In Which Murdoch’s Sons Behave Badly…
I sat up to see where Scott was at. He was standin’ on a rock that ran out into the lake. He was naked as a jaybird, same as me. But where I was brown all over, he was only light brown down to his waist and the rest was as white as snow. I wished I had a slingshot with me, as a nice round pebble would make a real outstandin’ black bruise on that lily white duff. And his sissified scream would be heard in San Francisco. I sighed. What a shame I wasn’t packin.
He took a run then, and launched himself in the air then grabbed his knees up to his chest so he hit that water with an impressive explosion. Though I was nearly dry after my swim, I couldn’t resist and I leapt up and ran flat out and made an even bigger splash as I hit the water ass first. Soon after us two was tussling in the water, trying to drown each other and laughin’ so much it made us too weak to do the other in. By the time we draggled ourselves back to shore we were tuckered out and ready to bake ourselves dry in the hot sun.
There behind the flat rock we was about to stretch out on, was something to give us both a start. Neat as could be were two little stacks. Our boots, our drawers, our rigs and our hats. Our shirts and pants were gone. I grabbed my Colt and crouched down, studyin’ every tree and bush and clump of grass. Nothing moved.
“Johnny if someone was planning to shoot us, they would already have done it.”
I slowly stood up, still alert, listenin’ for hoof beats or the cocking of a trigger. A gentle breeze and birdsong was most all I could hear.
I grabbed up my drawers and nearly toppled in my haste to get ‘em on. I sure felt uneasy that someone had been so close without me knowin’.
“You think one of the crew-“ I ground out.
“No. Ours took off home as soon as we sent them, and I don’t think any of the others are out this way.” Scott was pullin’ on his drawers as he spoke.
We’d been fencing for two days straight, out near Morro Lake where we were now. Scott had suggested to me that if we sent Burke, Barney and Jose home, then we could skive off over to the lake and have ourselves a fine old time. He was as sick of fencin’ as I was, otherwise he wouldn’t have shirked the job. He said we could get back there in the morning before the crew arrived and get away with playin’ hookey.
“Think about it Johnny. Who would want us to have an embarrassing ride home, but not want us to get sunstroke or our backsides so chafed we couldn’t ride tomorrow?”
Scott raised an eyebrow at me as he asked the question. Didn’t take me long to figger it out. I’d picked up my hat, but now I threw it to the ground hard as I could.
“Yes, I’m afraid so Little Brother. For some reason our Father has come out to see us and found us skylarking instead of working.” He sighed. “We should both know by now that he who calls the tune knows every move his orchestra makes.”
I pondered this as I pulled on my boots and strapped on my rig.
“Well, I’m real glad that you’re the one goin’ to get it in the neck Boston! I’m the innocent party here!”
Scott shoved his hat to the back of his head and rolled his eyes at me.
“So nice to know that my dear sibling is going to stand by me, and not point the finger of blame.”
Scott’s new flannel drawers were light blue, so he stood out a mile as we ambled back home, neither of us in a hurry to see the Ol’ Man. We met up with one of the crews on the road into the homestead. Soon as they realized we were not wearing pants, they had urged their tired mounts to catch us up. Frank, Otis, Cyril and Martino surrounded us, but not one of them said a word...at first. Scott and me kept our faces turned homeward, ignoring the men around us who were all enjoying our discomfit. Finally Frank couldn’t stand it no more.
“Your Daddy know you two boys have got too big for your britches?”
They all laughed as I glared at Frank.
“I still got my gun Frank! So you just shut your trap if’n you don’t want to get blown right outta your saddle!”
But that only made them laugh more. I tried to ignore them, stay dignified like Scott was attemptin’.
“At least when Senor Scott wears his calzoncilas (drawers) out riding all over the estancia, he keeps them hitched up over his culo!” Martino was shootin’ his mouth off now.
I gritted my teeth.
Then the words sunk in.
I grabbed back only to find he was right – my flannels were just about worn out but suited me nice and comfortable, but the drawstring must have broke when I mounted, so those drawers were not doing their job. My culo was completely on show, and must have been the whole way so I never once noticed the breeze. As I hurrying pulled them up and tried to gather them at my middle, the men all just about fell off their horses from guffawin’ their fool heads off. I looked over to Scott and saw he was smirkin’ too, and I’d had enough.
“You hog-wallowers can all go fuck yourselves!”
I gave them this advice as I spurred Pancho to break ahead and leave those tontos behind. ‘Course, all that did was make it even sooner that I was pullin’ into the homestead, and didn’t that cause some more entertainment. The hands who were straggled in from the day’s work started in hoorawin’ and whistling and such, which carryings-on only brought others out to see what was causing the ruckus. I made the mistake of not holding onto my drawers when I unforked, and then had to grab those damned pants up from my knees, quick as I could. So the yelling increased and then got more as Scott hove into sight and they all saw how undressed he was too. I woulda disappeared into the barn quick as I could, but old Ced took Pancho over.
“I’ll see to your horses, Johnny. Looks like your Daddy is waitin’ for ya.”
I jerked my head around and sure enough, there was Murdoch, standing tall – of course - near the front door. His arms were folded and he had a stony look on his clock.
Well, weren’t no use putting it off. As Scott dismounted behind me the whistling increased. I looked over my shoulder to make sure he was coming, and was just in time to see him sweep off his hat and do this big bow to the whole audience. They all hooted like jackasses, and someone even clapped. Trust ol’ Boston to handle it in his stride while I felt as surly as a backed-up bear.
As I neared Murdoch he said how our clothes were waiting for us in the hall. Some of the hands were clapping Scott, and Murdoch decided to do his own clapping – right across the seat of my flannels. And didn’t that sting like a sonofabitch. It was almost worth it though, ‘cause he did the same to Boston as he passed. I was ditchin’ my boots so’s I could put my pants on, but I made sure to watch Scott’s face. I knew Murdoch got no pleasure from lickin’ us – well, not much, usually, but if he cracked us one he always looked stern in the mouth but very pleased with himself all the same. And without fail, it always made Boston looked dead pained and like his pride was fit to bust. It was real comical and tickled me to no end to see that look.
Murdoch closed the door and faced us, resting his fists on his hips. We didn’t care to look up as we got dressed.
“I met your crew as I was heading in, and they said you were going to finish the line by yourselves.”
I cut a look at Scott, but he had his head down. He was concentrating on buttoning up his shirt, and on tryin’ to tame down his red face.
“I thought I would join you – help finish the work and ride home with you.”
“How’d you know to find us at the lake?” I couldn’t resist asking.
“Because my Son, I haven’t always been as old as you seem to think me. My brother Caillen and I did the same thing many a time. And when we got caught we got tawsed. Be thankful I’m not going to tawse the two of you.”
I was pretty sure that that was a good thing. I seemed to remember that a ‘tawse’ was the name for a strap in Murdoch’s old country.
“Neither of you will need the bathhouse, so I’m going there now. I’ll see you two at supper.”
He didn’t say nothin’ else – no yellin’ mighty old lecture about shirking our chores and bein’ irresponsible and needing licking into shape. He just turned and strode back out the front door.
Scott and I stopped tucking our shirttails in and looked at each other. We both had our eyebrows up – and then we both grinned.
Next mornin’ I was scruffin’ through the bureau looking for some clean drawers when I noticed the neat folded nightshirts, none of which I’d ever used. Never planned to neither. Who needed to be dressed in bed, ‘specially in all that material which would only tangle you up.
I found a pair of drawers that were scrunched up in the corner so I guessed they mighn’t have been washed, but they would do. As I pulled them on, I thought back to the first time I’d rabbited through that bureau, finding it filled with all new underwear and nightshirts and such, all store-bought for me by Murdoch.
I had been at Lancer for a little while, but still recovering from being gunshot, and then I’d got a fever. Even when I was better, and able to get around, I’d had no interest in looking in the drawers and wardrobe. I hadn’t been able to think about stayin’ at Lancer. Of this being my room, and of the things in the room bein’ mine.
Hell, I’d never had such a room before coming to Lancer. With its spit and polish, its quality furniture and mats, it was closer to the front parlour of a bordello I’d once been in. Thinking on that still rankled me. The two skeesicks I’d been riding with for a week had just laughed when the madam had told me to get lost, and not to come back till I had started to shave. I’d been so mad I’d ridden out and never saw them yahoos again.
The trappin’s in my room at Lancer though, was not all fancified like the bordello. They were like the rest of the ranch, and like Murdoch. Strong and clean.
When I’d first looked through that bureau, and in the wardrobe, it was hard to believe that all of these clothes, boots, hats, brushes and a comb, even paper and pencils – all of this was for me, got for me by Murdoch, just like a real father got things for his kids.
There was no doubt I was livin’ high off the hog, better than I’d ever done. Bein’ bossed by Murdoch, and most everyone on the ranch, well, that didn’t sit well with me still, but that particular annoyance was better than my life previous and its annoyingness. That was for fuckin’ sure.
What was grating me at the moment though, was me needing money. My wages of three dollars a week had been whittled to one dollar a week for longer than I could remember. I owed Murdoch so much money, from various unfortunate fracases, that seemed I’d never have any money to jingle for the rest of my life. My last accident with the buggy had me deeper in debt, plus had me on extra chores for ever.
I needed dinero bad because I needed to get laid bad. Murdoch going away, this was my perfect opportunity to slip into Spanish Wells and get me some trim.
It was no good borrowing from Scott. Borrowing money from him, without askin’, had not sat well with him, and I still owed him five.
No, I needed to come up with a plan to get me enough money to pay my debts, get me outta extra chores, and get me into the bordello with a warm and willin’ female, A young, warm and willin’ female.
