He lay flat on the ledge, feeling the coldness of the rock through his shirt and jeans. Lifting the rifle, he sighted it where he expected the lion to appear, a gap in the yellow rocks below, where earlier he had found its spoor. Then he lowered the rifle again and rested it across his arm, his chin on his wrist. In the cold, grey dawn, birds whistled listlessly in the pines and cottonwoods. Down by the creek, the remains of a cow lay spread out bloodily in the dirt, its ribs exposed, jutting upwards and its belly eaten out to its backbone; its tongue slobbered huge and swollen out of the side of its mouth. A calf, one of the earliest of the winter births, was bawling piteously somewhere out of his sight. Its melancholy, angry voice, as jagged as a saw, seemed to him in that still dawn, like the loneliest sound on Earth. He shivered and wished he had not left his jacket with Barranca on the ridge.
Then the lion appeared through the gap, a female, long and lithe, her tawny fur camouflaged against the pale rocks and the black tips of her ears and tail visibly twitching. Across the other side of the canyon, the late fall sun had lit up the rocks below the ridge line as if slowly painting over old, failed colours. Sniffing the air, her powerful front legs padding as softly across the ground as a farm cat, the lion went to the carcass and began licking at the ribs with long, lavish strokes of her tongue. Johnny watched her in fascination, captivated by her grace, and feeling a strong urge to fetch his sketchbook from his saddlebags. For a long time, he observed her as she tore contentedly at her kill, absorbing the contours of her body, the length of her teeth, the power of her muscles and the way her face reminded him of Jelly’s cat, Jasper. Then the unseen calf bawled and the lion raised her head from the carcass. As she rose to her feet, Johnny lifted the rifle to his shoulder, sighted it between her eyes and fired.
Last night he had dreamed of the trenches at Cold Harbor for the first time in over two years, and had woken up wildly in the darkness of early morning, his mind filled with vivid images of exploding earth and twisted bodies. Lighting the lamp by his bed, he had reread the brief letter from Stephen, hastily scrawled on a stained, tattered piece of paper. He had collected it from Green River the day before and, disturbed by its appearance and contents, had quickly concealed it from his father as the older man approached him from the bank on the other side of the street. Stephen had made no reference to the war, though Scott was certain his letter was the reason Cold Harbor had tormented his sleep.
Remembering Stephen Forsyth as a fastidious youth who even in the maelstrom of battle could both tell a joke and lean down from his horse to wipe blood from his boots, Scott had failed to reconcile the incoherent, dirty letter with the boy he had known.
I heard from your grandfather that you have gone West. Gone West. I like the sound of that. There must be many hardened souls to save out there. I am in trouble, though, Scotty, and need a place to stay. Not for long. Certainly not for long. I remember you as a man of kindness and humanity against all the odds. I do not need money. I have money, all that I need. I will be arriving at Green River by stage on Friday. Take me in, if you will. If not, then so be it. I am immune to the failure of providence.
‘commune bonum’ Remember, Scotty?
Johnny rode in, the orphaned calf slung across his horse’s withers, as the early sun was lost under a bank of heavy grey cloud. Reining Barranca in by the main corral, he watched Jelly lead Elijah slowly around its perimeter on an old chestnut horse with four white socks. Jeff was sitting on the fence, a cigarette in his mouth with his gun belt slung low and every bullet loop filled.
“What ya got ‘im on that bag o’ bones for, Jelly?” Johnny asked, grinning. “Give the boy a decent horse, willya.”
Jelly stopped abruptly by the fence and glared at the younger man.
“There in’t nuthin’ the matter with Frisco, boy,” he replied irritably. “This ol’ pony’s taught fifty men to sit in the saddle right, an’ young Elijah here ain’t ever even sat on a horse afore, so ya kin jes’ keep ya smart-aleck ‘pinions to yaself.”
“Well, you just go right on there, Jelly,” Johnny drawled, caressing the calf’s woolly head. “Wake me up in ‘bout ten years when ol’ Elijah there’s fit for cuttin’ out a cow.”
Jelly waved an arm dismissively in Johnny’s direction.
“That trip with your pa sure ain’t knocked the sass outta that lip o’ yourn, Johnny Lancer…”
“I’s alright, Boss,” Elijah said softly, stroking Frisco’s neck. “Mister Hoskins, he’s taking care of me good. Taking it slow. That’s what I need.”
Johnny nodded, glad to see tenderness in the boy’s manner with the horse.
“Sure, Elijah, only it’s Johnny, ok. My pa’s the only boss you need worry ‘bout round here.”
Elijah smiled slowly and looked at Johnny with a curious mix of timidity and knowingness. In the two weeks Johnny had known the boy, he had been struck by his character, which seemed both sweetly gentle and naturally powerful. Like himself, the boy was watchful, as if somehow he was biding his time before showing the strength of his hand.
“I likes your pa fine, Johnny,” Elijah said resolutely. “He’s a good man.”
Johnny suppressed the smile of pleasure the words gave him and nodded briefly, before turning his gaze upon Jelly.
“There’s an orphan here for you to take care of, Jelly.” He stroked the small animal’s red-brown coat as it lay draped listlessly over Barranca’s withers, taking short, panicky breaths through its dry mouth. “Cat got ‘er ma down Red Devil. Think she might’ve broke ‘er leg.”
Jelly looked doubtfully at the weak and exhausted calf.
“Then y’d be better gittin’ your pa to take a look, boy,” he said decisively. “What ‘e don’t know ‘bout settin’ bones ain’t worth knowin’. The old man nodded in the direction of the house. “Now best git ya hide in that house. Boss’n your brother bin lookin’ fer ya this past half hour or more.”
Johnny sighed and dismounted. Gently, he lifted the calf off the horse. It bawled hopelessly as he offered it to Jeff who jumped quickly from the fence and took it carefully into his arms.
“Put ‘er in the barn, Jeff,” Johnny said, patting the animal’s head. “Be real gentle with ‘er. She’s had a rough time.”
“Sure, Johnny.” Jeff gazed at the rifle strapped under Johnny’s saddle. “Say, d’you get that cat with one shot? I bet ya did, didn’t ya? Boy, wish I’d been there to see it. Never seen me one of them cougars. Was it a big ‘un?”
Johnny looked stonily at the younger man. He was cold and he needed some coffee.
“You ain’t seen too much of anythin’, have ya, boy. Just take the calf in the barn an’ shut ya yap, an’ while you’re at it, wrap up your rig an’ stow it under your bunk. You won’t be needin’ it where you’re goin’ today.”
Furiously, Jeff set his mouth against answering Johnny back and strode off towards the barn, the calf bawling feebly in his arms. Jelly pulled himself through the fence rails and grasped Barranca’s reins in his weather-beaten hands.
“Kinda hard on ‘im, ain’t ya, Johnny,” he said cautiously. “I mean ta say, I know he ain’t the brightest bauble on the Christmas tree, but he ain’t so bad.”
Johnny rubbed Barranca’s solid neck and pulled his saddlebags off the horse, hoisting them over his shoulder with a sigh.
“Yeh, I know, Jelly, but he’s gotta learn that he’s here to punch cows, not be another Johnny Madrid. Truth is, I don’t know if ‘e’s ever gonna quit wantin’ to put a bullet in someone.”
“Well, ya musta seen somethin’ in the boy, an’ y’aint usually wrong.”
The old man clucked his tongue and led Barranca away towards the barn. Johnny lifted his face to the sky, and felt the first drops of cold rain splash his skin. Glad to feel it, he closed his eyes, allowing it to splash his tired face and wondering how he could save Jeff from a bloody end.
Johnny dipped his head momentarily when he saw his father sitting at the breakfast table, his expression made more severe by the glasses perched on the bridge of his nose.
He risked a tentative smile at the frowning older man as he slid into the chair opposite his brother and grabbed a biscuit, his stomach growling with hunger. Scott looked up from his letter and regarded Johnny with amusement as he lavished butter on the biscuit and followed it with a layer of strawberry jam.
“I take it you’re going to tell us where you’ve been, Johnny,” Murdoch said sternly, removing his glasses and pouring himself another cup of coffee. Johnny, about to take a large bite of the loaded biscuit, hesitated, caught between appeasing his hunger and responding to his father’s annoyed tone. Repressing the impulse to react angrily, he took a bite and chased it down with a mouthful of milk before looking directly at Murdoch.
“Down in Red Devil lookin’ for that cougar,” he replied, his voice edged with defiance. “Told ya that no-account Billy Donner couldn’t shoot an elephant in a barn.”
Murdoch met his son’s belligerent expression with a frown.
“You went by yourself?”
“Yeh.” Johnny glanced at Scott who gazed back at him impassively and sighed heavily. “If I got to kill somethin’, sooner do it alone.”
Murdoch averted his eyes briefly, drew in his breath and seemed to Scott to be making a determined effort to control his temper. Though his father and brother appeared to have returned from Bittercreek with a new understanding between them, one that both Johnny and Murdoch had yet to share with him, he found it hard to believe that two such stubborn men could avoid clashing. When his father spoke, Scott was surprised to detect in his voice no trace of his initial anger.
“Did you kill it?”
Scott saw his younger brother’s expression instantly lose its defensiveness and become eager and intense.
“Yeh, she was a real beaut, Murdoch. A real fine animal. Sure felt bad puttin’ a bullet in ‘er. Got ‘er in my head though, so I can get to drawin’ ‘er later.”
His father nodded.
“Johnny, I’m happy you got the job done, son, and I know you’ll have done it well and cleanly, but the rule that nobody goes out hunting dangerous animals alone applies as much to you as it does anyone else on this ranch. You know that.”
Confident now, Johnny took another bite of the biscuit and swallowed it quickly while pouring hot coffee into his cup, earning a frown from his fastidious brother as splashes of brown stained the white tablecloth.
“C’mon, Murdoch,” he said cheerfully. “I can handle a little ol’ mountain lion.” He smiled at his father. “Brought down a big ol’ papa grizzly bear before now, didn’t I?”
Murdoch gazed at his son suspiciously before allowing himself a brief smile.
“That’s as maybe, young man, but I’d like to die of old age in my bed, not of heart failure worrying about you, so next time, take another man, alright?”
Johnny nodded silently.
“Alright, John?” Murdoch repeated more firmly.
The young man sighed and then smirked at his mystified brother. He drank some coffee before finishing the biscuit and piling his plate with eggs and bacon. Scott wanted to enjoy the changes in his father and brother, but found himself once more resenting his exclusion from their secret world. Johnny began to eat rapidly.
“Brought a calf back with me,” he said between mouthfuls of food. “Found ‘er in the rocks. Reckon ‘er leg’s broke. Jelly said you’d fix it.”
“If her leg’s broken, son …”
“It might not be worthwhile saving her, Johnny,” Scott said, folding his letter and placing it in his pocket.
“Jesus!” He stopped eating and banged the fork down on the plate.
Hearing the warning tone in his father’s voice, he hesitated before allowing his irritation to overcome caution.
“Well, you two should listen to yourselves!” He stood up. “Ok, I’ll just go right now an’ put a bullet between ‘er eyes if that’s what you want. Jesus, she was in the f…damned rocks while a cat tore ‘er mama’s throat out. Thought maybe she deserves a chance, even she ain’t no more’n a little two-bit calf …”
“Alright, son, alright, simmer down,” Murdoch said firmly. “You’ve made your point. I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not promising anything.”
Johnny sat back down and picked up his fork.
“Ain’t lookin’ for promises, Murdoch,” he replied softly. “Just want you to do the best you can.”
Murdoch nodded, with, what seemed to Scott, something close to meekness, before standing up and leaving the room. Scott watched his hungry brother eat, the letter strangely heavy in the pocket of his shirt.
“I see you borrowed my jacket again,” he smiled. Johnny glanced down at the damp leather of his brother’s favourite work jacket.
“Warmer’n mine,” he answered simply.
“So, are my clothes included in your growing collection of strays?”
“Just the ones I take a likin’ to, big brother.” Johnny turned his head to look at his father who had returned from the kitchen with a box of medical supplies. “Reckoned on takin’ Jeff an’ Elijah up to the North Pasture an’ gettin’ more of that fencin’ done before the winter comes … if that’s alright with you.”
“Fine with me…” Murdoch turned to go, and then hesitated. To Scott, used to seeing his father act impulsively and decisively, these pauses in his words and actions were both strange and captivating. “Make sure Elijah wears something reasonably warm, son. He won’t be used to the cooler temperatures up here.”
Johnny nodded and tore open another biscuit.
“Sure thing,” he replied nonchalantly. “Might just go an’ get a winter jacket in town myself tomorrow. I ain’t too used to the cold either. Damn near froze my butt off in that canyon, this mornin’.”
“That’s a very good idea, John,” Murdoch smiled. “Right. I’m going to see what I can do with this calf. Put her back on her feet.”
“My God, our father’s whistling!” Scott said, after Murdoch had disappeared from the room. “What on earth did you do to him in Bittercreek? Discover his happier, quieter twin and swap them around?”
“Somethin’ like that,” Johnny replied, taking a last gulp of milk before emitting a loud belch and standing up. “See ya later, Boston. Some of us gotta earn a livin’.”
“It was your damn saddlebags I tripped over, boy, in case you’d forgotten.”
Johnny looked down at his brother’s heavily bandaged ankle and rubbed his fingers through his unruly dark hair.
“Ain’t never goin’ to forget it, brother,” he smiled. “Damn near bust my gut laughin’. Thought a city boy’d know how to fall real elegant. You went down like a newborn filly foal.”
“Thank you for your sympathy.” Scott watched his brother button up his jacket, noting the presence of several new stains, scuffs and tears, yet deeply moved by the younger man’s manifest attachment to it. “Johnny?” Scott’s tone was gentle, but he saw his brother tense with sudden wariness.
“Are you going to tell me what happened in Bittercreek? I know something did.”
Johnny turned a brightly polished knife round in slow circles on the tablecloth, his eyes averted from his brother’s searching gaze.
“You asked Murdoch?”
“No. I was hoping you would tell me.”
Johnny frowned and shrugged.
“Ain’t much to tell.”
“Come on, Johnny!” Scott’s tone was suddenly angry. “Don’t play that card with me. I thought you and I had an honest relationship, and now you’re lying to me.”
Johnny raised his head and looked calmly at the older man.
“I’m bein’ honest with you, Scott, when I tell you that it ain’t my story to tell. Murdoch an’ me. We got an understandin’ now. That’s all I can say. If you wanna know more, you’ll have to ask him, but don’t go raisin’ your hopes. Reckon he might not be ready for tellin’ it yet.”
“So I’m the only one in this family to be kept in the dark,” Scott said fiercely. “That hurts, Johnny.”
“Sorry, brother.” Johnny looked up at the clock as it struck the half-hour. “Sometimes that’s how it’s gotta be. See ya later, ok?”
Frustrated, Scott watched his brother leave the room, the jingling spurs on the younger man’s boots seeming to mock both his immobility and his exclusion from Johnny’s newly found confidence.
Just twenty. Just enough time to grab some glory before it was all over. Elated to have finally persuaded his grandfather that he should fight for the Union and elated to be there – posing under the leafy boughs of an oak tree with his three friends, their gleaming cavalry horses tethered next to the army tent behind them. Stephen was the one seated on the folding canvas stool, one hand resting on his knee, the other holding a thin leather glove and his sabre, long, curved and, like the other three, shining too brightly, over-exposed by the camera’s lens.
Scott stared at the photograph for a long time, his injured ankle resting on a footstool and everything quiet but for the dull, thudding sound of posts being hammered into the ground for the new corral.
The others were dead. Tom Cray and George Harvey. Tom, older than his three friends, balding and bearded, sat almost slumped in a high-backed cane chair, his hat balanced on his knee and a bedraggled bunch of flowers in the dust between his boots. He was smiling mockingly into the camera, as if daring it to outstare him. Scott remembered what Tom had said: “Last picture and testament, gentlemen.” It had felt like a good joke at the time, and the expressions on their faces were the lingering remains of their smiles. George, the only one looking away from the camera, one foot upon an overturned rum barrel and his long Yankee field coat pulled back to reveal his grandfather’s sabre, had been the youngest, just nineteen, with the brave beginnings of a moustache struggling above his top lip.
Then there was him. Scott gazed again at his younger self, full of self-conscious pride in his razor sharp new uniform, a row of polished silver buttons on his jacket and field boots fashionably cut to cover his knees. He could recall being irritated that the early summer dust had soiled the shine of his boots as they assembled for the photograph, and that Tom, like Johnny would now, had spotted his annoyance and smirked a little, before slumping into his chair.
What had he felt like on that hot day while the flies buzzed round their faces and the horses stamped their hooves behind them? He remembered how he had wanted to be perfect, to start a new and perfect life. Suddenly, the years spent at school and university, comfortable in the wealth of his grandfather, the days among his books and the nights in the company of women and liquor, had seemed frivolous and irrelevant. All his life, even as a child, he had been troubled by a vague unease, as if someone had put him in the wrong skin. ‘I will be new.’ Yes, he could remember it clearly now as he had emerged from the mess tent for the photograph. He had thought to himself, ‘I will be new. I will start again.’
Stopping briefly, he wiped his forehead of sweat with a bandana and poured a little water over his face before jamming his hat back on his head. He breathed in the cooler air coming down from the mountains into the valley, and gazed at the tidy row of ten posts already hammered into an earth softened by rain. They pleased him with their regularity, although if anyone had asked him a year ago what he thought of crossing the open land with miles of wire fencing, he would have spat in the dust at their feet. He had owned nothing but a gun and a blanket then, and had roamed over vast territories like a lone predator, believing only that sooner or later his fate would be to die at the hands of another man like himself. He had waited for it under the great open skies of untamed lands with a feeling close to happiness, and in his dreams he had met his nemesis in a vengeful storm while trees rocked in the wind and the wild grasses sang under the rain. Now, his blood hummed a little with the power of staking his claim to the land.
Lifting the sledgehammer again from his position on the wagon, he brought it down hard on the top of the post and felt the satisfaction of it sinking a little further into the ground, though it had gone in at a slight angle.
“Hold the damn thing straight, Jeff,” he said sharply. “It ain’t goin’ in right.”
Alarmed by the fierce command, Jeff threw his cigarette to the ground and pushed harder at the post to straighten it. Elijah held the head of the horse harnessed to the wagon and gazed silently at two other men, shivering now at the cool breeze ruffling his shirt. When Johnny had hammered the post in far enough, he nodded at Elijah who clucked his tongue and moved the horse forward to the next post hole.
“You take a turn, Jeff,” Johnny said, leaping down from the wagon. “I’m beat. Must be getting’ old, I reckon.”
“Yeh?” Jeff laughed, pulling himself up to replace the other man. “Better move aside then, Old Man.”
“Watch your mouth, boy,” Johnny grinned, slapping the back of Jeff’s legs with his work gloves. He picked up the post and positioned the sharp point of it in the ground, waiting for the first blow to drive it through his hands. Before he had time to tell himself that he should be wearing gloves, Jeff brought the hammer down with all the force of fresh energy and the splinter forced its way deep into the skin of Johnny’s right palm.
“Shit!” Johnny leapt back from the post, clutching his hand, the shock of it knocking the breath from his body, and then the savage pain causing him to gasp out loud. “Shit! Goddamn! Sonuvabitch!!”
“Jesus, Johnny, I’m sorry.” Jeff dropped the hammer with a clatter that made the horse kick in its traces and raise its head in alarm. He jumped down and glared at Elijah who was struggling to calm the animal. “Cain’t ya even hold that piece of ol’ crowbait, boy?”
“I’se good,” Elijah said with quiet ferocity. “You’d best see to Johnny.”
“I don’t need no farm boy tellin’ me what to do,” Jeff replied savagely. He knelt down by Johnny who had dropped to the ground, his back to the other men. “You alright, Johnny?”
Johnny shrugged the younger man’s hand away from his shoulder and continued his battle to resist weeping. Finally, still trembling with shock and pain, he dared to look at the wound; the splinter, about four inches long was embedded across the heart line of his palm. Gazing at it in mute distress, he accepted the canteen from Jeff and drank from it long and deeply before pouring a little water over the throbbing flesh.
“It’s your gun hand,” Jeff said sombrely.
“Yeh, but it ain’t gone too deep, I reckon.”
“Weren’t your fault,” Johnny shrugged. “Should’ve worn my gloves.”
He pulled himself to his feet and smiled faintly at Elijah who was determinedly stroking the nose of the old horse, intent on his task of keeping the animal absolutely still.
“Reckon you can get my knife outta my saddlebags, Elijah?” Johnny asked softly, leaning against the wagon. “I’m feelin’ a mite shaky on my feet here. Jeff, you take ol’ Lightnin’ off ‘im and hold on real tight, ‘case he bolts with ya.”
“Johnny …” Jeff’s voice rose in protest.
“You gotta problem with that?” Johnny demanded with sudden anger. “Or d’ya reckon you’re too fuckin’ good for holdin’ horses?”
Glaring at the other man, Jeff walked over to Elijah and snatched the reins from him. Elijah gazed at him, his expression devoid of emotion, before turning and walking over to where Barranca was tethered to a rustling chestnut tree. Returning with the knife, he handed it to Johnny in silence who looked at it impassively for some moments.
“You do it, Elijah,” he said firmly. “It’s gonna have to be cut out.”
“Gon’ hurt,” the younger man replied. “No two ways ‘bout it.”
Elijah nodded, a glimmer of a smile in his eyes. Grasping Johnny’s hand, he cut swiftly along the line of the splinter and lifted it out on the tip of the knife. The two young men gazed at the bloodied fragment of wood until Elijah flicked it away into the dust. Breathing rapidly in an attempt to overcome fresh waves of pain, Johnny watched Elijah wash the wound with water from the canteen and tie a bandana tightly and neatly round his hand.
“Needs proper doctorin’” Elijah said. “Mebbe stitches.”
Johnny nodded, flexing his fingers experimentally and grimacing with the pain and stiffness.
“Ain’t gonna get it past my pa, anyhow,” he sighed. “He stitches better’n an old maid in the parlour, but it hurts worse’n the devil. Reckon I’ll work up to it for a couple of hours.”
Elijah pulled the sledgehammer off the wagon and felt the weight of it in his hands, before gazing up the row of new posts.
“They tol’ me that the West wus free, no fences anywheres,” he said, his tone laced with accusation. “That’s why I come.”
“It was like that for a long time.” Johnny hung his head briefly, feeling vaguely guilty for his earlier satisfaction in putting a solid boundary to their land. “Still is in most places, includin’ Lancer, but we been havin’ problems with other folks’ cattle strayin’ onto our land in this part of the valley.” He shrugged and smiled slightly at the boy. “West’s gettin’ crowded, Elijah, that’s the truth of it.”
Jeff had left his post at the old horse’s head and was leaning against the wagon rolling a cigarette.
“My pa cuts fences,” he said quietly. He licked the paper and sealed the cigarette. “Cut a fence in eighty-seven places last winter, ‘cos we couldn’t get our cows to a waterhole we’d bin usin’ fer twenty years. Didn’t have no legal claim to it. Sonuvabitch jus’ staked it an’ called it ‘is own.”
“We got legal claim. Murdoch made sure of it,” Johnny said tersely. He pulled a glove over his good hand and pushed the post a little more upright. “Get up on the wagon, Elijah, an’ take a turn with the hammer. Might warm ya up some. Hold the horse, Jeff.”
“That’s the boy’s job, Johnny,” Jeff protested. “I ain’t no Southern farm hand.”
“Well, you know you gotta choice, Jeff,” Johnny sighed irritably. “You can just go on home to your pa’s belt if ya don’t like my way of doin’ things.”
Muttering angrily, Jeff drew on his cigarette and returned to the gently dozing animal. Johnny, exasperated by the young man’s attitude and fearful of the damage to his hand, concentrated on adding to the long line of posts, though Elijah’s words of disappointment had spoiled the satisfying picture in his mind of his family’s land resting fenced and safe from the predations of other men.
Tired of contemplating the past, he pulled himself onto his crutches and walked outside into the morning. As he hobbled across the yard, he wondered why he was so reluctant to tell his family about Stephen’s visit. Answering his father’s eager questions since his return home seven months before, he had given accounts of battles, rich with details of manoeuvres, of meetings with famous generals, of mad dashes with cavalry horses across open landscapes, and he had left out what could not be easily said. Johnny had listened in silence to these memories, asking no questions and meeting his older brother’s eyes with such intensity that Scott had been uneasily certain that the young man knew everything that he had hoped to conceal.
In the old corral, Jelly was feeding Johnny’s new mustang an apple and carefully stroking its neck while, close to the forge, the foreman’s grandson, José, threw sticks for a three-legged mongrel the youngest Lancer had rescued from a drunken preacher in Green River. Scott watched the mustang take the whole green apple in its mouth and wrestle it with its teeth before crunching down and sending half the apple into the dust. Jelly bent stiffly to pick up the fallen half. Scott leaned on the rail and watched the old man offer it back to the horse.
“I thought you believed horses were the devil’s work, Jelly,” he smiled. The old man turned his head, his expression a mixture of embarrassment and defensiveness. He was still unsure of this other son, the one with the fancy manners and alien vocabulary, such a contrast to the rough-edged younger boy who had pulled him out of the mire and restored him to life.
“This ain’t no reg’lar horse,” he replied brusquely, touching the long scar on the animal’s neck. “This un’s bin to hell an’ back. I know it, ‘cus I bin there maself. Poor critter’s seen bad things, real bad things.”
“What sort of things?”
Jelly looked at the young man scornfully.
“Well, iffen I knowed that, Scott Lancer, I’d be fit fer that eddication o’ yours, an’ git maself a fancy suit an’ all!”
Scott looked uncomfortably at the belligerent old man, torn between wanting to justify himself and reprimanding Jelly for his rudeness. He did neither, but turned away, his smile towards José earning only a wary frown from the child before he ran away yelling with the barking dog. Wondering if he would ever be accepted as naturally as his brother was, Scott entered the dim interior of the barn to find his father sitting in the straw of one of the stalls, the head of the calf in his lap. Murdoch was feeding the animal with milk out of a bottle, though it seemed too weak to do more than slobber wearily at the rubber teat. The rancher glanced up at his elder son and nodded briefly.
Scott lowered himself onto a bale of hay with a sigh and placed his crutches on the floor.
“I’d volunteer for firewood duty to escape another minute spent with my leg up on a stool.”
“That bored?” Murdoch smiled. “Well, there’ll still be plenty of firewood to be gathered in by the time you’re fit, son.”
The younger man returned the smile and regarded the calf in his father’s arms.
“How is she?”
“Weak,” Murdoch replied quietly. “I’m not sure she’s going to make it. To be honest, I’d have put a bullet in her head by now, but …”
“But you’ve been corralled by a blue-eyed boy?” Scott suggested, smiling.
“Something like that.” Murdoch looked quickly away from his elder son’s gaze and made a renewed effort to persuade the calf to suckle. When the bottle was half empty, he laid her gently in the straw and covered her with two layers of sacking.
“I’ll get Jelly to keep an eye on her,” he said, rising stiffly to his feet. “I’ve set the leg and got her to take some feed. There’s not much more I can do.” He picked up his hat and settled it on his head. “I’m going to help with the new corral for a couple of hours …”
“The new corral?” Scott frowned. “Do the men require your help, sir?”
“They’re going to get it whether they require it or not,” his father replied irritably. “Is that a problem?”
“No, of course not.” Scott, surprised at the older man’s anger, hurried to placate him. “I just thought … well, I assumed that you were going to take a back seat from physical work now.”
“Well, you assumed wrong, Scott.” Murdoch’s tone remained tetchy. “I’ve let myself get out of the habit of ranch work and it’s making me feel old. I’m not even fifty yet and I spend my days in that study or in meetings with bankers and lawyers, burying myself amongst books and figures. I need to get back in the saddle, remind myself of why I came to America in the first place.”
“Then I admire you for that,” Scott said, allowing his father to help him to his feet. “But I’m curious to know what brought this on. Did the trip to Bittercreek have anything to do with it?”
“What makes you ask that?” Murdoch demanded gruffly, opening the barn door to find that the sun had failed to penetrate the heavy grey cloud and that for the first time for months the air felt chilled. He looked up, recognising and feeling the signs of oncoming winter, and hated it.
“No reason.” Scott moved the crutches quickly to keep up with his father’s long strides. “It’s just that you seem somewhat changed since you came back.”
Murdoch stopped in his tracks and, hands in the pockets of his pants, looked warily at the younger man.
“In what way?”
“Well.” Scott attempted to keep his tone light, recognising that his father’s temper was merely bubbling under the surface. “Well, less severe, I’d say. Less insular, happier even … sometimes.”
Scott watched the older man’s expression wrestle with the impact of his words until Murdoch settled for a small smile.
“Is that so bad?” he asked cautiously.
“No,” Scott confessed. “Though I would also say that you’ve had something on your mind since you got home. Am I wrong?”
The way in which Murdoch dipped his head and scuffed the dirt with the tip of his boot reminded Scott powerfully of his brother, and he wondered that he had not been struck before by their similarities.
“Did something happen in Bittercreek?” he asked patiently, feeling immediately as if he had entered forbidden and painful territory when his father, like his brother, appeared to flinch in discomfort.
“Have you talked to Johnny about this?”
Murdoch’s softly spoken question surprised the younger man, so that he hesitated in his reply.
“Yes,” he answered finally. “He said it wasn’t his story to tell.”
“Well, that’s about the size of it,” Murdoch stated decisively. He strode quickly away from his son, head down, leaving Scott with the feeling that a door had been slammed in his face.
They were watching him intently. He knew that. He had not failed to notice the looks of surprise, even amusement, when he had picked up a sledgehammer and ordered Charlie Hewson to hold a post in one of the newly dug holes. Spitting on each of his palms in turn, he then lifted the hammer high and swung it down true on top of the wooden post. When it sank a few inches from the power of his blow, and then conceded a few more upon a second hefty swing, he saw Charlie nod appreciatively.
“That’s a fair bit o’ hammerin’, Boss,” the old man said, pushing at the post. “Gone in as right as a trivet.”
“Well, iffen that don’t take the rag off,” another older hand, Tick Arkwright, said admiringly. “Boss done it in two. Ain’t never seen no-one do it in two.”
“If you’ve all done standing around collecting air,” Murdoch said with sudden gruffness. “I believe we have a corral to build.”
Amused, but retaining a mask of severity, he watched them return hastily to their various tasks, while he nodded at Charlie and lifted the hammer towards the sky, feeling the power of physical exertion throb through his veins. As he worked, the sweat trickling into his eyes, he blinked away the image of Raul’s dead face. As usual, he had woken at dawn with its pale emptiness suffusing his first view of the day. Bringing the hammer down ever harder, he wondered how much more strength he would need to drive the image deep enough underground to dispel its power.
In silence, he ate cornbread and drank coffee under the oak tree, the wire, strung taut between the new posts, humming in the strong cool breeze. Johnny listened to the sound curiously; it mingled with the rustling of oak leaves and the whispering of the dry grass and its tune was insistent, determined, like the sound of the whistle on a steam train he had seen in Stockton. The immensity of the engine, screeching to a long halt and belching out clouds of white steam had mesmerized him with its overwhelming presence, dwarfing the eager crowds and drowning their small sounds. Grinning high above the crowds, the driver had pulled on the whistle chain a dozen times as if firing a salute for a king. Then, as now with the fence, Johnny wanted to place a finger on the sound and silence it.
Leaning back against the tree, he examined the bandana wrapped around his injured hand. Now that he was resting, the wound underneath felt hot and painful, though he was reluctant to head for home with the task he had set himself unfinished. All day he had envisaged arriving back at the ranch to announce the completion of the North Pasture fence and revelling in his father’s reactions of surprise and pleasure. Suddenly irritated by the injury’s insistent throbbing, he pulled his hat down over his eyes and tried to sleep.
“Yeh, you should’ve seen ‘im, boy.” Jeff’s voice, low and excited; it drifted to across to him from the wagon along with the smoke from a cigarette and mingled with the rustling oak leaves like the distorted speech of a dream. “I was there. Fastest draw you’ll ever see, boy. Had that gun outta that holster faster’n a rattler’s strike. That damned sonuvabitch didn’t even get ‘is dirty fingers on the grip ‘fore Johnny drilled ‘im clean through ‘is arm. Shot through a dollar piece at the same time. No, boy, I swear it.” Remaining motionless against the tree, Johnny heard a ‘pew, pew, pew’ like the sound of children playing with wooden guns on the streets of Green River. “Shoulda heard that jackass squeal, boy. Never saw nuthin’ like it in all my born days!”
Johnny sighed under his hat. Part of him ached to slap sense into Jeff, but something else in him decided to let it go. Under his closed eyes, he could still see the shot-through dollar spinning in the air towards the waiting hands of an eager gambler. He smiled a little at it.
“Best hobble your lip, Jeff, ‘fore it runs away with ya. You watered that horse yet?”
He heard the sound of a tin plate being thrown to the ground, the movements of an angry body, heavy footsteps, the pail grabbed from the wagon with fierce hands. Softer sounds approached him, footfalls like the padding of a cat. He knew Elijah was close by, under the shade of the tree.
“That right, Johnny?” he asked softly. “You fast with a gun?”
Johnny hesitated, feeling for the mood of the man behind the question; then he nodded briefly.
“Faster’n those other white folks I’s read about in dime books? Faster’n Wild Bill?”
Smiling, Johnny lifted his hat, pulled himself forward and looked in his cup, before throwing the coffee dregs into the dust. Arms resting over his bent knees, he turned his head and regarded Elijah impassively.
“You got family, Elijah?”
Steadfastly, the boy returned his gaze with his large brown eyes.
“E’vryone got fam’ly,” he replied slowly. “They jus’ isn’t always with you in n’flesh.”
Johnny hesitated again, unsettled by the boy’s concentrated manner. From somewhere, he felt the first small inklings of danger stroke his consciousness.
“You left ‘em in Alabama?” As soon as he had framed the question, he knew Elijah would simply smile at it.
“You isn’t a man of too many questions, Johnny,” the boy said, allowing the smile to fade slowly. “That’s what I like ‘bout you.”
Elijah got to his feet and made his way over to the last post hammered in before lunch. Johnny watched him push hard against it twice as if he were challenging its ability to stay in the earth. By the wagon, Jeff muttered darkly about donkey work, and cleaned his plate with dust.
He rarely slept in the day, but inactivity had enervated him. In the warm fug of his father’s study, he lay dozing, the book he had been reading all morning making its gradual way across his lap. Noises outside - the thump of posts entering earth, the hammering of nails, the snatches of conversation and laughter - entered his dreaming mind and jostled with the images there.
Even now, six years later, the pictures appeared to him as clearly and sharply as a woodcut. He was looking up at a grey sky and his boots were in the mud of a heavy summer storm. In the rain, a soldier was cursing and sliding near the top of the trench as he fought to tie long strands of telegraph wire to a tree stump while, further along, other men hammered in posts and screamed for the wire, their faces twisted in concentrated, desperate energy. In his dream, he could not move. In his dream, he was an observer, stuck fast in the mud, his uniform torn and bloodied, hanging in strips off his limbs. He could taste the rain in his mouth, and at first he drank thirstily, craving its purity, until it became metallic and his only urge was to spit away its foulness.
He woke suddenly, though his mind was still half in the dream. Had he just stood there? He had dreamed it so often that he could no longer remember the truth of it. It was two days after the battle. Two days after the Union troops had been sent in against the Confederates, tucked safely behind their earthworks like rabbits in their burrows, armed with machine guns and muskets that had felled their enemies in layer upon layer of twisted, groaning bodies. Somehow, he had not died. Somehow, he had survived while the frames of other men thudded down around him like young trees crashing and the rattling of bullets came like heavy rain on a tin roof.
At first, he had been elated, almost crying with the joy of survival, and then he had felt nothing. Feeling nothing, he had silently obeyed the orders to supervise the digging of Union trenches. Feeling nothing, he had stood in the rain watching the cursing men pile up the earth. When a corporal had handed him a note found pinned inside the jacket of one of their dead, he had read ‘June 3, 1864. Cold Harbor. I was killed’ and he had made no comment.
Now Stephen was coming, and the years he had spent filing away his memories, like a librarian filling high shelves with rare books no-one would ever read, would be wiped away with one glance at his friend’s face.
Picking up the book that, while he slept, had toppled to the floor, he closed it and placed it on his father’s desk, before pulling himself up onto his crutches and moving over to the window. His thoughts still snagged on men only just holding on to their humanity, he was almost startled to witness the men, including his father, outside by the new corral, sitting in a companionable group, drinking coffee from tin cups. Murdoch, his sleeves rolled up to reveal his powerful arms, was throwing scraps to the three-legged dog, laughing as it twisted its body high in the air to catch them. Watching the older man, he was delighted by the change in him, the way he turned easily, smiling, to respond to a comment from Charlie Hewson, but he also craved to understand it. Classically trained, he hated to leave things unexamined, yet he knew his twentieth year was like a series of glass plate negatives, haunting the edges of his consciousness and never brought into the clear light of day.
His lips twitched in irritation. Brushing the annoyance away with a large hand, his eyes remained closed in a sweet half doze. Then it came again, more insistent, tickling the area under his nose, until his eyes shot open and he was looking into the face of his younger son who, barely able to control his laughter, was waving a large feather in front of his father’s face.
“See, Scott,” he chuckled. “Told ya he weren’t dead! All that labourin’ you done wore you out, Murdoch?”
Murdoch swiped the feather from Johnny’s hand, noting that it was one of the quill feathers he kept in his study, preserved carefully from his youth; he regarded the grinning younger man severely.
“If I could actually get out of this chair, boy,” he growled. “I’d put you across my knee and warm your backside. Isn’t a man allowed to close his eyes for five minutes after supper in his own home?”
Johnny sat back on the thick rug in front of the fire near his father’s chair, the grin still wide on his face. Amused, Scott observed them from his seat at the piano and took a sip of his whisky.
“You were snoring, sir,” he said apologetically.
“I most certainly was not!” Murdoch objected, his reddening face sending Johnny into a further spasm of laughter.
“You was snorin’ so loud you coulda woken Val sleepin’ at ‘is desk in the sheriff’s office,” he gasped out between giggles. Then, calming down in the face of the older man’s annoyed expression, he looked at Murdoch sternly. “Well, had to get ya back somehow, Old Man.”
“How’s that?” Murdoch smiled suddenly, knowing that the young man’s grievance was something he would be able to live with.
“Checkin’ me for fever in front of the men, an’ then marchin’ me in the house. I saw ‘em all grinnin’ like jackasses. Ain’t never goin’ to live it down.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll cope.” Murdoch opened his tobacco pouch and began to fill his pipe. “It might teach you to come home straightaway next time you tear a part of your anatomy open.”
“Had to get the fence done,” Johnny said decisively, watching his father’s thick fingers gently push the moist tobacco down into the bowl of the pipe.
“Your health matters more than any damn fence, John. You’re not going to be much use to us six feet under the ground.” He paused and looked up from his pipe to judge the impact of his words; his son merely smiled briefly. “You’re lucky that wound’s not infected.”
“Got the fence built.”
“Yes.” Murdoch fought to suppress his amusement at his son’s stoic persistence. “And I’m very pleased and impressed that you did that, but …”
“Yes, sir,” Johnny interrupted him, a slow smirk emerging on his face. “Sure did get that ol’ fence up alright.”
Murdoch was about to reply when Scott let out an exasperated sigh from his seat at the piano. He continued to play the Chopin nocturne he had been practising for two weeks.
“Are you two going to bicker all evening, or are you enjoying yourselves too much to stop?”
Johnny glanced at his father before leaping from the rug and walking over to his brother. He leaned down and reached around Scott’s arms, his face on his brother’s shoulder, to stab randomly at the piano keys.
“Little brother’s asking for a big slap,” Scott smiled, shoving the younger man away. Johnny pushed his dark fringe back from his forehead and frowned at the staves of music on the sheet in front of his brother. “Play somethin’ cheerful, Boston. No wonder Murdoch fell asleep.”
“This is music, Johnny,” Scott said patiently. “The music of the soul, of great vision. This is art, not some mindless tune for cowboys to get drunk to.”
“Art, huh?” Johnny smiled, scratching his nose. “Well, I ain’t got no objection to that, brother, only Belle over there, she’s gotta hankerin’ for somethin’ cheerful.”
Scott turned to look at the injured calf, its left leg in a neat splint, resting in blankets by the fire.
“Very well,” he conceded with a sigh. “One mindless tune, then it’s back to the art, alright? Rather rashly, I now believe, I promised Reverend Jones I’d play this piece for his charity recital next month.”
“Sure it ain’t sweet little ol’ Mrs Jones you’re tryin’ to please?” Johnny teased, settling down on the rug next to the calf and stroking her head.
“Johnny …” Murdoch warned, pausing in the act of lighting his pipe.
“Brother, I think you did enough damage to our family’s reputation at dinner last month to ensure I’ll never be able to please the delightful Mrs Jones. Now talking about sour apples, here’s something Belle might like.”
Johnny glanced at his father who smiled and shook his head before putting on his glasses to read ‘Robinson Crusoe’. Taking his sketch book, and sitting cross-legged on the rug, Johnny began to draw the calf’s sleeping head while Scott played a tune neither man recognised, before he launched into a sequence of popular cowboy songs, some of them the gentle ones used to lull cattle away from their night fears.
“You gonna fence the whole of Lancer, Murdoch?” Johnny asked, after a long period of silence in which his father, more than once, had stopped reading to contemplate the spread of contentment flooding his veins. Murdoch raised his head and looked at his younger son who continued to work on his drawing.
“I’d fence the whole of it tomorrow if I could, son,” he replied quietly, admiring the way Johnny had caught the heavy ‘sleepiness’ of the injured animal, and troubled briefly by an image of his earlier intention to kill the creature. “With the pressure of settlement these days, it makes sound economic sense to put a solid border to the land, though, of course, it isn’t practical to do it all at once.”
“What about the line riders?”
“What about them?”
Johnny looked up from his sketchbook and looked challengingly at his father.
“If we fence the whole of Lancer, won’t be nothin’ for ‘em to do. We’ll have to lay men off.”
“Well, yes,” Murdoch admitted, contemplating his pipe. “That’s a possibility, but that’s the way of it, son. If we don’t make Lancer pay in a world that seems to be changing under our feet, then we all go under.”
“What’s the point of owning thousands of acres of land if it don’t give men work, Murdoch?” Johnny demanded. “If I could, I’d drag every poor deadbeat off the street an’ give ‘im a job. Even line-ridin’s better’n starvin’.”
“Not much,” Scott commented laconically, his fingers drifting gently over the keys as he listened to the discussion.
“What’d you know, Boston?” Johnny said heatedly. “You ain’t never even been inside a line shack.”
“No, but I’ve smelt them in the distance.”
Johnny glared ferociously at his brother’s back.
“How are those two boys coming along?” Murdoch asked, keen to avert his younger son’s anger. “Young Elijah appears to be a quick learner.”
“Yeh, he’s good.” Johnny regarded his bandaged hand with the remains of his irritation, choosing not to reveal his unease concerning the young negro. “Don’t know ‘bout Jeff, though.”
“What’s the problem?”
Johnny allowed his exasperation out in the face of his father’s attentiveness.
“Jesus, Murdoch. He’s on the shoot the whole time, like ‘e’s jus’ waitin’ for somethin’ else to happen. You’d think it’d be enough for ‘im to get away from his pa’s whippin’s, but, Jesus, he wants cream on it.”
“Managing men is quite a skill, John,” Murdoch said firmly. “You’re pretty good at it, but not all men want to be managed. You might have to let Jeff make his own mistakes.”
“Not while he’s on Lancer land, I won’t.”
Johnny’s head dipped stubbornly and he returned his attention to his drawing. His father contemplated him silently, his previous contentment shaken.
“What’s that you’re playing, son?” he asked, looking across at Scott. “I recognise it, but I can’t put a name to it.”
“It’s called ‘We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree’,” Scott replied coolly. “The men used to sing it at the Confederates in the evenings, none too tunefully, as I recall.” He turned round on the piano stool to face his father and brother. “This seems an appropriate time to tell you both,” he said, drawing in his breath slightly. “I received a letter from someone I used to know a couple of days ago - Stephen Forsyth. I fought alongside him at Cold Harbor – if you can call it fighting.”
Johnny’s head came up quickly at his brother’s bitter tone, and he gazed intensely at the older man.
“He a friend of yours?” he asked warily.
“He was, yes.” Scott, disturbed by his brother’s observation of him, looked at his father. “He’s coming on Friday to stay for a few days, if that’s acceptable, sir.”
“Of course,” Murdoch agreed readily. “Any Union man is welcome here. I’d be delighted to meet your friend.”
“How come you didn’t tell us coupla days ago, when you got the letter?”
Scott frowned at his brother. His tone was harsh.
“It slipped my mind, Johnny, alright?”
Johnny shrugged, but kept his gaze upon the older man.
“Actually, Stephen was quite the hero,” Scott said, hearing the desperation in his own voice. “He single-handedly took out an enemy machine gun emplacement and saved half his company.”
“Sounds like quite a feat, son. I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
Scott nodded briefly in reply, and then, abruptly, he turned back to the piano, his fingers fumbling over the keys before he found his composure and resumed the gentle nocturne.
“Jesus, Boston, you coulda knocked,” Johnny protested, shrugging off the remaining part of his jeans from his feet and kicking them across the floor. “I coulda been doin’ anythin’ in here.”
“Anything?” Scott smiled, watching his brother’s shirt join the jeans on the floor. He resisted the urge to pick up and fold the clothes.
“Yeh, anythin’,” Johnny grumbled. “Since we ain’t been to town for a week or more.”
“Hasn’t Murdoch told you to rest that hand?”
“Yeh,” Johnny threw himself back on the bed and grinned at his brother. “Only I’m pretty good with my other one, too.”
Smiling briefly, Scott shook his head and walked over to the window. Over in the bunkhouse, an orange glow lit up the small windows; he could just hear the sound of a guitar, and then a sudden roar of laughter. It was strange to him how often the ranch reminded him of an army camp.
“Somethin’ on your mind, Scott?” Johnny asked softly, his gaze on his brother’s back.
“No.” Scott turned from the window to look at the younger man. “I just wanted to apologise for snapping your head off this evening. It was uncalled for.”
“I was askin’ too many questions, brother,” Johnny smiled. “You don’t owe me no apology.”
“You had a right to ask, Johnny.” Scott lowered his head and folded his arms. “The truth is, I haven’t seen Stephen for a long time, not since the war, and I’m not quite sure what to expect.”
“You gotta reason for expectin’ somethin’ bad, Boston?”
Scott raised his head and looked directly into his younger brother’s gaze. He knew he could not fool this man.
“Maybe,” he replied softly. “The letter was strangely worded, to say the least.”
“No, not dangerous. I don’t think dangerous.”
“Bringin’ back bad thoughts, though, huh?”
Scott drew in his breath and nodded. Johnny sat up against the headboard of the bed and fiddled with the bandage on his hand.
“Know what I did with my bad thoughts, Scott?”
Scott shook his head, listening intently for the younger man’s next words.
“Gave up some of ‘em to Murdoch. He’s holdin’ ‘em for me, an’ he don’t mind doin’ it.”
Scott regarded his brother silently, his arms folded tightly across his chest, before walking across to the bed.
“That sounds like a good thing to do, Johnny,” he said gently. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You make sure you do, brother.” Johnny got under the bedcovers. He rubbed his eyes, and pulled his hand sleepily through his shock of dark hair. “Now you gonna leave me an’ my hand to ourselves, or you gonna stand there an’ watch?”
Scott laughed and walked over to the door. When he turned back to say goodnight, he realised from Johnny’s deep, even breathing that his brother was already fast asleep.
He had decided to wear a suit to meet Stephen, and was surprised to find himself standing at the coach depot feeling self-conscious, even embarrassed. Around him the people of the town went about their daily business, and he was aware of their curious glances, their vague hostility. Even Val, who had crossed the street from the sheriff’s office to greet him with a handshake, had glanced down at his highly polished, hand-made boots and smiled a little, before slapping his arm and calling him ‘a real swell’. George Stills had passed by, loudly suggesting that he come by his shop ‘for more suitable ranching attire if you’ve wore out what you’ve got’. Scott had smiled politely, envying his younger brother’s relentless ability to hurl a smart answer back at such remarks, though his mood had improved when the delectable Hedley sisters had walked by, offering him identical and lengthy smiles.
Now, watching the stage approach, he swallowed back his unease and drew in his breath, his hands clasped behind his back. The coach drew up in a confusion of dust, sweating, snorting horses and yells from the driver, a man famed for always entering town too quickly and stopping, red-faced and cursing, just beyond the depot. Scott stepped off the platform into the dust of the street and walked, still limping slightly, the little way to the halted coach, amused by the depot manager’s usual outraged protests against the driver’s ineptitude.
A man emerged first from the coach, tall, fair and almost skeletally thin with pale skin and a barely discernible moustache. His clothes, once a well-cut suit and dress shirt, were noticeably faded and frayed. Scott, realising with alarm that he was looking at Stephen, was about to step forward and speak when, supported by the man, a woman stepped down from the coach. Scott did not doubt her profession. He had spent many nights in the arms of such women. They had a certain brazen confidence that was close to contempt in looking at men, and this woman looked straight at him with just such a look. Disturbed by the vivid scar across her cheek, he looked down briefly.
He raised his head to see Stephen’s pale face animated by a smile, though it appeared to Scott to be the gesture of a ghost. Remembering himself, he clasped Stephen’s outstretched hand firmly, forcing a smile into his features.
“Stephen, it’s good to see you.”
“By God, and it’s good to see you, Scotty,” Stephen said fervently, shaking the other man’s hand. “It’s certainly good to see you. By God, you look well. By God, you do.”
He looked intently at Scott with brown eyes that seemed too large for his gaunt, pallid features, before releasing his hand and looking around him. Scott noticed that the woman had stayed by his friend’s side, her gaze fixed on no discernible thing and her hands gripping a small, shabby green bag in front of her. His heart began to thud with alarm.
“So this is where you escaped to, Scotty,” Stephen said softly. “This is your Eden. It’s …” He looked down at the ground. “…dusty.”
“Not all the time,” Scott replied, reaching for one of Stephen’s bags.
“That’s mine,” the woman stated, her voice almost a whisper.
“I beg your pardon.”
His hand retreated and he straightened himself to look enquiringly at Stephen who grasped the woman’s arm and pulled her close to his body, so that she seemed to fit into the crevice of his skeletal frame.
