The Shadow Line
by  Kim

 

Chapter One 

   He’d had piss poor luck all day. To make matters worse, the Old Man had bagged himself four wild turkeys and a fat partridge. Not that his father had shown any sign of being pleased about it, as he himself might have done. While the birds had wheeled along the ground in a flurry of blood, dust and shaken feathers, Murdoch had done no more than lower his rifle and stride calmly forward to retrieve his prey. Johnny had shot a jack rabbit, but it had turned out scrawny and old, not even fit enough to be cooked over the fire his father was now so carefully building, and, as Murdoch had pointed out with a hint of a smile, they weren’t on a rabbit hunt. It was about the most he’d spoken all afternoon; it seemed to Johnny that his father was a man who liked to hunt in silence.

   Johnny leaned back into his grounded saddle and cleaned his rifle with an oiled rag while his father broke dry sticks. The air was so still in the fading light that each snap bounced like a gunshot from one side of the canyon to the other. This would be the first time they’d spent a night outdoors together. He was both excited and a little scared, he had to admit. 

   Some bird sang sweetly in the cottonwoods as it had done all day - an oriole, his father had said, and Johnny had looked in vain to catch sight of it but all he’d seen was a flash of yellow wings, lost to the dense leaves of summer.  At the edge of the river, their horses drank side by side, both sets of front hooves out of sight in the shallows. Both owners were so certain of their mounts that Amo and Barranca were untied; the illusion that the horses were free agents just stopping by for a drink pleased Johnny.

   His father had begun plucking a turkey, ripping the feathers from their sockets with ruthless ease. By Murdoch’s side was the new Winchester, won a few months before in Green River’s Dead Shot Derby.

   “Are you planning to contribute anything to supper?”

   Johnny raised his eyebrows at the question.

   “I fetched the wood. It was you who was so all set on buildin’ the fire.”

   Murdoch turned the turkey and began pulling at the softer feathers under the wings. He smiled a little.

   “It’s a long time since I made a fire outdoors.” He looked at Johnny. “Go fetch the water for coffee and I’ll get this wood burning.”

   “Yes, sir!”

   Either his father hadn’t noticed his exaggeration or, more likely, he’d chosen to ignore it. Things sure had changed. Johnny grabbed the coffee pot and headed for the river. He wasn’t complaining. Sometimes, lately, he’d thought he might walk through fire if his father asked him to. Since his brother’s troubled visit earlier in the summer, Murdoch had become what he’d hardly dared to hope for when he’d arrived home a year before – a father who was beginning to be his friend. This was their third hunting trip alone together and each time things got a little easier, more relaxed.

   He reached the river’s edge. The horses’ long shadows quivered in the slow moving current. Johnny crouched and allowed the water to slip into the pot while the horses stood there, shaking their heads at flies, content to cool their hooves. He closed his eyes and took a long breath. Yeh, things were about the best they’d ever been. Not that the Old Man let him forget who was boss. He could still, and often did, slap him down when he pushed things a little too far. Johnny minded too, hated to get on the wrong side of his father, but it seemed to be ok now, no, was ok now – to be himself and to be Murdoch Lancer’s kid. To have been a hired gun, to have killed men for money, to have done bad things, to give his pa lip, to run a little wild still when he had a mind to – it was all ok. He had only to look in his father’s eyes, hear the tone of his voice sometimes, to know it was so.

   He patted Amo’s rump before walking back to the camp. Murdoch had set the fire going and erected a rig for the pot. Before he knew it, his Old Man was instructing him on how to make up a good coffee-brewing fire, how you should take out the large pieces of wood to leave the glowing heart, before even considering setting the pot in place. His father seemed to do a lot of that lately – educating him and Scott in things they mostly knew already. Johnny didn’t mind and sometimes he learned something new. He preferred the stories, though. In the rare times Murdoch chose to share his early life, he would hang onto every word, as if to lose one would be like allowing a gold nugget to fall back in the rushing river. Now he listened dutifully, stifling sighs of impatience and a yearning for coffee and wild turkey breast. He could see that his father was taking pleasure in everything, the well built fire that was already settling into a flameless intensity, spooning the coffee, hanging the pot just so …

   “You spent many nights outside, Murdoch?”

   His father knifed the head and feet off the turkey and threw them in the fire. The bird’s eyes sizzled and popped, before the whole small head was consumed in the fire’s core.

   “Not so many, no. You?”

   “A few, yeh.”

   He met his father’s gaze and, as quickly, dropped it again. It was hard to talk about such things without raising unwelcome ghosts. Did his father suffer the same ache of longing to share, mixed with the fierce desire not to? He scraped the hard ground with a stick, dislodging little stones.

   “Did you have company?”

   Johnny frowned a little, set the stick zigzagging hard in the dirt.

   “Sometimes, yeh, but none that I cared to keep.”

   “Never?”

   He raised his head, encouraged by his father’s gentle tone.

   “Maybe one.” He nodded. “Yeh, maybe one.” He looked up at the sky. “It’s a fine evenin’.” He smiled at Murdoch. “You reckon your old bones’ll be up to a night on the ground?”

   His father poured coffee in two tin cups and handed one to Johnny.

   “You reckon a boy who doesn’t show respect to his Old Man will mind going hungry?”

   Johnny laughed. He took the coffee and blew on it before sipping it carefully. Murdoch put the meat to roast over the fire and settled back against his saddle, the coffee mug cradled in his hands.

   “Tell me about this ‘one’, Johnny,” he said. Johnny looked up from his contemplation of the cooking meat.

   “Huh?”

   “The man whose company you cared to keep.”  

   Johnny stared at his father, confused by the calmly spoken request. Recovering himself, he swallowed a mouthful of coffee.

   “Unless of course, it was a young woman …”

   “No, it wasn’t.” His heart was racing and the coffee wasn’t helping. He’d walked right into this and there was no getting out of it. How could he deny this man an honest reply, even when it might cause them both pain? He took a breath and heard the words come out raw from his throat. “He was a hired gun.”

   He chanced a look at his father. Murdoch’s long legs were stretched out and he was resting the heel of his left boot on the toe of the right one. His gaze was on his boots until he looked across the fire, crackling with the fat dripping from the meat, at Johnny. It was nearly dark now and the horses had come up from the river to rest under a tree.

   “Tell me about him. When did you first meet him?”

   Johnny hesitated. Should he tell his father that the first time he had seen the gunfighter, he had pissed himself, so great had been his terror?

   “Saw his boots first,” he said. “I was hidin’ under a table in Señora Dorantes cantina.”

   “How old were you?”

   “About eight, I guess. Some older kids had been chasin’ me, so I dived in the cantina. I was real small and the Señora was used to me bein’ around anyway. She was like an abuela, like a grandma, y’know?”

   His father nodded. He reached across to turn the meat over the fire.

   “She fed me when Mama was sick.”

   “Was your mother often sick?”

   Johnny met his father’s gaze. They had rarely spoken of Maria since Bittercreek and even then only in a few words, skirting the subject like two men afraid of catching a disease.

   “She got real tired sometimes,” he replied. “Took to her bed for a few days when she got to feelin’ like that.”

   “Who took care of you?”

   Johnny smiled.

   “Took care of myself, Murdoch. It ain’t that hard, y’know. I was small, but I could run real fast.”

   His father cleared his throat and poured himself another cup of coffee. Johnny drained his own mug and held it out with a smile. He’d started now. The sky hadn’t fallen. The river hadn’t broken its banks and swept them away. He could tell a little more and stay safe. Murdoch filled his mug. He wasn’t smiling, but his face looked strong, not about to fall apart in some kind of regret. That was what Johnny couldn’t endure, not now.

   “So you were hiding under a table?”

   Johnny sipped his coffee. It was a good brew, the best he’d tasted for awhile. He nodded.

   “Higuera, his name was. Jarini Higuera. Everyone knew him. He was some kind of hero, even while he scared us, because he wouldn’t hire out to anyone. He had to be sure a man deserved it, even a gringo.” He chanced a smile, but his father’s expression remained neutral. Johnny felt his heart race and heard the words tumble from his mouth as if gathering to avert danger. “He had these boots. Real shiny with silver buckles and fancy stitchin’. I was so close to them I could almost touch them.” He smiled. “Boy, you think I dress wild sometimes, but Higuera was a real peacock, even in Mexico. None of us kids even had shoes, and the older folks wore what they could make outta grass or straw, so those boots … I swear, it was like a king visitin’.”

   This time, his father smiled briefly. His heart slowed, although he still felt like he was in a dark tunnel. He wished the meat would hurry up and cook. He was starving and it might throw this train off its tracks.

   “So how did you get to know Señor Higuera?”

   Johnny dabbed his finger on the cooking turkey meat and licked it. It only made him hungrier.

   “Didn’t have much choice. He pulled me out from under the table and held me up so I was facin’ him, eye to eye, smellin’ his breath. You know what?”

   “What?”

   “He was young, maybe a couple of years older than Scott is now, I guess. I thought he’d be old and fat. Seems we’d been hearin’ about ‘im forever, but he was thin and good-lookin’, no scars like we’d been told.”

   “Were you scared?”

   Johnny laughed.

   “Boy, you bet I was scared, Murdoch! This guy was the deadliest pistolero our side of the Rio Yequi. I thought he was goin’ to fry me up with some black beans for his dinner.”

   His father smiled again. Why did it seem to get harder though to believe that Murdoch was ok with this? Jesus, it had been easier a year ago when he’d made it clear that the past was a place he didn’t want to visit. It had hurt at the time, that his own father had shut the door on eighteen years of his life, but he hadn’t exactly been too eager to share it anyway. Things were different now. He wanted to tell a few of his own stories, just like his father told him his tales of Scottish fishermen and skirmishes with Indian raiders. Recalling Higuera wasn’t a chore. In fact, it pleased him to think of the Mexican gunfighter, but he knew it wasn’t like catching the biggest fish in the loch and being dragged into the water and nearly drowning while holding on as the monster thrashed its tail in the waves. He knew it wasn’t like that.

   “Well, seeing as he clearly didn’t eat you for dinner, what did he do?”

   Johnny raised his eyebrows at the near joke.

   “Laughed in my face and called me *‘muchacho de ojos azules’. Then he put me down and walloped my butt so hard I went flyin’ across the cantina and out into the street. When I quit rollin’ in the dirt, I looked up and Higuera was standin’ there, lookin’ down on me. He was big for a Mexican. I was used to beaten down little men tryin’ to scratch a livin’ from nothin’, but he was like a statue against the blue sky, and he was clean, shiny, like a hero outta one of those stories the ancianos used to tell us.”

   Murdoch took the turkey meat off the fire and cut it into chunks. He put them in a pot with potatoes, onions and peppers in a stock and added a hot chilli sauce. The steam curled into the dark. Johnny would gladly have eaten the turkey straight off the spit just as he had done on other nights alone on the trail, but his father’s easy command of cooking had him transfixed. He realised that his mouth was watering and he swallowed hard.

   “So what did he do then?”

   “Huh?”

   “What did Higuera do then?”

   “He told the boys who’d been waitin’ outside the cantina for me that he’d tear off their balls and eat ‘em for a snack if they ever touched me again.”

   His father hesitated in cutting bread.

    “Why did he do that?”

    Johnny shrugged.

    “He never told me, but he was the first, Murdoch. He was the first man who ever stood up for me and it meant somethin’. It really did.”

    Murdoch nodded. Johnny watched him stir the stew and waited for another question, but it didn’t come. He wanted to ask his father what he was thinking, but the idea seemed so loco it hurt his head, so he lay back in his saddle and gazed up at the stars. His brother, who knew more than was good for a man’s peace of mind, would be pointing out particular ones, naming them, joining strings of them across the whole black sky. He didn’t care for that. It was bad enough knowing they were balls of burning gas a crazy number of miles away. He just liked the way they flickered if you stared at them long enough, like they were sending messages from their dark world.

   “Johnny.”

   His father was offering him a plate of food. He sat up quickly and took it. It was hard not to bolt it down like he usually did if his father wasn’t around, like all the cowhands did, like he’d done since he was a kid. Murdoch always ate slowly, chewing every mouthful as if it was the last. Johnny couldn’t see the sense in it, but he’d been scolded more than enough by both the housekeeper and his father. He’d found that if he put down the fork between each mouthful, he slowed down.

   “Good?”

   He nodded at his father.

   “Yeh, it’s real good. Best turkey stew I ever tasted.”

   Murdoch smiled. He poured water into his tin cup. Johnny knew another question was coming in the way his father looked into his cup after he’d taken a drink.

   “How long were you with Higuera, Johnny?”

   He swallowed his mouthful and chased it down with river water, cold and sweet.

  “Three years, maybe. After Mama died, I met him again. I’d just got out the mission school.” He glanced at his father; smiled. “Escaped it. Went back on the streets.”

   “Was it so bad,” Murdoch said. “The mission school?”

   Johnny put down his cup. There were some things he’d decided he would never tell his father; it wouldn’t help anyone now to tell of the beatings, the weeks he had spent locked in a room by himself while the priests waited for him to confess his many sins, the nights he had prayed for rescue until the day he had realised it was only earthly action and an open window that would save him. God sure wasn’t listening to a ten year old half-breed who’d shot his mother’s killer. He smiled at his father.

   “You know me, Murdoch,” he said. “I ain’t too partial to folks tellin’ me what to do.”

   His father returned the smile, but there was no pleasure there.

   “So you found Higuera?”

   “He found me, stealin’ bread from the saddle bags of a fancy black horse outside a cantina in Los Vidrios. Happened to be his horse. Some luck, huh?”

   Murdoch nodded. He had stopped eating and set the plate aside. Still hungry, Johnny dragged a piece of bread in the sauce and filled his mouth with its spicy comfort, while his father made another brew of coffee. Somewhere, beyond where the horses were resting, two owls called softly to each other. How glad he was of the fire and his father’s company. Truth to tell, he had often been frightened out on the trail alone at night, even at sixteen, when his name had begun to strike fear in grown men’s hearts.

   “Was he good to you?”

   He swallowed, and swallowed again to get the food down his throat.

   “Yeh,” he said finally. “I got whupped plenty, but for stuff I’d done wrong, not for just bein’ alive. He fed me. I had somewhere safe to sleep. He taught me how to shoot, how to make another man believe he was never goin’ to win just by lookin’ at him. Plenty of times, I saw Jarini face men down without even touchin’ his gun. I wanted that kinda power, Murdoch.”

   His father placed the coffee pot back over the fire. He pulled out his pipe and tobacco from his saddle bags.

   “When I sent the agents out looking for you each year, I told them to look in farms and villages. That’s where I’d hoped you’d be, learning how to plough a field, at worst. At best, in a school getting an education.”

   His heart pounded in his chest. Fear crawled hotly over his skin. Suddenly, the fire that had been so comforting was a devil’s pit, scorching him.

   “Well, that just ain’t the way it turned out, Murdoch.”

   His father stopped in the act of filling his pipe and looked at him calmly.

   “I know that, Johnny. I was stating a fact, not making a judgement.”

   “It sure sounded to me like you were judgin’. You think I don’t wish things’d been different? Jesus, I’d’ve given …”

   He got up quickly, his eyes smarting with tears. He had gone too far, expected too much. He should’ve kept his mouth shut. That way he could’ve gone on kidding himself that his father had no bad thoughts about what he’d been. Gone on kidding himself that it was enough he had found his family, that the times he had wanted to shoot himself for lack of belonging, didn’t matter now.  He went to the horses, scrubbing at his eyes with the heel of his hand in the darkness.

   “Johnny …”

   “I’m alright, Murdoch,” he called back. “Just goin’ to check the horses.”

   “Johnny.” His father had followed him to the trees. Stood there as he stroked the palomino’s warm neck. “I’m sorry I upset you, son. It wasn’t intentional, just an old man’s blundering ways.”

   He was embarrassed now, wanted to forget it and get back on an easy footing. He wasn’t some green kid anymore, after all.

   “I told you before,” he said, out of the shadows under the trees. “You ain’t old.” He paused. “You reckon Amo’ll be ok? He’s used to bein’ in the barn at night.”

   “He’s got good company,” his father said. “He’ll be alright.” 

 

   Late in the night, he awoke suddenly. The fire was still glowing out of the ashes. He was warm under the blanket and, hearing nothing but the breeze in the trees, closed his eyes to return to sleep. Another noise, a clink followed by the sound of pouring liquid, made him open his eyes again.  His father was sitting up, a bottle of his good Scotch between his legs. It was a quarter empty and Murdoch wasted no time in downing the cup he’d just poured.  Johnny hadn’t seen him pack it; he might just have turfed it right back out of his father’s saddle bags at the first opportunity if he had. Although his brother had warned him about meddling in how much their father drank – they’d both been burned once or twice already for it in the three months since Iain’s visit – he found he couldn’t help himself.  It didn’t happen every day, but a certain mood would suddenly come upon his father. Johnny always sensed it straightaway, like he knew when a horse wasn’t feeling right, just by looking at its shape in the distance.

   When it happened, his father sometimes drank alone, in the safety of his room or study. That was bad enough, but the times when he seemed to forget himself and drink more than his once customary two shots after dinner, Johnny found hard to bear. It was true that Murdoch never appeared drunk, never got violent or quarrelsome in the way of many men, but this silent gloom was worse. Was this his fault? Had his foolish, rambling talk about Jarini Higuera unleashed what was always gnawing under the surface of their everyday lives?

   “Why don’t you get some shut-eye, Murdoch? We got a long ride back tomorrow.”

   Murdoch had been about to pour another shot. He stopped, the bottle held over the cup, his gaze averted from his son.

   “I will soon. Go back to sleep, Johnny.”

   The familiar warning tone was enough. Any objection would be met with a blast of icy resistance to a son trying to tell a father what to do. He turned over under the blanket and closed his eyes. Maybe his father would stop now, knowing he was awake and had seen the bottle.

   “Johnny?”

   He hesitated. “Yeh?”

   “What happened to Higuera?”

   “I ain’t talkin’ about this anymore, Murdoch.”

   “I just want to know what happened. Did he die?”

   “Yeh, he died. Banditos tore up his body so bad with bullets, his own mama wouldn’t’ve called him her own. He sure as hell deserved better.”

   “And you? Where did you go?”

   “I told you. I’m done talkin’ about this. It ain’t doin’ any good.”

   He lay very still and listened for the sounds that would tell him that his father had quit drinking and settled down to sleep. Sooner than he’d hoped for, he heard the stopper being twisted into the bottle neck and then the sharp tugging of ties being undone to release the blanket behind his father’s saddle. It seemed a long, long time before he heard the quiet snores he’d been waiting for. By then, the entire glorious promise of the day seemed to have vanished with the sun. 

 

   He was awoken by a sharp slap to his backside.

   “Get up, sleepyhead. We could still bag ourselves a couple of quails for Maria before we head home.”

   “Jesus, Murdoch.” He sat up and scrubbed his hands through his hair. He could smell bacon and coffee and his stomach rumbled. His father was leaning over the fire, turning the bacon in a pan, and looking fresh as a daisy. He could almost believe last night had been some sort of bad dream. Hell, let it be so. The sun was coming up over the mountains and his father was smiling at him.

   “Go wash up in the river,” Murdoch said. “Breakfast will be ready when you get back.”

   Still snagged by sleep, he threw off his blanket, grabbed his shirt and boots and went down to the river. Opening his pants, he took a long, satisfying piss into the water, letting himself wake slowly to the sounds of the birds and the feel of the cold morning air on his bare skin. The horses were close by, grazing at tussock grass. He was glad to see them calm and contented. It was still a fine thing to see Amo so at ease with the world when less than a year ago he’d been terrified of his own shadow. He did up his pants and crouched down to wash his face. The water was cold and did the job of waking him up fully. By the time, he returned to the camp, the coffee was ready and his father was pouring it into cups. Johnny sat down cross-legged and drank his gratefully. He watched his father place bacon and corn fritters on plates, and wondered just how long he’d been up.

   “Whip’d better watch his job while you’re around, Murdoch.”

   Murdoch smiled and handed him a plate. Johnny forgot his rule and shoved half a corn fritter in his mouth. Remembering, he glanced at his father and chewed it slowly.

   “Whip’s job is safe from me, Son, believe me. Anyway, I’d like to see Whip make head or tail of that new army contract we received on Tuesday. Captain Hennessey clearly believes we can supply one type of beef for his men and another for the reservations and charge accordingly.”

   “Tough old cows on the cheap for the Indians, huh, and prime beef for the soldier boys?”

   “Exactly. He calls it budgetary constraints. Blames the government.”

   “Guess if he don’t get it, he’ll just give ‘em less.”

   “Probably. I just hope Scott’s talked some sense into him.”

   Johnny laughed.

   “Either that or wrapped him up in so many high-falutin’ words, he’ll pay top dollar for every beef we can supply just to get Ol’ Scott outta his hair.”

   Murdoch smiled and they ate breakfast in silence for awhile. Talking business had helped Johnny into an easier frame of mind. When his father had finished his meal and picked up his new Winchester, he saw another path out of the sticky mess of the night.

   “You goin’ to let me use your rifle today?”

   Lips pursed, his father made a long show of considering the question while he polished the silver breech and its silver stag running through a silver forest.

   “Well, I don’t know about that, boy,” he said finally. “This is one very fine gun. I’m not about to let any Tom, Dick or Harry use it.”

   Johnny looked at his father suspiciously.

   “Seein’ as I ain’t any of those fellers, I reckon you could let me use it.”

   Murdoch smiled. It still made Johnny’s skin tingle when his father smiled at him like that, as if he’d been chosen for a special prize. Once, in the short time he’d attended a village school, he’d been awarded a wooden crucifix for good conduct. The prize hadn’t mattered, but the glowing smile of the teacher had. He’d carried it through many unlighted caves and tunnels.

   “We’ll see,” Murdoch said. He put the rifle in its sheath and stood up. “Finish your breakfast and we’ll get going.”

   Johnny sat with his coffee and watched his father walk down to the river to wash the plates. It was a perfect morning and part of him didn’t want to go home. His gaze went to his father’s saddle bags. The neck of the whisky bottle was just visible under the leather flap. He was sorely tempted to tip the contents into the river and watch the water carry its poison away, as if by doing so he could drain the need for it once and for all out of his father’s blood.

 

Chapter Two 

   How had his brother put it? If you let the genie out of the bottle, it’s the devil’s own job to put it back. Well, Scott was right, as usual. All the way home, two quails apiece hanging off their saddles, he’d thought of Jarini Higuera. It had been easy to concentrate on the memory; his father didn’t talk much when he was riding. It had been a good morning, though. Murdoch had been in the best of moods, teasing him, allowing him to use the Winchester, praising his shooting. They had lain side by side on a ledge, rifles at the ready, whispering to each other so as not to disturb the birds, and he knew that if he’d ever had a dream of what having a father would be like, then this was it.

   So why had Jarini climbed so easily to the front of his thoughts? Jarini Higuera: gunfighter, gambler, womaniser, opium addict. Murdoch really didn’t need to know that his little kid had been taught not only how to kill a man quickly but how to cheat at cards, how to put his dick in a whore’s quim, how to inhale just the right amount of opium so that you could see strange visions, but not get too lost in them – only he’d thrown up violently. Jarini had laughed and suggested he stick to tequila, which he had done, since the age of twelve. No, looking back at it all now, it was clear Higuera had been a pretty bad influence. Yet, Johnny knew he’d loved him, would’ve kissed the man’s boots if he’d asked him to.

   He’d died bloodily and not quickly. A friend had betrayed him, a Judas who’d jingled his blood money in Higuera’s face as the gunfighter had bled to death in the dust under a scorching afternoon sun. To this day, Johnny didn’t know why the bandits had let him go, let him scurry off into the rocks like a scared rabbit. He’d planned there and then to avenge Jarini’s death, to grow tall, wear a huge sombrero and fancy boots, enter some cantina where the bandits were drinking and kill every last one of them. But something Jarini had once said had set him on a different path. They’d been sitting round a fire, five men and him, drinking tequila in the dark. He’d asked some fool question, like; would any of them seek revenge if a friend was killed? The other men had roared with laughter as if he’d told some great joke. Jarini had pulled him close. Tequila and chilli breath in his face. We are not like other men. We live in the shadows and whatever happens to us is outside the laws of other men. If I die by the gun as I have gladly lived by it, then it is only perfect and nothing needs to be done about it.

   Only perfect. They were the words he had taken into his own gunfighting life. Was that why he hadn’t been afraid to die? Was that why part of him had been angry when the Pinkerton agent had hauled his ass from the firing squad? He’d been ready, for sure. Tired of being on the run, tired of being chased, tired of drinking himself into a place where it felt alright to kill another man. Barely twenty and he’d felt like he’d lived a hundred years and not good ones, not ones he would’ve chosen to live again.

   He looked at his father, riding alongside him, tall and powerful in the saddle. What would Jarini have made of this gringo rancher who’d carved a fortune out of land taken from the defeated Californios? This man who’d cheated him of his perfect end? Who’d taken his chicken shit life and allowed him to grow another? He knew he didn’t much care; only that he’d kill any man who tried to take Murdoch from him. 

 

   The ranch was quiet when they arrived home. Before their trip, Murdoch had ordered some men on fire watch duty. The unlucky ones, young and far down the pecking order, had been set behind an ox team to plough firebreaks. It had been a hot summer and a neighbour had already lost hundreds of acres and dozens of cows to the burning of the dry yellow grass. Other hands were out line riding, mending fences or doctoring cattle for blowflies. Last week the whole crew had finished moving the cattle to fresh grazing. Even his father had lent a hand, rounding up stragglers on Amo with a grace and ease that had left both his sons wide-eyed with surprise. This major task completed, Murdoch had told the foreman he was taking his boy on a hunting trip for a couple of days and could he run things in his absence? Torn between delight at the idea and sheer embarrassment at it being announced he was being taken anywhere by his father, Johnny had met Sam Wester’s amused look with a quick smile and a dip of his head. It hadn’t made him any less happy in his heart, though.

   It was Jelly, as usual, who emerged from his workshop to greet them. The old man rarely left the ranch. He was always to be found polishing, painting, digging or hammering something and it seemed to Johnny that the ranch had changed even in his own short time there – like someone had smoothed off its hard edges with a skilful hand. Made it a home. Jelly took Amo’s reins. He winked at Johnny before looking up at Murdoch.

   “You had a good trip, Boss?”

   “Very good, thank you, Jelly.” Murdoch dismounted and untied the quails from his saddle. “Is everything alright here? Scott home yet?”

   “Yessir. Everythin’s dandy and yessir, Scott beat ya home by a half hour an’ he’s takin’ hisself a bath.”

   “Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Murdoch said, smiling up at Johnny. “I swear that boy’ll rub himself away if he washes any more often.”

   Still in the saddle, Johnny looked towards the bathhouse and grinned.

   “Maybe he’s seein’ Miss Martha Black later. I hear she’s none too partial to the smell of horse an’ sweat.”

   “Well, it appears your brother is very partial to Miss Black, so I guess we can spare the water.” Murdoch handed the quails to Jelly as Johnny jumped down from Barranca. “Take these into Maria for me, Jelly. Johnny and I will see to the horses.”

   “Sure thing, Boss. Oh, I gotta tell ya, you’ve had a coupla visitors. One of ‘em’s gone and the other ain’t.”

   Murdoch frowned.

   “You’d better tell me more.”

   The quails dangling at his side, the old man’s chest seemed to expand with the excitement of telling his news.

   “First ‘un called hisself Aaron Trencher. Said he was the new owner of the Rockin’ B, Mr Springer’s place.”

   Johnny saw his father’s stern expression darken further at the mention of Henry’s name. He knew Murdoch hadn’t yet forgiven his oldest friend for abandoning his family and his land.

   “Yes, Jelly. I’m aware of that.”

   “Well, you can make up your own mind about ‘im, Boss,” Jelly continued, without seeming to notice the sudden chill in the air. “But he don’t seem right to me.”

   “What d’you mean, Jelly?” Johnny asked. Was it habit that made him immediately sense danger? Jelly could be a superstitious old cuss, but he wasn’t often wrong about the cut of a man.

   “Well, I mean he wasn’t none too friendly, even though he came on the purpose of neighbourly visitin’, an’ he didn’t look like no rancher to me. More like one of them city types. Face fulla pox scars, too.”

   Johnny looked across his horse’s neck at his father.

   “We goin’ to return the visit, Murdoch? I’d sure like to see what kind of neighbour Mr Trencher is goin’ to make.”

   “So would I, Son, but not today. Maybe tomorrow morning once I’m certain there are no problems here to deal with. What about the other visitor, Jelly?”

   “Oh, he’s in the barn.”

   “The barn!?”

   Jelly raised his hands, the quails swinging on both of them, and shook his head.

   “Now before ya start yellin’, Boss. He put hisself in there with his danged mule. Said you’d understand. Wouldn’t have it any other way, though I told ‘im we got plenty o’ spare cots in the bunkhouse …”

   Murdoch looked towards the barn. To Johnny it seemed his father wasn’t bewildered, as he certainly was, but in the grip of a growing disbelief.

   “What’s his name, Jelly?”

   “Wouldn’t say, Boss. Just said you and he knew each other way back an’ he’d jest wait on your comin’ back home.”

   “It can’t be,” Murdoch said quietly. “It can’t be him.” He set off in the direction of the barn, as close to a run as Johnny had ever seen him go. Though he’d planned to go to the bathhouse and josh his brother over Miss Martha Black, his curiosity had him grabbing both horses’ reins and following his father.

   Inside the barn was a mule, a ray of sun showing up the thick dust in its coat. Immediately, it put back its long ears and bared its teeth at the two strangers. Johnny glared at the animal; to his mind mules were fit only for eating, and then only if you were near dead with hunger. Close by the mule, asleep in the straw, was an old man with white hair and wearing a long coat, a twin-barrelled shotgun at his side. Completely still now, Johnny placed his hand over his revolver, though the sleeper seemed closer to death than life.

   “Pete?” His father knelt down in the straw. Johnny ached to warn him, but stayed silent. “My God. Pete.” Murdoch shook the old man’s shoulder. The face was brown from the sun, grooved and pitted with age. It wore a short and scrubby grey beard. Johnny was certain he’d never seen such an ancient white man. Indians and Mexicans, yes, but he’d always figured it was as Jarini had said – gringos didn’t have the right blood to last long in this land. Johnny had believed it, too, until he’d got to know his father and brother, and not wanted it to be true anymore.

   The face woke slowly like an old turtle’s, snuffling and bleary-eyed, until with a sudden movement, large bony hands grabbed the shotgun. As quickly, Johnny drew his revolver and cocked it.

   “You’d best put that gun down, old man.”

   Murdoch put out a hand to still him.

   “It’s alright, Johnny. He won’t hurt me. God knows, he won’t hurt me. Put your gun away, Son.”

   Johnny held the stranger’s gaze for a few moments, his revolver still aimed squarely at the heart. It surprised him to see the steel there now in the pale blue eyes. The old man kept a hold of the shotgun and was clearly not afraid.

   “Johnny.” His father’s tone was sharp. “Do as I tell you.”

   Reluctantly, and with his gaze still hard upon the old man, he uncocked the revolver and holstered it. Immediately, the old man’s face broke into a smile and he turned his attention to Murdoch.

   “God Almighty, Scotty, I thought I was a goner then, for damn sure.”

   Still smiling, he laid the shotgun down and accepted Murdoch’s help in getting to his feet. Johnny watched his father grasp the old man’s arms and shake him a little as if making certain he was real. When Murdoch spoke, Johnny was struck by the emotion in his voice.

   “Pete,” Murdoch said. “I never thought to see you again.”

   “Thought I was dead along with the buffalo, I’ll bet, boy.”

   They embraced then and all Johnny thought he’d learned about his father was turned over again like green hay for another spell in the sun. Murdoch was hanging on for dear life to this man and he was struck dumb by the sight of it. Finally, still resting his head over Murdoch’s shoulder, the old man spoke.

   “You’d better introduce me to this wolf cub, Scotty. He ain’t looking too friendly.”

   “Of course, of course,” Murdoch said, wiping his eyes. Jesus, had his father been crying? He was grabbed by Murdoch to stand him in front of him, his father’s large hands on his shoulders.

   “This is my boy Johnny - my younger boy. I’ve got two.” Murdoch squeezed his shoulders gently. The strong feeling was still in his voice. “Johnny, this is Pete Thorn, a very old and very dear friend from a time I’d almost forgotten.”

   Johnny nodded and allowed a small smile to accompany the handshake with the old man. Thorn’s clasp was strong and the man smelled powerfully of the road.

   “Pleased to meet you, Mr Thorn.”

   Thorn hesitated in the face of Johnny’s cool greeting, and then laughed out loud, making his mule step aside in alarm and bare its long teeth again.

   “I can see this boy is goin’ to take some convincin’ that I’m of the sociable persuasion, Scotty.”

   Johnny frowned

   “Guess I’m just wonderin’ why a man would need to sleep in a friend’s barn with a shotgun at his side, Mr Thorn.”

   “Johnny, that’s enough,” his father warned, firming his grip on Johnny’s shoulders. “Pete’s my oldest friend and our guest.”

   “It’s alright, Scotty. The boy’s just cautious. Nothin’ wrong with that.”

   Johnny watched the old man’s face. Thorn was staring straight back at him, showing no sign of being worried by the question.

   “If you’d lived as long as I have, son, you’d understand why.”

   Still suspicious, Johnny nodded. Murdoch was happy though, as happy as he’d ever seen him. His father picked up the old man’s saddlebags and grasped the arm of Thorn’s grimy coat.

   “Let’s get you fixed up with a room, Pete; then you can tell me what you’ve been up to these thirty years.”

   “Thirty years, by God.” Thorn breathed deep and turned to pat his mule’s neck. He smiled at Johnny, the warmth of it taking him by surprise. Now he’d woken, Thorn looked a little younger, more alive. “This is Sancho. He’s travelled long and hard with me. I’d appreciate it, Johnny, if you’d give ‘im a little brushin’ an’ some good oats.”

   He was about to object, even to refuse outright that he should be directed into seeing to the needs of some moth-eaten ornery damned mule. One glance at his father told him he’d better think otherwise. He nodded reluctantly.

   “I’ll do it after I’ve seen to our horses. They’ve had a long ride, too.”

   “A thousand miles?”

   He looked up quickly and again met Thorn’s direct and penetrating gaze, as fixed as an eagle’s. It was a match for his own brand of chilly stare.

   “No, Mr Thorn, I guess not.”

   He watched them leave the barn. His father had his arm wrapped round the old man’s shoulders. Murdoch, more pernickety in his personal habits than any man he’d ever known, seemed not to notice that Thorn was dirty and stank to high heaven. Clearly, his father loved the man. He supposed he ought to be glad of it - a chance to hear another of Murdoch’s stories, something he was sure he could never tire of. Thirty years! - Murdoch had known Thorn when he was twenty or so, his own age, fresh off the Mary Piper, maybe. It seemed an impossible thing to imagine. Part of him thirsted to know every detail, down to the food they’d shared and the horses they’d ridden. The other part of him wanted to kick Thorn and his damn mule off the ranch and back down the road they’d come.

   He turned to the mule. It was staring at him with the same intensity of its owner. He’d never seen such a look in a mule. He’d never liked the damn creatures, neither gentle like a donkey, nor good-looking like a horse, but this one he had to respect. He saw to the horses and then pulled the mule out into the early evening sun. He’d get laughed at, for sure, but he’d just like to see them try it, especially Billy Donner. He was always looking for an excuse to whup Billy anyway. Last week, they’d had a fight over a card game. It had felt good, too, felling old Billy Boy with a punch to the jaw, watching him spin and eat dust, a thin whip of blood flying from his mouth.  Sure, Billy had come back, charging at him like a loco cow and crashing them both so hard into Jelly’s new chicken run, it had collapsed. Chickens everywhere. Squawking and tumbling. Jelly yelling and neither of ‘em taking a blind bit of notice.

   He started to brush the mule’s coat. The dust came off in clouds, swirling in the orange rays of the disappearing sun. Jesus, he’d enjoyed that fight, though. His blood had been truly up, like it had been when he was a little kid, like he’d never allowed it to be when he’d hired out his gun. Of course, his father had stopped it. He’d had to suffer the ‘show responsibility - set an example – grow up’ lecture at full volume while Jelly chased chickens around them and blood glooped from his nose. Then he and Billy’d had to fix the coop. They’d shaken hands and laughed about the fight. It had been nothing, that cheat of Billy’s. He was always cheating at cards. Had a compulsion. But they’d needed that fight after a summer of dull chores, waiting for the fall round-up. If he never had to fix another fence, chop another log for winter or chase another fool cow to save her hide from the screwworms, he was sure he’d be a happy man.

