“Hey . . . Scott? Teresa? Murdoch? Where is everyone?” A dust-covered and trail-weary Johnny Lancer tramped into the front hall of the Lancer hacienda, spurs jingling as he crossed the terra cotta tiles. “Dinner ready? You owe me, Boston, you know that don’t ya?” He flipped his hat toward the coat rack and made for the Great Room, peeling off his gloves as he walked. “Whooee, am I tired! Tired o’ bulldoggin’ and bull calves and bullsh-- . . .”
A strangled cough interrupted his litany of complaint and Johnny looked up to see his father, dressed in his best gray suit and string tie, standing uncomfortably in front of the fireplace. Beside him stood Scott, his face mottled red against the starched white collar of his dress shirt. Another man, a middle-aged stranger similarly attired, was rising from the flowered settee where a woman, still seated, turned her head and regarded Johnny with undisguised shock.
Johnny felt his face flush with embarrassment and he looked down, playing with his gloves. “’S’cuse me, didn’t know there was company,” he muttered into the strained silence, his eyes still fixed on his fidgeting hands.
“Ah, Johnny.” Murdoch’s voice was falsely hearty as he stepped forward to greet his younger son. “Good to see you back, ” he said as he put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders and firmly propelled him closer to the settee. “You’ve heard me talk of Lachlan Irvine, I’m sure. Lachlan, this is my son John. He’s just in from a week out on our northernmost range.”
“How do you do, John?” There was a faint Scot’s burr to the man’s deep voice, stronger than Murdoch’s, and as he reached out to shake the proffered hand Johnny found himself looking into a pair of friendly brown eyes.
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
“You’re sure of that, are you? Murdoch’s not told you much about me then,” Irvine smiled.
“Oh, enough, I reckon,” Johnny smiled in return, warming to the man who had helped his father scrape together the passage money to emigrate from Scotland. A minister now, Johnny remembered, but one who seemed to have a sense of humor and the look of a man ready to see good in all he surveyed. His lady, however, was quite a different matter. As Irvine began the introductions and Johnny turned, prepared to make his polite howdy-do’s, he saw a look of condescension quickly covered by a practiced social smile.
“Mr. Lancer,” she acknowledged, nodding her head slightly.
“Ma’am.” His hand fell back to his side and he again began to play with his gloves. Suddenly he was acutely aware of how dusty and sweaty he was. And how ripe he smelled. Then there was the week’s worth of beard he hadn’t bothered to scrape off. Probably look like some saddle-tramp comin’ in after a three-day tear, he thought uncomfortably. Enough to scare any proper Eastern lady.
“How did it go, son?” Murdoch’s voice had regained its normal confidence and Johnny began to relax. “We thought you might be in two days ago – any problems? A rather large group of strays got away from us earlier this spring,” Murdoch explained to Irvine. “We finally got wind of where they were and Johnny took some vaqueros out to round them up.”
“Yeah, took us a little longer than expected – could’ve used another rope.” Johnny grinned at Scott still standing with his back to the fireplace. “You owe me, Boston,” he repeated, shaking a finger in Scott’s direction. “You owe me!”
“Ah, little brother, your brawn didn’t need my brain,” Scott said, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “But that bookwork did.”
“Now how is it that them books always get snarled right before somethin’ comes up you don’t like?” Johnny drawled, eyes twinkling.
“How is it that you’re never around when it’s time to make those books balance?” his brother retorted, his grin widening.
“Boys. . .” Murdoch shook his head as Lachlan Irvine chuckled in amusement.
“As you can see, Lachlan, the division of labor around here isn’t entirely without its, ah, controversies,” Murdoch said wryly. “Although I must admit Johnny got the raw end of the deal this time. Next time, I suspect, we’ll see Scott out chasing down strays and Johnny pushing the pencil.”
“Ah-hmm.” From the settee there was a polite clearing of the throat. Delicate but insistent. Mrs. Irvine was preparing to speak.
She was a large, attractive woman with a broad bosom and dark chestnut hair pulled back into a stylish chignon. Her dress was of the latest fashion, and obviously expensive. Somewhat younger than her husband, she nonetheless had the air of someone used to commanding attention.
“Excuse me,” she said, although Johnny had the distinct feeling she was not asking pardon from any of them. “Excuse me, Mr. Lancer,” she looked at Murdoch. “Surely you don’t permit a man of Mr. Scott Lancer’s education and background to waste his considerable talents on physical labor?”
“My dear . . .” Lachlan began, his discomfort obvious. He glanced quickly at Murdoch and then at Johnny, who saw the unspoken apology in the man’s eyes. But Mrs. Irvine was not to be deterred.
“My father always was most adamant on this point,” she said. “My brothers must oversee the operation of our holdings, but the menial tasks were to be left to those most suited for them, who were closer, really, to the elemental, to natural man. He had a great respect for men of the soil,” she continued. “But of course my brothers were gentlemen.”
““Er. . .” Murdoch’s face reddened and the tightness around his lips told Johnny his father was searching for a polite reply. But before anything could be said Teresa entered the room carrying a large silver tea tray.
“Ah, Teresa. So sweet of you to see to this yourself,” Mrs. Irvine said. “You take on far too much, my dear. Lachlan, please give her a hand.”
But it was Scott who stepped forward to relieve a flushed and obviously nervous Teresa of her burden. She was wearing, Johnny saw, a dress she normally reserved for visiting and the usual merriness, often tinged with a touch of mischievousness, was missing from her eyes – until she caught sight of him.
“Oh, Johnny, you’re home!” She threw herself into his arms, the force of her weight causing him to step backward a couple of steps.
“Whoa, honey, I’m glad to see you, too,” Johnny laughed. “Have yuh . . .”
“Pardon me, Teresa, shall I pour?” Her eyebrows delicately raised, Mrs. Irvine looked at Teresa pointedly.
“It’s all right -- see to the guests,” Johnny whispered into his sister’s ear.
“John, I’d like to hear more about Lancer’s horse breeding operation,” Lachlan said smoothly. “I’ve always loved the beasts but am really quite stupid when it comes to knowing anything about them. Murdoch tells me you have some interesting plans for the future.”
“Uh, thank you, but if you don’t mind, Reverend, I reckon I oughta clean up before dinner.” With a glance at Scott, who was having an increasingly difficult time suppressing his mirth, Johnny grasped his gloves tightly and turned back toward Mrs. Irvine. “Ma’am.”
“Mister . . . Lancer,” she nodded coolly.
“Dinner in an hour -- Maria said,” Teresa called softly as Johnny backed out of the sitting area and headed toward the kitchen, his spurs ringing overloud to his own ears.
* * * * *
The kitchen was as hot as a sweat lodge, the stove stoked high and an inordinate number of pots bubbling insistently on its broad top. A perspiring Maria, little strands of damp hair plastered to her forehead and neck, was stirring the largest of the pots. At the scarred oak table sat an equally perspiring Jelly nursing a cup of coffee and looking miserable as Maria let loose a torrent of words, her English and Spanish all jumbled together. His face brightened as Johnny walked in.
“Wal, ‘bout time you brung yore sorry hide back on home. We was beginnin’ ta worry.” Jelly stood and stuck out his hand, his mouth twitching as he fought to keep a stern face.
“You shoulda come along, Jelly,” Johnny said as they shook hands. He tapped the handyman’s arm with his gloves. “Tell you a secret: Emilio’s a terrible cook.”
“I coulda told ya that,” Jelly shook his head with contempt.
“Maria, there enough hot water around for me to clean up or Scott use it all? Maria?”
“Oh Señor Johnny, right now?” Distractedly she looked up from her boiling pot. “I am so sorry . . .Well, in the laundry shed – if you don’t mind. There is still plenty of hot water in the boiler there. And there is that big tub.”
“Nope, that’s fine.” Johnny walked over to the edge of the stove and started to dip a finger in the closest pot.
Fast as a bullwhip Maria’s wooden spoon shot out and whacked his hand. Hard.
“Ow!! Maria!” Johnny gave her an aggrieved look.
“I do not have time for your foolishness today,” she warned sternly as she dipped her weapon into a large cazuela set on the cooler edge of the stove and gave the contents a few quick stirs. Then, her voice softening: “Hurry, chico, you will not want to be late for dinner tonight.”
“Nope, reckon not – smells too good. Thanks, Maria.” Johnny sent her one of his best smiles as he headed for the back door. “Any clean clothes out there?”
“Si, but you will want something special . . .”
“No . . .” Johnny stopped and looked back at her questioningly.
“Si.” Maria’s tone was firm. “I will send someone.”
“Ya want me to give ya a hand?” Jelly asked as Johnny turned once again to the door.
“No, I don’t want you to give me a hand,” Johnny snorted. “I’m takin’ a bath, Jelly, not fixing fence. Or wrestling with one of those damn calves.” Then, catching sight of the handyman’s expression as he exaggeratedly rolled his eyes from Maria to the door, Johnny relented. “Well, okay, reckon I could use a hand getting that big old tub off the wall.”
“Thanks,” Jelly breathed as they walked across the barnyard toward the white-washed laundry house. “I was getting’ plum wore out jus’ sittin’ there listenin.’”
“What’s with you?”
“Nothin’ – ain’t me.”
“C’mon, Jelly,” Johnny laughed. “What’s goin’ on? I come home and find everyone dressed in their best bib and tucker and as nervous as sinners sittin’ in church.”
“Wal, there ya go.”
“What do you mean?” Johnny stopped and eyed the grizzled handyman curiously. “Murdoch’s friend? Reverend Irvine? Seems nice enough.”
“No, t’ain’t him I’m talking about,” Jelly pursed his lips.
“Oh,” Johnny said flatly. He looked at the ground. “Mrs. Irvine. That what’s wrong with Maria?”
“Yup, woman’s bin here two days and she got everyone in a flap.” Jelly shook his head. “A man of the cloth, married to a woman like that . . . well, jes’ kinda sticks in yore craw, don’t it?”
“Jelly. . .”
“Woman looked right through me like I wasn’t even there,” Jelly sniffed.
Johnny laughed, suddenly struck by an image of the meeting between Mrs. Lachlan Irvine and Mr. Jellifer Hoskins. “Yeah, well, me too,” he said. “C’mon, help me with that tub so I don’t embarrass the rest of ‘em by being late for dinner.”
* * * * *
He fell asleep in the bath, the hot water easing muscles he hadn’t realized were sore and bruises he didn’t know he had. It had been a tough week. All teasing of Scott aside, they truly had needed more hands. There had been more strays than expected, and they’d proved wilder and more prone to spooking than the main herd. Cattle, Johnny had figured tiredly as he soaked, had to rank among the dumbest of animals. They just had no sense at all.
A knock at the laundry-house door wakened him. When he had wrapped himself in a clean blanket and padded across the cold stone floor, he found it was Maria herself who handed his clothes and best boots round the partially opened door.
“Gracias, Maria,” he said, grasping at the blanket with one hand while trying to take hold of the housekeeper’s offering with the other. A boot clattered to the ground and Maria stooped to retrieve it, placing it just inside the doorway while Johnny held the clothing in front of him like a shield.
“Hurry, chico,” she urged breathlessly. “Es muy quisquillosa con la punctualidad.”