As it turned out, I needed to get money to help ol’ Boston, so my needs had to be put on hold. Or rather, taken care of by my own hand, as fuckin’ usual. I knew it weren’t true that abusin’ yourself made you go blind, because if that was the deal I’d of lost my sight any time the last couple of years. Nah, unfortunately no bordello for me, money was needed for something else.
It being the case that my brother got himself into some bother.
Scott had history with Cyrus Tarrant’s bull, so hurting that bull was some painful for both of them. Or rather, all three of ‘em – Scott, Tarrant and the bull. First on account of Scott never wanting to hurt any critter, second because that bull was so valuable, and third because Scott also had history with the Tarrant family, not just the bull. Good and bad. He’d upset ol’ Cyrus already a couple of times in the past, and seeing as how Boston had warm feelings in his heart and in his pants for Tarrant’s daughter, well…riling her daddy was the last thing my brother wanted to do.
So him shooting the poor ol’ bull by mistake was some disaster all right.
He’d been tracking a bobcat which he’d spied as he was heading home at dusk. He was cutting across Tarrant land when he’d spotted the cat and decided to try for it. If it’d been a mountain lion he wouldn’tve been foolish enough to go after it. Him going after one of them all on his lonesome had got him a leatherin’ from Murdoch, the only one he’d ever got from the Ol’ Man. It had left a big impression on Scott’s backside and on his thinking.
Bobcats bein’ a much smaller game, and having such pretty coats, Scott had thoughts of getting himself a skin which he maybe could have made into a cape for a Christmas present for Araminta Tarrant. She would be coming home from her fancy school in San Francisco. But mostly he wanted the thrill of the hunt, and to rid the valley of a varmint that took calves quite regular.
It was very unfortunate for him that the cat was downwind from Tarrant’s bull, so that poor animal was just lumbering to his feet behind a screen of manzanita as the cat loped towards him. Scott had got a bead on the cat as it entered the scrub, it following the scent of prey and no doubt hoping it was heading for a calf. It would not take on a bull in a month of Sundays. When Boston saw a flash of dapple about where he figgered the cat was, he loosed a bullet.
His excitement of hitting his target was shattered when instead of the cry of the bobcat, a roar erupted all around him and so did the brush in front of him as the bull staggered out and shocked Scott down to his boots. He watched in horror as that animal stood swaying and snorting and then sank to its knees before crumpling down and expirin’ its last. Of course the bobcat was nowhere to be seen.
“Jesus, Boston!” I bust out with horror as Scott told me his sorry tale that night.
We were in his room where I’d gone to find out the real story of the cut lip and the bruise and swelling on the side of his face. He’d missed supper and Murdoch and me had been getting a worry on when he’d finally showed. Murdoch had pounced him when he saw the injury, just like he always did to me if I came in scratched up. Scott’d brushed it off, sayin’ how he’d been very careless and run into something. Murdoch was so busy getting arnica and ice and such and fussing over the damage, that he hadn’t caught the lie. It was a fact that Scott never told lies, so that stood him in good stead when now he’d stretched the truth. Murdoch had heated some food for Boston and when that only got pushed around the plate with hardly any being eaten, the Ol’ Man put it down to Scott being tired out and sore. I could see how troubled my brother was, but I’d been real careful not to let on, and to distract Murdoch by giving him some lip about the reading and writing I had done that night. While we were wrangling about my ‘refusing to consult the dictionary’, Scott had slipped away off to bed. I kept flapping my gums at Pa until he got fed up and yelled at me to take my smart mouth to bed before he made the other end of me smart in a very different way. I’d then argued about goin’ to bed so early, but when Murdoch started to rise from his chair I’d pretended to cave in, and I’d hotfooted it straight to Scott’s room.
He filled me in on what had happened, and he was pale and sweaty, just in the telling of the story, so I could imagine what he’d looked like when he’d shot that bull.
Now he dropped his head in his hands and shuddered through himself.
“I can’t believe I fired without a clear shot! I know better than that! But who would have considered that the bull was just rising so his head was at the same level as the bobcat? Or that the cat and the bull both had dapples? And that my shot would actually hit that damn bull right in the kill spot. I was stupid – but I was unbelievably unlucky as well!”
I couldn’t deny any of that, so I didn’t. Better hunters than Scott had risked a shot like that.
Scott was sat there on the side of his bed, his boots off and his shirt hanging open. I was in the chair at the table where Scott did his writing. I sat with my arms resting on my legs and my hands dangling down, and when Scott dropped his head I did too, hating to see him so cast down. He hadn’t got to why his face was bruised, but knowing my gentleman and upright brother like I did now, I had a fair idea.
“You went and fessed up to old man Tarrant, didn’t ya.” It weren’t a question, but as I cut a glance at Scott he nodded.
“Of course I did. And I was not the least surprised when he backhanded me. I deserved it.”
“I don’t know if Pa would see it that way, Brother.”
Scott looked up then, and he looked more roiled up than before.
“No, Pa wouldn’t have done that – but he’s an exceptional man. Which is why the thought of telling him what I did has got me feeling like the worst kind of a disgraceful failure of a son.”
The hurt in Scott’s eyes just about unmanned me, as did those words. All that feeling boiling around in my gut made me fire up angry instead of going to mush which was threatening to happen to me. I jumped to my feet and gave him a mouthful.
“You stupid bastard! You think shootin’ one dumb, little old bull would make Murdoch think less of you?! That’s a fuckin’ crock of brainless horseshit if ever I heard it!”
Scott sat back and regarded me with a stony face. But then his mouth quirked some.
“Johnny, you have knowledge of a crock of intelligent horseshit?” he asked calmly.
I paused a moment, and then I threw myself at him. He saw it coming, so we had barely got started to brawling before the bastard had me pinned. We had ended up falling to the floor and he quick had me helpless on my belly with my mouth half full of the fringe of the mat.
I was aching for the day I’d have my full growth and be able to best him. The furious frustration that losing to him lit in my eyes always lit his eyes with pure delight – and of course that made me even madder. He was sitting on my legs and had my arms prisoned against the small of my back. I could still twist my head and glare at him, and give him a somewhat muffled mouthful of cusses.
He just edged my arms up a little higher to make it clear I had lost.
“Say ‘I yield’!” he spurred me.
But then he really tightened my arms.
I struggled some more, but it was no use.
“Okay you fuckin’ pendejo – cedo! Cedo!”
“Good boy. Now I’ll let you up – but I swear Little Brother – you start up again and I’ll aniquilar (annihilate) you!”
That’s exactly what I’d been plannin’ to do, which fact Boston had prior knowing of, but when he pronounced aniquilar with a ‘q’ sound instead of a ‘k’ it just made me laugh, which made me relax all the fight in me. He felt that and let me loose, and I jumped up. He stayed on the floor, leaning back on his straight arms.
“You dumb gringo!” I corrected his Spanish while I straightened up my skewed up clothes, and he did the same while he practised the Spanish word.
He had colour back in his face at least, and he was grinning up at me, his hair falling in his eyes.
“You goin’ to tell Pa ‘bout the bull in the morning?” I asked soft.
He sat up then, sitting Indian style and tugging at the mat’s fringe.
“I told Tarrant I’d get the money to him within two weeks, and he agreed not to come to see Murdoch, or tell anyone that it was I who killed the animal. I think he realized Pa wouldn’t be impressed with him hitting me. Anyway, Pa leaves tomorrow and I have a week to try and borrow the money from Grandfather. Three hundred fucking dollars.”
Whoohee – Scott didn’t hardly ever use cuss words…
“You think he’ll wire it this time?” I knew that the last time Scott had applied to the old sonofabitch, he’d said Scott could have all the money he wanted – as soon as he returned to live in Boston.
“Last time I wanted money it was for drunken brawling damage. I’m hoping this time he’ll be more understanding of my predicament.”
Harlan understanding? I kept my face turned away from Scott so he couldn’t see what I thought of that.
“If he refuses, then when Pa gets back I’ll have to tell him. God!”
Scott was back to feelin’ like hell. Instead of jumping him again, I tousled his hair like he usually did me to annoy me. And he did same as me which was swatted my hand away.
“Don’t worry Boston. If’n your Grandpa don’t send the money, I’ll come up with a plan!”
“Lord help me, and deliver me from little brothers…” Scott had his head back in his hands and was mumbling mournful as I strolled out the door.
Murdoch was off to Sacramento straight after an early breakfast. He had to go on account of a hearing about a piece of our land which was in dispute over who owned it. He’d been boring the pants off me talking about what he expected of me while he was away. He had intended takin’ me and Scott on the trip, but me displeasing him when I got a few scratches on his buggy – well, that was the end of me going anywhere. I wasn’t supposed to even set foot off the damn ranch. And me not going meant that he wanted Scott at home to keep me under the thumb. Under his thumb, Maria’s, Cipriano’s – Dios – under every-fucking-one’s damn thumb.
While I was dressing something had occurred to me. I’d left Lancer a few times in the months since I’d come to live there. A couple of times I’d left in a temper. Once I’d gone to help a friend. Another time to help Scott, when he’d gone away to sort out a problem of his. But this was only the second time Pa had gone away from us. Taking Tansy home had took four days. When he left I’d had all sorts of plans but found I spent all four days feelin’ out of sorts and uneasy, so had ended up seeming to do nothin’ but work or look outta the big window. Real strange.
And now he was heading off for a whole week. Jesus, Sacramento was a long way from Lancer. And he was pretty old to be travelling all that way. And alone. I’d been starving but suddenly I didn’t feel hungry at all.
At breakfast I brought up how he hardly never left the ranch while us two had been back there. He sort of went quiet. I looked to Scott, and he had a small smile on his clock, and a soft look about his eyes.
“Well, Son,” Murdoch cleared his throat, fidgeting with his napkin. “I’m not likely to leave our home and the home of all of our loyal people in the hands of two ne’er-do-wells like you two, am I?”
Out of nowhere my temper flared straight up.