   He began to enjoy brushing the mule, despite the smirking comments he’d had from a couple of the hands back in from fire watch duty. It seemed the mule was appreciating it, closing its eyes and swinging its tail slow. He was careful over its scars, of which it had several, some from wire and two, at least, from bullets. He stroked his fingers over the indent in the mule’s shoulder and wondered again about Pete Thorn.

   “Want to take a brush to my horse next, boy?”

   Resting his arms on the mule’s neck, he smiled slowly at his brother. Scott was cleaner and more spruced up than any ranching man had a right to be. What was more, Johnny could smell his cleanness even over the mule’s dusty odour. Every so often, he’d take a look at this brother and still wonder that a scummy little street kid could’ve ended up sharing blood with such a man.

   “Nope, but I know a Boston dandy who’s just ripe for messin’ up.” He patted the mule’s neck and went to Scott. Smiling, they shook hands.

   “Good to see ya, brother.”

   “Likewise,” Scott said, lightly cuffing Johnny’s head. “How was the trip? Is Murdoch still in one piece?”

   “Yeh, it was good, real good. Sure can’t match the Old Man when he’s got that Winchester in his hand, though.” He smiled and gave his brother a soft punch on the shoulder. “How about you? You work out a deal with Hennessey?”

   “Yes, I did,” Scott replied. He hesitated. Instantly, Johnny knew something was on his brother’s mind. “I’ll tell you about it at dinner. Meanwhile, what on earth is this animal doing here?”

   Johnny smiled and scrubbed his hand over the mule’s forehead. He picked up the brush again and flicked the dust gently out of the hollows above its eyes.

   “Some old friend of Murdoch’s fetched up on it while we were gone. I got suckered into takin’ care of it.”

   Scott scratched the mule’s long ears and stepped back as it tried to rub its head on his clean white shirt.

   “You did, huh? Who is this old friend of Murdoch’s?”

   Johnny shrugged.

   “Calls himself Pete Thorn. Knows Murdoch from way back, thirty years or more. He’s real old, older than your grandpa, I reckon.” Johnny smirked. “Only a whole lot dirtier. Jesus, I tell ya, brother, he makes Tick smell sweet as a rose.”

   His brother folded his arms and frowned.

   “He’s never mentioned anyone of that name.”

   “Nope, but he sure was happy to see ‘im. Fetched up with nothin’ but this mule and a shotgun an’ Murdoch was cryin’ over ‘im.”

   “Crying? Our father was crying?”

   “I swear it, Scott.” Johnny laughed when the mule made another attempt to rub at his brother’s shirt. “Seein’ Miss Martha Black tonight, brother?”

   “I thought I might ride over after dinner, yes.”

   Johnny dropped the brush in a bucket and untethered the mule, a grin still on his face.

   “You gettin’ any closer to makin’ an honest woman out of her?”

   Johnny’s grin turned into a scowl as the mule resisted his attempts to lead it.

   “Well, considering the whole thing’s taken me by surprise, and mindful of how the town’s parents see us Lancers after your …” Scott cleared his throat. “… rather reckless liaison with Lindy Cooper, I’m proceeding with caution, but … He smiled a little. “Yes, I like her. I like her a great deal.”

   Johnny stopped pulling at the mule. It clearly had no desire to go back into the barn. He dipped his head and raised it again, another small grin on his mouth.

   “You got past the first waterhole with her yet?”

   He wasn’t surprised when Scott rolled his eyes and let out an exasperated sigh. He’d asked the question to get a rise out of his brother, which he always enjoyed doing. Scott was serious about the banker’s daughter, though, and that was not to be taken lightly. In fact, he was observing his brother’s campaign to win Martha Black with great interest. He might learn something useful.

   “Believe it or not, Johnny,” Scott said, brushing a speck of dust off his cuff. “There are other ways to get acquainted with a young lady than scrabbling through her petticoats.”

   Johnny wanted to laugh out loud, but he put on his best poker face.

   “There are? I’d be real interested to hear about those other ways, brother.” He frowned. “It don’t involve sewin’ or strokin’ kittens or drinkin’ outta little china cups, does it?” He smiled. “Still, I guess those things won’t mess up your pretty clothes …”

  Scott grabbed hold of him then and the mule high-tailed it, braying loudly, into the barn. His brother had his head in a vice-like grip and was trying to kick his feet out from under him. Oh, the pleasure he would take in seeing that white shirt hit the dirt. So he fought hard, half-laughing, half-gasping. His brother had gotten stronger. No doubt about it. Must be all the hours he spent in the forge making horse shoes. Once, only a few months ago, he could’ve knocked him to the ground easy, but it was him who was falling now. Feet gone from under him and him lying flat in the dust, his brother laughing down at him and holding out his hand. He hated to leave it like that, wanted a chance to even things up, just so that nothing would play on his mind and make him think he’d lost his edge or something. Their father was coming, though, looking ready to burn ears, so he took Scott’s hand and allowed himself to be pulled up.

   “Thanks, brother,” he said, slapping Scott’s arm with his free hand. It left a dusty print on the white shirt and he jumped away, grinning. “Gotta see to that mule. See you at dinner.” He went quickly off in the direction of the barn.

   “Johnny!” His father and brother yelling as one. Without looking back, he slipped into the barn and slit open a new sack of oats with his knife, smiling at the thought of their faces. Jesus, but it felt good to be alive lately. Like someone had let him out of a prison cell. It had taken awhile, though. For the first few months here, he’d been like a dead man walking, just waiting for something bad to happen, trusting no-one. Now he woke every day, his veins bouncing under his skin, even while he was still half asleep and he had some crappy chore to do.

   He fed the mule its oats and patted its scarred shoulder; he would just have to make the best of the Pete Thorn situation. If his father loved him, then the old man was deserving of some respect, and maybe Murdoch wouldn’t drink so much with this new distraction - one thing he hadn’t smelt on Thorn’s breath was liquor. Picking up the old man’s shotgun, he cracked it open; it was fully loaded. He snapped it shut and just the solid weight of it in his hands made him feel serious again.

  

Chapter Three 

   Not only was he going to eat slowly tonight, he decided, but he wasn’t certain he’d get through to dessert. Johnny watched another drop of gravy track a path down Thorn’s bristly chin. Was this was how a man changed his ways, observing someone who was a whole lot lower in his habits than you? It seemed to him that Thorn ate worse than a pig, champing fast and loud, and spitting when he talked. He’d taken a bath, though, and at least smelled better, and with his grey beard scraped into stubble, he looked younger, too. Johnny wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that the old man was wearing one of Murdoch’s favourite shirts - the green-check one. He just knew it bothered him a little.

   Clearly, the old man was hungry, digging without ceremony into the bowls and dishes of food Maria had set on the table. Murdoch was smiling and pouring out red wine into two glasses. Big measures. Already Johnny felt the ache of the second and third ones begin to fester in his veins. His father was happy, though, listening hard to his friend. Like earlier, he seemed not to notice Thorn’s plainly bad manners. Johnny would’ve found it funny if he’d been in a different frame of mind. As it was, it pissed him off. After a moment considering what Murdoch would do to him if he grabbed food off the table, stuffed his mouth and then spat bits of mashed potato and gravy around the place, he looked at his brother.

   It seemed his brother wasn’t happy either. Frowning as Thorn piled more potatoes on his plate, Scott took the wine decanter from their father and poured out his own measure. Gesturing the decanter at his brother, he smiled thinly when Johnny shook his head.

   “Saving yourself for tonight, brother?”

   Johnny’s look was dark.

   “Ain’t goin’ anywhere tonight. Y’know I don’t care for that stuff anyhow. Messes with my head.”

   “And tequila doesn’t?” His brother had that half serious, half funning tone in his voice, the one that could make him laugh or want to kick him, depending on his mood – and his mood wasn’t easy tonight. He ignored the question and poured water into his glass. Picking up his fork, he made another attempt at conjuring up his appetite.

   “Are you sickening for something, Johnny?” Murdoch asked, his eyes narrowing into a frown as he lifted his wine glass to his lips. “You’re not eating much.”

   “No, sir.” He answered quickly, alarmed to be picked out for comment while he had these feelings of wanting to disappear. “Just not too hungry. Must be all that turkey stew I ate yesterday.”

   His father smiled, which did something to ease his twitchiness. 

   “Well, I’ll tell you boys right now.” Thorn was looking at him, jabbing his fork in his direction, and his throat still working on his last mouthful. “Your daddy and me never had such a thing as choosing what we ate and drank when we was out there huntin’ buffalo, an’ your Pa wasn’t much older’n than you, boy.” Thorn speared another slice of meat with the fork. “No, sir, if we’d taken ill to drinkin’ rotgut whiskey and eatin’ buffalo meat, you boys wouldn’t’ve made it as far as a stirrin’ in your daddy’s pants.”

   “That’s an interesting thought,” Scott said, smiling at Johnny, whose senses were now on high alert, waiting for what he’d known would come without his asking. “So, Mr Thorn, is that how you met Murdoch, over the carcasses of slaughtered wild animals? He’s never told us about this episode in his life.”

   “Scott.” Johnny heard the sharp warning tone in his father’s voice and watched his brother intently.

   “Well, dang it, Scotty,” Thorn said, chuckling and using his sleeve to wipe his mouth. “But these pups of yours are pricklier’n porcupines!”

   “I’m sorry, Pete,” Murdoch said, looking severely at his older son. “Scott has very strong opinions on the subject of buffalo hunting, but that, of course, gives him no excuse to be rude to a guest.”

   Scott met his father’s gaze and Johnny saw what always seemed to be an obvious truth, that if these two ever took to hating each other, then there’d be blood on the ground.

   “I apologise, Mr Thorn, but what I saw yesterday at Fort Pierce has only reinforced my loathing of the buffalo trade. While native people starve for want of good meat, the hunters kill millions of beasts for no more than their skins and tongues.”

   Thorn gulped down his wine down to empty and nodded at Murdoch to refill his glass. The red of the wine had stained his white mustache.

   “A man has to make a livin’ any way he can when he’s got nothing but two mules and a rifle, boy. I’m not saying that I exactly grew up dreaming of killin’ buffalo, but there was good money to be made in it if you could stomach the blood an’ the stink of it.”

   “And you and my father could?”

   “Yes, Scott,” Murdoch said firmly. “We could.” He sat back a little in his chair and the gaze he fixed upon the old man told Johnny all he needed to know of his father’s feelings. His brother’s expression remained cold and doubtful. “Pete took me in when I was in deep trouble. I’d been robbed of the money I’d brought from Scotland, beaten to a bloody pulp and left for dead at the back of a saloon in Wyoming. If he hadn’t nursed me back to health, I wouldn’t be sitting here now.”

   “Then we owe Mr Thorn our gratitude, Murdoch,” Scott said. “But the fact remains that buffalo hunting is morally questionable at the very least.”

   “You were a buffalo hunter, Murdoch?” Stirred to his bones, Johnny felt his brother’s anger, but it wasn’t enough to stop him.

   “Yes, Johnny,” Murdoch seemed hardly able to help a small smile. “A long time ago.”

   “I’d like to hear about it.”

   “Johnny …”

   He turned a mild gaze on his angry brother.

   “C’mon, Scott, it ain’t like the two of ‘em are out there right now layin’ waste to the buffalo. It’s history, isn’t it? We mightn’t like it, but that don’t mean it ain’t worth hearin’.”

   Scott pulled his napkin off his lap, wiped his mouth and placed it carefully on the table.

   “It might be history to you, brother, but there were once 60 million buffalo roaming America and now there might be fewer than a tenth of that number, with little hope there’ll be any at all ten years from now. Meanwhile, the Indians rely on what the government thinks fit to dole out to them, and it’s not enough.” He stood up. “Excuse me, gentlemen. I’m expected at the Black’s. A pleasure to meet you, Mr Thorn. I hope we might talk of other topics during your stay.”

   Thorn considered the young man’s outstretched hand and then shook it firmly.

   “By God, boy, you’re your father’s son alright. Never could make a fittin’ reply to his arguments either.”

   Johnny was relieved to see a brief smile lighten his brother’s dark gaze, although the set of their father’s mouth was grim. He put up a hand to stop Scott mussing his hair as he walked past him, failed, and then, smiling, tidied it again with his fingers.

   “Feisty kid, Murdoch,” Thorn said cheerfully, his eyes widening and seeming to glow when Maria placed a large hot fruit pie in the centre of the table. Through holes in its sugary crust, steam curled upwards.

   “He won’t be so feisty when I’ve finished with him, Pete,” Murdoch said, pouring more wine. “I don’t know what the hell got into him.”

   “He got a good price for the beef,” Johnny said, his appetite reviving at the smell of the pie, and at the fact that he liked Thorn a little more than before.

   “I’d rather he got 50 damn cents a head than be insolent to a guest, especially …” Murdoch stopped and shook his head.

   “Hell, you don’t mean that, Murdoch,” Johnny smiled. He watched Thorn dig into the pie; steam rushed out from the baked fruit. “You’d’ve taken the hide off him if he’d come home at less than $20 a head.”

   He’d expected his father’s face to lose some of its displeasure by now, but it was clear he wasn’t going to let it go that easy.

   “I mean it, John, and you’d better remember it, too.”

   He’d been about to scoop a dollop of pie onto his plate, but stopped with a scowl.

   “When you got cause to chew me out, Murdoch, I’ll take it, but you got no cause right now.”

   He was certain the colour of his father’s eyes darkened for a moment, before he simply grunted and swallowed a large mouthful of wine. He saw Thorn put down the cream jug, grasp his father’s shoulder and shake it a little. When he’d jostled a smile out of the younger man, he patted Murdoch’s cheek and returned to his dessert. Johnny felt himself staring in wonder and looked away. He lifted the cream jug and poured his usual long swirl, starting at the rim and ending in the centre.

   “You wanna hear more about your daddy when he was with me, boy?”

   Johnny glanced at Murdoch, who was knocking the pie crust he loved off the sides of the dish.

   “I’m warning you now, Son,” he said with a smile. “Pete exaggerates.”

   “Your daddy don’t need exaggerating, boy. Best man I ever met an’ that’s a pure fact. That’s why I’ve come. I needed to see him again, before …” Thorn hesitated. “Well, hell, I’m not gettin’ any younger.”

   “I’d sure like to hear what you got to tell, Mr Thorn,” Johnny said, stirring the cream into the pie. “He don’t say much about when he was my age.”

   Thorn chuckled and winked at him.

   “Oh well, boy, that’s because he doesn’t want you findin’ out he was worse’n you for all the things young fellers get up to at that time in their lives. Isn’t that right, Scotty?”

   Johnny laughed. He was almost glad Scott had gone out if he felt bound and determined to be a grouch about those damn buffalo. His father poured a little cream over his mound of pie crust.

   “That pretty much sums it up, Pete, yes,” he said, with another smile. “And I’m not sure I want you filling my boy’s head with your daft stories either.”

   Oh, it was like someone had come and knocked that dark cloud off his father’s shoulders. He couldn’t feel anything but happy about that.

   “Had a good fist on ‘im your daddy, I can tell you that much,” Thorn said. “It’s a cussed rough life bein’ a buffalo skinner and you got to be able to protect yourself. If you don’t, you’ll wind up with your teeth smashed inta the back of your mouth and your balls wrapped round your goddamned neck.”

   “Pete, I’d appreciate it if …”

   Thorn barked a laugh and drank a mouthful of wine.

   “Too damn sensitive your daddy, boy. Always was. If I cussed around him, he’d chew my ear off for an hour.”

   “Still does that to me,” Johnny said. He smiled quickly at Murdoch. “Or soaps my mouth.”

   His father raised his eyebrows and continued to eat his dessert.

   “By God, he loved a fight, though. Once saw him knock down six men, one after the other, like a set of skittles. They weren’t skinny fellers either. Big fellers out of the mines. Knocked ‘em out cold, drank a shot of whiskey and walked outta that saloon as if he’d just been for a shave.”

   “There were four and I was defending myself,” Murdoch said calmly, taking another spoonful of the pie. “Contrary to Pete’s claims, Johnny, I didn’t love fighting, but pushed to it, I stood my corner, as I still would.”

   “Then how come you were grinnin’ like the cat that got the cream, boy?” Thorn said, winking again at Johnny. “You listen to me, son. He liked nothing better than to throw those big fists of his around. He was known for it.”

   “He was, huh?” Johnny smiled at his father. “Give my next year’s wages to see you knock those six men down, Murdoch.”

   “Four men - and all you’ll be getting is a smack if any of this goes outside this room.”

   Johnny grinned.

   “He could shoot, too,” Thorn said. The pie finished, he leaned back in his chair and placed his hands on his full belly. “Best shot with a rifle I ever saw. Your daddy, son, could kill more buffalo in a half hour than an injun could in a whole month.”

   “My brother’d better not know that,” Johnny said, scraping the last of the dessert from his bowl.  “Don’t reckon he’d be too impressed.”

   Murdoch put his napkin on the table.

   “Yes, well, it’s not something I’m proud of nowadays.” He stood up. “We’ll take coffee in the other room, Pete.” 

 

   “How was that kind of life, Mr Thorn, bein’ a buffalo skinner?”

   The older men were settled in their chairs now, and he’d chosen to sit on the buffalo skin rug, his back against the arm of his father’s chair closest to the fire. The night was cool, so a fire was leaping in the hearth, the pine logs spitting resin and allowing the smell of forests to hang in the air. Both his father and Thorn were smoking pipes and taking a slow route down their glasses of Murdoch’s best Scotch. Despite the earlier dispute with Scott, it seemed not to be one of his father’s dark nights. He was enjoying Thorn’s company and drinking for pleasure, not to dull pain. Johnny could almost feel Murdoch’s contentment seeping through the chair’s bulk and into his own flesh.

   “Terrible,” Thorn said, in reply to his question. “It was a terrible life.”

   Johnny looked back at his father for confirmation, but Murdoch’s gaze was fixed on Thorn and gave nothing of his feelings away.

   “I came for gold,” Thorn continued. “But I found nothin’ more than dirt in my pan for two years. By the time I met your daddy, I was livin’ on creek water and boiled roots.

   “I could’ve blown you down with one breath,” Murdoch said.

   “Yes, that’s right.”

   “So I guess huntin’ buffalo was better’n starvin’ to death,” Johnny said.

   “Oh, that’s a sure thing,” Thorn agreed. “Only it don’t make it a good thing. I might not have your brother’s finer feelin’s, boy, but shootin’ a bunch of God’s creatures while they’re just standing there or takin’ a roll in the dust ain’t somethin’ good. It’s not somethin’ you wake up to on a fine morning and feel glad about. You just do it, because it puts food in your belly and the hope of saving enough to quit it.”

   “Some men seemed to enjoy it as I recall,” Murdoch said, pouring another measure of whisky into each of their glasses. “There was a man named Sam Jamison. He’d always shoot more beasts than he needed just for the hell of it.”

   Johnny turned his head and looked at his father.

   “You never did that?”

   Murdoch’s eyes narrowed a little, before he handed Thorn the whisky.

    “I was no angel, Johnny, but mostly, I just got the job done.”

    Part of it was the answer he’d expected. The other part made his heart beat faster with curiosity. He dipped his head away from his father’s gaze.

   “Skinnin’ was the worst of it.” Thorn broke the small silence. “Never did get used to that; pulling the hide off a buffalo sure isn’t like skinnin’ a rabbit. Takes a good while and it don’t come off easy. Get slicked up and stinkin’ with blood and you’re sweatin’ so hard you don’t know which smells worse, you or the damn buffalo. It’s not a wonder most skinners drank more’n than was good for ‘em.” Thorn held up his glass and swirled the whisky around once. “By God, though, it’s a miracle we’re still here to tell our tales, Scotty. That rotgut made us sick more than once, didn’t it?”

   “It did,” Murdoch replied. “But more often than not, it got us through the day, especially in those winters.”

   “They were cold, huh?” Johnny said.

   “Why d’you think I came to California, Son?” his father said, with a smile. “If I’d stayed on the plains, I doubt I’d still have my fingers and toes.”

   Johnny smiled.

   “You ever run into any Indians?”

   “Oh sure,” Thorn said. “Plenty of ‘em. Some left us alone. Some we gave rotgut to and they went off peaceable, and some were real unfriendly, huh, Scotty!?”

   Johnny didn’t wait for his father’s reply.

   “You fought them, huh?”

   “Well, your daddy did, in Montana,” Thorn replied. “I just loaded the guns …”

   “Pete, I’d prefer not to talk about this.”

   Johnny recognised the tone, his father’s most exact and certain, the one he and Scott had learned not to bother resisting. Thorn, however, didn’t seem to know the rules.

   “Hell, Scotty, don’t you think the boy has a right to know how his daddy squared up to a pack of hostile Crows with nothin’ but a rifle an’ a dead buffalo between us and the Lord’s green paradise?” Thorn winked at Johnny. “He’s got the scar to prove it, too. Big buck’s arrow went straight through his calf an’ out the other side.”

   “Pete,” Murdoch said, his tone cold. “You’re going to turn this into something it wasn’t and I’d be thankful if you’d change the damn subject.”

   Although he ached to know more, Johnny knew better than to press the old man in front of his father. Silently, he watched Thorn hesitate, as if deciding whether or not to take Murdoch seriously. He could tell the old man was puzzled, if not a little hurt. He decided to leave them to it and stood up. Out of his father’s hearing, he would get the tale out of Thorn soon enough.

   “Guess I’ll turn in. Got that bunch of strays Tyler Crouch told us about to round up tomorrow. Don’t want our new neighbour stickin’ his brand on ‘em just ‘cause they like his grass better’n than ours.”

   “Alright, Son,” Murdoch said. Johnny could hear the relief in his father’s voice. “Sleep well.”

   “You fellers don’t stay up too late,” he said, smiling. “G’night, Mr Thorn.”

   “’Night, boy.”

   “The name’s Johnny.” Feeling almost shy, Johnny held out his hand to the old man. Thorn looked at it, glanced at Murdoch and then, smiling, clasped the young man’s hand.

   “Well then, Johnny. I guess I’m Pete. Only my mule calls me Mr Thorn.”

   Johnny laughed. He wasn’t absolutely sure of the old man – he was never one hundred percent certain of any man apart from Murdoch and Scott – but he was starting to like him. The hearty swat on his rear he got from his father as he passed him on his way out told him that he’d do better to like Pete Thorn whether he was inclined to or not. 

 

   His sleep had been sweet and dreamless, as it often was nowadays, as it had rarely been when he was growing up. One thing was certain; he hated to be pulled out of it before his time. He wanted to lash out in irritation at whoever’s hand was shaking his shoulder, whoever’s liquored breath was speaking his name. Instead, he turned over and pulled the bedclothes over his head.

   “Wake up and talk to me, brother, or I’ll tell Murdoch you ate the whole of the last jar of his most favourite strawberry jam.”

   Scott was drunk, at least a little. Still, a threat like that was worth paying attention to. Their father had grumbled for a whole hour after breakfast last Sunday about the lost jam; even Reverend Jones’ sermon in church on the sin of lusting after earthly things had failed to settle his mind on the matter. It wasn’t as if Johnny could even remember eating the damn stuff. When the urge came upon him, it was as bad as wanting to jack off; he’d go raiding the kitchen and anything sweet was fair game and he’d eat it until the craving was gone. He rubbed his eyes and glared at his brother in the low light of the oil lamp.

   “Least I ain’t juiced up on a week night. What the hell d’you wake me for, Scott?”

   “Because I’m in love and I need to talk about it.”

   “Jesus, Scott …”

   “I mean it, Johnny.”

   Sighing, he pushed the hair out of his eyes and sat up against the headboard. He could feel the weight of his brother sitting on his bed and there was serious intent in his gaze. He decided that Scott wasn’t nearly as drunk as he’d first supposed. Rubbing his eyes again, he yawned and regarded his brother with scant interest.

   “Ok, so what makes what you got for Miss Martha Black different from what I had for Lindy?”

   Scott snorted softly.

   “For one, I don’t take girls behind barns and up in haylofts for a quick fuck and then think myself in love with them …”

   “You mean you ain’t …”

   “And, secondly, it’s not Martha I’m talking about.”

   He was awake now for certain. His mind raced with the possibilities, including the girls at the Silver Dollar.

   “Then who the hell are you talkin’ about?”

   “Her mother.”

   Johnny felt his eyes widen in astonishment, while his brother seemed perfectly calm, although he had changed his position so that his elbows were rested on his knees and he was side on to Johnny, his gaze averted.

   “What!? You gotta be kiddin’ me, brother!”

   “I assure you, I’m not,” Scott said. “I’m in love with Jennie Black and I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do about it.”

   “How the hell did it happen?”

   His brother looked quickly at the door.

   “Will you keep your voice down, Johnny. Murdoch’s already marked my card over what I said at dinner. If he gets wind of this, I’m not sure I’ll escape physical injury.”

  Johnny threw back the covers and moved to sit beside Scott. He was excited now, more than he was shocked. His brother in love with the banker’s wife, with the iciest, most unfriendly damn woman in Green River, for all of her fine black hair and large green eyes and full lips. He spoke his next thought.

   “She’s old, Scott.”

   “Forty-three. That’s not old.”

   “Jesus.” He found it hard not to smirk. “It’s old alright.”

   “If that’s all you’re going to say…”

   Scott moved as if to leave, but Johnny put his hand on his brother’s shoulder.

   “Sorry, brother. I guess you took me by surprise, is all.”

   “I’ve taken myself by surprise, Johnny.”

   Johnny nodded.

   “How did it happen, Scott? I mean, the woman don’t exactly make herself friendly around town. Ol’ Frosty Britches ain’t the unkindest name they got for her.”

   “They don’t understand her, Johnny.” Scott chafed at the rug under his feet with his boot. “No-one does. Certainly not that oaf of a husband of hers!”

   His brother had spoken with feeling. Johnny pictured Joshua Black, standing outside the bank, plump with good fortune, oiling the townsfolk with his usual greeting of ‘How d’you doody, this fine morning?’ Murdoch himself had said that if Joshua Black was any slicker he’d make a fine tarpaulin for a wagon. Still, he reasoned, if he’d been reckless with Lindy Cooper, then Scott was about to make himself the biggest ass in town over Black’s wife.

   “She feel the same about you?” he asked, keeping his tone serious.

   “Yes, I believe she does,” Scott replied. “It’s not something that can be helped, Johnny. If I could stop wanting her, I would, but I’m at the mercy of a force beyond my control. I love her and that’s all there is to it.”

   Johnny nodded, his elbows on his knees in imitation of his brother.

   “So what you goin’ to do about it?”

   Sighing, Scott rubbed his face hard with one hand and then turned his head to smile wearily at Johnny.

   “Frankly, I don’t know. I’m going along with the pretence of courting Martha while all along I want to take Jennie into the nearest room and …”

   “Whoa!!” Johnny pushed his brother’s shoulder with his own. “Reckon I can use my imagination for the rest of it.” In fact, his mind was already reeling with the thought of a buck naked Jennie Black with her triangle of black hair and matronly breasts, sure to be bigger, maybe even softer, than Martha Black’s. There was certainly something to the thought of getting underneath those starchy layers of an older woman like Jennie Black and rooting out the flesh and passion of her. He felt his groin stir; then just as quickly he yawned and wanted to go back to sleep. His brother mussed his hair and stood up.

   “Finish your beauty sleep, boy. I just needed to tell someone.”

   Another thought occurring to him as he reached for the bedclothes, Johnny looked up at his brother.

   “You’re not plannin’ to do somethin’ loco like run off with her somewheres, are you, brother? I mean, it might just burn itself out, one of those flash in a pan kind of things, y’know?”

   His arms folded, Scott nodded.

   “It might, although the thought of a feeling like this ending is a worse grief than going through the hell of seeing her without having her.”

   He had no response to that. This was deeper than he’d thought. His brother was sounding like one of those books he and Murdoch were so attached to. ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ was their latest fancy, although his father said it was ‘overdone in parts’ and more suited to young readers. Well, he was young, but the extracts Scott had read out loud in the evenings, stuff about hair shirts, beset hearts and tortured souls, had sent him quickly to bored sleep on the couch.

   “Scott?” His brother was halfway out of the door and turned back to look at him. “Murdoch ever talk to you about bein’ in a gunfight with Indians?”

   Scott frowned.

   “No. Why?”

   “Pete Thorn was about to tell me about a time he and Pa were attacked by a bunch of ‘em in Montana, but Murdoch shut him up real quick. You think he killed some?”

   “He said he’d never killed a man before …” Scott hesitated. “Well, before last year anyway, but I’d be surprised if he’d managed to get into a fight with a group of Indians and not have to kill at least one.”

   “Me too.” Johnny sank into his pillows. “And I intend to find out one way or another.”

   “Have you thought that maybe Murdoch doesn’t want you to know, Johnny? Maybe some things are better left in the shadows.”

   “You mean, like you and Mrs Jennie Black?”

   “You breathe a word …”

   “Jesus, what d’you take me for, Scott?” He punched the pillow and closed his eyes. “Sweet dreams, big brother.” He smiled as the door clunked softly shut and fell asleep to the thought of rescuing a naked Jennie Black, tied to a wagon wheel, from a party of wild and painted hostiles.  

  

Chapter Four 

   Her skin was soft and he was sure he’d never get tired of the smell of her, although when she pooped her diaper he always handed her over quicker than if she’d been an angry skunk. How could such a sweet thing smell so bad, worse than horses or cows? Right now, though, she lay in his arms like happiness itself, a warm, chuckling creature, not seeming to mind the sounds and burning smells of the forge. His brother was bent over, sweating a river, the front leg of one of their top cow ponies resting on his leather apron. This was how Scott had finally won over the men, shoeing their horses quickly and so soundly that they had begun to express amazement if their mounts lost even as much as a nail before the next shoeing was due. It was known, too, that the boss’s older boy could shoe the most ornery of ponies without the help of another man. Even Billy Donner, once the most scornful of Scott Lancer’s critics, now sought him out to fix up his favourite horse with new shoes.

   Over by the woodshed, Maria sat on a barrel, a watchful eye on Johnny and the baby while she plucked yesterday’s quails. The warm breeze blew the smaller feathers around the yard and Johnny’s dog, Tequila, three-legged and young, scrabbled in the dust, jaws snapping at them. When he caught one, he’d snort and shake his head in disgust at the tasteless, irritating thing, before tearing off in pursuit of another one. It delighted Johnny, the way Maria would scold the dog in the same manner she scolded him, with so much a measure of liking it was impossible to take her seriously. Tequila knew it as well as he did and used the same tactics of charm and sassiness to get his way with the soft-hearted woman.

   By the barn, his father was setting up the buggy for taking Pete Thorn on a tour of the Lancer acres. Thorn had been up and about long before the rest of them, making coffee and attending to his mule. At breakfast, there’d been no more buffalo stories, just an account of life in a gold mining camp in Wyoming. Not that it had been dull, with its quota of thefts, fights and sudden riches, but all Johnny wanted to hear was that tale of his father and the Crows.

   Then, before the sun was even properly up, Murdoch had taken his brother into the study for what he’d reckoned was one of their father’s lectures. Johnny had listened for raised voices, but he’d heard nothing, and Scott had emerged only minutes later. Seemingly as cool as iced water, he’d finished his coffee, replied politely to a question from Thorn and then disappeared outside. Murdoch had been no more revealing, returning to the breakfast table with his mouth set hard. His father and brother had been at odds before in this quiet, chilly way, and he hated it. If was this how Scotsmen and Bostonians fought their battles, as if they were pieces on a chessboard, he would stick to firing his grievances into men’s skin like so many bullets, painful and unignorable.

   All was peaceful now, though. He could hear his father laughing loudly at something Pete Thorn had said and Scott was smiling as Sam led the newly shod horse away. Pulling a spotless white handkerchief from his pocket, his brother wiped his face of sweat. His arms were heavily tanned and hard with muscle. Briefly, Johnny wondered if he’d have any chance of beating Scott at arm-wrestling nowadays.

   “Are you planning to play nursemaid all day, brother?” Scott asked, approaching him. He tickled the baby’s neck with a grimy finger and smiled when she squealed with pleasure and kicked her legs.

   “Nope, only while Maria gets the feathers off those quails. Then I plan to take Billy and go fetch those stupid cows off our new neighbour’s land.”

   “Uh huh.” Scott pulled the stopper from his water bottle and drank hard. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Just watch yourself on Trencher’s land. I’ve heard he’s an unpleasant piece of work.”

   Johnny grinned.

   “Holdin’ Sarah don’t mean I got a woman’s bones all of a sudden, Scott. I can handle Trencher any day of the year.”

   “I believe that’s exactly what Murdoch’s worried about, boy.”

   Johnny narrowed his eyes at his brother’s patronising tone.

   “Maybe you’d be better concernin’ yourself with that beef you got goin’ with Murdoch, brother. I coulda iced my lemonade with the mood at breakfast, this mornin’. You ain’t told him about Jennie Black, have you?”

   Scott glanced at Sam who was back in the forge heating metal and fixed a dark look upon Johnny.

   “No, and I would be grateful if you didn’t mention her again, Johnny.”

   Johnny smiled.

   “Not much fun in that, brother.”

   “Not much fun in getting a whupping from your big brother either, is there?”

   His smile faded into a scornful snort and he turned to take Sarah back to Maria.

The quails that hung from her bony fingers, once pretty little birds with a single black plume in their caps, were now models of skinny ugliness. Maria handed them to her grand-daughter, a sultry eighteen year old, who looked at him with her usual brew of hostility and desire. Johnny recognised it even if her grandmother didn’t, and his eagerness to try his luck with the girl was tempered only by the thought of what Maria would do to him if she caught him.

   “Gracias, nino. Tu eres buena con ella.” (You are good with her.)

   “Ella es un buen bebé, Mari,” he said. “Un bebé feliz.” (She’s a good baby. A happy baby.)

   “Si,” she agreed. “Es un milagro cuando su padres eran tan malas.” (It’s a miracle when her parents were so bad.)

   Johnny smiled, but the comment made him flinch inside. He saw his father beckon him from the buggy where he and Pete Thorn were seated, ready to leave. Sighing, he walked over, guessing he was in for some sort of sermon regarding any possible meeting with Trencher. He wasn’t going to deny he enjoyed taking the starch out of men who were too damn big for their boots, but he wasn’t planning to go looking for this new neighbour, although he half hoped to have his day livened up with an encounter.

   “Who’re you taking with you to get those strays off Henry’s land?” his father asked, holding the buggy reins loosely in his hands.

   “Billy.” He knew the answer would get a reaction. His father raised his eyebrows, but his tone was careful.

   “I’m going to question the wisdom of that choice, John. I’m already concerned about this Aaron Trencher and you’re planning to take a hothead like Donner on his land.” His father hesitated and then hardened his tone. “I’d prefer it if your brother or Sam Wester went with you.”

   “You mean you’d prefer it if I took someone who you reckon’ll keep me in line?”

   He heard Murdoch pull in a breath, knew that he was closer to the wire than was good for him.

   “No, I mean I want a more experienced man than Billy to go with you.”

   Hands on hips, Johnny looked down at the ground and kicked at it.

   “You don’t trust me, Murdoch, so why the hell don’t you just pull me off the job altogether?”

   “If you’ll settle down and listen, Johnny, I’m not saying I don’t trust you. I’m telling you I don’t want you to take Billy.”

   Johnny raised his head.

   “Well, you told me to take a man and he’s the one I picked, Murdoch.”

   There was that breath again. It made his heart sick to push his father to anger, but surrendering would be worse.

   “Alright, John,” Murdoch said. “I’ll go along with what you want, but I expect you to keep a tight rein on Billy and if you come across Trencher, watch your step and your mouth. I don’t like what I’m hearing about him.” Murdoch gathered the reins. “I’ll see you at dinner. Stay out of trouble. D’you hear me?”

   Johnny nodded. He stood aside as his father flicked the horse into a jog and swept the buggy round in a tight curve before disappearing under the Lancer arch in a cloud of summer dust. 

 

   They’d made a competition of it at first - racing through the brush around any stray Lancer steer, a win being claimed by the man who turned it first. They’d been noisy, whooping their victories and loudly arguing over a close result. Later in the morning, hot and tired, they’d quietened down and spent their energies working together. Johnny had been surprised by the number of their cattle they’d found on Trencher’s land and kept a careful tally in a notebook.