“Scotty, this is Ellen,” he announced. “I have saved her from her sin and now…” He turned and kissed her scar with the delicacy of a butterfly landing. “… she travels with me.”
Scott hesitated only briefly, before overcoming his surprise and holding out his hand to the woman.
“How d’you do, Miss …?
She took his hand reluctantly, withdrawing it again quickly after a failure to clasp it.
“Brown,” she answered abruptly.
Scott nodded and picked up her bag, struck by its lightness. Bewildered and appalled by the unexpected guest, he considered taking Stephen to one side and demanding an explanation for the insult to his hospitality, but Stephen seemed determined to hold the woman to his side even as they walked across to the waiting buggy. Scott was painfully aware of the mutterings in the street directed at the shabby couple – one, pale and bedraggled enough to be taken for a drifting consumptive and the other, a scarred prostitute. Feeling wildly guilty at his feelings of revulsion, he placed their luggage in the buggy, wishing he could wipe them both away with the ease he brushed the flies out of his face.
He looked up into the overcast sky and wondered if it would rain, before ensuring the tarpaulin was in the buckboard, ready to cover up the supplies if it was needed. From the open doors of the barn, he heard Jelly’s voice coaxing Amo into the main corral. Checking the wagon horses’ harness and pulling his fingers through each of their long manes in turn, he yelled across to the old man.
“Leave ‘im, Jelly, if ‘e don’t wanna come! I don’t want ‘im forced.”
Jelly appeared moments later at the corral fence to glare between the rails at the younger man.
“I ain’t forcin’ nothin’ or no-one,” he said fiercely. “I’m persuadin’. That’s a whole diff’rent kit an’ caboodle.”
Johnny patted Lightning’s neck and smiled.
“You’re right at that, ol’ timer, but maybe you could jus’ quit persuadin’ ‘im for awhile, if ya don’t mind. Let ‘im come out in ‘is own time.”
“If that’s how ya want it, Mr ‘know-it –all’ Johnny Lancer.” Jelly continued to glare at Johnny, his hands gripping the rail in front of him. “Though if you was t’ask me, I reckon that horse’s getting’ a deal too much of ‘is own way. Ain’t good fer a critter not to know where ‘e stands. Fore ya know it, ‘e’ll be sittin’ up on ‘is rear end an’ givin’ out mornin’ orders.”
“Then we could quit ranchin’ an’ make our fortune at the circus, Jelly,” Johnny grinned.
“You’re so darned smart aleck, ya could fry bacon on that tongue o‘ yourn.”
Jelly walked away, his hands in his pockets, muttering his discontent. Johnny smiled and pulled Thunder’s forelock out from behind her brow band, caressing the old mare’s nose and adjusting her throat latch down two holes.
“Is Jelly alright?” Murdoch asked, emerging from the house, his black Labrador, Bess, padding along at his heels. Johnny knelt down to stroke her, laughing as she eagerly licked his face.
“Yep,” he replied. “He jus’ ain’t woke up ‘til he’s beefed about somethin’” He rubbed the dog’s head vigorously and stood up. “’Bout ready to go. That your book order?”
“Yes.” Murdoch handed him the folded piece of paper and glanced across at the bunkhouse. “I thought you were taking Jeff along today.”
“Can’t damn well find ‘im,” Johnny said tersely, placing the paper in the top pocket of his new jacket and leaning back against the buckboard, his arms folded.
“He ain’t here, Murdoch, but when I catch up with ‘im, he’s sure gonna be here next time.”
His father frowned. “This is the third time he’s pulled this stunt, Johnny.”
“Yeh, I know,” the younger man sighed.
“If he’s out there target-shooting again, I’m sending him back to his parents.”
Johnny looked at his father scornfully.
“Murdoch, he ain’t goin’ back to his folks, not if you gave ‘im a ticket and an armed escort.” He hesitated, and then locked into the older man’s pale blue eyes. “He’s aimin’ to be a gunfighter. If we let ‘im go, he’ll be dead inside a week.”
Murdoch sighed and placed his hand on the buckboard close to Johnny’s arm.
“Son, I admire your concern for this boy, but some people are set on their own road, and whatever you do or say, you can’t change their course.”
“I can handle it, Murdoch,” Johnny said firmly. “I can straighten ‘im out. Jus’ give me some time, alright?”
“Alright, but I think you might have bitten off more than you can chew with that boy.”
Johnny smiled at his father and lightly punched the older man’s arm.
“Ain’t that what Sam said ‘bout me to you when I came home?”
“Well, that’s true enough!” Murdoch laughed, ruffling the back of his son’s head.
“Hey, Ol’ Man,” Johnny protested, removing his hat and smoothing down his unruly hair. “ Quit messin’ me up. I jus’ fixed myself right.”
“For what?” Murdoch smiled, amused at the sudden embarrassment on the young man’s face. “Would this have anything to do with the livery stable owner’s pretty daughter by any chance?
Johnny mouth twitched into a near smile and he dared to look at his father.
“She’s a nice girl.” Murdoch patted his shoulder approvingly. “Though from what I can recall, her father’s somewhat overprotective. You take care, alright?”
To his delight, his son beamed openly in response and leapt onto the buckboard seat.
“Jus’ enjoyin’ ourselves a little, Murdoch,” he said cheerfully. “What papas don’t know can’t hurt ‘em.”
“Hmmmm,” Murdoch smiled. “I’ll remind you of that when Tom Cooper comes banging on my door with a shotgun in his hand.”
He watched the young man pull a glove over his still bandaged hand.
“How’s it feeling today?” he asked. Flexing his fingers, Johnny frowned at the hand.
“Pretty sore. Can’t move my fingers too easy. Been five days. Reckoned it’d’ve settled by now.”
“I’ll take a look when you get back.” Murdoch grabbed hold of Bess’s collar as Johnny grasped the reins. “Don’t forget my tobacco. I’m almost out.”
“Then I sure ain’t forgettin’ it, Pa,” Johnny grinned. “You’re worse’n grizzly bear with a bee in ‘is ear without your smoke. Don’t need that kind of difficulty.”
“Get out of here, boy.” The older man attempted a tone of severity, but was glad to feel his failure. “Before I set you at the ledgers for the rest of the day.”
“Dios, I’m outta here,” Johnny laughed, flicking the horses with the reins. “See ya later.”
Smiling, Murdoch watched the buckboard disappear under the arch, before he released Bess and strode over to the corral, his hands in his pockets. Jelly, who been listening to and observing father and son silently while mixing feed for his two pigs, raised his head as the rancher entered the corral and approached him.
Murdoch regarded Amo who was still standing where Jelly had left him, at the large main entrance to the barn. The horse scraped the ground a little with his left hoof, his head bobbing up and down, and snorted uneasily.
“Why’s that horse loose?” Murdoch asked.
“’Cos that boy of your’n, Mr Smart-Aleck Johnny Lancer, reckons ‘e knows best, that’s why,” Jelly answered belligerently, wiping his hands on the front of his dungarees. “Reckons it’s best ta let the stubborn cuss come out in ‘is own sweet time. If that don’t beat all fer bosh! As if I got the time ta sit around like a coffee-boiler waitin’ on that critter ta make up ‘is mind.”
“Well, if Johnny thinks that’s the best way…,” Murdoch shrugged.
“Yeh, well,” the older man grumbled. “Seems ta me, Amo ain’t the onliest one ta be given a long rein round here lately.”
“Perhaps you’d like to tell me what you mean by that, Jelly,” Murdoch said severely.
The older man drew in his breath noisily and straightened his shoulders.
“Perhaps I mean, it ain’t always easy workin’ fer three bosses,” he stated boldly, looking Murdoch directly in the eyes. “That boy’s sure found ‘is confidence in givin’ orders lately.”
“He owns this ranch equally with me and his brother, Jelly,” Murdoch said patiently. “He has a right to give orders. I expect him to. If he’s gaining confidence as a boss, then that’s good for Lancer and it pleases me a great deal. I’m sorry if that means he’s coming across a little more firmly than you’ve been used to, but that’s what Johnny has to do to grow.”
Jelly shrugged his shoulders irritably, recognising that he was defeated. He picked up his bucket of mash and glared at the horse who remained on the dividing line between the barn and the corral. Wary of his employer’s mood, he softened his tone.
“I got to feed ma hogs, and then I’m fixin’ the roof on the henhouse. What d’ya want me ta do with Amo? Reckon ‘e’s fixin’ ta stay there fer the winter.”
“I’ll see to him,” Murdoch said quietly. “You go ahead and do your chores.”
He watched the older man disappear into the dark interior of the barn, disturbed by Jelly’s agitation. Often in the past six months, he had envied his younger son’s easy relationship with the much older man, brooding in discontent when Johnny had mercilessly teased Jelly or thrown an arm around the handyman’s shoulders. Filled with a nameless ache, he had seen the old man’s eyes light up with pleasure at the mere sight of his younger son riding in after a day out on the range, hurrying to grab Barranca’s reins before young José had a chance.
Now, all had changed, and his delight had become Jelly’s grief. Making up his mind to talk to Johnny about the old man, he approached Amo. While Bess sat obediently to one side, panting, her tail brushing the dust, Murdoch held out his hand to the mustang, talking softly to the animal, keeping eye contact in an effort to convince Amo he was the leader in the herd. Amo allowed him the assertion for a few moments before tossing up his head and snorting his rebellion. Unused to treating horses with anything more than a cursory pat and a command – the cattleman’s way - he struggled for connection, alarmed to feel a tremor of fear ripple under his skin. Instantly, he knew that Amo had detected it. The horse snorted again loudly and plunged forward out of the darkness of the barn, brushing past him with what seemed to him a perfectly judged reproach.
Turning round, he saw that the animal was facing him, its ears sharply forward and its dark, liquid eyes calmly observing him. Murdoch felt the challenge, and, suddenly, his blood rose to meet it in a wild rush along his veins, until he was almost weak with longing to master this being that stood there, utterly still, its long vivid scar raised from its quivering skin like a badge of honour.
He stopped the buggy under a stand of oak trees on a rise overlooking the valley. The sun had emerged after a brief shower of rain, and even to his eye, familiar now with the landscape, the distant spread of canyons, gullies, trees and rivers, touched by sunlight, looked like an inferior artist’s romantic ideal, something he would have scorned to look at in a Boston gallery. Its actual beauty mesmerized him.
While Ellen, shaded under a faded yellow parasol, remained in the buggy, silently gazing across the vastness, Stephen stepped down to stand at Scott’s side. He lifted a cigar from the top pocket of his shabby jacket and lit it, taking the first draw and releasing the smoke with a long sigh.
“So this is your domain, Scotty,” he said softly. “Surely mere mortals can’t own such a paradise. Surely your father’s a king and you and your brother, princes.”
“Not exactly,” Scott smiled briefly, a fleeting image of Murdoch crowned and sitting on a throne passing through his mind. He had told Stephen what he felt he needed to know about his new family and hoped it would be enough. “This land is a great deal tougher than it looks. We have to work long and hard to make it pay.”
“With your hands?” Stephen looked at him, his large brown eyes wide with surprise.
“With our hands,” Scott replied. “There’s no room for passengers at Lancer, or at any ranch in the West.”
Stephen glanced back at Ellen, and smiled slowly.
“Is that a hint, Scotty?” he said. “Will we have to get our hands dirty to earn our keep?”
“Don’t be absurd, Stephen,” Scott replied uneasily. “You’re my guests.”
“Well, no matter,” the other man shrugged, blowing out a cloud of smoke. “We’ve dirtied our hands before.” He paused and looked down at the ground to see a lizard scuttle past his feet. “We all have, haven’t we.”
Feeling his heartbeat quicken, Scott moved further away along the ridge, out of the woman’s hearing.
“Who is she, Stephen?” he asked in an abrupt, fierce whisper. Stephen sat on a rock and rested his elbows on his knees and his face in his cupped palms, the cigar still burning between his long, thin fingers; he observed Scott calmly.
“I told you. I saved her, and now she’s with me.”
“For heaven’s sake …” Scott drew in his breath and pulled his hand back through his short blond hair. “She’s a prostitute, Stephen.”
“Was,” the other man replied bluntly. “She no longer does it for money.”
“You’ve brought her here without warning.” Scott felt no relaxation of the tension and anger prickling through his skin. “This is my family home, and I consider your behaviour as not that of a gentleman.”
“Not that of a gentleman?” Stephen repeated, a ghost of a smile marking his pallid features. “Why, Scotty. I never took you for the narrow-minded sort, not after what we’ve seen and done.” He threw the cigar to the ground and crushed it with the heel of his worn-out boot. “Does it matter where we get our love in this godforsaken world, as long as we get it?”
“Love?” Scott’s tone was quietly scornful.
“One variety among many, Scotty.” Stephen stood up and moved close enough to the other man for Scott to smell the cigar smoke on his friend’s breath. “I will save them all, if I can, old comrade. I will save them all, and all I’m asking from you, my old friend, is a refuge. The woman and I will sleep in a barn if we must …”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Scott said angrily, disturbed and upset by Stephen’s manner and words. He felt hopelessly trapped. “Of course you’ll stay at Lancer, only I would be grateful if you could spare my father the details of Ellen’s past.”
“Is your father so innocent of life he will not see what she has been?”
“No, but my father is, in all essentials, a gentleman,” Scott replied stiffly. “I simply don’t want his nose rubbed in it.”
“And this wild young half-brother of yours, who grew up in all those flea-bitten, Godforsaken border towns?” Stephen allowed a handful of dust to trickle through his fingers onto his boots. “Should we spare him too?”
“Johnny makes up his own mind about people,” Scott said abruptly, turning to walk back to the buggy. “There’s no point in pussy-footing around him.”
As he flicked the reins to urge the horses on towards home, and Stephen returned to his position at the silent woman’s side, Scott was consumed by the violent desire of never having to arrive there.
Johnny lay on his stomach and peered through the gap in the hay-loft door down to the deserted orchard below. Through the twisted apple trees, a small goat with a bell around its neck trotted, stopping to nose at the remains of fallen fruit.
“Who is it, Johnny?”
He turned his head to look at the girl holding back in the shadows of the loft and smiled.
“Come an’ see for yourself.”
Looking at the young man doubtfully, the girl moved to lie beside him. Johnny kissed the side of her face and gently pushed the loft door open.
“It’s only ol’ Martha Finney’s goat,” he grinned. “Let’s ‘er wander all over town.” He pulled out his gun and pointed it down at the animal. “You want me to shoot it. Looks pretty dangerous to me.”
“Don’t you dare, Johnny Lancer!”
Lindy grabbed his arm. Laughing, he rolled her against him and kissed her mouth eagerly until she pulled away, her brown eyes bright with agitation.
“I’ve told you not to kiss me like that, Johnny,” she said petulantly, sitting back in the hay and brushing her long honey-blond hair away from her face. He watched her smooth her slim hands over the creases of her light blue dress.
“Like what?” he smiled, lying back in the hay, his head pillowed on his left hand. The loft was warm, and outside the air was still and heavy with the expectation of rain. He could hear the tinkling of the little goat’s bell as it moved among the trees.
“You know …” She cast her eyes downwards as she pulled strands of hay from her hair. Johnny gazed at her, taking slow pleasure in the sight of her crisp cleanness, her glossy hair and her clear, fresh skin. In the close atmosphere of the old hay loft, the dusty worm-eaten beams above her bowed head, she held the vivid unreality of a painting in a church. An impulse in him wanted to capture her timeless presence with his pencil, but a more powerful one wanted the scent and feel of her again in his arms, as novel to him as an exotic fruit.
“Well, how d’you want me to kiss you, Lindy Cooper?” he asked quietly, a glimmer of a smile in his blue eyes. He stuck a piece of hay between his teeth and chewed on it slowly. “If I’m doin’ it wrong …”
The girl lifted her head and looked at him from under lowered eyelashes.
“You know that’s not what I mean, Johnny,” she said returning his smile bashfully.
Johnny suddenly lunged forward and grabbed her back into his arms, stopping her giggling protests with another long kiss. Pulling away only slightly this time, her face above his, she gazed fearfully into his eyes. He stroked the curves of her nose and lips with his finger, fascinated by her perfect features.
“You sure are the prettiest girl in town,” he smiled, kissing her again, more tenderly than before. “An’ you smell like a peach orchard.”
His hand lingered at the top of her dress and he began to tug at the light blue silk cord tied neatly just below her neck. She stopped him, her expression caught between yearning and panic.
“I can’t, Johnny,” she whispered. “You know I can’t.”
He sighed heavily and moved his hand away, willing his blood to stop crashing through his veins. Sensing his disappointment, Lindy threaded her soft fingers through the fingers of his left hand. She placed her lips close to his ear.
“You know, Johnny,” she said softly. “If we were engaged, I’d let you …”
The young man looked at her, his throat suddenly dry and his eyes wide with
alarm. Down in the orchard, the goat’s bell suddenly sounder much louder to his ears.
“You mean I gotta marry you if I want to …?
“Well, not right away,” Lindy assured him hastily. “Not even for a year, maybe, but if I let you … well, you know. Well, I’d consider we were practically engaged anyway.”
With a small noise of exasperation, Lindy moved back into a sitting position in the hay, her hands in the lap of her blue dress.
“Well, of course I would, Johnny,” she insisted fiercely. “My father would kill the both of us if he caught me up here with you, but I like you … a lot, so I don’t care …only if we were engaged, he’d … maybe … I mean you’re Murdoch Lancer’s son, so he might …” She finished weakly. “Though he thinks you’re trouble …”
“Is that how all you girls think?” Johnny said quietly, raising himself to one elbow and resting his head on his palm.
“What, that you’re trouble?”
“No, about engagements an’ marryin’ before you’ll let a man know you better.”
“Well, yes, most of us, certainly.” Lindy looked at him beseechingly, anxious to explain. “Most of my friends say they won’t even do it until their wedding night. Ruth Tranter won’t even let a man kiss her until he’s put a ring on her finger.”
“Then she’s goin’ to be waitin’ for that kiss for a long time,” Johnny grinned. “Ruth Tranter ain’t exactly an oil painting. Takes after ‘er ma.”
He looked at the girl, his expression suddenly serious.
“I gotta tell you, Lindy,” he said softly. “I like you a helluva lot, more’n than any girl I’ve ever met, practic’lly, but I ain’t got marryin’ on my mind right now.” He hesitated briefly. “Engagements either.”
Lindy nodded and dropped her head, her fingers brushing over the small hay scratches on her arm. Feeling a sudden rush of emotion, which seemed to him very unlike his earlier desires, he went to kneel before her and carefully took her hands in his.
“I like bein’ with you, Lindy,” he said gently. “I wanna go on seein’ you – maybe take you to the dance on Friday night – even if we can’t …” He squeezed her hands. “I can live with that…” He smiled into her suddenly raised eyes. “Well, for awhile, anyhow.”
Lindy lifted a hand and combed hay out of his wild dark hair with her fingers.
“You won’t be going to any of those …” She paused, as if swallowing a bad taste. “… girls at the Silver Dollar, will you, Johnny, just because I won’t let you …”
“No,” he smiled, taking her hand from his head and kissing her wrist. “I’m done with all that.”
As he lay with the grateful girl in his arms, a sudden shower pounding on the roof of the old barn, Johnny allowed his mind to wander idly among the familiar faces of the saloon girls, and considering which one he was likely to choose the next evening he was in town, he drifted into sleep.
The loss of the sunlight behind heavy clouds matched Scott’s mood as he steered the buggy under the arch and directed it towards the house. Banging nails into the henhouse roof, Jelly gave the buggy and its occupants no more than a cursory glance, though he looked again when he detected than one of the visitors was a woman. Scott, believing he could install his guests in the house, before informing his father of Ellen’s presence, was dismayed to see the older man in the main corral running a brush carefully over Amo’s coat. The stallion, tethered to a post, moved restlessly as the buggy stopped close by; Murdoch calmed it with his voice and the flat of his palm on the trembling skin of its neck before walking across the corral to the gate.
Scott busied himself unloading the buggy as his father approached. A smile of welcome brightened his face, though his expression faltered a little at the sight of the scarred young woman in the shabby dress who made no acknowledgement of his presence, but stared straight ahead, the faded yellow parasol held so firmly in her hands it was as if she were clinging onto the mast of a life raft. Steeling himself, Scott forced a smile on his face for his father.
“Sir,” he said with an attempt at warmth. “Allow me to introduce Stephen Forsyth. Stephen, this is my father, Murdoch Lancer.”
“Sir.” Stephen’s tone was robust with a determined energy as he thrust out a wasted hand. “I’m honoured to meet you. Scotty has sung you the highest of praises.”
Murdoch took the hand, alarmed by the feel of sharp bones in his hands, and shook it firmly.
“How d’you do, Mr Forsyth,” he said, sending his son the merest of glances, before smiling warmly at the young man. “I’d certainly like to hear those. My son is sparing with his praise at the best of times.”
Scott allowed the comment to pass while he struggled to keep his discomfort invisible. He watched Stephen help Ellen descend from the buggy. She almost fell against his friend’s skeletal frame and Stephen gently pushed her upright.
“Mr Lancer, may I introduce my friend, Miss Ellen Brown,” he said courteously. “I hope I’m not intruding too greatly on your hospitality in failing to inform you that I was bringing another guest. It was rather a last-minute event, you see.”
“No,” Murdoch said immediately. “No, of course not. Any friends of my son are welcome here.” He held out his large hand to the young woman. “How d’you do, Miss Brown. Welcome to Lancer.”
She stared at the hand, her chest visibly heaving, before taking it quickly and muttering a barely discernible ‘Thank you’. Murdoch looked at his son, aware of the young man’s extreme embarrassment.
“Scott, why don’t you take your guests inside to their rooms,” he suggested calmly. “They must be tired after their journey. I’ll arrange for baths to be filled and José’ll put the buggy away.”
Scott nodded curtly and picked up the luggage while Stephen guided Ellen into the house. Though Stephen made admiring comments about the spacious, well-furnished interior and the civilised touches of shelves of books, a piano and tasteful paintings, the young woman clung to him silently, her eyes averted from everything but the highly polished wooden floors.
“This is a fine staircase,” Stephen commented. “Oak?”
“Yes,” Scott nodded, running his free hand along the polished banister. “My father built it with his own hands - and my brother likes to polish it with the seat of his pants, although he gets a ticking off for doing it.”
He entered the first room on the left at the top of the staircase and deposited Stephen’s threadbare carpet bag on the thick Mexican rug in the centre of the room.
“I hope this is comfortable enough for you,” Scott said, looking around the elegant room and deliberately averting his gaze from the sight of Stephen kissing a curl of chestnut hair on Ellen’s forehead.
“After the places we have seen, Scotty.” Stephen stroked the curl from her brow. “It is a veritable paradise.”
After quickly showing Ellen her smaller, brighter room, to which she responded with no emotion but the merest tremor of her pale lips, Scott informed Maria of their presence, ensured their baths were in the process of being filled and fled outside.
His father was back in the corral, now pulling a comb through Amo’s long pale mane. Scott, taking deep breaths of the fresh air, and releasing them slowly to calm himself, opened the gate and approached Murdoch, careful not to alarm the stallion. Despite his distress, there was still room in his emotions for him to admire the older man’s tender handling of the animal. He had never seen his father treat a horse with anything more than a perfunctory pat and an abrupt command. He had told Scott in the first week that horses were simply tools of his trade, used until they were no longer viable and then shot for dog meat. Johnny, wary and resentful of his father’s extreme taciturnity, had remained silent, though Scott had not missed the look of contempt on his younger brother’s face.
“Making friends?” Scott said, placing a careful hand on the mustang’s nose. Amo’s ears went back and he stepped away from the young man’s touch. Murdoch pulled mane hair out of the comb and watched it drift across the dust of the corral. He nodded.
“Something like that,” he replied quietly. “Are your guests comfortable?”
“Yes,” Scott answered abruptly and then drew in his breath. “Murdoch, I had no idea Stephen was bringing …” He hesitated and drew in another breath. “Miss Brown here.”
“I know that, son,” Murdoch said firmly. He went to Amo’s tail and pulled it to one side to begin combing it through. “How long d’you think they’ll be staying?”
“Two or three days, at the most.”
His father nodded; a trace of a smile marked his weather-beaten features.
“You know I’ve invited Reverend and Mrs Jones here for this evening, don’t you, to make up a table for dinner?”
“What!?” Scott’s loud exclamation caused Amo to jerk up his head in alarm. Murdoch calmed him and turned to face the young man. His tone was unexpectedly gentle, surprising his son into attempting to control his emotions.
“Scott, sometimes in this life things happen that we don’t expect or want, and it’s very easy to approach them in a way which makes them a whole lot worse. D’you understand what I’m saying, son?”
“Yes, sir.” Scott shook his head in disbelief. “But Reverend Jones? Mrs Jones? I didn’t think they’d ever cross our threshold again after the way Johnny behaved last time, and I’ve got these … people to contend with. It couldn’t be worse.”
“These people?” Murdoch frowned. “Stephen’s your friend, Scott. You served with him at Cold Harbor.”
“Murdoch …” The younger man put a hand to the back of his head and rubbed it fiercely. “Miss Brown’s a …”
“I know what she is,” Murdoch interrupted him, placing the comb and brushes in the pail at his feet. “Or, I’m assuming, what she was.”
Scott nodded briefly, his eyes averted from his father’s observation.
“Then it should make for a very interesting dinner tonight,” Murdoch smiled, untying the mustang from the post and picking up the pail. “Though I think perhaps your brother will need an explicit warning from one or both of us.”
Scott smiled thinly.
“He’ll run a mile anyway when he knows Mrs Jones is coming.”
“He’ll be there if I have to chain him to the table,” Murdoch said firmly. “It’ll be good practice for him in learning how to behave in more formal situations.”
“That or destroy his confidence forever.”
His father smiled and turned the horse towards the barn. Glumly, Scott watched them disappear into the dark interior before returning to the house to find solace in a glass of whisky. Murdoch’s stoic, almost amused, acceptance of the woman’s presence had both amazed and disturbed him. Since the older man’s return from Bittercreek, he had seen the hard-edged, taciturn man he had come to know and like in the previous six months, become someone else. Scott liked what he saw, but, in the alien territory of his unease over Stephen intentions, this stranger served only to deepen his sense of isolation. He poured out a double measure of his father’s best whisky and drank it down in one fierce swallow.
It was well into the afternoon when Johnny drove the buckboard down into Red Devil Canyon. He and Lindy had fallen asleep in the hay loft, both waking suddenly to the sound of the widow Finney calling for her goat. Hay clinging to their clothes and hair, they had scrambled, laughing, down the loft ladder, and he could still taste that final lingering kiss, like sweet ripe apples, before the girl had made her innocent way through the orchard and past the church out of his sight. Driving quickly out of town, his mind had churned out ideas that explained away his lateness to his father – broken wheel, late delivery of tobacco at the grocery store, runaway goat, Val asking him to mind the sheriff’s office while he went for a shave and a long bath – but he discarded them one by one and resigned himself to a lecture.
Stopping the buckboard by the creek, he sat and listened for a few moments, but all he could hear was the sound of rushing water and the jingling of the harness when the horses tossed their heads.
He fell still and listened again before cupping his good hand against his mouth and yelling again.
“Jeff, if you’re out here, boy, you’d better own up pronto, ‘fore I come trailin’ your sorry butt with my rifle!”
He waited again, smiling briefly when he heard the fall of stones from a small ledge a short way up the canyon. Picking up his rifle, he cranked the lever, and laid it across his knees. Jeff slid and scrambled down the scree of the canyon side, rifle in hand, until he landed heavily in a clump of spiny grass, small rocks and stones continuing to tumble down after him as he pulled himself to his feet.
“Don’t know what ya was waitin’ for, Jeff, but it sure ain’t comin’ now,” Johnny said, regarding the other man coolly. He placed the rifle on the seat of the buckboard. “I looked for you at Piper’s Gulch earlier this mornin’. Figured you’d gone there to do a little firing off. Why’re you here?”
Jeff removed his hat, pushed back his blond hair and looked warily at Johnny.
“Waitin’ for the cat,” he replied. Johnny wanted to smile at his rebellious tone, but he merely gazed at the young man impassively.
“The mate of the one you shot last week. Fellers in the bunkhouse bin talkin’ ‘bout it fer two days solid.” He curled his fingers a little more closely around his rifle, his expression defiant. “Thought I’d take me a shot at it.”
Johnny snorted out a laugh and shook his head.
“Jeff Sherman, if you ain’t the clearest shave tail that ever lived. Where y’been all your life, boy?”
“What ya talkin’ about?” Jeff demanded angrily.
“The fellers were just havin’ some fun with you, is all. They do that to all the greenhorns.” Johnny gathered the reins into his gloved hands. “Now, come on home ‘fore Murdoch kicks your butt all the way back down to Stockton, ‘cos that’s what he’s threatenin’ to do if you don’t shape up pretty darn quick.”
“I ain’t no shave tail, Johnny, and I ain’t afraid of your pa.”
Hearing the defiant hostility in the young man’s voice, Johnny softened his hold on the reins and gazed silently at Jeff, until the other man lost his nerve and blurted out a rush of further rebelliousness.
“Ain’t gonna be no ranch hand for the rest of my life, Johnny. Ain’t gonna spend the rest of my days punchin’ mule-headed cows an’ diggin’ post-holes.” He hesitated as if waiting for Johnny’s response, but the other man continued to regard him silently, no visible reaction marking his features. “You did it, Johnny,” Jeff insisted eagerly, moving closer to the buckboard. “You traveled around, seein’ places, doin’ what ya pleased, countin’ on no-one an’ nuthin’ but your gun an’ your bed-roll, livin’ on what your gun could get ya.” He placed his hand on the buckboard seat rail and attempted to read Johnny’s cold expression. “That’s what I want, Johnny. I’m grateful ya brung me here, but I ain’t ready fer settlin’.”
Johnny glanced down at his dusty boots on the floor of the buckboard, before lifting his head and looking fiercely at the young man. His words came slow and severe.
“Jeff, you ain’t ready to buckle your own fuckin’ belt, so shut your big bazoo an’ come on home now, ‘fore I make ya.”
Jeff glared furiously at the other man and stepped back from the buckboard. “And how ya gonna do that, Johnny?” he demanded. He raised his rifle and pointed it at the other man. “I’m getting’ pretty darned tired of you ridin’ me the whole time, tellin’ me what I can an’ can’t do, orderin’ me about, showin’ me up in front of that fuckin’ nigger …”
Jeff stepped back again as Johnny hurled himself from the buckboard and punched him on the jaw so hard he crashed to one side. Blood filling his mouth, his hand went to his rifle and stayed there when he found himself looking into the barrel of Johnny’s revolver.
“Get the fuck up, Jeff!” Johnny ordered, furious at himself. “Get up before I kick ya up.”
Jeff rose to his feet, his hand to his throbbing jaw, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. Johnny holstered his Colt and grabbed the other man’s rifle and the gleaming revolver from its stiff new holster.
“You ever point a gun at me again, boy, it’ll be the last thing on Earth you ever do; you hear me?” When Jeff made no reply, but spat blood from his mouth into the dust, Johnny pushed his shoulder roughly. “D’you fuckin’ hear me, Jeff?”
Jeff nodded, grimacing from the pain in his jaw. He picked up his hat and knocked the dust out of it on his thigh. Calmer now, Johnny put the young man’s guns in the buckboard and turned back to face him, his arms folded tightly against his chest. Jeff, trembling with shock and pain, regarded him warily.
“Can ya make it back to Lancer?” Johnny asked quietly.
Jeff nodded. Silently, he watched the other man hop back onto the buckboard and take hold of the reins.
“What about ma gun?” he said fearfully. “Y’ain’t gonna leave me without a gun, are ya?”
Johnny released the brake on the buckboard and regarded the young man steadily.
“Figure you got more chance of stayin’ alive without it,” he said. “If you go get your horse now, you can ride on my tail.”
He watched the other man walk towards the stand of cottonwoods where his horse was tethered, before he flicked Lightning’s rear and headed for home, his injured hand throbbing from the force of the punch and his stomach churning at his failure to govern his emotions.
Fascinated, he watched Tick eat. The old man held the bowl close to his lips and scooped the fatty stew into his mouth with a piece of bread, chewing with loud smacks, and little whistling noises sounding from his nose. Juices dribbled into his beard which he licked elaborately with his tongue before drawing his shirt sleeve across his mouth. Swallowing weak beer to wash the food down, he belched long and noisily and scratched his crotch as he ambled over to the stove in the middle of the bunkhouse to pour himself a cup of coffee. Johnny, from his seat on the rough plank floor against Elijah’s bunk, smiled to see the old man dig his fingers in the cleft of his behind and rub there with a wriggle of discomfort, oblivious to those around him.
Near the stove a group of men played cards with a greasy deck and a pile of matchsticks, while others cleaned boots, darned socks or read dime novels. A half Mexican youth lay on his bunk idly pointing his revolver at the low ceiling, and practised spinning the trigger guard on his forefinger. Earlier, one of the younger hands had used the word ‘sensitivity’ in talking of a horse, and a more experienced man had bawled, “Now, where’d that fancy word go? There it is!” and fired a hole through the eye of a magazine picture of an actress hung on the wall for decoration. Knowing Murdoch’s rule forbidding the ‘gratuitous’ use of guns on the ranch, Johnny had been tempted to tell him off, but lulled by the warm companionship of the room, he had let it go, even laughed a little with the rest.
Though his father and brother discouraged it, and rarely entered the bunkhouse themselves, Johnny sometimes gave in to the urge to sit in the warm fug of the room, comfortable with the smells of sweat, leather oil, coffee and chaps drying near the stove; listening to the slow laconic speech of men who rarely wasted words, their humour so dry it was hard to distinguish from sarcasm. Though these tough men instantly became wary in the presence of his father, Johnny sensed no change in their behaviour when he chose to join them. They joked with him, the older ones daring to tease him a little about soft beds and high living, the youths asking him about horses and discussing the latest girl at the Silver Dollar saloon.
Since their return from Red Devil, Jeff had ignored Johnny and the other young men, but had willingly picked up his guitar to accompany Charlie Hewson singing ‘Streets of Laredo’. Johnny loved the song and waited with stilled breath for the verse:
Go gather around you a group of young cowboys,
And tell them the story of this my sad fate.
Tell one and the other before they go further,
To stop their wild roving before it's too late.
‘Wild roving’; he loved the words and never failed when he heard them to see an image of a solitary boy with a horse and gun wandering through a wilderness with no idea of a destination. When the song had finished, Jeff quietly strummed the guitar, his head lowered over the fretboard. No-one had remarked on the bruise on his jaw or asked him about his luck with the lion.
“Hey, boy,” Sam Wester drawled, his head turned from contemplating his hand at the card table. “Where d’ya learn t’ play that sweet?”
“My pa taught me,” Jeff replied, oblivious to Johnny’s expression darkening with sudden hostility. “Gave me this very guitar.”
“Musta bin a real sensitive man,” Sam said in a monotone, provoking cackles of laughter around the room, and a protest from the youth who had earlier suffered the shot at his fancy language. Jeff scowled and continued his gentle strumming.
Disturbed by his feelings, Johnny drew himself up on Elijah’s bunk to sit next to the boy. He crossed his legs and, seeing that Elijah was intent on reading a bible, picked at the grubby bandage on his hand, hoping that the boy, a still, silent presence in a corner of the eventful room, would speak to him.
“Got somethin’ eatin’ at yus, Johnny?” Elijah’s voice came suddenly and soft. Johnny shook his head.
“Why’s y’ here, an’ not wi’ y’ folks?”
“Stayin’ low, Elijah,” Johnny replied, smiling briefly. “Too many strangers in the house.”
Elijah nodded. Johnny glanced at the dense type of the page in the boy’s hand; saw the dark skin of his hand against the white of the page as Elijah trailed his finger along the words. He listened intently as, suddenly, the boy began to read out loud, quietly and rhythmically as if he knew the words by heart. ‘And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.’
Elijah stopped and lifted his head from the page to look at Johnny who remained still, his breathing deliberately controlled in an effort to conceal his reaction.
“D’yus reckon at’s de truth, Johnny?” Elijah asked softly. “Life for life, burnin’ for burnin’?”
“Maybe,” Johnny replied, now barely conscious of the other men in the room, his blood racing with the power of the words and the boy’s confiding manner, as if they were alone in a confession cell in a dark corner of a church. “You reckon it is?”
“Oh, yeh.” Elijah closed the book. “I knows it is.”
Johnny looked into his brown eyes, searching for something more, but the boy left the bunk and walked over to the stove to take a pair of socks from the cord strung across the centre of the room.
“Johnny!” Charlie said, peering through one of the room’s small windows. “Boss’s comin’ over, an’ e’ don’t look kindly. I’d be inclined t’ skedaddle, boy, ‘fore e’ rains on ya wi’ that face.”
“In fer it now, Johnny!” yelled Tick, chortling as he pulled grimy socks off his equally dirty feet. “Ya daddy’s gonna whup ya good fer dickerin’ with us mudsills.”
“Shut ya damn yap, Tick,” Johnny snapped irritably.
Still disturbed by Elijah, he leapt off the bunk and crossed the rough floor, ignoring the smirks and sniggers of the other men. He opened the door and quickly closed it again behind him when he saw the severe expression on his father’s face as he approached.
“There you are,” Murdoch growled, stopping with his hands in the pockets of his pants, angry at his son’s emergence from the bunkhouse. “I’ve had José chasing around the entire ranch looking for you.”
Johnny moved away from the heavy door, unnerved by the older man’s clear displeasure.
“Figured you’d want me outta the way with the Jones’ comin’ for dinner,” he said, attempting a smile.
“Well, you figured wrong, young man.” Murdoch’s tone was irritable as he contemplated Johnny who had dipped his head at his father’s tone. Though the Jones’ had yet to arrive, the older man could feel already the discomfort of their presence, like an unreachable itch under his skin. “You’ve got twenty minutes to wash up and change into a suit and tie.” Johnny’s dark head shot up in imminent protest, but his father’s brusque voice silenced him. “Maria’s filled a bath. Now get going.”
As his father turned to head back to the house, Johnny released his frustration at the older man’s terse, unsympathetic commands.
“Murdoch, I ain’t no good at that social stuff,” he insisted fiercely. “Smilin’ when I don’t mean it, listenin’ to some idiot when I don’t give a damn, eatin’ like a Sunday School teacher. I can’t do that stuff. Why’re you ridin’ me to do it when it don’t matter a damn if I’m there or not!?”
Murdoch drew in his breath, alert to the distress mixed with the young man’s anger, but unwilling this time to indulge it. He turned and looked sternly at his son.
“It certainly does matter, boy. If you’re going to make any kind of impact as the owner of a big spread like Lancer, you need to get used to sitting around dinner tables with people you might not like, or might even damn well hate. It’s part of the role, like it or not. Now get going before I throw you in that bath myself.”
Biting back another angry response, Johnny kicked hard at a weed in the dust, knocking it out of the ground, and strode quickly past Murdoch towards the bath house.
He stopped, his back to the older man, too agitated to risk looking at him.
“At some point this evening, we’ll need to discuss why you were so late coming back from town today. You didn’t finish all your chores.”
Murdoch watched the young man’s body tense in further resentment and, struck suddenly and hard by an image of what their relationship had been before Bittercreek and Emilio, he felt nausea rise in his throat and a violent urge to undo his blundering. Struggling to conjure up some light-hearted remark that might lessen the damage, he saw Johnny disappear into the bath house and slam the door behind him. Sighing heavily, he went to greet the Jones’ whose smart black buggy had just entered under the Lancer arch.
“You said in your letter that you were in trouble. Am I allowed to ask the nature of it?”
Stephen paused in the act of shaving the pale stubble from his thin face and turned his head to look at Scott. The other young man, already formally dressed and groomed, sat in the armchair close by the bed, one leg crossed carefully over the other, his hands clasped in his lap.
“You may,” Stephen replied nonchalantly. “The fact is, I had just ‘stolen’ Ellen, and was, to all intents and purposes, on the run.”
“Stolen her?” Scott frowned, watching his friend cut a swathe through the foam on his neck. Stephen shook the razor in the bowl of hot water.
“The man who owned the saloon in Kansas considered her his property even after she’d had a broken bottle dragged across her face by a drunken gambler.”
“She had just refused to pose naked for a series of photographs, so he ensured that no other man would ever look upon her with pleasure again.”
Scott, wildly uncertain of Stephen’s state of mind, gazed at his friend in disbelief.
“That’s a terrible story,” he protested.
Stephen wiped the remaining foam from his face, seeming to inhale for a long moment the fragrance of the thick white towel in his hands.
“One of many, Scotty.” He threw the towel on the bed and patted after-shave from a nearly empty bottle onto his face. “This was the defining event for me. In Ellen’s plight, I saw the beginnings of my redemption.” He gazed intently at his image in the mirror, leaning closer to inspect a nick on his chin. “I took her from that place and I will bring her to a better one.”
Scott had listened to his friend’s words with a mixture of bewilderment and irritation, and now he rose to his feet abruptly and stood behind the other man, his arms folded tightly against his pounding chest.
“Why are you here, Stephen?” he demanded angrily.
“Because I needed a refuge, Scott.” His friend’s reply was calm as he secured the top button of his shirt. “I knew you would not refuse me, knowing what you know.”
Scott took a deep, angry breath and glared down at the geometrical pattern of the Mexican rug under his feet, the black zigzagging against thick stripes of bold colour, aggravating his senses.
“If you’ve come here to drag up the past …”
“And just how can we avoid that, Scott?” Stephen interrupted him with sudden severity. He took a tie from the meagre selection in his bag. “I spent two years in an asylum living with the past, despite the doctors’ persistence in their desire to purge me of it. I live with it now because I must.” He put the tie around his neck and regarded Scott unblinkingly, his pale features accentuating the intensity of his large brown eyes. “What we did was wrong, Scott. It must be atoned for.”
Scott felt as if a fist had been slammed in his face. He stood there, uncertain of how to respond while Stephen fastened his tie.
“It was war, Stephen,” he said finally, hearing the weakness in his own voice. “We did what we had to do.”
“We did what were told to do,” Stephen said, his tone devoid of emotion. “That’s not the same thing.” He shrugged on a jacket, less shabby than the one he had worn earlier, though frayed a little at the cuffs and sleeves. “I listen to my conscience now, nothing and no-one else.”
Scott, his mind reeling, gazed silently upon the shine of the worn patches on his friend’s jacket. Yearning to push Stephen out of the room, out of the house, out of his comfortable, happy life, he waited for him to turn round from the mirror with almost bated breath. When the moment came, he stood there, unable to act as Stephen placed his skeletal hands hard upon his shoulders and pulled him forward into an embrace.
“We were brothers then, Scott,” he whispered into his friend’s ear. “You were all I had, remember?”
He could not help himself, could not forbid the memory of once clinging onto this man for dear life in the epicentre of hell, so he returned the embrace, tears stinging his eyes as they had then in a field where grey ash fell out of the sky like dirty snow.
“We are still brothers,” Stephen said, releasing Scott with a fierce kiss to the side of his face. “That’s why I came. Only you will understand.”
Barely able to breathe, he stood near the half-open door of Johnny’s room, fighting to regain his usual composure. When he had recovered himself he entered the room to find Johnny standing before the mirror, scowling with irritation at his own attempts to knot a string tie.
“Want some help with that?” Scott asked softly, moved by the sight of his tough young brother’s intense battle with a mere tie. Johnny turned his head and shot a warning glance at the older man before looking back at the mirror.
“No, I can do it myself,” he said tersely. Scott nodded and moved to lean against the wall next to the mirror.
“Has Murdoch spoken to you?” he asked, attempting to keep his tone casual.
“No, Scott, he ain’t spoken to me,” Johnny replied, pulling the tie undone for the second time with a vengeful tug. “He’s snarled at me like some ol’ hound dog with a thorn in ‘is paw. You been upsettin’ ‘im again?”
Despite his unsettled mood, Scott smiled and gently swiped Johnny’s head.
“No, that’s your province, brother.”
The smouldering glare he received was enough to convince Scott that somehow he had blundered. He folded his arms, his head lowered.
“Did he tell you about Stephen?”
“Nope.” Johnny, detecting the tension in his brother’s voice, allowed his own to fade a little.
“He’s brought a friend with him,” Scott said. Softly, he cleared his throat. “A woman.”
“She pretty?” Johnny experimented with a frown that was almost a smile.
“That isn’t the point …”
“Sure is the point, brother, if I gotta look at that ol’ dill pickle, Mrs Jones, all evenin’”
“She’s a prostitute, Johnny,” Scott said in a rush of impatient anxiety. “Was a prostitute.”
“Jesus, Boston.” Johnny looked at his older brother, his face feigning wonder. “The Reverend know about that?”
Exasperated, Scott fought a temptation to walk out and lock the door behind him.
“Not Mrs Jones,” he said, ignoring Johnny’s knowing smirk. “Ellen Brown, Stephen’s friend.”
Johnny nodded and made one final attempt to fix his tie.
“Well, that sure won’t’ve helped the ol’ man’s mood any,” he said cheerfully. “He’s got a whore an’ ol’ vinegar face sittin’ at ‘is table. This might be fun, after all.”
“This isn’t funny, Johnny,” Scott said heatedly. “It’s a disaster, and I’m relying on you to behave.”
Satisfied finally with his tie, Johnny patted it into place against the crisp fresh whiteness of his shirt. For a moment, he almost enjoyed the unfamiliar sight of this other sharper, cleaner self staring back at him.
“Oh, you can rely on me to behave, big brother,” he said, nettled by the older man’s imperious command. “One way or the other.” He picked up his jacket and pulled it on. “Don’t know why you’re so all fired up, anyhow. Don’t seem none too fussy ‘bout goin’ with the girls at the Silver Dollar.”
“That’s different,” Scott replied curtly.
“How’s it different?”
“It just damn well is!”
Johnny pulled at the sleeves of his dress jacket to improve the fit and looked calmly at his brother. He spoke quietly.
“Seems to me, Scott, that you got what a person does an’ what they are kinda mixed up in your thinkin’.”
Glowering at the younger man, Scott stood away from the wall, shaking his head in frustration.
“When I need lessons in social etiquette from you, little brother,” he said coldly. “I’ll be sure to come knocking on your door.”
Johnny watched the older man leave the room and close the door heavily behind him.
“Social what?” he said, half smiling to himself. Feeling his blood tingle with rebelliousness, and curious to meet Ellen Brown, he checked his image in the mirror, combed his hair through with his fingers and, on leaving the room, slid down the banisters to land as softly as a cat on the polished floor below.
He guessed she was around thirty years old, though her green eyes seemed older. Since she had arrived at the dinner table, clutching onto Stephen’s hand, she had stared into her lap, stirring only to take a few hungry swallows of soup and desperate mouthfuls of bread. Sitting to her right, Johnny was intensely aware of her sadness and isolation; he felt it burning through the skin under her pale green dress like the residual heat in the heart of grey ashes. Her scar, visible to him, and darker than the rest of her face, ran in a ragged line from the corner of her mouth to just under her ear where curls of chestnut hair failed to obscure it. He thought her pretty, but too thin, the bones of her shoulder blades jutting sharply against the material of her dress.
Opposite him, Mrs Jones, her expression veering between a coy smile and ardent seriousness, was in conversation with his brother. He listened to them, fighting a desire to laugh at the deft way Scott charmed her with compliments on her flower arrangements in the church and the perfect pitch of her singing voice, and he watched her lips curl in delight before she seemed to remember herself, compose her features and ask him his opinion of street preachers. Johnny could not help but admire the fluid way his brother handled the woman, though a small part of him scorned him for it.
At the other end of the table, Stephen regaled Murdoch and the Reverend Jones with a series of humorous war anecdotes. Frequently, the Reverend’s napkin went up to his thin lips to suppress a chuckle as he ate his soup. Johnny saw that his father smiled dutifully, though when he caught his younger son’s eye his look was of a man trapped and longing to escape his fate. Risking a tentative smile at the older man, he felt stupidly happy when Murdoch smiled back. He picked up a spoon and took a mouthful of the soup he had previously ignored, grimacing at its bland flavour before seasoning it liberally with salt and pepper.
“Too much salt is bad for the system, young man,” Mrs Jones chided complacently, before looking back at her soup and spooning the dregs of it into her mouth. Johnny placed the salt cellar back on the table and glanced at Scott before replying with exaggerated politeness.
“Yes, ma’am. I didn’t know that, ma’am.”
Taken aback by the young man’s unexpected courtesy, Mrs Jones looked up into Johnny’s contrite expression and was visibly moved.
“Well, no, of course, John,” she said sadly. “There must be so much you don’t know, living as you did all those years. I see that.” In the face of Johnny’s bland unflinching gaze, she smiled. “However, you now have the example of your family to follow, and, of course, whatever little nuggets of wisdom one such as myself may be able to send your way.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Johnny replied coolly. “Sure do appreciate that.”
“Mrs Jones,” Scott intervened quickly. “I hear that you’re about to begin a series of lectures on modern evils and how to combat them. Is that right?”
Turning to the older brother eagerly, she began an impassioned explanation of her lecture programme. As the main course was served, Johnny heard her views on drink and gambling, interspersed with bright-eyed requests for a portion of every item of food on the table. Though his own stomach ached with hunger, he put only a small amount on his plate while Maria fussed around him, speaking in low, rapid Spanish.
“Tú debe comer, Juanito. Si tú no come este alimento, entonces ninguna torta del chocolate por una semana.”
Glad that no-one else nearby understood her words, Johnny sighed impatiently and allowed her to place more food on his plate, further mortified when she poured him a glass of milk next to his wine glass.
“No en la tabla de cena, Maria,” he whispered fiercely. She simply smiled and stroked his head before, at Murdoch’s sharp bidding, she disappeared to fetch more wine. Stephen’s voice came suddenly loud and boisterous in the middle of the story he was telling of his sergeant disarming a bunkerful of enemies.
“Come out of there, you damned rebels! That’s what he said.” Stephen looked across at Mrs Jones. “I apologise, Ma’am, for lapsing into the vernacular, but I felt I owed it to the man’s memory in this harsh world, as Hamlet would have it, to tell his story.”
“Mr Forsyth,” she replied complacently, casting a flirtatious smile at Scott. “I may appear as a humble innocent in this world, and before my Lord that’s what I am, but in my travels with my dear husband, I have become inured to the uncivilised language and ways of my fellow man.”
“Then how fortunate you are, Ma’am,” Stephen said quietly. He coughed suddenly and harshly into a handkerchief before picking up his cutlery and cutting his food methodically into small pieces.