“Who’s very particular about being on time?”
“Señora Irvine, of course. So hurry, Señor Fish, it is time to leave the pond.” She was gone before he could respond. Bemusedly he looked at the clothes she had brought him, the carefully pressed ruffed white shirt and black string tie, his dressiest pair of calzoneras , his most formal chaqueta. They were the clothes of a wealthy young hacendado, and Johnny knew that was exactly how Maria wanted him to appear before the haughty gringa who was turning the Lancer household upside down.
He wondered if everything would fit. He had worn the complete suit only a few times and not recently. It had been ordered early on in his life at Lancer, when Murdoch had rather testily asked him to have a “proper” suit made and he had chosen this out of hurt defiance, to spite his father. Murdoch had never said a word, had never let it be known how he felt about this suit or the more conventional one Johnny chose at Scott’s advice several months later.
But tonight? Well, there wasn’t time to find something else. And he wasn’t about to disappoint Maria, not when she’d gone to all the trouble of ironing that shirt. With a sigh, he began to shave, gingerly scraping his razor over the bruise caused by a close encounter with a particularly willful cow. He resigned himself to the possibility his father was going to feel embarrassed by him. Again. Or maybe not. Murdoch had surprised him before and certainly, Johnny had learned, he was not a man who could tolerate a Mrs. Irvine with good grace for very long.
There was a sudden loud rapping at the wooden door, startling him into nicking himself as he finished his jawline. “Damn,” he swore disgustedly, grabbing his discarded workshirt to dab at the cut.
“Johnny! Scott says you better get a move on – they’re sittin’ down now!”
“Tell ‘em to go on without me, Jelly,” Johnny called back, now struggling with his tie.
“Don’t think they’re gonna do that. Ya decent?” Without waiting for an answer Jelly walked in. He watched while Johnny finished tying the tie and then silently passed him his boots. “Maria shore made these shine,” he said admiringly.
“She do them?”
“Yup – hurry, boy.”
Jelly on his heels, Johnny ran across the stable-yard and entered the kitchen. He paused to give Maria a quick squeeze of thanks, deftly avoiding her waving spoon as she urged him on toward the dining room. Then, taking a deep breath, he opened the heavy door and walked into the den of the lioness.
* * * * *
From her seat at the foot of the long formal dining table, Teresa gave the table setting another furtive inspection. To her mind, it looked lovely. Elegant. With Scott’s help she had sorted through the puzzle of the different kinds of forks and spoons and knives that would be needed, choosing carefully from the large walnut case of monogrammed flatware Scott’s mother had brought to Lancer as a young bride. Maria had ironed the heavy damask tablecloth to perfection, and helped Teresa carefully spread it out along the mahogany table’s length. At either end of the table they had placed ornate silver candelabras, gifts, Maria had whispered to Teresa, Murdoch had planned to give Johnny’s mother to mark the third aniversario of their wedding.
From the head of the table, she heard Murdoch courteously asking Mrs. Irvine if he could pour her a glass of wine, smoothly explaining the wine had been made from grapes grown by a mission in an area she and her husband were planning to visit. Teresa couldn’t hear the woman’s reply but she saw Murdoch settle heavily back in his chair without lifting the bottle from its position on the table.
She became aware that Scott and the Reverend Irvine were struggling manfully to break the uncomfortable silence by beginning a conversation about the beauties of the California coastline. Scott turned politely to Mrs. Irvine, inquiring whether she was looking forward to spending time in San Francisco. Teresa saw the question caught their guest unawares; she had been openly and disapprovingly looking at the small gold watch pinned to her bosom. From her own surreptitious glance at the clock on the bookcase, Teresa knew it was nearly ten minutes after seven. Dinner had been set for seven.
The groan of heavy wrought-iron hinges opening drew all eyes to the door between the dining room and the hall leading to the kitchen. In walked Johnny, but a Johnny so different from the grubby cowhand who’d blushingly backed out of the Great Room just an hour before that Teresa caught her breath. How handsome he looks, she thought proudly, so very handsome. And broad shouldered. And manly. Like the hero in a play or romantic story.
She noted the becoming flush that gave his clean-shaven cheeks a glow as he apologized for his tardiness, and watched admiringly as he moved fluidly to his seat beside Rev. Irvine. That suit – he should wear it more often, she mused. He’s muscled up since he first came here . . . and he’ll cause a riot among the ladies of Green River if he ever wears those tight pants into town. Stifling a giggle, Teresa ducked her head, daring to look up only when Maria spoke gently at her elbow, asking if she would like the first course served. She nodded, not yet ready to trust her voice, and almost instantly heard a distinctive and increasingly unwelcome “ahem.”
“Miss Teresa would prefer that the food be served after the blessing, would you not, my dear?” Mrs. Irvine’s features were formidably impassive as she looked at Teresa. At Teresa’s confused nod, the older woman directed her attention to Maria. “You may wait in the kitchen until we are ready for you to serve.”
Maria stiffened. Teresa saw her eyes narrow and a muscle in her jaw tighten, sure signs of displeasure. But she merely said, in an overly formal tone, “Si, Señora Irvine, please notify me when you would like me to return,” and, back straight, swept regally out of the room.
From the head of the table Murdoch’s eyes caught Teresa’s and in his barely perceptible smile she read sympathy and a tinge of apology. Then he moved his chin slightly, nodding discreetly toward Reverend Irvine.
“Reverend Irvine, would you do us the honor?” Teresa asked carefully.
“Of course, Teresa, it would be my pleasure,” the minister answered warmly. Smiling encouragingly, he glanced around the table, then bowed his head, pausing for a moment to let everyone follow suit before he began. “Almighty God . . .”
It wasn’t a long grace, and Teresa knew whatever had been said probably was heartfelt. But she missed it all, so absorbed was she in her own silent communication with God. Hers was equally heartfelt but perhaps required more urgent attention. For she was asking that she never again be placed in the position of playing the “grand hostess” – and that Mrs. Irvine be soon gone.
* * * * *
Scott knew he would be hard put to remember a dinner party when the diners had seemed more uncomfortable or the conversation more stilted. No dreadful debutante soiree, no Back Bay Brahmin “evening” had ever been quite as bad as this. Despite his best efforts, and those of Murdoch and even the lady’s own husband, Mrs. Irvine was managing to oppress them all.
As she held forth on the importance of establishing a good home library and spoke proudly of that owned by her cousins, the Biddles of Philadelphia, Scott reflected that he hadn’t realized how lucky they had been the previous evening when Mrs. Irvine, pleading a headache brought on by the long buggy journey to Lancer, had taken a light supper in her room. She had seemed, at first meeting, little different from most of the well-bred, socially prominent wives of his grandfather’s numerous Boston acquaintances.
In fact, until that afternoon, when Teresa had informed him that he was to “dress” for dinner and that “tea” would be served at five, Scott hadn’t picked up on the general state of nervous anxiety Lancer’s female visitor had aroused in virtually the entire household. Engrossed in a particularly knotty accounting problem, he had had little contact with Reverend Irvine and virtually none with the man’s wife. So he was surprised at the fervent “please” Teresa had added to her instructions. “All right, all right,” he’d reassured her, “I’ll do you proud.”
He’d presented himself in the Great Room punctually at five, earning a relieved smile from a carefully groomed and gowned Teresa and a regal nod of approval from Mrs. Irvine. Murdoch scarcely noticed, so engrossed was he in reminiscing with his old friend. With amusement, Scott had noted the increased burr in his father’s voice and guessed it wouldn’t take much longer for his accent to return full-blown. Soon, however, Mrs. Irvine had deftly steered the two old friends back into general discourse and directed the conversation from then on.
Scott had found it enjoyable, at first, to discover that he and their guest shared some mutual acquaintances, and to discuss topics he so rarely had time these days to pursue. Mrs. Irvine was well read and well educated. And she had a prodigious memory. His reference to a particular comment made by the late Senator Webster had elicited what sounded like a verbatim quote. Murdoch’s mention of Antietam brought forth an array of facts and statistics – and a correction of a “misremembered” date.
But Margaret Withers Irvine was a pedant, her preferred mode of communication the monologue. She wielded her knowledge like a club and bullied those too polite to defy her determination to pronounce the last word on every matter.
Luckily the woman hadn’t found too much to fault in Teresa’s table setting, Scott thought with relief. The poor girl had wanted so desperately for everything to be perfect for this most formal of dinners. But aside from adjusting her butter knife a few degrees and commenting that Teresa must instruct “the help” to always place an underlay beneath the tablecloth, Mrs. Irvine had said little. Scott wondered how she would react if she knew it was Murdoch’s habit to spread books and maps across the table’s vast surface, or that the snowy linen tablecloth hid more than one mark made by a neighboring rancher’s forgotten cigar. One thing was for sure, Scott thought wryly, it would have ruined MiLady’s dinner to know she was eating from the table where Murdoch had once dug a slug out of Johnny’s back.
“Señor Scott?” Maria’s soft voice at his elbow interrupted his thoughts and he found himself facing an immense selection of cakes, pastries, puddings and other sweets. Maria truly had outdone herself, he thought as he helped himself to several sugar-dusted sopaipillas , a pastelito and his special favorite, the flan. Earlier he had noticed Mrs. Irvine picking delicately at her plate, eating little but somehow contriving to make it appear as if the food were disappearing. Perhaps she would find dessert more appealing, he chuckled to himself.
“Ah, señora, you are spoiling my old friend,” Reverend Irvine sighed to Maria as he surveyed the bite of pastry at the tip of his fork. He glanced over at the cook, who now was offering her tray for Johnny’s inspection. “Please tell me you do not allow him such pleasure on a day-to-day basis.”
“No, Señor Reverendo,” Maria answered shyly, a smile beginning at the corners of her mouth.
“Yes, a very . . .. interesting, ah, dinner, to be sure,” Mrs. Irvine added. She turned to Teresa. “My dear, before I go you must allow me to help you choose some suitable menus for entertaining. Your guardian is considered one of the most important men in this area. With no wife or daughter to help him, you will be called on increasingly to preside as his hostess.”
“Gracias, Maria, eres una cocinera estupenda,” Johnny said. It was the first time he had spoken since dinner began and Scott heard the edge in his brother’s soft voice as Johnny added, “Hemos comido bien, esta señora pija, también.”
As Scott struggled to translate the phrases in his mind Teresa quickly put her napkin up to her lips, two bright spots of color appearing high on her cheeks. Murdoch had cleared his throat noisily and was asking Lachlan Irvine if he would like more wine. Even Maria looked like she was having difficulty controlling her reaction to Johnny’s words; her tray bobbled dangerously as she made her way out of the room.
“Ah, Mr. John Lancer,” Mrs. Irvine’s sharp eye fell on Johnny. “It must make your work substantially easier, to be able to speak as one of the servants.” She continued to look at Johnny appraisingly, and Scott saw his brother’s eyes darken as he impassively returned Mrs. Irvine’s gaze. “However,” the woman continued, turning calmly toward Scott, “I do think these people should be encouraged to speak English whenever possible, to hasten their assimilation into the American way of doing things, do you not agree, sir?”