“So, it’s the ranch you’re worried about.” I ground out, though really, I knew better.
Murdoch frowned at me as he carefully placed his napkin on the table.
“You’ll do well to remember, Young Man, that it’s this ranch that puts food in your stomach and clothes on your back.”
“I did those things for myself for a long time Ol’ Man.” Why I chose now to get riled and want to buck, I wasn’t really sure. And Scott kicking my leg wasn’t enough to cool my embers. Neither was the cross mumbling I could hear from Maria over at the stove.
Murdoch rose up to his mile-high height and put his hands on his hips.
“I have a train to catch, otherwise I’d have a lot more to say, John. But what I will make clear is that you had better watch your tone of voice when you talk to me. And when I get back I’ll want to hear that you have been working hard and co-operating with Maria and Cip, and not giving them any sass. Do I make myself clear?”
One minute I’d been equaninimous, like Scott would say, but now suddenly I felt balky as hell. Instead of wishing Murdoch a good trip, I was near to missing a good chance to shut my mouth. Instead I wanted to tell him he should go to the devil. Lucky for me I restrained myself. For a change.
“Yeah, I heard you.”
“Then I expect an answer!” Murdoch’s voice rattled the cups, and I knew better than to push it.
“Yessir. It’s real clear.” I forced the words out, and my guts grinched up at the silence that followed. But after a few seconds, Murdoch did his ‘hrmph’ sound and thanked Maria for the meal and moved out.
Scott scoffed the last of his coffee and him and me trailed out to the front where Jose had the buggy waiting. Scott gave me a shove and asked what was stuck in my gullet, but I just ignored him.
“You’d better get that mutinous look off your face, Young Man” he preached at me, “or our Father will give you something to scowl about!”
I curled my hand into a fist, but Murdoch came out just then, so I wrapped my arms tight around myself and concentrated on kicking at the dust.
He put his big paws on the backs of both our necks, and the warm in his hand calmed my rattled feeling a bit.
“I’ll be back within the week. You two look out for each other.” He said the words firm and gave us a shake before he drew Scott with him towards the buggy, talking quiet to him. He got into the buggy and took up the leads. Jose relaxed back. He knew like we all did that Pa liked to drive himself.
“Have a safe trip, Sir.” Scott spoke out, and then glanced at me.
I felt surly as hell, but I cut a look at Pa and saw he was smiling down at me.
“See ya, Murdoch.” I mumbled it out.
“Boys.” Murdoch kissed to the horse and he and Jose set off, and Scott called ‘see you Pa’ after them, then turned to me.
“What’s got into you?”
It was a question, but he had this smug look on his dial like he knew the answer. Dios, I didn’t know what it was myself.
“What was the Ol’ Man whisperin’ sweet in your ear? How not to trust me with nothin’?”
Scott laughed and put his arm around me, and I tried to shrug him off but he held firm.
“He was just giving me instructions on exactly how you like to be tucked in at night, and what part of your sweet, baby cheek to kiss goodnight.”
“You fuckin’ bast-“
Cip’s voice cracked across us like thunder. I’d drawn back my arm ready to punch Scott but one look over at Cip and I dropped it.
The two of us headed over to hear what crews we would be working with.
I was up to my knees in mud, pushing on the rear end of a heifer as Cholly and I tried to hoist her out of the bog, when the answer to Scott’s bull problem came to me. Scott had gone into town to send a wire to his grandpa, but if the money didn’t come before Murdoch got back, then I knew where to get it.
“Are you crazy? Your plan is to steal the money from our Father?” Scott looked so horrified it was almost funny. Almost…
“It ain’t stealin’ – it’s borrowin’. And Pa wouldn’tve showed us where the emergency money was if he didn’t trust us to use it for an emergency.”
“Yes - emergency Johnny! Such as payroll due and the bank with no funds. Or a disease taking out the entire herd. Not me firing blind and killing a bull!”
“Well you just go right on ahead then, Boston, and you tell Murdoch he’s out of pocket three hundred dollars for your one reckless bullet,” I snapped at him.
That sure gave him pause.
“Well, let’s just say we – that is, I - did borrow the money. How on earth am I to pay it back before he discovers the missing amount?”
He was sitting on the bench in the bath house, waiting for his turn at the tub, which I was in. He was as dirty as me, having cleared a half-eaten goat carcase out of a small creek. We were afraid it was old Senora Estrada’s seeing as she was missing one. She’d be real upset as she loved each one of her animals. If the carcase was pretty little Loma, I didn’t want to be the one to tell her.
I looked over at Boston and couldn’t help but smile.
“Repayin’ the money is the second part of my plan!”
Scott crossed his arms and ankles and groaned as he sort of sunk back against the wall.
“God help me. Okay, I’ll ask. What plan is that?”
I stood up and the water streamed off me. I stepped out of the tub and flung both arms out wide as the water puddled around my feet.
“We go gold mining!”
Scott slapped his hand over his eyes, groaning again. He didn’t have much imagination at all, I thought.
I grabbed a towel and started brisk to dry myself.
“C’mon Boston, I’ve worked it all out. Chinese Charlie told me the Cedar Canyon mine was hardly touched when Murdoch brought Lancer. Charlie said before that he only worked it a few hours a day and he was takin’ out twenty dollars a week. Then the Ol’ Man took over and he told him he don’t hold with mining, so the gold is just sitting there waiting for two bright fellas to help themselves.”
“Murdoch bought Lancer,” Scott smarted at me.
He sat up and threw some clean drawers at me, and finally hoisted himself up and reached into the tub’s murky water to pull the plug. He looked down his hoity-toity nose at me as I pulled on my clean clothes.
“So your brilliant plan involves borrowing money from Murdoch’s secret stash, believing tall tales from Chinese Charlie, working an old gold mine - which incidentally, Murdoch has banned both of us from ever setting foot in – and digging out three hundred dollars of gold in one week. While doing a full day’s work ranching and keeping our activities hidden from everyone on the spread.”
“Yes!” I beamed at him.
“Jesus wept!” Scott had turned the spigot to fill the tub and started stripping off. Now that I was clean and smelling like a flower, Boston’s stink made me take a step back.
“You sure do reek, Brother. Rotted goat and weedy creek – phew!”
Scott got into the tub once he’d emptied a bucket of cold water in there to cool down the heat. He started scrubbin’ right away, using one of the new blocks of Pears soap his great-aunt had started sending after old man Garrett’s visit to us. Garrett mustn’t have liked the yellow soap we had always used. ‘Course, Murdoch ‘wouldn’t have a bar of it’, as Scott quipped. He started ordering boxes of Babbitts Best for us all. I called it ‘The Soap War’.
“Scott we ain’t going to get that money in one week. But we just keep at it until we have replaced the money. Both of us working an hour or more a day and extra on Saturday and Sunday. It ain’t likely Murdoch will go to the stash in the meantime. That’s a gamble we gotta take. But you got any better idea?”
“Johnny, just say we tried our hand at gold mining. What would we need?”
Scott had gone from deridin’ the whole idea to starting to think on it.
“All we need is two pickaxes and a sack to carry the gold in.”
Scott laughed and then disappeared under the water. When he came back up, he shook his head which sent drops flying all over. He did this big sigh and then squinted at me through his wet fringe of hair.
“I must be touched in the head – maybe sunstroke…but I’ll think about it.”
I headed for the door then paused. Before I left I picked up the other bucket of cold water and dumped it over Boston’s head.
That brother of mine sure could cuss when he had a mind to.
It was some strange having supper in the kitchen and Murdoch not there and not expected home that night. We didn’t talk about our plans in front of Maria. She well knew that Murdoch had boarded up the three mines on our land. He said they were all jerry-built and unsafe, and that even the slightest tremor in the valley could bring them down. Any prospectors who drifted across Lancer could try their luck at panning for gold, but he wouldn’t have anyone mining, just like he was real careful about logging. He held that we were there to put into the land, and take only what we could replace, not to destroy. We’d heard all about it months before when Scott had come home one day and said as how he’d come across a mine in Cedar Canyon. Murdoch had gone on a rant about the fools who’d tried to dig gold out with no regard to safety. That’s when he’d told us that we weren’t to ever think about exploring any mine we found. He knew of three and had had them boarded up years ago, but if we came across any others to let him know so’s he could seal them.
So Scott knew that he’d be goin’ against Murdoch’s orders, but he really didn’t want to present Pa with yet another bill to pay caused by his eldest son’s foolishness. Scott was real sensible most of the time, but he was also proud and hard-headed like his Ol’ Man, and if he could he was going to prevent Murdoch finding out about his latest ‘de-bark-el’. And I didn’t blame him one bit which was why I was ready to work like a coolie to help him. And there was always the chance that we would strike it rich and I could get laid every time I could get anywhere near a sportin’ girl. Jesus, within a month I’d be so good in the feathers they’d be wanting to pay me.
Next day was Saturday so the afternoon found us two wrenching off the timbers which covered the mouth of the Cedar Canyon mine. Once when I was thirteen I’d holed up in a mine near Cananea for a few days, but Scott had never been in one before. This one ran about a hundred feet into the hillside, and there was a second passage that led off about halfway in, but it was half caved in and filled with rubble, almost to the top. The supporting timbers that were left in that shaft were no longer upright, but more on the lean. We were going to stick to the main shaft. We lit our lamps and gave that a quick look over. It all looked safe enough to us, and the only animals in there were long-dead, and now just skeletons.
The night before we’d hid our tools and lamps and such in the last room of the annexe of the hacienda. After the morning’s work we’d had our meal and then gathered our supplies and headed out, telling Maria we were off to swim.
Now we broke out our pickaxes and set to work, excited to be on our way to finding our fortune.