“Of course, I have some limited experience of the war …” Reverend Jones began and proceeded to tell a convoluted story of riding a mule through a war-torn landscape in order to minister to a dying general, while Mrs Jones attempted to outdo her mild husband in strident tones, complaining to Scott about church attendance during Spring and Fall round-ups. Johnny, his appetite lost and desperate to escape, noticed that the woman next to him was gazing at a plate containing only the single slice of beef Maria had placed there.
“Can I help you to anything, Ma’am?” he asked softly. “Vegetables? Potatoes?”
As if waking from a trance, the young woman looked at Johnny in confusion and then nodded briefly once. Without waiting for details, he stood up and spooned a little of each on her plate; then he held the gravy boat over the food.
“Thank you, yes,” she whispered. Watching the steaming gravy spread into the crevices of the food, Ellen picked up her knife and fork.
“Where you from, Ma’am?” Johnny asked, sitting down and picking up his own fork, aware that his brother was watching him from the other side of the table while feigning interest in Mrs Jones. Ellen had quickly placed a mouthful of mashed potato in her mouth. She seemed to swallow it painfully before answering.
“I grew up in Kansas,” she replied hesitantly.
“I’ve heard it’s real pretty there.” Johnny was surprised how easily the lie slipped from his mouth. He thought of Kansas as flat and treeless, filled with dirt farmers, barely able to scratch a living.
“Oh, yes,” Ellen nodded. Her voice seemed suddenly alive. “It is pretty. We had an orchard. The blossom in the Spring was …”
She coloured rapidly and lowered her head.
“Your folks were farmers?”
“Yes, but then the locusts came …”
“Oh, don’t mention locusts to me!” Mrs Jones interrupted the younger woman’s diffident voice with the force of an axe cutting through soft pine. “Locusts are a judgement from God, Miss Brown. In Missouri, we struggled among the heathen for five years until the locusts ate the crops from their sinners’ mouths and they turned to us for succour.”
“Whatever that is, Ma’am,” Johnny said softly. “I’m sure you gave it real generously.”
Murdoch cleared his throat gently, but Mrs Jones took encouragement from Johnny’s quiet demeanour.
“Why, yes, John,” she replied. “It is required of us to exercise Christian charity wherever it is needed.” She took a small sip of wine, relishing its quality. “Tell me, Miss Brown. How do you find California? I must say, I find the mountains and surfeit of trees really quite oppressive.”
Johnny glanced at Murdoch as Ellen struggled to shape a reply. He smiled at his son and returned his attention to his dinner.
“I think the trees are beautiful,” Ellen said finally, her voice strained and reluctant. “I like the sound of them in the wind.”
“Yes, well, I suppose there is a certain poetic, spiritual quality to the natural sounds of nature.”
Johnny stifled a laugh in his napkin, turning it quickly into a fit of coughing.
“I do hope your pneumonia hasn’t recurred, John,” Mrs Jones said solicitously. “Your father led me to believe you have largely recovered.”
“No, ma’am.” Johnny grabbed the glass of milk and drank half of it quickly before wiping his mouth on the napkin. “Pea went down the wrong way. Little critters’re always doin’ it, but my pa makes me eat ‘em.”
“Oh, quite right, John.” Mrs Jones said, ignoring the suppressed snort of laughter from the other end of the table which Murdoch quickly superseded with a sip of wine. “Your father is quite right. Eating vegetables is essential for our bodily and spiritual health.”
Certain that before long he would have to shoot Mrs Jones, Johnny was relieved when her delight with the dessert of fruit flan and fresh cream, diverted her attention from him. He handed the pitcher of cream to Ellen who gazed at him with the glimmer of a smile on her pale lips. Taken aback by this sudden acknowledgement in her green eyes, he poured a little cream over her flan.
“Thank you, Mr Lancer,” she said faintly. “Might you get your chocolate cake if you eat your dessert?”
He placed the pitcher on the table carefully and smiled away his surprise.
“It’s Johnny, Ma’am, and I guess you speak Spanish.”
“Just a little.” She looked away, suddenly shy. “I was married to …”
She had spoken so softly that he was uncertain he had heard her clearly.
“Well now, there’s a question, Reverend Jones.” It was Stephen’s voice, abrupt and loud, stilling other conversations and even stopping Mrs Jones’ spoon half-way to her mouth. “My plan is to open a mission in Green River.”
“Good Lord, how interesting,” Reverend Jones faltered, dabbing his mouth with his napkin and picking up his wine glass.
“Yes,” Stephen continued. “A community of the fallen, the lost of this world.”
“And who might they be?” Murdoch asked warily, glancing at his elder son who seemed stiff with apprehension as he contemplated his wine, his fingers turning the thin stem of the glass. Elbows on the table, Stephen clasped his hands together and regarded Murdoch gravely.
“Drunks, prostitutes, wanderers, thieves, damaged children …”
Johnny, alert to every nuance of feeling and movement in the room, saw first the Reverend Jones splutter red wine into the remains of his dessert while simultaneously, Mrs Jones missed a grape she had been hoping to spear with her fork, sending it flying across the table and into his lap. Scott had stopped twisting the stem of his wine-glass and was now glaring fiercely at it. The woman at Johnny’s side seemed the only one unaffected as she went on calmly eating her dessert. Johnny picked the grape out of his lap and offered it back to Mrs Jones who, still in shock, regarded him in bewilderment.
“Could use your fingers, ma’am,” he said seriously. “Easier’n a fork. Grapes don’t take well to forkin’”
She stared at the young man, feeling for the nature of the insolence she knew he was subjecting her to. At the restless shift of his father’s body in his chair at the other end of the table, Johnny smiled at Mrs Jones and put the grape in his mouth, his blue eyes fixed upon her as he chewed it slowly.
“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand, Mr Forsyth,” Reverend Jones said tightly, allowing Maria to remove his wine splattered dessert plate. “What is it you intend to do with these …” He hesitated. “…unfortunates?”
“I intend to save them,” Stephen replied confidently. “I intend to build an alternative community. We have built this country so rapidly that we have failed to take into account those who are unable to partake of its opportunities, those who have fallen by the wayside in the great march forward to our manifest destiny.”
“Surely that’s the way of progress,” the Reverend said self-righteously. “There will always be those among us who fall in life. I believe Mr Darwin calls it ‘the survival of the fittest’.”
“Samuel, that name …,” his wife protested.
“Yes, my dear,” he said patiently. “But I felt it apt to quote him in this instance, though of course, he is entirely wrong in some elements of his thought.”
“And should not the more fortunate of us pick up those who fall?” Stephen suggested coolly.
“Through the word of God, yes, Mr Forsyth. We persuade them into the arms of the Lord, so that they can clearly see the benefits of his love. We do these poor souls no service by changing their physical circumstances without the attendant conversion of their morals.”
“Gentlemen,” Murdoch said forcefully. “Shall we continue this discussion in the Great Room?” He stood up, his expression as severe and repressed as Johnny had ever seen it in his own conflicts with the older man. Watching Stephen grasp Ellen’s hand and almost pull the young woman to her feet, Johnny saw an opportunity for escape.
“Mr Forsyth,” he said carefully. “I was wonderin’ if the ladies wouldn’t appreciate some fresh air while you’re talkin’. It’s a real nice evenin’ out there.”
“Johnny, I don’t think …,” Scott warned as he placed his napkin on the table and stood up.
“That’s an excellent idea, son,” Murdoch interrupted his elder son. “I’m sure the ladies would very appreciative.”
“Why, yes,” Mrs Jones said hastily, glancing at her husband for his approval, and then becoming more confident when he nodded slightly. “Yes, that would be most welcome, for a short while.”
Stephen seemed to hesitate before releasing Ellen’s hand, though she sought to reclaim it.
“Very thoughtful of you, Johnny,” he said firmly. “Go with him, dear. The fresh air will be beneficial for you.”
“I have no shawl,” she whispered.
“Maria’s got shawls,” Johnny insisted. “She’ll lend ya one; maybe even give it to you. I’ll go ask her.”
While the other men accompanied Murdoch to the Great Room, Scott, excusing himself politely, followed Johnny to the kitchen where he found him already wheedling his way round Maria with an arm around her ample shoulders and copious flattery. She protested with ever decreasing levels of resistance until she threw up her wet hands and disappeared out of the back door, muttering. Johnny sat on the edge of the kitchen table, his legs swinging and eyed the cherry cookies cooling on a tray.
“What in the hell are you up to, Johnny?” Scott demanded, watching his brother pick up a warm cookie and sniff it deeply.
“Gettin’ the hell outta there, brother,” the younger man replied. He took a bite from the cookie. “One way or the other.”
“By taking Miss Brown for a stroll around the ranch?”
“’Fraid she’ll corrupt little ol’ innocent me, Scott?” Johnny smiled. Then he looked seriously at the older man. “Look, I know you gotta problem with the woman, but if you can spend a whole evenin’ butterin’ up that ol’ sour apple, Mrs Jones an’ not say a single civil word to Miss Brown, then I reckon I’ll go right ahead an’ do what I please.”
“Seems like you do a lot of that lately, brother,” Scott said irritably, immediately regretting the words when Johnny flashed an angry glare in his direction.
“What the hell’s that s’posed to mean, Boston?”
“Nothing,” Scott replied dismissively. “Forget it.” He hastened to repair the damage with a weak smile, though he knew the younger man would seek out relentlessly the feeling behind the remark. “I’m a bear this evening.”
Choosing to let his brother’s words lie for the present, Johnny returned the smile and put the last of the cookie in his mouth.
“Ain’t surprisin’ with the hot air blowin’ outta your friend’s mouth. Reckon he’s spent too much time in the sun.” He licked his fingers of cookie crumbs. “You think he means all that stuff ‘bout a mission?”
Scott sighed and nodded as he traced a circle with his finger on the corner of the table.
“I have a horrible feeling that he’s never been so certain of anything in his life, Johnny.”
“Well, if y’ask me.” The younger man wiped his fingers on his pants. “He’s goin’ to make the biggest ass of ‘imself since Ol’ Jethro Skinner gambled ‘is missus on four of a kind and got beat by a straight flush.”
“From what I recall, Jethro thought he’d done rather well out of that deal,” Scott smiled, suddenly glad of his younger brother’s irrepressible attitude to life. Taking the shawl from Maria, who had just entered the kitchen, Johnny kissed her cheek and grinned.
“Yeh, ‘til she came runnin’ back at ‘im with a meat cleaver. Gracias, Maria. Tú es un ángel.”
“Y tú podría encantar al diablo fuera de infierno,” she replied, feigning a frown and cuffing his head with a work-worn hand. Johnny laughed and nudged his brother’s shoulder as he passed him, the shawl and two more cookies in his hands.
In the hall, Scott watched him fuss solicitously in placing the shawl around Ellen Brown’s thin shoulders, saw the deep look of gratitude pass fleetingly across the young woman’s face as she grasped the thick, warm material to her chest. For the first time since meeting her, something moved in Scott, some memory of some other place, some other woman; he could pin nothing down, but the aching need in her awoken by his brother’s care stirred his heart against its will. Abruptly, he turned on his heel and went to join the men in the Great Room.
Though the sun had long set, the full moon lit the outbuildings, barns and corrals in a detailed blue glow. Mrs Jones dutifully admired the stars, crowding the sky so thickly they almost blotted out the black, and then, apologising that she felt the October cold, retreated into the house, leaving Johnny and Ellen alone on the front veranda. Johnny’s loud sigh of relief in the wake of Mrs Jones’ rustling dress, prompted a small smile from his companion.
From his perch on the veranda rail, Johnny silently regarded the young woman sitting on the swing bench. In the glow of the oil lamps hanging from the beams she looked much younger, yet even more weighed down by a burden that seemed to be crushing the very bones out of her.
“You’re a very unusual person, Mr Lancer,” she said suddenly. Away from the terrors of the dining room, she sounded bolder, more confident.
“How’s that, ma’am? … an’ it’s Johnny. Mr Lancer’s my pa. Suits ‘im better’n me.”
She smiled uncertainly, assessing carefully the kind, self-assured young man who appeared to have no notion of who or what she was. Paralysed into silence by the undercurrents of contempt she had felt in the older brother, she was wary of this near-boy with his intense blue eyes and unruly black hair; yet instinctively she knew he understood the very workings of her blood.
“There’s something different about you,” she said. “Something I know about, but I can’t say what it is.” She glanced up at him shyly, meeting only his still silence allowing her space to think and speak. “You’re not like your brother.”
“Scott’s a good man,” Johnny said softly, dropping his gaze. “Just ‘bout the best man I ever knew.”
“He despises me.”
“No, ma’am, he’s havin’ a hard time with ‘is friend, is all, stirrin’ up bad memories.”
Ellen stood up suddenly and went to stand by the young man, her pale hands gripping the veranda rail as she stared out into the night.
“He’s right to hate me,” she whispered. “I’ve got no business here, but …” She turned her head to look at the side of Johnny’s face. “I don’t know where else to go but with Mr Forsyth. Where else can someone like me go?”
Johnny turned and looked at her from his seat on the rail; she was very close to him, so close he could see the hazel flecks in the irises of her green eyes, and the scar seemed to glow on its moonlit side.
“You can stay here as long as ya need, ma’am, whatever pot ‘o vinegar your Mr Forsyth gets ‘imself pickled in.”
Ellen dipped her head and smiled painfully. She pushed a curl of hair back behind her ear.
“I think your father and brother might feel differently, Johnny.”
“Yeh, but I can work ‘em round.”
She laughed suddenly, a sound so clear and sweet and strange to him in the cool, still night that, briefly, he felt dizzy with success.
“Why do I believe that?” she said, the smile this time reaching her eyes. Johnny smiled back and hopped off the veranda rail. Digging in the pocket of his dress jacket, he handed her one of the cherry cookies. She frowned and then laughed again a little, before taking the cookie.
“D’you wanna see somethin’?” he asked, watching her take a small, tentative bite of the food. She seemed almost afraid of it. Putting her fingers to her lips to push in stray crumbs, she nodded silently. Johnny stepped down into the yard and offered his hand to her. She took it and then released it when she had walked down the three steps to stand beside him, shivering despite the shawl around her shoulders.
“Are we going out there?” she asked, gazing beyond the corrals and the barn to the wild land beyond the confines of the ranch, a pale purple under the moonlight. “I don’t like the night. I always feel like I’ve died.”
Johnny grabbed one of the lamps from the roof of the veranda and held it up high between them.
“Jus’ the barn. Got someone in there I’d like ya to meet. C’mon.”
He smiled when, as he had predicted, she knelt down immediately in the straw to tend the injured calf. The creature lay in the stall, surprised by the sudden light and blinking rapidly as Johnny hung the oil lamp on the wooden post so that it cast a single circular glow in the darkness of the barn. Ellen ran her hands over the tight white curls of the calf’s forehead. In the yellow light, her own hair seemed to shine a brighter shade of chestnut.
“Poor creature,” she whispered. “Alone here in the dark. How old is she?”
Johnny leaned against the post, his arms folded, absorbing the sight of the calf suckling weakly at the young woman’s fingers.
“’Bout two weeks. Cougar got ‘er mother. Murdoch splinted the leg, but she ain’t pickin’ up too good.”
Ellen raised her head, a frown creasing her forehead. Her green eyes seemed suddenly larger and brighter in the lamplight.
“How could she?” Her tone was accusing. “She’s alone. How different from us can they be, Johnny?”
He made no reply, but watched her as she pulled the calf closer, allowing the creature to rest its head on the faded pale green of her lap. When she spoke, he had to listen hard, her voice was so soft.
“I used to tend the orphans on our farm before the locusts came. It was my special chore.” She hesitated. “We were happy then, all of us. You know, happy in a quiet way. Daddy used to whistle in the cows in the evening, and Mama used to scold him. She said it was the tune of an indecent song, but she had a smile on her face when she said it …”
“Ain’t never seen a locust swarm,” Johnny said quietly into the silence. “Heard about ‘em though.”
“You don’t want to ever see it, Johnny.” Ellen pulled gently at the calf’s tight curls. “We heard them coming a long time before they got to us. We thought it was thunder very far away, and when they came it was as if the world had ended. You couldn’t see the ground, they landed so thick on it. They broke the branches of our apple trees with their weight. By evening every stalk of corn had gone, all our vegetables. They’d even tried to eat Daddy’s tools hanging in the barn and the horses’ harness … everything. They even ate each other.”
The young woman dropped her head, her fingers straying to the calf’s velvet ears.
“Some families held together. We just seemed to crumble away …”
Johnny waited, watched while her features slowly transformed from a wistful melancholy to habitual vigilance.
“You don’t ask many questions, do you, Johnny,” she said guardedly. Johnny stooped and pulled a long piece of straw from the litter. He began to break it into fragments.
“Always figure folks’ll tell me anythin’ they want me to know,” he replied, equally cautious.
“I suppose Scott told you about me.”
“And you don’t have any feelings about what he told you?”
“Guess if I had, I’d’ve said ‘em by now, ma’am.”
Unnerved by the young man’s direct gaze, Ellen looked down at the sleeping calf.
“I suppose you’ve been with women like me.”
Johnny nodded, allowing the final pieces of straw to drift through his long fingers back into the litter.
“Do you have a sweetheart?”
“Well, ma’am,” Johnny smiled, folding his arms again. “She sure likes to reckon so.”
Her laugh came again, loud enough to waken the calf. She accepted Johnny’s offer of his hand and stood up. Releasing her, he took the lamp from the post.
“Will she live?” Ellen asked, as the animal sought for the lost contact with agitated movements of its head.
“If she gets the care she needs. Men ain’t got the patience for it.”
“Not even you.”
“I got chores to do. I look in on ‘er first thing, an’ when I get home off the range, but she needs more’n that.” He began to walk away, the lamp in his hand casting their shadows over bales of hay, horse harness and farm tools. “Guess we’d better go on in. Don’t want my pa an’ my big brother warmin’ my ears ‘bout keepin’ guests out in the cold an’ dark.”
As they crossed the yard, Johnny knew the woman was shivering. He thought about taking her hand, but he merely lighted her way with the lamp.
Usually he listened avidly to such things, but Stephen’s tale of travelling the Central Pacific railroad was only flickering on the edge of his consciousness as he allowed the spitting flames of the Great Room’s fire to absorb his attention.
Weary of the claims of others, he was pulled back against his will to the moment he had fired the second shot into the gambler’s fallen body. The first was an ungraspable blur in his mind, like the drunken moment he had slugged the loudmouth in the saloon, yet he remembered clearly, and in every sharp detail, walking – no, striding - across to that wagon piled high with bright blankets and placing the rifle barrel against the man’s green and yellow striped waistcoat.
His son standing on the periphery of his vision, he had been determined only to wipe away this man like a stain from the face of the Earth, suddenly entirely certain in the dawn light that he was cleansing the world of all its poison. The shot had flowed from an impulse in his brain, down like warm honey through his veins to the tip of his trigger finger, and he had pulled it with the ease of scratching an itch.
“Well, of course, one doesn’t easily come to terms with something like that.”
Startled, he held his breath, wondering if he had spoken aloud his thoughts. Turning his head from the flames, he realised that Stephen was speaking a little more loudly than before. The Jones’ had gone, and Ellen had retreated upstairs leaving him his two sons and this disturbing guest for company.
“I didn’t know that had happened to you.”
Scott’s gentle voice. It sounded strained, upset. Murdoch’s senses were alerted to the present. Pulling himself up in his chair, he poured himself a second scotch. He glanced at Johnny who was sitting on the floor, his back against the arm of his brother’s chair; the young man’s face was impassive, his gaze fixed on Stephen.
“No-one did,” Stephen said calmly, flicking ash from his cigar into the greedy flames. In the orange glow of the fire, his gaunt features appeared even starker. “What was there to tell people? That I lay in a wasteland, the only live man among a thousand dead for two days. It seemed too … well, almost self-indulgent, almost boastful …”
“How’s that?” Johnny asked coolly, his gaze as unblinking as a cat’s, his wrists draped across his raised knees.
Stephen regarded the younger man with a thin smile that vanished to be replaced by severity when his eyes met Johnny’s chilly gaze.
“To be in the company solely of the dead for longer than the life of a butterfly is beyond the experience of most,” he replied softly. “What hope was there that any ordinary person, even one with your interesting history, Johnny, could understand the peculiar glory of it?”
“Glory?” Scott frowned, hoping to forestall any reaction from his younger brother, though, out of his view, Johnny’s expression remained unchanged.
“You see?” Stephen smiled briefly. “And you’re not even ordinary, Scotty.”
Their eyes met. Scott felt his heart beat fiercely and was certain that Johnny would sense his panic through the material of his clothes and know everything with one glance of his watchful blue eyes. He quickly swallowed the last of his scotch in his glass and stood up to pour himself another.
“I’m an ordinary man,” Murdoch said, the sudden resonance of his deep voice causing Johnny to turn his head in his father’s direction. “And I fail to see the glory of lying wounded for two days on a battlefield of dead soldiers.”
“Then, if I may,” Stephen replied with a measured politeness. “I will liken it to an awakening, Mr Lancer. A casting away of the old lies of my youth to be born again with a new understanding of the world.”
The older man raised his eyebrows.
“I can’t decide if that’s a fortunate fate or a curse, Mr Forsyth.”
“Well, sir.” Stephen threw his cigar stub into the fire. “Let’s just call it fate.”
Murdoch watched his old dog rise awkwardly from her position by the fire to rest herself away from its excessive heat against Johnny’s thigh. The young man scratched her gently behind her ear. His father wished, as he often did, that he could capture such moments with the cameras he had seen in studios and streets.
“How were you found?” he asked, looking determinedly at Stephen who saw something of the younger son’s impenetrable scrutiny in Murdoch’s eyes.
“A scavenger found me,” he answered boldly. “For two days, I had lain, staring at the swollen belly of a dead horse, my own horse, the bugler’s bugle jammed under my ribs, and …” He paused, his mouth working silently as if fighting his mind’s desire to speak. “… the tiniest, blue flower growing at the bend of my horse’s knee. That was what stayed in my mind, that damnable flower. I couldn’t make sense of it.” Murdoch watched the young man’s forefinger rub fiercely at the chair’s leather arm. “I wanted to crush it, rid my eyes of its absurdity, but I couldn’t reach it. It had no right to be there.”
He fell silent for a few moments, and then seemed to shake himself mentally as he looked at Murdoch with the shadow of a smile on his colourless lips.
“When the scavenger came, she was so brown and dirty and ragged, I thought she was some species of animal come to gnaw my bones, but she carried me on her back over the dead. All she had wanted was a watch and some money, I suppose. She could have rifled my pockets and left me to rot, but she didn’t. Often, when I was in the asylum, I wished she had.”
“And now?” Murdoch ventured cautiously. Stephen stood up suddenly and leaned one hand on the mantelpiece above the fire.
“Now, I want to stake my claim amongst the living, Mr Lancer – make reparation …”
“For what? You were a soldier, fighting in a just war. You did your duty.”
“Yes, sir.” Johnny saw Stephen’s glance towards his brother and felt, without needing to see his face, the tension afflict Scott’s muscles. “I did my duty.” Stephen turned his face to the fire. “We all did our duty.”
“That feller’s got somethin’ on his mind, Murdoch,” Johnny said, flinching as his father briskly pulled out the stitches from his hand. “Somethin’ bad, an’ it’s sure got my brother jumpin’.”
Murdoch swabbed the partially healed wound and nodded.
“Yes, I know,” he replied gruffly. “I told you to keep this clean, Johnny. It’s infected.”
Johnny lifted his hand and stared at the inflamed cut blankly. He was tired from hours of acting a part, and longed to fall back on the bed beneath him.
“It’s been hurtin’ some today,” he said, wincing as Murdoch grabbed the hand back and tentatively cleaned it with the carbolic solution Sam had eagerly recommended after reading an article in a Boston medical journal.
“I’m not surprised,” Murdoch said, softening his tone. He dried the wound and redressed it, amused that his normally restless, fidgety son was clearly too exhausted to do more than sit passively on his bed.
“D’you reckon I’m gonna get the feelin’ back, Murdoch?” Johnny asked as his father tied a knot in the bandage. “I been wonderin’ how it’s gonna be if I don’t.”
Murdoch stood up and placed the bowl on the dresser. He pushed his hands in his pockets and looked down at the young man.
“You mean enough to draw and fire a gun?”
“No,” Johnny replied, returning his father’s steady gaze. “I mean enough to be what I was before.”
“I don’t know, son.”
Johnny hesitated, dropping his gaze to his bandaged hand; then he nodded.
“Found Jeff in Red Devil today,” he said, pulling his tie undone and dropping it to the floor, before grabbing a boot and yanking it off his foot. “Boys told him there was another cat out there, so he was fixin’ to get some glory, I guess. Fool greenhorn kid.”
“What happened?” Murdoch asked. Like Scott, his tidy mind had to resist the urge to pick up the discarded clothing piling up on the floor.
“Ran his mouth real reckless at me an’ pulled a gun, so I punched ‘im in the mouth.” Johnny shrugged off his dress pants and kicked them from him in contempt. “Seems like he don’t like me givin’ ‘im orders anymore’n he liked it from his old man.”
“Sounds like he got what he deserved, John,” Murdoch said approvingly. “What’s your problem?”
“Just ain’t the way I figured on handlin’ him, Murdoch, that’s all,” Johnny shrugged. Yawning, he pulled himself back against the headboard and contemplated his bare feet. “But I guess I still got some learnin’ to do in bein’ a boss.” He smiled tentatively at his father. “Like maybe spendin’ less time in the bunkhouse …”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows and nodded silently, a hint of a smile in his rugged features. Encouraged, Johnny risked a sudden rush at honesty.
“An’ not fallin’ asleep in the hayloft with Lindy Cooper when I should be finishin’ my chores.”
Johnny tensed when he saw the flash of anger cross his father’s face, but it vanished quickly, followed by the barely suppressed amusement he had hoped for.
“That would be a good start, John,” Murdoch said, attempting severity, but unable to keep the warmth from his voice.
Relieved, Johnny watched indifferently as his father gave in to the urge to pick up his suit, folding the pants and placing them neatly on the chair by the bed before draping the jacket across the chair back.
“You goin’ to talk to Scott?”
“He’ll talk when he needs to, son,” Murdoch replied abruptly. “Your brother’s not a man who welcomes intervention before he’s ready for it.”
“No, I guess not.” Johnny yawned again and rubbed his eyes. He pulled himself down onto the pillows and looked drowsily at the older man. “Did I do ok at dinner?”
Murdoch laughed suddenly and shook his head.
“You did fine. You kept your Old Man from high-tailing it out of there like a colt with a burr under its saddle.”
“I did, huh?” Johnny smiled, his eyes closing. “You reckon Mrs Jones is warmin’ to me?”
“One way or the other, boy,” his father said, pulling the bedclothes out from under Johnny’s body and draping them over the young man. “’Night, son.”
Murdoch smiled and swatted at his son’s dark mop of hair before turning down the lamp and moving towards the door.
“I told Miss Brown she can stay as long as needs to, whatever jig that flannel mouth friend o’ Scott’s gets himself into.”
In the darkness, Murdoch was silent, his hand upon the doorknob.
“Life’s treated her bad, Murdoch.” Johnny felt his father’s resistance permeating the air. “She’s lost. She’s as alone as a person can be.”
He heard the turn of the doorknob, the creak of the opening door.
“We’ll talk about this tomorrow, Johnny,” his father said neutrally. “Get some sleep now.”
The older man left the room and closed the door behind him.
“Tucking my little brother in, Murdoch?”
In the dim light of the corridor, he saw his elder son at the top of the stairs, gripping hard onto the banister to stop himself from swaying as he climbed the last stair.
“I was taking the stitches out of his hand,” Murdoch replied bluntly, alarmed by the young man’s aggressive tone. The very few times he had witnessed Scott drunk, his son had been happy, babbling poetry and slurring comic songs. Now, he seemed charged with a smouldering anger as he waved a loose arm at his father.
“Keep your damn secrets then, sir. You and Johnny go on keeping them.”
Murdoch moved closer, his face a mask of grim resistance.
“You’re drunk, Scott …”
“Oh, well observed, sir!” Scott said loudly, a smile sliding onto his mouth, and then, as quickly, sliding off again. “That’s very well observed. You should have been in the army. You really should …” He paused, belched and swung himself back against the banister so that both hands were gripping the rail behind him. “… a spy, perhaps, with your damn secretive ways.”
“What the hell are you talking about, boy?”
“You know what I’m talking about, Murdoch. Bittercreek. I’m talking about Bittercreek.”
“Go to bed, Scott,” the older man ordered. “You’re not fit for conversation, and it’s too damn late for this …”
“No.” Scott raised a finger and appeared to aim it squarely at his father before allowing it to drop to his side. “It’s the perfect time for this – the war hero passed out on the couch, his little whore tucked up sweetly in her bed …”
“For God’s sake!”
Murdoch walked over to his son, pulled him away from the banister and dragged him forcefully up the corridor and into the younger man’s own bedroom. Pushing Scott inside, he followed him into the room and closed the door, watching silently as his son staggered over to the bed and sat down heavily, his head in his hands.
“This isn’t like you, Scott,” Murdoch said, much of his anger replaced by concern now that they could not be overheard. “I know that your friend’s visit has upset you, but …”
“Upset me!?” Scott echoed, shaking his head. When he looked up at his father, he was wearing an exhausted smile. “If you knew …”
“Then tell me.”
“Tell you?” Scott shook his head again. “Why I should I tell a man who keeps the truth about himself from me? At least Stephen is an honest man …”
“How dare you?” Murdoch said furiously. “How dare you sit there drunk on my whisky and question my integrity!?”
“I have a right, Murdoch,” Scott retaliated, his anger seeming to galvanise his mind out of its drunken fog. “I have a right to know what happened when one minute my father can hardly stand to be in the same room as my brother and then the next - the next - he’s acting the loving parent to him …”
“It’s no act,” the older man interrupted tersely.
“No.” Scott nodded a long, slow inebriated nod. “No, I can see that, and all I want to know is what happened to change your feelings. A man needs to trust his own father, Murdoch, especially one who was a stranger to him for twenty-five years.”
Behind his mouth, Murdoch was aware of his teeth grinding together, and he pressed his folded arms hard against his thumping chest, as if he could keep his heart from bursting out of its cage and ricocheting wildly around the room. When he spoke, he hardly recognised his own voice, so alien were the words in his mouth.
“I shot and killed the man who murdered my wife and who hit my boy so hard he scarred him for life. I shot him twice, in cold blood, the second time close enough to smell his hair pomade. Is that enough for you?”
Having spoken, Murdoch found himself unable to stand facing the uncomprehending gaze of his elder son. Abruptly, he turned away and walked out of the room. When he entered his own, and heard the door close solidly behind him, he felt as if the slow, sweet bond he had begun to forge with Scott had been split by a blow too heavy for it to bear.
His father, glasses perched on the end of his nose, turned another page of his newspaper and sipped his coffee. In the corner of the room, the grandfather clock’s heavy pendulum thudded back and forth accentuating the greater silence. One elbow on the table and the fingers of his left hand threaded through his dark hair, he ate with uncharacteristic slowness.
Earlier, he had attempted to rouse his older brother by hurling himself down on the bed beside him, but Scott had mumbled an oath and turned over and away, groaning. Murdoch, clumping grim-faced down the stairs, had barked at him for sliding the banister, and then had growled at Maria for asking whether ‘Señor Scott’ was joining them for breakfast. The rancher had paid for his tetchiness by enduring one of the housekeeper’s lengthy displays of disapproval – eggs fried hard, fatty bacon for the usual lean, and a rigid silence, while over Johnny, she fussed and mothered elaborately until the young man envied his father’s banishment.
When Cipriano entered the room, his hat held respectfully in his hands and his spurs jingling as he crossed the wooden floor, Johnny put down his fork, alerted by the foreman’s grave expression. Cipriano glanced at the young man worriedly and then turned his attention wholly to Murdoch who had put down his paper and removed his glasses at his approach.
“Morning, Cipriano,” he said curtly. “Everything alright?”
“Si, Señor, only …” The older man hesitated, his fading eyes again glancing in Johnny’s direction.
“Out with it, man,” Murdoch said impatiently.
“Three of the men, Patron,” Cipriano faltered. “They wish to leave.”
“Then pay them off.” Murdoch’s tone was dismissive as he picked up his glasses again. “The work’s slowing up for the winter anyway. Where’s the problem?”
“Which men, Cip?” Johnny demanded.
“Tod McCoy, Sam Garcia …”
“They’re no great loss,” Murdoch interrupted. “Garcia’s too free with his language and his gun for my liking.”
“Who else, Cip?” Johnny read the older man’s eyes before he spoke, and his stomach tensed with apprehension.
“Jeff,” the foreman admitted sadly. “Lo siento, Johnny. He is determined to go.” He turned again to Murdoch. “They wish to talk to you, Señor.”
Murdoch looked briefly at his son who, leaning back in the chair, his fingers toying with a knife, had set his features into detachment, and nodded.
“Send them in,” he instructed, standing up, his hands in his pockets. When the three young men entered, the bravado they had mustered to confront the rancher fled in the heavy atmosphere of the room. Jeff stood head-down behind Tod and Sam, hat in his hands, refusing to look in Johnny’s direction. Painfully, Johnny was reminded of the blustering boy he had first met on the stage to Bittercreek, and how struck he had been by Jeff’s blind innocence of the world.
“Well?” Murdoch demanded brusquely. “Say what you want to say and Cipriano will pay you off.”
The oldest of the three, Tod, a stocky, unshaven man with teeth yellowed from chewing tobacco, looked with sudden defiance at the man, taller and broader than any of them.
“We’re ridin’ out to work the grub line, Mr Lancer, seein’ as there ain’t much for us here now.”
“I don’t have a problem with that, Tod,” Murdoch shrugged. “It’s not my way to pay core men off for the winter, but you’re free to go.”
“Fact is, Mr Lancer,” Sam said impulsively. “We don’t hold with you fencin’ the land. My daddy brung me up to respect the free range, an’ now it ain’t free, not with Lancer wire barrin’ passage. I bin a line rider since I wus no more’n fifteen an’ iffen I stay here, I’ll be like a chicken in its coop ‘fore long.”
Johnny expected his father to berate the cowboy, but Murdoch merely drew in his breath a little, his face betraying nothing of his feelings.
“Every man’s entitled to his opinion,” he said levelly. “I have to do what I can to make this ranch pay, so that when you men come by again in spring there’s still work for you to do.”
“Fencin’ don’t make work, Mr Lancer,” Tod argued. “It takes it away. We won’t be comin’ by here no more.”
“You’ve made your point,” Murdoch replied bluntly. He looked indifferently past the two men at the youth who stood behind them, his pale eyelashes blinking as rapidly as his heart was beating. “How about you, Jeff? My son brought you here to give you a fresh start in life. Grub line riding’s as harsh and brutal as it gets in winter – menial jobs, bad food, no fixed place to sleep. Are you sure that’s what you want?”
Encouraged by the older man’s softened tone, Jeff raised his head.
“You an’ Johnny been good to me, Mr Lancer,” he replied earnestly. “But I gotta hankerin’ fer provin’ myself m’own man, standin’ on m’own two feet, dependin’ on no-one …” He glanced at Johnny only to meet the other man’s cold stare. “Just like what Johnny done ‘fore ‘e settled, Mr Lancer.”
Murdoch frowned, taken aback by the reference to his younger son’s wild past.
“Well, I guess we have to respect that, boy,” he said. “Good luck to you.”
Jeff nodded before turning with the other men and leaving the room. Murdoch was unsurprised when Johnny stood up and strode quickly out of the room, spurs rattling, his face rigid with repressed feeling. Sighing, the rancher sat back down to his paper and the remains of his coffee.
“What ya gonna prove, Jeff? That ya can die as good as the next dumb kid?”
The three men stopped in their passage across the yard to the bunkhouse and turned to face Johnny. Tod and Sam looked uncomfortably at Jeff who, emboldened by their presence, glared defiantly at the young man.
“I tried to tell ya, Johnny, but y’won’t fuckin’ listen,” he said aggressively. “Y’so all fired intent on savin’ me, protectin’ me, from what’s out there, like I’m one of ya blamed stray dogs or somethin’ … Y’like to play the wiser, big brother wi’ me, but y’ain’t so much older’n me, an’ I don’t need ya lookin’ out fer me …”
Jeff hesitated in the face of Johnny’s cold silence; he moved closer to the other man.
“Y’could come with us, Johnny,” he said with a sudden, boyish eagerness, jerking his thumb back in Tod and Sam’s direction. “This ain’t you, I know it, livin’ in a big ol’ house, chowin’ off china plates, sleepin’ on feather mattresses, givin’ orders; not when y’been used to bein’ out there, answerin’ to no-one but y’self …”
With a jolt, Johnny saw the journey he had made in the seven months since his return. His violent, lonely wanderings had ended with his knees in the dirt before a firing squad, and he had been ready for his death, weary of a life without a centre.
Behind him, he knew his father had emerged from the house, and in violent refutation of Jeff’s words, he felt a powerful urge to run to him like a child, so passionately did he want what had been denied to him for nearly twenty years.
“Ain’t nothin’ out there but air, Jeff,” he said quietly, resigned now to losing the young man. “An’ some of it’s real hard to breathe.”
Jeff paused and then nodded once briefly, before turning on his heel and walking quickly away towards the three horses saddled and tethered by the corral. On the pinto, Jeff’s guitar was slung up near his bedroll. Johnny felt his father’s presence beside him as the riders mounted, swung round and jogged quickly towards the entrance.
“Sometimes you have to let people go their own way, son,” Murdoch said gently. They watched the jog turn into a lope as the riders moved under the Lancer arch to the open land beyond.
“Even when you know they ain’t got enough inside ‘em to come through the other side?”
Murdoch rubbed Johnny’s neck with his large, calloused hand.
“Even then. Anyway, the boy might surprise us and come back a man in the spring with bristles on his chin and a bearskin for a coat.”
Johnny gave his father a reluctant smile.
“That what passes for a man in these parts?”
Murdoch laughed and allowed his hand to drift lightly over the top of his son’s head and into his pocket before walking with him over to the corral to where Amo, agitated by the departure of the three horses, was trotting restlessly around the perimeter, kicking up dust. In the orchard, Jelly was feeding his chickens while outside the forge, a row of six horses waited to be shod; the sound of hammered metal and the powerful odour of burning hoof filled the early morning air.
Johnny leaned on the corral fence with his father and waited for Amo to come to him. In silent disbelief, he watched as the mustang stopped its edgy jog and, ignoring him, walked over to Murdoch to nuzzle his proffered hand. The rancher smiled and muttered gruff endearments to the animal.
“Looks like ya got a new friend, Murdoch.”
“Looks like it,” his father replied. “Must be the pieces of carrot in my pocket.”
“Thought he was lookin’ awful shiny lately.” Johnny turned round and leaned back against the fence rail, tumbling a quarter through his fingers. His tone grew cautious. “You ain’t thinkin’ of ridin’ him are ya?”
“Good God, no,” Murdoch replied, realising he had flushed a little and that his son would not be fooled.
“Only, if y’was, I’d wanna be here.”
“I don’t need baby-sitting, boy,” the older man said tersely. Johnny shrugged and kept his eyes on the quarter. He waited in silence while his father fussed the horse.
“That’s a long sleepin’-in my brother’s gettin’ this mornin’” he said eventually.
Murdoch began to feed pieces of carrot to the mustang, his hand deliberately stroking the long, jagged scar on its neck.
“I’m letting it go this time,” he said sternly. “He was so drunk last night he could barely stand.”
“That ain’t like Scott. He don’t like to risk makin’ an event of ‘imself.”
Johnny watched his father’s long, broad fingers trace the length of the scar, and he remembered how he had done the same at his uncle’s ranch on the morning of Raul’s death.
“Heard you an’ Scott arguin’” he said quietly. Murdoch hesitated as he fed the last of the carrot to the mustang’s eager mouth.
“We weren’t arguing. I was trying to calm him down.”
“Sounded like arguin’”
Murdoch made no reply as lifted his chin so that his mouth was brushed gently by the horse’s velvet nose.
“You told ‘im about Raul, didn’t you.”
Murdoch amazed the younger man by blowing tenderly into Amo’s nostrils before nodding. “Yes.”
“You ok about it?”
“No.” Murdoch continued to caress the horse and avoided his younger son’s searching gaze. “He was drunk and I was angry. Those weren’t the conditions in which to reveal to a son that his father’s recently killed a man in cold blood.”
“He took it bad?”
“I don’t know, Johnny. I left the room before I had a chance to find out.”
Johnny flipped the quarter in the air, caught it and pocketed it.
“Well, I guess you’ll find out, Pa,” he said, his tone deceptively casual. Murdoch tensed a little from both the intense pleasure of hearing the small title, and from his recent realisation that it made him feel uniquely and painfully vulnerable. He made a concerted effort to harden his emotions.
“Yes, I guess I will.” He gave Amo a final pat on the neck and moved a little away, his hands tucked safely back in the pockets of his pants. Behind him, the smith plunged another fiery shoe in a pail of water and pressed it hissing onto Barranca’s front left hoof. “I want you to take the wagon over to the second South Pasture line shack today, John. Save what lumber you can and burn the rest. We haven’t used it for a couple of years and now the fence is up, I don’t want vagrants making a home out of it. Take Elijah and make sure you wear gloves to protect that hand. I don’t want that infection taking hold.”
Although something in him rebelled against destroying the line shack, Johnny nodded, anxious not to further agitate and displease the older man. Murdoch turned to head back towards the house.
It came again, the tight squeeze in his chest that was both elation and alarm. He wondered if Johnny knew of it and was playing with it like a cat with a mouse. He stopped and looked back.
“You goin’ to let Miss Brown stay?”
Murdoch sighed and turned fully round to face his son.
“I think it might be more complicated than your commendable desire to give this woman refuge, Johnny. She appears to be attached in some way to Mr Forsyth and, like Jeff, she might resist your efforts.”
Frowning, the rancher moved closer to the young man.
“What makes you so sure of that? You’re not telling me you …”
“What ya sayin’, Murdoch?” Johnny demanded. “That I want ‘er to stay ‘cos I tumbled ‘er in the hay last night while you an’ the rest of ‘em stood around jawin’ in the house? What d’you take me for?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Murdoch lied, betraying himself with a reddening face as he realised the extent of his blunder. “I meant …”
“Well, I guess we still got some learnin’ to do ‘bout each other ain’t we, Old Man,” Johnny interrupted him coldly. “I want to help that lady out ‘cos she’s broken bad an’ hurtin’, not ‘cos I want an easy lay, though I guess you have a problem believin’ that.”
“No, I don’t, son,” Murdoch insisted, resting his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and squeezing it gently. “I’m sorry. I had no right or cause to make that assumption. I wasn’t thinking …”
Johnny nodded reluctantly, his head lowered and his gaze averted from his father.
“I’ll hitch up the team,” he said quietly. “See ya later.”
As he walked over to the barn, he wondered then if he had felt an urge to take Ellen in the soft straw of the barn, but the image that stayed in his mind was of something closer to an untouchable angel, cradling the sick calf and haloed in the dim light of the oil lamp. He remembered wanting to sketch her, but not any stirring in his groin, and now he wondered at his unresponsiveness to her sexual nature. Just thinking of Lindy Cooper and her coy but intense desires could send him running into the bath house or a stand of cottonwoods to relieve his frustrations, but Ellen had aroused only his pity.
The road to Green River, still uneven in parts, seemed much longer than usual to Scott. Each jolt caused him pain, as if someone was driving a nail up from the base of his skull to the top of his head. Beside him, Stephen drove the buggy at a smart trot, a distant smile on his pale face. They had fled the house without breakfast, even coffee, Scott, intent on avoiding Murdoch, allowing himself to be dragged along in the wake of Stephen’s impetuous desire to scout out a base for his mission.
“Stephen, would you please slow down a little?” he begged as the buggy’s left wheel dipped in a pot hole then bounced out again over a large stone.
“Feeling a little fragile are we, Scotty?” Stephen smiled, pulling on the reins to slow the horse to a walk. “Time was Lieutenant Lancer could hold his liquor with the best of them.”
“I’m out of practice. Just stop here, will you. I need to be still for a few minutes.”
Stephen drew the buggy to a halt at the top of an escarpment that looked down into the valley. He lit a cigarette while Scott jumped gingerly to the ground and breathed in lungfuls of the cool early morning air before sitting down on a rock to gaze, stupefied, at the ground. He watched a large beetle make its lumbering progress across the earth. It stopped at his boot, waving its feelers in uncertainty before attempting to climb it, falling back twice and twice righting itself from a position on its back, legs feebly flailing. Mesmerized by the insect, he tried to direct it around his boot with his finger, but it resisted and resumed its quest until by simply moving his boot back out of its path, it continued on its way to a patch of sagebrush and disappeared.
“I like your family, Scotty,” Stephen said suddenly from his seat in the buggy. “Your father’s an honourable man, and I have a feeling young Johnny should not be underestimated.”
“That certainly would be unwise,” Scott replied, his throbbing head resounding with the memory of his father’s confession. He picked up a stick and traced circles in the dust. “He knows we’re hiding something.”
“I’m not hiding anything, Scott,” Stephen said, blowing smoke rings towards the open valley below. “It’s you who has chosen not to face up to your past. What will you say to Johnny when he asks about it?”
Scott’s stomach clenched with nausea and he breathed in fresh gulps of the morning air.
“He won’t. That’s not the way he does things.”
“Then you’ve nothing to worry about, have you?”
“He has a way of drawing people out without the need for questions, Stephen, and the fact is …” Scott hesitated, his emotions scrabbling for control in the dullness of his hangover. “The fact is I don’t want something that happened nearly six years ago, something I did under army orders, something that was part of that … that particular and dislocated time, dragged out in this different light. It can’t do any good.”
“And your own soul?”
“Good God, Stephen!” Scott almost laughed. “I lost that in that field, with the smell of burning flesh in my nose and the screams of innocent women and children in my ears.”
“Then how do you live, Scott?” Stephen frowned. He stepped down from the buggy and sat beside the other man, his face urgent with enquiry. “How do you live?”
“The same way any other man does who lived through that war, and saw and did things he would spend his life uselessly regretting if he allowed it. I try to live a decent life and I try to be happy. It was hard before I found my father and brother, harder than I knew, but now it’s easier.”
“Then I envy you,” Stephen said, grounding his cigarette stub into the ground with his boot heel.
“You could do the same, Stephen,” Scott insisted. “Stop wandering looking for causes. Settle down. Marry. Have children. Find a reason to be happy even if it’s in the humblest, plainest way.”
“Ah, Scotty,” the other man sighed, clasping his hands before him, his elbows on his knees. “What cause is it worth a dying man having unless it’s a grand one?”
“A dying man?”
Stephen turned his head and looked directly at his friend and Scott wondered that he had not fully realised the truth before now.
“I’m what is quaintly known in the west as a lunger,” Stephen said matter-of-factly. “I don’t know how long I have left, but I hope it’s enough to set up my mission.”
Unable to find words, but aware of feeling a mixture of resentment and anguish, Scott stared at the ground, stick in hand, drawing circles inside circles in the dirt.
As he had seen Johnny do, he passed the saddle blanket over the mustang’s back a few times before placing it. Amo quivered a little, ears sharply alert, but remained still.
“Good boy,” the rancher murmured. “Good boy. Easy now.”
He picked up the saddle, pausing when the horse side-stepped and snorted its displeasure. On the other side of the corral fence, he was aware of the young woman gazing intently through the rails. He had not yet spoken to her and had half hoped she would drift away out of boredom, but it was now clear to him that she was entirely absorbed.
Lifting the saddle again, he spoke gently to the animal who continued to tread the dust anxiously. Then, putting the saddle down, he went to Amo’s head, fed him pieces of apple and scratched him under the chin. Pleased when the horse nuzzled peacefully into the crook of his arm, he dragged the saddle to where Amo could sniff it.
“Is he dangerous?”
Murdoch turned his head to see Ellen had moved a little closer to them along the corral fence. Seeing her shabby brown dress and nervous, lonely movements, he felt a stirring of something other than the vague distaste of the day before.
“No,” he replied softly. “He’s had a hard time in his short life, that’s all.”
“That scar …” she murmured.
“We don’t know how it happened. My son bought him at an auction.”
“No. Johnny. He has a gift with horses.”
“With people too,” Ellen said, reaching through the rails to touch the horse’s nose, but he snorted his head away.
“Are you going to ride him?”
“If I can, although I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention it to the boy.”
Ellen smiled suddenly, and he saw how the smile both accentuated the scar and made it meaningless at the same time.
“Would he be angry?”
“Yes,” Murdoch smiled. “I believe so. He thinks he needs to hold my hand with any horse that isn’t headed for the bone yard.”
“What if you fall?”
Murdoch was surprised by the question and struggled briefly for an answer before shrugging his broad shoulders.
“Then I’ll check myself for broken bones and try again. It’s alright to fall, Miss Brown. Johnny’s been thrown more times than I care to think of.”
“If you don’t mind me saying so, Mr Lancer,” Ellen said cautiously. “You’re quite a lot older than your son. If you were my father, I wouldn’t want you riding a wild horse.”
Hesitating between a sharp retort and ignoring her comment, Murdoch cleared his throat and looked benignly at the young woman.
“I’ve a few falls left in me yet, Miss Brown,” he said firmly. “Don’t worry.”
Turning abruptly away, he lifted the saddle high and placed it gently on Amo’s back. The horse flinched, but stood calmly while Murdoch crouched to pull the cinch towards him. Tightening it and tying the cinch knot, he forced himself to follow his son’s tactic of talking constantly to the animal. At first, he had felt foolish, almost sentimental, in using this flow of gentle words to a creature he had always regarded as a tool of his trade, but slowly, he was learning to be tender, imagining himself inside the mustang’s head, sensing its fears and finding satisfaction in soothing them.
“Boss! Ya surely ain’t reckonin’ on ridin’ that bangtail, are ya!?”
Jelly’s loud demand broke the moment. Amo threw his head up just as Murdoch was gently feeding the bit into his mouth. The rancher stepped back, clutching the bridle and breathing hard to repress his desire to bellow at the older man. Jelly squeezed through the corral rails, wiping his leathery hands of axle grease, his bearded face etched with disbelief. Murdoch turned and glared at him.
“You should damn well know better than to go bawling your fool head off around a spooky horse, Jelly.”
Jelly looked uneasily at Ellen before moving closer to Murdoch.
“Well, y’oughta know better’n to go barkin’ at a knot wi’ that puddin’ foot, Boss,” he said angrily. “Ya’ll be chewin’ gravel ‘fore your boot’s in the stirrup.”