Tamping down his anger, Scott tried to formulate a polite reply. “I . . .” he began. But Mrs. Irvine had moved on, now addressing the table at large.
“Imagine my surprise, to find so many foreign words in use out here – and I thought we won the war with the Mexicans.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “When I think of how many of brave Americans died so that we could bring freedom and justice where there was none. When I think of the atrocities they suffered at the hands of those ignorant, crude . . . Well, I know my dear Lachlan will disapprove but I must admit I find it difficult to accept that the language of an enemy should still be allowed to infect our culture.”
“Margaret. . .” Lachlan Irvine’s voice carried equal measures of warning and resignation, and Scott wondered at the circumstances that would allow a man so seemingly intelligent, genial and, as Murdoch’s own history testified, generous to wed a woman of such an ill-liberal mind.
“Yes, my dear?” Mrs. Irvine queried sweetly. Without waiting for her husband’s answer she turned to Murdoch, a trace of the coquette in her smile, and observed: “I’m so sorry, here I have been prattling on and I know you want to hear more of the wonderful things my dear Lachlan has envisioned for the Indians. The church’s missionary society has such confidence in him. And you know, there is quite a lot of interest in the noble savage. Many of our most illustrious patrons are anxious to enrich the lives of those poor souls.”
“Er, yes,” Murdoch said awkwardly, retracting the hand he’d been stretching toward his wine glass. “Perhaps we should retire to the sitting area?”
“I’m sure the gentlemen will understand that we do not wish to intrude on their brandy and cigars.” Mrs. Irvine looked meaningfully at Teresa. “Come, my dear, you must show me your needlework. I do hope your guardian has not been neglecting your education in such things.”
Then Scott found the full force of Margaret Withers Irvine’s attention directed his way and he realized she was waiting for him to help her with her chair. As he stood and performed the courtesy, a rough translation of Johnny’s earlier comments suddenly came to him and he had to work his mouth frantically to hold back the impulse to laugh out loud.
His brother had begun by assuring the housekeeper that she was an excellent cook. They had all been well fed, Johnny said. Even the snooty señora . Which was innocuous enough, Scott thought, if one didn’t know that the particular words Johnny had used were slang. And rude. Quite rude.
* * * * *
A soft breeze stirred the curtains at the open window and carried the night sounds from the stable-yard below. In the bedroom’s semidarkness Murdoch could just make out the figure of his younger son leaning against the window-frame, arms crossed, hands cupping his elbows. It was a stance which Murdoch had painfully come to recognize as a signal that Johnny was hurt or angry or both.
“Son?” he repeated as he gently pulled the bedroom door closed.
“I said I was all right, Murdoch,” came the gruff reply. “Just tired.”
“May I light the lamp?”
There was a short silence before he heard a grunt of assent. He saw Johnny shift so that his back was now toward the room and his father. Striking a match on his boot heel, Murdoch lifted the chimney from the small oil lamp by the bed. A flame flickered and then caught as he adjusted the wick and nestled the chimney back between the brass prongs. In the dim light he could see that although Johnny had shed his shirt and the short chaqueta , he still had on the dressy calzoneras he had worn at dinner.
“I’m sorry you were too tired to join us for brandy,” Murdoch began awkwardly, sitting on the edge of the bed. “I think you’d like Lachlan, he’s . . .”
“A good man,” Johnny finished, his back still toward his father. “Yeah, Murdoch,” he let out a deep breath and leaned heavily on the windowsill, “I know that.”
“This is his second marriage,” Murdoch continued mildly. “He loved his first wife very much. When she died, a year and a half ago, he was devastated, he said. Completely at a loss. And then he met Margaret.”
“Yeah, well . . .”
“Let me finish, John.” Murdoch paused, considering his son’s unyielding back. He was suddenly aware that there seemed to be a trail of mottled purple bruising running from Johnny’s lower left side, by the waistline of his low-slung pants, up and across to his right shoulder blade. “Did you get in the way of one of those strays, son?” Murdoch asked, bending over to peer more closely through the uncertain light.
Startled, Johnny straightened and quickly turned his back to the window. Then, catching Murdoch’s eye he grinned self-consciously. “Something like that,” he agreed.
“Thought you looked a little stiff when we got up from dinner,” Murdoch said. “But thought maybe it was the pants.” He raised an eyebrow in amusement as Johnny flushed.
“Murdoch, about the suit.”
“Nothing wrong with the suit – or the man wearing it.”
There was another silence between them then, and Murdoch sat, giving Johnny the time he needed to master control of his voice. But when finally Johnny spoke, his face once again turned toward the darkness outside, Murdoch found himself unprepared for the thinly masked anger in his son’s tone.
“All my life I’ve been dealing with people like her. People who hate me because of what I am – or maybe it’s what I ain’t.” Johnny looked back at his father, his expression wryly quizzical. “Which do you suppose it is, Murdoch? Do they hate me because I’m part Mexican? Or because I’m not hundred percent Anglo?” With his forefinger, he traced a downward line along the window casing. “She reminds me of the rich doñas and how they used to look at mamma and me. When we’d bring ‘em their washing. Like we were dogs. Dirty, miserable curs they could toss a few scraps an’ then chase away.”
“Johnny . . .”
“No, “ Johnny raised his hand, swallowing hard. He shook his head. “It’s okay, Murdoch, I said I been dealing with it a long time – and I mean just that. I can deal with it. After all,” he pulled a ragged grin, “people have hated me for a lot of other things, too. No, what I can’t abide, what I truly can’t stand for, is to have people say those things about someone like Maria. Someone who’s good through and through.”
“I know.” Murdoch cleared his throat. He looked at Johnny and then at the floor, studying the design in the carpet beneath his feet. “Lachlan and his wife have been married only four months. Until this journey, well, he says that until they embarked on this tour of California he never saw any indication that Margaret was anything but amiable, generous and open-minded.”
“Open mouthed, more like,” Johnny snorted.
“Lachlan is deeply embarrassed about what happened today.”
“Not his fault.”
“No,” Murdoch agreed. He considered his angry son for a moment. “Who knows, perhaps it is not entirely her fault either. I’m told that women of a certain age sometimes become a bit disagreeable. Quarrelsome and unhappy. But at any rate, Lachlan is desperate that his wife be happy.”
“So why are you telling me all this?” Johnny asked suspiciously. “They’re leaving soon. When? Day after tomorrow? In the meantime I’ll do my best to keep outta the way.”
“Yes, well, er, I wanted you to understand the delicacies of the matter . . .”
“Delicacies?” Johnny interrupted. “That ain’t even close to being the proper word to use in connection with that woman.” He snatched up his shirt from the chair by the bed then threw it down in disgust. “Delicacies!”
“Because,” Murdoch continued, “because then you might understand why I didn’t, ah, object this evening when Mrs. Irvine announced she would be staying on with us while her husband made his inspection tour.”
“She WHAT?” Johnny looked at his father in disbelief.
“She informed me my ‘ward’ was sadly lacking a gentlewoman’s guiding hand and that she had decided to remedy that by staying on with us when Lachlan heads out.”
Johnny groaned. “And you didn’t say anything?”
“What could I say? Lachlan had already unburdened himself to me – how could I fail to help an old friend?”
“Okay, okay.” Johnny shook his head. “Poor Teresa. Poor Maria. Well, she likes Scott. Set her at Scott. Just don’t expect to see too much of me – how long is she staying?”
“A least a couple of weeks.”
Johnny groaned again. “Well,” he said, “I got enough work with them horses to keep me busy and outta the house for the next few days. After that I can find me something to do, ridin’ the fenceline maybe.” He grinned. “The one on the north range needs fixin’.”
“I’m sure,” Murdoch laughed. “And there’s those calves Don’t forget them.”
The bed creaked nosily as Murdoch stood. He glanced sympathetically at his son. “How about some liniment for that back?”
if you want to see me poison myself by drinking it,” Johnny sighed, the
gloom again evident in his voice. “Old man, how come the only one you’re
good at sayin’ ‘no’ to is me?”
* * * * *
He could hear the anger in Maria even before he walked into the kitchen and saw her stormy face. The heavy clang of a stove lid being lifted and replaced, the bang of a frying pan set on the stove top, the squeal of the hand-pump being worked vigorously: each familiar sound this morning was louder and more insistent than usual. Johnny smiled wryly. Maria had heard the news.
“Mornin’,” he said, carefully sidling past the silent housekeeper as she vigorously kneaded a lump of bread dough on the table. He retrieved a cup from the shelf near the sink and reached for the coffee pot simmering on the back of the stove. The handle was hot, too hot, and he grimaced, letting the pot clatter back onto the stove as he looked for a potholder. Wordlessly, and without looking at him, Maria handed over the towel tucked into her apron pocket.
“Gracias,” he murmured. She shot him a dark look and continued kneading.
“I’m sorry, Maria.” He swirled the hot coffee in his cup, watching her busy hands. “This whole thing kinda has all of us in a bind, don’t it?”
“No le hace.” She returned the bread dough to a large bowl, covered it with a cloth and placed it on the sideboard. Then she moved to the stove and stabbed with a fork at the thick slabs of bacon sizzling in the pan. “Never mind,” she repeated. She turned to him, her face stoic, closed. “I am used to it. And so, I think, are you, Juanito.”
Before he could respond, Teresa entered the kitchen, her arms cradling numerous jars of put-up jams and jellies. “Maria? Oh – Johnny! You’re up early, aren’t you?” She glanced back at the housekeeper. “Will this do, do you think? Or maybe just one of each kind?”
“Not so early, Teresa,” Johnny protested, snatching a piece of bacon from the frying pan as Maria took the jars. “Normal time.”
“Well, last night you said you were too tired to stay up and help entertain our guests after dinner,” Teresa answered archly. “So I thought . . .”
“Aw, honey . . .”
“Oh, Johnny,” Teresa became serious. “Did Maria tell you? What are we going to do? I don’t think I can bear it,” she whispered, her brows knitting worriedly.
“You’ll do just fine, T’resa. Thanks, Maria,” he added as the woman set a plate of eggs, bacon and biscuits on the table and motioned for him to sit. “Only two pieces of bacon this mornin’, mamacita?”
“No, three,” Maria called over her shoulder from the stove. “You already have eaten the first piece, Thief.”
“Johnny . . .”
There was an entreating tone to Teresa’s voice and he stopped eating to give her a sympathetic look. “I know, honey,” he said. “I don’t like it any more’n you do. But Murdoch talked to me last night and I reckon we have to do the best we can.”
“But everything I do or say is wrong!” Teresa sank into a chair across from Johnny, elbows on the table, chin cupped in her hands. “How I talk. And what I wear. Even the stitches I’m using on the pillowslips I’m embroidering as Nettie Ann’s wedding present.” Absently she reached over to Johnny’s plate and took a biscuit.
“Better not let Mrs. Irvine catch you doing that, Teresa,” Scott advised, settling into the chair next to Johnny. “Good morning, everyone,” he said cheerily. “I suggest you keep your voices down in case our guests are early risers.”
Teresa gasped, her hands flying to her mouth as she shot Johnny a horrified look. He smiled at her reassuringly and retrieved his biscuit from where she’d dropped it on the table. “Don’t worry, honey. Ole Scott here woulda warned us if that biddy was anywhere close to the kitchen.”