By Tuesday night the two of us were so tired we could hardly make it up the stairs to bed. Gold mining was the hardest work either of us had ever done in our lives. At first the mine had felt cool and some like a story book, with the echoes and the shadows and the promises. Within the first two hours of startin’ in we had both stripped to our pants and still were sweatin’ and painin’ and grunting like stuck hogs. Our hair stuck to our heads and we had to keep sipping water to replace all we were losing. The sneakin’ around was wearin’ too, and Cip and Maria were already suspicious.
The worst of it though, was we reckoned we had found only about five fuckin’ dollars. It was dismal.
Neither of us was goin’ to call it quits though. We still hoped that the next strike of the pick would uncover the seam that would make us two wealthy men. But Jesus, it was hard to keep heading to that sonofabitchin’ hot as hades hellhole.
The only benefit I found was I fell asleep almost as soon as I sacked in. I didn’t lie in bed frettin’ for hours about whether Murdoch was out there somewhere, sick or bushwhacked or even…but that particular thought I couldn’t even let cross my mind. And those niggly thoughts got me to pondering how it was for Murdoch all those lost years. How he probably had times when thinkin’ about us unsettled him. ‘Cause I was pretty sure now that he had thought about me and Scott quite a bit. It was surprising to me that even though the Ol’ Man was an annoying fussbudget who griped me constant, that I still wasn’t as happy to be free of him for a week as I’d thought I’d be. I was actually finding it made me feel all athwart.
My smart mouth brother never failed to notice those times and score me about it. He’d accuse me of missing Murdoch which I would quick deny, and he’d laugh and say he could tell by my pouting and sulking that I was, and then I would tell him to get fucked and he would just laugh more. I woulda snotted him one, but Jesus, I was plumb wore out and didn’t have the energy.
Saturday night we had gone to the Estrada’s for supper. Cip’s wife Aletta had put on a spread worthy of the President of Mexico. Like Maria always did she had also put out some much milder dishes for Boston. It was real nice havin’ a meal with their big family and we were treated more like kin than honoured guests, but we felt honoured anyway. After supper Scott and Andres, Platon and Gervaso had all headed for town which left me and Matteo home with all the old people. Both of us was itchin’ to sneak off into town, but that weren’t happenin’. So we stomped down our randiness and played dominoes for a couple of hours. Cip had told Scott that the Patron wished him to come home rather than stay in town, but it was the early hours of the morning before I heard Boston’s footsteps – not too steady footsteps – coming down the passageway, and there was a bit of commotion in his room before all went quiet.
Late Wednesday afternoon we met at the mine and Scott had a friend with him. A big, hairy, dumb and balky friend. The two of them was happy as whores on payday, and kept runnin’ ‘round each other, Scott laughing and acting more like a kid than I’d ever seen him. It made me grin to see them.
“Where’d you find that ugly galoot?” I called to Scott as he hunkered down and the dog jumped all over him, yapping with delight and trying to lick Boston’s face.
Scott got up then and came over, the dog still jumping at him.
“He just turned up where we were working and seemed to think he knew me!”
Scott bent over and scruffed the dog around the head, and we both laughed when it collapsed onto its back wanting its belly rubbed. It was pretty dirty and it’s rusty coloured coat was a tangle, but my brother, who was always wary of any dirt he didn’t have to deal with, didn’t seem fussed .
“I never had a dog Johnny. Always wanted one, but Grandfather wouldn’t have one in the house. Did you?”
I thought back to a pup I’d found in a little village in Mexico. I musta been about eight. I’d looked after that little critter for two weeks and had got real attached. Called him Chirriador (squeak) because of the funny little bark he had. Mama decided we should leave the village with this tonto she’d taken up with and she made me leave the pup behind. I still remembered the pup’s name, but couldn’t remember the name of the man. He left Mama a month later. Typical.
These thoughts grinched me up and I put them away and answered Scott.
“Nah. On the move too much. He sure has taken a shine to you. Whatcha goin’ to call him?”
“Perhaps I’d better wait – see if anyone’s missing him.” He picked up a stick and pitched it and the dog just about fell over his own big feet in its excitement to get after that stick. He brought it back and dropped it at Scott’s feet and I swear I couldn’t tell which of them two was smiling biggest.
Scott turned that big grin on me as he dropped an arm over my shoulders.
“Well, let’s get to it.” We both stopped smiling then as we looked at the mine entrance.
“And tonight, Little Brother, we will purloin some of our Father’s money. The Estrada’s are going into Morro Coyo for a vigil, and so is most of our Mexican workforce. With you as lookout it’s the best opportunity we’ll have to execute our nefarious deed undetected.”
“Come on. Maria’s leaving a cold supper for us and no-one will know what time we get back, so we can work till dark.”
Well, weren’t that just dandy. I was so fuckin’ sick of gold mining I was ready to quit it and tell Murdoch all about Scott and that damn bull and not feel one whit of guilt as I watched Murdoch skin his eldest alive.
But I hoisted up that fuckin’ pickaxe and commenced to mining.
Out the side of the house nearest the kitchen was the coldstore, dug into the slight rise in the earth there. Murdoch said as how he had improved it over the years. Made it bigger and piled more earth on top so that you still only went down three steps when goin’ in. There was a timber portico with a good solid door, and the steps were wide. Ced and me had replaced all of the wooden shelves and they was all heaving with jars and the like that Maria and the women put up every year. Murdoch had taken me and Scott in there one day and showed us where he kept the emergency money. He moved six big jars of pickled cabbage from the third shelf right at the back on the left. Then he removed the false front of one of the rough-hewed stones that lined the store. Behind was a metal ring lodged in the real stone, and he was able to pull that half-block out and reveal a tin-lined cavity holding a tin box. He kept seven hundred dollars in there. The only other people who knew about it were Cip and Maria.
“Should you ever come in to retrieve money, do it openly. Put the money inside your shirt and come out carrying a jar of something. That way if anyone happens to see you it won’t arouse suspicion.”
Yeah, the Ol’ Man could be sneaky when it was called for.
That night, soon as we’d had our cold supper me and Scott moseyed out to the side of the house. I played with the dog while actually keeping a sharp lookout so Boston could go in lookin’ normal. He only took a few minutes to disappear inside the store and come out with a jar of peaches. Soon as he came out the dog abandoned me and our game and launched himself at Scott. The dog caused Scott to drop the peaches, but he grabbed them up just before they hit the ground, laughing and scolding at his new friend.
“Got it?” I asked soft.
Scott just nodded and we headed back to the kitchen and had some peaches with cold custard left over from the pie we’d had the night before. Scott fetched the money out from inside his shirt and counted it out to check. He looked at the pile all glum.
“Don’t tie yourself in a knot, Brother. We’ll have it replaced in no time,” I said. But Scott’s face didn’t change, and we headed for our beds.
We’d had to tie the dog up in the barn, as he was mad to be in the house with Scott, and had gouged the back door when he was tryin’ to get in. Murdoch was goin’ to be in a strop about that. Jesus – the door was the least of our worries of what Murdoch would be angry about if we weren’t careful and he found out…
“El mal entra a brazadas y sale a pulgaradas.” (Mischief comes by the pound and goes away by the ounce.) Cip stood gazing steady down at us two outside the barn.
He had his big, meaty arms folded across his chest, and he was studying us real close. It was all I could do not to squirm, but Scott didn’t understand the Spanish. He still got the dreads just from Cip’s look, and he did his best to not look guilty. Cip had given everyone their orders for the day but told the two of us to stay behind to talk.
He repeated what he said in English, boring into Scott’s eyes as he did. I had to give it to Boston, he settled and threw out a false trail.
“The dog won’t be any trouble” he said, cool as anything.
“Scott, I am not concerned with the perro, and you well know it.”
That made Scott’s face colour up some, but he gave Cip an annoyed glance and asked if we could have our instructions for the day. Cip put one hand up to his face and stroked his chin as he looked off into the distance. Apart from the sound of men and horses and cows, we could hear the dog yowling to be loosed. Cipriano dropped his hands to his hips as he sighed and looked back at us. He gave us our crews for the day, and asked us to join the family for supper. I think he could see that sayin’ we would be there, while keeping our secret from him, unsettled us both. And that was what he intended it to do. As we skulked off to untie the dog, Scott said how all of this sub-ter-foosh was very disturbing, and I said I agreed, but that all of the sneaking around was even worse.
When we met at Cedar Canyon after work, Boston told me he’d feigned a belly-ache and left his job herding the yearlings for the whole afternoon. He’d ridden over to Tarrant’s spread and paid him what he owed. Tarrant had been gruff, but he had apologized for belting Scott one.
“I should have left that for your father to do.” he’d said.
When Scott told him that he preferred that Murdoch not know any of ‘what had transpired’, Tarrant had been a bit relieved, not really wanting his fellow-rancher to know he’d laid hands on his first-born. He had grunted out a remark about ‘rich city boys’ though, and that had sure rankled with Scott. It being the case that so far he hadn’t had a wire from his Grandfather. He’d left word with Mr Helbert at the office that he would pay for any wire to be delivered to the ranch.
While we worked our insides out in the mine, Scott’s dog ran around like a mad thing. He’d bring sticks in to Scott constant, and go crazy when Scott would go to the mouth of the mine and chuck them. He went off deep into the cave and came back with a dead ground squirrel which he laid at Scott’s feet like the best gift in the world. He at least broke up the grind of hard labour for us. Our two hours of work brought us something else that day – a few tiny nuggets along a short seam. We reckoned on it amounting to ten dollars. So our nearly twenty hours of hard graft that week had earned us about fifteen dollars. Fucking great.
After supper Scott dredged up the energy to give his dog a bath. They both ended up soaked, but they both enjoyed the rough and tumble as Scott tried to keep the excited critter in the tub. We were in the courtyard, and by the time the dog was clean there was water and suds everywhere. After towelling the dog off Boston used a curry comb to untangle his coat. He sure looked a hell of a lot better, and smelled better too.