“Thank you, Jelly, but I don’t need your advice,” Murdoch replied irritably. “Now go back to your chores.”
“Does the boy know y’ fixin’ t’ ride ‘is pony?”
Murdoch turned away from the old man and grasped Amo’s forelock in a fresh attempt to bridle him.
“I don’t need my son’s permission to ride one of our horses.”
“Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout permission, Boss,” Jelly said, his tone softening. “That boy’ll never forgive ‘imself iffen ‘is daddy gits dusted by a bronc ‘e ain’t broke proper to the saddle yet, an’ even if y’ don’t git thrown, he’ll be madder’n a teased snake when ‘e finds out y’ doin’ it without ‘im watchin’ over ya.”
Murdoch pushed a thumb in the corner of Amo’s reluctant mouth and slipped in the bit.
“It’s been forty-five years since I needed a nursemaid, Jelly, and I can handle my boy,” he said gruffly. “Now stop your mithering and let me get on with it.”
“Ain’t goin’ nowhere, no sirree.” Jelly pulled himself up on the top rail and folded his arms tightly against his chest. “Stayin’ right here, so’s I can pick up ya bits when ol’ Amo there boils over.”
“Suit yourself,” Murdoch said brusquely. Taking hold of the reins, he led the horse into the centre of the corral. Ears flicking back and forth, eyes rolled back in his head, Amo listened to the man’s softly spoken words. He tensed and scuffed his hoof in the dust as he felt the weight of a foot in the stirrup and the slight pull on the horn and cantle of the saddle.
Murdoch stopped, held his movement and his breath for a moment, and waited, one foot on the ground, for the mustang’s acceptance, but his head lowered as he felt the tension, as taut as a bowstring, continue to radiate from the animal’s skin. The connection he believed he had forged with the stallion over hours of grooming and talking seemed entirely dissolved. In its place was a fear that felt like the dispassionate hostility of an enemy.
His leg began to ache. Under his hands, the leather became damp with his sweat. He moved slightly to relieve the discomfort. Amo took a step forward, and Murdoch, his indecision broken by the movement, pulled himself up and swung his leg over the saddle. The swing felt good, almost fluid, and for a moment he was close to believing that he would drop into the seat and Amo would wait for his command. Then the mustang snorted loudly, bucked hard and threw the man forward onto its neck. Scrabbling to stay on, Murdoch grabbed its mane, but was dislodged by another fierce buck that sent him tumbling into the dust. Instinctively, he curled up his body to avoid Amo’s flailing hooves. He heard Jelly shout to drive the horse away, squeezed his eyes shut against the swirling dust, heard the pounding of hooves still close, the desperate, urgent gasps of Amo trying to rid himself of the alien saddle. Then he heard the creak of hinges and, breathless, he opened his eyes to see the stallion plunge through the corral gate, stirrups swinging wildly against his belly.
“Jelly!” he yelled. “No! Stop him!”
Hopelessly, he struggled to his feet, blood and dust on his face, and watched the horse gallop under the Lancer arch and away into the distance. Murdoch glared at Jelly, his skin flushed with fury.
“You damned fool, Jelly! You damned old fool. Why in the hell did you open the gate!?”
Afraid and flustered, Jelly’s expression hardened into defiance.
“Whatcha yellin’ at me fer, Boss?” he demanded. “T’weren’t me who had the fool notion of ridin’ a half-broke snuffy. I warned ya, but y’ wouldn’t listen, would ya? I let ‘im go ‘cos I reckon ya worth more’n than that loco critter. ‘scuse me fer breathin’ iffen I got that wrong.”
Murdoch drew in his breath and looked back at Ellen. The sight of her concerned, serious face through the rails of the fence calmed him a little. He picked up his hat and brushed off the dust in two frustrated swipes.
“Saddle my horse, Jelly,” he ordered, setting the hat on his head.
“Saddle y’ horse!?” Jelly echoed in disbelief. “What danged fool idea y’ got in y’ head now?”
“Saddle my damned horse, Jelly!”
The older man gazed at the rancher, his mouth working in a bid to object, before turning away muttering angrily under his breath. Murdoch brushed the dust from his clothes and picked up his clasp knife that had fallen from his waistcoat pocket.
“You’re bleeding,” Ellen said quietly. He looked to see, that like a shadow, she had slipped unnoticed into the corral and was holding out a lace-edged white handkerchief. He touched his right temple and glanced at the smear of blood on his fingers.
“It’s nothing,” he said dismissively.
“It’s clean,” Ellen insisted gently. “My handkerchiefs are always clean. Here, come over to the pump and I’ll bathe it properly for you.”
Feeling caught out by her tenderness, he walked with her to the pump and sat on the wooden bench close by. She wetted the handkerchief and took the hat off his head.
“Are you going to look for the horse?” she asked, dabbing carefully at the wound. Disturbed by her proximity, the ridges of her exposed collar bones, the dip between them at the base of her pale neck, he looked down determinedly at her waist, his gaze on the faded brown folds there.
“What choice do I have?” he answered grimly.
“Won’t he come back on his own?”
“No, and he’s got a thirty-five pound saddle on his back. The longer he’s out there, the more likely it is he’ll injure himself.”
“Shouldn’t you wait for your sons to help?”
Murdoch released a brief snort and stood up abruptly as Jelly emerged from the barn leading Bruno. He picked up his hat.
“Thank you for the nursing, Miss Brown,” he said with gruff courtesy. He replaced his hat and strode over to his horse. Reluctantly, Jelly handed him the reins.
“Give ‘im time to git ‘imself wore out, Boss,” he suggested. “Y’ain’t gonna catch ‘im yet.”
Murdoch pulled himself up into the saddle and gathered the reins.
“I’ll catch him, Jelly,” he said firmly. “Even if it takes me until nightfall.”
Without waiting for the older man’s response, Murdoch nudged Bruno into a jog and rode out under the arch in the direction of the distant mountains, burying his powerful sense of failure under a thick skin of dogged determination.
They had barely spoken on the journey into Green River. Scott, his head still clouded with the effects of his hangover and Stephen’s revelation, allowed his friend’s cheerful singing of old Civil War songs to distract his thoughts. Each song stirred memories: marching along roads edged by charred and blasted trees, drinking over-boiled coffee out of tin cups on cold nights, standing in the rain waiting for a signal, and the hours spent idle where there had been time to contemplate the end of adventure and the beginning of disillusion.
For years, he had boxed these memories and placed them in the loft of his mind, aware of their presence, but satisfied with his right, even duty, to tidy them away as the Union consolidated its just victory. Hadn’t he, after all, been celebrated on his return to Boston? Lavish parties had been held and speeches requested. Understanding, admiring smiles had wreathed old men’s faces when he had refused to talk of battles in any but general terms. Satisfying his grandfather’s friends with tales of famous generals and headlong dashes towards the enemy, they had praised his modesty and envied him his youth, before offering him high-ranking positions in their businesses. He had refused them all, intending a year engaged in spending part of his inheritance, dallying in art and literature, dining among Boston’s elite and courting rich and beautiful women, until the year became five and he had found himself living a pointless life.
The letter from his father had amused him at first, although now he understood his smile had only served to hide a mixture of barely tolerable emotions. He had read the letter a dozen times, seeking meaning in the terse, passionless request for his presence. Finding none, he had still treasured it, and had carried it with him for two weeks, feeling its peculiar weight as if it was the only thing on Earth stopping him disappearing into thin air. Then he had travelled to the west, his bones rigid with the formalities of his old life, his heart steeled against the barbarians he was sure were roaming the untamed land. Certain that his very blood would cry out to return to the streets of Boston, he had found himself warming in the sun and drinking in the vastness of the skies. A brand of peace had begun a slow drive into his cold veins from the moment he had descended from the stage at its first stop in California.
Even when his father had treated him with no more than a brusque remoteness and his newly discovered brother had seemed an uncivilised brat, he had wanted to stay. Though nothing had been familiar - not the rough buildings, the great herds of cattle, the wide brimmed hats, the dust, the reliance on action rather than words - the overwhelming purpose of wresting a living from the land had captured him with the force of a tree root stopping a man’s violent fall down a sheer cliff face. Nothing had happened since to shake his belief that his former life had been an empty shell and that here was something very like salvation.
As the buggy rolled into the town, Scott felt all the heaviness of fate upon him and inwardly cursed the loss of his slow-nurtured contentment. Shopkeepers greeted him from their store fronts, the banker, Josiah Short, raised his hat and old ladies nodded a polite good morning. He realised that he knew, at least by sight, almost everyone, from the barber, Ike Kinsey, with his scrupulously pink hands to Mrs Winkleman’s youngest girl, Martha, a plump three year old with a squint. Even the livery stable owner’s old mongrel, Sheridan, whimpering in its dreams under the tree near where they hitched the buggy was familiar to him.
Stepping down into the dust of the street, he adjusted his hat against the sun and then immediately raised it in greeting when Mrs Jones walked by with her mother, a woman who bore deeply all the sour, dissatisfied lines that her daughter was slowly cultivating for her own old age. Mrs Jones began an attempt at a coquettish smile which faded into distaste when she noticed Stephen tying up the horses to the hitch rail. She moved on quickly, whispering in hurried tones to her startled mother.
“How can a man with your breeding and education live with such narrowness?” Stephen said, looking around him. His voice was edged with scorn. “I mean, there’s nothing here is there? Just enough to satisfy one’s most basic needs. How on earth do you acquire books, music? Is there a theatre?”
Amused for the first time since leaving home that morning, Scott leaned against the buggy, his arms folded and smiled at his friend.
“There’s a small theatre, but I believe that it’s reserved for lectures on various sins and for whatever attraction rolls into town. It was a medium last month; I heard she made contact with a surprising number of the dead.” Enjoying Stephen’s expression of disgust, he watched him light a cigarette. “As for books and music, Murdoch and I place regular orders with Sven Bergson at the General Store. He never fails us. He’s managed to get even quite rare first editions for us.”
“But no concerts, Scotty,” Stephen objected, blowing smoke up into the air. “No galleries. No restaurants. No gambling beyond faro and poker. No music but a fiddle, for heaven’s sake.” He regarded Scott with sceptical eyes. “You were the darling of the Boston circuit once – no function too grand, no person too elevated, no woman too beautiful for you. Of all of us, I would have said you were the least likely to rub your nose in the dirt of an uncivilised life.”
“And I would have agreed with you then,” Scott admitted. They began to walk up the street towards the old hotel, abandoned the year before for larger, grander premises now the Central Pacific railroad had been completed. Cynics, warning against over-speculation upon the back of a machine whose nearest station was distant Stockton, had watched the construction of the two storey hotel with its oak staircase and glass chandeliers, their eyes glittering with gleeful conviction that its owner, Sam Whitside, was bound to fall into ruin. He had borrowed heavily, building his hotel across the street from the bank, and while he hoped and prayed and scraped in every possible customer, he was aware of Josiah Short’s narrow eyes under bushy brows daily regarding him from the window of his office.
Now, all eyes were upon the odd-looking stranger who walked with a stiff loping gait beside Scott Lancer, a cigarette loose at the corner of his thin mouth. The barber peered through the lettering of his window, razor in hand, his customer half-shaved behind him. George Stills, owner of the General Mercantile, waited plumply for the heavier trade that would require him to help his wife and daughter, his hands in the pockets of his striped pants and his gold watch chain conspicuously exposed on his chest. He nodded at Scott, but resisted his usual boisterous greeting, his eyes narrowed in suspicion at the stranger’s frayed clothing and air of disdain, both unpromising to a man of business.
Outside the milliner’s shop, Lindy Cooper and Ruth Tranter gazed at two hats, newly displayed in the small window. Indifferent, Stephen made to proceed up the street, but stopped with an impatient sigh when Scott approached the girls, his hat raised slightly in greeting.
“Good morning, ladies,” he said politely, glad to look upon their virginal freshness and open, friendly faces. “Lovely morning.”
Lindy, dressed in yellow and her hands clasping a little lace bag, glanced at Stephen standing some distance away, smoking his cigarette and deliberately observing the frontage of the land office, before smiling warmly at Scott.
“Good morning, Mr Lancer.” The girl’s expression seemed suddenly both anxious and excited. “Is Johnny with you?”
The other, older, girl, shy in the presence of the rich, cultured son of Murdoch Lancer, stifled a smile behind her gloved hand.
“No, I’m afraid he isn’t,” Scott replied apologetically, amused by the girl’s transparency as she failed to hide her disappointment. “Was there something in particular …?”
“Oh, no.” Lindy blushed, looking down at her shoes. “Nothing in particular. I heard he’d hurt himself, that’s all. I was wondering …”
“His hand, yes, but it’s healing now.”
“I’m glad,” the girl whispered, fiercely nudging her now giggling friend. “As long as he’s not in trouble or anything. I mean with your father …”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Scott smiled, mystified. “Is there something Murdoch and I should know about, Lindy?”
The gentle use of her first name brought the girl’s head up; her blue eyes held an abrupt defensive coolness, a change Scott had often observed in women when their secrets were under threat. It seemed both ancient and powerful. Lindy’s sudden self-control calmed Ruth Tranter and both girls regarded Scott with a detached, almost scornful, air.
“I was merely making polite conversation, Mr Lancer,” Lindy said evenly. “Good day to you.”
Scott touched the brim of his hat.
“Ladies,” he smiled, before turning back to where Stephen was watching a Mexican couple with three listless young children on the steps of the new hotel. The faces of the adults bore the strains of poverty and uncertainty as they counted out coins on the wooden step.
“In the east, the west is painted in glowing colours as the land of opportunity,” Stephen said quietly, grinding his cigarette stub into the dust. “The great equaliser, where every man can be his own master. Is that true of our friend over there?”
Scott looked uncomfortably at the family. They were unfamiliar to him.
“Complete equality is impossible,” he replied.
“Ah, now you sound like the esteemed Reverend,” Stephen smiled. “He would rather resign them to their parlous state with promises of heaven. I would sooner bring heaven down to earth.”
Scott watched him stride across the street and talk briefly to the couple before reaching inside the pocket of his shabby coat and handing them a quantity of notes. The faces of the adults registered disbelief and then a vehement refusal of the money by the man, though the woman, her children resting at her feet, was clearly pleading for her husband to accept. Finally, her face set hard, she snatched the money from Stephen’s hands and folded it beneath her shawl. Standing up, she dragged the children to their feet, and pulled them along like reluctant puppies to the General Store and disappeared inside.
“I rather assumed you were short of funds,” Scott said, keeping his tone light as his friend rejoined him.
“Not for what I need to do,” Stephen replied, coughing lengthily as he lit another cigarette. They reached the old hotel and stood before it; it was a two storey building with a balcony on the first floor and a wooden shingled roof much lower than the gabled false front that towered pretentiously over the whole structure and which announced the hotel’s name in ornate script. All was faded and peeling; there were missing shingles and broken windows.
“So you intend to give all your money away to the less fortunate among us?”
“No, I intend to buy this sorry place and spend my money on transforming it into a home for them.”
Scott took a deep breath and shook his head.
“Stephen, this can’t work,” he insisted. “Most people won’t want your charity, and those who do will strip you clean.”
Stephen looked sharply at the other man.
“Your cynicism depresses me, Scott,” he said coldly. “I’m going to the land office to gain entry. Come if you wish, or perhaps you would prefer to spend your time charming the local young ladies.” He stared at the smouldering cigarette between his fingers. “Odd, don’t you think, how you can despise my Ellen and yet deal in pleasantries with women who, in essentials, are no better than her?”
“I don’t despise her,” Scott replied firmly. “I despise your behaviour in bringing her to Lancer, and I resent your implication that the daughters of respectable men are no better than saloon girls.”
Stephen smiled. “But isn’t your sweet little town girl in the yellow dress out to bag herself a man who will keep her in hats and parasols for the rest of her days, and in return one can fuck her to one’s heart’s content? Saloon girls are cheaper, at least …”
Resisting the urge to punch the other man, Scott gazed at him in furious disbelief before leaning against the hitch rail outside the hotel, his arms folded tight against his chest.
“Do what you have to do, Stephen,” he said tersely. “I’ll wait here until you’ve finished.”
While the other man went to the land office and returned moments later with a bustling agent who opened the door with clumsy excitement, and then gestured for Stephen to enter its dark, musty interior, Scott remained motionless. Though he had intended to contemplate his father’s confession of killing a man in cold blood, his mind was on Ellen. Wanting to find a way to approach Murdoch for the whole truth, he found only the woman’s shy glance and the way she had pulled Maria’s shawl lovingly around her shoulders, as if wrapping herself in the warmth of his brother’s gesture. Knowing Johnny had taken her into the barn earlier in the evening, he was certain his brother had enjoyed her favours and the thought both angered and excited him.
Now, with intense surprise, he remembered last night’s dream of her in a perfect garden, trees pendulous with fruit and the sky above her a vivid blue and scattered with shifting cumulus. Her shawl falling slowly to the ground, she had offered him apples. He had taken one, only to find, in one bite, the brown rottenness of decay. Angrily scuffing his boot into the dirt, he banished the image by striding over to the saloon for a beer and a chance to bash out his feelings on the tuneless old piano – and though aware that the resident girls would barely have stirred from their beds at this hour, he knew he would not pass up the chance of some comfort if it came his way.
On the shelves and floor, thick with dust, they found the leavings of a bare and simple life, the small comforts of solitary men who had spent long evening hours alone: the wrinkled stubs of old cigarettes, a collection of dog-eared dime novels, a faded photograph of an unsmiling old woman in a dark dress, and a pack of cards so begrimed the symbols could barely be discerned. On the rough cot was a striped mattress, grubby, torn and stained with years of use.
A calendar, its days marked off in thickly pencilled crosses, hung on a wall blackened by soot from the fire. Elijah slowly lifted each yellowing page, his unblinking gaze lingering on the illustrations of blond, blue-eyed children in a series of seasonal landscapes – skating on a frozen pond, flying kites, gathering apples under a tree, playing in a hayfield dotted with bright red poppies.
Johnny, his mind absorbed in imagining Jeff’s possible journey along the grub-line, collected an armful of rusting tin cans, some still unopened, and carried them outside. When he returned for more, he found Elijah regarding the luridly coloured cover of one of the dime novels. Taking it from the youth’s brown hand, he read silently, ‘Johnny Madrid – the boy desperado strikes again – a thrilling tale of ruthless bravado and youthful misdeeds’. The illustration showed a dark-haired boy galloping wildly out of a town, firing his gun and laughing at the pursuing posse.
“That you, Johnny?” Elijah asked softly. Johnny looked at the other man impassively, his blue eyes betraying no sign of his disturbed feelings.
“How d’you reckon that?” he said, holding Elijah’s steady gaze.
“Folks talk. Jeff talked proud of it.”
Johnny turned to the first page and read silently the first sentence, ‘In the dead of a Mexican night, no breath of wind under the myriad stars, a boy, his heart hardened to stone by too many gunfights, waited by a rock for his nemesis, a bold outlaw named Bart Jameson’. He returned the book to Elijah.
“If y’can find somethin’ of me in that shit, Elijah, then I’ll be happy to own to it.” He picked up more cans and nodded towards the shelves. “Bring ‘em outside. They’re sound enough to make good again.”
Elijah shoved the novel in his pocket of his pants, too large for his thin frame, and, after pulling the three shelves off the wall, joined Johnny outside. They spent a quiet half hour salvaging the good lumber and stacking it on the wagon until Johnny was satisfied that the remains of the shack could be burnt. He splashed it with kerosene and set a match to it, boyishly gleeful to see the flames leap at the old wood and blaze up orange against the blue sky. He and Elijah sat on the wagon and watched it burn.
“I wus born in a shack no bigger’n than that one we’s burnin’,” Elijah said suddenly. “Five of us dependin’ on the mercy of four little wooden walls an’ a roof - desp’rate hot in summer, colder’n a tomb in winter. The bunkhouse’s biggest room I ever laid myself down in.” Elijah closed his eyes and lifted his face to the spreading warmth of the blaze. “Feels good.”
“Five of you?” Johnny’s tone was casual as he pulled the glove off his right hand to ease the pain of the infected wound.
“Had me an older brother an’ a li’le sister once. Got the fever’n lit out fer heaven. The shack felt real roomy afterward. My daddy put up ‘nother shelf fer Mammy’s treasures then. Didn’t make no real difference to me. Spent mos’ of my time keepin’ flies off the master up in’s bedroom.” Elijah smiled suddenly. “That wus my partic’lar job, keepin’ ‘em big ol’ fat flies off Massa’s skinny white frame. I’s only ten, but I knowed the joke of ‘im rottin’ ‘way in ‘is brass bed in ‘is big, white mansion whiles my mammy an’ daddy’s workin’ ‘is fields, feelin’ the sun on their po’ black skin.” His smile broadened in meeting Johnny’s serious gaze. “Yes, sir, I’s laughin’ all the way to Massa’s last breath.”
Uneasy, Johnny took the pitchfork off the wagon and jumped down.
“He died, huh?”
“Massa wus old an’ sick, Johnny. I let ‘im go natural.”
Johnny frowned before turning away abruptly. He worked at the burning remains of the line shack with the pitchfork, certain now that Elijah was concealing a terrible secret, and certain too that he did not want to hear it. Behind him, the youth boiled up coffee and sang softly. When a rider appeared in the distance, Johnny was relieved at the fresh company. Sticking the pitchfork in the ground, he accepted a cup of coffee from Elijah’s hands and pushed his hat back a little to regard the newcomer. It was Tom Simmons, one of his father’s most trusted and longest serving hands, who had ridden the line for the past two months. Whereas most of the men avoided line-camp duty, unable to bear the monastic loneliness, Tom sought it, claiming he preferred the company of coyotes and mockingbirds to that of other people.
Tom trotted up to the young men, his eyes, set deep in a lined and weather-beaten face, glancing briefly at the fire before resting on the boss’s son, his wrists settled on the horn of his saddle.
“Coffee smells good.”
The older man nodded and dismounted. Johnny poured coffee into a tin cup and handed to Tom who sniffed it appreciatively before sipping it.
“What brings ya this way?” Johnny asked.
“That,” Tom replied, nodding at the fire. “You boys cold?”
“Nope.” Johnny threw the dregs of his coffee into the dirt. “Murdoch ordered it burnt. He reckons we don’t need it now the fence’s up in this part of the valley.”
Tom stared into his coffee cup, pursing his lips, the creases on his forehead deepened by a frown. He ground out his words as if he found the act of speaking difficult and unworthy of him.
“You think the fence’ll be enough protection, Johnny?”
“Murdoch reckons so, Tom,” the young man replied coolly. Johnny respected this taciturn and experienced man, admired his silent adherence to a way of life others regarded with fear and dislike, but a new and fierce loyalty to his father overrode other feelings.
“I’m askin’ what you think,” Tom said severely. He lifted the cup to his mouth, drained it and handed it to Elijah.
“I think my father knows what he’s doing.”
Tom raised his heavy eyebrows and looked squarely at the younger man. Meeting Johnny’s calm, resolute expression, he nodded briefly.
“Tell your pa the Pine Creek pasture’s ‘bout wore out. Ain’t bin the rain needful for growin’”
Johnny nodded silently.
“Thanks for the coffee.”
Tom walked the stiff, bow-legged gait of the long-term cowboy to his horse and pulled himself up into the saddle.
“Be seein’ you, Johnny,” he said gruffly, before turning his horse’s head and trotting away in the direction of the distant mountains. For a moment, Johnny envied his return to the simple life of cutting for sign, watching for rustlers and shooting wolves. There were times when he craved to be lost again, unknown to his family, living life by impulse and instinct, unbounded by the demands of his father’s routines, measured out with each heavy swing of the pendulum on the grandfather clock in the Great Room.
“That man’s a pure man,” Elijah said, taking food from a leather satchel by his side. “He sleeps sound.”
Frowning, Johnny shoved his hat off his head to rest against his back and sat down on the ground near the coffee pot. From Elijah’s long brown fingers, he accepted biscuits and dried beef as the shack turned to grey ash behind him. Elijah, sitting cross-legged opposite Johnny, ate a dried fig and regarded the other young man in silence. He watched Johnny eat a little and drink more coffee before settling to worry at the bandage on his hand, the cooling breeze lifting his dark hair and billowing out the folds and creases of his bright blue shirt. Pulling the dime novel from the back pocket of his pants, Elijah read silently for some minutes and then suddenly began to read out loud, his deep voice clear against the old timbers falling into ash and the grinding teeth of the horse as it ate in its nosebag.
“This boy had gone bad, no doubt about it. All the good and wholesome natural impulses of youth had died in him somewhere along his pitiful and lonesome trail, leaving only the iniquitous traits of the habitual wrong doer in his heart.”
Johnny was silent, his breathing slow and measured as he listened to the words written by a man he had never met, in some smoke-filled office in San Francisco, but less disturbed by them than by Elijah’s intentions in reading them out loud to him on this clear, bright, warm day.
“Yes, this boy was headed for hell indeed. Sheriff Joe T. McKinley could see that plain in the vibrant blue eyes as the kid pointed his six shooter straight at his chest. Something in the tough but kindly old sheriff’s heart wanted to save Johnny Madrid’s youthful soul from further sin, but he reckoned not even the Almighty himself could lend a hand in such an undertaking. He was facing a killer with no conscience, no human feeling, no shred of the compassion by which most of us see fit to live our lives. The sheriff closed his eyes and prayed.”
Elijah closed the tattered book and smiled into Johnny’s intense blue eyes.
“Guess someone done went an’ saved your youthful soul, Johnny.”
Johnny swallowed back a sudden and unfamiliar fear and lowered his head. Quickly, he stood up. Elijah remained seated as the other man arranged a row of six rusty cans on an old corral fence some distance away. Although his hand was painful and Johnny knew now with a terrible certainty that his draw and fire were down in both speed and accuracy, the cans exploded off the fence in rapid succession. Fiercely, he looked back at Elijah whose expression was as undisturbed as a lake devoid of life.
“That what y’wanted, Elijah?” he demanded. “That what y’been waitin’ for?”
When the boy made no reply, Johnny ripped the bandage off his hand and threw it in the dust. Flexing his fingers and gazing furiously at the inflamed wound, he became aware of Elijah rising from his seat on the ground. The boy took six more cans from the pile, walked slowly to the distant fence and set them up carefully on the broad top rail. Reloading the gun, Johnny drew in his breath sharply, felt the sting of bitter smoke at the back of his throat and watched Elijah move to one side. With practised ease, he emptied his mind of other thoughts – his father’s disapproval, his own determination not to care at the loss of his gift – and allowed it to focus on the distant targets and on the bones and muscles of his gun hand. Like before, the cans were hurled up into the air by the force of the six bullets, only this time white liquid burst up in arcs against the blue of the sky, spraying Elijah and the leaves of nearby trees.
When Johnny walked over to the fence he saw that the cans had been full of sweetened milk. He knelt down and picked one up; the bullet had merely grazed the top though he had aimed for the centre of each can.
“Milk’s still good,” Elijah said, stroking some from his shirt and licking his fingers. “You can shoot, Johnny Madrid. Yu sure ‘nough can shoot.”
Resisting the urge to hurl a scornful, angry retort at the boy to the effect that he had seen nothing close to his real ability, he dropped the oozing can and wrapped his bandana around his hand.
“How many you kill, Johnny?”
“More’n the fingers on your hands, Elijah,” Johnny replied coldly. “That enough for ya?”
“I done three.”
Johnny had turned away, back towards the dying fire, his face an expressionless mask, but his mind a confusion of distress over his hand and resentment of Elijah’s unwavering focus on his past. At the youth’s quiet admission, spoken with no emotion, Johnny turned and looked directly into Elijah’s large brown eyes.
He waited for the reply and felt his stomach clench with alarm when the other man smiled wide, his teeth bright white against the darkness of his skin.
Johnny’s face showed little of his warring emotions. Feeling sick to his stomach, he went back to the fire, pulled the pitchfork from the ground and tended the burning embers as carefully as if they were flowers in a garden.
There he was, down in the valley below, grazing calmly, his long tail swiping at late flies. Murdoch stopped his horse on the escarpment above the broad expanse of land sweeping down to the lake, intensely blue under the sapphire sky, its own canvas brushed by great licks of cirrus reflected in the lake’s quiet waters. Beyond, further than a day’s ride, were the mountains, the highest peaks cloaked with snow, piled back against the horizon as if marking Earth’s final boundary. On their lower slopes, and clustering all the way down to the shores of the lake, grew vast legions of pine trees, so pungent that when Murdoch pulled a breath of air into his lungs, he could feel the resin tingling in his nostrils.
For some time, he allowed himself the luxury of absorbing the landscape, taking in details that normally found little purchase in his busy, calculating mind: the great, pale boulders, debris of an ancient glacier, strewn over the ground like the reckless leavings of giants, the single oak tree in the scrubby yellow pasture, its canopy so broad it could shelter a score of cattle from the summer heat, the snow geese, ibis and swans clamouring at the lake’s edges, at times ascending in a flurry-burst of white wings and agitated cries, and then descending like the soft, unheard falling of leaves further along the shore.
His wrists crossed on the saddle horn, the reins held loosely in his large hands, Murdoch felt the gentle warmth of the early winter sun on his back, unwilling now to break the unusual, captivating feeling that he had emerged through the portal of another life and entered a new, fresh and perfect existence. This, he remembered, was how he had felt nearly thirty years before, freed from the shackles of his father’s low tyranny, of the boundaries of a small country with its small, careful ways mapped through centuries of history. Somewhere like this, he had stood, assailed with felt life, his young blood infused with the vastness of the wild land, its untainted air filling his lungs until his head span, and he had wanted it all, wanted to gather it in his arms and call it his own. He had run down the steep, rocky slopes, through the golden grasses, towards the river, sending the birds up from the trees with his yells of joy.
Shifting slightly in the saddle to ease the twinge of pain in his lower back, Murdoch realised that somewhere on his journey he had allowed himself to stop seeing, had allowed his senses to close down. Slowly, he had shrunk into the smallest of spaces, like a tortoise pulling its head into the dark safety of its shell. It had begun with the death of his first wife and the loss of Scott. During Catherine’s pregnancy, he had been surprised at the way his imagination had run into happy thoughts of taking his child on horseback through the canyons, across the rivers, over the hills of his land. When, in his black grief, he had let his father-in-law take the motherless baby to the city for raising, he could find no comfort in the physical presence of his land. Instead, he had retreated into his study to pore over ledgers, to contemplate his life through the sturdy reality of figures. When he had re-emerged into the light, it was with a colder heart, a harsher mind, one that viewed the land as business, a battleground of profit and loss.
Down in the valley, Amo raised and turned his bridled head and appeared to Murdoch to be looking straight in his direction. Instantly, Johnny came into his thoughts, the way his younger son would observe him silently from under his long, dark eyelashes. For months, he had been unnerved, looked away with a frown, uncertain of everything, whether he could accept the wild, angry boy with the lawless, bloody past as his own, whether he could separate his feelings for him from his hatred for the woman who had fled in the night, their baby bundled in her arms.
Murdoch drew in another lungful of the resinous air at the thought of the powerful love he had come to feel for Johnny, the unspoken delight he often felt now in the young man’s electric presence. The secret of his joy, he knew, was that Johnny had quietly subverted all his fears and doubts and finally allowed him to become his father. The privilege of it could still make him dizzy, even while, his short temper lost, he was subjecting his son to a yelling. Whatever happened, they would not shake loose now; they both knew it.
Gazing down at the mustang, the stirrups of the heavy saddle hanging loosely at its belly, Murdoch nudged his horse on the first step down into the valley. There, under the oak tree, he dismounted and sat in the grass to wait for the colt to come to him and to rehearse what he would say to his older son if he asked again about the shooting of the trinket trader. For the image of the dead man, he allowed no room in his mind.
Scott found his brother in the small corral behind the barn, away from the watchful eyes of the house. For some time, he leaned against the rail and simply observed the young man draw his gun from its holster, return it with a single spin and a gentle sound of metal on leather and then draw again: draw, spin, a tender clunk; draw, spin, clunk.
Around them, the ranch had fallen into late afternoon lassitude: hands drifted home from the range, Jelly and Tick grumbled at one another as they cleaned wagon harness under the sycamore tree between the bunkhouse and barn while in the orchard adjoining the house, and just within Scott’s view, Ellen helped Maria peg flapping sheets on a line, the sick calf, Belle, in a basket at her feet. At the bottom of the orchard, in an old canvas chair, Stephen sat smoking and poring over a large sheet of paper. Scott was reminded so completely of afternoons in the field, of indolent hours spent waiting for orders, that he moved a little to block his friend from view.
“Somethin’ on your mind, brother?” Johnny asked, continuing the steady rhythm of drawing and holstering. His hand hurt, but a wilful determination to ignore the pain and refind his lost feel and speed possessed him.
“Not particularly,” Scott replied, his fingers tearing at splinters on the rail betraying his lie. An hour or two in the arms of his favourite saloon girl had eased some of his agitation, but he knew he would find no rest while Stephen haunted even the very fringes of his day. “Have you seen our father recently?”
“Chewed me out good awhile ago for takin’ up Billy’s offer of a race to Blueberry Ridge’n back. Ain’t seen ‘im since.”
Johnny smiled and holstered the gun with a final gentle clunk.
“Billy ain’t back yet.”
Scott returned the younger man’s smile, glad when Johnny joined him at the fence, resting his arms on the top rail so that he was opposite his brother, their arms nearly touching. Scott drew in his breath to calm his emotions, so intensely did he feel the need to share his burden, yet the thought of uttering such things to his family made the embryo words die in his throat. Like a camera framing a new photograph, he turned his thoughts to Johnny as his brother flexed the fingers and stretched the palm of his right hand.
“How is it?” he asked, taking the hand and frowning at the inflammation along the length of the still unhealed wound. “You should be resting this, not making it worse. Has Murdoch seen it? It needs redressing.”
Johnny pulled the hand away irritably.
“Quit with the babyin’, Scott. I’ve had worse’n this with no doctorin’ around for hundred miles o’more.”
Normally, Scott would have challenged his brother’s reckless dismissal of his concern, but he let it go. From under the sycamore tree, Tick let out a sudden cackle of laughter. Scott glanced round to see Jelly smiling while he rubbed fiercely at a pair of reins with a cloth. At the old man’s feet was an opened tin of yellow saddle polish.
“Murdoch told me what happened at Bittercreek,” Scott said quietly, turning his gaze back to his brother. “He said he killed the man who abused you and murdered your mother.”
Johnny put one boot up on the lowest rail and stared down through his arms at the dusty leather.
“In cold blood.”
“Some people might call that murder.”
Johnny raised his head and looked at his brother coolly.
“They can call it what they like, Scott,” he replied; the vivid blue eyes that could provide the older man with as much intimacy as he had ever hoped for from a brother now seemed to be warning him off. In a few moments, Scott felt all Johnny’s innate danger. He lowered his own gaze to the swirling dust of the corral.
“I’d like to know more, Johnny, but I don’t suppose I’m going to get it.”
“Don’t take it personal, brother,” the younger man said softly. From his position, Johnny could see Maria and Ellen in the orchard laughing as, on opposite sides of the wash line, they fought to control a large white sheet. In the vegetable patch, Elijah was helping Ramon dig up potatoes.
“That’s a hell of a lot to ask when it concerns my father and brother.”
Johnny’s stomach clenched at the pain in the older man’s voice. He watched Scott’s clasped hands and the thumbs pressing hard against each other as if in mortal combat.
“Yeh, I know, but sometimes it don’t do any good to go squirrelin’ into things too deep when they’re already done, an’ y’know Murdoch’s a good man, Scott. What he’s done ain’t restin’ easy with ‘im.”
Reassured by the return of something close to their intimacy, Scott felt able to look again at his younger brother, though his tone held a trace of anger.
“If that’s the case, I wish he’d trust me enough to talk about it.”
“If talkin’s gonna help ‘im, brother, then you’ll be the one he comes to, but don’t sit around waitin’ – Murdoch don’t put as high a value on talkin’ as you do.”
Scott frowned. He felt both comforted by Johnny’s words and resentful of their knowingness, an implication that his way of dealing with life was of little worth in this land of overt action and few words.
“Here he comes,” Johnny said suddenly, smiling at the approach of a fast jogging rider. “Ol’ Billy boy. You stop to have a picnic, Billy?”
The young cowboy pulled up briefly on his sweating sorrel, its hooves kicking up dust, and looked resentfully at Johnny amused expression.
“How long you bin back?” he demanded, ignoring Tick and Jelly’s mutual chuckling from the shade of the sycamore tree.
“‘Bout the time it takes to brew up a pot o’coffee,” Johnny drawled. “A big pot o’ coffee.”
Billy dismounted in a flurry of irritation and grabbed his horse’s reins. Swatting at a fly that had lazily descended onto his nose, he regarded Johnny with a mixture of suspicion and respect, before allowing himself a small smile; he dug in his jacket pocket and flipped the other man a ten dollar coin. Johnny caught it and began tumbling it through the fingers of his left hand.
“You gonna give me the chance to git even tonight when I whup your sorry ass at the card table? That twenty bucks I won offen ya last week sure came in handy at the Silver Dollar.”
“Now Billy,” Johnny smiled, glancing at Scott before pocketing the gold coin. “You know my ol’ man don’t allow gamblin’ for money in the bunkhouse. Might play ya for matches though.”
Billy smirked and led his horse away and around to the main corral. Scott shook his head unable to suppress a smile at the audacity of his younger brother.
“I’d be careful, little brother,” he said, cuffing Johnny’s dark hair. “Murdoch may well have discovered his softer side, but I believe it might have its limits.”
“Reckon so,” Johnny nodded, returning the older man’s smile. Relieved and glad to see Scott’s playfulness return, he nudged his brother’s arm with his elbow. “Where you been all day, anyway, Boston? Savin’ souls with your soldier friend?”
“Not exactly,” Scott sighed. Embarrassed, he lowered his voice. “Actually, I spent the afternoon with Sally…”
Johnny eyes widened in surprise. “With Sweet Mouth Sally at the Silver Dollar?”
“Jesus, Boston.” Johnny’s grin was wide with delight. “Ain’t like you to take some afternoon satisfaction. That’s kinda my department. Musta been some almighty itch in ya pants, brother.”
Scott raised his eyebrows and shook his head, his lips barely able to force themselves back into a smile.
“If only it was that easy, Johnny,” he said quietly. He stood away from the fence. Hands in the pockets of his pants, he regarded his younger brother seriously. “Unless you’ve anything better to do, come inside and I’ll tend that hand before Murdoch sees it and confines you to the ledgers for a month.”
Johnny looked at the raw wound barely covered by the grubby bandage and nodded before slipping through the fence to follow the older man.
Scott stopped and turned back to look at his brother.
“I know somethin’s eatin’ at ya,” Johnny said quietly. “Anythin’ I can help with?”
“No, Johnny,” Scott replied, shaking his head. “I can handle it.”
He turned quickly away, letting out a cry of surprise when Johnny suddenly wrapped an arm round his neck and dragged his head down to his waist, ruffling his brother’s fair hair fiercely.
“Can ya handle this too, big brother?” he grinned. Before long they were tussling in the dust, a giggling Scott threatening to cut a switch as he struggled to release himself and Johnny breathless with laughter as they rolled on the ground. Even when he was grabbed by his collar and hauled to his feet by his father’s powerful hand, he could barely suppress his joy at releasing the tension with his older brother. Lowering his head, he smirked at his boots as Scott sat in the dust, attempting to catch his breath while Murdoch glowered down at him. The older man’s tone was tight with anger, although he kept his voice low.
“You have guests, Scott, and as my elder son, an example to set to the hands on this ranch. What in the hell’s got into you? Get up, for God’s sake …”
“Murdoch, it was …”
“As for you, boy.” Murdoch interrupted his younger son fiercely, wiping any last trace of a smile off Johnny’s face and silencing him with a look that made him swallow down a lump of sudden fear. “After this and the racing I’m damn well tempted to ignore the fact you’ve just turned twenty-one and take my belt to you. Now get in the house and clean yourselves up.” At Johnny’s hesitation, he pointed a finger at the house and finally released his anger in a red-faced bellow. “NOW!”
Johnny grabbed his hat and hurried to join his retreating brother.
“Whoops?” Scott said, gazing at the smiling younger man in disbelief. He pushed open the door of the kitchen. “Our father, possibly with some justification - I’ll grant him that - bawls us out like children in front of the entire ranch and all you’ve got to say is ‘Whoops’?”
Still grinning, Johnny shrugged. Raising his dusty hat at Ellen, he grabbed two hot cookies from the tray she had just removed from the oven before leaving the room, his clinking spurs echoing down the brick passageway towards the bath house. Ellen set down the tray on the table, her eyes on the empty spaces where the two cookies had been. Scott, feeling caught out by his brother’s swift disappearance, stood there awkwardly in front of her; he heaved a sigh.
“You’ll have to excuse my brother,” he said uneasily. “He’s not quite civilised yet.”
“I do excuse him,” the woman replied softly. She looked up suddenly, and, against his will, Scott found his breath catching in his throat at the intimacy of her gaze. “He’s good for you. He saw you needed to play.”
Scott was about to speak, but the words died in his mouth as he watched her close the oven door with a gentle clunk and then turn to lift each cookie carefully onto a cooling tray. He noticed for the first time that her fingers were slim and strong. When he had recovered himself, he realised he had almost no control over his words.
“You know you really don’t need to assist Maria with her chores. You’re a guest.”
“I’m not used to being idle, Mr Lancer.” Her voice was suddenly firm as she finished transferring the cookies and took the baking tray to the sink. She plunged it into the water and began scrubbing. Scott studied her back, enjoying the rich chestnut curls against the creamy pinkness of her neck and the sight of her wide shoulders that gave an impression of strength and resilience to her body. He had never cared for the narrow shoulders of fragile frames; they moved him to a desire to protect, but, as he had discovered by experimentation, no further. When he realised he was beginning to contemplate and imagine the ridge and hollow of her collarbones under her worn green dress, he turned quickly upon his heel and followed his brother to the bath house.
It was her quiet, peaceable but knowing presence that was beginning to unsettle him. On his first meeting with her at the stagecoach depot, he had dismissed her from his serious attention immediately, quietly furious at her very existence, the defences of his whole being arrayed against her. Even when Stephen had told him of her refusal to pose naked for photographs and the terrible retribution, he had allowed his belief that she had no place at Lancer to override his compassion.
Now, little things were undoing him: her gratitude for the loan of a simple shawl, Johnny’s angry rebuttal in the bath house of his brother’s light-hearted suggestion that he had tumbled her in the barn the previous evening – Scott’s head still hurt from the well-aimed bar of soap Johnny had hurled his way - her tender care of the injured calf – he had heard her talking to it as he had heard other women talk to their babies; the way she had retreated from Stephen’s presence to take up residence in her own quiet self. Now, while he played the piano in the Great Room after dinner, she had surprised him again by absorbing herself in Murdoch’s copy of ‘Robinson Crusoe’, and he found himself unaccountably soothed by the thought of her absorption behind him, even while Stephen feverishly regaled Murdoch with details of the old hotel he intended to convert into a mission.
“Of course, the basics are already present, sir.” Stephen leaned back in the chair by the fire, one leg crossed over the other, a cigar between his fingers and a glass of whisky on a small table beside him. “That’s what makes the building perfect. There’s a good-sized kitchen, a communal dining room, rather small but serviceable and eight bedrooms, four of which I intend to convert into two larger family rooms.” He leaned forward a little, his hollow eyes fixed intensely on Murdoch. “For heaven’s sake, I have already encountered a family in Green River today who had absolutely nothing in the world, poor devils. I gave them money, of course, but it was a port of call they needed, a shelter from the storm of life …”
From his position on the end of the Great Room’s large couch, Murdoch regarded the younger man sceptically. Already feeling tetchy from Stephen’s usurpation of his usual place in his appointed armchair after dinner and the discomfort of his bruises from the fall, he was in no mood for fantasies of an egalitarian world. He removed his reading glasses and swallowed a mouthful of whisky.
“May I ask what family?” he said curtly, resting the glass purposefully on the arm of the couch.
“Oh, Mexicans, I think,” Stephen replied carelessly, the little family, who had left the town an hour after his encounter with them, already dismissed from his thoughts of the future. “Not local, I think. Drifters, probably. Scott?”
“I believe so,” Scott agreed reluctantly, his eyes on the sheet music and his hands continuing to play the sonata.
Murdoch nodded, reassured that no family of his acquaintance were in such desperate need. Replacing his glasses and comforted both by his son’s sensitive playing and Ellen’s stroking of the calf’s head while she read his precious Defoe - a book he had brought over from Scotland and consumed even while the wild, grey waves had hurled themselves over the ship’s decks - he opened his newspaper, newly delivered from San Francisco. When, presently, Stephen excused himself as exhausted and in need of his bed, Murdoch contemplated reclaiming his old chair.
Moments later, he was disturbed by Johnny throwing himself down beside him on the couch. Arms folded, the young man lay back and stretched out his booted feet to rest on the low table in front of him. Murdoch, his earlier anger a distant memory, and still amazed since Bittercreek to find that his son harboured no ill feeling however much he yelled, slapped Johnny’s thigh with the back of his hand.
The young man sighed and dropped his feet to the floor, before rubbing his eyes and yawning elaborately.
“Those horses bedded down for the night?” Murdoch asked, turning a page of his paper.
“Yep. Barranca’s off his feed some. Reckon he ain’t gettin’ enough exercise.”
“How d’you figure that?” Murdoch said, his eyes on the paper and feigning severity. “When you’re racing around taking up bets with the hands?”
“That weren’t no bet, Murdoch,” Johnny smiled. “That was whuppin’ Billy Donner’s ass to Sunday and back – Hey, Boston, play somethin’ cheerful!”
“No,” Scott replied bluntly, continuing to play. Johnny turned his attention to his father and for the first time noticed the graze high on Murdoch’s left temple.
“Cut y’self shavin’?”
Murdoch put his fingers to the graze and felt its tenderness.
“Fell outta bed?”
“No,” the older man said edgily. “Are we going to carry on with this list of possible causes all evening?”
Johnny fell silent, although his father knew it was only a matter of time before the young man renewed his probing, and he was almost certain anyway that his son was playing with him, that he knew already every inch of the truth. Trying to concentrate on a story of a missing diamond necklace at a social gathering of San Francisco’s elite, he was close to smiling as Johnny pushed himself against his father’s shoulder and spoke in an undertone.
“Hope y’ain’t been lettin’ ol’ Jelly ride Amo, Pa.”
“What on earth are you talking about now, boy?” Murdoch sighed, allowing his gaze to slide briefly in his son’s direction before directing it back to the paper.
“Well, he’s had a saddle on ‘is back today. Yessir, coupla hours, I reckon.”
“Is that so?”
“Yep.” Johnny smiled at Ellen who had raised her head from her reading to observe the two men. “Hope no-one’s fixin’ to ride that mustang anytime soon. Could get themselves hurt.”
“There’s always that risk, yes,” Murdoch said neutrally.
“Yes, though that doesn’t seem to stop you.”
“I know what I’m doin’”
“And you’re suggesting that …” Murdoch hesitated. “… others don’t?”
“Nope, only I’m a mite better’n them at it.” Smiling, Johnny wriggled his shoulder against Murdoch’s broad upper arm. “… an’ younger.”
Murdoch drew in his breath, but feeling its essential truth, allowed the comment to pass, although he found he could not help resenting Johnny’s cocky attack on his pride. As he feigned absorption in his newspaper, he struggled with the uncomfortable feeling of being pushed aside by these younger, fitter men; the one with a quicker eye than his for anomalies in the ledgers, a business brain that could detect the tiniest loophole in a deal when he himself was all ready to sign and a diplomacy that could win over the most hardened cattle dealer or army representative; the other with boundless natural energy that could leave his father both breathless and exasperated, and gifted with an ability to connect with animals and people that the older man knew now he had frequently desired, but did not possess.
When Scott’s steady hand was suddenly by him, pouring him a second shot of whisky, he found himself, as he had often done in the past seven months, both unsettled and gratified by the younger man’s self-possession, his air of wisdom and maturity. Sipping the fresh whisky, he nodded towards the piano, a gift to Scott from his grandfather, and an uneasy reminder for Murdoch that he had always longed to learn to play.
“I think you’ve nailed that piece, son,” he said appreciatively. “It sounds wonderful.”
“Thank you, sir.” His son seemed pleased with the compliment, but then came the increasingly familiar sign that Scott craved a perfection in all he attempted that was alien to his father’s practical mind. “But it’s still some way from where it should be.”
“Jesus, Boston,” Johnny said loudly from the couch where, to Murdoch’s intense surprise, he had gradually positioned himself so that his head rested on a cushion against his father’s thigh and his stockinged feet were raised up on the other end of the couch. He was sketching Ellen with bold, confident strokes. “You been at it for more’n a month already.”
Scott saw how his brother had captured in a few moments Ellen’s stillness. He leaned over and flicked the younger man’s black fringe.
“I could be ‘at it’, as you so eloquently put it, brother, for a lifetime and it would still need practice.”
“A man needs to know when it’s good enough, Scott,” Johnny said, without taking his eyes from his sketchpad. Murdoch raised his eyebrows at his elder son, a trace of a sympathetic smile on his lips, and watched him return to the piano where he opened a book of traditional Scottish ballads. Murdoch’s heart leapt at the sound of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ filling the room. This tender gift to him, the feel of his younger son’s head resting against his thigh and the memory of Amo finally coming to him in the valley brought him as close as he had ever come in the past eighteen years to believing he was blessed above other men. For now, he allowed other, more troubled, thoughts no place in his contentment.
He watched her for some time before she became aware of him. She was sitting on the couch in the sunny spot in the small morning room, reading; her dress was brown and even shabbier than the green one she had worn the previous day, though her chestnut hair was neatly gathered and braided at the back of her head. While he watched, she suddenly turned the book round eagerly in her hands and he saw she was looking intently at a coloured picture. Unable to restrain his curiosity, he gently cleared his throat and she looked up with an expression close to alarm that softened a little when he smiled.
“Mr Lancer.” Her cheeks reddening, she closed the book, although she kept her thumb between the pages to mark her place. “I thought everyone had gone into town.”
Feeling suddenly like an intruder, Scott remained standing and made a show of picking up his father’s ‘Edinburgh Review’; he scanned its long columns of dense type.
“Everyone but me,” he said casually. “Stephen managed to persuade my father and brother to take a look at his new investment.”
“But not you …”
“I saw it yesterday.” Scott’s reply was curt enough to cause a brief frown to cross Ellen’s face. She gazed at the dust motes dancing in the sunbeam near her feet.