“Coffee, Señor Scott?” Without waiting for an answer Maria set a cup of steaming coffee on the table.
“What are we going to do,” Teresa moaned again.
“Well, I don’t know about the rest of you,” Johnny said, rising from the table, plate in hand. “But there’s a mess of work waiting for me out in those corrals. Reckon it’ll keep me out of the house pretty near morning and night. But don’t worry, Teresa,” he smiled broadly. “Scott will be right here, getting outta real work by playing with his sums.”
“Now wait a minute, we agreed on that . . .”
“Johnny?” Teresa began haltingly. She bit her lip.
“What, honey?” he asked softly. He saw the glistening of unshed tears in her eyes and knew then what she wanted. “Yeah, I’ll do what I can,” he said. “I won’t abandon you completely, Teresa. But you gotta promise me something.”
“Yes – anything!” she breathed in relief.
“Ya gotta promise that the first person you call for help, after Murdoch of course, will be Scott.”
Teresa looked at him quizzically.
“He’s the gentleman,” Johnny grinned. He gave his brother’s chest a sharp flick with the back of his hand then quickly waggled a finger in warning as Scott lunged at him in mock retaliation. “Me, I’m just a ‘man of the soil.’ ”
* * * * *
He lay flat on his back in the dust, staring up at the brilliant afternoon sky while he waited for his head to stop ringing and his lungs to force in some much needed air. It wasn’t often he got dumped breaking green horses, but when it happened it was highly uncomfortable.
A shadow fell across him and Jelly stuck his worried face close to his own. “You okay, Johnny? He went over on ya, ya know.”
No, Johnny thought, drawing in a ragged breath, I didn’t know. Must be why I feel so sorta – flat. Closing his eyes he mentally took a quick inventory and decided everything seemed to be pretty much in working order.
“Johnny?” Worry made Jelly’s voice go up a pitch.
“I’m fine, Jelly,” Johnny answered, opening his eyes. “Or I will be if ya stop breathing on me.” Slowly he sat up. Looked around. “Where’s that colt?”
“Frank’s got him,” Jelly said, rising stiffly to his feet. He stuck out his hand and Johnny grabbed it, using it to pull himself up.
“’Kay,” Johnny said, tentatively drawing in a deep breath. He waggled his shoulders, shifted his weight carefully from one foot to another and decided his initial assessment was right: he was fine. “Frank,” he called, waving a beckoning arm. “Looks like we gotta do a bit more ground work with this fella.”
“T’resa said you missed lunch,” Jelly said primly as they walked together toward the corral fence and the bucket of drinking water perched on one of the posts.
“Yeah, wasn’t hungry.” Johnny scooped a ladle of water and rinsed the dirt out his mouth. Still feeling as if he’d eaten half the dirt in corral, he rinsed out his mouth a second time and then took a long drink.
“She sent somethin’ out.”
“She did?” Johnny grinned, pleased. He’d hoped to slip into the kitchen and sneak out some leftovers. This was better, much better. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “What’d she send, Jelly?”
“Pretty near the whole works, near as I can figger,” the handyman said, lifting a large basket from the ground. “Probably more’n you deserve.” He peeled back a corner of the red-checked cloth that covered the top of the basket. “Fried chicken.” The cloth was pulled back a little farther. “Biscuits ‘n jam.”
“Aw, Jelly . . .”
“Johnny!” From across the stable yard came Murdoch’s voice and Johnny looked up to see his father approaching, Lachlan Irvine at his side.
“You all right, son?” Murdoch asked as he and his guest reached the corral. “Looked like that colt rolled on you.”
“A little,” Johnny said. “But I’m fine . . . Thanks, Frank,” he called, catching his hat deftly as it came sailing across the fence, sent flying by a quick flick of Frank’s wrist. He smoothed his hair and then settled the hat squarely on his head. “That’s one stubborn stud colt, Murdoch,” Johnny said, watching Frank lead the young chestnut stallion toward the barn. “We just might have to cut him after all.”
“Up to you, John.”
“Well, I’d like to work with him a little longer, see where we get.”
“Mr. Lancer?” Frank stood at the barn door. “Hate to bother yuh, sir, but would you have time to show me that patch job yuh wanted me to do? Sorry, but I can’t seem to find the place on that harness. Looked this mornin’ but darned if I see where yuh mean.”
“Sure, Frank. Excuse me, Lachlan?” At his guest’s nod, Murdoch disappeared into the darkness of the barn.
“I gotta get back to my chores – here ya go, Johnny, and mind ya return that basket to Teresa or she’ll have my hide,” Jelly admonished, passing the food hamper to Johnny. Then with a tip of his cap and a polite, “Rev’rend!” Jelly headed back toward the house.
“Lunch?” Reverend Irvine queried. “Don’t let me interrupt. Please, go ahead.”
Cursing Jelly and Murdoch and, yes, Frank, him too, Johnny fidgeted uncomfortably with a fraying edge of the basket’s handle. Should he invite the man to join him on the bench under the tree? Or say a mannerly “thanks” and head off on his own. As the minister gave him a farewell nod and began to walk off toward the house, Johnny called, “Er, Reverend Irvine?”
He cocked his head, embarrassed now at the awkwardness of his timing, but plowing on anyway, committed. “Would you, would you care to join me? Think I oughta sit down to do Teresa’s picnic justice.”
Lachlan Irvine turned, looked at him searchingly and then smiled with what appeared to be genuine pleasure. “I’d like that, John. Thank you.”
The bench was solidly if roughly built, and old, the ground before it hollowed out by a generation or two of sharp-heeled vaquero boots taking their ease. A fine layer of dust from the corral covered the gray wood and Johnny whipped at it quickly with the napkin from Teresa’s basket.
“Thanks,” Lachlan Irvine said, settling down heavily. “But a wee bit of dirt has never been known to do a man any harm. Even,” he added, eyes dancing, “a ‘gentleman.’”
Johnny felt the heat rise in his face and he wondered guiltily whether the minister had overheard that morning’s banter after all. “Uh, sir,” he began, wondering desperately how he was going to set this one right.
“No, John – Johnny.” Irvine held up his hand. “Don’t say anything. Ach, it is I who owe you an apology, lad. Except I don’t really know what to say, what would . . . “
“Reverend,” Johnny interrupted, his eyes fixed on his boots. “Don’t. Please. It ain’t your fault. Maybe it’s no one’s fault. But let’s leave it be. Besides,” he added softly, raising his eyes to meet the other’s steady gaze, “I think you know I’m not exactly someone who should go judgin’ other people’s actions. ‘Course, that doesn’t stop me from doin’ it,” he grinned crookedly.
“Ah, well, we’re none of us perfect, Johnny,” Lachlan Irvine laughed. “But your father did tell me this morning that you were close to it when on the back of a horse.”
“Murdoch said that?” Johnny asked disbelievingly. Trying to hide his pleasure, he reached into the basket and pulled out a chicken leg. “Bet that was before that colt dumped me,” he added lightly.
“Of course. And he did say ‘close to.’”
“Yeah,” Johnny answered, his tone more serious than he intended, “he would.”
There was a silence between them then. It was not uncomfortable but rather oddly companionable. His father’s old friend, Johnny thought, had the gift of being at ease with himself and, therefore, with others. Must make a good preacher – good in the right sorta way, he mused.
“I never met your mother,” Irvine said suddenly. “I knew Scott’s mother,” he continued, seemingly oblivious to the effect his words were having on Johnny, who felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him for the second time that day. “But I only knew your mother through Murdoch’s letters. There weren’t many – he was too busy in those days, building Lancer. He wrote to tell me of his beautiful young bride. Later he wrote to tell me of the birth of his son. You.”
Johnny sat as if frozen, feeling rather than seeing Lachlan Irvine watching him closely.
“He had wanted to name you Iain,” the minister continued. “It means ‘gift of God.’ And that’s what he felt you were, a gift.”
Something tore inside Johnny then and he looked away, forcing his voice to be coolly matter-of-fact. “Some gift.”
“No, laddie,” Reverend admonished, his burr now very strong. “You mustn’t say that.”
“Hasn’t he told you?” Johnny said harshly. “We’re always knockin’ heads.”
“You father’s a hard man, John, always has been.” Lachlan Irvine paused for a long moment.
“Yeah, well. . . He has his reasons.” Johnny swallowed, looking across the corral toward the barn where Murdoch and Frank stood framed in the doorway, still obviously deep in conversation. “I’m a disappointment to him, Reverend. Don’t mean to be. But I am.”
“No, Johnny, don’t go down that path – too many of your Scots forefathers have trod it before. No,” Irvine said as he slowly rose from the bench and placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “He’s proud of you, young man. He just doesn’t know how to say it. That’s always been his problem. And his way.”
* * * * *
Murdoch pulled uncomfortably at his collar and wondered again whether Maria had purposely put too much starch in his dress shirt. Gloomily he stuck out his chin and surveyed his image in the mirror. Against the white of the shirt his neck looked raw and irritated, the result of shaving twice daily for the past week. His collar felt too stiff and it rubbed. And his tie wasn’t right. Angrily he pulled at one end and undid the loops he had just made.
There was a knock on the door, a crisp rap of the knuckles that Murdoch recognized as his elder son’s. Scowling at the bit of fabric that refused to cooperate with his fingers, he barked an ill-tempered, “Come in, damn you” before pulling off the offending tie and flinging it onto his bed.
“Well, what bit you?” Scott asked as he closed the door behind him. Clean-shaven and trim in his dark suit, he looked quizzically at his father and Murdoch felt his temper rise. Scott’s very appearance, the seeming ease with which he had slipped into the routine of “dressing for dinner” tonight was a visual rebuke to a man who knew his neck looked like ground beef and whose fingers felt as useful as sausages.
“Don’t be impertinent,” Murdoch growled. Pursing his lips, he retrieved his tie and turned back to the mirror. He didn’t much like what he saw, a cross, middle-aged man – with a red neck.
“May I help?”
“All right, all right.” Flushed and annoyed, Scott turned to the door and opened it. “Teresa asks that we come down a little earlier tonight,” he said stiffly. “Apparently, she has had a very difficult day.”
Murdoch didn’t answer. He heard his door close with a distinct slam and felt a twinge of guilt. Usually Scott had an uncanny knack for getting him to relax, even to help him laugh at himself. The son was like his mother in that way. Catherine had always known how to deal with his black moods. But then Catherine would also have known how to deal with Margaret Withers Irvine. He himself did not.
In the three days since her husband had left to continue his visit to the San Joaquin’s small and scattered Presbyterian congregations, Mrs. Irvine had managed to gain almost complete control of the Lancer household. Not a meal was served or a basket of laundry washed without her consent and unsolicited advice. The entire domestic routine had been reviewed with Teresa and found wanting. A daily hour of “domestic arts” instruction was decreed. That, of course, was in addition to the needlework lessons Mrs. Irvine was conducting. Only that afternoon Murdoch had walked into the Great Room to find Teresa tearfully snipping at the embroidery on Nettie Ann Linford’s wedding presents. Her stitches, she had been informed, still were not uniform, and her choice of colors was somewhat common.