   It had been a fine morning, clear with a cooling breeze. The sky was so big and blue that when he’d looked up he’d had that strange sensation of being taken up into its vastness, lifted from the cares of life. Quickly, he’d brought his gaze down in search of something earthly to fix upon, and wondered if he’d felt a touch of God. His cousin, Robbie, had said there was no such thing, that the world just ‘was’, without the help of a creator’s hand. Still, as he’d sat on his horse, the breeze tickling the sweat on his neck, it had been easy to imagine that the world had a voice of its own, a good and kindly one. Then Billy had called him to help pull a steer out of a mud bank down by the river. Cussing freely, and enjoying it more because such language was forbidden at the ranch, they’d rescued the steer, only to watch it die of exhaustion five minutes later. It was then that Billy had brushed the caked mud off the brand and found a T in a diamond. It had made Johnny uneasy. If there were such things as bad omens, then this was surely one. Still, they’d tried to save it; Trencher would have to give them that.

   They stopped to eat lunch under an oak tree on Henry Springer’s old land, not far from the Lancer boundary. The angel on his right shoulder told him he should play it safe and rest under his own tree, but he told himself he needed to explain the dead steer if someone came along. Now the trembling shadows of oak leaves shielded them from the midday sun and Billy was greedily tipping water down his gullet from his canteen. Swatting flies from his face, Johnny unwrapped biscuits, beef and pickles and made a rough sandwich. He ate how he liked to eat away from his father’s table, like his life depended on it, big bites that filled his mouth and satisfied his hungry belly quickly. Billy did the same.

   “You poked that new gal at the Silver Dollar yet?” Billy asked after a time in which all that was heard was the sound of their eating.

   Johnny swallowed his last bite down and shook his head.

   “Nope. I heard she gave Jack Salter a set of scratches a foot long. I ain’t lookin’ to root a cat.”

   Billy sniggered.

   “Reckon it’d be worth it if she’s grips your pecker as tight as they say she does. Boy, poking some of them old gals at the Dollar’s like sticking it in a barrel of axle grease.”

   “I reckon Lyra’ll do me for now,” Johnny said, pulling the stopper from his canteen. “She don’t scratch and …” He lifted the canteen to his mouth and smiled. “… she’s a real good fit.”

   Billy threw a piece of biscuit out to a flock of sparrows squabbling in the dust. They descended on the food with noisy violence.

   “Maybe, but she’s sweet on ya, an’ that’s bothersome when all ya want is a poke an’ smoke.” Billy lit a cigarette and leaned back against the tree. He grinned. “I can just see your Old Man’s face if you brung ole Lyra home for dinner.”

   Johnny smacked Billy’s stomach with the back of his hand.

   “You’re just all out jealous, Billy boy. I can’t help it if the prettiest whore in Green River’s breakin’ her heart over me.”

   “You’re fulla shit, Johnny,” Billy drawled, smiling. “You just wait ‘til we take that trip to Stockton to fetch those horses next week. Boy, I’m gonna tup so many whores, my pecker’s gonna need restin’ for a month.”

   Johnny lay back and placed his hat over his face.

   “You go right on ahead, Billy. I got my eye on somethin’ more permanent. There’s a Winchester rifle with my name on it waitin’ for me at Quigley’s Gun Emporium. Put twenty bucks down on it last time I was in Stockton and my Old Man’s advanced me a month’s wages so’s I can buy it.”

   Billy gave an appreciative grunt.

   “A Winchester, huh? That sure is one fine rifle. Saw the boss cleanin’ his a coupla days ago. Boy, that silver breech was shinin’ fit to blind a man’s eyes. Iffen I ever get rich, I’m gonna buy me two with light walnut stocks an’ Tyler Crouch’s quarter horse outta Ol’ Cold Deck.”

   “You’d have to be real rich to get that pony off Tyler,” Johnny said. “I swear he sleeps with the darned thing.”

   “Iffen I had an Ol’ Cold Deck horse, I’d sleep with it.”

   Johnny laughed. He smacked a fly dead on his arm and, positioning his hat further down his face, fell to a doze. 

 

   The youth had white hair under a strange hat with a domed crown and a narrow brim, more fitting for the town. It was the second thing Johnny noticed after bringing his eyes to focus on the old Henry’s barrel stuck a couple of inches from his face. He lay quite still, staring right back at the youth; reckoned him to be a couple of years shy of himself, but many years meaner. Beside him, Billy carried on sleeping, his fingers laced over his belly. When the boy spoke, it sounded to Johnny like he was ridding his mouth of a big bite of something bad.

   “You throw that piece you’re carryin’ aways into the dirt, mister, an’ do it as slow as you ever did anythin’ in your life.”

   There was no trace of fear in the boy’s voice, no movement of the rifle’s barrel that betrayed an unsteady resolve. Johnny lifted his pistol from its holster and threw it away from him. It was picked up by another man, older and dressed more like a cowhand. Johnny sensed the man’s unease, noted the sour set of his mouth and the way he dropped his gaze the moment Johnny looked at him.

   “Best wake your friend, mister,” the youth said. “We got a journey to make.”

   “I ain’t goin’ anywhere,” Johnny said. “You’re goin’ to take that fuckin’ gun outta my face and let me explain who we are and why we’re here.”

   “I don’t need a name.” The youth flicked his head to one side. “All I need I got in that dead steer down by the river. You been rustlin’ my daddy’s cows. We were warned about fellers like you before we left Carson City.”

   Johnny almost laughed out loud. Briefly, he considered wrenching the rifle from the boy’s hands, cracking his fool head open with the butt and ending the whole stupid thing now, but decided he’d try it Murdoch’s way. Diplomacy, the Old Man called it. The art of talking your way out of a tricky situation, calming things down instead of riling them up to a pitch where a man’s fuse would blow and someone got hurt. That’s what he was used to, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes just for the hell of it. But that wasn’t his father’s way and he knew Murdoch was hoping he’d take to that quieter path himself when he was done kicking up the dust.

   “We’re not rustlers,” he said. “My name’s Johnny Lancer.”

   “Murdoch Lancer’s kid?” The older man had been rolling a cigarette and he’d raised his head sharply, his tone surprised. Johnny nodded. The cowboy stuck the cigarette in his mouth and took matches from his shirt pocket.

   “You’d best put that rifle away, Cain. Murdoch Lancer’s got a helluva lot more cows than your daddy and I reckon he wouldn’t take over kindly to you puttin’ a bullet in his boy either.”

   “I don’t give a fuck who his pa is, Jess. He killed one of our cows.”

   “We pulled the damn cow outta the mud, you dumb sonuvabitch,” Johnny said, pushing the gun barrel out of the way and standing up. Sensing that the boy had lost a good portion of his mustard, Johnny directed his gaze at Jess. “We’ve been roundin’ up our strays an’ we thought it was one of ours. It was tuckered out and died on its feet.”

   Jess nodded. He lit his cigarette and threw away the match.

   “Come on, Cain. We got licks to check. Sorry about the misunderstanding, Mr Lancer.”

   “Well, I ain’t sorry,” Cain said, his rifle still held at Johnny. “He’s trespassing on our land and I aim to see him off it.”

   Johnny heaved a bored sigh and looked down at Billy. He hoped he’d stay sleeping under that hat until the kid had had his fill of blustering.

   “Custom is they round up their strays when they’ve a mind to and we round up ours. It’s called bein’ neighbourly, kid. Guess there wasn’t too much of that in Carson City.”

   “You shut the fuck up, Jess. You don’t tell me what to do.”

   Jess shrugged and gathered his horse’s reins.

   “Well, you can bring these boys in on your lonesome, Cain. Your pa hired me to punch cows an’ ride fences, not pick fights with the neighbours.”

 

   It happened so quickly that though Johnny had seen such things before, he now knew what it meant to freeze with shock. Jess had mounted his horse. A crow crashing out of a tree had startled it into rearing. Billy had woken, moved his hat, gone for his gun and now lay bleeding in the dust, the shadows of leaves quivering over him. Stricken, his hands clutched over his stomach, he looked up at Johnny. Under his hands, blood spread a slow stain through his white shirt. In a moment, Johnny took in Jess trying to rein in his spooked horse, the kid standing there wide-eyed and pale at the thing he’d done and Billy gulping his failure to understand what had happened to him. Dropping to his knees and wanting to vomit before he was even down beside his friend, Johnny groaned.

   “Jesus, Billy, Jesus.” He grasped the young man’s wrists. “Let me …”

   “Johnny. I’m shot.” He resisted the pull on his wrists. “I been shot. Sonuvabitch, I been shot.”

   “Let me see, Billy.” Johnny tried again to prise the hands from the wound. “For Christ’s sake … oh, Jesus, Billy, let me see.”

   Billy was swallowing hard now, staring at him with huge eyes as if Johnny was the only thing left on earth to focus on.

   “I been gutshot, Johnny, and it hurts so fuckin’ bad, I could cry like …” He paused and seemed to try a smile. “Lyra when you’re leavin’ her.” He breathed deeply, coughed up blood. “I ain’t gettin’ out of this alive. I know it.”

   Johnny knew it, too. He knew when death had come for a man. Billy began to shiver. More blood bubbled out of his mouth. His bladder let go and the smell of the piss fused with the metal stench of the blood. He would waste no more desperate words. He pulled Billy against him. Cain was blabbering now, repeating ‘He went for his gun. I hadda shoot ‘im,’ until Jess came up behind him and knocked him out cold with the butt of his rifle. When Jess offered his canteen, Johnny shook his head. He held hard onto Billy, rocking him a little, listening for words among the laboured breaths and strange inhuman gurgling.

   None came. The birds sang as Billy slipped from life. Johnny had lost friends before, but not in times like these, not in these peaceful days of working cattle and riding the line. It was his father’s proud claim that no man who’d worked for him had been killed or seriously injured. This death felt like more than one kind of ending and Johnny felt the full, cold weight of it in his arms and in his mind. He rested his cheek next to Billy’s and listened for the last breath. When it came, tears stung his eyes without warning and he shuddered.

   “He gone?” Jess asked. Johnny nodded. He had to force back a sudden flood of thoughts of the living Billy and he cast his gaze upon Cain still out cold on the ground.

   “You did right to whack the sonuvabitch. I’d have killed him if he’d still been standing.”

   “So would I, iffen I wasn’t in his daddy’s pay. I’m real sorry about your friend, son.” Jess spat out a tobacco flake off his tongue. “You want some help settin’ the boy on his horse?”

   “I’d appreciate that.”

   Johnny waited a moment before laying Billy gently to the ground. He was battling unknown enemies coming in waves upon him, ones that made him want to puke and scream at the same time. They wanted to wrench his breath and guts from him and leave him a useless, blubbering fool. Jess handed him his revolver and he looked at it, feeling nothing, before jamming it in the holster. He walked to Billy’s horse and pulled at the ties holding the bedroll and slicker. When he heard the first sounds of riders in the far distance, he drew his gun and waited for them to appear, as cold and as certain as he had ever felt that he would kill if he needed to.

   There were five of them, as he had known there would be from the hoofbeats and one set of wheels. They stopped before him, one old man driving a wagon, three cowhands toting rifles and another man, entirely different and clearly in charge. He wore a black hat and black frock coat, a red waistcoat and a patterned neck tie. His face was pitted with smallpox scars and a beard of sorts struggled to disguise them. Johnny aimed his gun square at the stranger’s heart. The man’s gaze turned calmly from Johnny’s gun to the boy on the ground.

   “Is my son killed?”

   “No, Mr Trencher,” Jess replied. “He shot dead this boy here and I knocked him out so’s he might see another day.”

   Johnny watched as Trencher’s attention carefully returned to him. The men were well trained, he noted, neither moving in their saddles nor shifting their gaze from a point just beyond him.

   “Who are you?”

   “Johnny Lancer. My family owns the land next to yours”

   Trencher nodded.

   “You’re either brave or foolish to be holding a gun on me, Johnny Lancer, when I have men in the rocks east and west of us ready to shoot you down if you use it.”

   “I know you do, Mr Trencher, but I’d take you and your three guard dogs with me before I go.”

   Trencher smiled thinly.

   “I believe you would, but as I mean you no harm and want only to find out what’s happened here …” Trencher’s gaze hardened. “… on my land, then I ask you to put your gun away and allow me to dismount.”

   Johnny hesitated and then holstered the gun. Trencher dismounted stiffly and took a stick offered to him by one of his men. When he walked, it was with a heavy limp and a look of some pain. He stood before Johnny, tall and surveying him with eyes that seemed nearly black.

   “Murdoch Lancer’s your father?”

   “Yeh.”

   “Then this is indeed regrettable. Why are you on my land?”

   “Doin’ what ranchers do, Mr Trencher, what we always did when Henry Springer owned this place, peaceably fetchin’ our strays and fixin’ fences. Your kid got himself twisted about it and ended up shootin’ one of our men dead. You’re fuckin’ right it’s regrettable.”

   More pain crossed Trencher’s face. He limped over to Billy’s body, bowed his head and crossed himself. He turned to his unconscious son and poked him with the stick.

   “Put him on his horse, Jess, and then help Mr Lancer to get his man on our wagon.”

   “I don’t need your wagon, Mr Trencher.” Johnny grabbed Billy’s bedroll. “I can get him home myself.”

   “As you wish, but I intend to ride with you to see your father. As my son is a wayward fool, I must bear responsibility for this boy’s death and make some reparation for it if I can.”

   “You can’t.” Johnny covered Billy with the blanket. He took out his knife and cut a long piece of string from a length in his pocket. “Billy was a top hand and a good friend of mine. You can’t make reparation for that, Mr Trencher.” He tied string around the blanket over Billy’s feet. “It’s done an’ I guess my father’ll do what he thinks oughta be done about it.” Johnny looked at Jess attempting to rouse Cain Trencher. “An’ if that means gettin’ the marshal out here to arrest that piece of shit for murder, then that’s what he’ll do an’ there won’t be a way in hell to change his mind on it.”

   He tied more string to secure the old grey blanket around Billy’s neck. Already the blood was through the blankets. His anger helped to keep the thoughts away, the guilt that he hadn’t kept Billy safe, the awfulness of a life stopped when it had hardly got going. Trencher drew in a breath. Johnny saw how his hand shook over the top of the stick and wondered at the man’s history.

   “Nevertheless, I owe my neighbour the courtesy of an explanation and we will ride with you.”

   “Suit yourself.”

   Jess helped him place Billy’s body on the horse and tie it down with rope. The whole time, he could not shake the thoughts, ‘This is Billy. This is Billy under this blanket. Billy’s dead and he isn’t coming back. Billy’s dead.’ Steeling himself, he mounted his own horse and headed home, the reins of Billy’s horse in his hand and Trencher’s crew following close behind.   

 

Chapter Five 

   Manuel Delgado’s children were playing by the adobe wall when Johnny got home late afternoon. Manuel was one of the few hands who had a family at Lancer - a fat, cheerful wife who made the best carnitas Johnny had ever tasted, two scrawny boys and a chubby daughter. The children were using the wall’s shadow in a game. Pasha, the girl, stood in the shadow, her toes at its edge, her head bent as if in deep concentration, while her brothers leapt around and taunted her from their places in the sunlight. As Johnny approached her, Pasha looked up and he saw fear in the fat little girl’s eyes. He stopped and leaned forward in the saddle.

   “Solo hazlo, Pasha,” he said, smiling. Seeing the other riders had silenced her brothers, but Johnny knew it was the shadow’s edge that had paralysed the girl. “Solo hazlo.”

   She smiled shyly and stepped forward; for a moment one foot was in the shadow and one in the sunlight, before she ran laughing towards her brothers. As one, they caught her and held her there, silent in their arms, their gazes dark on the strangers.

   “Ir a casa, ninos,” Johnny said, turning his horse. The children obeyed instantly, dust flying from their feet as they raced home to their mother.

 

   Someone must have raised the alarm. Men with rifles were positioned on roof tops and when his father emerged from the hacienda, Pete Thorn was beside him, his rifle at the ready. He couldn’t figure his father’s frame of mind as he strode quickly towards the group. Murdoch’s gaze was upon him alone and the words he’d intended stuck in his throat, so great was his sudden loss of ease.

   “Get down, Johnny,” his father ordered. He hesitated, suddenly confused. “Get down off the horse!”

   He slid down quickly. He heard Cain speak and Trencher’s abrupt command to shut his damn mouth. The instant his father’s hand came up to his face, he believed he was about to be hit and his heart raced harder. The relief he felt when he understood that this was a tender hand almost undid his fenced-in emotions.

   “Are you alright?” his father asked, touching the blood on his shirt. “Are you hurt anywhere?”

   “No.” He fought to keep his voice steady. “It’s Billy’s blood. That goddamn sonuvabitch son of Trencher’s shot him dead, Murdoch. Jesus, Billy wasn’t even half awake …”

   Murdoch’s gaze went to the body tied over the bay horse. Johnny felt the hand go to his neck and rub some comfort there.

   “It’s alright, Son. We’ll sort this out, I promise.” For the first time, his father looked directly at Trencher. “I was hoping we could establish a cordial relationship as neighbours, Mr Trencher, but killing one of my men in cold blood in front of my boy is one hell of a bad way to start.”

   By now, hands had gathered, their faces grim with the knowledge of what had happened to Billy. Silently, Trencher dismounted and untied his stick from his saddle. Rifle levers were pulled back and, bitterly glad of it, Johnny saw fear in Cain’s eyes. It was strange to feel Lancer’s power in this way. So long he’d relied on his own devices, on his ability to put dread in men’s hearts. Now he was part of something greater than himself and it seemed he needed to do nothing to stay alive. Uncertain of how he felt about that, he watched Trencher limp towards them.

   Trencher was almost as tall as his father, and he had presence, it couldn’t be denied. Still, Johnny hated him now, almost as much as he hated Cain. His respect for Pete Thorn went up another notch when he saw the fire in the old man’s eyes as he levelled his Henry at Trencher’s heart.

   “Mr Lancer,” Trencher said. “I apologise for my son’s actions for which he’ll be duly punished. However, your man went for his gun …”

   “Just outta his goddamn sleep, Trencher,” Johnny said. “Jesus, he didn’t even know where he was, before that trash of yours put a bullet in his belly. Goddammit, you piece of shit …” His revolver was out of its holster and at Cain Trencher as fast as he’d ever drawn it. “You smile again and I’ll make sure you got no teeth to do it with.”

   Another young man, a brother maybe, cuffed Cain’s head so hard, he nearly fell out of his saddle. Johnny felt his father’s hand on his shoulder.

   “Put the gun away, Johnny.” He hesitated before slipping the revolver back in its holster.  “I’m going to take Mr Trencher and his son inside, to have a private discussion.” Shaken, Johnny opened his mouth to protest. “Go and clean up and I’ll ask Jelly to take care of Billy.”

   “No, Murdoch. I’m goin’ with you. If you’re discussin’ anything with these sonsuvbitches, I want to be there.”

   “You’re upset and angry, Son,” his father said. “There’s been enough violence today. Let me deal with it now.”

   “I won’t do anything. I’ll be quiet. I won’t even take my gun in there.”

   “No, John.” Murdoch turned to Trencher. “Mr Trencher, if you’ll ask your son to dismount, we’ll talk in my study.”

   “You’ll side with them, Murdoch,” Johnny said, in a rush of pain and fury. “You’ll talk the wrong out of what they’ve done. I can’t let you do that!”

   He saw his father’s expression darken.

   “Pete, escort our guests inside. I’ll be there in a moment. Come with me, Johnny.”

   Still burning, he followed Murdoch into the shade of the kitchen veranda, a place cluttered with strings of onions, peppers and garlic cloves, clay flower pots and neatly arranged gardening tools. He liked it best of the hacienda’s many quiet places, but it seemed that it might be spoiled forever now by the strength of this poisonous feeling inside him. His father leaned against a post and folded his arms, while he stood there, trembling, his fists clenching and unclenching, almost sick with wanting to hit something. He waited for Murdoch to speak. When his father remained silent, he turned away and grasped the veranda rail, his gaze on the herbs growing in wild tangles below, his body still shaking.

   “If you want to hit out, Johnny, I’m here to take it.”

   He turned his head to look at his father. He knew he had stupid tears in his eyes. Before any other man, even Scott, he’d have been ashamed to show such weakness.

   “It ain’t you I want to hit, Murdoch.”

   “Isn’t it?”

   Johnny frowned in confusion. He had no idea why, but his father’s calm words had slowed his galloping heart. He eased his grip on the rail.

   “Billy was my friend, Murdoch. He irritated the hell outta me sometimes, but we got along real well.”

   “Yes, I know, and got into trouble together more often than not.” Murdoch sighed and looked down at his folded arms. “Johnny, you’re going to have to trust me on this. It needs a cool head and you’re in no fit state to deal with it.”

   “So Cain Trencher’s just goin’ to ride out of here with no more’n than the promise of his pa’s belt across his backside. Is that it? Seems to me I’m in a better state to see justice done than you are, Old Man!”

   He’d known that would anger his father, the return of that hated title, but Murdoch just heaved in a sharp breath.

   “You’re very upset, Johnny, so I’ll let that go. I’m going to find out exactly what happened out there and then I’ll decide if we can bring the law into this …”

   “If!?”

   “Half asleep or not, Billy went for his gun. I know you liked the boy, Son, but we might not be able to get past that, and for all Cain Trencher’s reckless idiocy, he’s still our new neighbour’s son. If we’re not careful here, this could end up affecting the lives of everyone on this ranch. D’you understand?”

   Johnny turned and leaned against the rail, his arms folded tight around his body.

   “John, I need to know you understand what I’m saying.”

   Refusing to look at his father, he nodded once.

   “Good. Now I want you to look at me while I tell you this.”

   He looked up this time, knowing there’d be worse in it for him if he didn’t.

   “The next time you challenge me in front of neighbours or the hands, you’d better be very sure indeed of your ground. Is that clear, Son?”

   Pulling in a long breath, he hesitated and then nodded again.

   “Yeh.” He scuffed his boot heel hard on the wooden boards. “Yes, sir. It’s clear.”

   His father patted his shoulder as he passed him.

   “Go get yourself cleaned up. We’ll talk later.” 

******************************************

    He pulled his head under the water. Perhaps bringing himself to the point of drowning would rid his mind of the horror of it all, even if just for a moment. He stayed down, the chirping of sparrows in the washhouse’s rafters the only sound to reach his ears through the water. The moment came when he could no longer hold his breath and he opened his mouth. The water flooded in and he felt himself being pulled to the surface by his hair. Coughing and spluttering, he lashed out at the hand holding him.

   “What in the hell are you doing, Johnny!?”

   Still out of breath, he sat up in the bath and glared at his brother. Scott, dusty from a day’s work on the south range, was standing over him, looking angry.

   “Takin’ a fuckin’ bath. What the hell does it look like I’m doin’?”

   “Something stupid.”

   Calmer now, Johnny brushed his hair back from his face with one hand and offered his brother a small smile.

   “Kinda rich from a man who’s courtin’ the banker’s wife, ain’t it?”

   Scott sat on the edge of the bath and cuffed Johnny’s head gently. He sighed.

   “I heard about Billy, brother. I’m sorry.”

   Johnny nodded. He soaped away the last traces of Billy’s blood from his skin.

   “My fault. I let him sleep when that Trencher kid came riding in. You know how ol’ Billy Boy could sleep through a storm. Figured it saved me the job of stoppin’ him tangling with that kid. Reckoned I could handle it all before he woke up. Almost did, too. I almost did.”

   “You couldn’t know what would happen, Johnny.”

   “No, but I should’ve guessed it might. The kid just didn’t look like the kind to pull the trigger. Just playin’ at bein’ a bad hombre, y’know what I mean?”

   His brother nodded and rubbed his shoulder.

   “You can’t take responsibility for every idiot with a gun, Johnny. Cain Trencher killed Billy, not you. D’you hear me?”

   Johnny plunged into the water again and then stood up quickly and out of the bath. He grabbed a towel and rubbed his hair forcefully.

   “Is Murdoch done talkin’ to the Trenchers?”

   “I believe so. I saw them riding out just before I came in here.” Scott hesitated. “Johnny?”

   “Yeh?”

   His brother rubbed the edge of the bath with a long finger and Johnny knew what he was about to ask.

   “You weren’t about to do something stupid just now, were you?”

   Johnny draped the towel over his shoulders and half smiled.

   “No. If it ever came to that, brother, I’d do it with a gun.” He forced another smile. “And it wouldn’t be over Billy Donner either, however bad I feel right now.”

   His brother smiled back at him, but it was clear he wasn’t happy. He realised then how much he wanted Scott around tonight, for him not to disappear into the darkness in pursuit of Jennie Black.  

 

 

   Pete Merritt, seventeen and as green as any kid he’d ever known, was sitting in the shade of the chestnut tree cleaning Billy’s saddle of blood. Johnny thought to talk to him, but decided against it. Rubbing his hair with the towel, he made for the house. Despite everything, he was hungry and couldn’t help his mouth watering as he smelled conchas in the air. Just the thought of biting through that sweet crust …

   “How come ya didn’t save Billy, Johnny?”

   He stopped rubbing his hair and turned to look at Pete, waiting for more. The boy was staring at him hard, unafraid under his misshapen hat. He was trying for a moustache, but it was a scrawny affair, unlike Billy’s finely shaped one. His quim duster, Billy’d called it and away from the older men who’d clout the ear of any youngster, including Johnny, who talked dirty, he’d tell how Myra at the Silver Dollar would douche herself especially clean to be allowed the honour of that moustache between her thighs. With the sudden stirring image of Myra’s wide open cunny came the numbing fact of Billy’s corpse in the ice house and he breathed deep.

   “You was a gunfighter, Johnny. How come Billy ended up gutshot?”

   He felt exposed without his shirt. He’d left it, stained with Billy’s blood, on the wash house floor for Maria to pick up and wash.

   “It was a bad set of circumstances, Pete. That’s all I can tell you.”

   He saw now that the boy had shed tears. Maybe it was his first hard bump into death.

   “How come ya didn’t see it comin’?”

   “What?”

   “Gunfighters see bad things comin’ before anyone else, don’t they, or was ya sleepin’ like a reg’lar man, like they say you was?”

   He’d have hit the boy if they’d been alone and he’d been wearing his shirt. Sam Wester had appeared in the bunkhouse doorway, a cup of coffee in his hand. When Johnny looked him in the eyes, he raised the cup to his mouth and took a noisy sip before throwing the dregs to the dust. Johnny clenched his jaw. He should’ve woken Billy or shot Cain the instant he’d seen him, like he could’ve done. Talking hadn’t worked. It had never worked. It had led him down the path of dead fools who believed that every man had some good in him.

   “When you’re done shinin’ up that leather, boy,” Sam said, “We got horses to feed.”

   “I ain’t done yet.”

   “I said when you’re done, Shave-tail. Hell, you’re going to have to shape up quick if you’re aiming to fill Billy’s boots.”

   Glaring, Pete hoisted the saddle over his shoulder and looked darkly at Johnny.

   “You shoulda killed Cain Trencher, Johnny. He shouldn’t still be alive after what he done to Billy an’ you know it. Mightn’t bring Billy back, but leastways you’d be able to sleep tonight knowin’ what you’d done was right.”

   He wouldn’t call the boy a half-assed fuck to his face, but he wanted to, wanted so badly to take his easy words and break his teeth in shoving them back down his throat. He’d spent almost a year basking in Pete Merritt’s admiration of his skills with horse and rope. Now the boy was facing him off, hard-eyed, telling him he’d failed as a man, and he had failed. That was the truth of it. Johnny Madrid had stood there helpless while a friend was gunned down, of no more use than when the banditos had slaughtered Jarini Higuera. He’d been too young then, but what excuse had he got now?

   “You’d have killed him, huh, Pete?” he said, meeting the boy’s angry eyes.

   “If I’d had your killin’ ways, Johnny, I surely would.”

   His stomach clenched. Hunger fled in the wake of pure sickness. Sam kicked at Pete’s heel.

   “When you’re growed, boy, maybe you’ll get the right to question how a man acts, but you’d best hobble your lip now. Johnny, you want that grey mare cut out of that new bunch?”

   That beautiful mare, the one that had caught his eye the moment he and Murdoch had viewed the horses at the Rocking J last week. His father had joked with Jackson Crouch that at least a horse was cheaper than a wedding and had paid top dollar for the mare without haggling Crouch down even a dime, though his Old Man, as usual, had shown no mercy in wrangling hard for the rest of the bunch. Jesus, but he’d been happy that day, purely happy, Murdoch buying that horse for him, afterwards taking supper with the Crouches, flirting with pretty Amy Crouch, and skilfully enough to avoid upsetting any of the older people round the table. In fact, they’d seemed glad of it, Mrs Crouch shooing them outside onto the porch alone after supper. He’d felt accepted by these decent, respectable people and had even managed to stop himself imagining what Amy looked like underneath her dress while they talked on the porch. He hadn’t felt like any kind of killer then - almost normal, almost ordinary. He nodded in answer to Sam.

   “Put her in the barn with some of that new hay, Sam. I want to see how she behaves away from the others.”

   “Sure thing, Johnny.”

   It calmed him a little, the giving of an order. Turning quickly, he headed for the house, before the sight of Pete Merritt and that saddle undid him again. 

*************************************** 

 

   He woke up sweating, out of breath. The nightmare of Billy watering the dirt with his blood still hadn’t let go, and he was sure he’d pissed himself for real when Billy had turned into Jarini, blood and spittle bubbling through his lips. Sitting up in his bed, he threw off the covers to check he was dry and listened for footsteps. If he’d yelled out as he sometimes did, one or other of them would come. Sometimes he welcomed it; other times, like now, he wanted it as much as a kick in the head. His heart still beating hard, he lay back down and watched the big full moon through the window.

   He’d had enough of them both anyhow, arguing most of the evening after supper over Fort Pierce’s Indians. He’d never seen Scott so riled up, spraying high-falutin’ words around like shotgun pellets and so all-fired intent on sending Murdoch over the edge. Either his brother really cared about a bunch of scrawny redskins or Jennie Black was turning his head. At some point, Scott had asked him what he thought and he’d had to be truthful. Right then, he’d no more cared about the fucking Indians than the prairie dogs in their burrows, although he’d been savvy enough not to use those exact words, just said that all he cared about right now was getting Billy buried decent and seeing Cain Trencher swing from a rope.

   That had been enough to shut them both up about the Indians, for them both to sit down carefully near him, Scott’s hand on his shoulder, although he’d had to listen again to his father’s warning that they couldn’t hold out much hope of Cain being convicted of murder. That was when he’d admitted he’d wished he’d shot Cain dead the moment he saw him, that that was what he’d sure as hell do if he had the time over. It had been no good Murdoch saying he was proud that he’d chosen to talk rather than shoot his way out of the fix. Billy had wound up dead at twenty-one with no more real harm in him than a month old pup and he could’ve stopped that fact with a single bullet. Would that’ve made his father proud? Would he have trusted that his son hadn’t taken a life without good cause? He’d asked Murdoch those questions and got no answer but a big hand rubbing the back of his neck. Hell, he’d never set much store by words, but he sure would’ve welcomed a few good ones then.

   Just when his mind had drifted to thoughts of the Crow arrow scar on his father’s leg and his craving to hear the story of it, he heard the familiar creak of the barn door. Frowning, he got out of bed and looked into the yard below his window. All was silent. No lights in the bunkhouse to tell that something might be happening. Shrugging on his clothes, he went downstairs, took his gun belt off its peg in the hallway and left the house.

   He approached the barn slowly in the moonlight’s shadows, his revolver cocked in his hand, and leaned back against its wooden boards. Even if it turned out to be no more than a stray cow, he was glad of having no more to think about than the moment, his mind making rapid calculations of who the intruder might be and how they might react when he opened that barn door. Reaching across, he pushed his fingers in the gap between door and upright and eased it open a little. He spoke into the barn’s darkness, its silence broken only by the sound of a cow’s heavy, rhythmic chewing.

   “If you want your belly to see breakfast, you’d best come out real careful.”

   “That you, Johnny?”

   He let out a deep sigh and lowered his revolver.

   “Goddamn, Pete, what in the hell’re you doin’ out here at this time of night!?”

   The old man’s sudden appearance out of the fuggy gloom with his wild hair and long beard, and dressed in more of Murdoch’s clothes, took him by surprise, jolting his heart.

   “Could ask the same about you, boy.”

   Feeling stupid and almost disappointed, Johnny pulled one hand back through his hair and shrugged.

   “Heard the barn door creak.”

   “Reckoned you wouldn’t’ve done if you’d been sleepin’.” Pete Thorn peered hard into his face. “Had a bad dream, huh?”

   Johnny frowned, troubled at being read so easily.

   “Somethin’ like that. What’s your excuse?”

   “Got none, boy. Don’t like beds too much and I never sleep more’n three hours in a night anyhow. Reckoned to keep Sancho comp’ny for a spell, but you look more in need of it than him. Let’s get some coffee on the boil.”

   He was going to protest, but remembered the Crow story and followed the old man into the kitchen. He sat down at the table. It was covered with a pristine white cloth. As always, it made him nervous; even when he was clean, it seemed impossible that he wouldn’t somehow soil it. He watched Pete light the stove. The old man seemed to know his way around Maria’s cupboards and shelves, picking out coffee, spoons and a pot with barely a pause. Johnny felt no urge to talk. He sat there, yawning, elbows on the table, rubbing his hands through his hair. In truth, he wanted to go back to bed, have another go at blotting out his thoughts with sleep.

   It wasn’t until the coffee was on the stove that the old man took something out of his shirt pocket and placed it carefully in front of Johnny – a faded picture of a woman. He’d seen these early daguerreotypes before – the sitter always looked surprised and a little distrustful. The woman was young with dark, curving eyebrows. She wore a patterned dress and the collar was fastened with a fancy brooch.

   “That’s Clemmie, my wife,” Pete said. “I killed her.”

   That woke him up straight. He took his hands out of his hair and stared at the old man.

   “You killed your wife?”

   “Nine months ago today.” Pete touched the picture with the tip of his crooked fore finger, jiggled it a little. “She was my true love, Johnny, the kind of woman that makes a man wonder why the hell he’d have been born if she hadn’t walked into his life.”

   He took another look at the picture. She was pretty, but not overly so, not like Lindy, not so brazen and knowing either, but serious, sure of herself. Was this the kind of woman a man should love and marry? Fleetingly, he thought of Lindy. He still rubbed himself off to thoughts of her milky skin and hard nipples, but he knew that was no great sign that he’d loved her.

   “She was twenty or so in that picture, seventy-six when she died. She had a tumour in her belly.” Johnny looked into Pete’s eyes. “Oh, but she went through a livin’ hell, boy, a livin’ hell, the kind where you got no choice but to doubt the Lord’s good intentions.” He stood up to check the coffee and sat down again. “Life had been so sweet to her, even bein’ hitched to a no account ol’ buffalo skinner like me. She loved everythin’ – flowers, sunshine, a little frog in the grass, some beat up feller playin’ a cryin’ tune on a fiddle – and she got paid back in her last years with hell on earth. Hell on Earth.”

   “So you put an end to it,” Johnny said, feeling nothing but sorrow for the old hands trembling on the white tablecloth in front of him. Pete nodded, his lips working as if to speak, but he was silent. Johnny went to the coffee, grabbed a cloth for the handle and poured out two cups. He set one down before Pete’s clasped hands.

   “Have you told Murdoch?”

   “No, and I don’t plan to.”

   Johnny sipped the coffee. It wasn’t good, but it was hot.

   “Why did you tell me?”

   Pete reached out two fingers to snag the cup handle. A little slopped onto the tablecloth. Johnny could already hear Maria’s angry Spanish at dawn.

   “Because I did somethin’ I had to do, Johnny, but if you’d killed that Trencher boy, it would’ve been the worst thing you ever did.”

   Johnny hitched in a breath and set his cup down.

   “I’ve done worse, Pete.”

   The old man looked at him; his gaze had lost its faraway look and had hardened. Despite the lines and wild beard he looked younger again, as if he’d pulled off a mask.

   “I know it, boy, but not while you’ve had a pa and a brother to love the bones of you, you ain’t. Murdoch told me about you …” Johnny knew he’d given away his feelings with the dip of his head, although at least the old man couldn’t see his belly clenching. “I know who you once was, Johnny, an’ you can’t afford to take one step back in that direction …”

   “Why!?” The rush of pain and anger was so powerful it seemed to burn the inside of his skin. “Because Murdoch’ll see what I really am and kick me out?”