Scott ran his hands over the gleaming red coat.
“I’ll call him Rusty.”
Soon as Maria went home after supper, Scott went and got Rusty from the barn, and that night the dog slept in Scott’s room.
He sure wouldn’t be doin’ that when Pa got home. He’d told us of the old days when a farmer and his family and their animals would all sleep in the same cottage - a bothy he called it - to keep all of them warm in winter. But when I’d had a three-day old orphan calf sleep in my bedroom one cold night he’d pitched a fit.
“People in the house! Animals in the barn!” he’d yelled.
And then when I was sound asleep with the calf in the barn the next night he’d dragged me inside by the scruff of my neck, yellin’ all the way. Me yelling right back at him got me nothin’ but a couple of whacks to go on with. He was a cantankerous old bastard sometimes.
Friday morning found us trying to eat breakfast with Maria’s eyes boring into us.
“You both eat everything I put in front of you – but you are both starting to look thin. And you are both more tired than you should be.”
We kept our eyes on our food, but from the corner of my eye I could see Maria had her hands on her hips. One foot was tappin’ the tiles, sounding real impatient.
“Juanito, you have not done your lessons even one night since your Papa left. He will not be pleased.”
Dios, that was another wrong to add to our list. I hunkered down over my plate.
“Well, your Papa will be home in two days . Sea cual sea tu tontería, se descubrirá.” (Whatever your foolishness is, it will be discovered)
Both of us looked up then, and Maria’s eyes narrowed as she saw our worry. She snorted and tossed her head and then very brisk walked over to the coffee pot, coming back to fill our cups. I’d whispered the translation for Scott, who looked grim.
Martino had been into town the day before for supplies and had brought back two wires. One from Murdoch sayin’ he’d be home around lunchtime Sunday. Like all Murdoch’s wires, it was short and to the point. He didn’t believe in wasting money. The second wire, from Garrett for Scott, was a lot longer. Harlan had given Scott a mouthful about choosing to live in an uncivilized and dangerous outpost, and as much as he would like to help he felt that Scotty’s character would benefit more from admitting his reprehensible action to his Father. He hoped that Murdoch would not react harshly, but as the man seemed to have an inordinate regard for livestock, quite disproportionate to his regard for his fellows, and perhaps, even his family, then he was not hopeful. Should Scotty feel that the infernal bull caused a rift between Father and Son, then naturally he would be welcomed home to the bosom of his real family. He finished with how of course he ‘hoped Murdoch and your Mexican half-brother keep robust health’.
The wire was written in English, but Scott had had to translate it for me as I could hardly make head nor tail of it.
“He’s hoping Murdoch will pound me to dust and I’ll be so upset I’ll run home to him.” Scott’s voice was a mix of bitter and amused.
“Jesus, Scott – he won’t write and tell Murdoch will he?”
Scott had looked at me with shock on his face. Neither of us would put it past the old bastard to do just that. Everything and everyone seemed to be against us.
Saturday mornin’ we did our assigned tasks and after lunch headed for the barn to saddle up. Cip accosted us and said as we were heading off to Moro Lake, for yet another swim, we could drive the wagon there and unload some fence posts for Monday’s crew to get a jump on the job. He watched us close to see if we’d buck.
“Certainly,” said Scott, calm as you please.
What we did though, was hitched our mounts to the wagon and once out of sight of the homestead we split up. I mounted Pancho and headed for the mine while Boston went to dump the posts and then head for Cedar Canyon. At a convenient spot he’d leave the wagon and set the horses to grazing before he rode to join me. That way we could come back to the wagon later and return together and no-one the wiser.
That was the plan.
Later, as he mounted Kirkland, ready to travel to join me, the ground started to heave. The quake was bigger than any we’d had since we’d lived at Lancer. Scott had his hands full staying on Kirk and trying to stop the scared horse throwing himself all over the shop. The tremor seemed to go on forever. And Boston’s stomach fell to his boots at the thought of me in the mine. He told me later that he nearly passed out with the fear of me under a ton of rock, dead. Or even worse, alive, but trapped and alone and not able to be rescued. He knew there was only one sensible thing to do.
He raced back to the ranch like the hounds of hell were after him. Once there he alerted Cip and begged him to take every available man to the mine, every one of them carrying tools. Then he nearly killed his horse riding to me.
I was cursing a blue streak as I tried to dislodge my pickaxe which was buried deep in the wall of the mine. I had just placed my right foot against the wall, all set to heave back with my full body weight, when the quake started. I fell right on my backside but was up and outta that place in three seconds flat.
The sky was full of birds, all creating a racket, and if Pancho hadn’t been hobbled he would’ve shown me his heels. He was whinnying and trembling, skittish as hell. I went to him and did my best to soothe him while riding out the earthquake. It sure seemed to take forever to be over. I kept stroking Pancho, talkin’ soft, for a coon’s age. The birds were still all voicing their disapproval of nature interruptin’ their nice day. I didn’t want to go back in the mineshaft just yet, so it was a good opportunity to tend to the grub I had cooking. I’d shot a rabbit on the way to the mine and had him cooking slow over some hot coals. Working so hard we’d found we got hungry as well as thirsty, and roasted rabbit was a hell of lot better than the jerky or cold biscuits we usually topped up on out there.
After checking the cooking, I’d had a drink of warm water outta my canteen. I went and stood at the mouth of the mine and watched and listened. I lit one of the lanterns and stepped in. I was real cautious. Every few steps I’d stop, looking around careful. The uprights didn’t seem to have moved an inch, and the beams overhead still looked solid to me. I was wary of an aftershock though, so in the end I headed out, deciding to wait till Boston arrived. I had had a bellyful of blasted mining anyway, and the quake was the last straw. When Scott arrived I was thinkin’ of telling him we should say to hell with it. Dios, I’d rather rob a bank than keep up working all day on the range and then hours more in this fruitless search for gold. Maria and Cip were onto us and I knew once Murdoch got home next day he would find out quicksmart like he found out every fuckin’ thing we tried to get away with.
I was sittin’ there bastin’ the rabbit and feeling all gloomin’ when I heard pounding hoofbeats and I rose up with my hand hovering over my Colt. I saw it was Scott, and when he was close enough for me to see his face – and the shocking lather Kirk was in – I realized why he looked all dreaded.
He was off his horse before it had come to a stop and he grabbed me by both arms and I thought for a second he was goin’ to bust out bawling. His face was working a mile a minute and we was both struck dumb.
Then he squawked out a ‘damnitalltohellsweetjesusohgodJohnny’ or some such, took hold of my head, and planted a kiss right on my forehead!
I was too rattled to say a word as he pulled back but kept hold of me, his silly clock plastered with a smile big enough to beat the band. I was about to say something when Rusty came roaring into the campsite barking like a fiend. He threw himself at the two of us and sent us reeling.
“He’s not planning to kiss me too, is he Brother?” I laughed, couldn’t help it. Scott pushed the mad hound down and wrapped his arm around my shoulders.
“If he wants to I intend letting him. I might kiss you again, Baby Brother! Jesus, Johnny, I was scared witless! Imagine having to tell Murdoch about you shooting the bull and stealing his money, and goldmining and then getting yourself killed before you found any gold and before he had the satisfaction of killing you himself. How it would have grieved me to reveal all of that to him!”
I hooked my foot behind Scott’s legs and swept his feet out from under him, but he took me with him and we rolled around tussling, with Rusty yapping and jumping all over us.
“Yeah! You woulda done that too, wouldn’t ya! Ya damn, lying, viperous, fuckin’ foop!”
“The word is ‘fop’, Brother – fop!”
We laughed and wrestled and fought off the dog until we collapsed back in the dirt, both of us winded.
Soon as our breathing returned to normal, Scott spoke again, real quiet.
“I never want to be that scared again, John.”
I turned my head just enough to look at him. The mutt had his big head on Scott’s chest, enjoying Scott tugging on his ears. Scott was looking at the dog, not at me.
I thunked Boston on the head and then sat up.
“Well, I ran outta that mine like devils were on my tail. Seems the shaft didn’t move an inch anyway. So, everything turned out fine for a change. I guess you want us to go back in?”
I hoped like hell that he would say we should quit. What I wasn’t expecting was for him to suddenly sit up and drop his face in his hands and start groaning. I was worried he had broken from the worry that I was dead, and that he had started to weeping. I hovered my hand at his neck, wondering if I should give him a pat and start to hushing him. Before I could he looked up at me and I saw he wasn’t crying.
“Johnny, I was…worried, about you, about a collapse…”
“Get it said!”
He took in another deep breath, and then he glanced back the way he had ridden in.
“I told Cip where you were and he’s bringing every man he can out here to save you.”
I looked at him and the horror on my face sure must’ve showed.
Now I collapsed down with my head in my hands.
“They’ll be here any minute.”
I ignored him and just sat there.
Scott put his hand on my shoulder, and for a moment I thought he was going to start hushing me. But he grabbed my arm and hauled me to my feet.
“I’ll just take Kirk to the spring and then I’ll go in and get our gold. You collect the tools.” He sounded real beat down.
I did what he said. He was back in no time and he went towards the back of the tunnel where we had our takings stashed on a hewed out shelf high-up. Rusty of course didn’t want Scott outta his sight, and he tore past me and ahead of his master. Scott was rousing on him to get back out, but of course that dumb hound wasn’t listening even as little as I did when Murdoch was lecturing me.
“Johnny, show him a stick and throw it outside would you please.”
My arms were full of tools, but I dropped them and reached for a hefty stick which was near the wall. It was all crusted. I called Rusty and held it towards him and even in the gloom I could see his eyes light up. I headed to the mouth of the shaft and pitched the stick and he went ripping along out there. As the stick left my hand though, it somehow doubled its length, and as it arced through the air I realized that it weren’t no ordinary stick. No, no, nooo – it was a stick of dynamite, and it had doubled in length on account of the long wick attached to it.