Mrs. Irvine’s interests went well beyond the domestic. Happening upon an open ledger left carelessly on the dining room table, she had proclaimed the ranch’s simple but (usually) effective accounting methods out-dated. Murdoch’s library was too heavily weighted in favor of the classics and was therefore not to be considered intellectually broadening. Green River’s new and struggling little weekly newspaper was written by illiterates, for illiterates. Lancer’s poultry were poor producers, its cattle would no doubt be improved by the introduction of better bloodlines.
Murdoch had increasingly found reason to be outdoors. Even the most innocuous of conversations with his old friend’s wife rapidly taxed his patience. Mrs. Irvine’s insistence on being considered the authoritative source for even the most insignificant of details riled him almost as much as her supercilious attitude toward everyone in the family aside from himself and Scott. And if truth be known, Murdoch thought wryly, she probably had less use for the father than his elder son.
He turned up his collar, slipped the tie around his neck, and began again to fashion a loop. There was another rap at the door, less insistent, more casual. Johnny’s “open the door or don’t – it’s all the same to me” knock. But before he could answer the door was cracked open just enough to admit a man’s white linen handkerchief tied to what appeared to be a long-handled shoe horn.
“Don’t shoot, ah’m comin’ in,” Johnny whispered in an exaggerated drawl. Murdoch chuckled in spite of himself and his younger son theatrically squeezed through the doorway, hands up, as if entering a room full of trigger-happy desperados – something no doubt he had done more often than his father cared to admit.
“Brought you somethin’,” Johnny said with a grin, nodding toward his right hand which Murdoch now saw held a glass of what he guessed was his own good sipping whiskey. “Can I put down my hands or are you gonna draw on me like you did Scott?”
“Not funny, Johnny.” The scowl returned to Murdoch’s face.
“Yeah it is, Murdoch.” Johnny walked over to the bureau and set the glass of whiskey on the colorful dresser scarf. He peered closely at his father’s image in the mirror. “No wonder you’re so owly – neck hurts, huh?”
“Johnny. . .” There was a warning in Murdoch’s tone. He saw Johnny knew it. And was prepared to ignore it.
“Drink up, old man.”
“I . . .”
Capitulating, Murdoch grabbed the glass and threw back the hefty shot it held. The liquor slid down his throat and burned his stomach. He glared at Johnny, who gave him a crooked smile of amusement before settling down on the bed and leaning back against the pillows.
“You’ll wrinkle your suit,” Murdoch said, turning back to the mirror. He could feel the whiskey beginning to work.
“No I won’t.” Johnny reached down to pull the flap of his jacket from underneath his hip. He wore tonight, as he had for the past four nights, the well-tailored gray suit he had taken to calling his “Boston duds.” “I’m lyin’ careful.”
As he knotted his tie Murdoch closely studied his son’s reflection in the mirror. Something was up but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Over the past few days the one person who seemed unaffected by their unwelcome guest was Johnny. After that first night’s outburst he had remained remarkably serene, ignoring the pomposities, coolly acknowledging the few faint civilities -- and spending most of his time away from the house.
He would appear for dinner, having promised, Teresa confided, this one concession. And his demeanor while at the table was one of polite forbearance. He suffered Mrs. Irvine’s prejudices and her pride, and didn’t appear to notice when her cold comments to him were followed by gushing compliments to his brother. When dinner was over he would promptly excuse himself, giving a slightly formal bow in the direction of their guest, and disappear until the next evening’s meal.
“Yes, you seem to be ‘walking carefully,’ too,” Murdoch noted. “What’s going on, Johnny?”
“Nothing, Murdoch. I told you I would mind my manners. That’s what I’m doing.”
“Humphf,” Murdoch snorted. He looked more closely at the mirror, gave his tie a final tug, and then nodded. “Ready to go down?”
“I was wondering.” Johnny cocked his head inquisitively. “I know you felt you couldn’t ‘uninvite’ your old friend’s wife once she’d invited herself to stay on here.”
“Yes, well. . . “
“But it would be a different thing if she kinda uninvited herself, wouldn’t it?”
Murdoch looked at his son sharply. “Johnny, hard as this has been, I still feel the same. Mrs. Irvine is a guest in our home and the wife of my oldest friend . . .”
“Yeah, I know all that.” Johnny swung his legs off the bed and sat up. “And I like Reverend Irvine. You’re right, he’s a good man and I wouldn’t want to offend him. I keep reminding myself of that every time that woman opens her mouth. But you wouldn’t be exactly disappointed if she chose to join the reverend on his tour, right?”
“Er. . .”
“I found Teresa cryin’ in the wash house this morning, Murdoch.”
Shaking his head in exasperation, Murdoch exhaled heavily. He knew Teresa was taking the brunt of everything but he didn’t know how to make things easier for her. Or any of them.
“And this afternoon she was up the loft, bawlin’ her eyes out again.” Johnny eyed his father seriously. “Maria’s about ready to pull a gun on the woman next time she sets foot in the kitchen. And even Scott’s had a bellyful.”
“All right, all right – but what can I do?” Murdoch said, frustration in his voice.
“You can’t do anything,” Johnny answered simply. “But I can.”
* * * * *
Scott rested crossed arms on the top rail of the corral fence and watched his brother work magic. He thought back to their breakfast discussion of that morning and knew Johnny had been right: the chestnut colt was magnificent, well worth the extra time Johnny had wanted to spend gentling him. The young horse sedately loping around the corral, responding smoothly to his rider’s subtle shifts of weight and light pressure on the reins, was far more valuable now than he would have been had Johnny opted to break him the traditional “busters’” way.
“Never know that was the same colt that throwed hisself over backwards just to get rid of Johnny.” Jelly had appeared at Scott’s elbow and was shaking his head. “Coulda swore we was gonna hafta geld him. Murdoch sure will be glad he decided to give Johnny his head on this ‘un, ya think?”
“Hope so, Jelly, I certainly hope so.” With a smile, Scott put one foot on the bottom rail of the fence and swung his other over the top in one smooth movement. As he landed lightly in the thick dust he realized that Johnny had pulled up in the center of the corral and was dismounting. Loath to make any movement which would distract the young stallion, Scott stood quietly, watching as Johnny dropped the reins and walked toward the chestnut’s hindquarters, running a soothing hand over his flanks, bending to lift first one foot and then another.
Magic, Scott thought admiringly. He had worked with a number of green horses over the years, and if pressed he would admit that he was himself an excellent horseman. But he was under no illusions; Johnny had a rare gift, one Murdoch had only recently given him free rein to use.
It wasn’t so long ago, Scott reflected, that a discussion about Lancer’s horse-breaking methods could ignite yet another row between his mulish father and his hot-tempered brother. Cost conscious as always, Murdoch would argue the ranch could ill afford the extra time it took to “gentle” horses. Johnny would fume, fly off the handle and then escape into sullen silence. The present state of relative equanimity surrounding the issue was due to a set of neat black figures: Scott was able to show his father that the “gentled” horses had steadily brought a better price. Johnny had stayed cool long enough to explain that he didn’t intend to take his time with every cayoose and Murdoch had conceded the point, albeit grudgingly.
Scott saw Johnny lean close to the young horse’s muzzle and knew his brother was speaking softly to the colt, his breath blowing gently into the horse’s nostrils, using the Comanches’ method of making man and animal’s will one. Then Johnny straightened and the colt gave him a playful shove. The training session was over.
“Hey, Scott,” Johnny called as his brother approached. “Them books release their hold on ya? Thanks, Frank,” he said, giving up the colt’s reins to the waiting hand. “You wanna get started on that other bunch this morning?”
“Might as well, Johnny,” Frank agreed. “We got them calves waitin’ on us, too.”
“Yeah, I ‘spose. We finish off these ponies today we can start with the calves tomorrow.” Johnny turned back to Scott and grinned. “You ready to get your hands dirty yet?”
“Tomorrow,” Scott promised. “I’ll be there. Er,” he paused awkwardly as Frank began to walk the chestnut back toward the barn. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Sure. You want me to help ya find another one of those misplaced dot thingamajobs in your ‘rithmetic, right?” Johnny’s grin widened.
“Pure luck,” Scott scoffed. “I told you – my eyes were tired from looking at those figures all day.”
“Yeah . . .”
“No, little brother,” Scott’s tone turned serious. “I want to talk to you about something else. Before things get out of hand.” He looked searchingly at Johnny’s face and saw the smile disappear and a look of understanding replace it. Johnny returned his gaze steadily and then looked across the stable-yard toward the house.
“Don’t worry, Scott,” he said finally. “I’m not gonna embarrass you. Or Murdoch. Or T’resa.”
“I’d like to believe that.” Striving to keep his voice non-judgmental, Scott continued. “I’d like to believe that you’re going to remember that Mrs. Irvine is a guest in our house and . . .”
“’The wife of our father’s oldest friend,’” Johnny finished. “Yeah, I’m rememberin’ that. And the fact that Reverend Irvine is a mighty nice man.”
“So what the HELL were you up to last night?” Scott exploded. Folding his arms across his chest he silently challenged his brother to try, just try evading his question.
Instead Johnny gave him an aggrieved look. “Now just what did I do wrong, Scott?” He paced a step away and then turned back. “You tell me: what did I do wrong? Nothin’! Just nothin’! I was polite. Yuh gotta admit I was polite all night long. Did I say anything when that ole biddy started goin’ on about knowing fine horseflesh? Did ya hear me breath a word when she started in on correctin’ T’resa’s grammar?”
Johnny snorted with disgust. “‘Could HAVE’ or ‘could OF’ – wasn’t Mrs. Irvine’s place to correct Teresa. Look,” he continued earnestly, “I know I’m not an educated man. Least ways, educated like you and, I guess, Mrs. Irvine. Sometimes I wish I was but that’s not the hand I was dealt.”
“Johnny . . .” Scott began, suddenly uncomfortable.
“But I know there’s a difference between being uneducated and bein’ ignorant.” Johnny shifted his weight and eyed Scott thoughtfully. “I’m uneducated but that woman is just plain ignorant.”
“Yes,” Scott answered, his eyes holding his brother’s, “I know.” He took a deep breath. “But I also know you’re up to something, and I think I ought to know what it is.”
“What do you mean?”
Scott grinned. “There’s polite and there’s polite, brother.” He cast his voice in what he hoped was a recognizable imitation of Johnny’s soft drawl. “Why thank yuh, ma’am, that sure was a tasty meal yuh planned for us.’ ‘No, ma’am, I don’t imagine a cowpony could outrun a thoroughbred.’ ‘Is that a fact, ma’am? I . . .” Scott ducked as his brother’s hat shot out across the space between them and whacked him on the shoulder.
“Three or four nights in a row you sit at the table without saying a word and then all of a sudden butter won’t melt in your mouth.” Scott pointed his finger at Johnny’s chest accusingly: “That’s what I mean about ‘something’s up.’ And I want to know what it is.”
There was a shout from across the corral and Scott saw a saddle go flying into the dirt as a spooked bay mare fought Frank’s rope. The ranch-hand was having to do some fancy footwork to keep the green horse from bolting and Scott saw him glance quickly their way as he shouted again for help.