  Pete looked surprised.

   “No, Johnny, because you’ll wind up dead along that path. You’ll break your daddy’s heart an’ I’m not gonna let that happen to my boy, not while I live and breathe to stop it.”

   His heart still beating fast, Johnny leaned back and tried to be calm.

   “Your boy, huh?”

   The old man flashed him a glare.

   “Seein’ as I got none of my own seed in the world, he’s as much my boy as any man’ll ever be.” He swallowed a mouthful of coffee and set the cup down hard on the table. “That’s why you’re going to listen to me, you little sonuvabitch, an’ listen good.” Johnny felt the heat rise again at the insult, narrowed his eyes, but remained still. “I’ve got Clemmie’s brother, Cyrus, on my tail; have done ever since I left Nebraska nine months ago. Sooner or later, he’s goin’ to try to put a bullet in me for what I done, so I’ve got nothin’ left to lose in this world and already lost the best of what I had apart from your pa, so I’ll kill Cain Trencher for you.” Pete looked straight at him, his gaze as hard as any man’s Johnny had seen in his life. “I know it’s eatin’ at you bad that he’s goin’ to carry on sleepin’ like one of the good Lord’s innocents with your friend’s blood on his hands.”

   Johnny inhaled sharply and shifted in the chair, his fingers tracing a coffee stain on the tablecloth. What the hell was a man to think of an offer like that? It was true that it’d been on the edge of his mind to kill Trencher if no justice could be found, but the old man had pushed the thought into such sharp and sudden focus that he had no words ready for it.

   “So you only have to say the word and it’s done,” Pete said. He leaned forward then, so close Johnny could smell the coffee on his breath. “But this is the deal, Johnny. You touch a hair on that varmint’s head, you give your daddy reason to grieve for your sorry hide, then I’ll cut off your fucking balls an’ feed ‘em to the crows. You got that, kid?”

   He stared back at the old man, searching for a sign of weakness, craziness, something he didn’t have to take seriously. His breath left him in a painful rush when Pete suddenly whacked the side of his head so hard he fell sideways off the chair onto Maria’s scrubbed tiles and saw stars. He put his hand up to his left eyebrow; it was warm and sticky where a wound from his last fight with Billy had reopened. Pete had already turned back to the stove to pour himself more coffee.

   “Jesus, Old Man, I don’t know what fuckin’ train you’re on, but it’s goin’ no place good.” He stayed sitting on the floor, waiting for the throbbing in his face to subside. “Jesus, that hurts …”

   Pete turned. He drained his cup and picked up Clemmie’s picture from the table, placing it carefully in his shirt pocket.

   “Better than wherever you’re going, Johnny, if you don’t mind what I’ve said. You got my meaning yet?”

   “Oh, yeh.” Johnny stood up too quickly. “Shit!” Dizzy and ready to throw up, he grabbed the chair back. “I got some kinda meanin’ alright, you crazy old fuck.”

   “You can call me what you like, kid.” Pete handed him a damp cloth. Johnny grabbed it and pressed it to his bleeding temple. “But I’ll do whatever it takes to stop Murdoch losin’ what he loves most on God’s earth.”

   Johnny stopped dabbing the wound and frowned at the old man. For a moment he thought of Lancer’s vast acres and his father’s words when they’d first met, something about loving the land more than anything God had created. He hadn’t thought it strange then, had just accepted it as just so much more bullshit from this huge, angry gringo stranger who was supposed to be his father. Jesus, how Murdoch Lancer hadn’t fitted his dream of a father. Though he’d known he was white, it was Jarini’s dark, handsome face he’d drawn on that missing piece of his life. He reckoned now that it had been the colour of Murdoch’s skin as much as anything else that had kept him in the shadows, watching, waiting like a scared pup for a sign that somehow he belonged with such a man.

   Johnny watched Pete leave the kitchen and close the door softly behind him. For a long while, he sat on the chair, dabbing his wound and looking at the blood on the cloth, wondering if it was possible that he could be part of what his father loved most on God’s earth.  

 

Chapter Six 

   He spent the next day away from the ranch, slipping out early before breakfast. He hadn’t missed Maria bewailing the soiled tablecloth and misplaced kitchen items, but at least his father hadn’t seen his cut and bruised face. He’d thought of a dozen stories to explain it, but none that he’d be able to say and look Murdoch in the eye.

   Billy’s body remained in the ice house. It was planned that Murdoch would send a wire from the telegraph office in Green River to Billy’s family in Bear Falls, Idaho, before talking to the marshal. While he’d saddled his horse, the sun just an apricot glow over the mountains, Johnny had thought of his friend lying in the dark, packed in ice. The worst of it, he’d decided, had been the speed of it – one minute he’d been dozing under a tree, half-aware of the crickets chirring in the grass and dreaming about the dip between Lyra’s hip-bones; the next, it seemed, he was watching Billy’s life flicker out, and the stupid, useless fuck wasn’t coming back - he was never coming back. He’d spooked the horse then, pulling too hard on the cinch, so that it squealed and stepped sideways. When was the last time he’d tried to make sense of a death? He couldn’t remember, just that this one plagued him like a chigger under the skin; replaying the events between waking up to Cain Trencher’s rifle in his face and Billy, real scared, clutching the hole in his belly, over and over again in his thoughts.

   Mending the Dickson’s roof, something he’d long promised to do, had been one of his better ideas. Sawing wood and hammering nails eased his mind and some of his anger. Earlier, he’d been half tempted to join the large crew heading for the forested mountain slopes to cut down trees for building. They’d be there at least a week, but he knew it’d been a yellow train of thought. Besides, the Old Man would almost surely’ve come after him and hauled his ass back home.

   Up on the roof, pulling out rotten wood, he smiled at the thought of Scott’s declaration of Murdoch’s third rule, from a list of twenty, following ‘Don’t be late for meals’ and ‘Don’t backtalk men six inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than you’ - ‘Don’t ride out without telling him first.’ Sniggering like kids, they’d made up that list one evening while their father dozed in his chair, but it sure wasn’t a funny thing to break one. Strange how most of the list seemed to relate to him. ‘Don’t clean out the last of the strawberry jam’ might be number twenty-one.

   He was always breaking the rules, practically from the moment he woke up, only it seemed his father had decided to choose just a few to get mad about nowadays. A year ago, he hadn’t been able to breathe for the number of times the Old Man was down his throat. Jesus, he’d wanted out nearly enough to do it, too. He’d stayed, though, despite the damn rules and he’d learned to live with them pretty much. Still, even if he’d only disappeared for the day, this would be one for what his big brother had taken to calling ‘The Beetroot Box’ – guaranteed to raise the blood in his father’s gringo skin. He threw another piece of rotten beam to the ground. Hell, Scott could talk, though – wait ‘til the Old Man found out his perfect older son was balling the banker’s wife. Suddenly feeling a little scared, Johnny removed his hat and swept at his sweating brow with his sleeve. It was hot, but those fat clouds his brother called Cumulonimbus were already building in the blue sky. Jelly had said that a storm was coming and the old coot wasn’t often wrong.

   Down in the apple orchard’s long grass, Walt Dickson sat in a rocking chair, his half-leg propped up on a wooden box. He was smoking a pipe and hadn’t taken his eyes off Johnny since he’d first got up on the roof. The Dicksons were old and one of the families his father had pledged to help while they remained as tenants on Lancer. Their children had left and Walt Dickson had lost a leg to infection after a snake bite. Elthea Dickson, as wrinkled as a dried peach, but less watchful than her husband, sang hymns in the kitchen and climbed the ladder to pass him glasses of cold lemonade every half-hour. He sat back and drank her latest offering. He had only to fit the new beams now and replace the tiles, but doubted he could finish before the storm hit.

   The crickets were loud in the orchard below. Walt Dickson was drinking coffee in long noisy slurps, his gaze still on Johnny. Johnny picked up a tile and pretended to examine it. All morning he’d tried not to think of Pete Thorn, the way he’d turned from a sorrowful old man, trembling with the thought of his dead wife, to a hard-eyed crazy fuck with a fist like a hammer. Jesus, but he hadn’t seen that one coming. What the hell was the matter with him lately? A kid and an old man had both got the up on him in the same day, and he’d let them do it as easy as opening the corral gate for a stray cow. He picked up another tile, stroked his finger along a crack. Maybe that’s why he’d stuck with Murdoch. Maybe the truth was he liked rules. He’d followed his own for a few years and stayed alive and sane, even if they weren’t the kind of rules his father would approve of. But this … there were no rules here. Cain Trencher, stupid and out of control, had shot Billy dead and an old man who’d killed his sick wife had come riding in on a mule, acting like he owned the next part in the act, swatting him out of the way like some pesky horse fly.

   “You want somethin’ t’eat, Johnny Lancer?” Elthea Dickson was standing below, shading her eyes against the sun. “Got some apple pie down here. Cain’t eat it all myself an’ Walt don’t eat pie.”

   He’d had no breakfast and he was suddenly hungry.

   “Yes, Ma’am. I could eat some pie.”

   “Come on down then, boy. My old legs ain’t steppin’ up that ladder again today.” 

 

   The kitchen was dark and surprisingly cool. A bluebottle buzzed angrily in the window and Elthea swiped it dead with a swatter. Johnny put his hat on a peg by the door and sat down at the table. Elthea cut a slice out of the hot pie and placed it in front of him. Her fingers were clean, but as tanned and wrinkled as old twigs.

   “You want cream? – fresh from the cow this mornin’.”

   “Yes, Ma’am. Thank you.”

   She grunted a little as she pushed the jug towards him. She cut a sliver for herself, so thin he could have eaten it in one mouthful. He poured cream over his slice, but not as much as he wanted.

   “How’s your pa? I ain’t seen ‘im in a long while.”

   “He’s doin’ fine, Ma’am.”

   “He still partial to honey? I got some real fine honey from my bees, this year.”

   “Yes, Ma’am. I reckon he’s still partial to it.”

   “Take a few jars home, then, when you’re done with the roof.”

   “Yes, Ma’am. I will. Thank you.”

   She smiled suddenly, a smile that changed her face almost to that of another person, and shook her head.

   “Well, Johnny Lancer. Ain’t you mannerly for a gunfighter.”

   She stood up, took a pot of coffee from the stove and poured two cups. Johnny stopped eating and picked up his cup.

   “I’m not a gunfighter these days, Ma’am.”

   She seemed untroubled by his colder tone.

   “The Ladies’ Guild warned me in town, when I said Murdoch planned to send you to fix our roof. Said we’d be better off with your brother. Said you’d shoot our animals, tie us up and burn our barn.”

   Johnny smiled slowly.

   “Well, it ain’t the end of the day yet, Ma’am. I still got time for that.”

   She let out a laugh that was almost a shout and brought her hand up to her mouth. Strange how you knew the moment when you had a woman, old or young, in the palm of your hand. They just fell, like a fall leaf in a breeze, often despite themselves. He always enjoyed watching it, no matter what a woman’s looks or age. He smiled again as she poured more cream over his pie and urged him to eat with a wave of her spoon. The pie was good, as sweet as he liked it, with the taste of the orchard at its edge. Elthea poured him more coffee.

   “Your pa hard on you, boy?”

   “Sometimes. He don’t stand for disrespect, that’s for sure.”

   “Yes, he struck me that way, though I ain’t seen ‘im in a long while.”

   They ate in silence, Elthea, as delicately as a songbird. Something in Johnny was moved to a strange pity by her way – it seemed both strong and truly fragile at the same time.

   “Mr Dickson often sit outside for long spells, Ma’am?”

   The old woman cast her gaze to the window. Her mouth seemed to be working at a reply for moments before she spoke.

   “He’s at the end of his days, Johnny, an’ he don’t like it.”

   He swallowed the last of a mouthful of pie and picked up his cup.

   “He got somethin’ bad inside him?”

   She stopped her slow eating, put down the spoon and leaned her elbows on the table, clasping her hands tight together near her mouth. The skin on her hands was raw with toil and her fingers seemed a jumble of knotted knuckles and twisted ends.

   “Nothin’ a doctor could cure, even them fancy Eastern types. Walt’s just given up on life, that’s the truth of it.” She batted her chin with her clasped hands, her gaze on the well-scrubbed table. “He don’t see a thing to live for, not an apple on the tree or a pail of fine milk from our cow or a cool breeze on a hot day. It all runs by the same to him since he lost his leg. Drove our kids away with his black spirits, rockin’ in that chair all day.” She looked at his empty plate with something like sadness. “You want more pie?”

   “No, Ma’am, thank you. That was real good.” He drained his coffee and wiped his mouth on the checkered cloth she’d put near his plate. He stood up. “Guess I’d better finish that roof before the storm comes.”

   “He hates you for it, you know.”

   He turned in the act of placing his hat on his head and frowned.

   “Ma’am?”

   “He’d give whatever time’s left to him just to sit on that roof in the sun, bangin’ in nails an’ lookin’ around him, a cup of coffee in his hand. He was a good man once, hard-workin’, kindly, but now he don’t even do what he could do, and he ain’t so kind.” She rubbed her fore finger along a crack in the table. “I asked him to make a new chair for my sewin’ in the evenin’, but he wouldn’t. That hole you’re mendin’s been like a torment to him these past two months, somethin’ he couldn’t fix, somethin’ he couldn’t put right in the old way. It’s been eatin’ away at him like a cancer, so when he sees a young feller doin’ what he can’t, it’s like he ain’t a man anymore. That’s a bad feelin’ for a man. Women don’t feel that way about such things.” She laughed suddenly. “Heck, I’m just pure glad the roof’s bein’ mended!”

   Johnny smiled. He liked the old woman, liked her spirit. It was the kind he’d be looking for one day in a wife. As he walked outside onto the porch, past the sleeping brown dog, twitching its nose at flies, his gaze took in Walt Dickson. He was younger than Pete Thorn, he reckoned. He wondered if half a leg would’ve stopped Thorn riding an ornery mule over a thousand miles and a mountain range. He doubted it, yet what had Thorn to live for when Dickson saw nothing? They’d both lost something powerful in their lives. What had made one man wait for death and the other fly from it? What would he be like as an old man? He hoped he’d be watching his grandkids ride fine horses while he sat on the porch with a bottle of tequila, and a dog at his feet. He almost smiled at the image until Billy returned to his thoughts and his stomach clenched. 

   He leapt the first three rungs of the ladder and climbed up to the roof, intent now on fixing it to last a hundred years, if only for Elthea’s sake. For the rest of the day, he ignored the old man down in the orchard, but he couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched – hated - judged. He reckoned he’d sooner take the fear and loathing of Green River’s Ladies’ Guild for once being Johnny Madrid than to be despised because he was young. 

************************************** 

   The roof was done before the storm hit. In fact, by the time the rain came, he was in Green River. He’d left the Dickson’s with four jars of honey in his saddlebags and a thought that he’d make Elthea the best of sewing chairs the first chance he got. He’d planned on going home, but reckoned he was in for it anyway, so took a detour.

   A new town ordinance meant that Will Clutterman at the Silver Dollar wouldn’t serve him more than a beer before six, but it’d hit a dry spot, and no-one had yet made rules about what time a man could take his pleasure with a woman.

   Lyra had been taking a bath, her red hair tied up with a green ribbon. She was older than him by a good few years, but she was a perfect vision for his sore mind. It had almost been enough just sitting back in her red velvet chair and watching the lather trickle down her spine and over her breasts, drops dripping off the tips of her nipples. But by the time she’d dried herself off, pulling the towel between her legs and up the crack of her butt, he’d been ready to explode. He’d taken her quickly, almost roughly, from behind, his hands making red imprints on the white skin of her buttocks. He’d intended something slower, maybe a little kinder, and he knew she was angry with him. It bothered him sometimes, the little signs that she might see him as more than a paying customer; other times he liked it – the way she kissed him, long and slow, moans deep in her throat, the happy smile that suddenly lit her tired face when she saw him, the childhood stories she told him, even when she could be earning a few more bucks with another customer. It made Will Clutterman mad. Ten minutes per cowboy, was his often spoken rule, and that was mighty generous according to him. Right now, Lyra looked like she’d be happy to obey that rule. She’d turned over quickly and pulled herself back against the headboard; the green ribbon had come loose and a tail of it dangled by her left ear. She lit a cigarette and drew on it deeply, blowing the smoke hard his way.

   “If I’d known you just wanted a barnyard fuck, Johnny, Will’s got a hog out back for the scraps.”

   On his back and breathing deeply, he’d been aware only of the pure relief of spilling into her. He turned his head with a frown. Now was one of the times he itched to remind her that he’d pay her ten dollars however he wanted to take her, that he wasn’t in this for the long ride. Instead, he pulled himself up the bed so that his head was between her hipbones. She smelled of sweat and soap, and so much of their sex that he knew he’d want her again soon. He kissed her there, on that soft skin above her puss and felt her hand come down to his head, her fingers combing his hair, tracing the curve of his ears, stroking the vertebrae under the skin of his neck. How easy it was to gain the forgiveness of a loving woman. She eased her legs down so that they enfolded him in their embrace.

   “What happened to your face, Johnny? You been fightin’ again?”

   He shook his head, his fingers stroking her right hip, liking the way the soft skin stretched over the high bone and descended to the first hairs of her nest.

   “Your pa was in town, this mornin’,” she said. “Talkin’ with the marshal.”

   “You up that early, Lyra?”

   She flicked his ear with a long fingernail. He pretended that it hurt and softly grasped her wrist. She pulled it away, but he knew she was smiling.

   “Just so happens I was today, smart-ass.” She paused. “I heard about Billy. Rose is real cut up about it. She liked Billy a helluva lot.”

   “Yeh.” He sighed, his breath disturbing the wiry red hairs close to his mouth.

   “We had to give her laudanum, a real big dose of it so she could get some sleep.”

   He raised his head then, glared up at her.

   “Jesus, you girls oughta lay off that stuff. It’ll kill you. I don’t want you takin’ that stuff, Lyra, d’you hear me?”

   She smiled down at him.

   “Johnny, that’s real sweet of you, honey, but you don’t get to say what I do.” She pushed the hair from his eyes. “You ain’t bought me outright.”

   The ‘yet’ was burning so hard in her eyes, he had to look away. All restfulness gone, he sat up and reached for his shirt.

   “You leavin’ already?” There was protest in her question, real anger. He dragged on his pants and jiggled his feet into his boots.

   “I gotta get home. I’m already goin’ to get my ears blistered for takin’ off before orders this mornin’. If I’m late for dinner, Murdoch might forget he ain’t a violent man.”

   Lyra stubbed her cigarette in a glass tray and knelt forward to put her arms around him, her hands working to undo the buttons of his pants he’d just fastened. His groin jolted and he grabbed her wrists.

   “I told you, Lyra. I’ve got to go.”

   She kissed his neck, spun her tongue up the bones of it.

   “You scared of your pa?” she whispered. How could she make that question sound like a come on? He tucked his shirt in his pants.

   “Since you’re askin’, yeh, sometimes, I’m scared of ‘im.” He stood up and buckled on his gun belt. “Ain’t you scared of yours?”

   Lyra picked up his hat and turned it slowly in her white hands.

   “Might be if I’d ever known him.” She sighed and lay back on the bed, naked but for his hat over her puss. “Mama said he was a mean-hearted sonuvabitch, so I guess I would’ve been scared of him, maybe.”

   He looked at her. He didn’t like being reminded that she had a history, maybe even more thorny than his own. Still he couldn’t help wondering what bad thing had led the girl down the road of selling her body to any horny cowboy who came along. He wouldn’t ask her, though. He’d give his next year’s wages to hear the story of his father and the Crows, but a woman’s life, especially a pitiful one, was liable to weaken his bones and skin. He watched her lift his hat from her puss and twirl it around on one finger.

   “Your pa was askin’ folks if they’d seen you. Even asked Will downstairs.”

   “Jesus.”

   “Sounded kinda worried, Johnny.”

   He lifted his hat from her finger and put it on.

   “Not mad?”

   “Well, maybe a little mad.”

   He kissed her puss and tucked a twenty between her legs. She glared at him.

   “You know, Johnny, I’d a sooner give you a free one than you thinkin’ payin’ me double is the right way of doin’ things.”

   He looked down and heaved in a breath. If only the woman wasn’t so damn inviting, so clean and sweet-smelling, so lost to herself when he fucked her, he’d surely look for another, less troublesome, whore. He moved up and kissed her lips, pulled away as she tried to grab his head.

   “I’ll be seein’ you, Lyra.”

   “Fuck you, Johnny Lancer.” He closed the door and heard her yell again. “I hope your pa takes a horsewhip to you!! Tell him to put some extra in for me, ya sonuvabitch!!”

   He left quickly, thumping down the Silver Dollar’s noisy stairs and out into the street. It was raining steadily now, sending rivers down the street. His horse stood miserably at the saloon’s hitch-rail and looked up at him. In the porch of the milliner’s across from the saloon, he saw the banker and his wife sheltering from the rain. Mrs Black, dressed in dark red, was holding one of those small, pointless umbrellas that some of the finer ladies of the town favoured. Her husband was leaning out, peering at the sky as if by sheer force of will he could make the rain quit. Johnny splashed through the puddles to retrieve his slicker from his saddle and leapt back on the porch to put it on. When he glanced at the Blacks again, Jennie Black was looking right at him. She said something to her husband and he nodded. Johnny looked around to see if it could be anyone else that Joshua Black was beckoning over, but the street was deserted save for a thin dog tearing at a dead crow. He tied his slicker tight round his neck and walked across to the milliner’s. He raised his hat to Jennie Black, holding his gaze just a little longer than he might have done once.

   “Ma’am.”

   She nodded and allowed the smallest of smiles to escape. Had Scott already bitten on this sour apple? Jesus, but his brother was risking a lot to get under the starchy skirts of this woman old enough to be his mother.

   “Mr Lancer.”

   He turned from her, shaking his hat free of water.

   “You want somethin’, Mr Black?” he asked.

   “Yes, Johnny,” Black said. “I’d like you to tell your father that we’d be very happy to accept his kind invitation to luncheon on Sunday. He asked me this morning, but I needed to discuss it with my good lady first.”

   His thoughts wavering between the image of the ‘good lady’ naked in his brother’s arms and how he might escape such an event as lunch with the Blacks, Johnny nodded.

   “Sure thing, Mr Black. I’ll tell ‘im.”

   Raising his hat again to Mrs Black, he walked back out into the rain, crossed the street and mounted his horse. He saw that Lyra was standing at her window watching him, but he pretended he hadn’t seen her and rode quickly out of town.

 

Chapter Seven 

      He’d ridden back through the worst of the storm, pure white lightning flashing in a black sky. At times, especially through Red Canyon, he’d been more than a little afraid. A cottonwood tree had split clean down the middle and fallen in his path moments after he’d passed by. Swollen rivers had made known ways treacherous and twice his horse had reared in terror. As soon as he’d ridden under the arch, though, excitement that he hadn’t been fried as black as Whip’s bacon took over. He’d made it in time for dinner, too. He went in buzzing, wanting to tell someone how it was the worst storm he’d ever been in and he was lucky to be alive. Maybe his father would be so glad he’d made it, he’d forget he had reasons to be mad.

   Leaving his gun belt and hat in the hallway, he glanced at the grandfather clock outside the Great Room doorway. It was not yet six-thirty. Though he was soaked to the skin, he decided to get the sermon over with so he could enjoy dinner.

   It was Pete Thorn he saw first, seated in his father’s favourite armchair and breaking one of Murdoch’s tightest rules. The old man was cleaning his gun, using wax on the Henry’s stock and polishing the wood in slow, loving circles. He looked up at Johnny with a faint smile and the hard eyes of the previous night. He took his pipe out of his mouth,

   “See, Scotty. I told ya the boy would make it home for his dinner. Boys an’ dogs can smell roast chicken from fifty miles away.”

   Johnny looked coldly at the old man. Pete Thorn smiled and stuck his pipe back in.  He saw that his father had been writing letters at the small desk under the window that looked out onto the herb garden. Despite the rain, the window was open and the smell of damp lavender was strong. On the desk were three or four envelopes already addressed and sealed, and a letter just begun. His father had turned his head to view him and he looked neither relieved nor friendly.

   “Where’ve you been, Johnny?”

   He walked nearer to Murdoch, his throat suddenly dry, though rainwater was still dripping off his hair down his neck. He risked a smile.

   “Out at the Dickson’s place, mendin’ their roof. Got it done, too, before the storm hit.”

   His father put down his pen and turned to face him. He leaned back in the chair, his fingers laced across his stomach. He nodded.

   “You didn’t think to tell me before you assigned yourself that chore, I suppose?”

   This was bad. The Old Man was way too quiet and relaxed. Another thought flashed through his mind. How was he going to give the Black’s message and not reveal he’d been in town?

   “I guess I didn’t think …”

   “That really doesn’t cut it, John, not when we’ve got this Trencher business hanging over us.” Suddenly, his father frowned and stood up quickly. He grasped Johnny’s chin and turned his head to one side. “What happened to your face?”

   He swallowed hard. He’d have to lie, even though his father wouldn’t believe him. Murdoch still had a hold of his chin, keeping his face turned, so at least he didn’t have to look him in the eye.

   “I slipped on the Dickson’s roof.”

   His father brought his head round and Johnny averted his gaze despite himself.

   “I’d hoped that by now you’d have more respect for me than to tell me a barefaced lie, Son. Maybe you should go upstairs, get changed into dry clothes and come back down with the truth. I’d sooner you told me that it was none of my business than lie to me.”

   “I hit the boy, Scotty.”

   He’d been as unhappy as in his worst days on the Earth, but nothing could have persuaded him to tell the truth, not even the torment of his father’s disappointment in him. Now here was Pete Thorn spilling it as easy as breathing. The old man had stood up, one hand in his pants pocket, the other holding his pipe.

   “What?”

   “I was tryin’ to talk some sense into his head, last night, about goin’ after Cain Trencher an’ he bad-mouthed me, so I smacked ‘im.” Johnny glared at Thorn, furious at the fresh lie, but helpless against it. “Sorry if I overstepped my mark.”

   Johnny saw the pure distress in his father’s face, the battle between hurt and anger. He opened his mouth to say it was nothing, but his father got there first.

   “Overstepped your mark, Pete? Good God, man, by about a thousand miles! You hit my son for back-talking you!?”

   “I did, Scotty. I’m sorry.”

   His father was grabbing his head again, pushing the damp hair away to examine the bruising. Johnny tried to pull away.

   “It’s nothin’, Murdoch …”

   “These bruises … he’s been hit hard. What the hell got into you, Pete?”

   “Lost my temper, Murdoch. You know how quick it comes upon me.”

   Thorn had held his nerve, giving nothing away, his tone as calm as if he were defending kicking a dog. Johnny didn’t know what to make of any of it. His father was virtually shaking with emotion while his friend was lying through his damn teeth.

   “This is hard for me, Pete,” his father said. “Very hard. You’re like a father to me, but if you ever hit him again, I’ll knock you into next week and off Lancer faster than you can blink.”

   Johnny swallowed hard at his father’s words. If anything, he’d expected Murdoch to turn on him for the claim that he’d back-talked his oldest friend. He wasn’t certain how to take this vengeful fury in his defence. It didn’t surprise him, though, that his father suddenly headed for the whisky decanter, not after what had been said. He and Pete Thorn didn’t make a move while Murdoch poured out a shot and downed it in one. His father turned then. He seemed calmer, but no less angry.

   “Johnny, get upstairs and into some dry clothes. We’ll talk later about what you’ve been doing today.”

   Giving Pete Thorn a cold stare, Johnny left them to it, Bess, his father’s Labrador, padding behind him. She wasn’t allowed upstairs, but he coaxed her up anyway. Cold and shivering a little now, he changed clothes and went to his brother’s room. Scott was seated at his desk, writing in a small book. Johnny saw him close it quickly as he entered. He flung himself on Scott’s neat bed, his hands behind his head. His brother glanced at Bess who’d already made herself comfortable on the rug, and then looked across at Johnny and smiled.

   “You’re home, and still in one piece. Have you seen Murdoch?”

   Johnny nodded. He thought about telling his brother the whole deal about Pete Thorn, but feared Scott would push him to tell their father. It was easier to keep quiet, hope that the law would see Cain Trencher hang.

   “Yeh. Thought he’d be kinda grateful I’d made it home through that storm without gettin’ my ass fried, but he was too steamed, I guess.”

   “Where did you get to, today?”

   “Fixin’ the Dickson’s roof.” Johnny smiled. “An’ Green River, for a short spell.”

   “I don’t suppose you told Murdoch about that.” Scott said. “So, was Lyra up and about?”

   Johnny smiled again.

   “Not for long, brother. She was takin’ one of those bubbly baths when I got there. Jesus, you try waitin’ for a fuck when a woman’s soapin’ her tits right in front of you. My dick was practic’lly jumpin’ outta my pants. Lasted about a minute inside her. Lyra was real mad about it.”

   “Thank you for that image, little brother. I’ll remind you of it when you’re old and grey and your hormones are no longer running haywire.”

   “My what?”

   “Never mind. Why was Lyra angry?”

   Johnny shrugged.

   “I don’t know, Scott. She’s got real touchy lately, like I owe her somethin’ and I ain’t givin’ it.”

   His brother knelt down on the rug to pet Bess. She turned over to have her belly rubbed.

   “She’s in love with you, Johnny, and you know it, and if you had any sense – and consideration - you’d find another whore to meet your needs, someone like Rosie, who likes a good …” His brother hesitated. He loved it when Scott got embarrassed. “ … time, but treats it like business, as a source of income.”

   He decided to change the subject. His brother had gone down the lecture road and he wasn’t in the mood for it.

   “You been writin’ your diary, Scott.”

   His brother glanced at the book on his desk and coloured slightly.

   “No, as it happens I was trying my hand at a poem. I used to write a little poetry when I was in college and I thought I’d take it up again.”

   “What’s the title? Jennie Black takes a bath?”

   His brother stood up quickly and threw himself on Johnny. They tussled fiercely until Scott had him pinned down on the bed and held by his wrists. Still trying to catch his breath, Scott grinned down at him.

   “One of these days, boy, I’m going to have to show you where you really are in the pecking order around here.”

   Johnny made a half-hearted attempt to pull away.

   “So long as it’s higher than Jelly’s sow, I ain’t complainin’.”

   “Don’t count on it, piglet!”

   Scott cuffed his head and rolled over to lie next to him.

   “Saw Mrs Black in town,” Johnny said, once he’d got his breath back. “With Mr Black. They’re comin’ to lunch on Sunday. Said for me to tell Murdoch, but I ain’t told ‘im yet; he’ll be madder than a trod-on rattler if he knows I was in Green River today.”

   “Don’t worry,” Scott said. “I’m in town tomorrow fetching supplies. I can give Murdoch the message when I get back.”

   Johnny turned over on his side, his head resting on his left hand.

   “So how’re you goin’ to ride that buckin’ bronco, brother? Convincin’ the Old Man over roast beef and gravy that you’re fixin’ to marry innocent li’l Martha Black while you’re holdin’ hands under the table with her mama? Jesus, an’ you’re tellin’ me to use sense with Lyra!”

   He expected a harsh reaction from his brother, almost wanted it so he could begin to dig Scott out of this quicksand, but Scott spoke in a tone that worried him, like a man who wouldn’t try to fight what he knew wasn’t good for him. He’d known men like that and they always ended up mad or dead.

   “Sense doesn’t come into it Johnny. It’s like Billy’s death. It happened too quickly for anyone to do anything about it. If you try to rationalise it, you just end up going round in circles.”

   The bell went for dinner. It tickled Johnny to see how quickly his brother stood up as if he was still in the army, and how he checked himself in the mirror, finger-combing his blond fringe.

   “Can’t go on forever, brother,” Johnny said, rolling off the side of the bed and onto his feet. “Martha’s goin’ to want you to take her off the shelf pretty soon an’ you can’t marry both of ‘em.”

   “Who said I wasn’t going to marry Martha?” Scott said, still looking in the mirror and pulling at his cuffs. He turned and looked coolly at Johnny. “Think of the opportunities Jennie and I will have to see each other, Johnny, many more than we have now.”

   “Scott …”

   His brother had already left the room. Johnny whistled to Bess and hurried after him. He slid down the banister, hitting his spot perfectly and turned to face Scott walking downstairs. He glanced quickly at the Great Room doors.

   “You ain’t serious?” he whispered. “You’re boshin’ me, right?”

   His brother reached the last step and leaned on the banister post. His tone was low and severe.

   “Don’t fight me on this, Johnny. This isn’t something you can control and if you try, you and I will fall out and I really don’t want that.”

   Scott walked past him and through the Great Room doors. For a moment, Johnny wondered if he’d be able to sit round a table eating roast chicken with two men who were expecting him to keep their goddamn shitty secrets. Then his belly rumbled in painful hunger and he went into dinner. Maybe he could prod a smile out of his angry father; that’d be worth something, at least. 

 

   He managed it, too, between main course and dessert. Before that, there hadn’t been much to smile about: Murdoch telling them all that Marshal Piney had agreed to Cain Trencher’s arrest tomorrow morning. Pete Thorn announcing that he was going hunting for deer at dawn, Scott asking him about shooting distances and positions. A short discussion about how much more timber was needed for fence posts and winter fuel. A few words about when the drive crew was expected back. Tom Simmons had wired Murdoch a few weeks ago. Twelve cows lost in a river crossing. One small stampede. One hand injured bad- broken legs. Top dollar for the beef - $21.50 a head. The twelve lost, though he knew that was no bad record from a drive herd of three thousand, had made him even more determined to persuade his father to allow him to lead the next drive.

   That would keep, though. Murdoch had passed him the cream jug and he’d sloshed it over his cherry pie. A small grunt from his father, before he’d taken he hint and passed the jug on. Murdoch picked up his spoon.

   “So you fixed the Dickson’s roof today, huh?”

   He’d been about to eat his first mouthful, but stopped, surprised at the friendly tone. He’d expected that question later, in Murdoch’s study, his father looking like some hanging judge, him on the new $900 rug from Turkey feeling like a ten year old.

   “Good enough to last out the century, Murdoch.” He smiled. “Maybe even the next one.”

   No smile yet. His father nodded, dug out a spoonful of pie.

   “Is that so? - and how are Walt and Elthea?”

   “Walt Dickson?” Scott said, pouring himself more wine. “Isn’t he the old man who lost his leg from a snake-bite infection?”

   “Only because he was too damn stubborn to let a doctor see it,” Murdoch said. “By the time Elthea persuaded him, it was too late to save the leg. Old fool.”

   “Elthea’s a fine woman, though.” Grimacing at the sharpness of the fruit, Johnny reached for the sugar. “Strong, but Walt’s just sittin’ around like a beat-up old dog waitin’ to die.”

   “Maybe he’s got nothing to live for, boy. No purpose, no callin’.”

   Johnny looked at Pete Thorn. He’d had no dessert, but he was pouring his second glass of the Madeira brought out to accompany it. Pete gestured the carafe at Murdoch, who nodded and allowed his friend to fill his glass.

   “Elthea’s got purpose, plenty of it.”

   “Women most often do,” Pete said. “Not men, though. Not when they get aged an’ broken like an old wheel. Women fill the broke bits with small comforts and their imaginin’s. For us, there’s just air an’ it’s hard to breathe it.”

   “Well, that old man could do a hell of a lot more than he’s doin’ even if he ain’t got two legs.” Johnny finished sprinkling sugar on his pie. “He won’t even make her a new sewin’ chair, mean old sonuva …”

   “Johnny,” his father said. “Walt wasn’t always that way. Just because he’s let himself get dragged down in life, doesn’t entitle you to insult him.”

   He fell silent, stung for a moment by the rebuke, and ate his pie. Full, he pushed the bowl away and folded his arms on the table.

   “Well, if Walt Dickson’s too dragged down by life to make his old woman a chair, then I plan to make her one.”

   There it was and he hadn’t even tried. His father smiled.

   “You do, do you? Ever made a chair before, Son?”

   “No, but how hard can it be?”

   “Well, there’s the little matter of a lathe to turn the wood for the legs,” Scott said, “All four of them.”

   “I know how many damn legs a chair’s got, smart-ass.”

   “Watch your mouth,” Murdoch said, leaning back to allow Maria to pour coffee in his cup. Johnny dipped his head at the housekeeper’s glare.

