The usual disclaimers: I don’t own these characters, and only play with them for fun and not for profit. – Many thanks to my beta reader, Darla the Nit-Picky.
The circling buzzards told all the tale.
Julio had been traveling half the morning to find out what had drawn the carrion birds. Something dying. Almost certainly not something already dead; the scavengers circled and circled, but so far none of them had dived toward the valley floor.
The object of their attention, therefore, was still alive and maybe it could be saved. The patrón hated waste. Hence, Julio’s journey over some miles of the ranch, following the buzzards as los Tres Reyes Magos had followed their star.
To no avail, as it turned out. The yearling filly had managed to scramble back up onto its feet, but it was already shivering, and sweat sheened its chestnut hide. It made its cautious way forward, trying life on three hooves, vainly attempting to leave the pain of its snapped hind leg behind.
“Pobrecita,” the ranch hand muttered, reining his mount to a halt and swinging down from the saddle. He dropped the reins to trail on the ground and fetched his lariat.
The filly was startled as he approached and instinctively tried to run, but screamed with pain as its useless hind hoof touched the ground. Its breath rasped in and out of its throat as Julio slipped the noose over its head and drew his pistol. He was aware of drumming hoofbeats approaching, and glanced up.
Speaking of los Tres Reyes—
They came over the small western ridge. Obviously, they had been traveling toward this spot from the opposite direction—the patrón himself, flanked by the two sons who were now, at last, at home with him. At the sight of Julio and the stricken filly, they drew rein. The patrón glanced up at the circling buzzards and shook his head.
The younger son, the mestizo Johnny, greeted Julio wordlessly with a nod and a lifted hand. Despite Johnny’s gringo name and blue eyes, Julio already liked him. After all, the gringo blood was good blood, the patrón’s own, and the rest was pure Méxicano. Johnny was a proper man, the Spanish coming naturally to his tongue, as a gun or a rope or a bridle came naturally to his hand.
But the other one—
Ah, madre de Dios, the older son was dismounting: Señor Scott, the gringo rubio with his light hair and his cold blue eyes and not a word of Spanish in his mouth. He was a tall fellow, slender but strongly built, and he carried himself like a soldier. But he was a foreigner, who had lived all his life in a big Eastern city, as out of place on a great estancia as lace on a saddle blanket.
Julio resolved to get the current unpleasantness over quickly. The patrón had already seen that the yearling was past saving. And only the patrón’s wishes counted for anything. Julio cocked the pistol and pressed its barrel against the animal’s face, right between the eyes.
“Wait. Stop!” the gringo rubio’s voice came. A stern voice, used to being obeyed, and of course using English, assuming, as all gringos did, that everyone understood their language. Julio’s English was good, of course, but that was not the point.
“Julio.” The patrón’s voice. Deeper than his son’s, quieter. Julio looked up at the big man, who nodded toward Señor Scott.
Well, since it was the patrón’s wish—
As Julio took a step back, the gringo was inspecting the filly, frowning at the injured leg.
“You must understand, Señor,” Julio said, in his good English. “She cannot be healed. It is necessary to—”
“Well, of course it is,” the patrón’s son snapped, looking up to frown at the ranch hand. His voice was as cold as the blue eyes. “But that’s not the way to do it. What caliber is that gun? Let me see, please.” And he held out a gloved hand.
After another glance at the patrón, and another slight nod, Julio handed the weapon over.
The gringo turned the gun over in his hands. “A .38. That will do fine. Watch now, please—Julio,” after a second’s groping for the man’s name.
“Please”, and “please” again! As though fine manners made up for presuming to teach a seasoned vaquero his trade!
Holding the pistol in his left hand, the gringo reached out and gently touched the trembling filly’s face with his right. With his thumb, he traced two imaginary lines: from right ear to left eye, from left ear to right eye. “Right there,” he said, pressing his thumb on the place where the phantom lines crossed. “There’s your spot. Aim there, and angle your barrel down the line of her spine. Hold the lead rope, please, and you’d better stand behind me. She might lurch forward instead of going down.”
No need to check with the patrón again. The gringo son was clearly in charge. Still, as he moved back, Julio ventured to say, “Señor, that place, it is too high. Too far up.”
“It’s exactly correct,” the cool voice replied. The gringo took the pistol in his right hand. “Just watch.”