“He’s very excited about it,” she said quietly. “He’s coughing less and …” She paused and Scott saw the faintest of smiles on her lips. “… and ignoring me more.”
“Do you mind?” Scott put the journal on the table and looked curiously at the young woman. The smile reached her green eyes and he found himself surprised to see the white teeth and pink gums of someone who cared for herself. It was then he realised that she was beautiful, and that the scar, far from ruining her beauty, pointed to it with such force his blood quickened. She was damaged, he thought, but, like Johnny, in a way that seemed god-given to the eyes of ordinary people.
“May I ask what you’re reading?” he asked, moving closer to the warmth of her; the frayed cuffs of her dress around strong wrists.
“Oh.” She looked down at the book. “Something your father was kind enough to …” She hesitated, her cheeks flushed pink. “Robinson Crusoe. It was my mother’s favourite, but her copy didn’t have pictures. She’d have loved these pictures … I don’t understand all the words, but …”
“May I …?” Scott held out his hand. Frowning slightly, she gave him the book, opened at the page where her thumb had rested. Sitting down beside her on the couch, he held the book between them so that they both could see the picture of the long golden beach, the palm trees and the bright, blue ocean crested with white foam and, in the vastness of the sand, a small, ragged figure kneeling and praying. Scott read the caption:
“I am cast upon a horrible desolate island, void of all hope of recovery, but I am alive, and not drowned as all my ship’s company was.”
“To be alone there,” Ellen said softly, her gaze on the picture. “I can’t decide … it’s so beautiful, but …”
“Is beauty enough?”
She looked at the young man with sudden intensity.
“That’s what I wonder, yes. If I had enough to eat and drink and some shelter …”
“No human contact,” Scott said. “Wouldn’t you find that hard?”
Ellen stood up and walked to the window, her arms folded. Outside in the yard, José was being scolded by Jelly for spilling a pail of milk. The child was hanging his head and rubbing his eyes with his sleeve.
“Human contact can be harder than loneliness, Mr Lancer.”
Disappointed by her severe tone, Scott kept his eyes on the picture and nodded.
“Yes, I suppose so, although since I came home I find myself lonely for my father and brother whenever I’m away from them for too long, not something I ever expected to happen to me …”
The young woman turned quickly from the window, her face animated by sympathetic interest.
“Why d’you say that?”
Scott drew in his breath, surprised to find himself so undefended by his usual caution in expressing his emotions. Discouraged since childhood from unseemly journeys into the heart, he was still recovering from the shock of realising that his father and brother were essential to his existence. Now, this woman was moving under his skin with the same liquid burning.
“Because it had never happened before,” he answered simply. “All my life in Boston I was surrounded by people, but they were nothing to me. At the time, I believed I cared for them …”
Scott looked up straight into her serious gaze, struggling to discern how much his friend meant to her.
“He was hard to know,” he replied calmly. “He was very independent. He seemed to spend his time ensuring no-one would want to care for him.”
Ellen frowned and he knew he had not been honest and that this woman had seen through his duplicity with the same arrow-sharpness of his younger brother.
“I asked if you cared for him,” she said softly. “A person’s determination not to be cared for doesn’t mean that no-one will care. The world doesn’t work like that.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Scott agreed immediately, feeling to the last degree, the truth of her words. How often had he persisted in caring for Johnny when his brother had often done all in his power to resist him? “Yes, I cared about Stephen, but he often seemed a stranger to me.”
Ellen nodded. She walked back to the couch and sat down. Smiling briefly, she took up the book and traced her finger in the embossed title on the cover.
“That’s how my father was after the locusts came; one day he was everybody’s best friend, the next he was a stranger to us all. Mama tried, but she just couldn’t hold him together and that broke her in its turn.”
“How old were you?”
“Twelve.” Ellen’s finger stopped on the C of Crusoe. “Young enough to want my folks to be strong enough to protect me, old enough to know a lost cause when I saw one.”
“So what did you do?” Scott asked. He watched her hand begin to stroke the book’s faded red leather, splashed by the ocean on its journey from Scotland.
“I lived with my grandmother until I was fifteen, but she had my uncle to care for – he was simple in the head and brutal with it – so I married.”
“You’ve been married?” Scott failed to keep the surprise from his tone. Ellen released a light snort of derision and folded her hands tightly into her lap.
“Is that so hard to believe, Mr Lancer?” she demanded. “You men. You bed us, but we might as well be dolls for all the thought you give to the truth of us.”
Scott leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, disturbed by the sudden reference to her profession.
“I apologise, Miss Brown,” he said gently, for a moment, a little hardened in his heart against her, but the feeling did not last. “I meant no offence. Where is your husband now?”
As she glared fiercely down at her clasped hands, he saw how she was struggling to control her breathing in the sharp rise and fall of her chest. When Murdoch’s old Labrador, Bess, entered the room and lay at the young woman’s feet, she seemed to Scott to be suddenly released from her pain as she leant to stroke the dog’s black head.
“He was Mexican, much older than me,” she said quietly. “He needed a wife and I needed a home, so I married him.” She turned her head with a sudden child-like eagerness. “Might we go and see Belle? I promised Johnny I’d care for her and I haven’t visited her this morning.”
“Of course,” Scott smiled, unaccountably pleased that she had made the rather timid request of him. He stood up and, despite himself, held out his hand to her. She took it immediately and then turned back to pick up her borrowed shawl from the couch.
“It’s quite warm outside …”
“I’d rather take it,” she interrupted him firmly, pulling the shawl carefully around her shoulders and stroking it into place as if soothing a loved friend.
From the corner of his eye, Murdoch saw him coming and he folded his powerful arms, his face set hard, his habitual defence mechanisms this time supplemented by a new and unfamiliar surge of blood pumping through his heart. He continued to listen to Stephen describe his plans for the old hotel’s frontage, noting that the handkerchief the young man used to wipe his mouth after a bout of coughing was stained with blood. Above them, the early winter sky was blue and cloudless and he thought himself strange to notice how the roof of the hotel appeared sharp and clear against it.
The man with the neat grey moustache was beside him, much shorter and stockier than the rancher, his hands jammed in the pockets of his pants.
“Tom,” Murdoch said gruffly, barely turning his head to acknowledge the livery stable owner. Cooper looked sourly at the old hotel and sniffed his scorn.
“You a part of this tomfoolery, Murdoch?”
“This ‘tomfoolery’,” Stephen said, regarding Cooper disdainfully. “As you so quaintly describe it, sir, will be an asset to this town. It will be a civilising influence.”
“This town don’t need no assets nor influences from Eastern upstarts, boy,” Cooper growled. Murdoch frowned irritably. He had no particular liking for Forsyth and was increasingly disturbed by Scott’s agitation in his presence, but he felt the full weight of Cooper’s insult.
“Mr Forsyth is my son’s friend, Tom,” he said sternly. “He fought alongside Scott for the Union. He’s as entitled as the next man to heed whatever calling he has a mind to if he has the means and the energy.”
Cooper looked suspiciously at Stephen, taking in his emaciated figure and the large eyes in a pale face before nodding his agreement to a creed he dared not disavow in front of the rancher. They were both men who had begun their American lives with only the boots on their feet and a fierce youthful desire to succeed. He waited until Stephen, after lighting a cigarette, had mounted the wooden steps of the hotel and pushed open its doors before he spoke again.
“You aware that your boy’s courtin’ my girl, Murdoch?”
Murdoch ground his teeth together a little and looked down at the dust of the street.
“I’m aware that they’re friends, yes,” he said cautiously, wanting only to escape this other father who, like many, regarded his younger son with fear and prejudice.
“His intentions serious?”
“I believe you should ask him that, Tom.”
“I’m askin’ you, Murdoch. You’re his father. You should know the boy’s mind.”
Murdoch almost smiled at the absurdity of the remark, but instead looked impassively at the other man.
“What does Lindy say about Johnny’s ‘intentions’ as you call them?”
Cooper released an exasperated snort and shook his head.
“Girl’s got her head in the clouds. Always been level-headed like her mother, but now she’s told my wife she’s fixin’ to marry your boy.”
Both men raised their hats to the barber’s wife as she passed them with her brood of six silent, spotless children, all following obediently on her tail like chicks in age order, the youngest, a black-haired four year old boy trailing behind a little, scraping his boots in the dust until his slightly older sister grabbed his hand and pulled him fiercely into line. Murdoch felt a sudden and curious urge to pick up the boy and take him back to Lancer to play with the dogs and fish in the creek with José.
“Now I need to know, Murdoch,” Cooper continued. “Because if your boy’s intentions aren’t matchin’ my girl’s expectations, then I’ll take it as my right and duty to put a stop to it here an’ now, and if I catch him sniffin’ around my daughter again I’ll clean his plow …”
Murdoch sighed, reined in an abrupt and wild impulse to punch the other man and looked directly at Cooper’s chubby well-fed face which, he was gratified to see, quailed slightly at the anger in the rancher’s pale blue eyes. Murdoch’s tone matched the severity of his expression.
“Lay one finger on my boy, Tom, and you’ll have me to answer to. Savvy?”
Realising that he had overstepped his mark, Cooper nodded hastily.
“Sure, Murdoch, only you have to understand my position. If Lindy’s thinking one way and Johnny’s thinking another then …”
“I’ll talk to Johnny,” Murdoch interrupted bluntly. “But I’m not about to tell him who he can and can’t see. No good comes from parents interfering in their children’s friendships. It never did and it never will. Now, unless there’s something else …”
With a grimace of frustration, Cooper shook his head, hesitated and then strode fiercely back up the street to the livery stable. From where he stood, by the hitch rail, stroking Barranca’s forelock, Murdoch could hear him bawling at his two assistants even as a wagon rumbled past and two young cowboys walked by laughing and shouting. He suppressed a smile when he saw Johnny appear cautiously from the shadows of the alley between the old hotel and the telegraph office. It amused Murdoch to see the wariness in his son’s features as the young man approached him; he continued to stroke the palomino’s forelock.
“What’s Old Man Cooper want?” Johnny asked, glancing in the direction of the livery stable, before placing his hand on his horse’s solid neck and brushing stray strands of mane over to the other side. Murdoch avoided looking at the younger man and kept his gaze on Barranca.
“He wants to know whether or not you intend to marry his daughter,” he said evenly.
Murdoch could not help a small smile of relief crossing his features when he saw Johnny’s expression, a mixture of irritation and bewilderment; he had no desire to welcome Tom Cooper into his family. Determined to have the truth out of Johnny, he kept his tone serious.
“Apparently, Lindy’s told her parents that you’re her choice of husband.”
His head lowered, Johnny gripped the hitch-rail with his hands and kicked the ground so hard Barranca stepped back in alarm.
“So, is there any truth in it, John?” Murdoch asked, concerned that his son was silently avoiding his eyes. “I’m not questioning your choice of bride, but, as your father, I need to know what your plans are regarding this girl.”
Johnny’s head shot up in fierce protest.
“I ain’t got plans, Murdoch,” he said angrily. “I never had plans my whole damn life. I just wish folks’d mind their own fuckin’ business.”
Murdoch sighed, repressing an urge to censure the young man’s language. He leaned back against the hitch-rail, his arms folded.
“You have to see things from Tom’s point of view, Johnny. He has a pretty nineteen year old daughter who attracts a lot of attention from the town’s young men. She’s told him she wants to marry one of them …”
“Yeh?” Johnny interrupted scornfully. “Bet he’s real glad it’s me, ain’t he.”
“He just wants to know if you and Lindy have the same ideas about the future,” his father said patiently.
“Well, we might have, Pa.” Johnny, finally responding to the older man’s lack of disapproval, turned round and mirrored Murdoch’s position against the rail next to him. He tipped his hat and looked up at his father hopefully, still surprised to see no trace of censure in the pale blue eyes. “But not right now. Leastways, I ain’t. Just lookin’ for a good time.” He risked a smile. “If y’know what I mean.”
“Yes, I think I do,” Murdoch smiled briefly. “Only women tend to take these things more seriously, especially if you let …” Murdoch hesitated and cleared his throat. “…things go a little further than they should.”
Johnny coloured and quickly lowered his head, scuffing the ground with the heel of his boot.
“Have they?” Murdoch asked gently, nodding his head in greeting to a passing fellow rancher who was about to approach them, but reading the other man’s eyes, smiled and walked on towards the bank.
“No,” Johnny replied reluctantly, his gaze still on his boots. “She made it pretty damn plain that if they did she’d reckon herself engaged.” He sighed heavily. “Jesus, Murdoch. You only gotta look at ‘em, an’ they’re sizin’ ya up for a weddin’ suit. I like Lindy, but I ain’t marryin’ ‘er anytime soon.”
His father smiled and patted his shoulder.
“Then I think you and she have some talking to do, son. Just be careful. Women have a way of roping men before they’re even in the corral.”
Johnny nodded, an easy grin appearing on his face when he saw the widowed Mrs Parry emerge from the General Mercantile and approach them, an eager smile on her round face apparent under her parasol.
“You talkin’ from experience, Pa?”
“Come on, boy,” Murdoch said, moving quickly off the rail and making for the hotel’s flight of wooden steps. “We’re here to help Mr Forsyth fix this place. Let’s go.”
“Mornin’, Mrs Parry,” Johnny shouted, raising his hat, smirking when she quickened her pace. “Mighty fine day for it, ma’am.”
Murdoch grabbed Johnny’s arm and pushed him up the stairs into the old hotel, closing the doors firmly behind them and leaving the widow open-mouthed at the bottom of the steps.
Scott watched the calf hobble through the short orchard grass towards the promise of Ellen’s open hand. The creature even attempted a leap and its large brown eyes were bright with life. When the young woman laughed in clear delight as the calf reached her hand, Scott found himself smiling with pleasure at the scene. He had his father’s practical attitude towards animals; they were there to serve, to be ridden, to pull wagons, to give meat, materials and milk. So, both bewildered and mesmerised, he had watched his younger brother’s respectful tenderness with horses and thought it a gift, an aberration that was beautiful, but not required for existence. Slowly, he had come to realise that Johnny’s attitude had changed the nature of the ranch’s remuda and the way the horses were treated by the other men, even his father.
Ellen kissed the top of the calf’s head and his heart pounded. He sat down on the bench under the apple tree.
“What happened to your husband?” he asked. He wanted to bring the clear light of day back to his view of her. She allowed the calf to suckle her slender fingers and briefly lifted her face to the blue sky before answering.
“I ran away from him.”
“He treated you badly?”
“No.” She paused and removed her fingers from the calf’s eager mouth. “He wasn’t a bad man, just a little harsh. I cooked for him, cleaned the house and cared for his animals, but nothing I did pleased him.” She wiped her fingers in the grass and watched, smiling, as the calf left her side and attempted a few irrepressible skips among the last windfalls. “He was an unhappy man, by nature. He used to say he wasn’t a good fit for the world, that some people were born like it and it couldn’t be helped.” She smiled again, but sadly. “Even if it isn’t true, he’d convinced himself it was, so I left him one night because I knew I would never make him happy, and, for me …” She hesitated. “He was old, Mr Lancer, and I didn’t love him, but after all I’d lost it would … might have been enough to make another person happy with the few homely things I could do.”
Scott swallowed back the sudden lump in his throat and turned his attention to a flock of golden crowned sparrows that had descended on the branches of the orchard’s oldest tree, a plum planted by Murdoch on the day of his arrival at his new home. The birds, migrants from the North, bustled and chirped among its gnarled branches as if the tree was known to them.
“I know it’s easy to be disapproving of the life I chose after I left,” Ellen said suddenly, her voice edged with anger. “But I had a family there. That’s what Stephen doesn’t realise. He thought he was rescuing me, but I wasn’t unhappy, even after … even after I was cut. The girls took care of me. I was healing there, in their love.”
Scott tensed at the word, so rarely did he hear it, except in the Reverend Jones’ Sunday sermons, but then it sat like a stone on his indifferent heart. Now, imagining her wounded in the loving circle of her friends, he was stirred.
“Then why did you go with him?” he asked.
“He’s dying,” she answered simply. “I thought I could give him some happiness before he goes, but he seems to have found … another road.”
She pulled at stalks of old grass, her eyes drawn to the chattering birds in the plum tree.
“And you, Mr Lancer,” she said softly. “Why aren’t you happy?”
Surprised by the unexpected question, Scott frowned.
“Me? What makes you think I’m not happy?”
Ellen smiled slightly and turned her head to look at him with such penetrating directness in her green eyes he felt hopelessly exposed.
“Johnny’s happy, but you’re not,” she said. “Stephen makes you unhappy, but there’s something else.”
“I can assure you, Miss Brown.” Scott heard the defensiveness in his own voice. “I’ve never been happier than I am here at Lancer.”
“That doesn’t mean you’re happy, Scott.”
He watched her rise up and go after the calf that had stumbled into the grass and was struggling to get up. She surprised him again by wrapping her arms around the animal’s fore and back legs and lifting it into her arms in one powerful, assured movement. He was confused by her and annoyed at her words, but as she walked past him to return the calf to the barn, talking gently to it and clearly lost to its needs, he was certain he had been there before, watching the same woman and feeling the same indefinable yearning.
Three days later
Hammering the last wooden shingle into place on the balcony roof, Johnny lay over the completed work and hung his head over the edge to the first floor balcony below where Stephen was painting the balustrade a dull shade of green. Splashes of the paint marked his thin, pale arms, but his face was a study in contented absorption, only occasionally distorted by the rigours of a hollow, wracking cough which he fought to muffle with a large handkerchief.
“Finished this part of the roof, Mr Forsyth,” Johnny announced. “Should last a good few years now.”
Stephen turned his head to look up at the younger man’s cheerful, confident face partially obscured now by a long fringe of black hair. Down below them, the town bustled with the noise and movement of mid-morning – rolling wheels, loud greetings, the kicked up dust from horses’ hooves, the steady thump of a trader loading a wagon with heavy sacks of flour for the army.
“That’s a consoling thought, Johnny,” Stephen smiled thinly. Johnny heard the faint trace of reproach in the older man’s voice and swallowed back the sudden dryness in his throat.
“Jus’ check the rest of the roof then, though I reckon it’s sound.”
“Your father assures me I am in safe hands with your skills and knowledge, Johnny,” Stephen said quietly, his eyes and hands now refocused on painting the balcony’s balustrade. “I will trust to providence.”
His expression struggling between a frown and a smile, Johnny stood up on the roof and gazed up at the false front topped by another, purely decorative balustrade; just beneath the cornice was the name of the hotel, ‘The Pioneer’ and the previous owner’s name in flaking gold. Grasping the end post, he pulled himself up and past the front to step down onto the angled roof behind it. He walked up the roof, his eyes scanning the shingles and stepped onto the ridge board, slowly walking its length until he reached its end to where he was able to look down at the rough ground at the back of the hotel. It was clear that someone had once attempted a garden and Jelly was digging savagely at the stubborn earth with a fork. Further away, Elijah was cutting a patch of long dry grass with a glinting scythe.
Johnny straddled the roof in the warm sun and watched the smooth, sweeping movements of the boy’s arms and the grass falling beneath the blade. Since the day they had burnt the old line shack, Johnny had avoided the young negro, certain that his story was not one he wanted to hear, but knowing that Elijah was somehow intent on telling it to him alone in slow revelation like the thawing of ice in the weak spring sun. He did not want to see the bloody mess he knew was under the boy’s cool, secretive exterior; did not want to lay himself open to what Elijah wanted from him, so had protested when Murdoch had suggested his use as an extra hand in restoring the hotel. Failing to offer a valid reason to his bewildered father, he had received a sharp rebuke for his attitude and one of the older man’s ‘end of discussion’ expressions which even in the light of their improved relationship he knew was useless to oppose.
When Elijah stopped and upended the scythe to sharpen it on a whetstone from his pocket, he looked up at Johnny and smiled.
“Johnny Lancer! Where in tarnation are y’at, sittin’ up there like some darned orniment!? Git down here an’ help me dig this no-account, ornery earth iffen ya got nothin’ better to do.”
Johnny grinned down at Jelly who was leaning on the fork, his weathered, irritated face glistening with sweat. Jelly watched him bring his feet up onto the ridge board and stand up on its narrow surface, his arms folded and his body swaying slightly. Pretending to slip and recover himself, he threw the agitated old man a teasing smile.
“Jus’ makin’ sure of the roof, Jelly, an’ y’know you ain’t one for heights. That’s why I’m up here an’ you’re down there.”
“Yeh, well, jes so long y’ain’t spectin’ me to pick y’up iffen ya fall,” Jelly growled. “Iffen ya daddy ketches ya foolin’ around like that fit ta break your neck he’ll rip y’ smart aleck ears offen your head.”
Johnny smiled again, though he was disturbed by the older man’s tone. Lately, he had noticed it become tinged with a fierce irritation, especially with him. Thinking of possible causes, he walked back along the ridge board, watching for loose shingles until he reached the frontage, swung himself back on the balcony roof and dropped down onto the bare boards of the balcony floor.
Stephen, who had put his brush into a jar of turpentine, was sitting with his back to the hotel’s wall smoking a cigarette, his gaze on the busy street below. Johnny sat down by him and picked up his canteen. He pulled out the stopper and took a long drink of water before transferring the canteen to his left hand and examining his right hand. His father had bandaged it with brisk efficiency again that morning with another lecture about wearing gloves, keeping it clean and resisting target practice, at that point determinedly ignoring his son’s stormy, resentful glare.
Stephen watched Johnny open and close the hand repeatedly, flexing the fingers and thumb as if willing them to return to the old strength and suppleness. He blew smoke up into the air.
“Would it be so dreadful if the feeling doesn’t return?” he asked. “I have seen men lose their hands entirely, blown off by cannon fire, and then make something of their lives.”
Johnny turned a cold stare on the older man, before taking another drink from the canteen and pushing in the stopper. Stephen shrugged a little and smiled. Returning his gaze to the street, he watched two old women stop by the hotel; they looked up at him, their faces twisted in disapproval before falling into animated discussion at the foot of the hotel steps.
“Scott appears to have been avoiding me these last few days,” he said offhandedly, flicking cigarette ash on the balcony floor.
“Don’t take it personal, Mr Forsyth,” Johnny replied coolly. “He’s been avoidin’ everyone. Never saw a man take so keen to firewood duty as my brother.”
“Do you have any idea why?”
Johnny shook his head.
“Nope, but I guess you do.”
Stephen turned his eyes from the gossiping old women to the young man beside him to meet Johnny’s unflinching gaze.
“Scott’s your brother, Johnny,” he said calmly. “But he and I share a bond that cannot be broken.”
Johnny frowned at the sudden, unwelcome intrusion of his brother’s intimate connection with this unlikeable man. For the first time, he felt a powerful urge to ignore Scott’s right to privacy, ride over to the foothills of the mountains and shake the truth out of him.
“He don’t seem none too happy about bein’ reminded of it.”
Stephen drew on his cigarette and exhaled the smoke slowly.
“I have chosen to confront the past and atone for it. Scotty has chosen to bury it, but he will see the need to follow my path when the mission is completed.”
Increasingly agitated by the older man’s words, Johnny stood up and glared down at Stephen.
“If Scott’s done things in the war he ain’t proud of, then that’s his fuckin’ business, Mr Forsyth, an’ he’ll follow his own road in dealin’ with it. Ain’t none of us innocents, so none of us can tell another man where to go.”
Stephen looked up at the younger man, infuriating Johnny with an expression close to a smile.
“With your past, it’s hardly surprising you take that point of view, Johnny, but you alone were responsible for the things you did. Scott and I belonged to a band of brothers and we all shared in the fall from grace. Believe me when I tell you that I loved your brother beyond mere friendship. In raising myself from the mire, I wish also to raise him.”
“He don’t need you,” Johnny insisted savagely, confused and angered by the older man’s patronising manner and the impenetrable depths of meaning behind his words. “He don’t need some guilt-crazed lunger comin’ around tellin’ ‘im he ain’t paid enough due for his past.”
Stephen crushed the stub of his cigarette under the heel of his shabby boot, his face betraying no discernible reaction to the younger man’s anger.
“If you’re so sure of that, John, then go and ask him what he does need.”
“He needs you off Lancer,” Johnny said coldly. “An’ if he don’t see to it, then I fuckin’ will.”
“If Scotty wants me to go, then I will go,” Stephen announced calmly. He took the small brush from his paint box and picked up the placard he intended to place at the entrance to the mission. On it he had already carefully painted the words, ‘No preaching. Simply the hand of fellowship and love to those who have lost their way in this harsh world.’ Now he began to decorate its border with green leaves. Feeling outwitted, and angered by such placid indifference, Johnny left the balcony, slamming the door behind him. Down at the entrance, he put determined energy into mending the windows of the old hotel, broken by drunken cowboys one night the previous spring.
Scott saw his father long before the older man reached the camp. It struck him as odd that Murdoch was leading an unsaddled horse until he realised it was Amo and he smiled a little at his father’s stubborn persistence. Around him, men, dressed in thick jackets against the mountain cold, more severe than they had expected, were sawing down trees with long two-man saws or chopping pine trunks into logs for loading onto the wagons. The sharp, resinous smell of the wood in the cold air, the sight of snow on the peaks of the mountains, continued to invigorate Scott’s senses even after three days. He had laboured hard too, determined to wear himself out to an edge so thin he would not have to think, not have to contemplate Stephen or the war, not wonder what it was about Ellen that disturbed the man in him.
None of this had he confessed to Johnny when he had told him he was going to stay away from Lancer for a few days, but he knew these things had been understood by his brother. Johnny had simply made a quiet promise that he would break his back if he had to in helping Stephen fix the hotel and though it seemed not enough that his friend would move no further from his life than Green River, Scott had felt all the strength of the gesture.
As his father crossed the creek at its shallowest part further down the valley, Scott continued to chop logs with zealous vigour, enjoying the satisfaction of driving hard metal into soft scented wood, looking always for the perfect moment when the swing of axe needed no more effort than to breathe his next breath. It was then that he felt he belonged, a brother to the men here who had never seen a silver dinner service or a street lit by a hundred lamps, who had never hailed a cab or waltzed under chandeliers with women who smelt of dusky roses. He had not bathed for three days. He had squatted near the clear, clean water that tumbled over the rocks and, like the other men, scrubbed himself awake with its pitiless cold. He had not even taken a book to ease the long evenings; he had listened to the men’s coarse stories and fallen asleep to the sound of their belching and farting.
Now, as his father approached, he was found he was glad at the sight of his familiar face, but determined to stay in the place he had hollowed for himself. They would get nowhere with talking, he was sure, and now, since his father had set down the unspoken rule that some things were better left untold, that sometimes a man needed to keep the key to himself, he was relieved to agree. Johnny had told him of giving some of his ‘bad thoughts’ to their father, but he reasoned, he was older, more stable, more sure of his place in the world than his brother. Murdoch admired his dependability, his maturity, the poise and self-assurance honed by education and privilege; he was certain the older man wanted no part of the dirt in the corners.
“Checking up on me, Murdoch?” He chopped one more log before leaning on the axe and looking up at his father. “I believe, even with my limited experience, that I can handle a few trees.”
His father appeared indifferent to his softly sarcastic tone. He looked down at the younger man impassively, his wrists crossed over the saddle horn.
“No. I wanted to give Amo some exercise, so it seemed a good excuse to bring you a dram of whisky to keep the cold out.” Murdoch turned his gaze to the snow on the mountain slopes. “The snow’s further down than usual at this time. It’s going to be a tough winter.”
“Yes.” Taken aback by his father’s reference to whisky, Scott held Amo while Murdoch dismounted with a small groan of pain. He frowned to see the effort his father made to loosen his stiff back. “You’re pretty far from home, sir.”
“No further than I need to be,” Murdoch replied firmly. He took the mustang from his son’s hand and tied it up to the half-loaded wagon, talking gently to the creature and scratching its withers while he fed it pieces of apple. Scott signalled to the men to break for lunch and the sounds of sawing and chopping were quickly replaced by the clatter of tin cups and laughter.
Taking the flask of whisky from Murdoch’s hand, he sat down on a log, glad to see carefully wrapped packages of food appear from his father’s saddle-bags.
“I suppose Maria thinks I’m starving to death up here…” he smiled.
“Maria’s out for the day finding material for a dress for Ellen. I packed the food.”
“Oh.” The reference to Ellen and the image of his father packing food to bring to him stirred him into finding safer ground. He saw Murdoch give Amo a final reassuring pat before the older man sat down next to him on the log. “You’ve rather taken to that horse, haven’t you?”
Murdoch removed his hat and set it carefully down beside him.
“Call it an old man’s folly, son.”
Scott took a grateful swallow of whisky from the flask and replaced the stopper. He smiled.
“You’re hardly old, sir.”
“Try telling the boy that,” Murdoch sighed, opening one of the packages and taking out thick slices of beef. “But I’m damned if I’m going to let him put me out to pasture yet.”
“Johnny doesn’t want you hurt, sir,” Scott said cautiously. “He’s only just learning to deal with having a father and the thought of losing you scares him. Actually, I believe it scares him more than anything has ever done.”
Scott noticed the sudden tension afflict his father’s features and then, as so often he had seen him do, the older man mastered any possible display of softer emotion and set his face into implacability.
“No-one’s going to lose anybody, Scott, and I’m not going to put myself in slippers and a rocking chair just to keep Johnny happy.”
Scott suppressed his reaction to his father’s terse comment and began to construct a sandwich with slices of beef and tomatoes. He smiled when the older man handed him a new, unopened jar of chutney, a prized import from England; the ritual of opening these precious objects, ostentatiously inhaling that first wave of spices and fruit, was always his father’s privilege and one that Johnny now took to mimicking with any type of jar or tin, from saddle polish to beans.
Scott twisted the lid of the jar, heard the satisfying ‘pop’ of the release of air. One of the men huddled around the coffee pot a little further up the slope suddenly emitted a loud, long laugh; that and the thought of Johnny taunting him for wholly enjoying this emulation of one of their father’s ‘old man’ habits, made Scott hesitate before he surrendered to the pleasure. He put his nose to the jar and inhaled; in the cold air, the combination of musky spices and tangy fruit assailed his senses, bringing back memories of his grandfather who also enjoyed such things. For a moment, he missed the old man until he looked at the man sitting next to him and felt with overpowering certainty that there had never been a moment in his twenty-six years when he had not known him, felt his presence beside him even in the times when he had hated him and forced away his image from his thoughts. He gave Murdoch a conspiratorial smile.
“A very fine chutney, sir,” he said. Murdoch smiled in return. He watched his son add chutney to his sandwich, neatly arranged in much the same way he had built his own. Johnny, he knew, would have amused and exasperated them both by throwing bread and meat together and stuffing it in his mouth; not for the first time did Murdoch wonder what men he would have made of his sons.
They ate in silence for some time, the father wrestling with what he had come to say and realising for the first time that his elder son was what he had hoped for from both men before meeting them seven months before – a man who held discussion of any subject other than the rational and business-like superfluous and unseemly. Now, since he had cracked himself open for Johnny, pulled the father in himself painfully into the light, he saw that he barely knew Scott; they were friends and business partners. It had seemed enough until now.
“How’s the hotel coming along?” Scott asked guardedly. He took another sip of whisky.
“Good,” Murdoch replied. “If your brother had his way it’d be up and running by now and Mr Forsyth would be in full possession of his kingdom. He’s been working harder on it than the rest of us put together.”
Scott nodded silently. Murdoch poured hot coffee from the pot over the fire into his tin mug.
“Miss Brown …,” Scott hesitated. “A dress?”
Murdoch made a small hesitation of his own in bringing the mug to his lips.
“Maria’s idea,” he said gruffly. “She’s taken to the girl.”
“And you have no objection?”
Murdoch sipped the coffee and then turned to look at his son, struck suddenly, as he often was, by the ghost of Scott’s beautiful mother in him, the delicate lines of his nose and mouth, the soft, blond hair. It had never occurred to him that he would find beauty in the faces of his sons, but he found it hurt as much as it captivated him.
“No,” he replied bluntly. “She’s a guest, a very courteous, undemanding one, and she needs a new dress. I don’t see a problem. Do you?”
Reluctantly, Scott shook his head, surprised to find himself wondering what colour the new dress would be, and how she would look in it.
“Scott.” His father’s voice drove her image away. “You’ve done good work here, son.”
He heard his father heave a small sigh.
“Perhaps you’ll join us for dinner tonight. I don’t see the need for you to spend another night away, and if the snow sets in …”
“Missing me?” Scott smiled thinly and bent to take the coffee pot from the fire.
“Yes.” The younger man’s hand was stilled on the coffee pot’s handle. He looked enquiringly at his father who returned his gaze with impenetrable severity, but Scott felt in those few seconds they had never before reached such intimacy. He was the first to break the thread; he looked up to see hesitant flakes of snow falling white against the green of the pines.
“Murdoch …there are things…”
“There are always things, son,” Murdoch interrupted him, his gaze now in the depths of his mug of coffee and the snow falling into the wisps of steam. “If a man lives long enough and fully enough.”
Scott frowned, unsure whether he wanted this automatic, loving dismissal of his past actions; then he accepted it as the gift it was.
“I owe Stephen my life, Murdoch,” he said quietly. “When it felt like the world was ending, he was there. He took a bullet that was meant for me.”
“That’s a powerful connection,” his father murmured.
“But now he wants more than I’m able to give him.”
“And what would that be?” Scott heard the tension in the older man’s softly spoken question.
“Confession to crimes. Atonement for them.”
“Crimes?” Murdoch pale blue eyes sought his son’s gaze. Instantly, he was reassured by Scott’s defiant expression, his unspoken refutation of guilt. It was then he knew he possessed an absolute faith and trust in this young man who, if he was pushed to admit it, had slid into his heart the moment he had met him seven months before, so self-possessed, so refined and so ridiculously attired.
“Actions carried out under orders, Murdoch. Actions a man conceivably could have turned his back upon, refused to do, rebelled against, but didn’t, couldn’t, at that moment, in that time.”
“It was war, son.”
“Yes, and I can live with it.” Scott stood up, his back to his father, his hands in the pockets of his pants. “Stephen can’t and he doesn’t believe I should either. In his eyes we are the fallen and we must be redeemed.” He closed his eyes and felt the flakes of snow drop on his eyelids and catch in his eyelashes before he turned round to regard his father who had remained seated on the log. “Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps I should spend the rest of my days consumed with guilt for the things I did. Perhaps I have no right to happiness, contentment …” Murdoch met his son’s intense gaze, ready to speak, but Scott continued in a burst of frustration. “… but I damn well want them, Murdoch, more than ever, I damn well want them.”
“Come and sit down, son,” he said gently.
“I need to get the men back to work,” Scott replied, suddenly anxious that he had let too much slip from his control.
“Sit down.” Murdoch’s tone was firmer. The younger man hesitated in half-rebellion and then sat down, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped tightly in front of him. He waited for his father to speak, his heart beating with fierce emotion. “Here.”
He turned his head to see an apple cut into two halves on Murdoch’s outstretched hand. Bewildered but pleased by the gesture, he took one of the halves. His father watched him take a bite.
“Will you believe me when I tell you that you have every right to those things, Scott?” he said quietly. “Take it from a man who probably doesn’t, but grabs at them anyway.”
Scott chewed the mouthful of apple, its sweetness at first welcome, but now clagging his response to his father’s words. Murdoch smiled at the younger man and took his own large bite from his half of the apple before bringing his hand up to the back of his son’s head and ruffling the fine, blond hair in a brief, rough caress. Scott ate his apple in quiet astonishment, quite certain that what he was feeling now was outside all previous experience – as unexpected and miraculous as finding himself alive among the dead multitude of Cold Harbor.
In the distorted glass of the window, he saw them approach. He had worked all morning without a break, ignoring both the bustle of the day around him and the rumbling of his stomach. He had replaced the broken panes, hammered down the loose floorboards in the porch and begun the restoration of the four steps up to the front door of the mission. To give his back a rest he had decided to sand down the window sills and surrounds, rubbing the wood with all the intensity of his resolve to rid his brother of Forsyth’s immediate presence.
When he saw the women, he continued to work while he contemplated their reflections, all colour and happy movement. They were smiling and laughing, the younger woman, a large package clutched to her chest, dipping her head to listen to the heavier, older one who, one arm linked with her companion, gesticulated rapidly with her free hand. When an empty, rattling wagon rolled by, too fast and too close, he saw her ball her fist and heard her shout a stream of Spanish in the direction of the departing vehicle. Smiling, he turned round and regarded the two women, surprised at how natural it seemed to him that Ellen was there, holding onto Maria’s ample arm.
“You two havin’ fun?” he drawled, throwing down the wire wool and leaning against the porch post.
“Estamos haciendo compras, chico,” Maria replied happily. Used to seeing the older woman bustling around the garden and kitchen in a flurry of activity and exasperation, it delighted Johnny to see her so girlishly content.
“Shoppin’, huh?” His smile sought Ellen. “What ya been buyin’? Hats?”
“¿Sombreros?” Maria said scornfully. “Muchacho absurdo. Hemos estado eligiendo el material para un vestido para Ellen. (Hats? Foolish boy. We have been choosing material for a dress for Ellen.)
“Mind if I take a look, Ellen?”
The young woman smiled and shook her head. They sat on the steps and she opened the package to reveal a bolt of dark green velvet. Johnny rubbed a finger clean on the leg of his pants and stroked the material gently.
“That’s real pretty.”
“Es para el invierno,” (It's for the winter) Maria announced. “La muchacha debe tener un vestido para el invierno.” (The girl must have a dress for winter.)
Johnny suddenly threw his arm around Maria’s shoulders, pulled her towards him and kissed her cheek with a loud smack. She laughed and pushed him away.
Johnny grinned and kissed her again before standing up. He watched as Ellen carefully rewrapped and tied the parcel. He nodded at the building in front of them.
“Wanna see inside? I could give you a tour.”
The young woman shook her head immediately.
“I never want to see it, Johnny,” she said in a fierce undertone. “I would sooner sleep on the street. You don’t know …” She hugged the parcel to her and looked at the young man intensely, her eyes bright with tears. “I don’t owe him anything.” She hesitated and then spoke in an urgent whisper, her green eyes fixed on him. “And neither does Scott.”
Startled by this sudden reference to his brother, Johnny drew in his breath. Calming himself, he reached across and gently stroked her scarred cheek, his stomach churning at the sight of her distress.
“S’alright, Ellen,” he said quietly. “You don’t need to do nothin’ you don’t wanna do. We’ll make sure of that.”
“I just don’t want you to think …” Ellen glanced desperately at Maria who merely took the younger woman’s hand in both of hers. “I’m not looking to be rescued. I never was …”
Johnny swallowed back his own emotions, alarmed at how deeply her plight touched him. He nodded.
“I know that.” He looked at Maria. “Ella necesita ir a casa,” (She needs to go home.) he said firmly. The older woman nodded and, putting her arm around her waist, took Ellen to one side. Johnny watched her kiss the girl’s cheek and then stroke her hair, murmuring in gentle Spanish, too indistinct for him to hear. He saw Ellen finally nod and smile, before Maria turned to look back at him. Her expression had returned to its familiar mixture of severity and indulgence.
“Tú se cerciora de que tú esté detrás para la cena en buen tiempo esta noche, muchacho.” (You make sure you are back for dinner in good time tonight, boy.)
He nodded silently and watched the women walk back across the street to where Tick waited on the wagon, reins in hand and chewing on a plug of tobacco. Johnny waited until he was certain they were on their way before returning to his work.
As he scraped the old paint off one of the wooden pillars on either side of the steps, drops of green paint from the balcony above fell past his face onto his shirt sleeve and into the dust below. Cursing, he brushed at the paint with his hand, making the soiling worse.
“Johnny Lancer, someone really ought to wash that mouth of yours out with soap.”
He looked up to see Lindy standing before him, delectably fresh-looking in a dress of light blue calico patterned with tiny white flowers; he liked how the short sleeves edged with lace allowed him to see her bare arms and how the cut of the neck revealed something of her shoulder blades and their enticing hollows. Her blond hair was tied back simply with a blue ribbon.
“Somebody already did,” he replied, half a smile on his mouth. Lindy, encouraged by his light tone, took a step forward, her little lace bag clutched in her gloved hands.
“Well, it didn’t work, did it,” she suggested, less censoriously this time. Her coyness both amused and excited him. He swung his legs over the balustrade and sat there leaning against the newly sanded pillar.
“It worked some, Missy. Sure don’t cuss in front of my Ol’ Man anymore.” He hesitated briefly. “Mostly.”
Lindy dipped her head and then looked up at the young man with studied shyness. Johnny merely gazed at the girl, his mouth on the edge of another smile, determined to stretch out this sweet little game. She glanced up the road towards her father’s livery stables and moved a little closer.
“Are you mad at me, Johnny?” she asked quietly. Johnny pulled one of the ends of his hat’s storm ties into his mouth and chewed on it contemplatively.
“Now, why would I be mad at you, Lindy?”
She looked at him suspiciously and mounted the steps to the top so that she was level with him on the opposite side of the pillar.
“You know well and good why, Johnny Lancer …” she protested. Still sitting on the balustrade, he grasped the pillar with both hands and pressed his face beside it to regard her quizzically.
“Might have to remind me.”
She searched his deep blue eyes in confusion.
“Hasn’t your father spoken to you about me?”
“Uh huh,” Johnny nodded; then he raised his eyebrows in a pretence of sudden comprehension. “Oh, ya mean that stuff about us marryin’?” He turned around so that he had a leg either side of the balustrade and he was hugging the pillar, his face still pressed to its side. “Been wonderin’ why y’ain’t been around, seein’ as I’ve been here the last three days an’ seein’ as how I’m gonna be your husband soon, an’ all.”
To his delight, the girl suddenly blushed furiously and flounced away from him to sit on the old bench near the front door of the building.
“You don’t what it’s like, Johnny,” she burst out passionately, seeking something miserably in the small lace bag. “You don’t have the least idea.”
It agitated him to see her genuine wretchedness. It was the fumbling in the silly little bag that did it for him and he knew she knew it. He turned round, jumped off the balustrade and went to her despite himself. By the time he reached her she was dabbing her eyes with a small, scented handkerchief; he put his arm around her slim shoulders and kissed the side of her face. He was almost irritated to find that her foolish talk had not lessened his desire for her and that his blood was racing in the usual way when he touched her.
“Aw, now, Lindy,” he said gently. “I was only teasin’. Don’t cry.”
She turned her face close to his and he kissed her mouth quickly. Shocked, she pushed him away.
“Not here, Johnny,” she whispered, “Everyone can see us!”
“Then quit cryin’,” he whispered in return, pulling back from her. He knew that it would be a severe test of his self-restraint if he took her somewhere more private, so he sat in seeming idleness on the bench, gazing out on the street, chewing his hat tie while she composed herself. Finally, she put the handkerchief in the little bag and turned to look at him.
“Yeh?” Dropping the storm tie from his mouth, he turned his head to meet her beseeching gaze, feigning a flippancy he did not feel.
“I swear I didn’t mean for it to turn out like this. Mama was crowding me. We were making up nosegays for Martha Heaney’s wedding and I tried to ignore her, but she was vexing me so, and then Daddy walks in and starts needling me about you. Some old biddy, probably that old witch Mrs Finney, told him she’d seen us coming out of the old barn last week. He kept demanding to know how I felt about you and whether it was serious or not and how he was going to take a bullwhip to you if it wasn’t so …” She hesitated and blushed again. “I said it was.”
Johnny nodded, wondering how he had allowed himself to get involved in such a scrape. He knew he would have to choose his words and actions carefully now to avoid committing himself to a course in which he either lost any chance of seeing Lindy or found himself waking up to the sight of her face for the rest of his days. He stretched across and lightly stroked the corner of her mouth with his finger before dropping his hand lightly to the space of bench between them.
“Weren’t your fault, Lindy,” he said gently. She smiled a little and he could not help enjoying the eager devotion in her eyes.
“When I saw Daddy walking over to Mr Lancer I swear I could have died,” she said, allowing herself to touch the tips of his fingers with hers. “Were you in a lot of trouble, Johnny?”
“No,” he smiled lazily. “But I reckon your pa was. Reckon he won’t be squarin’ up to my Ol’ Man again in a hurry. Skedaddled down the street with ‘is tail between ‘is legs like a whupped dog. What’d he say to you when he got back?”
“He told me that if I wasn’t marrying you then I couldn’t see you again.”
“Figures,” Johnny sighed. He leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs, his long black fringe falling over his eyes. He pushed it back with his good hand and looking at her seriously, he spoke his almost-truth. “If I was fixin’ to marry right now, Lindy, then I’d surely marry you, but I ain’t, not for a year or two anyhow, an’ even if we get engaged for a year we’re gonna have our families breathin’ down our necks an’ stickin’ their noses in our lives, talkin’ ‘bout dresses an’ guests an’ food an’ such stuff.” He shook his head. “I ain’t ready for that, right now.”
“I know.” She spoke with such quiet certainty, so unlike her usual tone, that he was surprised into smiling. More than ever, he wanted to pull her into his arms and kiss her, lock himself into her and see her eyes darken with passion, feel her body yearn towards him as he knew it had never done for another man. Her eyes gazing unwaveringly into his, she whispered. “If you want to, Johnny … well, you know. If you want to, I’ll do it, and I won’t expect you to marry me.”
Johnny frowned, his mouth suddenly dry; he was entirely thrown by the unexpected offer. He swallowed.
“Why’ve you changed your mind?”
He saw a new defiance in her expression as she scowled up the street in the direction of her father’s livery stable.
“Because I’m sick of this stupid town,” she said vehemently. “I’m sick of the gossiping and the old women tut-tutting and the stupid ways of doing things. I’m not even sure I want to marry.” She looked at him, softening her anger with a smile. “I’m just sure I don’t want to stop seeing you.”
He returned her smile, but he knew she probably was not being quite honest. How could she help not wanting to marry when it seemed the only way out of living with her parents? Though he longed to take her, he felt the simmering danger in her offer as surely as he could hear a rattlesnake in dry grass. Promising that he would meet her tomorrow evening at seven when she was supposed to be at piano tuition with a friend who would keep her secrets, he watched her descend the steps, turn and throw him a shy, departing smile before walking quickly across the street to where Ruth Tranter was waiting outside the General Mercantile. Immediately, he noticed, their heads closed together like two mating birds and he knew they were discussing him; it occurred to him then that the two girls were only time away from becoming the gossiping old biddies they professed to despise.
Deciding to go and help Jelly dig the garden, he allowed Lindy’s offer to drift around his mind as easily as the thought of his evening meal, though when his stomach began to rumble late in the afternoon, images of Maria’s cooking put even the pleasure of finally seeing the soft skin under the blue calico dress into second place.
He heard the quarter strike from inside the Great Room and knew he was late. Rushing through the side door into the kitchen, he almost collided with Maria who was turning out biscuits onto a cooling tray. She swatted his hand away as he reached for one.
“Tú es atrasado,” she said impatiently. “Su padre está esperando y él no es feliz.” (You're late. Your father is waiting and he's not happy.)
“Dios,” Johnny sighed. “Soy solamente diez minutos tarde.” (God, I’m only ten minutes late.)
“Un minuto, diez, veinte,” Maria shrugged, picking up a large tureen of soup and heading for the inner door. “Es tarde atrasado a su padre, niño. Es su manera y tú debe respetarla.” (One minute, ten, twenty. Late is late to your father, child. It's his way and you should respect it.)
Put out of humour by the thought of a confrontation with the older man and by the fact that he would have to endure another meal listening to Forsyth talk about his mission, Johnny followed in the wake of the bustling housekeeper slowly and sullenly. Then, from the hall, he heard his brother’s familiar voice from the dining room and could not help his excitement. Hurrying in, he ignored his father’s scowl from the head of the table and swiped at Scott’s blond hair with delight, his happiness compounded when he saw that the table was set for only three.
“Hey, Boston. Good to see ya. Trees run outta conversation, huh?”
Putting up his hand to tidy his hair, Scott opened his mouth to reply when Murdoch cut in sharply, his pale blue eyes fixing his younger son with an angry glare.
“You’re late, John. It’s about time you learned it’s the one thing I won’t tolerate. If everyone else can sit down for dinner on time, then you damn well can.”
For the sake of enjoying a meal with his brother, Johnny bit down a rebellious desire to argue and nodded contritely.
“Sorry, I was beddin’ down Barranca.” He sat down opposite Scott and, as Maria began to serve the soup, decided to risk breaking his father’s sour mood. “An’ askin’ Amo ‘bout his day.” He grabbed a biscuit and tore it open. “I coulda swore that horse has bin out sight-seein’ today, but he sure ain’t tellin’”
Scott suppressed a snort of laughter and Murdoch hesitated in picking up his soup spoon, his mouth working against an incipient warming of his stern features, before looking severely at his son.
“Next time you’re late, young man, you’ll do without,” he said brusquely.
The transition from ‘John’ to ‘young man’ marked his victory. Johnny nodded meekly and, his eyes smiling on his brother, he put his spoon in the soup, recognizing immediately that it was his father’s favourite, mulligatawny, a thin brown broth swimming with vegetables and chicken. Silently, he watched Murdoch place a spoonful in his mouth, waiting for what he knew would come. Sure enough, his father’s countenance visibly relaxed as he savoured the taste and the small grunt of contentment between that and the next spoonful ended Johnny’s waiting. Realising he was ravenous, he plunged the biscuit in the soup and began eating with none of his father and brother’s measured appreciation.
“The chicken’s dead, Johnny,” Scott smiled. He wiped his mouth on a napkin before picking up his glass of wine. “It isn’t going to run away.”
Johnny grabbed another biscuit and shrugged.
“I’m hungry ‘nough to eat a bear an’ we ain’t got company. Where are they?”
“Stephen’s not well,” Scott replied curtly. “Ellen’s taking care of him. We’ve asked Sam to take a look sometime this evening.”
Slowing down the buttering of his biscuit, Johnny nodded.
“He was coughin’ fit to bust most of the afternoon.”
“Mr Forsyth’s very sick, Johnny,” Murdoch said, pouring wine into his glass. “We need to be mindful that he might not have long to live.”
Johnny received the news in silence and, sensing his brother’s agitation, resumed eating, spearing chunks of chicken from the soup and avoiding the vegetables. Murdoch sipped his wine and regarded his younger son contemplatively.
“As Sam’s coming anyway, son, he may as well take a look at that hand.”