   “That’s if you want a superior chair,” his brother continued, smooth and know-it-all. He hadn’t even thought about how the damn chair would look. “If you want a rustic, homely type of chair, I suppose you might get away with whittling.” Scott smirked at him and lifted his Madeira glass to his lips. Johnny leaned back and fixed him with a chilly smile.

   “Right now, big brother, there’s somethin’ else I’d like to whittle an’ it ain’t wood. You reckon I can’t make a little bitty chair, huh?” He leaned forward again. “If a city slicker like you can learn to make horse-shoes, then I reckon I can make a chair for Elthea Dickson.”

   “Go ahead, little brother. Just don’t ask me to try it out. It wouldn’t do my dignity any favours to end up with my butt in the dust.”

   “Wouldn’t do your dignity much good if I kicked your butt right outta this room, either, would it?”

   “Alright, boys, that’s enough,” Murdoch said. “Johnny, if you want to make a chair, then you’ll have plenty of time in the next day or two, because you’re not leaving the ranch.”

   “Why not?”

   His father drained his coffee cup and held it between his hands, looking at it.

   “Where did you go after you’d fixed the Dickson’s roof?”

   Johnny shot a look at his brother, but Scott merely raised his eyebrows.

   “Green River, for a beer, just one.”

   Murdoch looked straight at him then with his death stare, and he knew there’d be no escape in the end, but he’d try anyway.

   “That’s all?”

   “Yeh, just one beer. God’s truth, Murdoch.”

   “Nothing else?” Johnny began to panic a little. “Because if I found out that one of my sons was …” His father glanced at the doorway. “… upstairs in a certain saloon …” Johnny swallowed and felt the flush of embarrassment crawl up his neck. “… when he still had chores to do here, I’d put him to work helping Maria and the women, as he’s clearly so attached to female company”

   For a moment, he thought about trying to twist the truth again, but then slumped back in his chair, defeated. Worst was the thought that his father might, by some creepy magic, know exactly what he’d been doing with Lyra that afternoon.

   “Murdoch, you can’t do that to me.”

   His father smiled, but he sure didn’t enjoy it this time.

   “I think you’ll find, Johnny, my boy, that I can.” Murdoch wiped his mouth on his napkin and stood up. “Anyone for chess and a shot of my finest scotch?”

   “Sounds good to me, sir,” Scott said. “I’ll join you in a moment.” Johnny saw that he was waiting until Murdoch and Pete Thorn had left. Then his brother walked around the table and sat next to him. “You ok, brother?”

   Johnny dipped his head and pushed at a silver salt cellar with his finger.

   “Yeh, I’m just fine and dandy, Scott.” He sighed. The cellar fell, spilling salt, and he righted it. “How the fuck did he know about the Silver Dollar?”

   “I don’t know.” Scott smiled. “Perhaps it’s because he’d have done the same himself at your age.”

   He looked at his brother and snorted a laugh.

   “C’mon, Scott. No way the Old Man’s ever been with a saloon girl.”

   Scott laughed and mussed his hair.

   “You know, you might have lived wild for a few years, but you can be quite an innocent sometimes, especially where our father’s concerned.”

   Johnny frowned.

   “What’s that mean? You bein’ a smart-ass again?”

   “No. I’m just trying to tell you that Murdoch’s probably not the saint you think he is.”

   “You know somethin’ I don’t?”

   “No. It’s just that he’s lived fifty years on the Earth and it’s a fair wager that he hasn’t spent the whole of that time restraining his various impulses.”

   He glared at his brother.

  “For fuck’s sake, Scott, speak American, will ya. You sayin’ he’s like the rest of us?”

  “Human, yes, and fallible.” Johnny frowned and Scott hesitated. “Not perfect. Given to failure, sometimes.”

  Johnny shook his head. He could barely explain to himself the fear that was starting to crowd his senses.

   “No, not him. Leastways, not like me. Murdoch’s always followed a straight road, even if he’s strayed off a little on the way like you’re sayin’. He’s the best man I ever met an’ I ain’t got a hope in hell of matchin’ him.”

   “That’s not a good thing for you to believe, Johnny.”

   “What, you think you can match ‘im with what you did to Will Jackson, and pokin’ the banker’s wife? I got no quarrel with either of ‘em, except maybe you’re goin’ to get burnt real bad over Jennie Black, but you sure aren’t paradin’ them facts in front of Murdoch, are ya?”

   He wondered if he’d gone too far, bringing up Will Jackson’s hanging, but his brother’s only reaction was a twitch in his cheek bones.

   “The difference is, brother, I’m not trying to equal our father.”

   “Because you can’t.”

   “No, because I’m not going to hold up my life to another man’s mirror and neither should you. You’re better than that.”

   He’d keep that one for later, think about it. Sometimes he’d pick up one of his brother’s sayings and throw it to one side like a brown pebble; other times, one would strike him like gold in a grey river and he’d scoop it out and think around it, sometimes for days.

   Scott was up and stooping behind him. He had one arm around his neck, his mouth next to his left ear.

   “And for your information, little brother, I haven’t ‘poked’ her yet, as you so eloquently term it. This is love.”

   Scott had released him and left the room by the time he’d thought of a reply, that love didn’t sound like much fun.

  

   Billy was shot again and Pete Thorn was holding the gun, showing yellow teeth in a frozen smile. They were in the Great Room and blood was sliding down the walls and all the walls were mirrors. Scott was outside playing with a red dog, throwing sticks at purple mountains. Someone was tied up in a chair by a raging fire, but he couldn’t see who. Billy was moaning, begging with him to reach in and just take out the bullet, telling him that that was all it needed. So he reached in to the hole in Billy’s belly, plunged through the blood and guts, scrabbling like a crazy man for the bullet. Billy began laughing at him then, howling, cackling, his face as white as snow.

   He must have yelled out loud because his father was there, gently shaking his shoulder. A lamp was burning on the table by his bed. He gazed at Murdoch, his heart hammering in his chest, his breath leaving him in jagged gasps. He was certain that if he looked at his hands, they’d be covered in blood. His father moved damp bangs out of his eyes.

   “Billy?”

   Sitting forward, he nodded, swallowing hard in an attempt to slow his heart.

   “D’you want water?”

   “Yeh. Thanks.”

   He gulped the water down so fast, it choked him and he coughed it back out. Murdoch took the glass, let him cough, handed it back.

   “Take it slower this time.” His father watched him drink. “Son, I know you think you could have done more to save Billy, but it wasn’t your fault.”

   “People keep sayin’ that, an’ I’m tryin’ to believe it. Should’ve listened to you. Taken Sam or Scott instead.”

   “Have I said that?”

   “No, but you might be thinkin’ it.”

   “You let me worry about what I’m thinking, Johnny. I’m just thanking God that it isn’t you lying in the icehouse, and tomorrow, the Trencher boy will be in Green River’s jail.”

   Johnny gave his father the glass and sat back.

   “Yeh, until his pa bails ‘im out.”

   “As long as we get the case to court.”  

   “Come on, Murdoch. You know what’ll happen. It’ll be a gunfighter’s word against a green kid and a straight-dealin’ cowhand who’s loyal to Trencher. I ain’t holdin’ out too much hope.”

   “We’ll see.” Murdoch reached out and tipped his head back to put his cut face to the light. “Did Maria put turpentine on this?”

   “Yeh. Twice, and it stung like hell. Might as well’ve rubbed salt in it.”

   His father folded his arms. Johnny knew the question was coming that hadn’t been asked earlier.

   “Why didn’t you tell me about Pete, Johnny?”

   He couldn’t help it – he looked away. He found it impossible to look the man in the eyes and tell a lie, and he was certain his father knew it, just as he knew it when he tried to get clever with the truth of some wrong-doing. It had become a game between them, him twisting the facts and the Old Man untwisting them until he had no choice but to take what was coming. This was no game; this was a torment worse than any wound he’d ever taken. He shrugged at the question, his gaze on his own folded arms.

   “I told you, Murdoch. It was nothin’. It didn’t matter enough to bother you with it.”

   “It matters, Johnny. It matters because my oldest friend raised bruises on my boy’s face and I don’t understand why.”

   He looked up then. He had to square this with his father without black lies. He had to try, anyhow.

   “Maybe I deserved it. You’re always pullin’ me up for back-talkin’ you.”

   “I don’t take my hand to you. I did it once and it’ll never happen again.”

   Johnny frowned at him.

   “I know that, Murdoch,” he said quietly. “Guess Pete’s the type who’d whup his kids for breathin’ wrong.”

   “That’s not the man I know, and you’re not his kid. He had no earthly right to do what he did. Why in God’s name didn’t you hit him back?”

   Johnny looked away. Until this moment, he hadn’t even considered that question. He sighed.

   “Because he’s your friend, I guess, and I don’t hurt old men unless they’re about to shoot me.”

   “Pete may be old, but he has the strength of three mules, Johnny. There are no excuses for him. What did you say to him?”

   He felt the heat rise under his skin in sheer dread. He looked down at his folded arms again.

   “Hell, I don’t know, Murdoch. Why don’t you ask him? It was late. I’d just come downstairs after a real bad nightmare. I was beat. We were talkin’ about the shootin’, about Cain Trencher. I don’t even recall what I said to make Pete so damn mad.”

   Well, that was the pure truth, at least. He hadn’t said a word and Pete Thorn’s bony hand had whomped him sideways. His father stood up suddenly and picked up the lamp.

   “It’s late. Get some sleep.”

   “You goin’ to let this go, Murdoch?”

   “For now. Goodnight, Johnny.”

   “’Night.”

   In the darkness, he heard the door close. He sighed. No chance in hell was his father letting this go and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.   

 

Chapter Eight 

   The sun hadn’t yet broken the mountain ridges, but it was coming. Pete Thorn was already gone with his mule and the Henry, promising quails for Sunday’s lunch with the Blacks. Scott hadn’t woken yet, but Murdoch was up, glasses perched on his nose, frowning over something in a newspaper while he stirred sugar in his coffee. Johnny found himself, elbows on the kitchen table, his head cradled in one hand, still half-asleep, staring at him. Once he’d taken his first sip of coffee, he woke up a little and realised he’d been doing something close to praying.

   Two days. Two whole days he’d been trapped in the hell of women’s chores, and hadn’t the cackling biddies, old and young, enjoyed making a slave of the Patron’s niño? Jesus, he’d never known women could be so downright nasty. Laughing their butts off while he’d tried to hang out bed sheets in the wind. In fact, they’d laughed at pretty much everything he’d done – collecting eggs and being pecked half to death, feeding the baby and her puking up all over his best shirt, burning iron-shaped holes in his father’s dress pants, being stung by a bee, cutting lavender for drying. Not only had they laughed, though; they’d hit him, too, whacked his behind with spoons, knocked his ankles with brooms, clouted his head with their not-so-dainty hands. He’d tried getting sympathy from his father. Hadn’t he just three days ago threatened to kick Pete Thorn’s ass off the ranch for raising bruises on his son’s face? Seemed like there was some secret difference, though; Murdoch had just smiled at his wounds and complaints and carried on sawing wood.

   In front of his father, him not even lifting his gaze from pencilling a mark on a fresh piece of wood, three of them, Maria’s daughter, Consuela, her daughter, Lupeta and Senora Delgado had practically dragged him away to his next chore – peeling potatoes and shelling peas. He’d sat there on that stupid little fucking stool outside the kitchen, tearing at pods and scrabbling in the dirt for spilled peas. Then Lupeta, Maria’s grand-daughter, had sat opposite him, her long, curling hair smelling of orange-oil, her coffee-coloured elbows on her wide-apart knees, and shown him how to pop the pod-end, how to run his thumb down the row of peas into the pan. He’d just got to thinking that maybe he could stick this chore when Consuela had stormed out of the kitchen, whacked Lupeta’s behind with a wooden spoon and dragged her wailing and cussing into the house. He’d rubbed himself off later thinking about Lupeta and those pea-pods, but that was about all he’d got out of it.

   His father turned a page of his newspaper.

   “Murdoch?”

   The Old Man looked at him over the top of his glasses, like he didn’t know what he was about to ask.

   “Yes, John?”

   “You reckon I paid my dues yet?”

   If he’d ever thought his father was capable of smirking, then he was certain he was close to it now. Murdoch closed the paper and folded it.

   “Had enough of the company of women, Son?”

   “Those women, yeh. If I stay around ‘em any longer, I’ll wind up shootin’ one of ‘em or myself.”

   His father smiled. He removed his glasses, folded them carefully and placed them beside his newspaper. He poured more coffee.

   “Can I assume you’ve learned your lesson?”

   “Er, yeh.” He smiled a little at his father. “Kinda forgot what the lesson was, though. No more beer ever or no more women ever?”

   He’d hoped Murdoch might see the joke, but his father shot him a dark look.

   “No more visits to the saloon in working hours, Johnny, at least not the upstairs part of it, the same rule that applies to all hands on this ranch, and you don’t leave the ranch without telling someone where you’re going, and certainly not before orders. I thought we’d agreed that some time ago.” Johnny dipped his head and nodded, hoping that it was now over, that Murdoch wouldn’t take this opportunity while they were alone to haul him a little further over the coals. “Look at me, Son.” His heart sank. He was in for one of Murdoch’s ‘One day all of this will be yours’ sermons, as Scott had titled them. Not only did he hate them; they scared him, too. He looked up reluctantly. His father’s expression was mild, but it didn’t stop his desire to high-tail it out of the kitchen. “I know it’s barely been a year since you came back and that you’re still young, but it’s time you started to behave more like the future owner of Lancer…” Johnny winced and dipped his head again. “… and less like one of the wilder boys in the bunkhouse.” He drew in a breath. This was worse than he thought. He sat back from the table and folded his arms.

   “I do my chores,” he said.

   “Johnny.” His father sounded like he was on the edge of being pissed off. “If that’s all I expected of you, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Being a rancher is a great deal more than doing your chores.”

   Johnny drew in his breath so deep he could feel his shoulders rise.

   “I know that, Murdoch.”

   “It’s setting an example, showing responsibility and leadership, behaving in a way that separates you from the hands. I’ve seen evidence of those qualities in you, but not enough to satisfy me yet.”

   His head shot up then.

   “What the hell does that mean?” 

   “It means that, from now on, I want you to stay out of the bunkhouse, unless your visit’s related to ranch business.”

   He stared at his father in disbelief.

   “You ain’t serious?”

   “I’ve been giving it a great deal of thought since Billy’s death, Johnny. The fact is, if he hadn’t been your friend, I’d have fired him six months ago. He was reckless, unruly and too often a danger to himself and to others.”

   “He was a top hand, Murdoch!”

   “Not in my estimation, and worse, he influenced your behaviour in ways that didn’t fit with my wishes as your father and with your need to shape up for the future as a wealthy and influential landowner.” So easily, his father was moving just a little to one side to allow Maria to place a plateful of ham and scrambled eggs before him, but his own appetite was wiped out. Where the hell had this come from, this sharp swerve off the known track of his father’s usual lecture? He wasn’t even speaking in his normal way, the way Johnny was used to, like a man who meant what he said, but who knew it wasn’t the last time he’d have to say it. This man, so calmly placing his napkin over his lap, was a stranger, one who’d had the warmth sucked out of him, his every word a stone, meant to last.

   “Maybe I don’t want that.”

   His father had reached for the salt cellar. Now he hesitated, before picking it up and shaking salt on his eggs.

   “I know what I’ve said might seem hard on you, Johnny, but if I’m not tough with you now, you won’t thank me in the future when your brother’s running the ranch and you’re still playing cards in the bunkhouse.”

   “Is that all this is?”

   “All what is?”

   “Me bein’ here, Scott bein’ here? Is that all we are to you? Sons you can lick into the shape you want so we can take over your precious, fuckin’ ranch one day!?”

   His father put down his fork. Johnny was shaking, ready to run, not even sure how it had come to this.

   “What d’you want me to say, Johnny?” Murdoch said. “That I don’t care whether or not you and Scott run Lancer after I’m gone? I’m not going to tell you that, Son.”

   “Well, I don’t fuckin’ want it, Murdoch, not the way you want me to have it!”

   He got up, knocking a table knife to the floor.

   “Johnny, come back here!”

   Scott was at the foot of the stairs, tucking in his shirt. He looked like he hadn’t had enough sleep and his hair was uncombed.

   “You look like hell,” Johnny said. He could’ve smiled when his brother straightaway pulled his fingers through his hair. “You been writin’ your poems all night?”

   Scott shot him a warning look.

   “I’m late, that’s all. What was the shouting about?”

   “Nothin’. I’m goin’ to chop firewood. I’ll see you at orders.” 

******************* 

   It had helped a little, heaving the axe up in the early morning air and bringing it down hard. It was a quiet place, near a stand of trees, where the wood was chopped and sawn for building and for fires. Sparrows nested in the woodshed’s crevices and stayed around even after nesting was over, chirping and squabbling over the grain left in the hogs’ pen nearby. His father had told him that after the rough, one-storey ranch-house, the woodshed was the first thing he’d built on Lancer land. Keep your firewood dry, another rancher had told him, and he’d taken it to heart, and, his father had said proudly, it was the only structure he’d built with his own hands. Neighbours had helped him with the house and to raise his barns. There’d been parties to celebrate, women bringing pies and cakes, children playing under the trestle tables, a boy bowing a fiddle. The woodshed, though; that had been built in silence, alone, over two hot summer days. His father had laughed at the memory of his younger self coming outside for many days afterwards just to gaze upon the woodshed. ‘You hid in the woodshed once,’ Murdoch had told him. ‘By the time I found you, I’d lost my voice from shouting, but you were happily playing with a mouse.’

   As he had so often before, he tried to remember it now, remember his father’s anxious calls, the woody darkness, the thin bones under the velvet fur. But nothing would come. The old shed held what he’d been eighteen years ago to itself and wouldn’t share. His ghosts seemed everywhere now after all the stories his father had told him about where he’d been, what he’d done here, but they stayed in the shadows like the secrets of old trees.

   He began to enjoy chopping the wood, watching the two halves split and fall either side of the block. Further down the slope, the bunkhouse’s chimney was smoking straight up in the still air. He could smell biscuits baking and coffee on the boil, hear the old water-pump’s handle creaking as someone he couldn’t see filled pails for washing or cooking. He’d loved the bunkhouse. It’d been his refuge from the hacienda, somewhere he didn’t have to sit up straight, to watch his language, to chew slowly, to make polite talk with visitors - old cattlemen, usually, with bad breath and worse prejudices: sheep, uppity women, reverends and Hispanics, free-grazers, sodbusters, Indians, fresh kids with smart mouths – nothing was out of their reach.

   In the bunkhouse, a man could speak his mind, get listened to or shot down with acid words according the sense of what he said and nothing else. If a brash youngster turned a wise word for once rather than his usual blow, it was greeted in respectful silence, but even Tom Simmons, the best of them all, had fallen into the pit of his fellow cowboys’ scorn. Johnny had, too, more than once; Sam Wester, Tick or Whip had levelled his rise with the ease of swatting a wasp on ripe fruit. Other times, when it mattered - to his mind, at least - they treated him like a man worthy of their respect. He liked it that way, a boot in both camps. He liked listening to the old men’s stories, different each time they told them, comparing the Silver Dollar girls with the other youths, playing cards with dimes and a deck grubby with honest dirt, talking Spanish with the Mexican hands, reminding himself that he came from two places, two cultures, a gringo seed in a Mexican egg.

   They feared his father, he knew, spoke of him not at all or in low whispers. The one time he’d seen Murdoch enter the bunkhouse, instant silence had fallen like he’d seen happen with strangers in border cantinas; some men had even stood up, cigarettes hastily stubbed and a tatty picture of a dancing girl pulled off a wall. No-one spoke unless spoken to first by his father. It had bothered him that men who’d been as easeful as cats lying in the sun, now seemed on high alert, not quite the men they’d been before.

   He’d known it for what it was, though. Johnny Madrid had felt it many times and liked it, too, in the beginning. Walking into those bars and cantinas, feeling the gaze of men, most much older than him, travel from his face to the gun at his hip, his youth and Jarini Higuera’s boots telling them all they needed to know. It had seemed then that he was on the top of a mountain, that only a faster gun would bring him down.

   Murdoch Lancer’s force was a different creature, though, a living thing. It breathed of land and men’s working lives. It spread its veins through hundreds of miles and thousands of people. It gave men work so their families could eat and thrive. Lancer’s beef fed soldiers, politicians and people in the cities. Shops, banks and a hundred small businesses depended on his father’s hunger for success. Murdoch himself kept watch over, and helped, the old and sick on his land, gave money to the mission and church. No man’s word was respected more than his father’s in the valley. It seemed to Johnny that if Murdoch Lancer was lost, a hell of a lot else would be, too.

   The world would’ve been well rid of him, though – at least back then. Death alone had trailed Madrid like a hell-hound wherever he went, snapping at his heels even while he slept. It had taken the knowing of his father’s power to realise he’d only ever been crawling along dark trails, lost in the shadows, even when he’d believed himself in the sun. He’d been master only of a dung-heap. Jarini Higuera, too, he saw now, and it hurt to know it.

   His brother was treated in another way again by the men – not quite seriously – unless he was shoeing their ponies - but never with disrespect. Johnny imagined that might’ve been how Murdoch had started out in his early days with tough cowhands, quietly building for the day when he’d be top dog in the Valley, pay better than the other ranchers and know more about cattle than the men who worked for him. Was that how Scott was thinking under his cool, quiet skin? Was that why, like their father, he kept his distance from the men, never crossed the bunkhouse’s threshold, knowing that was how it had to be if you wanted to hold, and keep, that kind of power? Johnny didn’t know. He just knew he could never see himself there, clear up on that mountain-top while his men lived their hidden lives below.

   The bell rang for orders. The sun was up and warm. He heard the bunkhouse door slam three, four times, the slow tramp of boots head across the yard, someone’s phlegmy cough followed by a violent hawking of spit. He split one more log and left the axe in the block.  

 

   His father was already giving out orders when he got there. His brother was next to him, leaning back on the hacienda’s hitch-rail, his arms folded. Normally, he would’ve joined him, the boss’s two sons as one, silently backing up each of their father’s words, heirs to the throne. He’d known it all along, but until this morning had never felt it. It’d been like he was playing along in a game in which he hadn’t quite understood the rules. Now he sure as hell understood them. He just didn’t know if he could live with them.

   His gaze on his father, he stood next to Sam Wester. Unshaven and pulling hard on the last of a cigarette, Sam glanced at him. If he had feelings about where the boss’s kid was standing, he wasn’t about to let Johnny know them. Chores were assigned in his father’s usual brisk way – salt-licks to be renewed in the East Pasture, a bridge repair at Crow Creek, cattle to be checked for disease or injury, extra men for fencing the Lancer/Trencher boundary. Johnny had dipped his head the first time his father’s gaze had come his way. Now he looked up, first at his brother who’d raised his eyebrows at the order, but kept his silence, then at Murdoch. The words were out before he’d even thought them.

   “You said we’d never fence that line.”

   He heard Sam ground his stub into the dirt with his boot heel, a few murmurs behind him. His father was writing something in his ranch log. If ever he’d thought that one day he’d finally push Murdoch into dragging him into the barn and belting the feeling out of his backside, then this was the day, but his father made no outward sign of anger. He didn’t look up from the book, though.

   “Not while Henry Springer was on the other side of it, no, but circumstances have changed.” Murdoch looked up then and directed his gaze away from him.  “Get going, everyone. Sam, keep a look-out for Trencher’s men at the line. Take rifles, but if there’s any sign of trouble, ride away.”

   “Yessir.”

   The hands left, walking slowly like they always did. He’d never seen a cowboy run or even walk quickly. Seen them gallop hell for leather out of the reach of a gathering storm, one hand on their hats, but on the ground they ambled like careless tortoises.

   Soon he was left standing on his own in the yard, facing his father and brother. Scott had stood up from the hitch-rail and Murdoch had closed the book. It was as bad as waiting for a man to draw in the street. Worse. He’d had no love for any man he’d killed. Plenty of regret at the bottom of the tequila bottle for his fucked up life, but no love for the dead. His father ignored him and turned to his brother.

   “Scott, I want you and Johnny to take Billy’s body to the undertaker’s at Green River for embalming. His parents wired me yesterday that they’re sending his brother, Adam, to fetch him, but it won’t be for three weeks. We can’t keep the body here that long. Tell Clem to make up a bill for the embalming and storage and I’ll pay him next time I’m in town.”

   He’d stood there, listening, waiting, for something else to happen, some explosion, some consequence, some word, but his father just glanced at him before placing his hand on Scott’s shoulder.

   “This isn’t something I’d normally ask you to do, Son, so take your time in town, have a beer, but be back in time for lunch. You’ve both got other chores this afternoon.”

   “Yes, Sir.”

   His father looked back at him again and, Jesus, smiled straight at him, as if there was nothing wrong at all between them.

   “And keep your brother out of trouble. He’s still got a chair to make for Elthea Dickson. I’ve cut the wood for it, but he’s got to do the rest.” Murdoch looked back at Scott. “Pick up my Talisker’s shipment from Sven while you’re in town and don’t break any of it like Jelly managed to do last time.”

   “No, sir. I believe you can depend on me not to waste any Talisker’s.”

   Murdoch smiled and patted Scott’s shoulder before heading back into the house. Johnny stared after him. It made no sense. He wanted to follow his father, ask him what the hell his game was. Hadn’t he more or less told the Old Man that he didn’t want to be like him, couldn’t ever be like him even if he wanted to? Hadn’t he made his feelings plain just now, standing with the men?

   His brother was beside him now, placing his hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it away, his gaze fixed on the hacienda’s entrance.

   “Whatever it is you’re angry about, Johnny, you need to forget it now. We’ve got a job to do.”

   “Don’t tell me what I need to do, Scott!”

   “Well, this is going to be pleasant,” his brother said, pulling on his gloves. “I’m going into town accompanied by a corpse and a surly little brother, not exactly how I’d choose to spend a morning.”

   Scott walked away from him then, in the direction of the ice house. He hesitated, alone in the yard, before following his brother. Taking Billy on the next stage of his journey to his final resting-place was not something he would argue about, and, damn, his Old Man probably knew it. 

 

   They’d kept the body in its box of ice, covered it with layers of tarpaulin and tied it fast to the wagon. It made him sick to think of Billy’s white, dead face in that cold darkness. He was still having nightmares, still seeing Billy everywhere, his cocky grin and the gap in his front teeth, still hearing some tuneless whistle and looking up, ready to tell him to shut the fuck up if he couldn’t blow a tune. He didn’t believe in ghosts, had schooled himself well that they couldn’t exist, but Billy Donner’s ghost seemed all around, just like Billy’d had claimed for his cousins, dead in that snowy pass thirty years before. Six year old Katie Donner had often appeared to him, Billy had told anyone who cared to hear, in a check-print dress and clutching a knitted yellow dog. No-one had laughed at the idea.

   He’d taken the reins, needing something to do. As they’d crossed the Lancer boundary onto free land, he realised the best way to stop thinking about Billy was to talk.

   “You ever wonder how Murdoch’d take it if you had a mind to go back to Boston, Scott?”

   “It breathes and speaks,” Scott said, knocking Johnny’s hat off his head. “For awhile there I thought I’d have to start talking to myself.”

   Johnny smiled. He retrieved his hat and settled it back on his head.

   “I’m serious, Scott. You ever wonder about that?”

   “Not really, no, as I’ve no intention of returning to Boston.”

   He watched his brother pick a speck of dirt off his new tan gloves. The urge to stop the wagon and roll Scott in the dust was strong. His brother was only half-listening to him, as he sometimes did. It made him angry, as if he was being kept in place somehow.

   “But what if you did? You reckon Murdoch’d forgive you for leavin’ the ranch?”

   Scott frowned at him then, as if the question surprised him.

   “Why wouldn’t he? I mean, I think he’d probably be angry and upset for awhile, but why would you think he wouldn’t forgive me?”

   Johnny felt colour rush to his face and he looked away, suddenly wishing he’d said nothing. It was getting too close to painful. His mind struggled to think of a new subject.

   “Johnny?”

   Damn. His brother wouldn’t let this go now. Scott knew something was wrong as he almost always did.

   “Just curious, brother, that’s all.”

   “No, it’s more than that. Stop the wagon.”

   “What?”

   “Stop the wagon, Johnny.”

   They’d just come through Cloud Canyon pass into a stand of cottonwoods. He pulled on the reins and stopped the horse. Behind him, he was aware again of Billy’s corpse. It could hear nothing, think nothing, see nothing and yet the body the boy had used for twenty-one years to eat with, laugh with, rope a cow with, shit with, was still there with the living. Billy’d looked forward to using that body to fuck whores in Stockton next week. Johnny found himself thinking of his friend’s cold, dead dick and his mind panicked.

   “The ice’ll melt,” he said.

   “Never mind the ice,” Scott said, pulling Johnny around by his jacket collar to face him. “Tell me that you’re not thinking of leaving.”

   “Huh?”

   “These questions you’re asking, Johnny. I’m not a fool. It’s not about me, is it?” His brother glanced to the back of the wagon. “If you’ve got it in your stupid head to leave because of that idiot, Billy Donner, I swear I’ll do what our father should do and belt some damn sense into you.”

   He wasn’t sure what part of his brother’s speech pissed him off most, but the whole of it was enough to make him push Scott off the wagon into the dust. He leapt onto him, scaring the horse, which pulled the wagon further along the road. It wasn’t long before he realised that it was as he’d feared; three months of smithing had turned his older brother into a powerful opponent. He put in a few good punches to Scott’s ribs and stomach, but soon he found himself in a head-lock so strong it seemed to turn the rest of him to jelly. His brother, breathing heavily, leaned down and spoke close to his ear.

   “I’m seriously annoyed that you messed up my clothes, little brother, but if you’ll settle down and tell me what’s on your mind, I’ll forgive you.”

   “Fuck off, Scott.” He made another attempt to twist out of his brother’s grasp. “You damn well started it. Billy was my friend, whatever you an’ the Old Man thought of him, so you can fuck right off with callin’ him names.”

   Scott relaxed his hold a little.

   “Alright. I apologise for calling Billy Donner an idiot. Now will you give it up?”

   Jesus, but he wanted to have another chance to beat on his brother. All he’d done was ask a damn question, just wanted to know if … hell, he wasn’t sure what he’d wanted to know. The blood bubbling wildly through his veins was all he knew now. He nodded to get Scott to release him. Immediately, he pulled away, tumbling back in the dust before leaping up and relaunching himself at Scott. He heard the breath leave his brother’s lungs as Scott crashed back down under him in a cloud of dust.

   “Goddammit, Johnny!”

   Scott grabbed his wrists in an iron grip and they rolled over and over on the ground, him trying to break free to lay one good punch on his brother’s pretty face, his brother doing his damndest to knee him in the balls. That’s how Scott had ended their last scrap, him laying on the ground curled up and moaning like a kicked dog while his exhausted brother’s cut lip had dripped blood into the dust.

   Now he was above Scott, itching to break through, to win, but feeling not an inch of give in his brother’s grip. Suddenly, he wanted to laugh. His anger had gone into hiding somewhere. Gazing straight into Scott’s eyes, he pushed a bubble of spit out between his lips.

   “Don’t you dare, boy!” Scott said, gasping the words out. “Don’t you damn well dare!”

   He smiled and dropped the spit bubble on his brother’s mouth. Scott let out a cry and released his hold. Johnny fell back, grinning, watching him turn over and spit on the ground. His arms resting on his upraised knees, he waited quietly for the consequences, his heart still beating fast, but the cloud in his head gone. Either his brother would beat the living crap out of him now or … Scott turned over onto his elbows and looked at him with their father’s most familiar look, the one that gave nothing away and could turn as easily into a smile or a scowl depending on the circumstances.

   “The last person who did that to me was ten,” his brother said. “And I called him a rotten, ungentlemanly, cheating cad.”

   “Uh, huh?” Johnny looked down, smiling. “Well, I guess as I wasn’t no gentleman in the first place, it don’t count, right?”

   His brother pulled himself up into a sitting position, laying his arms up on his raised knees like him, so they resembled the Chinese bookends in his father’s study, old men seated, playing drums with sticks. Scott was good and dirty now, dust stuck to sweat, the shine of his boots gone. He liked having a brother. It was times like these that he felt it strongest, like something life-saving was being allowed him that had been denied before. It was even better than the first time he’d eaten bread dipped in spicy sauce after a week on the run from the mission with no food. He knew he’d remember that taste all his life. His brother spoke softly, suddenly.

   “Yes, Johnny, I think Murdoch would forgive me if I left this place and never came back, because I would hope I mean more to my father than the mere fact that I might one day replace him at the head of the table.”

   Johnny shivered in the hot sun. His brother had read him like a damn book, as usual, although he’d taken his sweet time about it today. Probably because his head was full of poetry and Jennie Black. He looked up at Scott. He wanted to say, ‘But how d’you know you mean more’n that to him? How the fuck d’you know?’, but he knew it was a dumb question, a woman’s question, with nothing but more stupid questions at the end of it. The thought made him angry and he stood up quickly.

   “If we don’t get Billy to town, he’ll stink worse’n Tick’s feet.”

   Picking up his hat from the road and beating it on his thigh, he walked to the box. Water was dripping through the planks, darkening the wood. He put his hand on the box, the sweat and the buzz of scrapping with his brother still on his skin. He’d loved a scrap, old Billy Boy, as much as he did, and it hit him again like a blow the sweetness of what Billy had lost, and would’ve hated losing had he known it.   

Chapter Nine 

   Clem Sowerbridge’s face suited his calling, something Johnny had noticed in other undertakers. Was it Clem’s job that’d dragged his jowls down to earth so he resembled a gloomy hound, or had he always looked that way? A long, drooping mustache, curled carefully at the tips, finished the face of a man who seemed born to bury others.

   In Clem’s dark little office, a slow-ticking clock counted down the seconds to his next visitor. Johnny let Scott do the talking. There didn’t seem to be a man on Earth his brother couldn’t deal with – grain merchants, blacksmiths, hotel managers, waiters, army captains, ranchers – Johnny had seen them all fall under Scott Lancer’s smooth and quiet spell. He wasn’t so bad at it himself sometimes, but too often he’d let some look or remark he took for scorn crack his skin and it would all go wrong. It didn’t matter how many times he’d watch his father or brother sweet-talk a deal or a service out of a man who they wouldn’t piss on to save from burning; the skill seemed to have escaped his blood. If he didn’t like the cut of a man, sooner or later he’d let it show. His father had tried to teach him that in business all that mattered was the amount and quality of grease put on the wheels of it; of all Murdoch’s many lectures, it was the one he always quit listening to the fastest. ‘Let Scott do it’, ‘Scott’ll do that stuff’ were the thoughts that hurtled through his brain as his father’s words tumbled over his head and bounced off his twitching skin.

   He didn’t like Clem Sowerbridge. He was one of many in the town who looked at him with unfriendly eyes. Even while he talked to Scott, the undertaker kept glancing his way, not to meet Johnny’s gaze, but at his fingers playing with a paper spike, at his boot tapping a table leg. It had been almost a year since his return and still all some folk saw was Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, desperado, renegade. It might’ve struck him as funny seeing as how he hardly ever saw himself that way anymore – too damn busy working and being shaped up by his Old Man – but, in truth, he just wanted to jam his revolver up Clem Sowerbridge’s bony ass – and maybe pull the trigger.

   “Thank you, Mr Sowerbridge,” his brother was saying in his smooth way. “Give my best regards to Mrs Sowerbridge and your daughter, Amy. She’s recovered from the influenza, I hope?”

   Jesus, but how did his brother do that? The twin points of the undertaker’s mustache lifted in a broad smile and his pale skin flushed pink.

   “Perfectly recovered, Mr Lancer. I’m much obliged to you for enquiring. I’ll let Amy know you were asking after her.”  Sowerbridge reached across, his gaze still on Scott, and took the paper spike out of Johnny’s restless fingers. Johnny almost laughed as he placed it back precisely on the desk. “Be so good as to tell your pa … your father, that he can expect a first class embalming at my establishment. Indeed he can.”

   “We don’t doubt it, Mr Sowerbridge,” Scott said. “Good day to you.”

   “Good day, Mr Lancer.” The undertaker opened the door with its window of gold lettering on black paint. The sun pushed its way into the dark room like the town bully. Sowerbridge squinted at it and shaded his eyes. “Collect your wagon at your convenience, Mr Lancer.”