Julio braced for the catastrophe that was surely about to come and clutched the rope hard.
It was almost jerked out of his hand the next second, as Señor Scott aimed and fired and the filly thudded to the ground. The animal lay stone-still before the crack of the pistol faded. Julio could only stare.
“Well, I’ll be—” he heard the patrón’s voice say, over a low whistle from the mestizo Johnny.
Señor Scott handed back Julio’s pistol and went to kneel by the motionless head, pulling off his right glove. “Aim just there, hit the shot just right, and the horse’s brain is destroyed instantly. No pain, no fear.” He delicately touched the glazing eye with one fingertip, watching for a response that did not come. “Yes, she’s gone.”
“But, Señor—” Julio protested, expecting another icy blue glare. “Many times I have shot between the eyes. Many times the horse has died quick.”
“Most of the time?”
Julio, in good conscience, could not say Yes. The rubio went on, “Sometimes when you shoot between the eyes, your bullet just damages the skull, or even ricochets. You need two or three shots. Am I right?”
“Sí, señor,” Julio admitted.
“Try this way instead.”
Julio was watching the rubio’s ungloved hand. Not a working man’s hand, too smooth, but Julio saw signs of a healing blister or two on the palm. The gringo was stroking the dead filly’s neck, arranging its tangled mane into a semblance of order. “Sorry, little one,” he said. “Sorry I had to do that.”
The gringo’s stern face had softened, and his voice was gentle. He sighed once as he attempted to smooth the bloodied forelock. So. He had a heart after all . . . .
“Lo siento,” Julio ventured. Señor Scott looked up at him then, the blue eyes no longer looking cold, but more like a summer sky. Julio went on, “In the Spanish, we say, ‘lo siento’, ‘I am sorry’.”
“Lo siento,” Señor Scott repeated, looking down at the filly and giving it a final pat before rising. “Graciás, Julio.” A foreigner’s pronunciation, of course, but acceptable.
“De nada, Señor.”
Señor Scott pulled on his glove and looked over his shoulder at his father. “Murdoch, what happens now? I mean, what do we do with her?”
Still a gringo after all. Julio, stooping to retrieve his lariat, had to suppress a smile.
The patrón pointed skyward to the buzzards, circling lower now. “We leave her, Scott. Whatever the buzzards leave, the coyotes will finish off. We let nature take its course with these things, son.”
“So, Boston,” Johnny said. “They teach you that at Harvard?”
Murdoch, turning his horse in the direction he and his sons had originally been headed, glanced over at Scott. He was curious too. And, once again, painfully aware of the acrid mixture of anger and guilt that he’d felt so often since his sons had come home as grown men, two strangers whom he didn’t know at all.
Scott returned his father’s glance and said, “I suppose that kind of loss is one of the hazards of this business.”
“That’s right. You might think of it as a loss of inventory. Accidents, predators—”
“Hey, Boston! You didn’t answer my question. Where--?”
Murdoch knew Johnny was trying to provoke an answer by his use of the irritating nickname “Boston”. Instead, speaking to his father, Scott said, “Coyotes, I expect.” Murdoch recognized the tactic; he’d seen it before at high-level meetings of the state Cattlemen’s Association. Scott was politiely ignoring Johnny, as he might ignore someone who’d accidentally made a smell at a dinner party. He’d put his company manners back on.
“Mountain lions,” Scott went on. “Bears?”
“Not very often, any more. Most of the bears in these parts have been killed off.” Watching his boys, Murdoch saw both Scott’s nod of understanding and the rueful headshake signaling Johnny’s recognition that his question would go unanswered.
Thus was the tone set for the rest of the day. Father and sons spent several hours clearing a creek bed of dead brush, working in silence. Like Murdoch and Johnny, Scott put his back into it and finished the morning running with sweat, his shirt clinging to him. While they ate the lunches Teresa had packed for them, Scott plied Murdoch with questions about average annual rainfall, and how the ranch handled both floods and droughts. But he offered no opinions of his own, unusual for Scott. He listened to Murdoch’s explanations, and an anecdote or two from Johnny, with courteous attention, then responded, with a nod, “Interesting.”
He sounded for all the world like a visitor, rather than co-owner of the ranch.