“It’s fine now,” Johnny said dismissively, avoiding his father’s eyes. “It’s good.” He handed Maria his soup bowl, before taking two large swallows of milk. He put down the glass and was about to use his hand to wipe his mouth when he remembered the napkin, neatly folded in its silver ring by his plate; he pulled it out almost resentfully and scrubbed the milk off his mouth.
“It wasn’t fine this morning, Johnny,” Murdoch said firmly. “I’d like Sam to see it.” He paused and softened his tone. “Just to put my mind at rest, son. Can’t afford to worry too much at my age.”
Johnny smiled a little at his father’s ploy and then sighed heavily.
“If I let ‘im take a look, y’gotta promise me y’won’t let ‘im stop me workin’.”
“I’m not promising that,” Murdoch answered bluntly. He leaned back to allow Maria to place his dinner plate before him.
“Then he ain’t lookin’,” Johnny said with equal determination. Scott, lifting the dish of steaming cauliflower and peas from the table, saw his father struggle to restrain his temper. He knew that for all his change of feeling, the older man still found direct opposition to his will painful; years of building and running a ranch alone but for paid workers, had given him a powerful sense of control that he could not easily relinquish. Eager to avert an argument, Scott sought to change the subject.
“The snow’s on the lower slopes at Sugar Pine Ridge,” he said cheerfully. “I thought I’d left snow behind in Boston.”
“I hate snow,” Johnny said moodily. “Too damn cold.”
“Can be a lot of fun, brother.”
“How?” Johnny looked at the older man suspiciously, his interest aroused despite his distrust of something he had encountered only once when he was on the run, wounded and near starvation.
“We used to skate on the English Pond in Boston Common, have snowball fights, go tobogganing, knock down the girls’ snowmen.”
“That what passes for fun with girls in Boston, brother?” Johnny smiled. He piled potatoes on his plate and picked up the gravy boat. “Them eastern winters must be real cold.”
“Some of us have more than one way of having fun with a girl, brother,” Scott replied, returning the smile.
“One way’s more’n enough, I reckon.”
“Boys,” Murdoch warned. “This isn’t an appropriate subject for the dinner table.”
“I apologise, sir,” Scott said contritely. “I suppose little brother’s rough edges will smooth off …” He sipped his wine and put the glass back down. “When he grows up.”
Johnny slid down in his chair and kicked hard under the table at his brother’s leg. Scott pulled back from the table, laughing and reaching for his wobbling wine glass. Murdoch put down his fork with a mixture of exasperation and amusement; something in him was glad and comforted to hear their mutual teasing, knew they did it for good reason, but he had been ill at ease since Stephen, deathly pale and weak from coughing, had returned from town. He was disturbed too by Ellen’s silent refusal of any help with his care.
“If you two don’t settle down,” he said gruffly. “You can go eat in the barn with the horses.”
“Well, I could, but Boston’d better stay here.” Johnny smirked. “Barranca’s real fussy ‘bout who he eats with.”
“That’s enough, Johnny.” Murdoch impaled him with his sternest glare and the younger man fell silent, although his father could tell by the trace of a smile left on Johnny’s face that his son’s irrepressibility was only bubbling under the surface. He changed his tactics. Pouring himself more wine, he allowed his voice to relax. “I remember winters in Scotland …” It amazed him how the simple phrase effected such a change in his younger son’s mood; Johnny slowed his eating and became instantly alert and attentive.
“Bet they were real bad, huh?”
“Only if you don’t like snow,” Murdoch smiled. “I loved it then, so deep in the lanes you’d sink in it up to your waist and it had a way of silencing everything.” He paused, his eyes drawn to the flames of fire dancing in his wine glass. “Yet if you did make a sound, you heard it come back at you in the clearest, cleanest way you could possibly imagine, and you’d swear you hadn’t really listened to anything in your life until that moment.”
Johnny had stopped eating entirely, mesmerised by his father’s words.
“Sounds lonely,” he said quietly.
“No,” Murdoch replied. “I don’t think I ever felt less lonely.” He glanced across at Scott who had also been listening intently, although he had continued to eat, and smiled suddenly. “Of course, we had a lot of fun with it too, including knocking down the girls’ snowmen.”
Scott chuckled, delighted with the older man’s manner. Deftly, his father had recreated the atmosphere to suit his sombre mood and had finished with lifting himself from it. He saw, by his brother’s smile, that he too had appreciated the manoeuvre.
When, with more reminiscences and laughter about childhood winters - Johnny listening in fascinated silence - they reached the pudding stage of the meal, Murdoch realised his earlier tetchiness had entirely fled. He felt happy and the sight of another favourite food, Apple Butterscotch pie, both increased his good humour and caused him to wonder what new household convenience Maria was about to require of him. He watched his younger son drown his portion in cream and took the offered jug.
“I was thinkin’, Murdoch,” Johnny said, chopping the pie into pieces with his spoon. His father winced at the desecration. “I’m almost done at the mission, I reckon, so maybe you an’ me could put a saddle on Amo tomorrow mornin’.”
Murdoch passed the cream jug to Scott and considered his answer.
“You mean ride him?”
“Yeh, how about it?”
Murdoch looked guardedly at his younger son.
“You or me riding him?”
“Well, I figured you would, seein’ as I gotta take it easy with my hand.”
Murdoch filled his mouth quickly with a spoonful of pie to stop himself making a spiky response to his son’s cheek.
Swallowing the mouthful and chasing it down with a sip of water, he pondered the suggestion. Only to himself had he admitted that his failure to even mount Amo a few days before had dented his confidence, and now his boy, who appeared to harbour no fear in throwing himself on the back of any horse alive, was offering to witness his further downfall.
“You wanna ride ‘im, don’t you?” Johnny said coolly. “If you can ride ‘im, you can have ‘im.”
Scott choked a little on his pie and reached for his napkin while Murdoch stared at Johnny, unable to decide if the boldly spoken offer was a taunt or a serious challenge.
“You bought that horse with your own money,” he replied calmly. “I’m not taking him.”
“You already did.” The younger man’s tone had taken on the quality of a force equal to his father. “In all other ways ‘e’s yours, only you ain’t rode ‘im yet. Ya need to close the deal.”
Murdoch looked at Scott who merely raised his eyebrows and smiled, before doing the only thing he felt he could do; to refuse his twenty-one year old son’s brazen appeal to his pride seemed, at that moment, beyond him. He nodded, though his unthinking happiness was now replaced by a new agitation, and the Apple Butterscotch pie less of a pleasure than before.
There was a fire in the dimly lit room where Stephen lay sleeping. Before it, Ellen sat sewing the left sleeve of her new dress, her head bent to her work, a tray of untouched supper on a small table by her side. When Scott entered, the young woman immediately raised her head and the surprised smile that suffused her face squeezed his heart and made him realise he had missed her.
Disturbed by his emotions, he offered her a brief nod and smile before going immediately to Stephen’s bed. He gazed down at his friend, his arms tightly folded against his chest. Though Sam had assured him that Stephen would live for now and was only sleeping, the young man’s ragged breathing and the thin sheen of sweat over his white skin seemed clear signs of imminent death. He had seen it a dozen times on the battlefield; men who were on a journey away from all they had been and known. Scott was certain death had a presence, that it sat near the one it had chosen, mocking mourners and guarding its unassailable secret. He had sensed it even in the noise and chaos of battle, pockets of waiting silence around the dying until the moment they had slipped from him, and he had always known it, the exact moment; it was then that all the energy and clamour of war crashed back into his ears and propelled his body forward into life and action.
He touched Stephen’s skin, cool and clammy, and withdrew it, rubbing the sweat between his fingers and thumb. That a man who at twenty-one had at last found his vocation in war, who, from a shy child, had grown confident, dashing and full of youthful swagger could be brought to this. They had been something like brothers, similar in upbringing, education, artistic tastes, the closest he had ever come to fulfilling his dream of a true brother, before he had met Johnny and found that blood could make such things irrelevant. Still, he grieved at the waste of his friend and at that moment forgave him everything: the terrible revival of memories, the mission, Ellen.
Remembering her, he turned and saw her again intent on her needlework by the fire. He went to her and sat down opposite her on a chair his own mother had upholstered in the first year of her marriage. In the pattern she had woven her own initials CL with those of his father ML and encircled them with flowers, leaves and small birds. When Scott had first seen the chair, he had wounded his father with his feigned indifference and waited until he was alone to contemplate it; to allow it to find a space in the mental picture he had been painting of his lost past since he had been old enough to understand he had reason to feel bereft. Now, he decided he would take the chair soon and place it in his own room.
“You haven’t eaten,” he said softly, looking at the tray on the table, so carefully and so amply prepared by Maria. Ellen glanced at it impassively.
“I meant to,” she replied, turning her attention back to her sewing.
“Will you take something now?”
She looked up at the young man, smiling when she saw that the coldness she had felt in him when he had first entered the room had gone. He was regarding her with warm concern, his eyes fully upon her face.
“Yes, I will,” she answered, though she had earlier resisted even Maria’s pleas for her to eat. Scott picked up the tray and fetched a fresh one from the kitchen, rebutting all attempts by the proprietorial Maria to take over. When he returned, Ellen was wiping Stephen’s face with a cloth. He set the tray down on the small table and pulled it close to where she had been sitting and waited until she had sat down before removing the cover to reveal soup, bread and fruit. He unfolded the napkin and gently spread it over her lap, surprising her into a blush.
“Thank you,” she whispered. He sat down on his mother’s chair, the calf of one leg resting on the opposite knee, and watched her eat, the slow crackling of the fire mingling with the sick man’s struggle to breathe with the remains of his lungs. Ellen found she was hungry and ate the food with energy, slowing only when she felt it restoring her to life. When she finally looked up at Scott, he smiled at her.
Suddenly embarrassed by the way she had attacked the food, she nodded and looked away towards Stephen who was stirring in his sleep. She waited until she was certain he was settled before turning back to Scott. He was about to say something placatory about Stephen, that, with rest, he would recover some strength, but she spoke first.
“I missed you.”
His heart leapt. He could not help it, though to her eyes he retained the same relaxed attitude.
“I haven’t been kind …” He looked down abruptly at his entwined fingers.
“I am cast upon a horrible, desolate island,” Ellen whispered. “Void of all hope of recovery, but I am alive, and not drowned as all my ship’s company was …” She hesitated. “… and not quite alone. I knew that when Johnny gave me the shawl and Maria measured me for this dress and when you asked to see the book I was reading.”
Scott contemplated her silently for some time before sighing and turning his eyes to the fire.
“I went away because …”
“I know why you went away,” she said firmly. She got up and went to Stephen to press a cool cloth again to his fevered face. Feeling rebuked, Scott chewed the inside of his lower lip. When she returned, she placed more wood on the fire, picked up the green velvet sleeve and resumed her stitching.
“I thought about you, Ellen,” he said softly, knowing he was using her Christian name for the first time and knowing that it mattered. “I couldn’t get you out of my mind.”
“How hard did you try?”
He frowned, trying to discern her mood; her question had been spoken lightly but her head was bowed.
“Very hard,” he replied boldly. She looked up quickly and found he was smiling at her. She breathed out a small laugh and continued sewing.
“If I had decided to put you out of my mind, I would’ve succeeded,” she said calmly. Scott nodded. He put his left foot down and leaned forward to take a pinch of the green velvet between his fingers.
“Beautiful material,” he said neutrally, hoping to slow the thudding of his heart.
“Maria chose it,” Ellen replied. “We’re making the dress together. She …” The young woman frowned and shook her head. “I don’t know why she’s shown me such friendship, such love …”
“Maria senses what people need.” Scott pushed an ember that had fallen from the fire back into the grate. “She drives Johnny mad with her fussing, but when she’s away he mopes.”
“And what do you need, Scott?”
“No more than anyone else, I suppose,” he replied. “A home, a family, a purpose in life.”
“A wife? Children?”
“Yes, of course, at some point, when I’ve got to know my father and brother a little better and learned more about ranching.”
Ellen nodded. She snipped the thread with a tiny pair of scissors and concentrated on re-threading her needle.
“I’ve never understood how women do that,” Scott smiled, watching as the end of the green thread slipped through the needle’s small, narrow eye. “In the army, we had bigger needles to mend our clothes in the field, but even then I’d spend ten minutes threading it.”
“You mended your own clothes?” Ellen asked in surprise.
“Well, privates were assigned to the officers as servants,” Scott explained. “But I’d had enough of other people doing things for me, so I decided to sew my own rips and tears; not very well, I’m afraid. I once sewed one leg of a pair of pants to the other.”
Ellen laughed softly, looked back once at the sick man and then returned her attention to Scott.
“Will you tell me about you and Stephen, Scott?” she asked softly. His eyes widened with apprehension and he retreated to his former position on the chair, back deep with one calf resting on the other knee.
“You know about us,” he replied firmly. “We were friends at school and we served together in the war.”
Ellen shook her head and sighed.
“That doesn’t explain it.”
“Doesn’t explain what?” Scott felt his defences rising, a flood of panic wash into his veins.
“Your unhappiness with him and why he wants to save you.”
Scott hesitated before leaning forward again, his face hardened against her.
“He’s dying, Ellen,” he whispered fiercely, realising then that he wished for it; he wanted his friend’s death. “None of that matters now.” He looked down at his tightly clenched hands. “You’re what matters ... to him.”
“Me?” Ellen placed a finger under his chin and lifted his head to face her. He did not resist, though he felt himself trembling at her touch, astonished at her power to weaken his resolve. He wanted to leave, but knew he wouldn’t. “I’m a fallen woman saved by a fallen man. Ellen Brown doesn’t matter to Stephen Forsyth. She never has… ” She brushed Scott’s cheek with the tips of her fingers. “And he doesn’t matter to me, not like that.”
Scott took her hand. It was warm and he held it there against his cheek.
“He saved me too,” he said softly.
Scott still hesitated. He looked across at the bed, listening for the laboured breathing that would tell him his friend was too busy struggling for life to hear his confession. He released Ellen’s hand and turned his face to the fire.
“In a field in Northern Virginia after Cold Harbor,” he said quietly. “Most of our company had fallen there and the reinforcements were raw boys and old men, well…” Scott shrugged and glanced her a smile. “They seemed old to us. Stephen and I …” He drew in a breath. “We were drinking a great deal, anything we could get. All the survivors were. …” He looked at her listening face, entirely absorbed, and smiled briefly. “Does it surprise you that we won the war through the neck of a whiskey bottle?”
Ellen shook her head gravely and he believed her. For the first time that evening, his attention was drawn to her scar, vivid in the light of the fire.
“We had orders to flush out a gang of Confederate guerrillas from a house in a place called ‘Annie’s Meadow’. They were part of John Mosby’s forces and they’d butchered almost an entire squad from our regiment two days before. They were prisoners of war, but to Mosby’s men they were just fair game.” Scott paused and became aware that he was grinding his teeth, before he continued. “Our commander ordered us to bombard the house with artillery fire while a few of us went forward to set fire to it. The guerrillas were firing at us, so it felt like a battle. It felt like war. I’d already been through hell and I thought it was just another ordinary sort of hell …” He heaved in another breath. “So we did as we were ordered, and it was when we heard the screams that we realised women and children were in there. We never thought …”
He stopped and put his thumb nail between his teeth to stop the grinding. Frowning fiercely into the fire, he was certain that if he looked at Ellen he would see only horror and contempt.
“You never thought men could stoop so low as to hole themselves up for battle with women and children,” Ellen said softly. “Of course you didn’t, and now you know they can.”
Scott dared to look at the young woman and found the confirmation of his belief that he was not to blame. When he put his head in his hands, squeezing his eyes shut and breathing hard against tears, he knew he was released from six years of a lonely secret, without even knowing he had wanted to share it. He wondered at this part of himself, that he could bury things so deeply they disappeared from his history. Was that why he had accepted his father so easily at first - unlike Johnny, who had spent six months in a balled-up rage against him? Had he simply put the lock on his box of fury, refused, like the gentleman and officer he had become, to resort to unseemly displays of emotion? How else could he explain his drunken rage at Murdoch that night and the sheer joy he had felt up in the mountains at their reconciliation? Now, here he was, close to weeping with gratitude in the presence of a woman because she had taken on the burden of his past and not winced.
“And Stephen?” Ellen asked gently. “You said he saved you?”
Scott nodded. Clearing his throat softly, he rubbed his hands together before the fire.
“One of the last shots from the house was aimed at me, but Stephen had seen the Rebel in the window. He pushed me to the ground and took the bullet himself, in the neck. He bled so badly that for some time the surgeons believed he would die, but he survived and recovered enough to be sent back to war and be destroyed by it.”
When Ellen folded his hands in hers, it felt to him like a healing and they sat there for some time in silence with only the too new wood in the fire spitting out resin bubbles and the sick man’s uneasy sleep to accompany their thoughts.
“When I think of that time now,” Scott said eventually. “I see ash falling from the grey sky like snow, and when I see snow, I see ash. Today in the mountains it started to snow and my first thought was fire.”
Ellen stroked his fine hair and he brought her other hand up to his lips and kissed it.
“Perhaps all I’ll see one day is snow,” he said, smiling hopefully into her eyes and then dropping his gaze to the perfect curves of her mouth. He kissed her tenderly and then feeling her yield, a tiny moan sounding in her throat, kissed her more passionately and in his veins pulsed all the life he had ever dreamed of feeling and which he understood now, had been lost to him since the moment the sky had snowed down ash upon his young face.
In the barn, Jelly shivered with cold despite the thick wool poncho he had been given as a present by young José in return for spilling the milk a few days before. Pretending an emotion close to indifference, he had taken the gift with a grunt and disappeared rapidly into his woodshed. Now, despite the guffaws and ribbing of the other hands, he had begun to wear it on these cold evenings and be glad of it, especially when José smiled with delight to see his gift in use. He could not deny it; he was very partial to that boy and lately he had found himself actively seeking him as a companion for milking the cows or feeding the horses or fishing the creek, and he was happy in the child’s eager, innocent company.
Still, it was Johnny he had on his mind when he entered the barn, lamp in hand, to take a last look at his cows before turning in for the night. He knew from Tick that Murdoch wanted his younger son to spend less time in the bunkhouse and Jelly had taken that news with all the reason for grievance it could possibly imply; the Lancer sons needed to separate themselves from the hands and that included him. He barely knew Scott, still distrusted his fancy Eastern manners and wordy speech, but he missed Johnny. Since Bittercreek, the boy had rarely sought him out for the advice and reassurance he had once needed. He was glad Johnny had ‘found’ his father, but he had been surprised to find how much his reduced role in the young man’s life hurt his feelings.
As he held up the lamp over his two cows lying in their stalls, sweet-smelling and chewing their cud, he was about to mutter his usual goodnights to them when his eye caught sight of Johnny sitting against the end stall, his arms resting on his upraised knees. He sighed and blinked away from the light of Jelly’s lamp.
“Whatya doin’ there, boy?” the old man demanded. “Y’almost give me heart failure sittin’ there in the dark.”
“Say g’night to your cows, Jelly,” Johnny said impatiently, scrubbing his fingers through his thick dark hair. “Make like you ain’t seen me.”
“Now why would I do that?”
Jelly stood over the young man, gazing down at his bowed head.
“’Cos I’m tellin’ ya to.”
“Yeh, well I know I oughta do what ya say, Johnny, seein’ as how ya my boss’n all, but I ain’t inclined to leave.” He put down the lamp and groaned a little as he sat down next to the young man. “You been fightin’ wi’ your daddy again?”
Johnny looked scornfully at the old man, although his expression softened a little at the sight of Jelly’s anxious face.
“No, Jelly,” he replied quietly. “We ain’t been fightin’.”
“Well, I ain’t about to sit here wi’ my ol’ bones on this cold floor guessin’ all night. What’s eatin’ at ya, boy? Maybe I kin help.”
Johnny heard the tenderness in the old man’s voice and realised that it had been some time since Jelly had spoken kindly to him. He had not sought out his old friend’s company the way he had done before Bittercreek and now he could see plainly he had wounded him.
“It’s ya hand, ain’t it? What’d the doc say?”
Johnny sighed and pulled irritably at the new bandage on his right hand. He was both surprised and agitated when the Jelly gently stopped him. He looked dejectedly at the old man.
“Says it ain’t gonna be right, Jelly …”
“Says it’s my fault,” Johnny shrugged. “Lettin’ it get infected.” He chewed on his thumbnail. “I cussed ‘im some. Murdoch’s mad as hell.”
Jelly nodded. He picked up a handful of chaff and let it run through his stiff fingers back onto the floor.
“Mebbe the doc’s jest scarin’ ya a little to get ya to take care of yaself.”
“Maybe, but I know myself it ain’t right. I ain’t gonna get my gun hand back.”
The older man removed his cap and scratched his scalp through his thinning hair. In the stalls, the cows were breathing deeply through their noses and Barranca shifted restlessly in the straw behind them.
“You sure y’need it the way y’needed it once?”
At first, Johnny was ready to fling back a furious reply to the softly spoken question, his blood raging with fear and anger at what seemed an impossible idea. For some time, he gazed down at the dusty floor in silence, tearing at pieces of straw, struggling with his answer while Jelly waited, knowing that he had dared to say what even the boy’s father had shied away from saying.
“No, I ain’t sure,” Johnny replied finally, wrenching the words from himself in a resentful rush. “But I want it.”
Jelly sniffed and slowly scratched the skin under his beard.
“Sure ya do, boy,” he said softly. “Sure ya do. I want t’undo all the danged fool mistakes I made in my life. I want t’make it so I don’t have to wake ev’ry mornin’ wishin’ I wus the feller I wanted to be when I was young, but I caint. I jes have to be what I am, Johnny, an’ it sure ain’t perfect, but it’s better’n fightin’ it to a corner an’ risk losin’ whatever fine piece o’ living I got left.”
Johnny lifted his head and searched Jelly’s weathered profile, stirred out of his self pity by the old man’s plainly spoken words. Jelly looked into Johnny’s clear, youthful eyes and smiled.
“Goin’ to lose it in the end anyway, boy,” he said, shaking his head. “Nobody’s fast f’rever; mebbe this is the time fer ya to let go. It wus y’friend, but now ya don’t need it.”
“I ain’t ready, Jelly,” Johnny said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I ain’t ready to let go.”
“Tell ya somethin’, Johnny.” Jelly rubbed the young man’s shoulder. “Y’aint ever gonna be ready. Now, come on wi’ me fer a coffee an’ a warm by ma stove while y’ pa gits ‘isself back in shape.”
Grateful for his friend’s tender concern, Johnny helped the old man to his feet and followed him out of the barn. He wanted to accept Jelly’s counsel. As he watched him latch the barn door with hands that had long lost their fluency, he knew it was wisdom expensively gained and worth getting, but his pride could not take it for himself – could not admit the image of himself standing in the street in the heat of the day knowing that what he had in his bones and sinews would not be enough to keep him from falling at the hands of a lesser gun.
As he woke slowly out of a long, deep sleep, the faintest light of dawn pressing against the drapes, he became aware that this night had been unlike most other nights in his young life. He could not remember his dreams, and the covers, normally tangled tortuously around his limbs after a sleep tormented by voices and images from his past, lay smooth and undisturbed over him. He turned over onto his back, stretching, yawning and scrubbing his fingers through his sleep-wild hair. He was not a man for luxuriating in his bed in the morning; usually he wanted to escape by determined activity the impressions left by his nightmares.
This morning he lay there, stroking slow circles on his stomach and adjusting his eyes to the light, feeling the warm comfort of the bed and thinking of the day ahead. The thoughts made him smile. Later, after breakfast, he would help his father to saddle and ride Amo. He would talk to the mustang, ensure no harm came to the older man and he would be forgiven for cussing the doctor. They would ride out together, he on Barranca, and they would ride far enough to see the snow on the lower slopes of the mountains. Perhaps he could persuade Scott to accompany them; maybe even learn how to fight with a ball of freezing ice crystals.
He tucked his hands behind his head and, under the sheets, scratched one foot with the heel of the other. Contemplating the coming evening when he would ride into Green River and meet Lindy, he almost squirmed with pleasurable anticipation, imagining the moment he would know her completely and wondering how she would look, the sounds she would make. Suddenly, life seemed as close to perfect as he had ever known, and not even the thought of his injured hand or the dying man in the room up the corridor could dampen his passion for the day.
Groaning, he woke too quickly, jolted from sleep by the violence of his dream. He was used to sleeping fitfully, disturbed by his various aches and pains, but this night had been worse than usual; his dreaming mind had leapt from a long journey up a mountain of brightly coloured blankets in which he reached the top only to slide down again, grabbing for pine trees which always snapped in his hands, to galloping over a vast desert on a black horse with red eyes.
Waking, he lay there, perspiring and waiting for the thick feeling of confusion between his dream and reality to clear from his head. Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes with his large hands, breathing deeply to force himself into full consciousness before leaning back against the pillows, his powerful arms folded tightly across his chest. He contemplated the list of jobs he had assigned himself for the day and then remembered, almost with a sinking heart, his agreement with Johnny to ride Amo.
“Good Lord,” he groaned, shaking his head. “You’re heading for a dusting, you damn fool.”
He sighed heavily and briefly considered pleading a too painful back before his pride reclaimed his spirit and he knew the trial was unavoidable. As he left his bed and went to the window to survey the emerging day, the sight of Sam Wester in the first light of dawn saddling his black horse in preparation for line duty brought back a vivid memory of another cool, grey morning and another black horse. He had been twenty and on the verge of leaving Scotland forever, although the thought of abandoning his mother and siblings had made him prevaricate and delay. Finally, he had decided to ‘borrow’ a horse from a local farm, a horse legendary for its bad nature and notorious for throwing down and trampling upon a man only the week before. He had crept to the animal’s stable in the silent dawn, telling himself that if he managed to ride it he would go to America, and he had ridden it, despite its bucking and rearing and champing furiously at the bit. The noise had brought the farmer and his family out and they had watched in their nightclothes as he had cleared a gate and galloped off across the hills. He smiled at the memory, although he also remembered his fear that the horse would never stop, that it would carry him to the edge of a gully from which they would plummet to their deaths.
He had not fallen. The horse had calmed and he had ridden back to the farm, determined to make a new life in the American West, though sometimes the thought of his early home could still bring him close to tears. Leaving the window abruptly, he washed his face and shaved, steeling himself against exposing his fears before his son.
Before his brother threw himself onto the bed beside him, jerking him out of the light sleep before waking, Scott had been dreaming of meeting a stranger in a dark room, of kissing soft lips that tasted of lemon drops, of holding a body so close he could feel her ribs, and her heart beat against his chest. At no time did he see the stranger’s face, but when he woke Ellen was in his mind, her goodness, her complete honesty, the way she had smiled into his eyes after they had kissed.
“Dreamin’ of Sweet Mouth Sal, big brother?” Johnny grinned, lying beside the older man and tickling his face with a pillow feather. Scott looked at him blearily, grabbed a pillow and swiped it at Johnny’s head.
“Get out of here, you brat,” he grumbled. “I have a right to wake in a civilised manner at my age.”
“Poor ol’ man.” Johnny ruffled his brother’s hair fiercely, leapt off the bed and went to the window to pull the heavy drapes aside. “Day’s wastin’, Boston,” he said eagerly. “Reckoned y’might wanna ride out wi’ Murdoch an’ me to the mountains, maybe build one of them snowmen y’been tellin’ me about.”
Scott blinked at the light and pulled himself up in bed, amused and touched by his brother’s child-like enthusiasm. Johnny had turned a chair around and was resting his arms on its back, his blue eyes alight with restless energy.
“Stephen’s dying, Johnny,” he said quietly. “I can’t leave the ranch.”
“Mighta been dyin’ yesterday, brother,” Johnny shrugged. “Sittin’ up in bed eatin’ breakfast this mornin’.”
Scott paled, his emotions torn by the news.
“Are you sure?”
“Well, I jus’ saw Ellen takin’ a tray into ‘is room. She said ‘e was askin’ for food an’ wantin’ a smoke. She ain’t lettin’ ‘im smoke, but Maria’s sure loaded that tray.”
Scott nodded, his mouth set against further comment. He got up quickly and walked over to the wash bowl, throwing cold water into his face before grabbing a towel and scrubbing fiercely at his skin. When he opened his eyes again, he saw Johnny had not moved, but was gazing intently at him, his chin resting on his arms.
“Ellen asked after you, brother,” Johnny said softly. “Had that look in ‘er eyes.”
“What look?” Scott’s reply was dismissive as he threw down the towel and pulled on a freshly laundered shirt.
“Oh, y’know,” Johnny replied casually. “That look a girl gets when she likes a man real good.”
Scott snorted as he buttoned up his shirt. “You mean the look on Lindy Cooper’s face when she’s asking after you?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
The older man hesitated in fastening the last shirt button, and then shrugged.
“That’s quite an imagination you’re developing there, little brother.” He smiled although his tone was irritated. He stepped into his pants.
“You feel the same about her?”
“Drop this Johnny, alright?” Scott snapped, his irritation deepening when he saw the younger man’s expression had remained faintly amused.
“Y’do, huh?” Johnny said quietly. “What’s our ol’ man goin’ to say when ya tell ‘im he’s goin’ to have a whore as a daughter-in-law?”
Scott stopped in the act of buckling his belt and glared furiously at his brother.
“You ever refer to Ellen in that way again, Johnny, you’ll damn well wish you hadn’t!”
Johnny smiled slowly, his unflinching gaze still intent on the older man.
“Jus’ exercisin’ my imagination, big brother.”
“Well, go and exercise it somewhere else.” Annoyed with himself for revealing too much of his feelings, Scott averted his eyes from Johnny’s scrutiny as he sat on the bed and pulled on his boots. “I’m sure Murdoch’s just itching to discuss your behaviour towards Sam last night.” Scott allowed a smile to return to his face when he heard the younger man sigh audibly. “Imagine your way out of that one.”
Johnny made a face that reminded Scott of a truculent child, and muttered something about old men that his brother failed to hear.
“I’m sorry, John,” Scott announced in pronounced imitation of their father. “I didn’t quite catch that. Would you like to repeat it?”
Johnny laughed and hurled a cushion at the other man’s head.
“Jesus, Boston, if I was blind, I swear I wouldn’t know if it was you or Pa who was chewin’ me out. See ya downstairs.”
Scott watched Johnny leave the room, astonished into stillness by his brother’s apparently unconscious and casual use of a word that, together with ‘Father’, he had toyed with in his mind a hundred times, but had never uttered aloud - even to himself.
In the time they spent together in the corral grooming Amo and talking of which of the mares they had bought in Bittercreek would produce the finest quarter horses, father and son were reconciled. At breakfast, Johnny had been upset to feel the heat of Murdoch’s continuing displeasure, expressed in silence and a deliberate avoidance of catching the younger man’s gaze. Attempting an apology while his father was performing the satisfying ritual of opening a new jar of marmalade, he had been subjected to an angry lecture on respecting elders, learning self-restraint and the need to write a letter of apology to Sam. Wincing at the tirade, especially the idea of writing a letter, he had been tempted to flee, but he had stayed, letting his father’s anger wax and eventually wane to another, less severe silence.
“I wish I had your gift.” Johnny, his forehead pressed against Amo’s brow, had heard the words, the first since the lecture and his veins had flooded with relief and boyish happiness. They had groomed the horse together, laughing at the animal’s playful attempts to eat the brushes and admiring its conformation, unsurpassed by any other horse either man had ever seen.
Now, Johnny stood scratching the mustang’s nose and watching while his father showed Amo the saddle blanket.
“Put it on ‘im,” Johnny instructed softly. “Ain’t like he ain’t seen it before.”
Murdoch smiled self-consciously and nodded. He placed the blanket carefully upon the horse’s back and spent some time smoothing out the creases with his broad hands. Johnny watched the older man, acutely aware of his father’s anxiety. Although he had ordered the hands not to linger by the corral, he knew that the shoeing of horses, the greasing of wagon axles and the construction of the new barn’s roof were being carried out with half an eye on events in the distance.
Murdoch fetched the saddle and again allowed Amo to sniff it before lifting it and letting it fall lightly on the animal’s back. Feeling the mustang’s body shudder in apprehension, Johnny spoke softly and caressed the long scar on its neck. His father reached underneath Amo’s smooth belly and pulled the cinch towards him.
“Easy, boy,” he said gently, as the horse snorted and side-stepped a little at the feel of the tightening of the cinch. “Easy, feller.”
“Don’t over-tighten it,” Johnny said firmly. “He’ll jus’ fight it by blowin’ out. Jus’ step away from ‘im now an’ come by ‘is head an’ fuss ‘im a little.”
Murdoch obeyed and spent some time stroking and talking to the horse before taking the bridle from Johnny’s hands and lifting the bit towards its mouth. Amo jerked his head up and stepped away, his ears flattened back towards his mane and his eyes wild with defiance.
“Don’t let ‘im get away with that, Murdoch,” Johnny ordered. “If y’don’t show ‘im who’s boss right now, you’ll be eatin’ dust for lunch.”
“What makes you think I’m the boss?” his father demanded testily. He was tempted to throw down the bridle and walk out, so keenly did he feel his inadequacy in the face of this half-wild horse.
“Y’have to be, an’ y’know it.” Johnny’s tone was flat and unforgiving. “Now, try it again an’ if he throws ‘is head up, speak to ‘im sharp. All horses look for leaders even when it don’t seem like it.”
The older man nodded, rebuking the horse firmly when it again attempted to avoid the bit and pressing his powerful arm down on its neck to reinforce his dominance. Finally, Amo allowed the bit to slide between his teeth, chewing on it a little as Murdoch fastened the throat lash. His mouth dry, Murdoch caressed the mustang’s head and pulled its pale forelock over the brow band.
“Y’ready to mount up?” Johnny asked softly.
“Give me a minute,” Murdoch replied. He took a deep breath and suddenly looked at his son. “Was there ever a horse you couldn’t ride, Johnny?”
The young man stared at his father and shook his head slowly.
‘My God, there’s so much I don’t know,’ Murdoch thought. For a moment, he forgot the horse and was overwhelmed by sudden grief for the loss of nineteen years of knowing his son. Hiding his emotion with the return of his attention to the horse, he gave Amo a final pat.
“Alright, I’m ready,” he announced bluntly. “Do or die, as my ma used to say.”
“She did, huh?” Johnny smiled, relieved that his father had overcome the moment that had darkened his features. “Sounds like my kinda woman.”
“She’d have knocked you into shape, boy,” Murdoch said, gathering the reins in his left hand. “Cussing the doctor would’ve earned you a switching, twenty-one or no, and you’d have taken it and thanked her afterwards.”
“Maybe I’ll jus’ write that letter then.”
“Yes, you will, in my study on my best paper and no crossings out or blotches. Now, hold the other stirrup and let me on this horse.”
Johnny smiled at his father’s method of gathering his courage. He pushed down firmly on the opposite stirrup and spoke softly to the mustang as Murdoch pulled himself up into the saddle with a determined lift and swing. Amo snorted and paddled his hooves into the dust as the weight of the man settled onto his back, but, to Murdoch’s amazement, he felt no trace of an oncoming attempt to throw him off. He saw Johnny step back and smile up at him, pulling his hat down to shield his eyes from the sun.
“You got ‘im, cowboy. He’s all yours. Jog ‘im round the corral some.”
Tensing a little, Murdoch nudged the stallion into a walk, fighting to subdue a belief that the animal was about to launch into a desperate flight, that this horse would be the one to prove to him that he was finally old and afraid. Suddenly, it seemed to him that his son, silent now, watchful and wrapped in the mystery of his gift was merely waiting for this inevitable downfall, ready to usurp the power his father had held over this land for twenty-five years. Then, as quickly as the thought came, it fled, to be replaced by a sense of the steady, onward flow of his life and then all tension was gone and the horse was bearing him on its back in a gentle lope with the smooth, easy grace of the horses of his youth; a time when he had been so thoughtless of his body that he had imagined himself a centaur, as much horse as man. It was then he began to smile, through the dust raised by Amo’s hooves; the blood raced through his veins and he grew taller in the saddle. Watching his father from the fence, Johnny wondered if he would ever feel the need to admit to the older man the two hard hours he had spent the previous afternoon bringing the horse to a point where he would carry his father safely.
Easing the horse into a jog and mesmerised by its willingness to listen to him, Murdoch was about to speak to Johnny when he saw that the young man was standing up on the second rail of the fence gazing out towards the entrance arch. Through the arch came two riders, one of them leading a third horse, a pinto, over which was draped a large, wrapped bundle. Murdoch brought Amo to a halt near his silent, unmoving son. In the sudden stillness, all he could hear was the sound of Johnny’s teeth chewing on his storm strap; even the continuing tapping of hammers on nails, someone’s tuneless whistling and the drone of a lazy fly above Amo’s flicking ears seemed far distant sounds, muted by the intensity of the riders’ slow approach.
“Johnny,” Murdoch said softly. When the young man appeared to ignore him, he spoke more sharply, his skin prickling with fear. “Johnny!”
Hearing what seemed like anger in his father’s voice, Johnny turned and looked at him, his face paler and his eyes dark with the awareness of a coming horror.
“Hold his head while I dismount,” Murdoch ordered. “I think we’ve done enough for today.”
Nodding briefly, Johnny spat the storm tie from his mouth and jumped down from the fence, raising dust. He grasped Amo’s bridle and waited while his father dismounted, his head lowered and his gaze on his bandaged hand. He wanted to yell at the top of his voice and keep on yelling until his voice was gone. He wanted to punch someone, shoot someone; he wanted to drag the bundle from the slow approaching horse and shake it into a thousand pieces, slap it, call it names, scream it back into life.
Murdoch untacked the mustang with calm deliberation, alert to the nearness of the riders now and his son’s agony. At the fence, the riders stopped and waited, their horses chewing on their bits as, head down, Johnny carried the saddle and bridle out of the corral, placed them silently on the ground and turned to face the group. His eyes swept briefly over Tod and Sam, absorbing their fearful, weary faces before his gaze rested on the bundle draped across the pinto. Grinding his teeth, he stepped over to the horse, stroking its pale nose tenderly before resting his hand on the head-shaped bulge under the canvas. Murdoch held back, his hands in the pockets of his pants, his expression steeled against any display of emotion, as Johnny pulled back the canvas to reveal Jeff’s head of sandy coloured hair. Murdoch dropped his gaze to his boots and, as quickly, raised it again to see his son grasp a handful of the dirty hair and bring the dead boy’s face up into the early winter sunlight.
To Tod and Sam, the face of the rancher’s younger son was indecipherable, a blank, pale mask, as he gazed mutely upon Jeff’s cold, white skin. The boy’s mouth and forehead were smeared with dirt, and when Johnny peeled back an eyelid with his thumb, an eye returned his stare with the vacant lifelessness of a china doll. This was meat in his hand, as useless as a buffalo carcass left by hunters to rot in the sun. The boy had gone somewhere else; Johnny was certain of that, gone to that place where in his worst moments he himself had ached to go. He was conscious of standing there in the silence, wanting to ask the boy where he had gone, certain that if he listened hard enough Jeff would come swaggering out of death, scorning the gunfighter for being alive, for not following his path to its end.
“We tried to stop ‘im, Johnny, I swear …”
Tod’s voice, low and desperate, caused him to lower the head’s dead weight and look up at the man on the horse. The young man’s dark silence compelled the ranch hand to swallow a mouthful of sudden fear and blunder on.
“Darned kid called this feller out in a saloon in Morrano. Said ‘e cheated ‘im at a hand o’ faro.” Tod glanced at Sam who nodded his support. “Jesus, we wus jest in there fer fun - y’know, a beer, a card game, mebbe a poke upstairs later on …” The young man looked with sudden embarrassment at Murdoch who remained unmoved, his arms folded across his chest and his eyes intent on the ground.
“We told ‘im to simmer down, Johnny,” Sam intervened. “But he was on the shoot from the first, said he could take the feller easy. Said he could tell from the feller’s eyes that he weren’t no gunfightin’ kind.” Sam hesitated and drew in an angry breath. “The kid was all blow an’ it got ‘im killed, Johnny. It got ‘im killed.”
By now, other hands had gathered round, hands in pockets or carrying the tools they had been using. Tick, chewing noisily on a plug of tobacco, spat a yellow stream into the dust. Murdoch glared at him and then looked severely at the other men.
“Get back to work,” he growled. “All of you.” When they hesitated, the younger ones faces’ darkening with rebellion, his tone deepened into a quiet rage. “Go now, or you’ll find yourselves working the grub line.”
Johnny had placed his hand on the old tarpaulin covering the body, his eyes on the splash of Tick’s yellow spit; it had hit the ground with such force it had scattered the dust around it. He heard Tod’s unhappy voice return, as if from down a long tunnel.
“Reckoned you’d want ‘im brung back to Lancer, Johnny. That’s why we brung ‘im. Reckoned you’d want it that way.”
“You did right, boys,” Murdoch intervened. He moved closer to his son. “I’ll wire his family and get Ira out here.”
“Who killed ‘im?” Johnny’s voice cut sharply through the tense, unnatural quiet. Tod glanced at Murdoch before shaking his head.
“Didn’t catch the feller’s name.”
“Sure y’did, Tod.”
“Heard someone call ‘im Red Jack,” Sam said hastily, ignoring the furious glare from his companion. “Wore a red band round ‘is hat. Looked like a dandy, some.”
Johnny nodded. He pulled away from the pinto and headed in the direction of the barn. Murdoch gave rapid instructions to Tod, before following his son who had grabbed Barranca’s saddle and bridle from its rest in the tack room and was re-emerging into the light. Murdoch stood before the younger man, blocking his path to the barn.
“Talk to me, Johnny,” he demanded. Johnny stared at his father coldly and Murdoch was shocked to see so little left of the boy he loved in the flat, deadly gaze.
“Got nothin’ to say,” Johnny said neutrally. “I’m goin’ to put a hole in Red Jack; then I’m comin’ back.”
He moved to pass his father, but Murdoch placed his hands on the saddle in the younger man’s arms and pushed against it.
“No, you’re not going anywhere, boy,” he insisted, already feeling the impotence of his greater physical power against his son’s burning strength of will. “I won’t let you go out there risking your life, dammit it all to hell, I won’t!”
“Stoppin’ me from doin’ what I gotta do ain’t goin’ the right way to keepin’ me here, Murdoch,” Johnny said coldly. “Red Jack ain’t got no business squarin’ up to a green kid, an’ he’s gonna pay for it.”
He took advantage of the older man’s sudden confusion at his words and pushed past him roughly to disappear into the barn.
“What in the hell are you telling me, boy?” Murdoch demanded furiously, his heart thumping painfully as he watched Johnny place the saddle on Barranca’s back. “That any time you feel like going back to being a gunfighter, I just have to accept it.” Leaning against the stall post, he breathed in heavily in an attempt to control his distress. “I have to accept that as the price for your staying here!?”
“Somethin’ like that,” Johnny answered, tightening the cinch and placing his hand on the horse’s neck to calm its sudden agitation.
“Well, I’m not going to live like that, Johnny!” Murdoch punched the stall post with his fist, oblivious to the pain. “D’you hear me? I won’t damn well live like that!”
Johnny sucked in any possible reaction to the agony in his father’s voice and allowed only Murdoch’s anger to filter through his consciousness.
“Then I guess I won’t be comin’ home,” he said quietly. He pulled Barranca round in his stall and began to lead him out of the barn. Murdoch’s agitation was so great now, his mind reacted like that of a pursued animal seeking the quickest route to safety, by clearing a way to an overriding thought.
“Your hand,” he said, almost coldly. “You can’t take him, Johnny. He’ll kill you.”
Johnny stopped outside the barn and turned his head to look back at the older man.
“I’m faster’n Red Jack’ll ever be, even with this hand, an’ he ain’t gettin’ a chance to get any faster.”
He stepped lightly up and swung himself into the saddle, unsurprised when his father grabbed at Barranca’s bridle and held it firm, even as the horse sought to pull away. Murdoch looked up at the younger man, his stony face betraying little of the violent emotion still raging inside him. He ground out his words as if battling to keep them from pouring out of him in a hot, hopeless rush.
“This is your life now, Johnny, with your brother and me. What the hell d’you want me to do or say to stop you doing this, that you’ll … that I’ll …” Murdoch dipped his head, his hand still clutching the bridle, and fought to stop what he knew would be tears if he let them better him.
“Won’t be nothin’ you can say I don’t already know, Pa,” Johnny said quietly, his eyes upon the older man’s bowed head. He wondered at the terrible impulse that kept him so surely in the saddle and his mind set only on slaughtering Red Jack when he knew that he loved this man with a depth that he had long ago thought beyond his reach. When Murdoch suddenly released the horse and turned away abruptly to disappear inside the barn’s dark interior, Johnny felt the small twinge of hesitation that might have kept him there, being swallowed whole by a greater force. Hardly aware of his own actions, he nudged Barranca into a lope and headed in the direction of Morrano.
Scott pressed his back against the oak tree and allowed the sun to warm his face. Dry brown leaves dropped from the wide spreading branches onto his head and lap and he breathed in the clear air. Before him, in the far distance, the jagged line of snow-capped mountains seemed more than a physical barrier between California and Boston; their sharp peaks, piercing the sky, divided him from his old life with axe-cut certainty. Though he knew that within days the railroad would carry him in comfort and ease to his grandfather’s mansion, he preferred to believe that the mountains kept him captive in this valley, a man with a new beginning and a discarded past.
“What are you thinking?”
He turned his head and smiled at the soft, welcome intrusion into his thoughts. The breeze played with the woman’s chestnut hair and the air had put colour in her pale cheeks. She sat in the grass surrounded by the folds of her new green velvet dress; he thought her entirely beautiful at that moment, her green eyes intent upon him, waiting for his answer. Briefly, it occurred to him how quickly a woman gave her affections if the man showed his willingness to receive them, how wholly women gave themselves up to love. Until the previous night, she had guarded herself against him, fearing his disapproval of her, like a nut within its shell. Now, while he had contemplated the mountains, his mind empty of her, he knew her whole heart had been reaching out to him. He took her hand and folded her into his arms. How she melted against him like snow in the sun! He kissed her head, inhaling the scent of her and pulling her closer still.
“I’m thinking that this is a beautiful place to be,” he said, watching the brown leaves fall on the green of her dress. “And that I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
He felt her burrow a little more into the warmth of him and then a small sigh escaped her.
“Were we right to leave Stephen, though?” she asked, her eyes on the remains of their picnic lunch, left scattered on the blanket so evocatively she wanted to preserve the memory of the torn bread, the spilled wine, the cores of apples in their places in the blanket’s folds.
“He wanted us to go,” Scott said quietly, stroking away her hair from the scar. “I don’t know why and I don’t much care.”
“He’ll die soon,” she whispered. “Supposing we’re not there.”
“Sam says he has a few weeks left, perhaps even months if he takes care of himself, stops smoking and working.”
“He won’t do that.”
“That’s his choice, Ellen.” He bent his head and kissed her cheek. “Carpe Diem, darling girl.”
He heard her giggle softly and loved her for it.
“What does that mean, Professor?”
“It means seize the day,” he replied. He lifted her to face him so that he could smile into her eyes, feel the whole world in a single face, so that the rustling tree, the restless grasses and the clouds moving across the blue sky were suddenly more than they had been a moment before, at once crashing in on his senses and then lost to him as he kissed her. When she lay in the grass and allowed him with a smile to slowly undo hooks, pull at thin silk ribbons, he had enough experience of life to enjoy this leisurely entry into her secret self, the teasing revelation of flesh under the layers of clothes. It was the sight of her breasts, as perfect as her face was damaged, that quickened his pulse and made him long to feel his own coarser flesh against her softness. Pulling off his shirt, he lay over her, rejoicing in the proximity of her warm, living skin, her heart beating under his ribcage, freed from the chemise, the corset, the camisole, the green velvet.
He had never made love in the grass before, never heard the songs of birds in the trees as he moved inside a woman, never kicked at the remains of a picnic at the height of his passion. Her moans, his cried out name, her almost-weeping as he kissed her neck, sounded fantastically strange and new to him away from the confines of a room, as if he was the first man inside the first woman. He felt not only at one with her, but with the leaves drifting onto his bare back, the long, pale grasses whispering around them, the snorting of their horses nearby. When he finally released himself into her, he was aware, in the physical intensity, of a moment of realization that this was not as he had he felt before; that somehow in the middle of his ecstasy was a tenderness towards the woman that had been missing in the bedrooms of Boston houses and brothels.
He clung to her now as fiercely as she clung to him, as if their lives depended on it, and he could feel no difference between her need and his. When she pulled away from him and sat in the grass, the bones of her spine pushing under her skin, his only desire was to pull his finger down the bumps, but she pulled on her cotton chemise quickly over her head and lifted her waves of chestnut hair clear of her shoulders. Silently, she began to plait it. Understanding now that she had somehow retreated from him, Scott put on his shirt against the sudden chill of the late November air and placed his hands gently on her shoulders.
“Have I hurt you?” he asked softly. He felt her shoulders tense and then relax under his fingers.
“You could never hurt me,” she whispered. “Not like that.”
He reached down over her shoulders and grasped her hands that now lay in her lap.
She shook her head and pulling his right hand up to her mouth, kissed it tenderly.
“It’s getting late,” she said, her tone suddenly emerging brisk and capable. “Everyone will be wondering where we are.”
“I don’t care,” Scott frowned, knowing that he sounded like a truculent child, but irritated by her composure as she calmly resumed dressing.
“Well, you should,” Ellen smiled, turning to look at him now. She was amused by his pouting discontent. “We have responsibilities, Scott Lancer.” She turned round completely and began to fasten the buttons of his shirt, something he had never allowed a woman to do from the moment he could dress himself.
“Damn them,” he said, seeking her eyes as her fingers nimbly made their way up the buttons.
“You don’t mean that.”
“Right now, I do mean it.”
She fastened the last button and put her hands up to his cheeks, cradled his rebellious face between her palms.
“Our responsibilities are our bedrock, darling boy.” She stroked his skin with her thumbs. “The rest is a dream.”
In silence, he watched her finish dressing, content for now to let her words lie and simply to drink in the fluid way she enclosed herself back within her layers of clothing, like a lizard throwing sand over itself until entirely disappearing from sight. Afterwards, she began to pack up the remains of their lunch. While he fixed the saddle bags on the horses, she picked up the blanket and shook it long and hard before folding it carefully and handing it to him. He took it from her hands and gazed into her eyes.
“When in your life were you happiest?” he asked quietly, unwilling to allow her to hustle him into ending their day. She held his gaze and then turned her attention to the line of cross hairs between the horse’s flank and thigh, stroking it with one finger.
“Sitting on the barn roof listening to Daddy sing to the cows.” She hesitated and drew in a breath. “I would’ve liked to have given that to my own child if my life had gone as I would’ve wished it.”