   He couldn’t help it. He was laughing before the black-windowed door was firmly closed behind them. Taking off his hat, Johnny swept a bow in front of his brother.

   “Thank you, Mr Sowerbridge. Good day, Mr Sowerbridge.” He replaced his hat and put his arm around Scott’s shoulders. His brother was smiling a little. “Can I lick your backside, Mr Sowerbridge and while I’m at it, can I kiss your daughter, Mr Sowerbridge?”

   Scott smacked his head and shoved him away then, but he was still smiling.

   “Amy Sowerbridge is thirty-four and looks like a horse.”

   Johnny picked up a stone from the street and rolled it around his fingers.

   “Jesus, I didn’t even know the old coot had a daughter, Scott.”

   They stopped to let a rider by and headed across the street to the general store.

   “Well, it often pays to know these things, Johnny.”

   “Even if she’s old an’ looks like a horse?”

   “Especially if she’s … not so young and looks like a horse.”

   Johnny laughed. For the second time that day, he was more than glad of his brother’s company. Even the idea that the last touch Billy’s flesh would know was Clem Sowerbridge’s pale claws bothered him less than it might have done as he jumped the two steps to Sven Bergson’s store. Sven was kneeling on the boardwalk chalking a sign: Just in from England – delicate Staffordshire china figurines for the home beautiful. Only $30. Johnny squatted down beside him, smiling. He liked the Swede. Sven knew just as well as anyone else what he’d been and had never even thought it worth a mention, except to admire openly his skill with a hand gun. That pissed off his father, he knew, but he couldn’t help but enjoy such simple praise.

   “Those’re very fine words, Sven,” he said, patting the Swede’s bony shoulder. “You reckon to sell many of them figurines?”

   “Figurines, Johnny,” his brother said. “As in beans, not lines.”

   Johnny shrugged off a twinge of irritation.

   “What the hell is a figureen, anyhow?”

   “I’ll show you, Johnny,” Sven said, smiling widely. He pocketed the chalk carefully in his apron. “You got a girl who might like one maybe, huh?”

   “For thirty bucks, Sven, she’d have to be some girl.”

   He felt Scott shove his behind with his boot.

   “You have absolutely no refinement, little brother.”

   He looked back and grinned.

   “Ain’t that refeenment, big brother?”

   He was still rubbing his smacked ear as they entered the shop. Gerta Bergson was behind the counter arranging bars of chocolate from Belgium on a shelf. As always in his mind, she was a vision in white. The fact that she’d liked him and spoiled him with touches and treats from the very start helped. In his growing years in the border towns of Mexico, he’d only once seen the like of her, a white woman with glowing red hair and smiling green-grey eyes, big tits promising the softness of feather pillows. She’d been a passenger on a stage bound for Arizona. He’d been nine and scavenging the market for stray fruit. She’d bought him a pomegranate, a dream of an object, cut it open with a little knife from her bag, given him half. He’d pretended to like it to please her, although his belly’d craved more than the hard to chew seeds in their slightly bitter flesh. The pomegranate had been a disappointment.

   He’d liked watching her eat her half, though, her coughed giggle as the juice spilled down her chin. She’d asked about his blue eyes, about his mother and father. He’d lied that they were dead and she’d turned to her silent husband, sitting rigid in the sun on a stone water-trough, and asked if she could adopt him. She’d sounded serious to his ears, like it really could happen, like she really meant it and for one moment, he’d believed it could happen, that he could rest in the arms of this white angel, his head between her pillowy tits, her lips pressed on his scalp. She’d turned back, laughing from her husband’s angry refusal, and he knew she hadn’t meant it, not one word. Just a gringo joke to pass the time in a fly-blown village in nowhere. He hadn’t forgotten her, though, what her presence had almost promised, kindness in a hard-hearted bitch of a world.

   Gerta Bergson surprised him now. She came from behind the counter, saying his name in a long, sorrowful tone. She took his head in her hands, pulled it down and kissed his brow.

   “I was so sorry to hear of the death of that boy, Johnny. I know he was your friend. As soon as I heard the news from your papa, I thought how sad for Johnny. I barely could sleep thinking of it.” She kissed him again. She smelt of flour and soap and though she was more than old enough to be his mother, he felt his whole body yearning to curl up into her, his head resting on what he knew would be the softest, warmest tits he’d ever know.

   “Let the boy be, Gerta,” Sven said, smiling. “You can see he is embarrassed by your fussing and I want him to see the figurines from England.”

   Gerta smiled and patted Johnny’s cheek.

   “I get coffee and Swedish butter cake.”

   “That woman.” Sven opened his glass china cabinet. “She is a born mother, for sure. Pity we came too late to each other for children.”

   His large Viking hands put a figurine in Johnny’s hands. It was scarier than holding a baby, such a fine thing resting in his rough working palms. His brother was already turning his piece, a man in a three-cornered hat on a black horse, over in his fingers like he’d done it all his life. His own piece was of a king on a throne, brightly coloured, a boy standing by his side. They both seemed pleased with the world, their painted mouths not quite smiling, but their eyes showed they had nothing to worry about.

   “King Henry the Eighth,” Sven said. “He waited twenty-five years for a son. When the prince was born his father had two thousand guns fired. That’s something, huh?”

   Johnny nodded. His finger stroked the golden crown on the king’s head.

  “But he was dead before he was sixteen,” his brother said.

  Johnny looked up quickly, surprised.

  “Shot?”

  “No,” Scott said, returning his piece to Sven’s keeping. “Illness. Medicine wasn’t very advanced three hundred years ago. It was easy to die of small infections.” Scott took the figurine from Johnny’s hands. “Fortunately, Henry was dead by then, so he never had to face the fact there was no male heir to rule the kingdom.”

   “So what happened to his kingdom?”

   “Women!” Sven said, before his brother had a chance to answer. “Women ruled! Henry’s daughters! First, Mary and then Elizabeth, the greatest of European monarchs.” Sven flicked the king’s head with the tip of his finger. “Pah, and you feared it would all be lost without a man. Foolish king! It was never greater!”

   The brothers smiled at each other as Sven placed the figurine back in the cabinet. Customers came in and he was gone, greeting them and talking about their families, the new marshal and the weather. In Gerta’s back parlour the brothers drank her Dutch coffee and ate her butter cake, her pet grey parrot squawking Swedish in the corner.

   Johnny let Scott do the polite stuff. He sat back among flower-patterned cushions and watched Gerta’s hands pour coffee and cut cake. Sometimes he’d do the same with the housekeeper, Maria. He especially liked to watch her knead and roll out pastry, flop it over the pie dish, cut round the edges and pinch it all the way round with a floury finger and thumb. She’d catch him watching her and when she was in the mood not to chase him away, she’d smile lovingly enough to make his heart stop. Women were mysterious, he’d decided a long time ago. They read men’s minds, which was fine as long as they kept it to themselves and acted sweetly upon it. It was when they spoke their findings out loud and used them as a weapon that troubles began. Gerta was all gentleness, though. It amused him when she perched her ass on the arm of his chair as naturally as if he’d been her husband. Despite all her mothering ways, did she want him just a little bit, too? The thought made him laugh inside, but excited him, as well. Most women excited him, he’d realised long ago, except the loud or the brutal ones. There’d been enough of those in his childhood to set him running for the rest of his days. 

********* 

   The shipment of Talisker’s had been delayed. Storms on the Atlantic. Embarrassed, Sven had offered Irish whisky. Johnny had laughed with his brother, glad to back up Scott’s explanation that to take Irish whisky home to their father would be like giving cabbage leaves to a starving lion. It had upset Sven, the whole business, letting down a customer, not being able to make temporary reparation. He would lose sleep over it, for sure. Johnny had quickly lied then and told him that Murdoch still had a month’s supply, at least. The lie had helped, but it was a lesson in how easily a man’s day could be spoiled.

   His brother felt it deeply. That was obvious, the way he kicked at the hitch post outside the store. Scott leaned back on the rail, arms crossed, and sighed heavily.

   “Damn. Murdoch warned me how sensitive Sven is about things like that. I should’ve accepted the Irish whisky or asked from the start when the shipment was expected in. Damn!”

   Johnny punched him on the shoulder, lightly.

   “Pa wouldn’t thank us for bringin’ home whisky he’d sooner water the roses with than drink. Anyhow, it was him who got us thinkin’ the Talisker’s was already here.” He soft-punched Scott again. “How about that beer, huh? We gotta be back for lunch an’ I ain’t about to pass up on a chance of goin’ to the saloon with the Old Man’s say-so.”

   That got a smile out of his brother.

   “Downstairs only, though. If you pull anything on me, I’ll drag you back home by your ears and you won’t see town again for two months.”

   Johnny frowned, wanting to smile, but not quite getting there.

   “Jesus, Prince Scott. The king sure don’t have to worry about his throne with you around. All you need is your princess, I guess.”

   “It’s a shared throne, Johnny,” Scott said, but his gaze was elsewhere. Sure enough, when Johnny turned his head, he saw Jennie and Martha Black strolling down the boardwalk towards them. The woman looked pleased, excited; the girl, a peach of a creature in pale yellow acted shy, gaze averted. Jennie Black had some brass; he had to give her that, waving to them, calling out his brother’s name. She was practically dragging her daughter forward.

   “Scott,” she said. “What a pleasant surprise!”

   His brother raised his hat, smiling, but he was damn sure Scott wasn’t feeling too cool under his calm skin. Johnny watched him take the girl’s hand and kiss it gently.

   “Martha. How lovely to see you. What a beautiful dress. Is it new?”

   “Why, yes,” the girl replied, sounding more than happy. “How gentlemanly of you to notice.” She glanced at her mother. “Is there any other man in Green River who’d have noticed such a thing, Mama?”

   Johnny had been watching ‘Mama’, seen her stiffen as Scott took her daughter’s hand. Had her skin paled, too? It was hard to tell, shaded as it was by a large green hat. If she’d tried to stop her voice coming out hard-edged, she’d failed.

   “I’m quite certain there is no other man in the whole state who is more of a gentleman than Mr Lancer, Martha.” She glanced at Johnny, then, met his slow smile with the briefest, coldest one of her own. He thought her next words sounded a little desperate. Was his brother ever playing with fire! “So tell us, Scott, what brings you into town?”

   “Some errands for my father.” Scott glanced at Johnny. “Which we’ve almost completed.”

   “I’m so excited about Sunday, Scott,” Martha said. Johnny could see the girl was confused by his brother’s distant manner, maybe by her mother’s jittery ways, too. “I can’t wait to see Lancer and to meet your father properly. I just hope I don’t feel too out of place in such grand surroundings.”

   Johnny snorted a laugh.

   “Ma’am, if someone like me can fit in there, you ain’t got much to worry about.”

   Martha looked at him, then, as she had been avoiding doing before. He met her brown eyes with a careful smile. He decided she was pretty, especially when she gave him a smile in return, all dimples and open warmth.

   “I’m quite sure, Mr Lancer, that you do yourself a great disservice in speaking that way. I can’t believe that you’re any less a true gentleman than your brother.”

   He was struck by her use of the word ‘true’. It stopped him making some smart reply. Jesus, but the girl had class. He remembered Lindy clawing her to shreds behind her back with bitter words – stuck up, spoilt, prissy. It was true there weren’t many girls like Martha Black in town. She’d been educated in a school in San Francisco. Word was she could run a house like a general, sew as good as any milliner, play the piano ten times better than the Reverend’s wife and sing like a bird. She also, Lindy had informed him with a full dose of scorn, read books, heavy ones, like the ones men read – histories, science books. Journals, magazines and ‘light novellas’ were too good for Miss Prissy-Britches, Lindy had sneered. Back then, all he’d wanted to do was to get inside Lindy Cooper’s drawers, or at least get his tongue in her mouth, so he hadn’t paid too much attention to her female cluckings. Now he was interested.

   “I promise that my brother will be on his best behaviour on Sunday, Martha,” his brother said. “I might even persuade him to wear a tie and take off his spurs.”

   ‘Cold day in hell’, he mouthed in full view of the Blacks, grinning when Martha laughed out loud. Her mother’s face tightened like a rattler’s ready to bite and she grasped Martha’s arm.

   “I think we’ve taken up quite enough of your time, gentlemen. We’ll look forward to seeing you and your father at church on Sunday, Scott.” She nodded at Johnny. “Good day, Mr Lancer.”

   “Ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat with another smile for Martha. Out of the Blacks’ hearing, he whistled low. “Brother, iffen you get any closer to that fire, you’ll surely burn.”

   “I know what I’m doing,” Scott said, with enough steel to shut Johnny up.

   At the Silver Dollar, they ordered beers and sat at a table. It was so quiet there, they could hear the squeak of Will Clutterman’s cloth polishing glasses.  Most of the saloon’s customers were cowboys and drifting types, but Will was known to think himself on the ‘up and up’. He’d heard rumours, mostly put about by Joshua Black and Sam Whitside of the Grand Hotel, that the town was earmarked for a railroad spur. It would bring smart city types wanting classy women and clean glasses and he wasn’t going to fall short of their expectations, so the girls douched between each poke and the glasses sparkled behind the bar.

   Johnny leaned back in his chair, hands laced over his belly, and contemplated the full glass of beer in front of him. His brother had already taken two large swallows. Probably to replace the sweat he’d lost in meeting the Black women, Johnny figured.

   “Aren’t you going to drink that beer?”

   “Just enjoyin’ the sight of it. Y’never know when the Old Man’ll let me drink another one on a Thursday mornin’.”

   His brother smiled a little, but he was tense, for sure, rubbing hard at a dull spot on his boot. Johnny took a sip of the beer. Not quite cold enough to suit the pleasure he’d taken in thinking about it. He put the glass back on the table and tried imagining Scott romping with Jennie Black. He was sure he had good intentions in doing so. He wanted to see it in his mind and then warn his brother of the terrible danger he was in. Trouble was, the thought of Jennie Black’s naked body just excited the hell out of him so he had to think of something else quick.

   “Why don’t you ever go in the bunkhouse, Scott?”

   His brother quit rubbing his boot and frowned. Then he took a swallow of beer and smiled.

   “It smells worse than Jelly’s hog pen, for one thing.”

   “That all?”

   He watched his brother think about it. For all he knew that might be the only reason Scott kept out of the bunkhouse. His brother hated dirt and any smell worse than horse shit. He guessed Whip’s feet and Tick’s huge farts qualified alright. Scott sure missed out on the cracks and quips that went with them, though.

   “I suppose I just don’t think it’s my place,” his brother said. He’d stopped rubbing his boot and was leaning back now, looking straight at Johnny. His voice was harder now, like their father’s when he wanted a thing clearly understood. “I have no need to enter the bunkhouse.”

   “You reckon it’s my place?”

   “No, I don’t.”

   Scowling, Johnny glanced at Will who was watching them, for lack of any other entertainment, he guessed.

   “Up your ass, Scott,” he whispered fiercely. His brother shrugged.

   “You asked. What’s brought this on anyway?”

   “Nothin’”

   “Johnny, if you’re going to keep sulking every time I say something you don’t like, our future as Lancer’s owners doesn’t look good.”

   “I ain’t sulkin’”

   “Brother, you could take Petey Winkleman on in the crankiness stakes when something doesn’t go your way.”

   That made him snort. The idea that he could match Petey Winkleman’s legendary tantrums. Eight years old, the kid could stop a whole town’s business with his foot stomping and hollering. Even when he wasn’t making a row, he’d cross his arms across his chest and give everyone in sight black stares, so that even dogs would slink away and hide. Johnny’d once tried staring him out with his gunfighter’s gaze and failed to shift the dark depths of Petey Winkleman’s fury.

   “Well, I ain’t goin’ to quit the bunkhouse, just because you and the Old Man can’t take a little dirt and low talk.”

   His brother had seemed somewhere else, possibly between Jennie Black’s thighs; now he looked hard at him.

   “If you want it straight, Johnny, we don’t go in the bunkhouse because some distance has to be kept between the men and the bosses, just like in the army or in any organisation. It doesn’t mean you respect the men any the less. It simply means that when it comes down to it, you’re different, you’re in charge, and you pay their wages. A line has to be drawn somewhere.”

   “Why?”

   “So that we all know where we stand.”

   “I know where I stand.”

   “Yes, but the men might not know it.”

   “What the hell’s that s’posed to mean?”

   His brother moved into his ‘schoolteacher’ position – forward, beer to one side, elbows on the table, hands clasped. He was a man you just had to take seriously when he fixed such a look in your direction.

   “I heard about what Pete Merritt said to you, Johnny, how he said it. Sam Wester was bothered enough to mention it to Murdoch. Sam said he expected you to smack the boy back in line one way or another. Instead, you let him run his mouth off at you.”

   Johnny frowned at his half drunk beer. He remembered wanting to knock the kid into next Sunday, but Pete had spoken his own thoughts too clearly for him to take any action he could’ve slept sweetly with. Maybe that was his brother’s point, though – a boss could be the worst of men, but he still had a hold of the purse-strings. All that mattered was the show of it.

   “And you might as well hear this, too, now that you’ve brought the subject up.” His brother leaned back and stroked the edge of his beer glass. “The men weren’t happy about your friendship with Billy and neither was Murdoch. In fact, he’d talked to me on more than one occasion about finding a valid reason to fire him.”

   He felt sick. Were his father and brother closing ranks upon him to bring him to heel? Did they often talk of him, discuss his various failings in low tones over a glass of scotch? Jesus, but he’d done a fine job then, getting Billy killed like that! He stood up and walked out, leaving his beer unfinished. His brother called his name, but the only thing that stopped him mounting up and riding out was the sight of Aaron Trencher’s pure black horse tethered outside the marshal’s office across the street. Chewing on his storm-tie, he leaned back against the saloon’s hitch rail, his arms folded, and waited. By the time Trencher emerged, followed by Cain blinking at the sun, Scott had joined him at the rail.

   “I wonder how much it’s costing Trencher,” his brother said.

   “Not enough.” He kicked at the dust with his boot heel. “I should’ve killed ‘im, Scott, when I had the chance. It ain’t like I don’t know how.”

   “And when would that’ve been, Johnny? Before or after the ignorant little runt shot Billy out of fear and stupidity?” His brother gripped his neck and shook him. “Not killing him was the best thing you ever did.”

   “How d’you figure that, Scott? It was the only sure way of gettin’ justice for Billy. Even if Cain Trencher’s found guilty, he won’t hang like he should.”

   The two riders passed them in a flurry of dust, Cain looking away, Trencher nodding at the brothers, his mouth set hard.

   “Maybe not,” Scott said. “But those pretty-boy looks won’t last long in a state penitentiary, and you, little brother, will still be eating at your own table and keeping your backside to yourself.”

   Johnny smiled then, although the pictures that came to mind at his brother’s words were terrible enough, even if Cain Trencher deserved every maggot in his cornmeal and every convict’s dick up his ass. Still leaning against the rail, he watched his brother tighten the cinch on his horse.

   “Ain’t had many friends, Scott, and whatever you and Murdoch think about it, Billy was one of ‘em. Just ‘cos he’s dead don’t mean I’m about to quit the bunkhouse.”

   Scott sighed.

   “Murdoch’s ordered you to stay out of there, Johnny. D’you really want to risk getting on the wrong side of him?”

   Johnny looked up the street and shrugged. Truth was, the thought of fighting with his father always made him feel sick to his stomach. Almost as bad, though, was the idea of giving in to this particular order as meekly as a church-going spinster. More than ever, he wished he’d shot Cain Trencher at the first opportunity and hadn’t put his trust in useless words.  

 

Chapter Ten 

   They hadn’t exactly forced him into a suit to sit one and a half hours in a pew listening to Reverend Jones’ at his most bad-tempered and righteous, but it’d been near enough the case. Worse, in the front pew, as if it was their God-given right, the Trencher clan had placed themselves like a row of dark-eyed crows at a funeral, every one of them pale-faced and clothed in black. There’d been no sign of Cain, but the brothers were there, their faces chiselled into hard lines like their father’s. Two women as well. One young, around his brother’s age, the other older, maybe Trencher’s wife - both tied up tight in black bonnets and heavy dresses. Johnny was no expert on the subject of women’s fashions, but from the moment they’d walked down the aisle, he’d known the whispers ricocheting off the walls had not been of pure admiration.

   If the Trenchers’ presence had bothered his father, he hadn’t shown it. In church, it seemed Murdoch was at his most unreachable. He’d sit there, arms folded more often than not, his gaze pinned over the top of his reading glasses on the Reverend. Every so often he’d let out a grunt, but it was hard to decide if it was one of satisfaction or downright irritation. His father never talked of his faith, unless you counted his abiding belief in the virtues of hard work and honest dealings. Johnny had taken the Lord’s name in vain too many times to count, but it never lit a fire in his father’s eyes so much as did a lie or a chore idly done.

   “And hear this, my brethren …” The reverend’s voice seemed suddenly louder, angrier. It felt to Johnny as if the whole congregation took one big deep breath of expectation. “The worship of Mammon will lead us down the path to damnation. How many of us can truly say we tread lightly on that line between our wants and our needs? It has become apparent to me that our community is being tainted, nay, fouled by enterprises and goods that pander solely to our earthly desires and ignore our spiritual needs.” His father released one of his grunts. Someone else coughed. Others shifted in their pews. “Hats!” The word was hawked from the reverend’s mouth like spit. “The humble and seemly bonnet has given way to such contrivances as would shame the devil himself!”

   “The good reverend’s finally lost his mind,” Scott whispered from the pew in front. Beside him, Martha Black, wearing the kind of hat Johnny guessed was the object of Reverend Jones’ ire, stifled a giggle. Jennie Black looked hard upon her daughter, but there was something more in her eyes, Johnny saw – a kind of restless desperation as if she had no idea what might happen next in her life, but was sure it’d be something bad.

   “What do our women need in a hat other than to shade them from the sun or to preserve their feminine modesty? These affectations that I see all around us today are the result of vanity and a wilful turning away from our saviour’s path and onto Mammon’s broken and sinful trail.”

   “Murdoch.”

   His father kept his gaze on the pulpit, whispered harshly from the corner of his mouth.

   “What?”

   “What’s the hell’s Mammon?”

   “Shhhh, I’ll tell you later … and don’t say ‘hell’ in church.”

   “Is it an animal or somethin’?”

   He let out a cry more of surprise than pain when he felt a sharp jab in his shoulder, a fierce whisper behind him. “You mind your pa and hush up now, Johnny Lancer.” Rubbing his shoulder, he looked back into the walnut face of the Widow Finney, armed with the ash stick she used to chide her goats. Other eyes glared their disapproval upon him, and not for the first time did he wonder why he’d left the level ground of the gunfighter’s life for this treacherous quicksand of polite community.

   In his growing up days in Mexico’s border towns, many children had run wild and lawless, easy prey for a violent and profitable life of killing. He’d made his own rules and if someone hadn’t liked them, that was their look-out. Here, even when you’d reached the age of men, there were folk who took it upon themselves to clout, jab, whack and holler you back into line if they had a mind to. Still, he supposed it was better than being feared and despised. A year ago, they’d’ve probably demanded that his old man haul his ass back home before his presence turned their virgin daughters into whores and their milk into sour curds. He guessed it was a kind of progress that the Widow Finney felt safe enough now to take her turn pinning him like an upturned beetle under her grubby thumb.

   They stood for the final hymn, the reverend’s words chased away by Gerta Bergson singing solo the first verse of ‘Shall we gather at the river?’ Johnny liked the song, as much as he hated most of the others, especially when the clear, sweet voice of a woman sang it. And rivers were beautiful; there was no mistaking that, and they did wash up a silver spray when you crossed them.

   The rest of the people joined in at the chorus, gentle at first, keeping up the sweetness for awhile, so that even he risked a whisper at it. He hadn’t the powerful voice of his father and brother and was embarrassed by the fact. Murdoch said he was a tenor, a ‘fine thing’, but it seemed a weakness against what they called their baritone and bass.

   His gaze fell on Martha Black’s white neck. It wasn’t the first time that he’d desired to stroke his finger from a girl’s hairline down to the first hard bone of her spine pressing under her skin. Beside Martha stood his brother, his elbow touching hers. While she sang, she would glance across at Scott and any fool could see she was smitten, that all her hopes for the future lay in his quiet power.

   She sang real sweet. Johnny could hear her soft voice even though all around him the older people now seemed to be competing for heaven by singing louder than the rest. Some of them were smiling, getting into their stride. Not his father, though. Like the winding of his watch, the opening of a new bottle of Talisker’s, the reading of the San Francisco Chronicle, singing was a serious business.

Johnny had no idea if his father saw the imprint of bright angel feet in the river’s edge or in its water, the mirror of the Saviour’s face, but he would give his all to the speaking of it. For his own part, the louder the townsfolk sang, the more he wanted to shoot holes in the roof with his absent pistol. Any pleasure he’d taken in the first verse and chorus was lost; the bellowing of the congregation as they reached the end was no more to him than the baying of a pack of hungry dogs. Yet, after they were spent in their efforts, he could see in their well fed faces, the contentment of those who had done their Christian duty.  

********************* 

   Outside, among the sun’s sharp shadows, the ritual of greeting the neighbours began. His father and brother went at it in their usual way, like they’d written the book on it, shaking hands, smiling, asking after sick mothers and lame horses. Would he ever feel easy among such people? From the wooden bench under the churchyard’s peach tree, he watched his father take the offered hand of Aaron Trencher and then those of his older sons. He saw Trencher introduce his womenfolk. His father raised his hat. He felt sick. In his mind he saw Billy slouching among these people, smoking a butt and spitting at their feet. He would stop under the peach tree and laugh at Johnny’s Sunday best, call him a fuckin’ Yankee dandy. Then they’d get roostered at the Silver Dollar, fuck girls until their dicks were sore and race their horses back home, hardly knowing the head from the tail.

   The Trenchers and his father looked his way. He dropped his gaze to his boots.

   “Johnny!”

   There was no ignoring his father when he barked your name like that. He looked up to see Murdoch beckoning him with a raised finger.

   “Shit.

   He stood up, pulled his hat brim down to mask his feelings and walked over to the group. The women were smiling at him and all his usual weakness for females softened his skin. The older one looked kind, the younger one shy and sweet, not at all how he’d imagined the Trencher women would be – flint-faced with hearts like dried up bees’ nests. Still, his blood burned at the nearness of Aaron, the slick way he’d moved in on his father, smoothing down Billy’s death like it was no more than bad weather. Murdoch placed a hand behind his neck and squeezed lightly.

   “The ladies wished to be introduced to you, John.” His father’s tone was firm, the tone he used when he wanted to teach him something. “Mrs Trencher, Miss Trencher, this is my younger son, Johnny.”

   At least if he was looking at them, he could avoid the gaze of Trencher and his sons. He took Mrs Trencher’s outstretched hand. 

   “Ma’am.”

   “I’m pleased to meet you, Johnny. Did you enjoy the service?”

   Jesus, what was he supposed to reply to that?

   “Er …”

   He heard his father laugh behind him, the hand squeeze again on his neck.

   “Johnny’s a very reluctant church-goer, Mrs Trencher. He prefers to do his worshipping outdoors.”

   He had no idea what to make of the Old Man’s words or tone. Was he funning or serious? Whatever it was, it’d taken the wind right out of Mrs Trencher’s sails. She was still smiling, but there was a little frown there, too.

   “I was truly sorry to hear about what happened to your friend, Mr Lancer,” the girl said quickly in the wake of her mother’s silence.

   “Katherine!”

   Her father had spoken harshly, but the girl held his gaze. She was younger than he’d first thought, no older than him. She had a brave face, no longer shy and deeper than sweet. She’d seen things, this girl, not all of them good. If two people could speak without words, then that was what was happening now. His heart jolted. It was hard to believe she was kin to an ass-fuck like Cain Trencher.

   “Thank you, ma’am.”

   Brown hair, eyes a lighter brown, hazel maybe, freckles on a small nose, a face that cried out for a blue hat, something light and pretty, not that black and heavy replica of her mother’s. That was all he was thinking as the family made their swift exit through the picket fence towards their vehicles, Katherine’s arm a rigid captive in her father’s grasp. She looked back at him, her head held high, as her brother snapped the reins of the buggy and set off at a fast pace. He was suddenly, blindingly certain that sooner or later he was going to have to rescue her. He had no idea from what or to what end, but as sure as the fact he was standing here in this churchyard he knew she would call upon him to be heroic and manly at some point, and he would answer the call.

   “Johnny?”

   His father’s hand was on his shoulder, waking him from the spell cast over his bones.

   “Huh?”

   “You understand why we must keep on good terms with the Trenchers, don’t you, especially as the rest of the family seems more than aware of the wrong that’s been done?”

   He nodded and his father smiled. He patted his shoulder and instructed him to fetch the buggy. All the ride home, Johnny thoughts drifted between what he might do if Cain Trencher went free and the image of Katherine, up on that buggy, as brave as a lion yet somehow calling loud to his heart above its fleeing wheels. 

************************* 

   Lunch was as he’d feared – dull and stiff as a prayer meeting. After the Blacks had gotten over the clear shock of sitting down to a meal with an ancient buffalo skinner (who still had the blood of a freshly killed jack rabbit under his horny nails), they’d settled into polite conversation and cautious eating. Jennie Black talked cheerfully of the food, enquired about the use of herbs with meat. She avoided looking at Scott. His brother, though, was less careful. Johnny saw how his gaze too often strayed from Martha to her mother, flicking it back only because he met no returning look. His father and Joshua Black talked business for a good while - government loans, Green River’s future prospects, the probability of a railroad spur, the price of beef. His brother joined in, especially when the Indians were mentioned. Johnny had to admire how skilfully his father turned the discussion then. Scott looked stormy for a moment before switching on a smile to answer a question from Martha. For his part, Johnny kept his peace, waiting for the first opportunity to flee. Pete Thorn ignored them all, apart from a few winks in Johnny’s direction, and noisily enjoyed his meal.

   “You must be mighty relieved you can leave Lancer in the hands of these boys, Murdoch,” Joshua Black said. They were the first words the banker had said that caught Johnny’s interest. Black was leaning back after finishing his first course. He looked as fat and self-satisfied as Jelly’s prize boar. “After all, there’s not much point in a man building up an empire if it’s all to go to the wolves after he’s dead and gone.”

   Johnny’s stomach clenched and what appetite he’d had fled. He threw a furious glare up the table at Black, but, hell, his father was smiling.

   “Yes, Joshua. I am relieved and the way Scott’s shaping up as a rancher, you can be certain Martha will be well taken care of.”

   “Oh, I never doubted that for a moment. Never doubted it, Murdoch. I couldn’t be happier at the prospect of these two young people treading the path of matrimony.” Black hesitated then, glanced at his wife, whose gaze was fixed on her husband. “But a man worries you know, worries about a daughter. She’s our only child …”

   “I understand,” Murdoch said. “But if a man exists who’d match Scott in his ability to provide for and care for Martha with the respect and honour she deserves, then I’ve yet to meet him.”

   His heart beating fast, Johnny saw his brother’s smile falter as he acknowledged their father’s compliment with a nod. Was it panic he saw in Scott’s eyes as he deliberately sought Jennie Black’s gaze? - but she was looking at her daughter, her smile fixed like a crack in ice.

   “And you, Johnny?” Black was speaking again. Johnny had to make an effort to unclench his fists. He swallowed hard. “Is the ranching life for you, too?” 

   The words were out before he’d even thought them.

   “Why the hell shouldn’t it be?”

   “Johnny,” his father said out of the shocked silence. “I think you owe Joshua an apology.” Johnny looked down at his fingers tapping the white tablecloth. Every fibre of his being was aching to get out of this hellish place. “John?” His father’s tone was mild, but Johnny knew the truth of it - like snow drifting onto thorns. He looked up the table; all eyes were upon him. Black’s expression was one he recognised, as hostile and afraid as a fox with its leg in a trap. He forced the words out.

   “I’m sorry, Mr Black. I don’t know what got into me.”

   Black’s nod was quick, his eyes unforgiving. Johnny looked at his father, who was still frowning. Hell, but if he didn’t get out soon, he was sure he’d take a gun to the whole bunch of them.

   “I’m perfectly sure Johnny intended no disrespect, Joshua,” Jennie Black said. Her tone was cool. “It must be hard for him to adjust to life on a ranch after so many years away from his father.”

   “No harder than for me,” his brother cut in, and this time Johnny saw their eyes meet. Jennie Black blushed. “And Johnny’s as good a rancher as I’ll ever be, probably better.”

   “I meant no …”

   “No, I’m sure you didn’t,” Scott said, smiling a little. “I suppose I’ve become rather sensitive to people’s attitudes towards Johnny, as if his past affects his ability to own and run a ranch.”

   “I happen to be here, Scott, an’ I don’t need you leapin’ to my defence. I’d just as soon let folk dig their own holes deep enough to bury themselves.”

   “Johnny.” His father didn’t sound mad, but the warning in his tone was as dark as strong coffee.

   “Alright, brother,” Scott said, frowning. “Rather touchy today, aren’t you?”

   He wanted to tell his brother to fuck off right there and then, but Martha took the heat out of his blood at a stroke.

   “Isn’t Reverend Jones dreadfully dull and a little bit ridiculous?”

   All gazes turned to the girl, and Johnny knew she’d meant it that way. He’d rarely seen a braver diversionary tactic, even among gunfighters.

   “Martha,” her mother said. “That’s hardly polite.”

   “Well, he’s not here, is he, Mother? He can’t take offence.”

   “That’s beside the point, young lady,” Black said. “Reverend Jones is a highly respected part of our community.”

   “Respected by whom?” Martha said. “He spends every Sunday haranguing the community with his latest gripe and then uses the rest of the week to prowl around looking for transgressors.” Johnny caught her gaze, her skin heightened with colour, and risked a smile. He saw her relief and her eyes sparkled back. “Last week it was dime novels, after which several little boys in town were forced to turn their favourite books into litter for hogs, and this week it was hats!”

   Scott was smiling hard by this time, almost laughing like the man he knew and loved. Johnny couldn’t see how his brother could resist this sparky girl. In his book, any one who had the guts to take a shot at the Reverend in polite company on a Sunday was worth a horse’s weight in gold.

   “Young people, Murdoch,” Joshua Black said, pouring out more wine. “They’ve got too much to say for themselves nowadays, even when a child has had the benefit of a fine and, if I might say so …” He glared at his daughter. “…damn expensive education.”

   “Joshua.”

   The banker grunted at his wife’s sharp rebuke and slurped a mouthful of wine. Johnny would’ve given much to know what his father was thinking, but he stayed silent, a finger and thumb twisting his wine glass back and forth on the tablecloth, his lips pursed as he listened.

   “I happen to agree with Martha,” Scott said. He leaned back to allow Maria to place dessert before him. “Reverend Jones is a sanctimonious bore, and fulminating against women’s hats is nothing short of absurd. How can anyone respect such a man?” His brother lifted his dessert spoon and, faintly smiling, caught his gaze. “What do you think, brother?”

  Johnny couldn’t help a slow smile. He felt like a kid in a secret game with his brother and that was always fun.

   “Stopped listenin’ before he got to the hat part, Scott. Too busy figurin’ what the hell ‘mammon’ meant.”

   Black put his wine glass down a little too hard and dabbed his mouth with his napkin.

   “Mammon, young man, is the worship of money, and I believe the Reverend Jones, despite all his many virtues, would do well to remember the sources of his own income when he mounts that particular steed.”

   “Reckoned it was an animal,” Johnny said, enjoying himself now. “Like my cousin Rob told us about, big old hairy elephant, used to live up in the frozen places.”

   “That’s a mammoth, John,” his father said, a definite hint of a smile on his face as he dug into his dessert, some new creation of Maria’s, crisp and sweet and made out of beaten egg whites. Johnny had watched her make it. Now he avoided the white stuff and went for the thick cream and fruit in the centre instead. Pete had left it untouched and was pulling big black grapes off their stems, stuffing them into his mouth one after the other. Black frowned at the sugary crust, tapping it like it was about to explode in his face.

   “Well, Mr Black,” Johnny said. “I reckon I’m with the Reverend on the mammon thing. It don’t do a man good to think too much on money.”

   “Your father and I, Johnny, have a healthy respect for the benefits that business and the making of money bring to a community. You and Scott will need to learn the full extent of that lesson if you’re to wield anywhere near the influence your father does.” He put a spoonful of the dessert in his mouth, swallowed it, and gestured at Johnny with the spoon. “I’m sure Murdoch’s made it plain to you boys that you owe a responsibility to this area to carry on his fine legacy after he’s gone.”