He’s thinking of leaving, Murdoch concluded in despair. The fear was irrational, he knew, but it was always with him. He’d let the separation go on far too long. And what else could explain Scott’s sudden reversion to drawing-room manners? I should have tried harder to get him back—
And yet, like Murdoch himself and Johnny, Scott had worked like a Trojan clearing the creek bed . . . .
Pride, his inner demon promptly explained. He’s showing me he could take it here, if he wanted to. Does he want to? I thought he did, but . . . .
That damned filly! Scott’s withdrawal seemed to have started the moment they saw the doomed chestnut.
But why? Scott was a cavalry veteran; he must have seen horses killed in the war. What made this one so different? And the unhesitating efficiency with which he’d shot it—his cold-hearted grandfather all over again. Was there nothing of Catherine in Scott? Or was he compounded solely of Murdoch’s own obstinacy and Harlan Garrett’s ruthlessness, finished with a veneer of society manners?
Strangers—his sons were strangers to him and to one another.
That evening, methodically closing and locking down for the night, Murdoch came into the great room of the hacienda and saw that the French doors were open. Lamplight spilled from the room onto the terrace. His sons were out there, darker silhouettes in the darkness. Murdoch saw Johnny toss something to his brother, and heard Johnny’s voice say, “Kinda chilly out tonight.”
“Picnic weather in Massachusetts,” was the response. But the soft hiss of cloth on cloth told Murdoch that Scott was shrugging into the jacket Johnny had given him.
He stepped out onto the terrace now, scuffing one boot against the tile; one thing he had learned was not to approach Johnny from behind without warning. Johnny had already half-spun in quick reflex. At the sight of his father, he relaxed.
Scott, standing a few feet away, hadn’t so much as turned his head. Smoothing down the jacket, he stood by the low wall of the terrace, looking up at the stars.
“You’re up late, boys,” Murdoch said.
“So’re you,” Johnny pointed out.
After a moment’s silence, still without moving, Scott said, “Just getting a breath of air.”
Damned if I’m going to give up again. Not this easily.
“A shame about that filly,” Murdoch said.
“It is,” Scott agreed evenly. “She was a beauty.”
Johnny. God bless Johnny. As Murdoch had hoped he would, he came right out and said bluntly, “You never did tell us where you learned to do that--Boston.”
Scott’s posture stiffened. Murdoch heard his quick, exasperated exhalation. “’Boston’,” he snapped, abruptly turning to face his family. “It’s ‘Boston’ again, is it? ‘Boston’—As in ‘soft’? ‘Boston’—As in, ‘rather lively in 1776, but all philosophers and cotillions ever since’?”
Johnny lifted his hands in a gesture of mock surrender. “Hey. Sorry.”
Scott glanced away, closing his eyes for a moment and drawing in a deep breath. “I apologize,” he said after a moment. “I keep forgetting. You two are civilians. I didn’t learn that at Harvard, Johnny. I learned it during the war. You can’t be expected to understand.”
“Understand? Sure, I understand,” Johnny said, a little scornfully. “I’ve been in a scrap or two myself, you know. And we didn’t exactly have a tea party with Pardee.”
“I don’t mean a little skirmish, like ours with Pardee,” Scott retorted. “I mean a battle. Hours of artillery barrages and gunfire. Being splattered with blood and brains from a man thirty feet away when a shell rips him open. Listening for a bugle call over the cannons and the screaming. Hundreds of dead and dying men when it’s finally over.”
Silence for a moment. Then Johnny’s acknowledgment, “You got me there, hermano. Never been in all that. But today, that was just one little old filly.”
“That part comes afterwards.” Scott’s voice was quieter now. “The wounded, God help them, are carried to the field hospitals. The dead are collected or buried—if there’s time. The horses—”
There was another silence as he worked for control. Murdoch said, “I can’t begin to imagine it, son.”
“Dozens of horses,” Scott went on. “Scores of them. Cavalry mounts, and those poor brutes in the artillery—dead, if they’re lucky—Junior officers like me led the details to deal with the horses. My ‘Harvard professor’ in the art was our company farrier. Sergeant Oliver Dantrey, his name was. Years before, he’d worked out the quickest, most painless way to put a horse out of its misery. He showed us where to shoot, how to find the right place so we’d only need one shot. After the shot—when they stopped screaming—Christ, it was like music . . . . It all came in very handy around Yellow Tavern.”
