I sat up and spouted it out.
“Christamighty, Boston, if that baby had been born tow-headed, you’d be on your way to the altar!”
A long, rumbling snore was all that came from his bed.
If Murdoch was like most men, he would’ve herded us home that day. If Scott was like most men, he would’ve gone. But my father and my brother were not like most men. They were better than nearly everyone I’d ever had dealings with.
Apart from a few tumbles in the hay with Boston, nine months ago, Melva was nothing to do with us. But Pa and Scott were not the kind of jaspers who could walk away from someone who needed help. ‘Specially if it was to do with a girl who wasn’t even all grown up yet.
I had roused out Boston and Murdoch, who both would’ve slept the rest of the week. We went to the Branch Ferry Railway Café for some grub. I was hungry as hell and Murdoch said I must have a growth shoot brewing. I sure hoped so.
Murdoch told us he’d wanted to talk to Mr Boxhall again, but the desk clerk said he’d checked out first thing in the morning. So he really had washed his hands of his daughter and grandson.
“Before we go to the boarding house, I want to talk to you, Scott.”
Scott looked hard at his empty coffee cup, but then raised his eyes and looked Pa square in the eye.
“Son, I am proud that you were going to take on the responsibility of a wife and child, when you thought that you had fathered that baby.”
Boston, coloured some, and looked back down at the cup.
“I am not proud of your behavior with that girl, but you are still very young, and not many men, of any age, are able to resist temptation.”
Amen to that, I thought.
“So as distressing as this has been for you, and disastrous for the young lady, I am not about to judge you for something that I’m sure you have thought a lot about since you received Melva’s letter. And I can hardly censure your behavior, Son, when my own in the past has not been unblemished.”
Murdoch glanced at me, and I knew he was talkin’ about my Mama, but also making sure I was paying attention to how much trouble a man’s pizzle can get him in.
“What I will censure you for is the way you left the ranch in the middle of the night, with not one word to me.”
“I am sorry about that Murdoch, but-“
“Scott, there are no ‘buts’. At the moment we have more important issues to sort out so we can get home. I assure you we will discuss that particular one when we do get home.” Pa’s voice was pretty hard. “Now what I want to know, is do you have any feelings for Melva?”
“Why, no Sir, but-“
This time Scott stopped talkin’ and seemed to be flounderin’ around some, so Murdoch spoke again.
“It’s entirely up to Melva then, as to what she wants to do. We‘ll help her in any way we can, and then we‘ll head home. Let’s go.”
When we got there Orla didn’t spring out like she usually did. Scott and Pa went into the parlour and sent me to scout. She wasn’t in the kitchen, but I could hear someone out the back door so I stepped out to the back porch.
A real lovely sight greeted my eyes.
This cracker of a girl was bent over a big washtub, and her cotton dress was all damp and clinging to her bubs. Bent like that, I could see just enough of the hills and the valley to make my mouth go dry. Then she looked up and her face was as pretty as her cleavage. Big brown eyes and a little nose and a mouth I wanted to plant mine on the minute I saw it.
Her face was red and sweaty, and her light brown hair was in a messy pile on her head, with all these damp curls around her face. She had her sleeves rolled up high and hot dang, but I wanted to run my hands down both those arms. And everywhere else.
She let go of the wash she was scrubbin’ against the washboard and stood up, and I lost sight of her cleavage which was a damn shame. She straight away started patting at her messy hair like girls always do.
“Afternoon. Are you wanting Mrs – ah, Madame Cousineau?”
No, I thought, I’m wanting you. Pictures sprung into my head and Jesus, I could feel desire was goin’ to embarrass me before I’d even opened my mouth. Opened my mouth… oh God, Brussels sprouts, Brussels sprouts, Brussels-
“Well? Cat got your tongue, boy?”
Boy! She only looked fifteen, same as me, and she was calling me boy?”
“I’m seventeen!” I protested, stung. Shoulda said eighteen, I thought straight away.
“Well congratulations!” She sassed me as she rolled her eyes. “Mrs Cousineau is with one of the boarders. Please wait in the parlour, and she’ll be with you directly.”
“I’d rather wait with you.” The words were out of my mouth without me knowing it.
Her hands went to her hips then. She had a small waist but then she flared out real curved. Her eyes lit up and sparkled like sun on water, and then she laughed and it sounded hearty and trilly, all at once. She had dimples. Jeez but she was such a looker.
“So you’re interested in the business of washing diapers are you? If you’ve a mind to try your hand, I’ll not stop you!”
It wasn’t the diapers I wanted to get my hands on. I put my hat on the porch rail and stepped down to her, and I started rolling up my sleeves as I kept my eyes on hers.