   Johnny gave up on the dessert and pushed it away.

   “Joshua,” his father said. “I believe we’ve covered this topic.”

   “It can never be said too many times, Murdoch. If we’re to become family then I have to be sure Lancer’s future is secure for my child and my grandchildren. It concerns me that one of your sons possesses so little regard and respect for his birthright. It doesn’t bode well, does it? It doesn’t bode well at all.”

   “I think you should let me worry about my son’s intentions concerning his future, Joshua.”

  “Of course. Of course. All I’m saying is, Murdoch, if he was my son, I’d be keeping him at a desk learning the books instead of spending his time racing about on his horse and frequenting the saloons.”

   Johnny knew that look. His father had coloured up. He was mad for sure, covered it with a swallow of wine. It didn’t matter what the subject was; Murdoch Lancer considered advice unasked for, something close to an insult.

   “Johnny works harder than anyone on this ranch, Joshua.”

   “That’s as maybe, but unless a young man has a mind for the making of money, all the physical work on this earth will be no more use to him than dust.”

  “Seems to me, Mr Black,” Johnny said, “that Reverend Jones mighta had you in mind preachin’ up in his pulpit, this mornin’”

  “Just friendly advice, boy,” Black said, with a small shrug. “What use is all the experience of the older generation if they can’t pass it on for the benefit of the young?”

   “I think you’ve a little to much to drink, Joshua,” Jennie Black said. Her husband shot her a bad tempered look.

   “Nonsense. You always say that when I speak my mind, Jennie. Perhaps if you’d pay mind to the practicalities of life rather than spending most of your time at the milliner’s, and encouraging our daughter to do the same, you might’ve found Reverend Jones’ sermon a little more palatable yourself!”

   Johnny was sure he could feel his brother’s heat rise and hear the grind of his teeth at Jennie Black’s stiffening shoulders and the quick dip of her head.

   “Papa!” Martha said.

   “Well …,” Black shrugged and grabbed his wine glass. “What of it? Women, eh, Murdoch? A man’s life would run smoother and more profitably without them.” His skin flushed, his eyes too bright, he gestured the half full glass at Scott. “I’m warning you now, boy. However hard you work at keeping your wife, it’ll never be hard enough!” He laughed. “And she’ll never be satisfied with her number of hats!”

   Black seemed not to notice what he’d done, how he’d blundered all over lunch like a crazy bellowing buffalo.

  “Can I be excused, Murdoch?”

   His father hesitated only a moment before nodding, his gaze dark. It killed something inside Johnny to see that look, but he could no more stay than quit breathing.

   “Yes, Johnny, you can.”

 ***************************** 

   Outside, he heaved the good air into his lungs. There was no-one around. The ranch was in the grip of its Sunday rest, the afternoon heat keeping everyone in the shade. The most any man would be doing was polishing a saddle or mending boots. Jesus, but what wouldn’t he give to be idling his Sunday afternoon away, whittling wood outside the bunkhouse and brushing flies from his face. He thought how Billy had spent his last Sunday in his cot groaning that women were devils in dresses and that he wasn’t ever going to drink again. Late in the day, Johnny had dragged him from his cot and dumped him in a water trough. He could still see Billy flopping over the trough’s edge like a dead fish.

   He leaned against one of the pillars at the hacienda’s entrance and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. Shit, but he was ready to cry. Madrid had never cried, not once. It was something nice women and babies did, but since coming home, he’d come close a few times. It always put fresh doubt in his mind that he’d done the right thing, leaving his old life behind.

   “Scares you does it, the thought of losin’ ya daddy?”

   He stiffened, crossed his arms tight around his body. He’d barely spoken to Pete Thorn since the incident in the kitchen. The old man spent most of the day out hunting, or so he said; maybe he was watching out for Clemmie’s brother, Cyrus to come riding through some lonely canyon and pick him off clean with his Henry. In the evenings, he’d smoke a pipe by the fire, cleaning his gun or sewing new life into his old clothes. Murdoch liked him around. Johnny could see that. Even if his father was reading one of his new books by lamplight, he’d stop and talk of the past if Thorn wanted it - though never about the Crows and the arrow in his leg. Thorn rested his father’s troubled mind, made him drink less, put him in a quieter place, something he knew he could never do for Murdoch, however much he wanted to.

   “Ain’t goin’ to lose him.”

   Thorn sat on the low wooden bench against the white-washed wall. Half of it was shaded by a blue elderberry tree, but the old man sat on the sun drenched half, his brown hands spread over his knees.

   “Not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday.”

   “You think I don’t know it, old man? I ain’t some pure kid.”

   “No, you sure ain’t that, but you’re feelin’ the full load of your comin’ loss today. That fat-assed blowhard of a banker made sure of it, shootin’ his fool mouth off about the future, an’ that scared ya, didn’t it? I can smell it on ya like I can smell the berries on this tree, ripenin’ an’ ready to burst.” The old man squinted up at him. “Your brother ain’t where you are, that’s fer sure. He ain’t afraid of the future, no sir.” Thorn chuckled. “He’s divin’ headlong into it without a reckonin’ of what’s in the river.”

   Johnny frowned. What game was Thorn was playing now? First he’d talked some shit about him losing his father and now it seemed he’d seen straight through the fakery of Sunday lunch with the Blacks.

   “You know nothin’, old man.”

   “I know your daddy. I knew him, the heart and mind of him, for five years, at the prime of his life. I got memories to last me until ol’ Cyrus puts me in my grave. What you got, boy? Two years you can’t recall, eighteen years regrettin’ you never had somethin’ every boy needs while he’s growin’. It’s a low-down dirty deal, Johnny, an’ it pains you every day.”

   Every word had been worse to bear than Thorn’s hand striking his face. He had his father now; that was all that mattered, wasn’t it? - that and trying to fit in somewhere that would please Murdoch and rest easy with himself. Those were the things that mattered; Thorn was way off track if he thought he wasted time regretting the past. Sure, he’d been angry at first, like some stupid kid, but that was over now. He’d grown up since that day.

   “When you start talkin’ sense, old man,” he said, walking away. “I’ll start listenin’.”

   “I’ll be here, kid,” Thorn said. “Lettin’ the good sun warm these old bones, talkin’ the same words.”

   Angrily, Johnny looked back at the old man, but Thorn’s eyes were closed now, his face upturned to the sun like a lizard’s in the morning light. 

************************ 

   Scott returned to town with the Blacks. From the corral, Johnny watched them drive away. He’d been combing Barranca’s tail, letting the strands fall away from his fingers as he combed. It always soothed him, and the horse seemed to like it. Scott had looked pale as he’d climbed into Joshua Black’s smart black surrey. Maybe a family lunch had brought home to his brother the danger he was in; maybe it’d felt like some kind of sweet game until he’d sat at their father’s table. Had Murdoch seen through it? He’d have seen through him, for sure, long before such a fool thing as Sunday lunch whipped the covers off the lie.

   His father had waved the surrey goodbye and was talking to Pete Thorn who’d kept his vigil in the sun for the past hour. Tequila, Johnny’s own little three-legged stray dog, had come to rest under the bench near Thorn’s beat-up boots. The dog was a thief and a scavenger, not a beast which sought human company, except Johnny’s when he had a mind to. Yet, he rested there, close to Thorn, like an old maid’s lap-dog.

   Barranca’s eyes opened and he stamped a hoof. Johnny knew he’d pulled too hard, broken the tender spell between them. Still, he feigned concentration on his chore as his father approached. He knew Murdoch wouldn’t yell, not like he would’ve done a few months back. No, lately he’d taken mainly to a gentler calling of his tune. It was harder to fight than outright anger, harder to blow up against and walk away from, and the Old Man knew it. He was leaning on the corral rail now, watching him, not speaking. Johnny bore it as long as it took him to pull the comb once down the tail.

   “I know I spoke outta turn at lunch, Murdoch, alright?” He looked up at his father’s silence. “An’ I know I shoulda stayed at the damn table, but I just couldn’t do it.”

   Murdoch nodded. He opened the corral gate. Johnny watched him untie Barranca from the post and pat his neck. He handed the halter rope to Johnny.

   “If that tail shines any brighter, boy, it’ll dazzle the cows. Put him away now. We’ve got a chair to make.”

   Frowning, Johnny took the rope. It seemed like he’d been reprieved somehow, so why did he want to hit something, holler at the top of his voice, kick holes in the earth itself? As he led the horse into the barn, he found himself wishing he and Murdoch had stayed out in the wild, hunting turkeys and sleeping by rivers forever, and never come home.   

 

Chapter Eleven 

   The chair was a fine thing. Even he could see that. They’d spent that Sunday afternoon and three evenings on it. His father had taken seasoned oak from the back of the woodshed, untouched since the tree had fallen during a storm twenty years before. Murdoch had taught him how to turn wood on a lathe, making ‘v’ cuts in the legs. At first, he’d been slow and clumsy, hating it, cussing the obstinacy of the wood, the need for precision. His father had watched him, saying nothing, except a few words of encouragement. By the fourth leg, he’d begun to feel some pleasure in the work. He’d begun to imagine Elthea sitting on the chair in the evenings, rocking before the fire while she sewed.

   In the cooler air of early evening, he’d watched his father turn the legs again, smoothing off his first cuts into fine beads and coves. They hadn’t spoken much, only about the work. Murdoch had let him try a cove for himself, but he’d soon quit; he saw he was about to spoil something perfect. His father said it didn’t matter, that imperfections put life in a thing. He’d got angry then, sat outside throwing sticks for Tequila in the last rays of the sun.

   It was finished now, though, and he’d put in his share, one way or another. Making something had helped him sleep better at night, chased his nightmares of Billy into a corner for awhile.

   They brought the chair outside. The air was still hot in late afternoon and the crickets were loud in the grass. His father sat down on a log and lit a cigar. Johnny ran his fingers over the chair’s smooth curves. There were questions he hungered to ask, but he’d gotten afraid of the answers; that was the truth of it.  He set the chair rocking and squinted over at his father. Murdoch was taking it easy in the way of older men, like a hurricane would come or a war would start and he’d just carry on sitting, blowing smoke into the air. Johnny stopped the chair with the tip of his boot.

   “Murdoch. Can I ask you a question?”

   His father took his cigar out of his mouth. He looked serious, like he was expecting something tough or bad, something about the future.

   “Go ahead.”

   “You kill any Crows that day they put an arrow through your leg?”

   Johnny moved closer, his hands in the back pockets of his jeans. Murdoch was silent, looking hard at the burning cigar, as if it was strange to him. Johnny lost his nerve then.

   “I mean, you don’t have to …”

   “No, Johnny.” His father’s tone was as calm as the powerful smelling smoke drifting from the cigar. “I don’t believe I did, but I killed a good many ponies and I imagine it was a long while before some of those braves could walk without a limp.”

   Johnny sat down on the log, as carefully as if it might explode under him if he sat down too hard.

   “You took a risk, not goin’ in for the kill.”

   His father looked across at him. A trace of a smile softened up his face, eased Johnny’s strung-up nerves.

   “Not really. They looked thin and hungry. Desperate men make bad shots, Johnny. I’m sure you’ve learned that somewhere along the way.”

   Johnny swallowed his surprise. He looked away for a moment and nodded once.

   “Pete likes to varnish the truth of things a little,” his father said. “Most people do, I suppose, but I prefer to see things as they are. Any violence I found myself part of happened quickly and brutally, as these things usually do, either through drink or despair of one kind or another. I ended it as swiftly as I could and I tried to do the least harm possible.” Murdoch tapped the cigar on the log. Ash spilled into the bark’s cracks. “I wanted to sleep at night. That’s how young and naïve I was, Johnny, believing that killing someone is the only event sure to keep a man awake until dawn.”

   Johnny met his father’s gaze. He knew now that life would not be long enough to know the heart of this man, and that made him sadder than almost anything had ever done. His mind scrabbled for a way out.

   “How about lettin’ me see the scar?”

   His father’s laugh was loud and sudden. Johnny smiled, though it scared him a little.

   “Johnny, my boy, you’re not the son for a faint-hearted father … now, who’s visiting us at this hour of the day?”

   Standing up, they saw a black buggy emerge through the grove of trees at the sharp bend round rocks on the road to the ranch. From there, the track was straight; the wheels kicked up plumes of dust and the buggy cast a long shadow across the dry land of late August.

   “Looks like Judge Howitt’s rig,” Johnny said. “Wonder what’s bug’s bitin’ ‘im bad enough to get his nose out of his books?”

   “He’s a good man, Johnny,” his father said. “He might be a little long-winded at times, but he’s honest and thorough.”

   “And borin’ enough to send a pack of starvin’ coyotes to sleep.”

   His father laughed, brought Johnny close against him to cuff his head and mess up his hair. It seemed Murdoch thought nothing of fussing him in such a manner nowadays, but in him it still brought a feeling that seemed like panic, something he couldn’t control. Yet, he always wanted more and cursed himself for his weakness in the wanting of it. 

   “You, my son,” Murdoch said, heeling the cigar butt into the dirt, “have no respect for your elders. Bring the chair down. We’ll varnish it tomorrow.”

 

   The judge was brushing the dust off his coat when they reached him. The youngest hand, Miguel, had run out to take the horse and buggy into the shade. Johnny had met Howitt twice. He was no longer young, and long hours of reading by lamplight had given his face a crumpled, frowning look. It was rumoured that his housekeeper, the small, silent widow of a brutal blacksmith, warmed his bed at night in more ways than one, but if it was true, Johnny could see no wrong in it. He was pretty much alone in that point of view, though. Even his brother felt the judge should do ‘the right thing.’

   “Charles.”

   The judge shook hands with his father.

   “Murdoch. Keeping well, I hope.”

   “Very well. What brings you out here at this hour?”  

   “I’d have come earlier if it wasn’t for this infernal heat. Makes a man want to head up north for the summer.” The judge looked at Johnny, who was still holding the chair. “That’s a fine piece of furniture you’ve got there, John. Did you make it yourself?”

   Johnny smiled at his father.

   “Not much of it. It’s a sewin’ chair for Elthea Dickson. I was about to ask Maria to make some cushions for it.”

   “Were you now?” Howitt smiled. “Well, that’s a mighty nice thought, John. That old lady sure deserves a little kindness. She lives a harsh and lonely life.”

   “Yeh, she does, but then she ain’t the only one.”

   “No, indeed …”

   “Come inside, Charles,” Murdoch said, frowning a little at Johnny. “Maria’ll fix some English tea, although I’m assuming this isn’t a social call.”

   “No, it’s about this Trencher affair. What I have to say might be of some concern to you, too, Johnny. I believe the young man killed was a friend of yours.”

   Johnny nodded. He left the chair on the veranda and followed the older men into the house. Already he was considering what he should do if his guess was right and the judge had come with bad news. Impatiently, he watched his father pour tea into those stupid little cups from England. He shook his head when he was asked if he wanted some.

   “You ain’t goin’ to bring Cain Trencher to trial, are you?” he said, even before the cup had touched the judge’s lips.

   “Johnny.”

   “No sense in beatin’ around the bush, Murdoch. Ain’t that right, Judge?”

   Howitt took a sip of the tea and set the cup down carefully on its saucer.

   “That’s what I’ve come to discuss with you and your father, yes, young man.”

   Johnny stood up, his fists clenched at his sides.

   “Discuss? Where’s the discussion in it, Judge!?”

   “Johnny, settle down.”

   “No, it’s always the same! You old men get together an’ you smooth everythin’ over like it never happened. What did Trencher do, Judge? Offer to pay for the new courthouse roof?”

   He knew he’d overstepped his mark. His father’s face had turned red and Judge Howitt looked like he’d eaten a horny toad.

   “He most certainly did not, young man,” Howitt said. “And I resent your implication that a man of my reputation would become involved in such underhand dealings.”

   “Well, I ain’t used to trustin’, Judge, and the world don’t go out of its way to prove me wrong.” He hesitated and glanced at Murdoch. “Most of the time, anyhow.”

   “I warned you this might happen, Johnny,” his father said. “Now, either you sit here like a man and listen to what Charles has to say, or you leave us. Make your decision.”

   He glared at Murdoch, before sitting down again, one dusty boot resting on his knee, his fingers tapping the chair’s arms.

   “The fact is, Murdoch,” the judge said. “There isn’t enough evidence to bring this thing to trial. Trencher’s man won’t testify …” Johnny snorted. “… and even your boy here admits that Billy went for his gun.”

   “He wasn’t even half awake …”

   He hated being here, hated listening to the soft, reasonable voices who would explain away any excuse for him to avenge Billy’s murder. Judge Howitt was turning to him now, patient, calm and damn old.

   “Nevertheless, John, to an inexperienced boy, such as Cain Trencher undoubtedly is, the fact that he reacted in natural self-defence to a man pulling a gun on him would hold a powerful sway with any jury in the land.”

   “He was experienced enough to point a rifle in my face, Judge.”

   “You were on his land, John, and …”

   Johnny saw Howitt’s quick glance at Murdoch, his father’s tight, angry look away.

   “And what?”

   He’d kept it soft, but it had been enough to bring Murdoch’s gaze back to him. He had to hand it to the old Justice of the Peace, though; he looked sorry for what he was about to say.

   “I hardly need tell you, John, that your previous … profession, compromises - seriously compromises - your value as a witness in this case.”

   “Ain’t the law supposed to be fair, Judge. Ain’t it supposed to look at the facts cold?”

   “Yes, it is, but the fact is you were a gunfighter, and some facts complicate other facts that might otherwise be simple.”

   Johnny smiled, despite his restless anger.

   “Well, there’s pure truth, Judge, I’ll give you that.” He stood up, glad of the rare opportunity to look down at his father. “Guess that’s all I need to hear. I’ll go do my evenin’ chores.”

   “The boy’s father has agreed to a substantial compensatory payment, John, to Lancer for the loss of Billy’s skills, and to his family.”

   He smiled again, although he could see his own dark look reflected in his father’s stony gaze.

   “Guess that’ll help me sleep at night, sir, knowin’ that the price of Billy’s life can be counted in a neat little ol’ pile of greenbacks.”

   “I won’t be taking the money, Johnny,” Murdoch said. “My instructions will be that Trencher doubles the amount going to Billy’s family.”

   “Well, seein’ as you wanted Billy off this ranch anyway, Murdoch, I guess that’ll settle your conscience just about right, won’t it.”

   He didn’t wait for his father’s response, but while he forked hay into the horses’ racks and filled their water troughs, knew it wouldn’t lie still for long. 

************************************ 

   He could smell tobacco in the night air. A group of hands had lit a fire outside and were sitting around it smoking pipes and cigarettes. He only caught the wisp end of the smell, but it was enough to make him crave the men’s company, hunger for their easiness while the smoke drifted sleepily through the dark.

   He’d tried tobacco for a spell as a kid, liked the way it made him feel like a man. Didn’t scramble his brains either the way the opium had done. He’d been too young for either, he knew. He’d been too young for everything that’d happened to him since his mother’s death. At least the opium though had done the trick of breaking the present into scattered pieces, better than tequila and easier on the head.

   The first time, Jarini had sat beside him on a couch of stained red silk. Not that he’d noticed the filth at the time, only the sweet stench of smoked opium snaking through the dark, the Chinese woman sitting in the corner gutting fish and the flicker of the bare candles. He’d been scared in that place of adult vice, where the pebble-eyed sellers went about their daily business while their customers sank into dumb stupor. Anyone could’ve come in, taken their money, even put a bullet in their guts had they a mind to. No-one had, not when he’d been there at least.

   The old Chinawoman hadn’t liked him being there. She’d spat some words he hadn’t understood. Jarini had laughed and thrown coins in the wide metal dish on her counter. There’d been a cat, a creature he’d never seen before. He’d reached out to touch it and the cat had lashed out, scratching his hand. Instantly, Jarini had pulled his gun and pointed it at the cat’s head. It had blinked at the bandito and lifted its paw to lick it with a tiny tongue.

   Laughing again, Jarini had pushed him to the couch. He’d shown him how to smoke the long pipe, inhale the smoke and stop before it choked him. Other members of Jarini’s gang were already lost to the drug. They lay like dying men on a battlefield, one or two groping blindly at the skirts of the whores they’d brought with them.

   Once, before he’d lost his cherry good and proper in a border town brothel, one of the opium den whores had left her man and slouched over to him. He’d been half gone with the drug, but awake enough to feel her hand rubbing him hard between his legs, her tongue filling his mouth, so that he’d gagged. Close to squirting under her hand, but feeling like he was about to suffocate, he’d shoved her back so that she’d fallen to the dirty floor. She’d screamed like a trapped pole cat and coins had fallen from somewhere and gone rolling around her. His belly heaving, he’d watched her scrabble for the coins. Before he’d known it, a hand had grabbed him up from the stinking couch and thrown him across the room so hard, he’d lost consciousness. None of it had made any sense.

   He’d woken to Jarini’s tender hand washing his face, a look in his eyes that seemed close to fear. At first, he’d struggled away from such strange things; it’d been worse than the pain in his head and arm. Every part of him had wanted to run, to go back to being alone. Maybe Jarini had seen it, because the next moment he’d tossed the bloodied cloth in the bowl of water, called him ‘maldito estúpido chico’ and went to play cards in the other room. He’d lain there in the cot, trembling, listening to Jarini’s easy laughter, and crying into the grimy pillow. He’d never touched opium again.  

   But he missed it sometimes. Though it’d made him weak and a fool, it had soaked up bad thoughts like his father’s bathing sponge sucked up water. He liked using the sponge on occasion and watching it grow dark with its load. Then he’d squeeze it hard, just to see and feel the flowing out until the sponge was light and pale in his hand. He’d do it again and again until the water grew cold around him.

   Leaning on a low section of the hacienda’s wall, he breathed in deep, letting the cool night air into his blood. He’d stayed as long at the dinner table as would satisfy his father. Not that they’d exchanged a word. Judge Howitt had stayed to dinner and Scott had gone to play happy families with the Blacks for the third time this week. From the moment soup had been served – goddamned mulligatawny; he’d glared at Maria, but she’d just stroked his head and whispered, ‘Su favorito de Papa’ - the Judge and Pete Thorn had started some kind of old men’s feud. If his brother’d been there, he might’ve enjoyed it, smirking across at Scott while the two oldsters had scored points off each other over who’d seen what and when and where – hearing Lincoln at Gettysburg, trading at John Sutter’s fort, meeting Kit Carson, seeing ‘Pretty Juanita’ hang in a California mining camp.

   Only when Pete Thorn had talked of drinking with a cousin of Augustus Spitzer who’d died with other members of the Donner party at Lake Camp, did he listen with some attention. It had been Billy’s sole claim to fame. He’d seen the boy use it a dozen times to get the interest of women, to distract rivals at the poker table, to wheedle his way out of a spell in jail. Billy’d understood people’s hunger for gruesome detail. Not that he’d known much more than anyone else, but he’d got good at telling stories, adding a little more sauce each time. It made Johnny think of the stories that’d been told and written about Madrid, the simple fact of a half-breed boy turned hired gun for a living, twisted into tales of bloodlust and shameless law breaking. He knew some of the folks in Green River and Morro Coyo had got their view of him from reading such stories. He also knew that even if the writers had stood in the street admitting they’d lied, most people would go on believing he was a sinner of the first order.

 

   On the other side of the main corral, the men’s fire glowed dimly. Some men, before it got too cold, would sleep outside tonight to escape the rank fug of drying socks, Tick’s rich farts and the smoky stove. By now, they’d have spread a grimy deck among a few of them after a dinner of stew and biscuits. He twitched in his desire to join them, although, since Billy’s death he’d been conscious of a change in their attitude. Nothing downright unfriendly. Just politer, less inclined to josh him, more likely to look a little away when he talked to them. He’d even seen that fidget Sam Wester was prone to when he was with Murdoch – the quick rolling of a cigarette end between a finger and thumb. He’d never seen Sam do it in any other man’s presence, until two days ago when Johnny had given him instructions for tending a lame colt. Sam knew about horses, might usually have had a word or two to say about the situation, but he’d said nothing, just nodded here and there while rolling that damn stub between his finger and thumb like he wanted it to spark into fire. The new man, a lean drink of water named Ches Deeley, had taken to calling him Mr Lancer from the first and no-one had troubled to remind him that only Murdoch and Scott went by that title.  

   “So what you goin’ to do, boy?”

   He turned from the wall and looked at Pete Thorn. The smoke from the old man’s pipe curled straight up in the windless air.

   “About what?”

   Thorn smiled and sat down on the swing seat. He shoved his old boots out in front of him and lay back on the soft cushions, swinging gently.

   “You know damn well what.”

   Johnny glanced at the hacienda’s entrance. He leaned back against the wall and folded his arms.

   “It’s none of your damn business what I do, old man.”

   Thorn smiled again, the pipe still in his mouth.

   “Seems like you forgot our conversation awhile back pretty quick, Johnny.”

   It was his turn to smile, though he’d begun to feel cold now and he shivered a little.

   “That ain’t likely, Mr Thorn, seeing as I still got the bruises, but my intentions concerning Cain Trencher are still none of your business.”

   “I meant what I said, boy. I’ll kill the low-down skunk for you, but you stir one hair on your head in that direction, I’ll hurt you bad.”

   Johnny understood a serious threat when he heard one, though it mystified him still that the old man would pledge such a thing.

   “Murdoch won’t thank you for that.”

   Thorn raised his eyebrows and nodded slowly.

   “That may be true, but I’ll have saved him from the worse pain of seeing you hang for murder.”

   Now the old man was aggravating him. He lowered his gaze, heard the creak of the swing seat as Thorn planted his boots and pushed back a little, smacking his lips on the pipe stem to draw the foul smelling tobacco.

   “Well, if you think I’m goin’ to tell you to go ahead and put a bullet in the Trencher kid, Mr Thorn, then you’re fuckin’ crazier than I thought.”

   “I got nothin’ to lose, boy. You got the world.” The creaking stopped. Thorn leaned forward on the seat and took the pipe out of his mouth. “And I know you’re fixin’ your mind on a killin’.”

   Johnny lifted his gaze. Was that true? Had he made up his mind to kill Cain Trencher without even knowing of it? Could it be plainly read on his face? He was not a superstitious man, but for certain, he was less sure of his ground in some things than he once had been. Anger flushed his doubt away for a moment.

   “You don’t know me, old man.” He turned to the wall, leaned into the last of the warmth it had absorbed during the hot day. “Dammit, you don’t know me. No-one does.”

   And that was the truth. He let no-one in, not into that secret heart of him that still craved a life of lone killing, that wolfish part that sometimes ached to turn from his father’s hearth and go loping along hidden trails, answerable to nobody but himself.

   “That maybe so, Johnny, but I’m gettin’ closer than most. Ain’t that the case?”

   He turned his head again, fixed Thorn with a cold glare.

   “You know, if you weren’t so damn old and my father didn’t love you like he was your own, I’d tie you to that fuckin’ mule of yours and set fire to its tail, you goddamn crazy old sonuvabitch.”

   He kicked the wall and went out into the night. Outside the bunkhouse, someone was playing a harmonica badly and he could smell burnt biscuits. Someone whooped and he guessed a card game had been won. Lighting a lamp, he spent time in the barn polishing his saddle and bridle. When he came back out, his father and the two old men were sitting on the veranda talking in low tones and drinking whisky. Murdoch was smoking his pipe. He looked happy to be there, while the judge, roostered up with the liquor, had lost whatever refinement he possessed and was slumped on the swing seat, a whisky tumbler resting on his round belly. Keeping in the shadows, Johnny slipped into the house by the kitchen entrance and allowed Maria to shelter him with tender fuss and apple pie. 

************************************ 

    He woke at a sharp jab to his ribs and the bed giving to the weight of another form.

   “Scoot up, boy. It’s damn cold out here.”

   Still half asleep, Johnny strained his eyes in the darkness to see his brother settle back against the pillows, his hands behind his head. He heard Scott sigh deeply, but it didn’t sound like he was sorrowful.

   “What’s wrong with your own fuckin’ bed?”

   “Nothing, but in the room next to mine there’s a snoring that would wake the dead in Hades.”

   Johnny smiled. “That’d be Judge Howitt.” Rubbing a hand over his face, he pulled himself up so that he was level with Scott. “He drank a bellyful tonight. I heard him fall on the stairs goin’ up to bed.”

   “Howitt? What’s he doing here?”

   “Came to tell us that he ain’t bringin’ Cain Trencher to trial. Not enough evidence.”

   His brother was silent for a moment.

   “Murdoch told us to expect that, Johnny.”

   “Yeah.”

   “I know it’s tough on you, brother, but I hope you’re going to be sensible about this.”

   Johnny leaned across and lit the lamp on the bedside table. He saw now that Scott was still in the clutches of something that wasn’t going to let him sleep for awhile, something that was still pumping the blood hard through his veins.

   “You mean like you’re bein’ sensible?”

   “I kissed her, Johnny,” Scott said, looking seriously at him. “I kissed Jennie tonight.”

   He was tempted to laugh and push his brother out of the bed, but he kept his response quiet. He felt almost embarrassed by Scott’s rawness. Maybe his older brother wasn’t the experienced lover he’d taken him for. Rubbing his hand through his mussed hair, he smiled.

   “Jesus, Scott, that’s nothin’, kissin’ a girl, that’s nothin’.”

   His brother looked at him. Johnny expected Scott to laugh then, share the joke, because this couldn’t be real, not from a man who’d told him of long nights on leave in ‘Frisco spent in the company of a soldier friend and two fresh young whores. New to the game and still up for fun. Do anything to a man. Let anything be done to them. Well, that’s what he’d thought Scott meant by, ‘they were very, very accommodating indeed’ after he’d looked up the word in Murdoch’s dictionary.

   Scott wasn’t smiling now, though, not like he had when Johnny had pushed for details about his ‘Frisco nights. He looked as sober as death.

   “You’re right, Johnny. Kissing a girl is nothing, has been nothing, but kissing Jennie Black was nothing short of one of the great experiences of my life.” Scott smiled, but it didn’t take the shadows out of his brother’s gaze. “It’s as if I’ve never known a woman before tonight, that I’ve just been rehearsing for this one woman, this one perfect woman.”

   “What about Rosie?”        

   His brother frowned at him.

   “Good God, Johnny! I pay her for services rendered, and she’d be the first to laugh if she thought it went any further than that. I’m not like you.”

   Johnny scowled.

   “You’d better explain that, brother, before I kick you outta my damn bed to sleep on the floor.”

   “I just mean you make friends of the saloon girls. You raise their expectations that they might mean more to you than physical relief. You worry about the laudanum they take, the other men they go with, whether they’ve eaten that day. That’s why Lyra’s fallen for you and that’s why the poor girl’s confused. She honestly believes that one day you’ll take her away from her grubby existence and make her a rancher’s wife.”

   “Might yet.”

   “The hell you will, John. You might kick like an antsy colt against what our father expects of you, but you’d no more marry Lyra than you would the Widow Finney.”

   He had to smirk at that thought, leading Widow Finney down the aisle, followed by a flock of goats and their tinkling bells. Hearing footsteps outside the door, he lowered his voice.

   “Maybe not, but I wouldn’t risk the chance of losin’ a girl like Martha for somethin’ that’s … that’s just crazy! Have you thought about her in all this, Scott? She don’t deserve what you’re doin’.”

   “I know.” His brother stared down at his folded arms. “I know she doesn’t.”

   Johnny sighed and sank back down under the covers.

   “Well, I sure hope you know what you’re doin’, Scott. Seems like a helluva lot to risk for the chance to fuck a lady who’d look more at home in Murdoch’s bed.” 

   Suddenly, the weight of his brother was pressing hard down on him. He struggled to free himself, but he was pinned to the bed and Scott’s voice was close to his ear.

   “You’re my brother, Johnny, and God knows, I love you, but you need to learn when to keep your opinions to yourself, and this is one of those times.”

   Johnny made another fiercer attempt to push Scott away.

   “Ok, ok, get the fuck off me, will you!” He felt the weight leave him and he turned and glared at his brother. “Jesus, she’s sure doin’ nothin’ good for your frame of mind, Scott.”

   “Go to sleep, Johnny. I’ve got some thinking to do.”

   Johnny gave his brother one last furious look before blowing out the lamp and turning his back on him, the bed covers almost over his head. Tomorrow, after breaking the last of the horses for the army and finishing his other chores, he’d varnish the chair and see Elthea Dickson’s sweet old face light up with the simple pleasure of it. That would be something, at least.

   It seemed a long time before he could sleep, even with the thought of that shining chair. Beside him, his brother was writing in a notebook, probably another damn gloopy poem, and the scrit-scratching of the pen was like an itch under his skin, as unreachable as the knowing of what the hell to do about Cain Trencher.  

     

Chapter Twelve 

   It was another two weeks before he’d got around to varnishing the chair and taking it to Elthea Dickson. There’d been a fire, up on the East Range, overlooked in the recent storm’s reckoning. Baked to brown, the grass had caught as easy as paper. They’d fought it all day with dirt and wet sacking. The men who’d been working on the fence-line up there had kept their heads down and pitted their guts against the fire, but they hadn’t fooled his Old Man. At the end of the day, the fire out and every man black with ash and near dead with exhaustion, Murdoch’d ripped a confession out of Ben Joy - a flicked cigarette butt as they’d ridden to the next section of fence – and told him to get the hell off his land. No amount of apologising on Joy’s part, followed by outright pleading (an event that had every man frowning or spitting in the dust) had moved the boss. Johnny’d felt sorry for Joy, a small, wiry man who’d always worked hard and kept a quiet mouth, but he hadn’t stood for him against the awesome fury of Murdoch Lancer.

   The precious land blackened all around them, he’d looked at Scott and seen that even his brother was something close to scared. This was no joke, not something they’d gleefully add to the beetroot list and laugh about at night, not something they’d mimic and risk Murdoch catching them at it. This was their father showing them another colour, as dark and unforgiving as the charred ground. It’d seemed to Johnny that if he wanted any more powerful evidence that when it came to it Murdoch loved the land above all else, then here it surely was. Finally, the Old Man had turned on him and his brother, demanded to know if they had anything to say. They’d shaken their heads as one, and he’d set his jaw hard and walked to the horses, yelling at his sons ‘Come on, boys, NOW!’ when they’d just stood there, filthy, dead on their feet and damn reluctant to be near him right then.

   They’d followed him, though, to where he’d been waiting, tall in the saddle, looking like a war-torn king who’d fought a battle and taken his deserved win. That’d been his brother’s comment as they’d trudged their way across the black land, and Johnny’d had known just what he’d meant. ‘And we are indeed his little princes,’ Scott had said, smiling, though he hadn’t sounded like he found it funny. 

  

   Then, the next week, a mustang had thrown him against the corral rail and for once he hadn’t bounced up again, but’d lain there like a fool, winded, pulling in dust through his bloodied mouth with each desperate breath. It’d been the last of the army contract horses, a good, strong bunch, but he’d ridden one too many that day and the mare had known it, flicked him off like a fly and kicked a hole in his leg for good measure.  

   Worse, his father had been watching along with Captain Johns from Fort Ross. Yelling orders at Ches Deeley to ‘get that damn horse out of here’ and flinging open the corral gate, Murdoch had thundered towards him looking like he was about to finish what the mare had started. Instead, his father’d taken a glance at the bloodied wound under his ripped jeans and asked him if hurt anywhere else, before dragging him to his feet and slinging him over his shoulder. Jesus, but it’d hurt worse than the fall, fighting to breathe while his Old Man hauled his ass across the yard like he was about to load a wagon.

   He hadn’t laid him down any too gently either. The whole time his father had washed and dressed the leg, checked him for other damage, held water to his mouth for him to drink, he’d hardly looked at him or spoken a word, just a ‘Get some rest’ as he’d covered him with a blanket and left him. Johnny hadn’t argued, just wondered why the Old Man seemed so damned mad at him. It wasn’t like he’d wanted to chew dust. Finally, he’d figured it was because he was pissed that a son of his had been thrown in front of an army man. Well, he could understand that; he hadn’t been too happy about it either.

   Murdoch had nursed him for the past week, as good and as gentle as any woman he’d known, but his father hadn’t spoken a word about the fall, so neither had he. The army had fetched the horses, and Captain Johns had asked Murdoch to pass on his congratulations to his son on the quality of animals and their taming. Johnny had no liking for the army, but he’d found pure satisfaction in the praise, though he’d kept it to himself. 