I started screaming at Rusty for him to leave it, to come back, anything but pick up that explosive. But it no sooner landed than he pounced on it and started back.
I shoulda run straight for him, but I was in shock, and Boston was yelling about what the devil was going on, and then when I roared to Rusty to stop he actually did, which shocked me more.
Now after all the blasted things that had gone wrong in the week Pa had been away, anyone woulda thought that nothin’ else bad could possibly happen. But I’d had such a life so far that I knew that something bad extra could always be relied on. And it was happening right then.
Rusty had stopped and was wagging his tail so hard his whole hind quarters were rocking. He wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to do, so he looked puzzled and stood there. Right next to the campfire. With the fuse resting on those hot coals. With the fuse lighting up. Which he suddenly noticed and decided to get away from, not knowing that that fuse was attached to the fuckin’ stick in his mouth. And because Scott appeared a few feet behind me then Rusty knew exactly who to head for.
Everything happened like a blur.
I screamed at Scott that the dog had a lit stick of dynamite in his jaws.
Scott saw it was a fact and roared at Rusty to ‘DROP IT! DROP IT!’
We backed double time further back into the mine.
Rusty hesitated in the mouth of the mine, looking at Scott all confused. It finally penetrated his thick skull what Scott was still yellin’, so he dropped that stick with the fuse almost to firing point. Scott and me turned tail and ran for our lives away from the entrance, and that fool animal barked with excitement at the new game of chasey. We heard his excited yapping as he followed hot on our heels. We both looked back, terrified, wondering if he’d picked up his ‘stick’, but just as we noticed he hadn’t, the dynamite exploded and the backdraft of that sent me and Scott and the stupid mutt through the air to land in thudding heaps on the ground. We heard the crashing of rocks behind us, the torches had blown out, and the air was full of dust.
We were choking.
I opened my eyes but it was black as pitch. I felt panic rising from my gut and I tried to block everything out, squeezing my eyes shut. Father Alonsio was gripping my arm as he shoved me into the closet, telling me I was a wicked boy and the devil was waiting for me in the dark. I tried to stop the tears from welling and I choked back my fear. He shut me in and I started to beat on the wood. But just as the full-blown panic nearly took me I heard a kind voice saying my name. It was Scott, and he was kissing me again. Only he sure was a hellacious sloppy kisser so I pulled away. ‘Course, it wasn’t Scott – it was that damn dog, and I pushed him off as I sat up, still coughing.
A match flared in the dark, and Scott’s filthy and worried face showed in its glow.
“Johnny – are you hurt?” he coughed out.
I had to think about it.
“No, don’t feel nothin’. You?”
“No. Let’s get to clearer air.” The match expired and we were plunged into darkness again.
The three of us felt our way along the wall, going deeper into the shaft, coughin’ our lungs up.
“Ahhh!” Scott sounded pleased.
“What is it?”
He struck another match and a torch flared up. We saw we were at the entrance to the secondary tunnel. We moved on past it and further along and the dust was finally settling. We were now far enough back for the air to be clearer.
We both stood there, both of us quiet, looking back the way we had come. It seemed like an hour before Scott coughed and spat to the side, and cleared his throat to talk.
“There should be about thirty men out there by now, all carrying the tools to dig us out.”
God knows how much of the mine was caved in between us and them. I didn’t say nothin’, ‘cause Scott well knew it.
Rusty was the only one who was happy. He was sniffing around and pleased just to be with us.
“It’s going to take a while, Little Brother. We may as well get comfortable.”
I just stood there, my hands on my hips. I’d thought for a long time I’d punch my ticket in a gunfight, or backshot by some weasel. Being at Lancer had started to change my thoughts some.
“Boston, I never was much good at pretendin’.”
Scott grabbed my sleeve and pulled me close.
“It’s going to take time. It might well be a couple of days. Cip will bring in more men. We have enough air for days, as long as we keep quiet. We’re going to get thirsty – but we will get out of here.”
I couldn’t look at him. I went and sat with my back to the wall, drew my knees up and wrapped my arms tight around myself. Scott dropped down next to me, and Rusty curled up close to him.
“I’m going to extinguish the torch. Fire uses up air. I’ve got plenty of matches, so we’ll only light it when…when we want to.”
In the dark the sound of our breathing and the dog’s breathing sounded very loud. We couldn’t hear anything else. We sure couldn’t hear the sound of digging. When Scott’s breathing changed I straight away put a hand out and squeezed his arm.
“What is it?” My voice sounded harsh in that place.
Scott’s voice came out strange.
“This is all my fault.”
“You’re talking horse-shit, you know that? Whose idea was it to mine?”
“I should have put a stop to that idea as soon as it was out of your mouth. I should have told Murdoch what I’d done, instead of sneaking around like a snivelling schoolboy.” Scott’s voice was hard.
“Well, Boston, when we get outta here you won’t have to sneak around no more, ‘cause everyone knows now what we been doin’. And Pa is goin’ to treat you like a schoolboy – I got no doubt about that. So when he’s finished with you you’ll sure be snivellin’! So best you just shut your gob and enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasts. Now I’m going to have me a siesta. All this work and all this excitement has plumb tired me out. And if I’m asleep I won’t be thinking about how starved I am and about that roast rabbit out there. And how I wish your fuckin’ dog was braided on that spit!”
To my relief, Scott snorted. And I was just talkin’ about sleepin’, not thinking I possibly could, but to my surprise I found myself drifting off.
Movement roused me. I kept still while I figgered out where I was. I remembered, and that was a bastard of a thing to wake up thinking about. I wasn’t sitting up now, but lying on my side, and my head was on something nice and comfy. It was Boston’s leg, and his hand was on my head and he was talking gentle. I was mortified down to my boots when I realized I’d been crying in my sleep, and his pants were wet under my cheek. Goddamn it, I sleeved off my face as I jerked back up to sitting. I was thankful it was dark.
The dead quiet was broken by a hiccup I tried to turn into a cough, and by all this thumping which was getting louder.
“Jesus, what’s that noise?” It sounded like a herd of cattle heading for us.
“It’s Rusty. He disappeared while you were asleep.”
Sure enough, that dumb critter found us and started trying to lick our faces while we did our best to fend him off.
Scott realized it first.
“Johnny! That’s not slobber – it’s cold. It’s water!”
“It can’t be! There ain’t no water at all in this mine.”
Most underground places had some sort of seepage, but we’d not found any at all in this one. There was a good spring close by, but that was outside and at a lower level than the shaft.
“What about that side shaft?”
“Nah, it looked real dry when I looked in there.”
“But maybe it pools somewhere in there? Where you couldn’t see? We should check.”
We lit the torch and trundled back to the off-shoot tunnel and held the light towards it. It was filled with rubble over halfway to the ceiling, and the only two uprights seemed to be barely holding up the roof. There was no telling if there was water gathered where we couldn’t see it, unless we crawled in. We looked at each other. As one, we looked towards the solid wall of rubble blocking our tunnel’s entrance.
“I’m goin’ in.”
“No. I am.” Scott had this determined look on his stubborn face.
I was about to argue when Rusty surprised us by jumping up on the ledge that ran up and into the roof above us. He wasted no time stumbling through the narrow entrance about shoulder height to us, and then he started picking his way across the rubble. Half way across, he stopped and looked back at us. The look asked quite clear were we coming. Scott hoisted himself up and started through, and that was enough. Rusty barked happily at him, jumped onto a large shelf of stones…and disappeared.
Not half an hour later Scott had crawled and clambered up a short and steep angled air course and was pushing aside thick sagebrush so he could stand out in the beautiful fresh air. He reached down and hauled me up out of that mine and we fought our way clear of the brush and then stood there looking around and looking at each other, pretty much shocked to be alive. I thought maybe we should be jumping for joy, hallooing and such, but we were both meeked down to nubbins. We had been trapped underground and finished, more than likely, and now here we were - free.
Scott was filthy from head to foot, and I looked down to see I also was. The only clean part of Boston was where my tears had cleaned a patch on his knee. Embarrassing as hell.
A loud voice and the crack of a pickaxe on stone cut through the evening air. We were well round the side from the mine entrance, and quite high, so the sound had travelled. Scott cut a quick look at me and then we both made our way as fast as the brush would let us, and five minutes later we rounded the crown of the hill. Spread before us were about forty Lancer hands. They were working like devils to dig us out. About ten men were hard at it in close, and the rest were hauling all the dislodged dirt and stones and rocks away from the dig.
I was in a fair way to choking, so big was the torment in my gullet. I saw Cip right in the middle of the diggers, and he was going hell for leather. My mouth and throat were now so dry that I couldn’t have called out, and I guess Boston was the same. We didn’t havta though, because Rusty set himself down at Scott’s feet and let out an ungodly howl that made the hair on my neck stand up.
Jose had just taken a hefty looking rock up in his arms. As he did he looked up to see where Rusty was, and he saw us. He stared for what seemed a long time before the rock dropped from his hands. It musta caught his toe because he started jumping and grabbing at his foot while trying to point up at us. Others looked up then, and same thing, they sort of appeared stunned, and then there was a lot of yelling and all the men at the coalface stopped working and listened. Every face down there turned up to us. All I could see was Cip. His arms went slack and the shovel fell from his hands. While the men around him all eased away, wiping their sweaty faces or folding their arms, Cip sort of sunk back against the tumbled rocks. He crossed himself.
Scott and me looked at each other, and then quickly averted our faces. He started forward, and I followed him down the rough slope, Rusty dancing around us like we were all at a social.
The men murmured our names and a couple patted us as we passed them.
Ced, who had been working too – was the first to speak.