“Trust me, brother,” Johnny called to Scott over his shoulder as he ran through the dust of the corral. “You’re just gonna have to trust me.”
* * * * *
Trust? Scott thought to himself that evening at dinner as he watched his brother listen with apparent interest to Mrs. Irvine’s explanation of fox-hunting customs. Well, Johnny boy, all I know is that when you set out to win over someone or something, you usually succeed. Like that colt. And now Mrs. Irvine.
Absently running a finger around the base of his wineglass, Scott wondered with amusement whether Lancer’s difficult houseguest was down on Johnny’s list to be gentled or “busted.” Whatever Johnny had in mind he obviously was not yet ready to throw his rope. Impeccably dressed, his manners gentle, his diction nearly flawless, Johnny was forming his loop. And if Mrs. Irvine was not yet completely won over, she certainly had unbent a great deal more than Scott had ever expected.
“Imagine my surprise when I was awarded the mask,” Mrs. Irvine was saying. “I can assure you I felt the honor keenly.” She pressed a manicured hand to her breast and gave Johnny a wide-eyed and very feminine look.
“Yes, ma’am, you must have found it pleasurable, to be the only lady in on the kill,” Johnny answered with an engaging smile.
Choking down the laugh that threatened his composure, Scott reached quickly for his water goblet. “Excuse me,” he said as all eyes turned his way. “I seem to have swallowed something the wrong way.”
“Are you all right, son?” Murdoch’s eyes were dancing. “Do you need some more water?”
“I’m fine,” Scott gasped. “Please excuse me. I’m sorry, Mrs. Irvine. You were saying?”
“Well, I mustn’t go on,” the reverend’s lady said demurely.
“Please, ma’am,” Johnny said. “You mentioned something about a hunt breakfast. Now what would that be?”
“Well, it is traditionally called a breakfast,” Mrs. Irvine explained, “but it is always so much more. I believe in some New York circles people are still talking about the wonderful breakfast the Whitneys hosted a few years ago. The food was divine, a feast really. The desserts! Well, of course they did have a French chef who was a marvel at pastry.”
Immersed in the enjoyment of her memories, Mrs. Irvine’s cheeks glowed and her eyes took on a far-off look. “Everyone, just everyone was there. Not just the hunting set, you know – but all the young men and the ladies of their acquaintance. Oh,” she said, collecting herself. “But I was telling you about the food, wasn’t I? There was a lovely roast of beef, and lamb. The oysters were marvelous. Well, on Long Island they would be, wouldn’t they? And the caviar! I do so adore such delicacies. Although one should not have a steady diet of them, of course.” She gave a tinkling laugh.
“Of course,” Teresa murmured. Scott looked at her sharply. “More beef, Mrs. Irvine?” she asked, her tone demure. “I’m afraid it may not be up to the standards of the Whitneys’ chef, but Maria did do her best to roast it as you suggested.”
“Yes, yes, dear,” Mrs. Irvine said absently. “Marie did a competent job. Perhaps a little underdone . . .”
“You must miss that life, Margaret,” Murdoch observed, pouring himself another glass of wine. Silently, he offered the bottle to Scott.
“Please.” Scott passed his glass.
“Hmmm? No, thank you, but no.”
“Well, life does present one with challenges sometimes,” Mrs. Irvine sighed. Then she looked at Murdoch and gave what Scott felt was the first really genuine smile he had seen in the entire week she had been at Lancer. “But without challenges there are no true rewards. And Lachlan, the chance to spend the rest of my life as a helpmate to a man such as he – well that, my dear Murdoch, is a reward indeed.” Then her eyes filled and she awkwardly began to fold and refold the napkin in her lap.
In the stunned silence that followed Scott found himself draining his wineglass with rather more enthusiasm than usual. Murdoch, nonplussed, simply stared. But it was he who found his voice first. With a gruff, “There, there, Margaret,” he clumsily patted her hand.
Scott stole a look at Johnny and saw his brother regarding Mrs. Irvine with a look that somehow managed to combine compassion with a fair amount of wariness. At that moment Scott would have been willing to bet that his brother’s plans for the reverend’s lady had taken a sudden shift on the side of gentleness. But then the lady’s next words made Scott glad he’d never been much of a gambling man.
“Teresa, dear,” Mrs. Irvine said, the familiar asperity in her voice. “I do wish you would take Marie in hand. We should not be forced to sit here staring at the remains of our meal and the soiled dishes while she gibbers in the kitchen with that Mr. Hoskins person. You must make it clear to her that good table service requires diligence.”
“Yes, Mrs. Irvine.”
That’s it, Scott thought as he watched his brother’s face turn to stone and his eyes become dark, hooded. It wouldn’t be long now before Johnny threw that loop and hauled it in – hard.
* * * * *
The work had begun very early that morning, earlier than the ranch’s usual routine. But that, Teresa knew, was because Johnny, Scott and the rest of the men working with the recovered strays wanted to get as much done as possible before the sun made an unpleasant job even more unpleasant. By mid afternoon, when Teresa had joined Mrs. Irvine in the Great Room to work together on their embroidery projects, the action out at the corral had been going on for nearly nine hours.
Teresa hated branding time. She was glad that the job was usually done out on the range, the sounds and the smells far from the house. But every once in a while something would happen which would mean the work had to be done in the corrals. And for a day or two or, one particularly memorable time, for four, Teresa would grit her teeth against the smell of burning hair and flesh, stuff small pieces of cotton wool in her ears to block the constant bawling of anxious cows and frightened calves and dream about paying an extended visit to Nettie Ann or one of her other friends.
“How much longer is that terrible caterwauling going to go on?” Mrs. Irvine cast aside her embroidery hoop in disgust and sank back against the cushions of the flowered settee, eyes closed, her hand pressed to her forehead.
“Oh, I imagine the men will want to put in several more hours before they call it a day,” Teresa answered complacently. She cast a quick glance at Mrs. Irvine and then returned to her embroidery, concentrating on making her stitches smaller, neater and more even than ever before. She couldn’t see much difference between the work she was doing now and that which Mrs. Irvine earlier had pronounced unacceptable but at least her efforts were now earning praise rather than criticism.
“This is insufferable,” Mrs. Irvine announced suddenly. She stood and gave Teresa a forbidding look. “My dear, the noise and that terrible smell are bringing on one of my sick headaches. I am going to retire to my room for a nap. I am so sorry, but I’m afraid we are going to have to work on your petit point another day.”
“Of course, Mrs. Irvine,” Teresa answered, working frantically to keep delighted relief from her face. “I’m so sorry you are feeling ill. Is there anything I can do?”
“Yes, dear,” her guest responded as she gathered her embroidery hoop and her shawl. “Please ask Marie to bring a basin of cool water to my room. Have you any dried lavender? Yes? Ask her to put one teaspoonful in the bottom of the basin before she adds the water. No more – I do not care for heavy scents.”
“Would you like a light supper in your room this evening?” Teresa could hear the hope in her own voice and she hurried to hide her intent. “I mean, you mustn’t overdo. Headaches can be so persistent.”
“No, dear,” Mrs. Irvine said benignly. “I will be fine after a slight lie-down. I am blessed with a most resilient constitution. However,” she added, eyeing Teresa thoughtfully. “I may not be up to the task of supervising Marie’s preparation of the chicken. Would you take over, please? Thank you, my dear.”
Teresa’s heart sang as Mrs. Irvine swept out of the room. She felt as giddy as if she had been let out of a closet after an over-long game of hide and seek. Never again, she rejoiced, would she complain about branding. Oh, blessed noise! If only the men were doing the entire herd rather than just that bunch of rangy mavericks. Teresa tossed Nettie Ann’s pillowslip onto the table beside her, shook out her hair and sprawled inelegantly on the settee. What to do first?
“Well, you look happy, young lady!” Murdoch gave her a pleased look as he strode through across the Great Room to his desk, hat in hand. “Er, where is our guest? Isn’t this the time when you ladies work on your needlework?” Pawing through a stack of papers Murdoch turned his attention to his desktop.
“Our guest,” Teresa pronounced with deliberate emphasis on the first word. “Our guest has retired to her room with a headache. But she will join us for dinner.”
“Ah,” Murdoch said absently. He retrieved a single sheet of paper from the stack and held it up to read, scanning its contents swiftly. Then he pulled a small notebook from his pocket and began jotting down notations. When done he snapped shut the notebook’s cover, gave it a quick rap with his pencil and settled his hat back on his head. “And that’s that,” he said with a satisfied smile. “The figures tally – I thought we were still missing some cows but it looks like I was wrong.”
“Yes? Oh, sorry, sweetheart,” he said, suddenly contrite. “You were saying?”
“Nothing,” Teresa sighed, looking at the tall rancher with amused tolerance. He was so dear to her. But sometimes, she thought, he became so preoccupied with ranch business that he was oblivious to all else. “Are you going back outside?” she asked. “Want some company? I’ve been let out of ‘school’ for the rest of the afternoon, until it’s time to help ‘Marie’ with dinner.”
“Oh, Teresa, I AM sorry,” Murdoch groaned. Guiltily he gave her a searching look. “How are you managing?”
“I’m fine, Murdoch.” She smiled and slipped her arm in his. “Besides, it won’t be much longer.”
“Well, another week – maybe more,” Murdoch warned as they stepped outside and began walking alongside the house toward the barns. “Think you can hold out?”
Murdoch stopped. “Do you know something I don’t, young lady?”
“I don’t know, Murdoch, do I?”
“Don’t be coy, young lady,” he answered with mock gruffness. He tucked her arm tightly under his and continued walking. “Johnny?” he queried.
“Now just how many strays were there, Murdoch?” Teresa said, pretending she hadn’t heard his question.
They were approaching the corral and the smell of the branding fire, of burnt hair, of sweat, of cattle and horses and of men at work was very strong. Through the dust she could see Johnny on Barranca, hazing a heifer toward Emilio, who threw his rope with a casual grace and dallied quickly when the loop slipped down over the calf’s head. She saw Benito wrestle the calf to the ground as Scott rushed to his side, the iron “L” glowing red. The heifer bawled loudly, the smoke rose and in a long moment it was done, the branded calf struggling to her feet and back to her worried, vocal mother.
“Teresa,” Murdoch stopped again and pulled her back toward him. “What’s that boy up to? No, young lady,” he admonished with a laugh, “don’t give me that wide-eyed look of yours. It’s not going to work. Johnny’s talked to you, hasn’t he?”
“Well, at least somebody has!”
“Oh, all right, Murdoch,” Teresa answered with a merry smile. “Yes, Johnny’s talked to me. Yes, he’s up to something. And no, you don’t have to worry. Satisfied?”
“Well . . .”
“Just trust him,” Teresa advised.
“Yes, well, that’s what he told Scott, when Scott tried to talk to him.” Murdoch pushed his hat back on his head and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“Well then,” Teresa said cheerfully, turning back toward the corral, “do it. Trust him – and me.”
* * * * *
Guilt drew Murdoch to his desk after lunch the next day. Guilt about the paperwork he had been ignoring since Mrs. Irvine’s arrival. And guilt about having shifted most of the burden for attending to Mrs. Irvine onto Teresa’s slim shoulders.