Her fingers sought his. When he clasped her hand, both of them leaning gently against the horse for support, she looked at him again.
“And what about you?” she asked. “When were you happiest?”
Scott used his other hand to stroke strands of hair from her forehead. Other women who had asked him that question had wanted only his confession that his greatest happiness had been to hold them in his arms, but he knew Ellen wanted honesty.
“In front of a tent having my photograph taken with three of my friends in 1864.” He squeezed her hand. “Stephen was one of them.”
“And watching Johnny sleep under a tree about a month after we came home,” Scott smiled, his tone lighter. “And knowing that I wasn’t alone in the world – I had a brother, one I’d give my life for.”
Ellen went to his arms then and he folded her tightly into them. He knew that this was as close as he had ever come to believing that letting go of a woman would feel like loss.
As Scott unsaddled the horses in the barn, the sound of an axe swung down hard on wood sounded like the distant toll of a dull, slow, insistent bell. Following the sound to the woodshed piled high with fragrant pine logs, Scott watched his father throw the spliced logs into a large basket and then place another log on the chopping block. Murdoch seemed to hesitate then, his head bowed, his face set hard as if preparing itself for the wood’s resistance. Suddenly, he lifted the axe high and brought it down heavily enough to send the two pieces flying off the block. When Scott moved closer to the woodpile, Murdoch glanced at him grimly before placing another log and this time chopping it with quick precision. Scott, his body and heart still emblazoned with the thought of Ellen, felt the older man’s anger blow a chill over his happy mood.
“I think we might need those logs tonight,” he said lightly. “It’s getting colder.”
Murdoch nodded and split another log with the same deliberate power.
“Did you enjoy your lunch?” he asked neutrally, kicking the basket so that the logs settled to make room for more.
“We did,” Scott answered quickly. “I’m sorry we were longer than I’d intended, but Ellen needed …”
Murdoch raised his head suddenly and seemed to look straight at his son, though Scott felt his thoughts were somewhere else.
“You both needed a break, son,” his father said quietly, before taking another heavy log from the pile and setting it on the block. “And you did more than your fair share this week bringing this wood in.”
Scott nodded, pleased by this affirmation of his usefulness. Even though talking to his father at this time felt like thawing a block of ice with a match, he also felt instinctively that he was needed here, that something had happened between Murdoch and Johnny.
“Did you ride Amo?” he asked cautiously. Murdoch hesitated in the act of bringing down the axe.
“Yes.” He split the log and inhaled the sharp scent of pine resin. It helped him to brace himself. “But we were interrupted when Sam and Tod brought Jeff in, dead on the back of his horse.”
Leaning on the axe, Murdoch pulled his watch from his pocket and flipped open the lid with his thumb. He gazed at its familiar face impassively.
“He was shot by a gambler in Morrano.” He snapped the watch shut and turned his gaze on his son, his voice as business-like as if he were issuing instructions for work. “Ira’s laid him out in the parlour. His parents should be here early tomorrow morning.”
“What about Johnny?” Scott demanded. There had been barely a moment’s thought in his mind for Jeff, the discontented boy who had made little impression on him except as another one of his younger brother’s strays.
“He’s taken himself off,” his father replied bluntly. He grasped one of the basket handles. “Help me in the house with this.”
“Where?” Scott ignored the order, his mind racing with panic. “Where’s Johnny gone, Murdoch?”
Murdoch attempted to suck in his emotions in the presence of his older son’s agitation, but the slight unsteadiness in his voice betrayed him.
“He’s gone to call out the man who shot Jeff.” His tone hardened. “Or whatever it is gunfighters do. Now help me with these damn logs.”
“You let him go!!?” Scott glared at the older man in furious disbelief. “You let him go? He can’t even draw his gun properly right now. What in the hell …”
Murdoch dropped the basket handle and walked away from Scott, his hands first clenched into fists by his sides and then brought together at the back of his head like a man captured and condemned. He turned suddenly and faced his son across the space in front of the woodshed and Scott saw a new expression on his face, the suffering of a man in torment. Now, with little hesitation, he grasped the basket’s handle and waited for Murdoch to come to him. Silently, they carried it into the house and placed it by the low burning fire in the Great Room.
“I need to go after him, Murdoch,” Scott said with gentle urgency, pained by the way his father calmly threw logs on the fire. The flames leapt to ignite the new wood, bubbles of resin spitting and hissing in the fire like trapped cats.
“Don’t you think I tried to stop him, Scott?” he said, his tone tight with strain and his gaze on the raging fire. “Don’t you think I wanted to ride out after him, but I knew it was no use?” He hesitated and rubbed his forehead hard with two fingers. “You boys are all I’ve got, but I don’t own you.” He swallowed and pulled in a breath before meeting Scott’s eyes. “I killed a man in cold blood because I didn’t want Johnny to take on the burden of another death. I wanted it all to stop and now I know it doesn’t stop, not for him and not for me, and somehow I have to find a way to deal with that.”
Scott was certain that if he spoke now, no voice would come, so powerfully did he feel his father’s agony. He put his hand to the older man’s shoulder and rubbed it gently.
“I must go after him, sir.”
“No.” Murdoch shook his head and turned abruptly towards the whisky decanter on the sideboard. His tone was firmer now. “He wouldn’t want that.” He pulled out the stopper and filled two glasses. “However damn impossible it seems, sometimes we have to let people do what they think they have to do.” He swallowed a large gulp of the whisky and looked again at his son. “If I could have locked him in the barn, Scott, beaten some sense in him, even, if I thought I could have changed his mind by any means possible, I would have done it, but I know his eyes, son. I knew what I was looking at.” He took another large gulp before refilling the glass. “And it’s not in me or you to change it.” He shrugged then, and Scott was amazed to see a slight smile warm his lips. “Anyway, he seemed to think he’d have no problem with this gambler, even with an injured hand.”
“He knows him?”
“He knows too many men of the kind I’d prefer not to think about, Scott.” He offered a whisky to the younger man, who shook his head irritably, before sitting down in his chair by the fire and rubbing his hand through Bess’ thick black coat.
“Stay with me, son,” Murdoch said quietly, lifting his head suddenly to meet Scott’s desperate, undecided eyes. “Johnny’s been gone for hours. Whatever’s happened, it’s happened by now and I need you here with me.”
“He’s my brother, Murdoch,” Scott said quietly. “I’m not sure I’ll ever really know him but if I lose him, I’m not sure anything will mean a damn anymore.”
The older man returned his gaze silently. His pale blue eyes, usually capable of hiding every emotion, now seemed as exposed and vulnerable as a child’s. Although every one of Scott’s nerves screamed at him to follow Johnny, he found himself sitting down opposite his father as surely as if he were obeying an order in the heat of battle. Moments later, he pulled the chessboard between them in front of the fire and made the first move.
The sun had gone behind rain clouds before he reached the town and by the time he rode Barranca past the faded sign announcing its name, it was raining. A shopkeeper stood on the boardwalk of his store pointing and mouthing directions to his wife inside the window; Johnny caught a glimpse of the wife’s irritated face before he rode slowly on. He sensed a malaise in the town, a stagnation that contrasted with Green River’s air of purposeful, prosperous activity. The houses and cottages he had passed on the way were mostly ramshackle and ill-tended, their gardens neglected and flowerless. No-one was around, apart from a dog curled up outside the barber’s and a tall, thin boy in a shapeless, battered hat attempting to drag a mule into the livery stables, though Johnny felt the eyes of the town upon him from many windows.
He brought his horse to a halt by the livery stables. Up ahead, and almost opposite each other were the sheriff’s office and Morrano’s only saloon, a forlorn, utilitarian place with no more welcome in its small dark, drapeless windows than a barn. Johnny turned his head from the scene, rain dripping from the edge of his hat, and regarded the boy who had now resorted to a quiet cursing of the reluctant mule and was kicking at the animal’s front hooves with desperate frustration.
“Y’ain’t goin’ to get ‘im to move that way, boy,” Johnny said softly. The boy, his battered hat wet through and partially covering his face, peered up at the young man, his eyes squinting against the drifting rain.
“You gotta better way, mister?” he demanded.
“Better’n yours,” Johnny smiled. Disarmed by the young stranger’s sudden smile, the boy grinned and stepped back, one hand holding the halter rope and the other in the pocket of his dungarees.
“Go ahead,” he smirked. “‘long as you ain’t expectin’ to be paid fer it, an’ don’t you go reckonin’ on pushin’ ‘im, neither. He’s more stubborn’n thataway than pullin’. Even Pa caint get ‘im in there inside a half hour without stickin’ a fork up ‘is ass, an’ most often he don’t go, even then.”
Johnny slid off Barranca and patted the horse’s neck before walking over to the mule. He trailed his long fingers over the animal’s back and up along the length of its short brush of mane. He knew mules. Unlike horses, they resisted while giving little of themselves away in overt displays of temper or head-tossing. The animal appeared calm and indifferent to this newcomer, even while its long ears, assaulted by the rain, drooped at comical right angles to its head. Quickly, Johnny lifted up one long ear and whispered to the mule in rapid Spanish before taking the halter rope from the boy and looking directly into one of its dark brown eyes. The mule eyed him back and Johnny was certain he was being challenged, but with the serene contempt of a creature confident in its superiority. He had never seen such a look in any animal and he was both intrigued and unsettled. It would not move for him yet; he was sure of that. Conscious of the boy’s barely suppressed glee, Johnny began his attempt to win round the mule using everything he knew, his language, his touches in certain places, his looks, all of which he had used only the day before to bring Amo to him.
Half an hour later, his body soaked to the skin and his tactics exhausted, he splashed through the puddles to lean against the corral fence beside the grinning boy. Struggling to master his irritation and embarrassment at his defeat, he shrugged a small smile at his boots.
“Guess what I got don’t work in the rain.”
The boy took the straw out of his mouth and spat elaborately into the muddy puddle at his feet.
“Rain, sun, snow or any other damn weather, Mister,” he said confidently. “That mule goes when ‘e’s got a mind to.”
Moments later, the mule walked forward calmly and slowly into the livery stables, its head down and its long ears swinging in rhythm to its walk. Still grinning the boy followed it, his hands in the pockets of his new dungarees, while Johnny allowed the comedy of it to penetrate the crust of his pride. Watching the donkey-like tail of the mule disappear in the darkness of the building he shook his head and laughed before fetching Barranca and leading him into the stables.
Inside, the boy was fussing the animal in its stall while it munched noisily on cabbage leaves. Above them, in the loft, sweet-smelling hay was stacked to the roof.
“How much an hour?” Johnny asked quietly.
“Two bits,” the boy replied. He moved out of the mule’s stall and took the reins from the young man’s hand. “You want ‘im unsaddled?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope, just loosen the cinch some an’ give him a little hay. I won’t be long comin’ back.”
“Gettin’ your hair cut?”
Johnny smiled faintly.
“You should know better’n to ask a stranger his business, boy,” he warned. As the boy’s eyes went to Johnny’s gun belt, noted the worn grip and holster and how the rig settled as easily against the young man’s thigh as a living thing, he lost all his earlier bravado. Heart pounding and eyes wide, he caught the two coins Johnny threw his way and watched him walk out into the rain. When he had settled Barranca, he scrambled up into the loft and lay on his stomach in the hay to observe the young man walk up the street and stop in front of the saloon.
Johnny stared at the ground, now turned to mud under his feet, his heart contracting painfully as he imagined Jeff falling in this place as easily as grass under a sharp blade. A dozen times he had warned him away from such a fate, that it was no more glorious or beautiful than eating swill with hogs, even if you were the one left standing, but the boy had yearned for that one moment of truth between two men – who was faster, better, more worthy of the respect of other men? Who could go on walking the earth, his head held high, his hand more dangerous than a rattlesnake’s fangs?
Johnny stepped up onto the saloon’s boardwalk, knowing that from across the street, eyes in the window of the sheriff’s office were upon him, and pushed open the batwing doors to see a rough-hewn bar, a wooden floor scattered with sawdust and a few chairs and tables. There were no customers. For an instant, he wondered that Jeff had chosen such a place to make his stand, and then remembered it was in just such a dismal little saloon in Mexico that he had called out his first man at the age of fourteen, a horse thief who had killed the daughter of a local rancher while raiding his corrals in the night. Even now, Johnny could see his mouthful of dirty, yellow teeth, hear his howl of laughter at being confronted by an underfed half-Mexican child with a gun too big for his scrawny hand. The thief had even ruffled his mop of scruffy black hair as he had passed by him and out into the street, and for a moment, just for a moment, the child had felt the human hand, like a father’s, on his scalp and hesitated. Then he had called the thief out again in the street, waited for the recognition of his serious intent and finally brought him down into the dust with the heaviness of a sackful of corn. He remembered the yellow teeth exposed and the lips twisted into the dust as if the thief had fallen asleep there with no care for his appearance. At that moment, he had vowed never to kill another man, until the rancher, telling him he had done a favour to humanity, had pressed a hundred dollars in his hand and ruffled his dirty hair.
His hat dripping rainwater past his nose and into the sawdust, Johnny walked up to the bar, the wooden floor magnifying the sound of his spurs. The barkeep, who had been adding water to the whisky behind a grubby curtain, came out, wiping his hands on his apron, his face at first agitated by the interruption and then, swiftly, nervous. Casting his eyes back at the curtain, he attempted a smile at the expressionless young man.
“Just catchin’ up on my ledgers as it’s rainin’ outside. Weren’t expectin’ this, no sir. Bad for business. Real bad for business.” He stopped, unnerved by Johnny’s unchanging gaze. “What can I do for you, Mister?”
“Tequila,” Johnny said. He took off his hat, shook off the water and put it back on his head.
“Yessir, got that,” the barkeep replied quickly, pulling a bottle out from under the bar. “Sure do got that.” He poured out a shot. Johnny drank it with one rapid swallow and put the glass back down on the bar. The liquor drove away some of the chill that had settled on him and he poured out another.
“There was a shootin’ here yesterday,” he said softly. “Someone got killed.”
The barkeep stared at Johnny in confusion like a deer in grass hearing a strange sound and caught between freezing and fleeing. He swallowed noisily and watched as the young man drank the second shot of tequila.
“Yessir,” he said finally. “Bad for business. Real bad. Ain’t had a shooting here since 1866, not fatal anyways. He began to wipe the rough surface of the bar vigorously with a cloth. “Cowboys stirrin’ things up … comin’ in from the ranches causin’ trouble for decent folks. Gettin’ all liquored up and shootin’ their damn mouths off.” He stopped suddenly and looked up at Johnny. “That boy a friend of yours, Mister?”
Johnny nodded silently and pushed a dollar piece across the bar.
“Then I’m sorry for it,” the other man said hastily. “But that boy was askin’ for trouble. Red Jack’s no friend of mine but what’s a man to do when some reckless kid gets a mind to …”
“Where is Red Jack?” Johnny interrupted him coldly.
Johnny kept his back to the new voice in the room. As he’d drunk the tequila, he’d heard the splashing of the sheriff’s feet approaching and then, just moments ago, the sound of a gun being lifted from leather.
“Be obliged if you’d just take off that belt and kick it on over here,” the voice instructed.
“Just havin’ a quiet drink, Sheriff,” Johnny said quietly, his head lowered and his hands palm down on the surface of the bar.
“Be obliged.” The voice was harder now. Johnny unbuckled the belt, and letting it fall, kicked it backwards so that it skidded loudly across the wooden floor. He heard the other man pick it up.
“Alright, now turn around real easy.”
Johnny obeyed, throwing a dark look at the barkeep before facing the barrel of the sheriff’s gun. The sheriff, Tom Ballard, was young, no more than his brother’s age, smooth-skinned and immaculately groomed. The star, polished to a high shine, was pinned to a new leather waistcoat over a freshly laundered shirt. Only his boots were splashed with pale orange mud. He held the gun with a steady hand.
“What’s your name?”
The sheriff raised his eyebrows and his expression relaxed fractionally, although he kept the gun levelled at the other man’s heart.
“Same Lancers who own that big spread outside of Green River?”
Johnny nodded, his eyes not for one moment leaving the sheriff’s gaze.
“Why’re you here, Mister Lancer?”
“Came to get Red Jack’s story,” Johnny replied slowly. “He killed a friend of mine.”
“Looks like you came pretty well-heeled for just a story.” Ballard looked down at the gun belt in his left hand. “The boy’s rig was new. This one sure isn’t.”
He lifted his head to meet Johnny’s blank, unflinching gaze.
“Red Jack’s going to be tried for the murder of a farmer in Stockton, Mister Lancer,” he said firmly. “And I’m going to make sure he hangs for it, so you can just head on back to your ranch and let the law take care of things from here on in.”
Johnny nodded in the face of the young man’s intense self-assurance. This was a new breed of sheriff. Val Crawford had told him about them – career lawmen who came, sharp, efficient and ruthless, straight from the streets of Eastern cities and now seeking the challenge of ridding the West of its lawlessness. Red Jack had been unlucky. Morrano had fallen into the hands of a young man, disappointed and exasperated by small-town peaceableness and determined to make a name for himself at last.
“Be glad to leave Red Jack to the law, Sheriff,” he lied quietly. “Only I’d appreciate a chance to hear his side o’ things concernin’ my friend.”
Ballard hesitated before curiosity won over his caution.
“You know Val Crawford, don’t you?” he said, lowering his gun and reholstering it, before taking Johnny’s gun and tipping the six bullets from their chambers into his hand. “He’s talked about you and your family.”
“Yeh, I know ‘im,” Johnny replied reluctantly. He hated to see his gun in the hands of another man, being deprived so casually of its power to protect him.
“He’s a good man.” Ballard closed the gun with a decisive click. “Wrong-headed, out-dated in some ways, but a good man.”
“He’ll be real glad to hear that,” Johnny said coldly. Ballard smiled and opened the doors of the saloon. Allowing the younger man to walk before him into the rainy street, they entered the brick built office, a small building with a room to one side containing two iron-barred cells. The office reflected its occupant. All was neat and orderly: law books in order of size on a shelf, ‘Wanted’ posters pinned carefully in a menacing row to the wall on one side of the polished oak desk – even the pot of coffee on the stove was clean, not the stained and dirty object in which Val’s coffee was brewed.
“You’ve got a visitor, Jack,” Ballard called, before looking at Johnny and nodding curtly in the direction of the cells.
“Go to hell!”
Ballard smiled and watched Johnny enter the small room before pouring himself a cup of coffee and sitting down to contemplate the young man’s well-worn gun.
“Well, I’ll be damned. I will be damned.” The young sheriff sipped his coffee and listened hard. “Johnny Madrid. How the hell are you, boy?”
Johnny looked unblinkingly at the older man for some moments and then leaned against the wall facing the two cells, his arms folded. Red Jack was smiling a gap-toothed smile under his neat moustache and his dark eyes showed genuine pleasure.
“Don’t go by that name now,” Johnny said quietly, taking in the gunfighter’s curly greying hair, his paunch that bulged behind the buttons of his red waistcoat.
“I heard that,” Jack said coolly, his pleasure dissolving in the face of the young man’s iciness. He came up to the bars and looked closely at Johnny. “I heard you found your old man up Modesto way. Quit the dance.”
“He found me.”
Jack nodded. He grasped the bars of the cell and offered the younger man an uncertain smile.
“So’ve you come to gnaw your old friend’s bones, Johnny? That’s all that’ll be left of me if Wonder Boy in there gets his way.”
“No, Jack,” Johnny answered softly. “I came to make y’dance for killin’ that kid yesterday. He was a friend o’ mine.”
Jack frowned. He released the bars and glanced towards the opening to the sheriff’s office before looking suspiciously at Johnny. He lowered his voice.
“That kid was a drifter with an itchy finger,” he said confidingly. “Remember? We’ve seen a thousand of them, you and me. Farm boys who hate what God’s given ‘em so bad they’d sooner eat dust in the street. Jesus, Johnny …” Jack had allowed his voice to increase in volume and he made a determined effort to subdue it. “That isn’t my way, to kill a kid like that, you know it isn’t, but he was shootin’ his mouth off six ways to Sunday. He wanted death so bad I could smell it on him, know what I mean? When he went for his gun, yeh, I could’ve hobbled the kid, but I didn’t. I gave him what he wanted, and now he’s a happy boy.”
Johnny stared at the older man, his teeth chewing gently at the inside of his lower lip.
“He weren’t all grown yet, Jack,” he said finally. “You shoulda seen that in ‘im. It weren’t his time to go.”
“Oh, yeh, Johnny.” Jack shook his head. He was close to smiling. “It was his time. He’s gone, so it was his time, and I think mine’s coming soon too. He paused and, for a fleeting moment, looked almost tenderly at the younger man. “I tell you, kid, if I had a choice, I’d sooner go at the end of your gun than hang at the end of a rope like some fuckin’ rag doll, that’s for sure.” He turned from the bars and sat on the bed. “But what the fuck? Even hell’s gotta be better than this.” He lay back on the bed and, sighing, covered his face with his red-banded hat. “Go home, Johnny,” he said coolly. “Fastest gun I ever saw, but you never did have it in you to be a desperado. You like life too much.”
Johnny gazed silently at the man on the bed, showing no outward reaction to his words, but they had plunged into his gut with the force of an arrow, shattering the inner core of him, the hard, cold part he had begun to carve from the day he had seen Maria’s head crash against the wall and split like a watermelon. Even during the last seven months, when he had allowed his father and brother to breach his defences, he had kept that part safe, inviolable, beyond the reach of love. For ten years, he had believed that was who he was, a man with no past or future, gun for hire and no more.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Hardly aware that he had walked back into the office, Johnny looked at Ballard grimly.
“Do I get my gun back?”
“Just as long as you’re planning on leaving town before I’ve drunk my next cup of coffee,” Ballard replied, picking up the rig from the immaculate desk. Johnny nodded silently. He took the belt and buckled it on, glad to feel its familiar weight on his thigh. Ballard poured out another cup of coffee and glanced down at its steaming contents before looking up at Johnny, his grey eyes as still and watchful as a wolf’s above his high, well-shaven cheekbones, but his narrow mouth showing a trace of a smile.
“Take my advice, Mister Lancer,” he said darkly. “Stay retired. The gunfighters’ days are done.”
Johnny lifted his hand to adjust his hat, saw the flicker of apprehension cross Ballard’s features, and smiled away his urge to punch the perfect teeth down the smooth-talking throat.
“That’s good advice, Sheriff,” he replied, opening the door of the tiny office. “’preciate it.” He closed the door hard behind him and walked diagonally across the muddy street to the livery stable. The boy had scrambled down from the hay-loft when he saw the stranger leave the sheriff’s office and now confronted Johnny, his eyes bright and hayseed clinging to his clothes.
“You all done, Mister?”
“Reckon I am.”
Johnny reloaded his gun as the boy tightened Barranca’s cinch, untied him and pulled him away from the remains of the hay. Watching Johnny replace the gun in its holster, he swallowed and licked his lips. He had seen very few guns and he was captivated by the young man’s fluid ease with the weapon, despite his bandaged hand.
“You a gunfighter, Mister?” he asked cautiously. Johnny took his horse’s reins and smiled a little at the boy.
“Not so’s you’d notice,” he replied. He led Barranca out into the rain, put on his slicker and mounted quickly. He glanced back at the stables and stroked Barranca’s neck. “What’s the mule’s name?”
“Fergus.” The boy grinned. “Named fer my pa. He’s Scotch an’ as stubborn as the mule, so my ma says.”
Johnny could not help smiling back, despite his lowered mood.
“Scotch an’ stubborn,” he said, looking up at the grey clouds, sending down rain in vengeful sweeps. “Sounds like my pa. Thought that ol’ mule put me in mind o’ someone.” He threw the boy a dollar piece; the boy caught it with a deft grab. “Use your eyes, kid, not your mouth an’ y’might make it further’n most.”
The boy nodded and watched the young man leave the town. He bit the dollar, grinned and headed back to the warmth of stables.
The day had gone wrong. He had woken that morning untroubled, almost for the first time in his life, full of excitement and anticipation and now he felt he had stumbled and fallen like a man lost in a network of caves where every turn took him further from the light. Red Jack’s casual words, so easily spoken, had driven all other thoughts from his mind, even Jeff, lying dead at Lancer.
He had gone to Morrano to kill Red Jack, had rehearsed it in his thoughts as he had done a dozen times before in the past, had set his mind, icy and channelled, to the task. As he had ridden along, the secret part of him had even enjoyed this return to a self he knew and trusted, invulnerable and untouchable.
Yet, he had known from the moment he had looked down at the mud in front of the saloon, before he had learned of Red Jack’s arrest, that he would not kill him, and he did not recognise this part of him that had turned its face from what he had vowed to do with clear intent. Something in him had been glad to see the gunfighter behind bars; something in him had let go of his desire for vengeance as easily as breathing. Were the words he had spoken to his father before leaving no more than an old, habitual response of the man he no longer was?
In the soft glow of an oil lamp, he could see she had made a nest for them.
Only the sight of the old barn on the edge of town had reminded him that he was due to meet Lindy there at seven. Reluctant to face his father, to be in the presence of Jeff’s coffin, and certain that somehow everyone would see the hole in him, he had nudged Barranca in the still falling rain towards the darkened building. Tethering the horse out of sight in a worm-eaten stall, he had crept into the main part of the barn and up the loft ladder. She had laid a blanket on the fragrant hay and she was kneeling there now, her hands clenched into her lap and her eyes bright and fearful in the light of the lamp.
“Sorry,” he said gently. He could see the girl was shivering. “Got held up.”
He pulled himself up into the loft and immediately dropped to his knees in front of her in unconscious imitation of her. He took off his hat and she took it and placed it away from the blanket, before looking up at him timidly from under her eyelashes. Instantly, his groin jolted and he let out a small hiss, prompted by both desire and exasperation. He grasped her hand quickly.
“Lindy …” His mouth was dry and he swallowed to moisten it. His words came in a rush in a voice that seemed to be someone else’s. “I don’t want this … well, I do, only not tonight …” He swallowed again and brushed her face with his other hand. “You’re cold. How long you been waitin’ up here?”
“About an hour,” she replied. She looked unhappily at him. “Why don’t you want me, Johnny? I thought you wanted me.”
He grabbed both hands and kissed her quickly on the mouth, before sitting back on his heels and searching her eyes for something other than resentment.
“I do want you. This mornin’, it was all I could think about, but somethin’s happened…” He dipped his head. Suddenly, he wanted to flee, unwilling to share the burden of his confusion with this girl with whom he had only ever flirted and played with, but vaguely hoping she would ask. Wanting her as powerfully as ever, he grappled with his body’s response as she kneeled up to take his bowed head in her hands and kiss him with an urgency and passion that sent his head spinning and his blood hurtling to every nerve end in his frame. He pulled away, abruptly, with a force that brought an expression close to anger on her flushed face, and stood up, his back to her and his hands pressed to the beam above his head.
“I can’t, Lindy,” he said tightly. “It don’t feel right.”
“What have I done, Johnny?” she demanded. “I don’t understand.”
“I told you,” he replied, his blood cooling a little at her cold tone. “Somethin’ happened. Nothin’ to do with you.”
“You wanted this.” He listened to her, her resentment of him blundering past his pain. “I’m only doing it for you. I’ve been worrying about it all day. Mama thought I was ill, nearly called the doctor out to me, and then you keep me waiting for an hour. I’m going to look like a fool. I’ve told …” She stopped, frowning at her own reckless mouth. “Well … you just shouldn’t treat a woman like that, Johnny, that’s all I’m saying.”
“That ain’t all you’re sayin’.”
Johnny turned round and looked down at her wearily before picking up his hat from the hay and settling it on his head. Thrusting away his concern at leaving her alone in the darkened barn, he fetched Barranca and rode the short way into town to find a bed where no questions would be asked and he would not feel a need to share anything but his skin and bones.
He was awake. For what had seemed a long time, Scott had stood outside the door of the bedroom, his hand hesitating on the handle. Now, when he pushed it softly open, he could see Stephen was fully conscious, his brown eyes upon him as if he knew Scott had been there, fearful and uncertain on the landing.
“I came to see …,” Scott began. He moved further into the room. “Would you like some company for awhile?”
Stephen nodded silently and watched while Scott drew up a chair close to his bed.
“Would you pour me a glass of water?”
Quickly, Scott lifted the pitcher on the bedside table and poured water into a glass. He offered it to his friend who took it and drained it, the gulping of his throat sounding loud and urgent in the quietness of the room.
“Thank you.” Stephen returned the empty glass to Scott and dabbed his thin lips with a handkerchief. “Oh, for one more glass of wine,” he sighed. Lying back on the pillows, he gazed at the other man.
“I’m sorry, Scott.”
“For what?” Scott asked. For a moment, his mind on his brother’s continuing absence, he was confused by the simple words.
“For thinking I had more time left on Earth than I have.”
Scott smiled thinly and dropped his gaze to his hands, clasped in front of him, his elbows on his knees.
“If we can make it any easier, Stephen, then …”
His friend nodded. The cough that came then seemed wrenched out of him against his will. He held the handkerchief tightly against his mouth and then dropped his hand to the bedspread, his crumbling lungs snatching hungrily at any last breath of air.
“Did you and Ellen have a pleasant picnic?” he asked, his words coming between painful gasps. Scott turned to the basin on the bedside table. He plunged the cloth into the water, squeezed it hard so that the drops fell noisily back into the basin and began tenderly to wipe the sweat from Stephen’s face.
“Yes, we did.”
Stephen closed his eyes as the cloth moved gently over his pale skin. Slowly, his breathing eased until he was able to lift a smile out of his exhausted features.
“She’s a little in love with you, Scotty, of course.”
Scott hesitated only fractionally in his nursing and smiled despite himself.
“You always did imagine that every girl I met fell instantly in love with me, Stephen.”
“As none of them did with me.”
Scott frowned. He dipped the cloth in the water and wrung it out before neatly folding it over the edge of the basin.
“You were always the boy most likely to succeed,” Stephen said, his hollowed out brown eyes seeming even wider in the light of the fire and the lamp. “How I admired you, envied you, wanted your confidence, your self-possession, your integrity. I spent my entire boyhood trying to emulate you.”
“Stephen …” Scott shook his head irritably. “You were emulating a lie. I never had what you thought I had. I was a shallow fool and the only thing that made a man of me was realising it on the battlefield. You think I fell from grace there. You think we all did, but I had nowhere to fall.”
He stood up suddenly and went over to the window. Leaning his arm against the glass and his head on his arm, he gazed out, trying to discern whether the figure moving by the corral in the moonless dark was his brother.
“Johnny’s gone,” he said distractedly.
“Ellen told me,” Stephen said. “Will he come back?”
“I don’t know.” Scott pressed his head harder into his arm. “My father’s downstairs on his fourth glass of Scotch and all I want to do is ride out there and drag that damn boy back by the scruff of his neck.”
“Why don’t you?”
Scott grimaced against the glass of the window.
“Because if he’s meant to come back, he’ll come back. I don’t know a great deal about my brother, but I know that much.”
He turned back into the room and walked over to the fire.
“So it’s fate then?” Stephen said, watching his friend jab the glowing wood with a poker. Scott gazed into the burning heart of the fire, saw the orange embers collapse under the force of the poker; he felt in that moment he had never seen a colour so intense.
“Even if it isn’t, that’s what it feels like, yes.”
“You never trusted in providence, Scott. You always preferred the path of reason.”
Scott turned his head and looked across at the pale, wasted figure in the bed.
“Sometimes things happen that change we feel about the world, Stephen,” he said carefully. “I came through that filthy war and, beyond all my expectations and all my wildest dreams, I came here to where I should be, where I’m meant to be.”
“Then I must envy you again,” Stephen sighed.
“Do you still have that photograph?”
Scott raised his head from contemplating the fire and nodded. He went purposefully to his room, fetched the picture from his bureau and returned to Stephen who took it from the other man’s hand with trembling fingers. As he watched his friend’s face absorb this reminder of their younger selves, Scott, for the first time since Stephen’s arrival, felt an absolute pity fill him and he sat down beside him on the bed, very carefully, as if he should break the other man’s fragile frame.
“Look at Tom,” Stephen smiled. It seemed to Scott that his voice had lost some of its desperate strain. “He really looks like he hadn’t a care in the world. God, the man is practically lounging in that chair.”
Scott heard himself laugh.
“Tom rather liked to give the impression he was doing the war a favour, didn’t he,” he said. “I remember I always thought he treated it as an inconvenient interruption to one of his games of bridge.”
“Indeed,” Stephen smiled. “But then he was older than us. Wiser to the pitfalls of glorifying the unspeakable. What’s that between his feet? I can’t quite see.”
“A small posy of flowers,” Scott replied softly. “Though I can’t for the life of me remember why they were there.”
“Can’t you? I remember perfectly well. He’d picked them early that morning for you.”
“He was in love with you, Scott,” Stephen said matter-of-factly. “He knew it was a useless passion, but he couldn’t help himself. You weren’t the first handsome young man to attract his attention, but you were probably the last.”
“How d’you know this?” Scott asked, his heart thudding painfully.
“We’d had a drink the night before. Rather a lot of drink as I recall.” Stephen hesitated, his eyes still on the photograph. “I suppose I was the sort of person he felt he could confide in. Unassuming then. Not beautiful.”
“But he slept with women,” Scott insisted. “He used to brag about his staying power.”
Stephen shrugged his thin shoulders.
“This was love, Scott, a hopeless love. Why do you think the flowers ended up in the dust between his feet?”
Scott took the photograph from his friend’s hand and gazed at it, as if for the first time. He wondered then if it was possible to live a life where anything was certain, where the ground did not shift beneath him the moment he felt safe enough to settle his full weight into it.
He looked at Stephen in tired bewilderment.
“I think this might be a suitable time to have a glass of whisky.”
“Should you …?”
“Damn, Scott, no,” Stephen spluttered out something close to a laugh. “Should you?”
Scott gazed back at his friend, suddenly unable to stop himself smiling. He fetched the bottle of whisky he always kept in his room and poured out two measures. Stephen took one and raised his glass against the firelight.
“To love,” he said. “Hopeless or otherwise.”
He drank the whisky in one gulp and closed his eyes as the warmth of it travelled through his ravaged frame. Scott, too, threw his own drink back in one swallow as they had used to do when they were boys on the front-line, waiting for the boredom to end and their lives to begin.
Left to himself, Murdoch stared into the flames grabbing voraciously at the new logs, his arm resting on the use-polished arm of his favourite chair and his hand grasping his fourth glass of whisky. Unused to reflecting on his actions, his thoughts on his last words with Johnny scratched at him like a hair-shirt.
Suddenly, the killing of the blanket trader seemed of little consequence. It had troubled him, played on the edge of his consciousness darkly, but as the days sped him away from the act, he knew he would be able to live with it somehow. He knew that the pull of existence, of living, more powerful in him now than he had ever known, would bury the deed with its layers of the everyday soon enough. He had killed to avenge and protect his son. He had killed to put an end to a world gone wrong. The act had not answered. In the interval between his desperate need to see Raul dead and the sight of the trader sprawled bloodily against his wagon of blankets, he had seen that it had not, would not, answer his need to slam and lock a heavy door against the past.
But it was done, and now, when it tried to intrude on his thoughts, he pushed it away in pursuit of an answer to the only question that mattered. ‘What more could I have done to stop him going?’ He knew he had to prepare himself for news of Johnny’s death, and he tried to picture himself receiving it from the hated mouth of some stranger. Would he break? He felt like breaking now. Would he cry as he had not cried since the death of Catherine and the loss of his first baby? Or would he turn to stone, receive the news armed with the cold carapace of a man determined to hold the core of himself intact? He was capable of that, he knew, capable of shutting himself down, of retreating to a small, lonely but safe place in his mind where he could not be reached. He had done it before.
Feeling an unfamiliar surge of panic rise up from his stomach and into his throat at the thought of going back to that hated place, he gulped down another swallow of the whisky and ground his teeth in a bid to stop the fragmentation of the fortress self he had spent nearly fifty years building. His sons, he was aware, had already breached its walls, but this was something else, unexpected and terrible in its power – he did not expect to survive the onslaught a whole man.
The barn was warm with the hot breath of animals. In the darkness, lit only by the low-burning lamp he carried, he could see their heaving shapes in the stalls and hear their raspy, contented breathing filling the close air like giants sleeping. Something in him was as happy as a child to feel the enclosing peace of the barn. It felt like a greeting, like forgiveness. Carefully, he led Barranca to his stall, hooked up the lamp and untacked the horse while it snatched hungrily at the hay from the roughly built rack above its head.
There had been no lights on in the house. As he placed the saddle on its stand with the rest of the ranch tack and put a pail of water in front of Barranca, he wrestled with the idea of entering the house’s dark interior. Concealed there, he knew, was his father’s disappointment, perhaps even his fury and rejection. Perhaps his brother too had gone to bed hating him for turning his back on them. At that thought, he decided to sleep in the barn and hope that the bright morning sun would burn away the darkest part of their anger. Giving his horse a final scratch, he lifted the lamp from its hook and cast its light around the barn in search of sacking. The end stall was empty. He threw the sacks on the hay piled there and began to unbuckle his gun belt, realising now how desperately tired he was and wanting only the oblivion of deep sleep.
“You hidin’ out too, Johnny?”
His heart missed a beat at the disembodied voice speaking out of the darkness. Lifting the lamp, he saw Elijah sitting at the back of the stall, a blanket around his shoulders. On one of the cross planks, reinforcing the stall, he had propped a photograph and his bible.
“Jesus, Elijah,” Johnny breathed. “Jesus, what the hell you doin’ there?”
The boy blinked into the glow of the lamp and pulled the grey blanket closer around him.
“I sleeps in here often,” he answered softly. “When my thoughts gets too bad. I knows when I’s gonna have bad dreams, so I sleeps with the animals. They’s don’t worry ‘bout what I gotta say.”
Johnny hesitated, torn between a desire to run from Elijah and the need to simply lie down and sleep. Finally, he hung the lamp from the stall end and sat down in the hay, allowing his eyes to adjust to the details of the boy.
“Ev’ryone bin talkin’ ‘bout you, Johnny,” Elijah said, glancing briefly at the gun belt lying next to Johnny in the hay. “Bout how you gone back to killin’.”
Johnny began to fill one of the sacks with hay for a pillow, his mouth set against answering the boy. Elijah watched him silently for some time before speaking again.
“Jeff had death in his eyes, first time I seen him, likes he din’t fit life right. I seen it b’fore. Folks like that ends up killin’ or bein’ killed. Know what I’s talkin’ ‘bout, Johnny?”
Johnny nodded curtly and pushed the pillow of hay against the wooden side of the stall.
“That’s what I’s bin tryin’ to figure ‘bout you, Johnny. Bin figurin’ it real hard since I knowed you was a gunfighter, how it is you ain’t got that look, though you done killed a lotta folks?”
Johnny leaned back on the pillow and pulled layers of sacking over himself. In the pale glow of the lamp, he gazed at the boy huddled under the hay rack. Somewhere above Elijah’s head, a mouse rustled, sending motes of dust floating into the lamplight.
“What’d you do, Elijah?” he asked quietly. “Who’d you kill?”
The boy returned Johnny’s gaze before moving in the hay to take the small bible from its place on the cross plank. He handed it calmly to the young man, his thumb holding open the inside back cover. Johnny took it cautiously and read three names written there in elaborate script: James Coffey, William Coffey, Laura Coffey. Frowning, he looked up at Elijah, the book still in his hand.
“Who were they?”
Elijah retrieved the bible and closed it between his long fingers.
“Massa’s chillun. I burned ‘em.”
Johnny caught his breath and grabbed a handful of hay to occupy his hands as he absorbed the boy’s words.
“What’d they do t’you?” he asked finally.
Elijah seemed to smile at the question, but then, half-closing his eyes, his expression quickly gave way to an almost sleepy hostility.
“Gonna ax you a question now, Johnny,” he said coldly. “You ever killed for vengeance?”
Johnny looked away to the strands of hay being ripped between his fingers.
“No,” he replied softly. “Wanted to plenty o’ times, though.”
“Why you stop y’self?”
The young man shrugged. Feeling suddenly cold, he pulled the sacking up over his shoulders and held it close around his neck.
“Those children,” he whispered. “How old were they?”
“Fifteen, twelve an’ eight.” Elijah replied. “Pretty chillun, all in white fer parties. That’s how I’s ‘member ‘em, specially, the lil girl. Ev’rybody loved that girl, even my mammy, but that sho’ din’t count in the long run ‘o things.”
Johnny lifted his head and looked boldly at the boy, now determined to hear him out whatever the consequences. His day, with its measure of loss, fury and self-discovery, made him reckless in the face of further danger.
“Tell me how it was, Elijah,” he said coolly. “I ain’t judgin’.”
The boy nodded. He moved closer to Johnny, to sit next to the young man so that their shoulders were close to touching.
“They reckoned I din’t see ‘em, Johnny,” Elijah said in a low, confiding voice. “But I seen ‘em. I seen the chillun go down to my mammy an’ daddy’s shack in the hot atternoon when I wus workin’ in the fields. They wus both bad sick, so sick the o’seer din’t make ‘em work.” Elijah gazed at the hay in front of him, illuminated gold in the lamplight. “Reckoned the chillun wus jest visitin’, mebbe takin’ soup or somethin’. They could be kind …”
Johnny, alerted to the change in the boy’s tone, swallowed back the dryness in his throat. Suddenly thirsty, he heard, with restless envy, the gulping sound of a horse drinking.
“They kill your folks?” The question came like a gunshot, surprising to his own ears. For a wild moment, he wanted to retract it, so certain was he that it could not be the case – this vision of children in white murdering black slaves.
“They burned ‘em,” Elijah replied softly. “Burned ‘em in their lil shack. Never meant to, but they did.”
Johnny heard the sound of his own quickened breathing as he watched the boy stroke the gold lettering of the words ‘Holy Bible’ tooled into the leather front cover.
“It weren’t intentional?”
“No,” Elijah shook his head. “The oldest one, Tommy, he heard ‘is pappy talkin’ ‘bout how my folks might have typhoid fever an’ how no-one wus safe from it, an’ that they’d need to be burnin’ the shacks to kill the germs, so, Tommy, he put fire to my folks’ shack while the lil chillun looked on. Only when I heard the chillun shoutin’ an’ screaming did I unnerstan’ what wus happenin’. Dropped my knife an’ ran. I ran an’ ran across that field, cuttin’ my feet on the cut maize, cuttin’ ‘em so bad …” The boy stopped and for the first time, Johnny saw tears form in his brown eyes, though he brushed them quickly away with his hand. “When I got there, the shack wus blazin’. Weren’t nuthin’ to be done. Folks were wailin’. My uncle had got hisself burned bad tryin’ to get in, an’ the chillun wus cryin’, ‘cept Tom. He wus jes’ starin’, likes a crazyman.”
Johnny hung his head, imagining the staring boy, and the shack being furiously swallowed by fire. Other images jostled for attention then, his own mother sliding down the white-washed adobe wall, her battered head leaving a trail of blood behind her, the line-shack crumbling to ash against the blue of the sky, flakes of burnt dime novels floating in the air like dirty feathers. He swallowed to bring moisture to his dry throat and touched Elijah’s shoulder with the tips of his fingers.
“I’m sorry, Elijah,” he said softly. “I’m sorry ‘bout what happened to your folks.”
Elijah nodded. Johnny got up to fetch his canteen from his saddle. Pulling out the stopper, he offered it to the boy who took it and sipped at the edge of the opening before returning it to the young man with a nod. Johnny drank thirstily, feeling the cold water running through his body as if chasing away the afflicted blood in his veins. Calmer then, he replaced the stopper and knelt down in the hay before the boy. He hesitated, searching for the right words.
“You said that it weren’t deliberate on their part …”
Elijah looked hard at the young man, all trace of tears wiped from his dark skin. His voice resumed some of its former detached, cold tone.
“Tom reckoned my folks wus in the plantation hospit’l, but no folks went there ‘less’n they wus already dead. Massa Linton reckoned hisself one of them new thinkin’ slave-owners, built us a lib’ry, a bath house an’ a lil hospit’l. Reckon he figured then we’d forget we wusn’t free to die where we chose …”
“You believed Tom when he said he didn’t know your folks were in the shack?” Johnny asked cautiously.
“I b’lieved ‘im,” Elijah replied coldly. “But I still burned ‘im, burned all the chillun.” He watched Johnny’s face for a reaction, but the young man merely returned his dispassionate gaze, until Elijah looked away to some point beyond Johnny’s kneeling figure. “I waited for a long time, waited ‘til no-one spoke ‘bout it no more. The chillun had a tree house in a field ‘way from their home. They used to play in it offen, ‘specially atter Massa died an’ their Mama wus left wi’ things alone, an’ offen I’d go there too, at night, to sit in that ol’ tree house an’ watch the moon through the slats in the roof an’ feel myself owner of it. It felt real good.” He smiled a long, slow smile and Johnny, despite his horror at what he knew was coming, understood the power of a happy memory. The smile faded and Elijah’s face hardened again. “One atternoon, I follered ‘em down. I’d already set some kerosene under the lil soap box they used fer a table, so I waited fer ‘em to settle, put fire to a ball ‘o rags an’ threw it up into the lil hole they had fer a window.” Elijah, his eyes unseeing of the present, nodded his head, his mouth set in a tight line. “I ran an’ I ran, ran back all the way to the crop fields – o’seer wus roostered on bug juice as usual since the ol’ massa died - took up my knife ‘longside my uncle an’ got cuttin’ likes I was cuttin’ for my life, an’ I wus prayin’, prayin’ fer the soul ‘o me. I knowed what I done wus wrong, but I’d do it again, Johnny. I’d do it again, ‘xactly the same.”
Johnny nodded. “No-one knew it was you?”
“All the darkies knew it, but they says nothin’, jus’ kept cuttin’ those fields, not even raisin’ their heads to look at the smoke risin’ in the distance. It was spoken fer an accident, nobody’s doin’, nobody’s fault.”
Johnny watched Elijah suddenly lie down in the hay, his body turned to the back of the stall, the blanket pulled over him like a shroud. For a moment, Johnny believed he had instantly fallen asleep.
“Been lookin’ fer you, Johnny Madrid,” the boy said abruptly. “But I ain’t found you.”
Johnny stared at Elijah’s unmoving back in weary bewilderment. Then he too lay down, his head on the makeshift pillow, and the light from the lamp, starved of fuel, flickered out the moment he drifted to sleep, images of burning trees raging in his head.
In the faint light of early morning, he felt like a man condemned. Despite the whisky in his system, he had slept fitfully, listening for the sound of hoof-beats down in the yard. His imagination had several times taken him, bare-footed to his bedroom window, to stare out into the darkness, silent but for the soft hooting of owls in the chestnut tree. Once, he was certain someone had entered his room and had stood there gazing down upon his tormented sleep. He was sure he had spoken his older son’s name out loud, sure that he had peered hard into the shadows in search of his face, wanting his quiet, powerful presence – a man, like himself, who knew about survival, who knew about wanting to overcome the cruel drag of life and celebrate what still remained.
Habit forced him into clothes, pulled him downstairs, his feet dead weights, to the sound of the Great Room’s clock and Maria banging metal against metal in the kitchen. Habit made him pause to flick his forefinger at the barometer and stoop to pet the Labrador’s dozing head as he passed. He tried to tell himself that such had been his life for almost twenty years, this barely conscious drifting through the hours of the day, these rituals that began with waking and ended in oblivion. How much could he remember of it now? The issuing of orders, the study of ledgers, the rounding-up of cattle, the dealings with men, some of whom were now no more than nameless ghosts in his memory? Almost nothing in detail, only the great, angry emptiness in the centre of him that no day, however profitable, however beautiful, however physically satisfying, had been able to fill.
He stepped outside to pull in a lungful of air as he always did, and, as always, Bess padded up behind him to take advantage of the open door. As she brushed his leg, he looked down and then up again, his gaze irresistibly drawn to the white arch to the distant right of him. For a long time, he stared at it, at the picture of the land framed in the arch where approaching figures might be seen long before their arrival.
Murdoch turned to regard Maria who was standing behind him holding out a cup of coffee, her face a mask of proud resistance to any other business than the preparation of breakfast. He took the coffee.
“He will come home, Señor,” she said firmly. “Because this is where he belongs.”
“I’m not so sure he believes that, Maria,” Murdoch replied brusquely. “Perhaps it’s too late for both of them, Scott and Johnny. Maybe I should’ve left well alone, but I’m a selfish bastard, a damn selfish bastard …”
“Tú es su padre … No es demasiado atrasado. If it was, they would not be here at all.”
Murdoch watched her turn abruptly, her solid back reprimanding him as she disappeared behind the door into the kitchen. He wondered at the wild impulse in him that had allowed such blunt self-criticism to slip from his guard in front of the housekeeper. Taking a sip of the coffee, he turned and looked out again, alerted by movement outside the barn door. Bess was pawing and nosing the ground there, her black tail waving eagerly. Putting down the coffee cup, he walked quickly across the yard and unlatched the heavy door. The dog hurried in the dim interior before him and made straight for the figure lying under sacking on a bed of hay in the end stall. His mouth dry and his heart pounding with both fear and hope, Murdoch approached the stall, Bess already nudging the shape insistently with her nose. Before he had reached the figure, a hand came out from under the sacking to push the dog away with a mumbled curse. His breath catching in his throat, Murdoch pulled Bess away and knelt down in the hay. He shook Johnny gently, knowing in that moment that this was all he wanted, the chance to know these young men who shared his blood, to feel their physical presence filling the emptiness around him, to hear their voices and laughter, making sense of what he had spent a lifetime building.
“Fuck off outta here, Bess.”
Johnny pulled his shoulder away from Murdoch’s hand, his eyes still closed in half-sleep.
“Bess might,” Murdoch said firmly. “But I’m not going to.”
Johnny, suddenly fully awake, tensed at the sound of his father’s voice. He lifted his head and turned it to look at the older man who was now standing over him, his arms folded and his expression unreadably severe. Pulling himself up into a sitting position, Johnny saw that Elijah had gone. He gazed up at his father silently, aware of the physical sensations of hunger, thirst and needing to relieve himself, but locked into this waiting for a sign from his father. For a moment, he believed that they would be there indefinitely, in a no-man’s land of uncertainty. Then Murdoch spoke.
“Looks like you’ve got two choices here, John,” he said quietly. “You can either go on up to your bed or come and have breakfast with your brother and me.”
Johnny frowned at him at first and then dipped his head. He scrubbed his hands through his hair to rid it of hay before returning his gaze to his father.