“You boys awright?”
When we nodded he nodded right back.
“You were in there? In the mine? You were, weren’tcha?”
Scott just nodded, as he kept his eyes on Cip, but I answered and my sonofabitchin’ voice chose then to crack like a girl’s.
“We were in there, Ced, but the dog found a way out and we just got free.”
Ced dropped his hand on my shoulder and gave it a hard press and a shake.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph…” was all he said.
Cipriano’s voice rang out.
“Mi compadres, you all worked harder than anyone could expect and I know the Paton will never forget your efforts. I will never forget your efforts. Please make your way home. Rest, eat. Burke, please wait at the spring. I want you to ride home with the boys.”
Martino came to us and handed us canteens and we drank them just about dry. I tipped what was left over my head and so did Boston.
The men had all started moving off, with soft ‘see ya’s’ and gentle pats to our arms or backs. Cipriano didn’t move, and I started to feel real uneasy. And weren’t that a kick after all we’d just been through. I wanted nothin’ more than to scarper off with everyone else, but damn if Boston didn’t slowly walk over to stand near Cip. Well, I couldn’t be less brave than my city bred Brother, so I walked even slower over to them.
I kept Scott between me and Cip though.
Us three stood there in silence, watching the men disappear round the bend to where the spring was. When Cip spoke I flinched, even though he hadn’t raised his voice.
“Scott. You have both been working the mine all this week.” It wasn’t even a question.
Scott nodded, but he dropped his eyes to his boots.
The tension that was pressing on us so’s I could hardly breathe, was all at once pierced by hard words from Cipriano.
“Scott – come with me.” He spun on his heel and went barrellin’ off towards the scrubby trees nearby.
I was shocked down to the soles of my feet.
“Hey! Now just hold on a minute there-“
That was all I got out before Cip turned on me and thundered as loud as Murdoch ever had.
“Juanito do not say one more word! Get to the spring and see to our horses. Scott’s horse cannot be ridden – probably for a week! You two will ride home double. Now, I intend dealing with your hermano and you would do well to keep out of my reach. You…you…you, my fine young friend, I will leave to your Papa. Now do as you are told! Andale!”
I’d never seen him so angry, and man, I had seen him plenty angry other times. I was worried for Scott, but he caught my eye and indicated with his head that I was to go. After all the preceding events this was probably not hardly worth a fret, but as Scott turned and followed Cip my innards fell to twisting like a rattler was in there.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph was right.
When I’d got to the spring the men were all mounting and moving out. They were all getting over thinking us two were dead, and then having us appear out of nowhere, not needful of their frantic efforts. Poor old Kirkland was worse off than any of us. Ced was using a bunch of dried grass to rub him down. I was tightening the cinch on Pancho, and couldn’t help but keep looking back towards where Scott and Cip still were. All I could hear was Rusty’s frantic barking.
“You listen to me Boy. If I know Cip, your brother is gettin’ ‘zackly what he deserves.” Ced didn’t even look over at me as he spoke. “Cip, hell, every one of us woulda kept diggin’ till kingdom come, even though we thought it was useless. But Cip, weeell, the way he feels about your daddy, and what all he’s seen your daddy suffer with the losin’ of you two… How do you think he was feelin’ that you two caper-witted skitters had got yourselves killed? And killed doin’ ‘zackly what you’ve been told not to, and doing it under Cip’s nose when the Boss has trusted him to take care of ya?”
Kirk was trembling some. Hell, I felt trembly myself. Ced stroked him long and firm down his neck, tellin’ him he was going to be ‘jest fine’. Ced threw away the bunch of grass and went over and hauled himself up on to his mount. The two of them drew up next to me. Ced gave me a small shove with his foot.
“Ced, it weren’t just Scott’s fault, all this.”
“Course it ain’t, and you’ll get your share of the skinnin’ soon enough. But Scott’s older ‘n you, so he’s gettin’ his wages paid first.”
He turned towards home and set off.
On the ride home Scott said he was glad to be alive, and even more glad that I was alive, so that Murdoch wasn’t coming home to bury, or rather, to mourn his already buried sons. So, a hiding from Cipriano was hardly worth mentioning. He sure was downcast though, because the tongue lashing he’d got was worse than any harm Cip’s belt could do. Murdoch might’ve decided Boston was too old to whup, but Cip either didn’t know that or didn’t give one good goddamn. Or maybe he did know and that’s exactly why he did it.
I’d lengthened my stirrups to accommodate Boston’s long legs so he could have the more comfortable ride. We still stopped every half hour so he could hop off and rest his ass. Burke ambled along in the lead, stopping when we did. He was leading Kirkland. None of us was in any mood for talking.
When we got back Cip was waiting and he took Pancho and Kirk and indicated we should both go straight over to where Maria was waiting. She now knew that Scott had been trapped, not just me, and she was bawling bad. Even though we was both filthy she grabbed us to her and the bawling got worse. She had my head pulled tight against her neck and her head buried in Boston’s chest, an arm around his waist. I couldn’t stop the tears flowing and was shamed by them and by worrying Maria so. When the storm was over she pushed us both out to arm’s-length and hitched out for us ‘Tonto, desobediente chicos’ (foolish, disobedient boys) to get to the wash-house. I kept my head down, sneakily sleevin’ off my face so no-one could see how unmanly I was bein’.
“You go Johnny, I just want to see that Kirkland is eating.” Boston’s voice was real subdued.
That suited me. Soon as I shut the wash-house door behind me I slid down it and drew my knees up and buried my head in my arms and cried like a damn fool kid.
I was close to sobbing again that night, as Father Alonsio shoved me into that dark closet. Once again, through my own hollering I heard Scott’s soothing voice, and I stopped yellin’ and strugglin’ and fell into peaceful sleep.
When I woke in the morning I could hear soft snoring. I opened my eyes to the sight of Scott’s hairy calves a foot from my head. He was sleeping sound – on his belly, which didn’t surprise me – stretched out with his head near the foot of my bed. I turned over and went back to sleep. Today Murdoch was comin’ home and I wasn’t ready to be awake and thinkin’ about that.
“My study. Now.”
Scott and me knew when Cip didn’t go into church in Morro Coyo that he was plannin’ to collect Murdoch himself. So we knew that Murdoch would look like thunder when they arrived home and he stepped down from the buggy.
We were right.
The two of us made our way to the study and I dropped into one of the chairs in front of the big desk. Scott stood by the window, his arms folded and his face a study of misery. The study smelled like Murdoch – pipe tobacco, soap, leather.
We could hear Maria greeting Pa, and the thuds as he and Cip dropped Pa’s bags at the bottom of the back staircase. Then the footsteps died away. I guessed Pa was heading straight for his drinks tray to have a belt of his beloved Glenlivit. Maybe more than one.
When his stomping steps came in our direction, me and Scott looked at each other. Murdoch came through the door which he slammed behind him. He was roughly pulling off his string tie. He tossed it on the desk he’d lit behind.
“Sit down, Scott,” he ground out.
“If you don’t mind, Sir, I’d rather stand.” Scott’s voice was quiet.
“I’m sure you would. But I asked you to sit and you’ll damn well do as you’re told!”
Scott sat. I skun my eyes sideways and was impressed when he didn’t hardly even wince. Murdoch’s face was already turnin’ red. He planted his hands on his hips and withered us both with his glare.
“One week. I was only gone one week. What in hell possessed you two to completely ignore my express instructions that you were never to set foot in any mine on Lancer? Didn’t I make it clear why? Scott, not a year out of the East, and you think you know more about the stability of Californian mineshafts than I do?”
Scott raised his head to speak but didn’t get one word out before Murdoch kept up his blast.
“I can’t believe that you two thran clot-heids (stubborn idiots) still have not got it into your thick heads that I just don’t talk to hear myself speak! That you would countenance such a risky endeavour, that you would risk both of your lives for the hope of a few grains of gold! Even if you’d found a fortune – you came within an angel’s wing of dying in there! Have you the least idea what you put everyone here through?! Maria’s still a complete mess. Scott you needn’t think for one minute that I disapprove of what Cipriano did to you – if I’d been there I swear you would not be able to sit in that chair, eighteen or not.”
Pa’d drawn breath as he leaned forward to rest his fists on his desk, so I jumped in.
“Weren’t Scott’s idea, Murdoch -“ was all I got out.
“I don’t care whose idea it was! When I think –“
That’s when he stopped yellin’ and suddenly sat down and ran his hand over his face. A trembly hand. Scott musta seen it too, ‘cause he spoke up very determined.
“Murdoch, please hear me out. I have behaved appallingly – I can’t believe it myself, and there’s nothing you can say that I haven’t told myself these last twelve hours. I’m ready to take whatever you decide is my due, and believe me I won’t breathe one word of complaint.”
Scott did his own runnin’ of his hand down his face. Till now he’d done all his speakin’ looking down at his fists resting on his knees. Now he looked straight at Murdoch.
“Sir, I’m afraid there is more I need to tell you.”
I looked at Scott, and then swift at Murdoch. He’d been leaning back in his chair. Now he closed his eyes and then opened ‘em as he sat forward, looking at his first-born like he was thinking, ‘oh hell, God save me’.
“Well, go on,” he said quietly.
Scott definitely gulped. I heard it.
“Well, S- er, Pa, I tried to find gold to replace money I took from your emergency stash.”
I looked at Pa expectin’ him to surge up outta his chair hollerin’ like a Commanch. But he sat there calm, his eyes fixed on Boston. His next words though, had a real hard edge to them.
“And just why, in God’s name, did you need to avail yourself of money from that stash? Please enlighten me as to what emergency had arisen?”
“The day before you left I took a shot at what I thought was a bobcat. It was Cyrus Tarrant’s bull. I killed it.”