She laughed again, and stepped to the side, motioning to the tub with a sweep of her arm. I was too busy smiling back at her to think what I was about to do, but then I looked down into the murky water and stopped.
She musta seen the look on my face and she really bust out laughing then, and she bent forward, clutching her stomach. That gave me a close-up view of that cleavage, and I felt myself going red and going randy. None of that was new. I felt like that every day, and the sight of any girl was enough to get me interested. But I felt something else when I looked at this girl. I felt like I wanted to talk to her, and for her to want to talk to me. That was strange.
“So you’ve changed your mind? Why am I not surprised!”
She patted at her eyes with the back of her hand, and I thought it was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. She gave me an amused look, and then turned and picked up a bucket.
“Perhaps you’ll be good enough to fetch water for me?”
I grabbed the bucket and she pointed to the well in the opposite corner to the outhouse. I trundled back and forth, filling the rinse tub for her as she went back to washin’.
“Thankee, young sirrah!”
She had this real faint trace of an Irish accent, and her voice was warm and sounded like she was wanting to laugh all the time. Walking back from the well and seeing her back view bent over the tub - Jesus! She had this generous backside that reminded me of a painting I’d admired in a saloon in Bendells Fork one time.
Nearly every girl I laid eyes on I would imagine what they looked like under their clothes… and under me…but when I found myself thinkin’ on that with this girl, I felt like I shouldn’t.
As I emptied the last bucket she picked up the block of soap and swiped it and then plunged her hands into the rinse water. She dried them and then held out her hand to me.
“I should know the name of the knight who gallantly assisted me in my time of travail. My name is Tansy.”
I took her cool, damp hand. It felt so small in my big hand. I coulda kissed it to try and impress her, but all I could think was how it was already getting warm and I didn’t want to let it go.
“Well?” She was smiling and I just stood there, smiling back and still holding her hand.
“Well what?” I finally said.
She did a giggle then, and took back her hand.
“Well, what’s your name? Or should I just keep calling you ‘boy’?”
She started hefting the diapers out of the wash water and into the rinse tub.
I was so busy watching her and the way she moved, like she was dancing, that I forgot the question again. She brought me awake by suddenly whipping a spray of water up into my face. I jumped back and shook the drops off my face, and laughed with surprise. She had the devil in her eyes, and I jumped forward and skimmed some water up at her, and we both laughed. I grabbed her wrist as she went to splash me again, and then a yell interrupted us.
It sounded like Pa, but when me and Tansy both looked up it was Scott. He was standing on the porch, his arms folded and a grin on his clock.
“We were wondering where you had got to…”
I was sat in the parlour and Murdoch and Scott and Miz C were all yammerin’, but my mind was on Tansy and the fetching little curtsy she’d done to me when I’d left her.
“Fare thee well, John.”
She had dimpled at me, and I’d felt this strange tug in my chest when usually I felt it in my drawers.
“Johnny, are you feeling alright?” Pa’s voice cut across my thoughts.
Pa looked close at me.
“Why are you wet?”
I looked down and saw that the front of my shirt was all wet, and I hadn’t even felt it.
Before I could answer, Orla commenced yapping on again.
“She is young, Mr Lancer, and often the shock of childbed and the awareness of responsibility weighs down on the young ones. I’m sure ‘twill all come right, given time. In the meantime, Tansy and I are seeing to the baby’s needs.”
“I wonder if I could have a word with the – ah, Camille?”
“Why certainly. But young Mr Lancer – you haven’t been in to see your wife? And the…your baby?”
Dios, talk about a tangled web. I could see how discomfited Pa and Scott both were. All this deceiving did not go well for neither of them, whereas it was second nature to me . Miz C was looking confused, and turning her head to one and then the other, trying to get a handle of what was what.
Murdoch couldn’t get a handle on that girl either. She was weepy and wrong-headed it seemed, and I don’t think Murdoch had too much experience dealing with females crying all over the shop. Seemed Melva had decided that she didn’t want to be a mama, and she wouldn’t even look at her baby. She just wanted to go home to her daddy and little brothers.
Scott went in but came out all peeved and frazzled as well. He said that she told him she’d expected to have his baby, and marry him, but she couldn’t raise a baby by herself, especially a ‘mixed’ one. He was real disgusted about that, but Pa said that she was in no state to think clear about anything. Scott said that he wished he’d never set eyes on her, and when I said there were other parts of him he shouldn’t have set on her I got a slap across my ear. And when Scott smirked about that, Pa gave him a swate across his ear. Ol’ Boston was real shocked and said ‘sir’ at Murdoch in a real grieved tone, but Pa told him to wipe that look off his face as he was sore tempted to take him out back and tan the daylights out of him. That sure shut Scott up, but the look on his clock was something to see. All offended and dignified but real embarrassed as well. I couldn’t stop grinnin’, until Murdoch swung his eyes back to me, and I stopped grinnin’ very smartish.