He managed to ignore the voice of his conscience most of the morning by rationalizing that with Cipriano away attending the funeral of Elena’s tio abuelo Scott and Johnny needed his help. And so he spent a few hours in the corrals, watching his sons finish up the branding. Walking with them through the milling herd of strays. Looking carefully for heifers worth keeping as breeding stock.
Then Jelly had called him over to examine the milk cow and what appeared at first to be a case of the dreaded lumpjaw turned out to be an abscessed wound. Next Rodriguez beckoned him to the workshop, anxious that he understand just why an old singletree should be replaced rather than repaired. Quince wanted to know if anyone had picked up the order of fencing wire and the tarpaper needed for the southwest line shack; Francisco was grousing about his dwindling stock of horseshoe nails.
But after lunch, during which he made a special effort to engage Mrs. Irvine’s attention with his most amusing memories of pranks he and Lachlan had pulled as young men, Murdoch went reluctantly to his desk. There he began to sort through the accumulated letters and papers he had so long neglected. From the sitting area came the steady drone of Mrs. Irvine’s voice. For Teresa’s sake he tried to take part in the conversation, but it wasn’t long before even the most boring of his business letters seemed to have a greater claim to his attention.
It was late in the afternoon when he was distracted by the sound of someone whistling. Looking up, finally, from his laboriously composed response to a cattle buyer’s latest convoluted proposals, he was surprised to find his younger son, already dressed in his “Boston duds,” busily choosing an assortment of cutlery from the walnut flatware cabinet on the sideboard.
“Er, aren’t you a little early for dinner, son?” Murdoch pulled out his pocket-watch and checked the time. He looked at Johnny curiously.
“Doin’ a favour for T’resa,” Johnny said. “She wanted to take a long bath so I said I’d take care of this.”
“Oh?” Murdoch raised his eyebrow. “And I assume she’s doing you a favor in return?” he asked wryly.
Before Johnny could answer Mrs. Irvine walked into the room, a small basket of wildflowers over her arm. “Oh my, is it that time already?” the reverend’s wife asked in surprise. “Surely not?”
“No, ma’am,” Johnny stopped fiddling with the cutlery and gave their visitor a shy smile. “I’m just givin’ Teresa a hand. But I’m not real good at this table setting business so I figured maybe I ought to give myself a good piece of time, just so I could get it right. This dinner being so fancy and all.”
Johnny’s drawl, Murdoch noted, was back in place but Margaret Irvine didn’t appear to mind. She had warmed to his younger son considerably; in fact, Murdoch thought, she was positively purring with pleasure as Johnny turned the full force of his boyish charm her way. Biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself from chuckling, Murdoch surreptitiously listened to his roguish son lie through his teeth.
“You mean to say Teresa didn’t consult with you about this?” Johnny was saying.
“No, I assure you,” Mrs. Irvine said breathlessly. “I had no idea.”
“Well, then I guess I have gone and done it.” Johnny hung his head mournfully. “I am a regular dunderhead, ma’am. I’m truly sorry. Here I was tryin’ to help Teresa out by makin’ sure everything got done the way she wanted and I think I’ve gone and ruined her surprise.”
“Yes’m. Please, ma’am, don’t let on. Teresa would be so disappointed. Now,” Johnny continued, surveying the table in apparent bewilderment. “How did she tell me to do this? There’s the meat fork, and that goes here.” He set down a fork, then a second and then a knife. And then he stepped back to examine the results. “That’s not right,” he shook his head. “Three forks, I think she said.”
“Three?” Mrs. Irvine asked curiously.
“Well, ma’am, that’s what I understood her to say, that you had to have different forks and spoons and such for different courses. And for special dishes. But maybe I’ve got it all mixed up now.” Murdoch groaned to himself as Johnny flashed another of his beguiling smiles at Margaret Irvine. “Now just how would I lay out three forks, ma’am?”
“That would really depend on what you were serving, Mr. John Lancer,” Mrs. Irvine answered with what Murdoch was ready to swear was a distinctly coy cast to her voice. “Perhaps you could give me just a little hint, and then I would know what to suggest.”
“But . . . “ Johnny began dubiously.
“You wouldn’t want to disappoint Teresa,” cooed Mrs. Irvine persuasively.
“No, I wouldn’t,” Johnny said. “I guess maybe . . . if you promise not to let on.”
Murdoch put his head in his hands and fought to keep a straight face. An actor, he thought, desperately trying to pretend he was reading his letter. The boy should have gone on the stage. When he dared lift his head again Mrs. Irvine was gone and his son was cheerily going about his unlikely, self-assigned chore of setting a formal dinner table.
“Don’t,” he warned as he caught Murdoch looking at him. “Don’t say it, Murdoch.”
“All right. Except -- I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Always,” Johnny said, his grin stretching wide. “Better get dressed, old man. I have a feeling this is one dinner you don’t want to miss.”
* * * *
In the warm glow of the candlelight, Johnny watched Mrs. Irvine give the table her habitual inspection as she carefully unfolded her linen napkin and placed it in her lap. Not for the first time did Johnny wonder at the effect candlelight had on women’s complexions. Now Teresa , he thought, Teresa looks pretty whether she’s out working her mare in the sun or sitting here all dressed up at a fancy dinner party. But in this light even Mrs. Irvine looks fine. Younger, softer. Kinder.
Maria had been right, he mused. She had insisted they again use the tall candelabras that until recently had spent most of their life gathering dust on a forgotten shelf. Johnny had thought it an unnecessary bother, especially when Maria thrust a soft cloth and a pot of some strange paste in his hand at breakfast time and told him to make himself useful until the porridge was done. But he had to admit it: Those fancy candlesticks and long tapers made a difference.
He listened with only half an ear as Scott asked Murdoch about his plans for rebuilding the bridge at the west edge of Spring Meadow. Instead, most of his attention was focused on Maria, who was moving silently around the table with her large silver tray, serving steaming bowls of the consommé that was to be the meal’s first course. Each bowl was presented on its own plate and each serving garnished with a small, perfectly formed sprig of parsley. The parsley had been Teresa’s idea, Johnny knew. Fancy restaurants did it that way, she said. She’d seen it in San Francisco, with Murdoch.
The matter of the menu had been the topic of much clandestine debate between Teresa and Maria. Johnny had merely outlined his hopes for the evening, made a few suggestions and let the two women take it from there. They had checked with him once, and once only, on the question of timing. But they had sorted through the rest themselves.
“Is there anything else you require, Missus?” Maria stood formally at Mrs. Irvine’s elbow. She had found, somewhere, a prim dark dress and now looked every inch the Anglo housekeeper. Although Johnny wondered what wealthy gringa would be inclined to hire, much less keep on a housekeeper whose eyes burned with such contempt. Mrs. Irvine, however, didn’t seem to notice.
“No, Marie, that will be all for now, will it not, Teresa?” At Teresa’s nod, Mrs. Irvine turned back to Maria. “But please, Marie, henceforth you must direct your questions to Miss Teresa. She is our hostess this evening.”
“Yes, Missus.” With a quick bob that Johnny knew was supposed to suggest a servant’s curtsy, Maria glided out of the room to return to her kitchen. He reached for his soupspoon and Murdoch caught his eye. Although his father’s face was virtually expressionless, Johnny could see one agile eyebrow was slightly raised. The question hung in the air, unasked. Johnny ignored it. Murdoch would have to wait, and judge for himself. He addressed himself to his soup, carefully using his spoon so that he was ladling away from himself instead of toward. Awkward and silly, he thought. But Teresa said that was the way it was done. In polite company.
“Ah . . . this is delicious, Teresa.” Scott smiled appreciatively. ”Compliments to the chefs.”
“Thank you,” Teresa beamed. “Does it remind you of our trip last year, Murdoch? And that special meal, to celebrate my birthday?” Her cheeks were flushed with excitement, her eyes sparkling. She’d never make a poker player, Johnny observed ruefully.
“Yes, I do, sweetheart. Consommé was our first course that night, too.”
“And is there a special occasion are we celebrating tonight?” Scott asked. “The end of the branding, perhaps? Or maybe all this is in my honor, to celebrate my noteworthy balancing act – with the books.”
“Of course, Scott,” Teresa responded gaily. “Your spectacular achievement! No, silly,” she leaned forward slightly, an appealingly earnest look on her face. “I just wanted to see if I could plan a formal meal on my own, without Mrs. Irvine’s . . . help. I mean, I started thinking about it and I realized that it was true: Murdoch is an important man and we often have important people as our guests.” She smiled sweetly at Mrs. Irvine and added, “I should make sure they are entertained in the manner their station demands.”
Suddenly conscious that he was staring, Johnny ducked his head. Oh, I AM sorry, Miss T, he chuckled to himself. I was wrong. I think maybe you could take a poker pot or two at that.
“And are you going to inform ‘these’ important people what’s being served next?” Scott pressed. He made a show of checking the table and then his lap, as if searching for something. “I seem to have misplaced my menu. But the second course should be . . .”
Teresa twisted her mouth into a pretty pout. “Scott, that’s not fair. This is supposed to be a surprise and you want to ruin it.”
“Well,” Murdoch’s tone was hearty. “You’re off to a beautiful start, Teresa. Isn’t she, Margaret?”
“Yes, my dear, very nice. Very nice indeed,” Mrs. Irvine said, beaming.
Maria appeared to clear the soup plates and to Johnny’s relief the conversation turned to safer areas. An unusually animated Mrs. Irvine queried Scott determinedly about the book he’d been reading before dinner. Twain? she asked with surprise. Wasn’t he rather, well, vulgar? A newspaper man. She hadn’t liked “Innocents Abroad.” No, she had not read it; it was published by subscription. But she had heard. And she had no intention of reading this new one, “Roughing It.” How surprising Scott should be so taken by such a work.
“Oh, I don’t know, Margaret.” Murdoch’s tone was genial. He shifted in his chair and looked at Mrs. Irvine with an amused smile. “Perhaps not so surprising. I understand the author is not without talent . . .”
“Facility with words does not constitute talent, my dear sir.” Mrs. Irvine regarded Murdoch with a sharp eye. “Or, I’m sure you will agree, taste.”
As Maria re-entered the dining room with her silver tray, Johnny saw his father color and a wry smile camouflaged the annoyance in his voice: “Once again I must bow to the inevitable, Margaret, and allow you the last word on this subject.”
“Pardon me, Missus.” Maria politely hovered by Mrs. Irvine’s elbow, ready to serve her the second course.
“Ah, thank you, Marie. How lovely.” Smiling with pleasure, Mrs. Irvine looked at each of the Lancers in turn, her eyes lingering on Johnny with what he knew was supposed to be a conspirator’s acknowledgment. He felt a twinge of conscience. But only a twinge.
“Thank you, Maria,” Scott said. Johnny saw his brother look down at his place, saw comprehension dawn, and saw the look of merriment in Scott’s eyes as he smoothly reached for the small fish fork to the right of his place. Blandly Johnny picked up his own fork and waited for Teresa, as hostess, to begin.
“I hope the sauce is all right,” Teresa said. “I wanted to try something different.” She smiled anxiously and took her first bite. Wordlessly, the others followed suit, the silence broken only by the faint ring of forks against china.