“Breakfast, I guess,” he said, rubbing Bess’s head. “Ain’t eaten since yesterday mornin’.”
Murdoch nodded. He watched the younger man get to his feet and realised that he was grinding his teeth behind the grim line of his mouth, so determined he was to maintain control of his emotions. Johnny picked up his hat and swatted it twice against his thigh before placing it in his head and walking out of the barn ahead of his father. His heart sank when he saw Scott emerge from the house, his face rigid with what looked like anger, and walk towards him with a quick, fierce stride. His stomach clenching with anxiety, Johnny was ready to shut off his feelings in the face of his brother’s fury, but instead he let out a gasp of surprise as he was pulled violently into Scott’s arms and held there in a powerful embrace.
“Damn you, Johnny!” Scott whispered fervently. “Damn you. I ought to take the skin off your backside for this.”
“Boston, I …”
“No!” Scott pulled away so that he was gripping the younger man’s shoulders. The tears in the eyes of his brother’s pale, agitated face were enough to shock Johnny into submission. “No, you don’t do what you did, brother. You don’t just take off from me. You don’t just take off from him. D’you hear me? You don’t just leave us. We don’t do that to one another anymore. D’you damn well hear me, Johnny?”
Johnny stared into the other man’s eyes, his emotions ambushed by his brother’s passion and resolution. A small, wayward part of him wanted to rebel, but even as he felt another violent shake of his shoulders, another demand of “Do you hear me!?” he knew this was what he had looked for all his life, this boundary line where he had to stop, where he was forced to stop by a loving hand. He nodded his answer, rendered silent again by the hard kiss that Scott planted on his forehead before releasing him and pulling a stalk of hay from the younger man’s unkempt hair.
“Better get yourself cleaned up.” Scott moved his cautious smile in the direction of his unsmiling father. “You look like a street urchin.”
Murdoch had watched his sons, his arms still tightly folded across his chest. Now, he lowered his head and strode across the yard towards the house, shaking his head at Tick who, canvas bag of tools in hand, called to him from the open doorway of the workshop. Scott clasped Johnny’s neck and stroked his thumb against the younger man’s cheek reassuringly.
“He needs time, Johnny,” he said softly. “You wrenched his roots right out.”
Miserably, Johnny watched his father’s retreat and, doubting now what he had been so happily certain of, he went to the wash house to throw cold water in his face, to steel himself against the harsh truths of the new day. Outside the bunkhouse, he saw Elijah polishing a pair of new boots. The boy was smiling down at them as he rubbed them vigorously, as if he and the boots shared a beautiful secret.
Scott sat down at the breakfast table, smiling at Maria as she poured him coffee. He felt elated despite his father’s stony silence behind the pages of his newspaper. He felt powerful, as if he knew the secrets of all things, as if by one touch he could heal all hurts. Knowing this feeling to be irrational did nothing to lessen its hold over him. He had been lifted from the dark corner of himself where, for he knew not how long, he had crouched like a shell-shocked soldier, flinching even at the sound of his own name.
“Sir …” He hesitated. Suddenly, the sound of the ticking clock seemed unnaturally loud. “Father?” Inside, Scott felt some hard, tight thing let go and vanish from his bones.
He saw the fingers tense upon the pages of the newspaper. Then Murdoch lowered the paper slightly and in silence regarded his son with his pale blue eyes.
“May I call you that?” Scott asked, boldly returning the older man’s gaze.
“You may,” Murdoch replied bluntly.
“Good.” Scott picked up his napkin and spread it across his lap. “Because that’s what I intend to do from now on.”
Murdoch removed his reading glasses, slowly folded his newspaper and reached for a piece of toast. Seeing the new, unopened jar of Dundee marmalade placed on the table, Scott picked it up and offered it to the older man.
“Your privilege, I believe, Father?” he smiled. Murdoch hesitated, his features softening into a brief, cautious smile as he took the jar. At the moment he was about to twist open the lid, Johnny entered the room and sat down at the table opposite his brother. He glanced at Scott and then watched his father untwist the lid with a satisfying pop as the pressure was released. Johnny’s eyes brightened as Murdoch put his nose close to the dark orange contents of the jar and inhaled. Glancing again at Scott, he could not suppress a smirk that turned into a snort of laughter as his brother closed his eyes and imitated their father’s expression of sensuous pleasure.
“Would you care to tell me what’s so amusing, John?” Murdoch asked neutrally. He sank a knife into the marmalade and placed some on his plate before handing the jar to Scott.
“Nothin’, sir,” Johnny replied warily.
“Good.” Murdoch’s tone was business-like now, but Scott dug marmalade out of the jar with happy certainty of his victory. “Get some breakfast down you before Jeff’s family arrive. This won’t be an easy day.”
Johnny shook his head vehemently when Scott offered him the heavy, dark marmalade and, instead, grabbed a biscuit from the centre of the table, tore it open, slathered it with butter and stuffed two slices of bacon in it before tearing at it hungrily with his teeth. Scott exchanged an amused look with his father and cut his toast neatly into two triangles.
“If you don’t mind, Father,” he said firmly, aware of Johnny’s sudden wide-eyed hesitation in the act of taking another bite of his biscuit. “I promised Stephen I’d drive him into Green River this morning to help him put the finishing touches to the Mission.”
“Is he well enough?”
Shrugging slightly, Scott poured more coffee into his cup.
“No, but it’s what he wants, and I intend to grant him whatever he wishes in his dying days, if it’s within my power. It’s the least I owe him for saving my life in that field.”
Murdoch nodded. He watched his son stir a little sugar into the coffee with a silver spoon. Johnny, who had been expecting his father to ask for a further explanation of Scott’s statement, saw then that Murdoch needed none, that there was understanding between the two men. Disconcerted, he swallowed down his mouthful of food with milk and, sitting back in his chair, wiped his mouth with a napkin.
“Stephen saved your life, huh?” he said quietly.
“Yes, he did,” Scott replied forthrightly, holding his brother’s intense gaze. Though his heart quailed at the thought of the name, he spoke it. “During the war, in a place called ‘Annie’s Meadow’.”
“Then I guess we owe ‘im, don’t we, brother?”
Scott hesitated and then nodded. He smiled to break the mood.
“You might not be saying that when I’m standing over you making sure you write that letter to Sam in perfect English.”
“How about if I pay my smart-ass big brother twenty bucks to do it for me?” Johnny smiled.
“Then he’ll have me to answer to,” Murdoch interrupted sternly. “You’ll write it this afternoon and no …”
“Crossin’ out or blotches,” Johnny sighed. “I know. Why can’t I just ride over to Sam’s and say sorry to the man’s face? He’d be satisfied enough with that.”
“He might be, but I won’t.” Murdoch stood up and went to the window, his hands in his pockets. “It’s much colder than yesterday,” he said quietly. “I think we might see some snow down here before long. We’ll need to set some more men on line duty to keep the cattle out of trouble.”
“I can see to that,” Johnny said quickly before pulling in a breath and dipping his head, his fingers pushing at crumbs on the tablecloth.
“Good.” Murdoch saw a black carriage pass under the arch in the near distance. “Maybe you could persuade Tod and Sam to stay on for a spell.”
Johnny nodded. Although his father’s coolness burned him like fire, he clung on to these clues that all was not lost between them.
Johnny watched the father closely. The mother was weeping and the young sister, no more than twelve years old, was silent and pale, a frown of disbelief marking her forehead as she gazed into the coffin containing her brother. Jeff’s father, a short, stocky man with his son’s sandy hair and eyelashes, held his hat in one hand and with the other, held on to the side of the coffin, his teeth chewing hard on his lower lip. Then he turned to face Johnny, searching the young man’s face in wild silence as if seeking a trace of his dead son there. Johnny felt his courage begin to fail under the older man’s desperate scrutiny and was certain he was about to drown in a maelstrom of accusations, blame and grief. Though Murdoch was standing next to him, he felt alone, his father, mute and arms folded, like a statue in his stony observation of the family. Somewhere, in the heart of him, he envied Jeff his freedom from this life of writhing, never-ending complications. He saw Sherman direct a look at Murdoch and nod his head, before returning his attention to Johnny.
“I’d like to talk to you, son …” He hesitated while he looked back at his wife and daughter. “… away from here.”
Johnny nodded, although his throat was dry with the longing to escape. He heard his father say, “My study,” and he knew that he had no choice but to confront this grieving father and the truth of his failure to avenge his son, that he had left the scene of his death with a hole inside him where the gunfighter had once so wildly and so coldly lived.
In the study, where the heavy snow-laden sky had necessitated the lighting of the lamps, he stood, his stomach churning with apprehension, while Sherman, hat in his hands, studied the picture of the ship that had carried Murdoch from Scotland to America thirty years before. Then he turned and looked at the rancher who was pouring out a glass of whisky. Sherman took the glass, drank the liquor in one quick swallow and, seeming to collect himself, nodded back at the painting.
“That’s how I came,” he said, his eyes suddenly bright with the effects of the whisky. “On a ship from Cornwall. I didn’t want to spend my life working what little piece of England I could get while the waves crashed around the rocks below.” He licked his lips and sighed heavily. “I wanted space. Space to breathe, to build a life, to raise a family, to feel like my own master. No fences about my ambitions, no fences about my land … no big landowners squeezing me into a corner …”
Sherman put the glass down on Murdoch’s desk and looked directly at Johnny.
“Did Jeff tell you why he left home, son?” he asked softly.
Expecting anything but this gentle question, Johnny frowned and struggled for a neutral response, before an impulse in him decided to lay out the truth in some of its painful clarity.
“Yes, sir,” he replied quietly. “Said you and ‘im didn’t get along too well.”
“Did he say that I beat him and stopped him from doing the things other young men do?”
Alerted to the world-weary tone of the older man’s voice, Johnny glanced over at Murdoch who offered him the merest softening of his severe expression before staring down at his folded arms.
“Yes, sir,” Johnny said tentatively. “He did.”
Sherman nodded. Turning from the young man, he clutched the mantelpiece above the fireplace and gazed at the large, framed map of Lancer’s thousands of acres.
“Truth is, son, I stopped switching him when he was ten years old, and even then I never was too intent on it. Maybe I should have been and he might not have turned out so wild. I indulged him, that’s the truth of it, but what we had was just too small for his big ideas about life … Broke his mother’s heart every time he ran off, but we always opened our arms to him when he came back.” He paused and stood back from the map, away from the heat of the fire, before turning to regard Murdoch. “That’s the way of it, isn’t it, Mr Lancer, with our children, loving them even when they slam the door in our faces.”
Murdoch lifted his head and looked inscrutably at the other man before nodding briefly. Sherman pulled in a breath and appeared to stand taller, straighter as he turned to Johnny again.
“D’you know who killed my boy, Johnny?”
The younger man nodded silently.
“Could he have walked away?”
“Yes, sir, he could.”
Johnny’s nerves screamed for release from this place where he knew his father was listening, seemingly as cold as ice, offering nothing to help him along the knife-edge of this precipice. He watched Sherman shake his head despairingly and sit down on a nearby armchair.
“What made him believe he could take on a gunfighter?”
Johnny gazed at the broken man, his mind grappling with the lies Jeff had told, the love he had left behind so wilfully, so carelessly.
“I was a gunfighter once, sir, before I came home,” he said quietly. “Jeff was with me in Bittercreek coupla months back when I put a hole in the arm of a feller who was fixin’ to make Jeff dance. I tried to talk ‘im out of it, but from then on he was bent on followin’ that road.”
A deepening frown on his forehead, Sherman seemed to consider this information for some moments before nodding curtly; then he looked up at Johnny, his expression darker and rigid with hostility.
“Will this man not pay for my son’s death?” he asked coldly. “Is there some gunfighters’ code whereby no reparation can be expected?”
Confronted by this sudden lack of overt emotion, Johnny was able to gather the shreds of his self-possession and meet Sherman’s business-like demand, although he was aware of his father moving, for the first time, to stand by the window and watch grey flakes of snow descend from the leaden skies.
“I went to Morrano,” Johnny said boldly. “I went to kill Red Jack for what he did to Jeff, but the Sheriff there already had ‘im in jail for killin’ some rancher’s daughter while he was stealin’ a horse.” Johnny turned his head to glance at his father’s broad, unyielding back. “Red Jack’s gonna hang, Mr Sherman, even if it ain’t for Jeff.”
Sherman’s features seemed to clear then in the face of the young man’s directness; to lose some of their dark revulsion.
“So we must accept that my boy brought death upon himself?”
“Yes, sir,” Johnny replied firmly. “That’s what you gotta accept, even if it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done.”
The older man nodded. Standing up, he held his hand out to Johnny.
“I know you wanted to do right by my boy, Johnny. He told his mother that in his letter. He said you were the best man he’d ever met and I can believe it.”
“Oh, yes.” Sherman allowed the briefest of smiles to escape. “We knew he was here. It sounded like he might settle at last, so we didn’t plan to make the journey over until we were certain.” He looked in Murdoch’s silent direction. “Mr Lancer, would you have any objection to burying my boy at Lancer? It seems he found something closer to happiness here than anywhere else.”
“No,” Murdoch replied, turning from the window to look straight at the other man with his pale blue eyes. “I don’t have any objection to that.”
“Thank you. Now I must return to my family.”
Johnny watched him leave the room and gazed mutely at the fire; it spat and crackled as if in defiance of the brooding silence in the room.
“You know what I want to do, Johnny?” Murdoch said suddenly, softly. Surprised to the core, Johnny shook his head. His father’s next words seemed to tumble out of his mouth with the unstoppable force of white water.
“I want you, me and your brother to saddle up Amo, Barranca and Charlie and ride them as far and as fast as we ever could the hell out of here.”
Johnny bit down a rush of strange emotion and smiled at the older man.
“I’d sure like that, but we got obligations here.”
Murdoch nodded. Closing up his emotions, he poured himself a whisky and drank it in one swift swallow; it succeeded in shoring up his shaking foundations. Johnny leaned against his father’s heavy oak desk, his arms folded.
“Why’d he lie, Murdoch?” he asked, shaking his head at his father’s offer of a drink. “Why’d he say all that stuff ‘bout his pa layin’ into ‘im and workin’ ‘im into the ground?”
Murdoch considered his son’s words, moved to needing another drink by the disappointment and sense of betrayal he could hear clearly in Johnny’s voice.
“Some people need to lie to themselves, son,” he said finally. “To enable them to live with the things they do. Perhaps Jeff had persuaded himself that his father was stopping him living the life he wanted and he needed to make it real for anyone who asked.”
Johnny nodded slowly. When he looked up, he saw that Murdoch was standing nearly opposite him, his hands deep in the pockets of his pants. The younger man met his father’s unreadable gaze with sudden defiance.
“I wasn’t gonna kill Red Jack, y’know,” he said forcefully. “I knew that the moment I looked at the spot where Jeff died, before I knew he was in jail.”
“And how d’you feel about that?” Murdoch asked mildly, holding the younger man’s intense observation of him.
“Bad, if y’wanna know.” Johnny dropped his gaze. “I feel bad.”
“I don’t know.” Johnny stood up and looked resolutely at the older man. “We gotta go bury Jeff; that’s all I know right now.”
He turned and walked towards the study door, every nerve steeled for what lay ahead, while behind him, his father quietly allowed his earlier refusal to be stirred to slip from his bones and melt away.
As the coffin was lowered into the ground under an oak tree a short distance from the ranch entrance, the snow began to fall in reluctant grey flakes. Its strange unfamiliarity intensified Johnny’s distracted emotions as he watched the Reverend Jones throw a handful of Lancer earth down into the pit. Next to him, Murdoch, dressed formally in a suit and a string tie, stood grave and still, as unyielding as rock against the cold and sorrow.
“We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.”
Johnny heard the words, intoned with the Reverend’s usual grey neutrality, but his mind was somewhere else. As he watched the little family take their handfuls of earth and cast them down onto the coffin, he remembered when he had last seen such figures crumpled into numbed grief.
Shivering with the cold, he saw himself kneeling in the hot earth only a few months before, the blazing sun of Mexico showing as little mercy as the executioners. Certain of death, he had heard the guns fire at the scrawny, wise-cracking little man who had fed and watered the rebels’ horses. The Rurales had dragged his corpse by the legs, leaving a trail of blood in the dust, to where his family were waiting, a woman and two teenage children. Her father thrown at her feet like hunted game, the girl had screamed at the men with every nerve of her being until it had seemed to him that she was draining the last drops of his useless life with her animal cry, that here was the leaving of it after twenty drifting years, a long, loud and desperate howling that would end with a bullet.
Then someone had slapped the girl. He could not remember who, but the screaming had stopped abruptly and subsided into silence as the mother had instructed her children to help her carry away the body of her husband. He had swallowed then. He could feel himself doing the same now as Tod and Sam began to shovel the dirt over Jeff’s coffin and the Reverend’s toneless voice offered comfort to the weeping mother - swallowing, swallowing back the desire to cry out at the indifferent sky, to break the moment with the sound of himself.
Rough hands had hauled him to his feet at the very moment he had decided to look up at the brilliant blueness of that Mexican sky, a mouth rank with the smell of refried beans whispering savagely in his ear. “Ahorrado de infierno, muchacho - este vez.”
Saved from hell – for now. Money had changed hands and he had been hustled from the brink of death by gruff talking strangers, past the rough graves of rebel peasants, past the girl who was kneeling in the dust kissing the unmoved face of her father, past the dogs mating noisily under a tree, until somehow he had ended up here watching his own earth covering the body of another man. Here he was - feeling the sharp sting of cold from snowflakes on his face, hearing the dull thud of shovels and Sherman’s murmured attempts to console his wife. Here he was – standing next to a man he had spent almost twenty years wanting to kill. As the family shuffled past him, he saw his father take Reverend Jones’ hand and shake it solidly.
“A waste of a young life,” Jones said solemnly. He tucked his bible under his thick winter cloak and looked at Johnny significantly before following the family up the track towards the buggy waiting to take them back to the house. Ranch hands mounted their horses and spurred them into a slow, respectful walk towards the arch.
“Tod, Sam,” Murdoch said brusquely. “Make sure you come up to the house for something to eat and drink when you’re done.”
“Sure will, Mr Lancer,” Tod replied, before turning back to his task with renewed energy.
“I’ll stay here and help them out.” Johnny made to move away from his father but Murdoch placed a hand on his neck.
“No, you won’t, son,” he said firmly. “You’ve given enough of yourself to that boy, more than enough. Come with me now.”
He was glad to obey the order, reinforced by gentle pressure from Murdoch’s hand, glad to walk beside the older man’s steady, solid stride, to hear the sound of Murdoch’s boots meeting the planet’s resisting earth with such defiant confidence as they returned to the house.
“We shouldn’t have come, Stephen,” Scott said sternly. “It’s too cold and you should be in bed.”
He had stopped the buggy overlooking an escarpment that led down to a meander in the river so curved it had now begun the long process of being cut off from the main body of the river. Under the grey sky and deprived of the sun, it seemed sullen and lifeless, although the white forms of wintering snow geese could be seen clustering fussily at its shores. Stephen lit a cigarette and smiled a little as Scott settled another blanket over his shoulders.
“It’s all the same to me now, Scott,” he shrugged. Moments later Jelly, Elijah by his side, stopped his wagon, loaded with tools, and glared his disapproval at the younger men.
“Whatya stopped fer?” he demanded. “It’s fixin’ to snow an’ I ain’t about to meet m’maker on a dirt road to nowhere wi’ a white blanket fer my windin’ cloth.”
“You go on, Jelly,” Scott ordered bluntly “We’ll meet you in town.”
“Well, I guess you Eastern folks know where y’at wi’ the snow, but we ain’t none too used to it here.”
With a disgruntled frown, Jelly whipped on the horses, rocking Elijah so abruptly that the boy had to cling on to the edge of the wagon’s wooden seat.
“You Eastern folks?” Stephen smiled. “What will it take, do you think, for you to be accepted as one of them?”
Scott smiled back before jumping down from the buggy and picking up a stone. He hurled it hard and far in the direction of the river.
“As long as it damn well takes, Stephen, because I’m not going anywhere. This is where I belong and no-one’s going to tell me otherwise.” He threw another stone and turned to look at the frail figure sitting under the thin canopy of the buggy. “I know you think I’m damned, Stephen, but I think you forget – it was you who saved me. You saved me from that bullet, an act of love in that hellish place.” He placed his hands on the edge of the buggy and gazed intently into his friend’s hollowed eyes. “I don’t know if I deserved it and I doubt you thought about that when you pushed me out of the way, but that’s what you did. I don’t know if you deserved to be found and saved by that old woman, but you were. We are the survivors of war, Stephen. It’s enough.” Scott turned his head to look across at the valley below. “It’s enough,” he repeated softly.
“We slaughtered the innocent, Scott,” Stephen said; his brown eyes seemed almost to glitter with the remains of his recent fever. Scott returned his attention to the other man.
“Yes, we did and we have to live with that, but we did it in innocence. We were good men who were ordered to do a terrible thing by commanders who kept the truth from us. That doesn’t make us bad, Stephen. It makes us servants of our lying masters. It makes us young and easily used.”
Stephen threw the stub of his cigarette to the ground and pulled the blankets more closely about his thin shoulders.
“I’ve tried to live with it, Scott,” he said, staring out at the first flakes of snow drifting past his vision. “I’ve told myself all the things you profess to believe, but I can’t reconcile myself to what we did.”
“Well, you’ve helped me realise that I can,” Scott said softly. “Like it or not, you’ve saved me again even if it’s not quite the way you intended.”
The other man took the flask of whisky offered to him.
“Then I must be content with that.” He raised the flask in Scott’s direction. “To the last survivor of our little band of brothers …”
They both drank. Scott felt the burning heat of the liquor course through his veins and suddenly he knew he could not resist what had captivated his thoughts from the moment he had stepped down from the buggy. He smiled at his friend.
“D’you remember when we ran all the way across Boston Common in the snow?”
“As I recall, it was to impress Gloria Heaton – god, she was a beauty.”
“With the tongue of a viper …”
“I never got that close …”
Scott dipped his head momentarily, surprised to feel a sudden heat flush his cheeks.
“Well,” he smiled. “My point was, I’ve never felt so alive as when we ran across that field, and the strange thing is, I knew it as I was running. I knew I wouldn’t feel so completely alive ever again.”
“I remember …,” Stephen said softly. “As I recall, I won.”
Scott removed his jacket, threw it in the buggy and began to run. He ran down the slope and into the valley. He bounded over rocks and leapt over low-growing shrubs and as he ran he felt the cold air fill his lungs and he gave in then to the urge to yell. He shouted up at the enormous grey sky. He yelled at the snowflakes as they floated into his mouth, their coldness exciting him to a wildness that lifted him out of any remaining sense of decorum. When his echoing voice finally reached the birds on the shore, they seemed to rise as one in a flurry of beating white wings and they carried his pounding heart up with them until he was certain he was about to fly.
Cursing under his breath, he screwed up the third piece of paper and looked in disgust at the blue ink staining his long fingers, before pulling fresh paper from the pile in front of him and picking up the pen. He dipped it in the inkwell, knowing from experience now, that he must allow any excess ink to drain from the nib before attempting to write, that he must tap the nib so that it made a satisfying clinking sound against the glazed china well.
To Johnny, his father’s oak desk seemed a prison, behind which he was chained and condemned, forced to listen to the everyday sounds of the ranch outside while he was trapped in servitude to the letter to Sam. After the wake, Murdoch had retreated to the forge to chase away the cold of the day with anvil and hammer. For some time, Johnny had watched the older man in front of the blazing glow of the forge’s fire, his sleeves rolled up to reveal the powerful muscles of his arms, shaping stubborn rods of iron into perfect links of chain. His father had said nothing about the letter, but the wordless display of physical power had driven Johnny into the study as surely as any direct command. Now he could hear the sharp sound of metal against metal amplified in the colder air while somewhere a chicken squawked violently and was suddenly silent.
‘Dear Sam, I am sorry for cussing you.’ He looked at the sentence. He had wanted to use the word ‘apologise’, but had balked at the thought of asking his father for its spelling. ‘You were right about my hand.’ Biting his lip, he placed a careful full stop, unwilling to concede any further. His hand, he understood now, was his own private battleground, a place where not even his family could go. ‘I will listen better next time.’ At this, he could not stop a snort of laughter at his own duplicity. Expecting him to listen to the advice of his elders when it went against his own inclinations was like asking a captured wild horse to ignore a break in the corral fence. All his instincts immediately rebelled. ‘I hope you will forgive me.’ He liked that. He genuinely desired the doctor’s forgiveness, although he knew he would have it at the drop of a smile, so indulgent was the old man of his misdemeanours. ‘Johnny Lancer.’ For a long time, he stared at the name, tracking its mysterious curves with his eyes before he realised he had never before seen it set down in black and white – this name he had played with a thousand times in his head, half in yearning, the other half in cold repudiation.
Startled, he turned his head to see his father in the doorway of the study leaning, arms folded, against the jamb. The smile he was about about to hazard in the older man’s direction failed in the face of Murdoch’s severe observation of him.
“What’re you doing in here, son?”
“Writin’ that letter you an’ Scott reckon is such a great idea,” Johnny sighed.
Murdoch walked in, his hands and upper arms still soiled with the grime of his labour.
“Is it finished?”
Johnny nodded. He handed the letter to his father who took it and studied it silently.
“That’s a fine letter,” he said quietly. When he handed it back, Johnny frowned at the dark thumbprint on the white paper.
“Dios, Pa,” he protested. “Look what you did to it.” He shook his head in despair. “Mierda, maldición e infierno – I’ll have to do it again.”
“I’m going to ignore the fact you appear to have forgotten I speak Spanish, young man.” Murdoch allowed his initial severity to give way to a cautious smile. “So how about putting that letter, thumbprint and all, in an envelope, and you and me riding into Green River to deliver it personally to Sam?”
Still taken aback by the older man’s disregard for his language, Johnny looked at his father warily.
“Which horse’ll you be ridin?”
“Amo, of course,” Murdoch replied briefly. “He’s mine, isn’t he, and before you tell me I’ve only ridden him twice around the corral, I know that, but I feel like taking a risk today.”
“Well, maybe I don’t,” Johnny said coolly.
“Then stay home,” Murdoch shrugged. “I’m going to Green River on Amo and I don’t plan to be slow about it. I want to order some new books from Sven for Scott’s birthday. Now I’m going to wash up and put on a clean shirt.”
His lips slightly parted in disbelief, Johnny watched the older man leave the room. Quickly, he folded the letter, pushed it in an envelope and, before his father came down, rushed outside to saddle up Amo with the intention of acquainting him with the idea of riding in a straight line.
It was warmer in town. Scott sat on the back porch of the old hotel in a brief spell of sunshine, his sleeves rolled up, attempting to mend a wall clock he had found under the desk in the lobby. As a boy, he had enjoyed dismantling and reassembling an old clock given to him by his grandfather, always in the hope that one day he would restore it miraculously to life. When, one summer afternoon, it had suddenly begun a slow, sonorous tick tock, he had stood before it in silent ecstasy feeling like Frankenstein bringing dead flesh to life, before, just as suddenly, it had stopped, never to wake again. Still rejoicing in his reckless dash down into the valley, Scott contemplated two small cogs in his hand and basked in the pleasure of remembering that moment of triumph, a feeling he had believed he would experience with increasing frequency as he grew, but for which he had sought in vain since Cold Harbor.
In the garden, Jelly and Elijah fashioned benches for setting under the fruit trees. Jelly was humming as he nailed slats to the frame of one bench and the boy was smiling as he planed rough planks smooth. Upstairs, worn out by the simple task of varnishing a picture frame, Stephen had fallen into fevered sleep. Scott, tenderly wiping the sweat from his friend’s forehead with a cool cloth, had heard himself lightly promising that he would oversee the opening of the mission if this sleep proved to be the last, but that there was still plenty of time left if he rested, if he took care, if he allowed others to care for him. Now, Scott realised to his quiet amazement that he wished his friend to live, that he would care for him until the end.
“Can I ask y’ a question, Boss?”
Scott looked up from the clock to see Jelly standing in front of him, a hammer in his hand. The old man looked small and apologetic. Scott regarded him uncomfortably.
“I’m not the boss, Jelly,” he said quietly. “If anything, it’s me who has to learn from you.”
“Bein’ boss ain’t about what y’know,” the old man replied resolutely. “You two boys is the Boss’s blood, so it follows you’re the boss.”
Scott smiled hesitantly, uncertain what to make of this emphatic statement from a man who had treated him with the utmost caution since the moment of their meeting.
“Well, I’m not sure I care for the title, Jelly,” he smiled. “But it’s better than ‘that fancy Easterner’ at any rate.”
The old man looked suspiciously at Scott before allowing a grudging smile to warm his features.
“What was your question?” Scott asked, secretly delighted by this evidence of possible future acceptance. He watched Jelly pick up a brass cog from the line of them he had placed carefully on the top step in the order he had removed them from the clock.
“Jes’ wondrin’ ‘bout this place,” he said, gazing at the cog’s delicate teeth. “Wondrin’ what’s gonna happen when …” He paused.
“When Stephen dies?”
Jelly nodded, his grey eyes looking up from the cog and straight at the younger man. Scott met his gaze directly and realised in that moment that for six months he had avoided Jelly as surely as the handyman had avoided him.
“I mean, I’m all fer good intentions, but there ain’t one sorry soul to call this place home, an’ I’d like t’ think we wus doin’ all this fer a reason.”
“If you want the truth, Jelly, I …”
“Fire!!! Massa Lancer, there’s fire!”
He looked across at Elijah who was pointing frantically at the roof of the old hotel. Leaping up, he almost fell down the steps in his hurry to reach the beaten ground below. To his horror, he saw black smoke pouring from an upstairs window and greedy flames already beginning to emerge through the roof.
“Stephen … for Christ’s sake …”
Ignoring Jelly’s warnings, Scott raced up the steps, wrenched open the double doors at the top and entered the guest lounge where thick smoke had already descended from upstairs like a servant intent on paving a way for its master.
“Stephen!!” At the bottom of the stairs in the lobby, Scott yelled the name and listened, his first panic now replaced by a deliberate calm, although his mind was racing and his heart thudded in his chest. Outside he could hear a woman screaming and desperate shouts, but inside the only sound was a slow, insidious cracking as if the whole building was a wooden ship tossed on a raging sea.
Hurrying into the kitchen, he grabbed a towel, plunged it in a bucket of water and wrapped it around his face before running upstairs two steps at a time. The corridor was thick with smoke and from somewhere came a bulging wall of heat although there were no flames to be seen. He called Stephen’s name again as he went to touch the doorhandle of the room where he had left his friend sleeping. Gasping with pain at its intense heat, he took the towel from his face, wrapped it around the handle and turned it. When he realised it was locked, he banged furiously on the door, yelling Stephen’s name, choking now as the smoke entered his lungs. In desperation, he began to kick the door. From somewhere, he could hear his name being called by an unfamiliar voice. Coughing and fighting to breathe, he wrapped the damp towel around his face again, leant back against the balustrade and flung himself at the door. It yielded, but the locked in flames and intense heat drove him back with their violence. Smoke blinded and choked him so that he could not even utter Stephen’s name. He could hear the sound of falling timbers and the voice came again, louder, more desperate, but he could not leave, not while he believed he could reach Stephen. At the moment he decided to plunge into the burning room, he felt himself pulled back so forcefully, he lost his balance and fell to the floor. Confused and barely able to breathe, he turned to look at his assailant before he lost consciousness, dimly aware as he sank into oblivion, of orange flames leaping as tall as houses.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt at the entrance to Carter’s Gully, spinning the horse round, a wide grin on his face as his father, still at full gallop on Amo, struggled to slow the stallion to a walk. Warmer air had chased away the impending snow and the sun had pierced the grey cloud, although it was still cold enough to make Johnny wish he had put on his winter jacket. He grabbed Amo’s reins to calm the restless animal as Murdoch stopped beside him, his face alive with heightened colour and his pale blue eyes wide open and shining with an excitement that Johnny had not believed possible from his father’s habitually severe features.
“My God,” Murdoch said breathlessly. “I haven’t ridden like that for twenty years!” He pressed his hand to Amo’s sweating neck. “My God, this horse can run!” He smiled at Johnny. “If you and I were equal in height, age and weight, boy, it would’ve been me waiting there for you.”
“Y’reckon?” Johnny returned his smile. He hopped lightly off Barranca’s back and walked the horse down to the small creek that ran quietly away into the depths of the gully. Above the riders, the giant cliffs of the gully loomed, sinister even in the sun, and from a lone pine a single crow rasped a discontented call, like a saw put unwillingly through wood. Murdoch dismounted cautiously and led Amo down to the water where Barranca was already taking noisy swallows of the cold water and Johnny was crouched at the edge filling his canteen.
“Twenty years, huh?” the younger man said thoughtfully, not looking at his father. “What put the fire under your saddle in them days, Pa? You weren’t racin’ the hands by any chance, were ya?” He stood up then, smiling across at Murdoch who was stroking Amo while the animal drank.
“No,” his father replied quietly. “I’d been away in Boston visiting Scott, hoping that somehow I could bring him home to be with us, with you, me and your mother.”
Johnny, about to drink from the canteen, stopped and lowered the canteen, listening intently as his father continued.
“Against my better judgement,” Murdoch said bitterly. “Much against my better judgement, I’d been persuaded that my son would have a greater chance of happiness if he stayed in Boston. He was six years old. He seemed settled …” Amo brought his head up suddenly from the water and shook it wildly, sending drops of water glistening in the new sunshine. “He didn’t know me.” Murdoch stroked his hand down the length of the mustang’s face. “I thought it was too late.” He sighed. “What do men know of such things?”
Johnny had never heard such regret and longing in any man’s voice. Coming from his father, a man who only seven months ago, had seemed to him as impenetrable as the rocks now glowering above them, it was enough to send his heart racing. Expectantly, he waited for Murdoch to say more, but the older man fell silent and steered Amo away from the water back to the entrance to the gully. Disappointed, Johnny drank a little from the canteen and banged the stopper in, before chivvying Barranca from the creek. He watched his father, in his rigorous, methodical way, pick up each of Amo’s feet in turn to check for trapped stones. At that moment, Johnny felt the familiar surges of both anger and yearning fill him when confronted by this rigid, prideful silence that yet again, as so often, had moved stealthily in to rob him of his blood’s history.
“So why were y’racin’?” Even to his own ears, the question sounded like a demand. “Hopin’ y’could outrun the wrong decision?” Johnny smiled thinly. “I sure know how that feels.”
“No,” Murdoch replied bluntly. He dropped the last foot and straightened himself. Closing his pocket knife, he looked directly at the younger man. “I was racing to get back to you. I ran that horse into the ground.” Abruptly, he untied his spare jacket from behind Amo’s saddle and threw it in Johnny’s direction. “You look cold, boy,” he said sternly. “Those fancy shirts of yours won’t keep you warm in these winters. You’re going to have to forget the fashion parade and look like the rest of us for the next few months.”
Still reeling from his father’s confession, Johnny caught the jacket and stared at it while Murdoch wasted no time in leading Amo over to a rock from which he could mount more easily. He was about to protest when his father, already tall in the saddle above Amo’s dancing hooves, spun the horse round and spurred it into a fast lope away from him and into the gully. Johnny quickly pulled on the jacket, laughing at its capacity so at odds with his small, neat frame and leapt on Barranca’s back, urging the horse on even while his feet sought the stirrups.
At the approach to Green River, he was riding in a steady jog alongside Murdoch who made no attempt to break his resolute silence, his face warmed by what seemed close to a smile. As they emerged from the trees that formed a natural screen between the town and its cemetery, the black smoke still rising from the old hotel was clearly visible against the blue sky.
“Dios,” Johnny whispered. “The mission.” He turned to look at his father. “The mission’s on fire.” Then realisation came that swept away a near feeling of exhilaration in Johnny’s veins. “Scott came out here this mornin’. Didn’t he say he was comin’ out here?”
Snapped out of his first shock at the sight of the smoke’s black, curling column, Murdoch charged in the wake of his son’s desperate gallop into the heart of the town, his mouth as dry as if he was giving actual voice to the repeated ‘no, no, no’ pounding in his head. It seemed the rhythmic pounding of the horses’ hooves, the chanting denials in his head would never end, that they were still there, rising up in his throat, even when they had pulled the horses up into a frantic halt at the steps of the old hotel. It seemed to him that his younger son nearly fell off his horse in his desperation to plunge into the crowd gathered outside, some who, faces awe-struck, were merely watching the building burn, others, sweating, grubby and exhausted, shirt sleeves rolled up past their elbows, who were still fighting to control it with pails of water. As if hopelessly lost in a strange land, Murdoch watched Johnny scrabble among the people, grabbing arms, lapels, demanding answers until someone, a local farmer, pointed at the building and told the young man that he had heard someone was still up there, god rest his soul. Johnny turned briefly to his father, his face set cold.
“I’m goin’ in,” he said.
“You’re not,” Murdoch replied, gazing in horror at the inferno before him where the final timbers from the roof were crashing down with a force that sent the crowd surging back in terrified gasps. Women screamed and men bellowed for more water.
“I have to get Scott …”
Murdoch grabbed the younger man as he went to climb the steps of the old hotel. Johnny fought to free himself from his father’s muscular hold, despite the overwhelming heat that formed an impassable barrier into the blazing building.
“For God’s sake, John!” Murdoch yelled hopelessly. “You can’t go in there. The whole building’s collapsing!”
“Let me go! Let me fuckin’ go!”
Raging with furious despair, the young man kicked at Murdoch’s legs, gasping out curses at his father while the ferocious heat forced the rancher to pull his son further back from the building until he stumbled and they both fell backwards into the dust. Suddenly, the strong doors of the hotel blew open in a burst of roaring flame that forced the fire fighters to drop their pails and run for their lives. Johnny lay there, stricken, his head resting back on his father’s chest, the older man’s powerful arms still round his neck and stomach restraining him.
Murdoch, stunned into a speechless confusion by the need to hold onto Johnny and by the maelstrom of the hotel’s final giant spasms of agony, at first made no response to the hand on his shoulder and the quietly spoken word. Jelly, kneeling in the dust, his face screwed up against the intense heat, shook him again, more roughly this time.
“Boss, we got Scott. We got ‘im.”
“What?” Murdoch frowned up at Jelly, almost ready to be angry with the older man for disturbing his dream like state where he was no longer certain whether he was living or dead.
“Boy’s safe at the doc’s,” Jelly insisted. “Swallered some smoke, is all.” The old man looked fearfully at the roaring flames; he took Murdoch’s arm. “C’mon, Boss. Let’s get outta here.”
Instantly, Johnny, released from Murdoch’s grasp, scrambled to his feet and pushed his way out of the crowd towards the doctor’s surgery at the top end of town. There, in a quiet room, he found his brother, still dirty from sweat and ash, lying on a clean bed. Scott’s eyes were closed and his breathing was strained and harsh through lips dry and peeled by heat. Beside him, Elijah was sitting on a small wooden chair, his pocket bible open in his hands. The boy looked up at Johnny, his brown eyes in calm and serious contrast to the continuing shouts and cries in the distance.
“Yus reckon one saved can atone for one fallen, Johnny?” Elijah asked softly. “Reckon it works likes that?”
Johnny looked from his injured brother to the boy by the bed, at first uncertain of what he meant. Then he saw the burns on Elijah’s hands, the black curls of his hair singed yellow and brown. Swallowing hard, Johnny sat on the bed and took his brother’s hand, pressed his other hand against Scott’s dirty, scorched forehead.
“It might,” he forced out finally. Then suddenly the room was invaded by the noise and movements of others: the doctor offering assurances that his brother had not inhaled enough smoke to endanger his life, - that he would recover quickly, his father almost pushing him aside in his impatience to be certain that his eldest son was not lost to him and Jelly, eager to tell them how Elijah had gone into the burning building and re-emerged, Scott slung across his shoulders. It was only then that Johnny left the room, went out into the doctor’s little ill-kept garden, and gave into tears - which he fought to resist by kicking repeatedly at the base of the stone figure of a broken-headed angel that guarded the entrance to the doctor’s vegetable plot.
He closed his eyes as the sunbeam, travelling all the long morning across the room, finally reached his face. Putting the book he had been reading in his lap, he allowed the beam’s warmth to caress his skin, enjoying the sound and feel of his own quiet breathing. For two weeks, he had lain in his room listening to the sounds of the house and ranch – someone laughing, a dropped pail, the thud of his brother’s feet each morning as he reached the bottom of the banister, the deep tones of his father’s habitual reprimand - against his wheezing, alien, painful breaths.
How they had cared for him, this new found family of his. In silent wonder, he had felt their particular love for him press close around him as if they had created a healing corral for him alone. Whenever he had woken, one or more of them had been with him – Maria tenderly wiping his scorched skin, whispering Spanish, Johnny, grubby from work, lying beside him asleep or working an elaborate brow band for his brother’s horse, Murdoch ready to read him an article from a newspaper or the next chapter of a favourite book. Once he was certain that he had felt the warm, powerful grasp of someone’s hand in his, but on opening his eyes, the hand had released him – and his father had been there sitting by the bed, glasses perched on his nose, his large, clean, calloused hands holding open an auction catalog. Murdoch had looked up and smiled, almost shyly, it had seemed to Scott, and this man, at that moment, he felt, had met him and known him completely as if they had never been apart.
Then there was Ellen. She had always been there, it seemed – feeding him, washing his skin, watching over him, resting her lips on his burnt forehead. They had not yet spoken of Stephen, even when he had been able to whisper out his first coherent words. Now, as she came through the door of the morning room, he was thinking of his friend, turning over Stephen’s last words to him, looking for a sign of his intentions that morning. All he could remember was the faint smile and the words, “I’m very tired. I’m going upstairs to rest for awhile. Commune bonum, Scott, I think.” At the time, his mood buoyant and hopeful, Scott had laughed to hear their old Latin school motto, applied whenever a hockey match was to be played, a drinking bout to be blessed, a charge to be made across a battlefield.
“For the common good,” he said, as Ellen placed the tray of coffee and biscuits on a table close to his chair. She smiled questioningly.
“Those were Stephen’s last words to me.” He watched her pour dark coffee into a white china cup. Silently, she handed it to him, her dark green dress rustling as she moved. He took it, his eyes searching her face for reaction, but she turned and went to the fire. Taking the brass poker, she thrust it into the embers before adding another log. Scott sipped his drink and watched her movements as she replaced the poker and sat down near him to pour herself coffee.
“He told me what he was going to do,” she said softly. She dropped a small lump of sugar into the dark liquid and stirred it with a spoon. “He said he was going to end his life - for the common good.”
“When did he tell you?” Scott asked. He put the cup down into the saucer and grasped the young woman’s wrist. “When did he tell you that, Ellen?”
She shook her head and pulled her wrist from his grip. Turning from him, she pressed her hands to her face, her fingers digging through her hair to scratch distractedly at her scalp.
“If I’d known he meant to burn down the mission, Scott …”
“When did he tell you, Ellen?” Scott repeated firmly. For a moment, he thought he could taste the bitter, choking smoke again in his throat. He swallowed hard and grasped her shoulders. “Tell me the truth, Ellen,” he ordered, willing himself to be unmoved by her distress.
“The night before,” she replied. Scott felt her draw in a long breath before she turned to face him, her hands leaving her face to go to his hands, her green eyes locked resolutely in his gaze. “He was so happy to have shared a drink with you, to have talked about old times. I’d never seen him so happy. He asked me to wash him and I did. I washed every part of his poor wasted body and then he told me that he was ready to die, that if he didn’t go that night then he would take his own life.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Scott whispered. He felt the pain of it all rise up in his throat and he swallowed again. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
Ellen squeezed his hands, held them to her lips and kissed them.
“He knew you’d stop him, that you’d ignore his wishes, even though you’d know he was right.” Ellen dropped her gaze to their clasped hands. “He told me that the impulse to save another soul is so strong that it sometimes overcomes that soul’s desire not be saved.” She hesitated, her voice dropping to a whisper. “Or the feeling it doesn’t need to be saved.”
Scott looked down at his hands held so powerfully in her smaller hands and leaned forward to press his forehead to hers. For a long time, it seemed to him, they stayed there, rocking slightly against each other like two small boats tied together in the gentle swell of a quiet harbour.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” she said finally, her lips against his ear now, breathing out warm against his flesh the simple words. The lurch in his stomach pitched him violently out of their communion and he pulled away to stare angrily into her eyes.
“No, I want you to stay,” he insisted. “There’s no need for you to go. You have a home here with us, with me.” He hesitated and in that moment he knew he would not say what might have been said in another place, another time.
“No, I don’t, Scott,” Ellen smiled. She reached up to push strands of his fine blond hair away from his brow. “The locusts took me from my home, and then Stephen took me from another. This time I want to walk away on my own. I want to see if I can make a new life, a decent life, in this land. Others have, so I can.”
“Where will you go?” Scott allowed his hand to linger on her scar, his fingers to trace its familiar route down her cheek. “You’ve nowhere to go, dearest girl.”
“Maria has a brother near Nogales.” Ellen’s voice surprised him with its edge of excitement, no longer caressing, placating but infused with passion. “He owns a small farm, but his wife is very sick and there are four young children to care for. Maria has helped me so much, been so loving. I want to repay her by helping her family. I can feel useful there and I feel certain that it’s meant to be, Scott, quite certain.”
“Providence then,” Scott whispered. “We are all provided for.”
“Yes.” Ellen kissed his lips. When, later, she read him another chapter of ‘Robinson Crusoe’, he listened with only scant attention to the words while he studied her lowered eyelashes, the bend in her neck, until she read, “I had terrible reflections on my mind for many months, on the account of my wicked and hardened life past, but then I looked about me and considered what particular providences had attended me since my coming into this place, and how God had dealt bountifully with me …” Scott smiled then into her upturned smiling face and his habitually rational mind allowed for a moment the unseen workings of a generous being to master his doubts. He closed his eyes and rested his thoughts against her gentle voice and the spitting, hissing fire in the hearth.
Through the snow-laden branches of the tree, he watched the two men. His father had lit his pipe and the tobacco glowing orange in the bowl seemed the only vibrant colour in the whole white landscape of the mountain’s upper slopes. His brother was smiling as he built sticks for a fire in a space cleared of snow, joking with Murdoch about something he had read in the newspaper that morning, and the older man, more relaxed than Johnny had ever seen him, was answering with something close to a laugh. Their horses, including Amo, were tethered to the pinewood line shack some distance away; the air was cold enough to accentuate the sound of their grinding teeth as they chewed at a small quantity of oats Johnny had found in the shack’s stores.
Up in the tree he waited, cold but excited, knowing they would come. Earlier in the morning, his father and brother had found excuses not to go to the mountains, until he had worn them down with taunts, sighs and even outright pleading – something he had never resorted to for anything in his entire life, not even when he was starving in the streets after his mother’s death – stealing had been a better option than begging. Now they were here, seeming at once strangers to him and at the same time, more familiar to him than his own hands.
Moving his gun hand from the rough bark of the tree, he flexed it, felt the protesting tightness of ill-healed tendons and, for now, pushed bad thoughts aside. Only last night, he had done the same when, while he was unsaddling his horse, Jelly had passed by with Elijah, the boy now firmly in the old man’s reverent keeping; Johnny had returned the slow smile with a brief smile of his own, even while the long screams of three burning children sounded in his head. A week ago, his father had organised a ceremony for the boy. A medal for courage had been struck in the town. The Townswomen’s Guild had baked cakes and little girls had written verses. During the whole long afternoon of congratulations and plaudits, Johnny had forced himself to remember only that this quiet boy had pulled his brother from a burning building; he had learned how to keep his peace even while every nerve blazed with the thought of the tree house turning black in the flames and crumbling into ash.
His brother, now healed of his wounds, knelt to the pile of wood, struck a match and ignited the fire. It smoked gently at first then with a splash of kerosene, blazed up orange under the coffee pot. Pipe in his mouth, Murdoch rubbed his hands his hands pleasurably in front of the fire, before fastidiously placing a number of old Hessian sacks on a large felled pine log close by. Johnny saw him look up then towards the trees. Frowning, he muttered something to Scott who looked back at the trees from tending the coffee pot.
Johnny watched them approach, repressing his desire to laugh out loud as they reached his tree.
“Johnny!” Scott called. His voice echoed in the depths of the huge, silent pines. “If you’re playing around …”
“Now would I do that, brother?”
He saw their surprised faces turn upwards at the sound of his voice above them. Then he shook the branches hard watching in delight as the snow descended in great clumps on their unsuspecting heads. Convulsed with laughter, he heard them yell and splutter in shock, saw them struggle through the avalanche to avoid further attack. Staggering back from the piled up snow, Murdoch brushed snow fiercely from his jacket and glared furiously up into the tree’s green branches at his unseen son.
“You’d better plan on staying up there, boy,” he growled. “Because you’re going to get a walloping from one or both of us when you do come down.”
“I second that,” Scott said vengefully, pulling his hat from the snow and knocking it against his thigh. “I’ve got the blasted stuff all down my back.”
Johnny poked his face out from the pine’s heavy branches and looked down, grinning at the two older men as they continued to brush at their clothes.
“What y’gripin’ at? Thought you two liked snow.”
“I’m going to like my revenge a whole lot more, brother.” Scott smiled menacingly and turned to follow his grumbling father back to the fire and the brewing coffee. When Johnny suddenly leapt from the high branches of the tree down to the cushioning mound of snow below, both men thought for a moment he had fallen and their hearts stopped until they saw him lying there laughing at them. Scott looked at his father.
“You’re faster,” Murdoch smiled.
“You’re stronger,” Scott replied, smiling in return.
Murdoch sat on the log and laughed a little as he reached for the coffee pot.
“Then you catch him, son and I’ll wallop him. Deal?”
Johnny smirked as his brother advanced and waited until he was within a few feet of him before jumping up from the snow. He began to run, at first through the trees and then around the line shack. He ran past the horses, slapping their rumps as he went and laughing as they threw up their heads in protest. He ran past his father, dumping a handful of snow on the older man’s hat as he passed and deftly avoiding the swipe of Murdoch’s hand, while Scott charged after him, his face flushed with excitement. His pipe back in his mouth, and a cup of steaming coffee in his hand, Murdoch watched his older son finally bring Johnny down in a burst of snow and stifled laughter.
Gasping for breath and smiling, the brothers lay side by side facing the sky, the heat of their bodies for now insulating them against the cold ground beneath them. Then it began to snow, heavy, swirling flakes from a grey sky. Scott closed his eyes, his lungs still heaving, and felt their sweet, sharp coldness settle over his glowing skin.