Jesus! It was all I could do not to light a shuck for parts unknown. I stopped breathing and couldn’t look up. I suddenly needed to use the jake real bad. I waited for the ruckus to start. For Murdoch to start bellowin’ and maybe come round and start walloping Scott or maybe backhand him right across the room. There was no sound though, only the sound of my own harsh breathin’. I chanced a look up and Murdoch had leaned back in his chair and was just shaking his head. I glanced at Scott and he was some wide-eyed too, wondering where the yellin’ and beatin’ was.
“Scott – John, just what sort of a man do you two think I am?”
Well, that sure wasn’t what we had expected to hear. We were both gawkin’ at him, very purr-plexed you could say, and he was looking from one of us to the other, a frown in his eyes. When we didn’t answer he heaved a big sigh and spoke again.
“Do you think I’m so harsh, so unforgiving, that I won’t accept that you will both make mistakes as you grow up? And make mistakes even when you’re grown – when you are men? Do you think I don’t make mistakes, and so can’t accept them in you two?”
I guess I did sorta think that very thing, and maybe Scott did a bit too.
“I made a mistake with the filing of the papers on the land I’ve just been to court about. So the decision went against me and we’ve lost that thousand acres.” Murdoch rubbed his hand across his mouth.
Murdoch had lost land? A whole thousand acres? Jesus, if I’d known that I would have hid in the attic until he’d finished killin’ my brother. Not faced him bravely like I was doin’. But seemed even the loss of land had not made him in a murderin’ frame of mind with us troublesome sons.
Although I knew I was still in for a reckoning. My stomach that had eased up a bit went dauncy again.
“Scott if you’d come to me and told me about that infernal bull, I’d have given you a hell of a blast, but I’ve done that before. Why did you not come to me? Surely you’re not afraid of me?”
“No Sir, I’m not afraid of you.”
I didn’t believe that for a second, and I hoped Pa wasn’t goin’ to ask me. He sure scared me sometimes. Before Murdoch could say anything else though, Scott spoke up.
“Murdoch, I-I…that is, I didn’t want to disappoint you. I’ve got into quite a few…predicaments since I’ve been here. I seem to be always causing you…a deal of worry, and…and money. I wanted to avoid doing that again.”
“AND HOW WELL DID YOU MANAGE THAT?” Pa just about raised the rafters with his reply, and me and Scott both flinched.
Well, when he put it like that, weren’t it the truth.
Later that evenin’me and Scott draggled over to the Estrada house and both of us begged Cip’s pardon. He listened to both of us, standing there with his arms folded, his pipe in his mouth and a steely glint in his eye. He sure took his time considering our words before he said we were pardoned, and asked had we also apologized to Maria, and to the hands. Which we did next, to the hands who were in the bunkhouse, thanking them for what they’d done – or, at least, thought they were doin. They all just nodded and shuffled about, kind of like I was doing the whole time I was in there. Martino put the spurs in though, just as we turned to leave.
“Scott, Juanito – you want to sit down and play some cards? Or perhaps stand up and play some cards?”
Everyone laughed, and laughed louder when I mouthed ‘Fuck you’ to Martino. They all knew what Cip had done to Scott the day before, and what Murdoch had done to me when we’d visited the barn, right after he’d given us both a very loud and angry lecture to conclude our meeting in the study. Jesus, he’d laid that strap across my backside about five hundred times, and I was hurtin’ like the devil.
We got outta the bunkhouse with the hand’s laughin’ ringing in our ears, both of us sore and sorry and cut right down to size knowing that everyone on the estancia knew what our comeuppance had been. And knowin’ how ‘the Mexican telegraph’ worked, every other estancia in the San Joaquin would eventually know too.
We neither of us could quite believe that we didn’t have extra chores to help pay for that sonofabitchin’ bull.
“Did you deliberately shoot the bull?” Pa had questioned Scott.
“No, of course not, Sir.”
“Then it was a mistake. A damn costly one – but a mistake all the same. What the two of you will pay for though, is the tools and lanterns destroyed in that mine.”
After supper, which we took in our rooms, we ended up in the courtyard when we heard the excited yipping of Rusty. We went down there to find Murdoch holding a stick above his head and Rusty turning himself inside out trying to jump high enough to grab it. Murdoch had his pipe in his mouth, so his grin was a bit skewed. He pitched the stick and the mutt ran for it like a crazy thing, raising dust as he skidded across the ground. We were surprised when he brought the stick back to Murdoch instead of bypassing him to give it to Scott.
Murdoch pitched it again. He took the pipe outta his mouth and glanced at us two. Scott was leaning against the seat under the tree, and I was standing with both hands on the back of a chair.
“You two are very quiet. My Granny would say ‘there’s nowt like a skelped dowp to make a weetchil look crabbit’.”
Me and Scott didn’t ask him what his Granny meant as we could both pretty much figger that he was remarkin’ on our hurtin’ backends making us look grumpy.
Rusty rushed back and Murdoch hunkered down and drew something out of his pocket which the dog ate up with delight.
“So you are the hero I have to thank for saving these two scoundrels, eh laddy? You’ve got a bit of Irish setter in you I think.” He was petting Rusty and the dog was in heaven.
After our trimmin’ down in the study, and before Pa had marched me out to the barn, Scott had told Murdoch the whole sorry tale of the dog and the dynamite. When Boston said that we would not have been in danger from the mine, it only collapsed because of the dog, Murdoch had cut him down straight off. He pointed out that the dog wouldn’tve been there if we hadn’t, and we could not have been trapped if we weren’t there where we were not supposed to be in the first place. And if Scott still believed that he knew more about the safety of our mines, then he was invited to join us in the barn where Pa would see to it that he changed his mind very quickly. Scott went real red and said that no sir, he had not meant to imply that he disagreed with Pa’s judgement of how dangerous the mines all were. Even though I knew full well that my ornery brother couldn’t help himself from implyin’ exactly that, just as much as he dared. Yeah, proud and stubborn to the end.
Now we all had our own thoughts as we loitered in the courtyard. The night around us was quiet, with only the distant sound of cattle, a soft sigh of guitar music, and the far off howl of a coyote. I straightened up to try and find a more comfortable stance, but that wasn’t possible. I yawned and rubbed my eyes with my fists, and felt so tuckered I could hardly stand upright.
Murdoch kept scratching the dog’s ears as he again looked around at us two.
“I suggest you boys get an early night. Scott, I want you to clean out the pigpen this week. When that’s done you’ll be building a new goat enclosure for Senora Estrada. And you, Young Man,” and here he narrowed his eyes at me, “you will do your morning chores and then spend the rest of every day in my study catching up on all the lessons you neglected to do this week.”
“Yes?” The warning in Pa’s voice was pretty damn clear, and being worn to a frazzle I heeded it straight away. Dios, I was a broken man.
Scott said a quiet goodnight but I was annoyed as hell and went stalking off without a word.
Scott caught me up at the top of the stairs and threw an arm around my neck and knuckled me hard on the head.
“Johnny you’re the sulkiest gunfighter I’ve ever met.”
I gave him a choice mouthful as I shoved him away and went into my room, slamming the door as hard as I could.
I thought I’d fall straight to sleep, but my head was swirling with all that had happened that week. I couldn’t get comfortable either, being achy all over from goldmining and being blown up, and my backside painin’ on top of everything else. So I was still awake to hear Murdoch heading for his room. That was something that eased me at least. What I didn’t expect was to hear Rusty’s skittering feet heading right along with Pa.
I must’ve fallen asleep after that, because I was muzzy in the head later when there was a gentle knock on the door. I’d heard that soft tap too often now not to know that it was Murdoch’s way of checkin’ was I asleep before he slipped quiet into the room. My quilts were on the floor and I listened to him pick them up and arrange them over me. I knew his next move, and sure enough I felt his hand touch the back of my head so light it was barely there. What I didn’t expect was the soft rub of his knuckles across my cheek.
When the door shut quiet behind him I pondered how just when I was sure I had the measure of him he would say or do something, or react somehow which threw me into confusion. I guess it was still hard for me to accept that it didn’t seem to matter what headaches or what downright disasters me and Scott caused him, it never seemed to occur to him to shake us loose. Shake us till our teeth rattled, well, he had no problems with that…
Next mornin’ Scott asked me if I’d had my ‘midnight visitation from our esteemed Father’, like he had. I nodded. We were at orders, our bellies full of a fine breakfast which we’d eaten standing at the kitchen bench, while Maria fussed around us and Murdoch enjoyed reading his paper in peace.
First announcement at orders was that Murdoch thanked every man for their efforts at the mine on Saturday. He was giving everyone a free day on the following Saturday and would be putting money on the bar on Saturday night so that they could all have a couple of drinks on him. A murmur of thanks ran through the crowd.
We looked to where the Ol’ Man went on with his usual no-nonsense directions to all the hands for their day’s work assignments. Scott stepped closer to me. With his arms folded, hat pulled down to his eyebrows, he kept his eyes on Pa as he spoke so only I could hear him.
“To look at him, you’d never guess what a kind man he hides under all that gruffness, would you.”
It was a fact, and Scott sayin’ it made the back of my eyes prickly, which made me bite down on my lip.
The air around us was suddenly filled with Murdoch’s booming voice, hard as nails –
“Scott! Johnny! What the hell are you two doing skulking around back there? You know where you’re supposed to damn well be and you’d better get to your chores before you both get another licking! Now GET!!”
Just like he intended all of the men were amused as all hell, and started chortlin’ and scorin’ us as we both squidged out of there fast as we could. Both of us trying to look like we were not embarrassed as all damnation at being whittled down to size by our Pa.
Yeah, that was our Ol’ Man alright. Tough, bossy, stubborn. With a hard head and an even harder hand.
But also kind, gentle…and not fuckin’ funny.
Inspired in part by ‘The Loaded Dog’, by Henry Lawson.