“Delicious,” Murdoch pronounced. His color was even higher than it had been earlier, and he looked neither left or right as he added, “The sauce is excellent, Teresa.”
“Real fine, Teresa,” Johnny said.
“I am very impressed.” Mrs. Irvine put down her fork, sipped at her wine and then dabbed gently at her mouth with her napkin. “The sauce is so delicate it doesn’t mask the flavor at all. What a wonderful surprise!”
“Oh,” Teresa breathed, “I’m so glad.”
“But I must say the taste is slightly unusual – and, yes, the consistency is somewhat different,” Mrs. Irvine added thoughtfully.
“Well, ma’am,” Johnny said. “I expect it is a mite different from what you’re used to back home.”
“Yes. Do you suppose that’s because the Pacific Ocean is warmer than the Atlantic?” Mrs. Irvine looked at Johnny with interest.
“Yes. I wonder whether the difference in temperature would account for these oysters being quite different from those of the Eastern seaboard.”
“Why, ma’am, these oysters didn’t come from the ocean. Surely you didn’t think we could serve you up real ocean-growed oysters?” Johnny gave their guest a perplexed look. “I mean, yuh do realize how far we are from the coast, don’t yuh, Mrs. Irvine?”
“Are they fresh-water oysters, then? I mean, I’ve never heard of such a thing but . . .”
“Oh, no, ma’am,” Johnny shook his head. “These oysters didn’t come from the water at all. They’re what we call ‘prairie oysters.’”
“Prairie oysters?” Mrs. Irvine repeated, doubt in her voice. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of them. If they don’t come from the water, pray where DO they come from?”
“Oh, Mrs. Irvine,” Johnny said remorsefully. “I am sorry. I guess I steered yuh wrong. But I woulda thought you’d know, you being so smart about so many things. Well, ma’am, not to put too fine a point on it, they come from, er, the nether end of the bull calf. If yuh follow what I mean.” His gave her his second-best smile, the one that contrived to combine innocent boyishness with full-blooded male charm. “Yes,’m, I guess you could say it’s a delicacy we always look forward to around brandin’ and castratin’ time.”
In the silence that followed, Mrs. Irvine sat as if frozen, her face a rigid white mask. For a moment Johnny began to seriously wonder whether he had gone too far. Teresa’s head was down, as if she was examining something in her lap. And Murdoch was toying with his dessert fork. It was Scott who broke the silence first, Scott whose snort of suppressed laughter escaped just as he tried to swallow a mouthful of water. Suddenly Johnny found himself having to resort to an old survival skill, his quicksilver ability to don the impassive face of Johnny Madrid, in order to keep from howling with delight as water sprayed from the nose and mouth of his well-bred, Harvard-educated gentlemanly brother.
“Sorry,” Scott blurted, retrieving the handkerchief from his breast pocket. Then his eyes met Johnny’s and with another explosive chortle he was snickering helplessly behind the white linen cloth. With a choked gasp, Teresa rose from the table and ran toward the kitchen, hands pressed to her scarlet cheeks. Seconds later the sounds of her unsuccessful attempts to smother her laughter floated back toward the dining room.
Before anyone could say another word, Mrs. Irvine was standing, her back regally straight as if she had gathered in every inch of her full height. Her face, Johnny noted, was no longer white but rather slightly green. And she was breathing in short, shallow breaths, as if her stays were too tight. Slowly he stood and saw Scott awkwardly follow suit, belatedly making a move toward the lady’s chair.
“I have never . . .”
“No, ma’am,” Johnny said politely. “I don’t suppose you have.”
From the far end of the table there came an odd sort of wheezing sound, and Johnny realized his still-seated father was about to give up on propriety altogether. Head bowed, shoulders heaving convulsively, Murdoch began to erupt with laughter, bursts of side-splitting, belly-shaking laughter. Johnny saw Scott’s mouth twitch as his brother tried to cling to the last vestiges of self-possession – but one look at Murdoch and Scott sat down abruptly, tears streaming down his face as the laughter took hold.
It was too much; Johnny felt his own control slip. He was lost and he didn’t care, the hilarity welling up from somewhere deep inside, setting him free even as it robbed him of his breath and his strength. And he, too, was forced to sit. Head in his hands, he was conscious of Mrs. Irvine throwing her napkin on the table and quitting the dining room.
But it would be long minutes before father and sons could compose themselves enough to do the same.
* * * * *
“Mornin’, Maria, Scott.” Johnny’s smile was sunny as he walked into the kitchen and slid into the chair across from Scott.
“You’re late, brother,” Scott said, popping a piece of bacon into his mouth. He eyed Johnny carefully. “Conscience keep you awake?”
“Nope.” Scott grinned. “Have to hand it to you, Johnny.”
“Credit goes to T’resa and Maria,” Johnny’s smile widened. “But it worked pretty good, I reckon. Better’n I thought.”
“Well, I did feel just a little bit sorry for her,” Teresa called from the doorway. She handed a filled egg basket to Maria and came over to rest her hands lightly on Scott’s shoulders. “She’s always so sure she knows everything, and there we all were, laughing because there was something she didn’t know.”
“Yup. Thanks, Maria,” Johnny said as the housekeeper placed a full plate in front of him. “Hey, is that all the bacon I get this mornin’? I didn’t steal none.”
“The extra bacon is for Señor Jelly,” Maria said. “And the churros. They are his favourite.”
“Churros?” Johnny was pained. “Shucks, Maria, you made churros this morning and you ain’t going to let me have any? What’s Jelly done to deserve such special treatment anyway?”
Maria wiped her hands on her apron and poured herself a cup of coffee. She took a deep sip, studiously ignoring Johnny.
“Maria?” He reached out and tugged at her apron playfully.
“Señor Jelly left for town very early this morning, without breakfast.”
“Yes. Last night the Missus Irvine asked me to arrange for someone to drive her to town this morning. She wishes to surprise el Reverendo and join him on his journey.”
Oh, my,” Teresa inhaled deeply, her eyes round.
“She left a letter for you, chica,” Maria said with a solemn look at Teresa.. “And,” she reached into her apron pocket, “there is one here too for Señor Murdoch.”
Thoughtfully, Johnny looked at the pieces of paper in Maria’s hand. He wondered what Mrs. Irvine had written to Murdoch. More important, he supposed, was what she would say to her husband. He squirmed a little when he thought of the Reverend. He supposed his conscience would bother him a bit on that man’s account. Well, it could have been worse. Much worse, he told himself with a chuckle.
“Er, Maria?” Scott’s voice interrupted his train of thought. “You said that Jelly took Mrs. Irvine very early?
“Si, señor.” Suddenly the cookstove seemed to demand the housekeeper’s full attention and she turned her back to them, busying herself with the pots and the fire.
“There are only two stages a day out of Green River, Maria.”
Realization dawning, Johnny glanced at his brother and then back to Maria. “First one don’t leave until noon,” he drawled. “And that’s headed north.”
Her back still toward them all Maria shrugged. “Perhaps,” she said cautiously. “I do not know these things with any certainty. More coffee?”
“Please,” Scott said, his gaze on Johnny. There was laughter in his eyes, but when he next spoke his tone of voice reminded Johnny of the courtroom lawyers he’d encountered here and there over the years. Nobody does “lawyering” better than Scott, he thought admiringly.
“Strange that you should forget that, though,” Scott persisted. “Cipriano and Elena, they’re coming home today, aren’t they? On the northbound stage? At noon?”
“Are they?” Maria asked. She splashed coffee into first Scott’s cup, then Johnny’s and turned back to the stove.
“Now the southbound, that don’t leave ‘til late afternoon. Almost evening,” Johnny said conversationally, lips twitching.
“Mrs. Irvine would want the southbound stage, wouldn’t she?” Teresa queried. “Didn’t the Reverend say he was going to stay with a young minister in Bakersfield at some point?” Leaning over Scott’s shoulder she reached for the remaining piece of bacon on his plate.
“Which means – “ Scott began. “Hey, that’s mine, young lady!” He caught Teresa’s hand in mid-flight. “Get your own.”
“Which means Mrs. Irvine’s gonna be mighty early for that southbound stage,” Johnny finished. “Isn’t that so, Maria?”
The housekeeper put her coffee pot back on the stove and reached into the warming oven, drawing out a cloth-covered plate. She walked back to the table and set the plate down in the center, squarely between Scott and Johnny. Pulling back the striped woven cloth, she revealed a mound of crisp golden churros .
“Maria?” Johnny asked softly.
“Yes, Señor John?”
“You know anything about Mrs. Irvine being extra early for that southbound stage?”
Exhaling noisily, Maria placed her hands on her hips and looked first at Teresa, then to Scott. Then her eyes met Johnny’s. In silence she seemed to study him for a minute. And then, with another great sigh, she began. “Surely you know the missus is most strict about la punctualidad ?”
“Each evening she tells me I must be diligent in my duties to my patrón and be certain to serve dinner on time. She say I am lucky to have a patrón who is willing to overlook my ‘bad’ inglés. ”
“She said that?” Johnny’s voice was barely audible, his eyes fixed on Maria’s face.
“Si,” Maria agreed with a shrug. “Every night it is the same. And always she is looking at the timepiece fastened to her pecho . Now, when she tells me I must find someone to drive her to town, she is most insistent that I arrange this so that she is ‘on time’ for the stage.” The housekeeper smiled and looked at Johnny shrewdly. “But the missus did not tell me ‘which’ stagecoach she wished to take.”
“Oh, Maria!” Scott pushed back his chair, laughing. “I think my little brother is having a bad influence on you!” He shook his head, still grinning.
“Hah!” Maria gave a contemptuous snort. “She is una entremetida , that woman – a what you call?”
“Busybody,” Teresa giggled.
“Yes,” Maria nodded her head distractedly. Warming to her story, she continued. “The missus tells me, ‘Please make certain that my driver allows enough time so that I will not be hurried and anxious about purchasing a ticket.”
“Well, you did that, didn’t you?” Scott teased gently. “Well done, Maria.”
“Then she say to me, ‘Marie, I know the passing of time is of no consequence to you people.’” Maria’s eyes darkened and Johnny saw in them the hate she had kept simmering and never allowed to boil over during the long days of Mrs. Irvine’s visit. “’You people always believe that tomorrow will do just as well as today. That is why your race has never accomplished any achievements of note. Marie,’ she says, as if she is talking to one of the muchachos, ‘I want to take the stage tomorrow. Not the next day or the next. Tomorrow.’”
The harsh scrape of Johnny’s chair broke the silence that followed. Slowly he stood up and took his plate to the sink then turned back and rested a hand on Maria’s shoulder.
“Quien abrojos siembra, espinas coge,” he said.
“Si,” she smiled, head down. “Si, chico.”
“What’s that?” Scott queried as Johnny headed for the back door.
“‘He who sows brambles reaps thorns,’” Teresa translated.
“You’re saying she got her ‘just desserts,’” Scott smiled.
Johnny agreed, pausing to slip his hat on his head. He opened the door
and looked back at the trio still gathered around the table. “Just desserts,”
he repeated, savoring the sound. A grin spread over his face and
he winked at Teresa. “I reckon even them fancy pastry chefs couldn’t have
done a better job of servin’ crow.”