“Yellow Tavern,” said Murdoch. “As I recall, that was at the beginning of the Overland Campaign.”
“That’s right, sir.” There was a hint of surprise in Scott’s voice. “You’ll remember that Grant had sent General Sheridan to stop Jeb Stuart. It took us two solid weeks of hard riding to catch him. When a horse broke down, there wasn’t time to let it recover. I was in the rearguard. We were assigned to shoot them.”
“How come?” Johnny protested. “Sounds like they weren’t even hurt, just played out.”
“Exactly,” Scott agreed. “Played out, but essentially sound. We couldn’t just abandon them. The enemy might take them, get them usable again, and use them against us. A horse was worth its weight in gold by then. We might as well have left the rebels a cannon, powder, and shot as leave a horse.”
Murdoch said, “It’s hard enough to shoot one that’s in misery, like that poor little filly today.”
Scott, looking back up at the distant stars, responded, “They say you get used to it . . . . One thing’s certain: you never forget how it’s done.-- I know I’m still a fish out of water here. And I’m no Johnny Madrid. But, by God, I can kill a horse with the best of them . . . . You’re right, sir. It’s late. I think I’ll turn in.”
“Just a moment.” Murdoch raised his hand. ”Assignments for tomorrow.” His sons paused, Johnny with a loudly patient sigh.
“Johnny. I want that fence in the west pasture finished by sundown tomorrow. Take six or eight hands with you and get it done.”
“You want all the cows to be on our side of it?” Johnny asked with a grin.
“That’s the idea.” Murdoch’s face was unsmiling, and there was no humor in his voice. “Scott. We don’t let animals suffer on this spread, and you’ve just raised the bar for how that’s seen to. Right after breakfast, you meet with Cipriano. By the end of next week, I want every Lancer hand to know Sergeant Daltrey’s humane method of shooting a horse. You and Cip go through the roster and set up groups. He can interpret for you with those who don’t speak English.”
A test: Would Scott accept this unpleasant task, with all the memories it invoked?
“With respect, sir—”
Murdoch was swept by a quick upsurge of disappointment. “With respect, sir” was usually the way Scott led up to saying “No”. This is it, then.
“—I think I’d rather have Julio do the interpreting,” Scott said. “He’s seen it done. He’s seen it work. The men will take to changing their methods better if it comes from him.”
A slow smile curved Murdoch’s mouth. Better stop underestimating this son of mine . . . .
“That’s good thinking,” he said. “All right. Use your own judgment.”
“Thank you, sir. Good night, then.”
They headed inside and made for the stairs. Johnny, genuinely curious, said, “That work on cows, too, Scott?”
“I don’t know. There weren’t any cows in the cavalry.”
“Write to your Sergeant Dantrey and ask,” Johnny suggested. “Tell him a big ranch out West is doin’ things his way.”
“I wish I could. He would have been tickled pink.”
“Didn’t make it through the war?” asked Johnny, not unsympathetically.
“No. But it’s not what you think.” Scott halted on the second stair, turning to look at his father and brother with a sudden, real smile that lighted the slate-blue eyes. “He went home to Ohio, on furlough. Died in his own bed, his sleep, a heart attack or something. We were told he never knew what hit him. Never felt a thing. I guess sometimes a man gets the good things he deserves.”
And sometimes (Murdoch thought, watching his sons head for their rooms), sometimes a man gets even more.
-Soli Deo gloria-
Author’s note #1: The sheer carnage of Civil War battles is hard for modern Americans to grasp. We see a headline that reads, “Eight American Troops Die in Afghanistan”. Casualty rates during the Civil War were routinely in the hundreds or thousands. There were about 50,000 soldiers killed or wounded during the three-day battle at Gettysburg—approximately the same number as killed in ten years in Viet Nam.
Authors’s note #2: Sergeant Dantrey’s technique for euthanizing a horse is, in fact, the one endorsed by the Animal Welfare Act of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since both the technology and the anatomical knowledge were available in the 19th century, I created a compassionate company farrier who worked out the method on his own. For more on the role of the horse in the Civil War, see Robert A. Niepert’s “The Expendable Horse in the Civil War” at http://floridareenactorsonline.com/expendable.htm.