Murdoch said that me and Scott should get the morning train back home. It was no good the three of us all being away. He would stay a couple more days and see what he could do. He thought it best to escort Melva back to the convent and she could decide there whether she was going to keep her baby or adopt him out.
So we went back to the railway station and bought tickets for me and Scott for the next morning. Scott and me went riding all afternoon as our horses would be cooped up on the train the next day.
When we got back to the hotel, Murdoch was waiting for us, and he was some shocked.
Melva had packed up her belongings and was gone. She left that poor little kid behind. Her note said she was catching the afternoon train and goin’ to San Francisco. When she found a husband she would be able to go home, but she could never go home with a little mestizo. So please give him to the closest orphanage. Just like that.
We went with Pa back to the boarding house. Miz C. let us in. She was all red eyed and clutching at a handkerchief. She asked Murdoch was he going to put the baby in a home.
Murdoch said that California didn’t have no official orphanages yet. Most other states did, a lot of them sprung up on account of the war between the states. But orphanages didn’t take in babies anyway. Only foundling hospitals did that.
Miz C was beside herself. She couldn’t believe how that lovely young ‘wife’ of Scott’s would have not only betrayed her ‘marital vows’, but had now deserted him and her child. And what on earth did she mean about finding a husband? She started to bawling. I’d never been around so many crying females, and the way Murdoch and Scott looked, I guessed they hadn’t either. Murdoch sat down heavily into a chair and ran his hands through his hair. Scott stood at the window looking out of the lacy curtains, and I knew he was feeling bad about his gettin’ laid landing all of us in this mess. And that poor little unwanted kid.
That little kid made an appearance right about then. Tansy came to the doorway, and she had this little bundle up at her shoulder.
The sight of her was the only good thing to be said for Branch Ferry.
“Madame, I need to go and fetch more milk. Shall I leave him with you?”
“I’ll take him.” I knew a lot about babies that weren’t wanted, and I wanted to hold this one.
I took him from Tansy and she looked kinda surprised, but she smiled at me a bit shy, and I felt suddenly full to the brim with this light feeling.
I put the little cuss in the crook of my arm and had my first look at him.
He sure was small, hardly as big as a skun rabbit. He was looking around, but didn’t seem to be able to fix on anything, and I remembered that young like that still can’t see properly. He had brown skin, and all this silky black hair which in front stuck straight up in the air from a cowlick. His eyebrows were dark but fine as a cobweb, and his eyelashes were dark too, around those blue eyes. He had a button for a nose and this tiny mouth which hadda blister right in the middle of the top lip. Dios! They must’ve given him milk that was too hot. He kept turning his head to my chest and opening his mouth. His real small hands were clenched up in front of him in fists, which maybe was what boys were born knowing. He was a real cute little devil.
I heard Murdoch clear his throat and I looked up. I was some taken aback to see everyone staring at me like I was a wonder or something.
Then the little tacker started squirmin’ round and fussing, so I hoisted him up to my shoulder and started to pat his back while I jounced some. Scott was looking at me goggle eyed and with his mouth hangin’ open, for some reason.
“Pa, we got to give this kid a name. Not right that no-one has named him yet.”
The baby burped then and gorged up some milk. It was hot and wet on my shoulder.
“There you go partner, that’s better, ain’t it?” I hummed the words into his ridiculously small ear.
“Why don’t we call him Armando? Means ‘bold man’. How ‘bout that?”
Tansy had a cloth and was patting at the up-chuck on my shoulder, and I smiled at her over the baby’s head.
“Johnny, I had no idea you knew how to handle a baby.” Pa sounded that bemused word.
I looked at them all. Pa had a small smile hanging round his mouth, and Scott had finally closed his mouth and Miz C had stopped crying at last.
“Jeez, who can’t wrangle a baby?” I looked at the three of them and wondered what their problem was.
“Armando is a fine name. You’re quite right, he needs a name. I must confess, apart from naming the little fellow, I don’t know what’s best to do.” Pa said.
He slowly sat himself down, rubbing at his chin. Murdoch usually knew what was best to be done every single second of every day. ‘Specially where I was concerned, it always seemed to me. Scott leaned his hip against the back of the chair by the window. He sighed as he folded his arms across his chest. Miz C was blotting at her red eyes, looking real full of woe.
Armando did this little snuffle, squirming his bony little body against my shoulder.
I turned my face to the little fella and smelled that smell only real little critters have. Milk and piddle and new skin. Just then he held his head up on its wobbly neck and dropped his bottom lip.
I suddenly knew what was best to do.
“Murdoch, can I keep him?”
‘Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable.’ Plato