******************************************

   He didn’t want the Old Man’s company to the Dickson’s place. It was his first trip out after the fall and last night he’d even dreamed about it, being alone under an early September sky and hearing the whistle of the dry, brown grass along the trail. At breakfast, though, Murdoch had stated his intentions and no amount of persuasion had moved him. Scott hadn’t appeared at the table and it seemed their father was already pissed at that, so he’d slapped him down quicker than usual. They’d deliver the chair and then head on into town to meet Billy’s brother, Adam, off the stage.

   His brother had come in just as the Old Man’d laid down the law. Scott hadn’t seemed to notice you could’ve dug a chunk out of the air with a shovel, just asked him what he was sulking about and poured himself some coffee. He’d cussed Scott and that was when the whole thing had turned real bad. Murdoch had told him to go hitch up the wagon in a tone so hard he’d drawn in his horns without another word. He knew his brother was in for it, though, and he’d listened outside the kitchen door for a time while the Old Man’d reminded Scott about his responsibilities to the ranch. His brother had a temper alright, but he didn’t show it too often in front of Murdoch, and, sure enough, Scott’s replies had been as cool as a desert night, the kind he himself had spent eight years crafting in the face of other men, but which deserted him every time when it came to his father.

   He led his horse out into the early morning sunlight, kinder in its touch than a month earlier. He’d already tied down the chair in his father’s prized new Bronson wagon, and packed firewood, salted beef and jars of Maria’s pickles as extra gifts. He’d hesitated over asking Murdoch for some of his fine Virginian tobacco for Walt Dickson. What did the old man matter to him? - but he’d asked anyway and Murdoch had seemed pleased at the notion, given him a whole two ounces.

   It was the tobacco he was thinking of now, flaky and fragrant, placed carefully between the beef and the pickles, as he waited for his father. He reckoned that Walt Dickson, like most men of poorer means, smoked Sven’s ‘Old Regular’. ‘Sweepings off the tobacco house floor’, his father called it. Surely a smoke of such quality would lift the old man’s spirits to the point where they could talk a little at least.

   His father came out of the house, pulling on his gloves. He looked at Barranca and then at Johnny.

   “Why’ve you saddled your horse?”

   “Figured I could ride if you take the wagon.”

   “That leg isn’t healed yet.” His father checked the ties on the chair. “You’re coming with me on the wagon.” He stepped up into the driving seat, rubbing at a mark on the new leather before he sat down. “And before you start arguing about it, I’ve already set your brother on helping Tick dose his hogs and clean out their pens this morning, so don’t push it.” He looked across the yard.

“Miguel!” Maria’s nephew had emerged from the barn, a full pail of feed in each hand. “Take Barranca and put him back in his stall.”

   “Si, Patron.”

   “I can do it, Murdoch.”

   “I’ve wasted too much of the day already, putting your brother right. Give the horse to Miguel and get up here.”

   The boy hurried across the yard. He knew it wasn’t the kid’s doing, but still he scowled at Miguel as he handed over the reins. Outside his family and Jelly, only Billy had been allowed to handle the palomino. He’d even let Billy ride him once, though Barranca’d twist-bucked him off within two minutes.

   His father set the wagon going before he’d even had time to sit down. Jesus, but something had soured the Old Man’s milk, and not for the first time in the past two weeks either. The fire had hit him hard, Johnny knew. For three days after it he’d barely spoken, though the extra shots of whisky he’d drunk in the evening had said all that was needed. He’d seemed to recover, though, enough to play horseshoes with his boys and laugh away their protests of cheating when he’d won eight games in a row. At one point, he’d grabbed Johnny and roughhoused him a little. It’d taken Johnny a moment or two to realise that he was being played with and not punished somehow. Then he’d known the joy of tussling with his father, hitting out and fearing nothing. He’d wanted it to go on longer.

   Then he’d been thrown by that damn mare and again he’d seen something dark settle over his father. Though Murdoch’s hands had been tender with his bust up leg and his words kind, Johnny had sensed his anger, like the raging undercurrents under the surface of a softly flowing river. 

   As the wagon rattled along the ten mile track to the Dickson’s lonely plot, Johnny thought only of what he could say to break the silence, which rested like a great ugly rock between them on the wagon seat.

   “I guess Scott’s regrettin’ he didn’t make it to breakfast on time, this mornin’, huh?”

   His father grunted and kept his gaze on the road ahead.

   “He hates those hogs worse’n the chickens.”

   “Then he might learn the wisdom of coming home earlier and getting up on time. I don’t know where that boy’s head is lately, but it’s not with this ranch.”

   “Guess it’s fixed on Martha Black.”

   His father looked at him then.

   “He’s no more taken with Miss Martha Black than I am with the Widow Finney, John, and you know it.”

   Johnny swallowed hard and looked away. Would his father be able to see the image of Jennie Black that suddenly flashed into his thoughts?

   “Don’t worry, boy. I’m not going to ask you to break your brother’s confidence, but if he thinks he can go on taking me for a fool, then he’s seriously mistaken.”

   His father let the horses stop in a shallow stream to drink. The animals pulled in long draughts of clear, gently flowing water. Above them, branches of oak trees shielded them from the sun’s heat, though there was enough light to make the water sparkle.

   “Is that why you’ve been so mad lately, because of Scott?” Johnny asked. The reins rested gently in his father’s strong hands as the horses drank. Murdoch looked at him then, seeming to search his face, a big hand going to rub comfort to his neck. It was something his father often did now, and he liked the warmth of it, the hard calluses brushing his skin.

   “No, Johnny. It’s not that, although I’m disappointed that your brother’s playing with the feelings and expectations of a respectable young woman like Martha.”

   “He didn’t set out to …” He stopped and his father smiled, rubbing his thumb hard at the base of Johnny’s skull. It almost hurt.

   “No, a good man never sets out to damage others, but he can fall so easily into doing just that.” He removed his hand suddenly and gathered the reins. “And I don’t want a son of mine wasting his energies and time trying to mend things he’s smashed to pieces instead of building for the future.”

   Now he was scared, real scared, although he could not have told why to anyone, not even himself. His father set the wagon going, the silver water splashing under the wheels. Not far from the Dickson’s, he stopped it again on a ridge that overlooked hundreds of square miles of their land. The Chowchilla River, red with the deposits churned up by the recent heavy rain, made its twisting way through the valley like a huge, blind reptile.

   “Did you always want to be a rancher, Murdoch?”

   His father had been gazing out across the land, letting the team graze what grass they could find. Now he smiled a little at him.

   “No. Once I wanted to be a bookseller.”

   “You did, huh? That was some leap sideways.”

   “Yes, it was,” his father said, smiling again. “But once I got the dream of owning thousands of acres of America in my blood, I couldn’t get it out. I still can’t. That piece I bought from Jose Ramirez last month gave me as much pleasure as the first plot I bought thirty years ago. Do you see that, John?” He wanted to nod, to agree, to understand, but nothing would come. He gazed at his father in silence. Murdoch turned his head away from him to look out again at the valley. “I don’t understand men with narrow ambitions, Johnny. If you have the means, passion and energy to grab what you can and build up something solid and enduring, then you should and you should hold onto it by any means possible. That’s why I can’t accept what Henry did. I can’t accept that he’d throw his life’s work at the feet of a worthless chancer like Trencher who’s made his fortune in the city and now thinks he can play at being a rancher until the next fancy takes him, and more of them will come, Johnny.” He picked up the reins. “More of them will come.”

   Johnny looked back at the valley as his father set the wagon off on the last mile to the Dickson’s. Whatever he felt for the land, he knew it wasn’t what Murdoch felt. Sometimes he’d stop awhile on his horse and look at the vast acres spread out before him. He’d try to feel the owning of it, but all he usually felt was small and lost in the belly of its hugeness. He liked working it, caring for the great herds of cattle, the catching and taming of wild horses, the life of a cowboy, but his blood wouldn’t take the leap into needing it. For the last year, just the fact of finding himself with a family had been enough to get used to. Now, it seemed something else was expected of him, and he wasn’t sure he could give it. 

********************** 

   They reached the Dickson’s farm mid-morning. Elthea was hanging out washing on a long line in the upper part of the orchard. He and his father walked through the ducks and chickens in the yard towards her and she waved once, not smiling, like the fact of two visitors was too worrying to be glad about. She walked down through the long grass, her washing basket under her arm, shooing away the piglets that squealed at her feet. Shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand, she stopped suddenly.

   “That you, Murdoch Lancer?” she said, sounding doubtful.

   “Yes, it is, Elthea,” his father said, opening the orchard’s broken gate. “I’ve come with my lad to pay you a visit. We’ve brought you a gift.”

   She lowered her hand from her eyes and frowned.

   “A gift?”

   “It’s on the wagon, ma’am,” Johnny said. He took the basket from her and grasped her hand. It felt warm and dry, the skin as thin as paper. “Come and see.”

   Leading her back across the yard, he leapt onto the wagon, untied the chair and brought it down into the dust at the old woman’s feet. Suddenly shy of her silence, he plunged his hands in his back pockets and kicked at the chair to set it rocking.

   “It’s got a real nice motion, ma’am. My father did most of the measurin’ and cuttin’, but I did some of the turnin’, and it’s got four coats of varnish and I got Maria to make some cushions for it. She was real glad to. Sent pickles and beef, too, and her best wishes.”

   She looked at him, so long that he blushed and looked down.

   “Johnny Lancer. If I see anythin’ more beautiful in my life than that chair, then it’ll be some kind of miracle, boy, I swear.”

   His heart pounding, he sat her in it; her large hands clutched the handles tight. Johnny grinned at his father and set the chair rocking among the chickens and ducks. At first, Murdoch, standing in front of the chair, smiled with him. Then he grew serious and knelt down on one knee beside Elthea.

   “Elthea,” he said quietly. “Where’s Walt?”

   The old woman stopped the rocker with a foot on the ground. She looked up at Johnny and then back at his father.

   “Don’t know if I can speak of it in front of the boy, Murdoch.”

   He knew what it was, though his father had known it first without even a word said. Murdoch looked at him and nodding once, he walked away. From the barn to the left of the house, there came a cow’s single, drawn out bellow. He realised now that it hadn’t stopped since their arrival. There was a shriek at the top of the bellow that told him she’d been calling out for a long time. His stomach churning, he approached the barn, bleached pale brown by many hot summers; there were gaps in the planks and through them large black flies buzzed in and out. 

   He knew what he’d find if he went in there. He wasn’t afraid of it. He’d seen worse, he was sure, but he found himself standing just inches from the barn door, breathing in the smell of something sweet and rotten, and he couldn’t even place his hand on the latch.

   “Johnny.” Two strong hands were grasping his upper arms. He heard his own pent-up breath leave him in a gasp. When he breathed again, the stench of death had him struggling not to throw up. “I’ll deal with this, Son. Go fetch a couple of spades from the tool shed.”

   “I know what’s happened, Murdoch. I don’t need protecting.”

   His father squeezed his arms. His voice was so close to Johnny’s ear, he could feel the warm breath of it.

   “You’ve got enough bad pictures in your memory, Son. You don’t need another one. Go get the spades and start digging under the Black Oak tree up on the ridge over there.” Murdoch shook him when he hesitated.” Go on. Go now.”

   He did as he was told. He fetched the spades, knocked old earth off them with his boot. When he looked back at the barn, the door was open and his father had disappeared into its darkness. The cow’s frantic lowing continued, like a nail being hammered into his brain. As he walked up to the ridge, he saw that above the orchard grass loud with crickets, Elthea had pegged three pairs of darned and patched long-johns out to dry. 

 

   The ground was hard, but the oak’s shade kept the worst of the heat off him as he dug. The cow had stopped bellowing not long after he’d started digging and a great silence had settled over the farm, only the crickets’ churring to remind him that not all was dead.

   Soon, his father came walking up the ridge, Walt’s body, wrapped up tight in old tarpaulin, cradled in his arms like a child. He laid the corpse carefully down some distance from the tree and took up one of the spades.

   “Take a rest, John.”

   “I’m ok.”

   “Ten minutes. We’ll take it in turns. Share the load.”

   Johnny stepped out of the hole and took the canteen from his father. He sank down against the oak’s thick trunk and drank deeply, as thirsty as he’d ever known. Smacking the stopper back in, he watched Murdoch dig, his father’s powerful muscles flexing as he made fast work of the stubborn earth.

   “The cow …”

   “She hadn’t been milked for three days, poor beast. I had to take the milk out of her before I cut Walt down.”

   Johnny nodded.

   “That how long he’s been dead?”

   His father stopped digging for a moment.

   “Yes, about that.”

   “Jesus.” 

 

   He took another turn digging while his father rested. The hole had to be deep, he knew, to stop the varmints getting to the body. Though he’d never dug a grave before, he sensed Murdoch had and would judge the right time to quit. After ten minutes hard digging, he stopped to drink, the sweat trickling down his skin. He couldn’t help but be pleased with the hole’s sheer, straight walls. He kicked at a clod that jutted out of one side. At the side of the grave, lay a skull and bones of some animal. He figured it to be that of a foal. His father’d said it must’ve died a long time ago or it’d been very young, so paper-thin were some parts of its bones. Johnny’d wondered if it’d ever got going at all, ever woken to the violence of straw and the stench of blood, grown for a time into the sweetness of grass and the sun. He’d thought of Billy, still unburied, and dug harder until the heat and the work had blanked his mind.

   “Why d’he do it, Murdoch?”

   His father was sitting against the oak, smoking a small cigar. The smell of it was strong enough to mask the smell of death. Murdoch blew away smoke and shook his head.

   “It’s hard to know another man’s true mind, Son.”

   Johnny rocked the spade under his hand.

   “You ever felt that way inclined?”

   The question seemed to surprise his father, and he wished he hadn’t asked it.

   “To take my own life? No, never,” Murdoch said. He hesitated. “Have you?”

   “Don’t see how a man can get through life without that inclination, Murdoch, but I guess some folk act on it and some folk don’t.”

   His father didn’t reply, but stood up and looked into the hole, his boot grinding the cigar butt into the dust.

   “It’s deep enough. You fetch Elthea and I’ll get Walt settled in. Ask Elthea to bring her bible.” 

 

   In the kitchen, he found the old woman baking pies. The chair was in place, already marked as hers by a bright patchwork blanket draped over its back. Johnny stepped into the room. Despite the heat from the stove, it was cooler than outside. Everything was comfortable and he saw the truth of Pete Thorn’s words, how women fill their little spaces while men’s just got bigger and emptier.

   “Ma’am …” She looked up from her kneading and smiled at him. “We’re ready to … We’ve dug the grave and my father’s sent me to fetch you so we can bury Mr Dickson.” He scanned the room. “D’you have a bible, ma’am?”

   “A bible?”

   “For the readin’, ma’am. My father’s a fine reader. He’ll take care of everything. You just have to stand there and lean on my arm … if you’ve a mind to.”

   Elthea looked down at the pale yellow dough in the bowl.

   “I’ve had my thoughts, boy, and I’ve said my prayers. There’s a bible on that shelf above the fireplace. You and your pa go ahead and bury Walt. Mark the words you speak over him. That’s all I ask. There’ll be pie ready for you when you’re done.”

   One thing he’d learned about old men and women - they’d lived long enough not to waste their breath on saying what they didn’t mean. He took the bible off the shelf and walked back up to the ridge. Walt was down in his grave, a perfect fit in his old tarp shroud, and his father was smoking another cigar.

   “Elthea says to go ahead and bury ‘im.” He handed the bible to his father. “She wants you to mark the words you read over him.”

   Frowning, Murdoch took the bible and ground the cigar into the dirt.

   “Blasted women. They’re so damn contrary, it’s a wonder we can live with them at all.” He glared down into the grave. “Let’s get this done.”

   His father still sounded angry, even while he read the words over Walt Dickson. Johnny stood on the opposite side, his head bowed, staring at the crudely stitched patch on the old tarp. It wasn’t often he allowed his mother to rest in his thoughts, but she did now. Could a man’s fury with a woman last a lifetime? Maybe, if there was enough feeling there, and from the little he knew, his father had loved Maria with a passion he could only wonder at. A sudden change in his father’s tone, gentler, quieter, drew his gaze upward and he listened harder over the churring of the crickets.

   “In my Father's house are many resting places: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know. Thomas said to him, Lord, we know not where you go; and how can we know the way? Jesus said to him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by me.”

   Murdoch looked up then and met his gaze, before throwing a handful of dirt down. It rattled on the tarp like hard rain. 

   “We commend to Almighty God our brother Walt Dickson; and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him. Amen.”

   Johnny breathed out his own ‘Amen’ and grabbed a spade, helping his father to cover Walt, glad that it was always a damn sight easier to fill a hole than dig it. When they were done, Murdoch whacked a post marker into the dirt with the back of his spade.

   “That will do until I can get a decent headstone done in town.”

   “Reckon he knows the way now, Murdoch?” His father frowned. “Those words you spoke about knowin’ the way. Reckon he knows it now?”

    Murdoch picked up his jacket and shrugged it on.

   “I don’t know, Johnny, but if he doesn’t now, he never will, and if he does, then he’s a fortunate man.” 

 

   He found he was as hungry as a bear, and Elthea’s pleasure was to fill him up with pie and strong coffee. His father ate little, but drank the coffee.

   “Your boy sure can eat, Murdoch,” Elthea said, sitting down at the table, her skinny elbows bare on the chequered cloth.

   “Yes,” his father said, smiling a little. “I haven’t looked, but I think his legs might be hollow.”

   “I like a boy with an appetite. My boys had real healthy appetites. Ate every pie, biscuit and cake I could make. Couldn’t hardly keep up with ‘em. Walt never had no appetite, all the time I knew ‘im, not even when he was young.” She rubbed a wrinkled finger on one of the tablecloth’s red squares. “Guess you’ll be wantin’ me to pack up an’ leave now that Walt’s gone, Murdoch.”

   “This is your home, Elthea,” his father said. “There’s no question of me asking you to leave, although I’m concerned that you’ll be lonely up here and that you’ll find it hard to manage the farm by yourself.”

   “I can help with that,” Johnny said. He poured more coffee in his cup, his belly comfortably full of pie.

   “You have your own chores on the ranch, Johnny.”

   “I can do both.”

   “Your pa’s right, Johnny,” Elthea said, placing a hand on his arm. She looked at Murdoch, her gaze as tough and steady as Johnny’d ever seen on any gunfighter. “Murdoch, I been taking care of this farm since before Walt got his leg snake-bit. I can’t say I wouldn’t appreciate help with the hayin’ when the time comes, and maybe with the killing of a hog, but I’ll do just fine.” She smiled at Johnny and patted his cheek. “Just fine.”

   His father nodded. He stood and picked up his hat. Johnny shovelled the last scrap of pie into his mouth.

   “Have it your way, Elthea, but I’ll be sending men out to check on you once a week, and anything you need, you ask Sven to supply you.” Murdoch swept his hat across Johnny’s head. “Come on, boy, before you eat the plate, too.” 

 

   Elthea waved them off, one elbow cradled in her left hand, the chickens picking at the dirt around her feet. Johnny let out a long breath as he lost sight of her round the bend under the trees.

   “Jesus, Murdoch. We only went to take the damn chair.”

   His father looked at him.

   “Are you alright about it?”

   “I don’t know. Hell, would she’ve left him there ‘til someone just happened along?”

   “She wasn’t strong enough to cut him down, Johnny.”

   “But just to leave him hangin’. Lettin’ that cow cry on for three damn days …”

   Murdoch sighed, pulling on the reins to slow the team over a dip in the road.

   “Try not to think about it, Son. It’s just something that’s happened. We’ve dealt with it. It’s past.”

   Johnny nodded. He knew it wouldn’t leave him, though. Nothing ever did.     

 

Chapter Thirteen 

   She sashayed past them with more attitude than a bitch on heat, and Jesus, if he hadn’t been standing next to his Old Man, he’d’ve dragged her upstairs and fucked the sass out of her. The sight of her little round ass moving under that tight-fitting green dress of hers drew more gazes than his alone, but her eyes had been upon him as she’d passed, the tip of her tongue just quivering under her top lip. Damn the woman, but she’d surely known it’d set his dick itching. He’d dipped his gaze to his boots, dusty as hell after digging Walt Dickson’ grave, but couldn’t help taking a peek from under the brim of his hat as she walked away. Some saloon girls claimed they didn’t care what folk thought of them, but still put on their bustles and kept their gazes straight ahead. Lyra truly didn’t give a fuck, and he liked that. She’d stare out any other female on the street – old and young – who threw a twisted, ugly look or a scornful comment her way.

   As she disappeared into the Silver Dollar, he let out the breath he’d been holding. That woman was almost enough to make a man forget he’d buried a one-legged suicide that morning.

   Next to him, his father looked at his watch for what seemed like the thousandth time. He’d been too busy eyeing up Lyra to notice if Murdoch had taken account of that brazen piece of rear end. Not for the first time, Johnny wondered how his father took care of his needs. He’d tried to imagine him tupping whores or even rubbing himself off, like he did every chance he could get, but his mind had quickly squirmed away from such ideas. His brother’d told him that a man’s desires grew less powerful with age, but seeing his father driving his tongue into Aunt Mary’s mouth had sure put paid to any notion that they died altogether.

   “Six minutes late already.”

   Johnny smiled under his hat. It was another shared joke between him and Scott that their father took any lateness at all as a personal insult. Once, he’d stormed out of the bank when Joshua Black had kept him waiting a minute over their appointed meeting time. The banker sure hadn’t made that mistake again.

   He looked up at The Silver Dollar’s upper windows. Lyra was there, looking down straight at him, wearing just her camisole, bleached pure white at the Chinese laundry. Her hand was between her legs and he looked quickly down again, breathing out hard.

   “Jesus.”

   His father’s glance went from his watch to him.

   “What?”

   “Nothin’.”

   Horrified, he saw Murdoch’s gaze sweep up to the Dollar’s upper storey, but the curtains were pulled across Lyra’s window. He swallowed hard as he felt his father’s attention return to him.

   “Stage’s comin’, Pa.”

   Yep, that’d done the trick as usual. That ‘Pa’ dropped in from nowhere always threw his father sideways a little. Johnny liked the effect, but it depressed him some, too. He should use it more often, so it glanced off his father like a feather, not surprise him like a bee’s sting.

   Frowning at him, Murdoch snapped his watch shut and looked up the street.

   “About damn time.”

   As usual, the stage was a spectacle - Spit Harvey’s team of six bad-tempered horses pulling a vehicle over-loaded with baggage and parcels. More often that not, a package would go flying off at the last turn into Main Street. Last winter, it had been a shipment of Dutch chocolate for Sven. Green River’s kids still talked of how they’d eaten more candy that day than they’d eaten in their whole lives. No-one argued with Spit, though. He was as ornery as his horses, and so Ike Kinsey, the barber, claimed, twice as likely to bite. 

   There was no mistaking Adam Donner when he stepped down. He was as tall as Billy with the same dark brown eyes and hair, although his skin was paler and unlike Billy’s unruly mop, his hair was parted neatly down the centre and slicked back. A pair of round spectacles finished his bookish air. He looked around him as Spit threw cases down onto the boardwalk. A tidy young woman in a purple dress was pleading with the stage driver to ‘take care of that striped hat box in particular, Mr Harvey.’ Ignoring her, Spit threw it and she reached forward to grab it, but Johnny got there first. The box in his hands, he glared up at the driver.

   “You paid to take no mind of ladies’ requests, Spit?”

   “Nope.” The driver continued to unload as he spoke. “But I ain’t paid to be specially mindful of ‘em, neither, an’ I’m runnin’ late.”

   Johnny handed the box to the woman. She was young, pretty and worth a slow smile. She smiled back, and it tickled him to see a sudden dip of her eyelashes away from his gaze.

   “Thank you, Mr …?”

   “Lancer, ma’am. If anythin’s broke, talk to Mitch in the office. Folks’re always makin’ claims on Spit’s runs.”

   “I surely will. Thank you again, Mr Lancer.”

   He touched his hat. “You’re welcome, Mrs …?”

  “Miss. Miss Laura Finney. I’ve come to stay with my great-aunt, Mrs Finney. D’you know her?”

  He grinned. “Oh yes, ma’am. I know her real well.” It was then he saw the Widow Finney walking quickly towards the depot, her bony hands keeping the hem of her dress clear of the dust. “In fact, she’s headin’ this way, right now.”

   “Johnny!”

   He glanced at his father. He was standing beside Adam Donner, looking pissed off.

   “Gotta go, ma’am. Hope to see you again.” He hesitated. “D’you dance, Miss Finney?”

   “Why, yes, Mr Lancer,” she said, colouring a little. His heart squeezed at the possible sweetness of her kisses. “Certainly I dance.”

   He smiled at her and touched his hat again, before going to join his father, who put out his hand to clasp Johnny’s neck.

   “Adam, this is my son Johnny. He and Billy were good friends.”

   “Oh yes, Mr Lancer,” Adam said, offering his hand to Johnny. “I know all about Johnny Madrid. It’s an honour to meet you, sir.”

   “It’s Lancer,” Johnny said, the smile he’d started with turning into a frown. He shook hands. Donner’s palms were hot. “My name’s Johnny Lancer.”

   He saw Adam glance at his father, whose face had reddened, his mouth set in a grim line. An odd chuckle escaped the young man’s mouth.

   “Of course. No offence meant, Johnny. No offence meant at all.”

   “None taken, Adam.” 

   He waited outside while Murdoch took Adam into the funeral parlor. It was bad enough knowing Billy still had no resting place, that Sowerbridge’s craft had yellowed his skin like old paper. It had been three weeks and Billy still walked alongside his thoughts, loose-limbed and grinning. Truth was the man had been his first real friend, a little bit crazy, as quick to laugh as get riled and, like himself, as horny as a jack rabbit in spring. He hoped Adam would leave quickly. It hurt to see Billy’s look in a man so different. Johnny scuffed the ground with his boot heel. And what was that Madrid shit, anyway? Something was wrong there and he wasn’t sure he wanted to take the stopper out and look in the bottle.

   Cursing, he dropped his head. He’d seen Cain Trencher across the street and he was pretty sure the kid had seen him, too. He wondered what Sven was doing, allowing dog dirt like Trencher in his store, until he saw it for the stupid thought it was.

   The kid was coming over. For a moment, he considered going to join his father and Adam, but stayed where he was, his butt against the hitch rail, his arms folded tight across his chest. He knew he wanted this, the chance to know Cain Trencher’s mind. Since Judge Howitt’s visit, nothing had been said of the failure to hold Trencher to account for Billy’s killing. He’d come to realise that a hell of a lot of things went unsaid at Lancer. Only Pete Thorn with his looks and low, tuneless whistling, made it clear that the business wasn’t forgotten.

   Cain Trencher was standing a few feet from him now. Johnny raised his head slowly. He was almost disappointed to see the kid wasn’t heeled. He looked into the boy’s pale eyes, struck again by the whiteness of his eyebrows and hair. He was holding a wrapped parcel in one hand.

   “My pa says I got to be friendly with the neighbours,” Cain said. “But I know what you are, Madrid, an’ I’m gonna watch my back.”

   Johnny tensed. Twice in one day. If he could put a bullet between Madrid’s eyes and bury him for good, then he’d surely do it.

   “Sounds like a good plan, Neighbour.”

   The boy hesitated, licked his lips suddenly.

   “They ain’t lyin’, then. You’re Johnny Madrid.”

   “My name’s Lancer. Now run on home to your folks an’ get the fuck out of my face.”

   His eyes brightened by a slow smile, Trencher nodded.

   “Ooooeee, I faced down Johnny Madrid. How about that? I put the fear of fuckin’ God in Johnny Madrid …”

   Yep, he must’ve grown up some. Time was, his blood would’ve started heating at such cocksure lip.

   “So how come the famous gunfightin’ man let his friend die, huh?”

   Johnny realised he was clenching his jaw. He breathed out slow.

   “I mean if I was Billy in that old heaven up there, I’d be wonderin’ why my friend Johnny Madrid’s still down here livin’ an’ breathin’ an’ I’m up here with the fuckin’ angels.”

   He lost it as quickly as a breath. Walking up to Trencher, he felt the pure relief of punching him in the mouth, of seeing blood fly as Trencher toppled backwards and fell in the dust. The boy spat out a tooth and blood.

   “You broke my fuckin’ jaw, Madrid.”

   His knuckles smarting, Johnny knelt down and rammed the boy’s face into Main Street’s dirt.

   “You ever say Billy’s name again, Trencher, you’ll wish you were up in that penitentiary lettin’ some horse thief fuck you up the ass twice a day.” Spitting on the boy, he stood up. “Now go home to your mama, you murderin’ piece of shit, and stay out of my sight if you wanna keep the rest of your fuckin’ teeth.”

   Trencher struggled to his feet, his hand to his jaw. Blood ran over his fingers and dripped onto the ground.

   “My pa’s gonna hear about this. I got brothers, too. You think you can hide behind your big bug daddy, Madrid, but a gunfighter don’t change his ways. You don’t belong among decent people.”

   Johnny went to kick the boy further down the street.

   “Johnny!” He stopped and turned to face his father, who’d grabbed his arm. “Let him go. You’ll only make things worse.”

   “Worse?” He yanked his arm out of Murdoch’s grasp. “I should’ve killed ‘im, Murdoch, when I had the chance.”

   “No…”

   Johnny threw a dark look at Adam Donner, who stood quiet and watchful by the hitch rail. He didn’t look like he’d been weeping. For his own part, Johnny felt the blood was about to bust out of his veins.

   “You think you can make everythin’ right with words, Murdoch …”

   “Settle down, boy.” His father lowered his voice as Marshal Piney approached. “We’ll discuss this at home, not here in the street.”

   “I don’t want to discuss anythin’! What’s there to say? Cain Trencher murdered Billy and now he’s breathin’ the air of a free man. Every day I have to walk around with that thought in my fuckin’ head, and now I’ve got to pretend it never happened …”

   “No-one’s saying that, but violence isn’t going to solve anything, Johnny. We’ll just have to hope you haven’t hurt that boy too seriously.”

   Johnny had no time to put his furious reply into words. His father had turned to acknowledge the marshal, a short, skinny, serious man who was known to be planning a ‘no firearms in town’ ordinance for the near future – two hundred dollar fine or thirty days in jail. Johnny knew Piney’d be itching to catch him breaking the law as soon as he’d banged the nails in the notice board.

   “Marshal.”

   “Mr Lancer.” He knew Piney was looking at him, but breathing hard, he kept his head down, his hands locked behind his neck. “You got trouble here?”

   “Nothing I can’t handle.”

   “Just saw the Trencher boy get on his horse. Looked like someone took a swing at him.”

   “There was a disagreement between my son and Cain Trencher, Marshal. I’m dealing with it.”

   He had to be glad of such a father. Not many men had presence like his and few men stood against him or argued a point for too long. Piney was no exception, although he was tougher than most.

   “Ok, Mr Lancer, but I’d advise you to take that boy home and straighten him out. I’m not about to allow this town to become the stage for war between you Lancers and the Trenchers.”

   He couldn’t see his father’s face, but he could imagine it above that cold, flat voice.

   “There’s no war, Marshal, and I don’t need advice on handling my son. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have business to attend to. John, go get the wagon. Adam’s asked to see Lancer. His mother wants to know the kind of place where Billy worked, so he’ll be our guest for a couple of days.”

   Johnny bristled at the order. He still wanted to hit something. It took him a few moments to see that that fact alone was reason enough to do as he was bid. He got the Bronson from across the street and brought it round to the funeral parlour. Jumping down, he put Adam Donner’s bag on the wagon, avoiding looking at either his father or Donner.

   “You drive,” his father said. That surprised him. The Bronson was brand new and had cost more than a string of good cow ponies. Also, Murdoch hated to be driven, which suited him, because he didn’t mind it too much. Quite liked the opportunity to take a look around, and his father was a damn good wagon driver, could turn it on a dime and take a set of curves faster than any man he’d ever known.

   Shrugging, he got back up on the driver’s seat, Adam next to him and his father in the back. Murdoch didn’t look comfortable, but his hand rested firmly on the shipment of Talisker’s next to him, finally arrived from Scotland. He didn’t speak a word the whole journey home, and Johnny’s one-word grunts to Adam Donner’s questions soon put an end to their visitor’s attempts to gain his and Murdoch’s favour. 

**************************** 

   The pocket watch was out again.  His father was alternating his attention between it and the grandfather clock in the Great Room. Scott was late and Johnny got some idea now of what his brother had to endure whenever he failed to show up on time, and it was bad - a silence as heavy as old rocks in a canyon.

   Opposite him, Adam Donner looked as if he was thinking about speaking, but thought better of it. For the first time, Johnny almost felt sorry for him, even while he boiled against him for not being Billy. Pete Thorn’s arms were folded across his chest and his head was lowered, like he was sleeping – a good, old man’s trick. For his own part, he couldn’t stop his fingers pushing at stuff on the table, little nudges that satisfied his urge to move, but didn’t draw his father’s fire.

   “Maybe his horse threw a shoe.”

   A shit stupid thing to say, but he had to break the silence if only for Donner’s sake. His father ignored him. He snapped his watch shut and nodded at Consuela who’d been lingering in the doorway. Murdoch picked up the wine carafe and gestured to Donner.

   “Thank you kindly, sir. I’ll take a little wine, yes.”

   The pouring of the wine seemed to ease his father’s mood. After the first swallow, he relaxed and even smiled at their guest while Donner helped himself to a ladleful of soup from the tureen in Consuela’s hands.

   “I hope John showed you everything you wanted to see this afternoon, Adam.”

   “Yes, sir, he did.” He cleared his throat. “It was most gratifying to me that my brother was regarded with esteem and affection by his fellows. My Ma - my mother will be glad to know it, sir.”

   “I said I’d take Adam down to the bunkhouse after dinner, Murdoch,” Johnny said. “Meet the rest of the men.”

   For the first time since they’d sat down, his father turned his gaze on him, Johnny held his nerve, but his heart felt like it was busting its way out of his ribcage.

   “Did you, indeed?”

   “Well, seein’ as it was Billy’s home practically for the past two years, I reckoned his mama would want to hear about it.”

   “If it’s inconvenient, Mr Lancer,” Donner said.

   “No, Adam.” Murdoch glanced at Johnny and added salt to his soup. “It’s not inconvenient.”

   Johnny ate the soup, too damn pale and boring for his liking, just to occupy his mouth.

   “So how d’ya make your livin’, boy?” Pete Thorn said, in between slurped spoonfuls of soup. “You sure don’t look like one of them horny handed type of fellers.”

   Donner seemed to brighten at the question. He took a sip of wine and rested the glass carefully back on the table. He dabbed his mouth with his napkin. Johnny left his spoon in the rest of his soup and listened. He hadn’t asked Donner that question yet, mostly because he was pretty sure he didn’t want the answer.

   “Well, sir, I’m a writer.”

   “Y’are, are ya?” Thorn smirked at Murdoch. “Scotty here’s partial to a bit of writing. What d’ya write, young feller?”

   “Oh, I doubt Mr Lancer would be much interested in my brand of literature, sir,” Donner said, with a small chuckle. Johnny could see the beginnings of a fine sweat on the young man’s forehead.  “I perceive you to be a man of some learning, Mr Lancer.”

   “I was fortunate with my early teachers,” Murdoch said. “They taught me discrimination.”

   Another word he’d have to ask Scott about. Donner sure seemed to know what it meant, though; he coloured a little.

   “Indeed, sir.” He helped himself to roast beef from the platter. “The audience for my writing tends to be the younger folk - boys …” Donner cleared his throat. “…from the city, mostly, although, lately, I have found a new audience.”

   “I’m guessin’ you write them dime novels, Adam,” Johnny said, turning his fork over in his fingers. He was damn hungry for that beef and a big pile of potatoes, but this was interesting. Donner blinked at him behind his glasses.

   “Why, I guess that’s how they might be termed, Johnny. I prefer to think of them as adventure stories.”

   “Yeh, I read me one of them dime novels once,” Pete said, grabbing the dish of potatoes as soon as Consuela set it on the table. He slapped two big ladlefuls on his plate. “Somethin’ about a feller who gets catched by the Sioux and winds up civilisin’ their barbarous ways. A real ripe tale, it was. Nearly bust my gut laughin’.”

   “Pete,” Murdoch said. “Adam’s our guest.”

   Johnny almost smiled when Pete Thorn just smirked at Murdoch’s reproach and began to shovel potatoes in his mouth.

   “Mr Beadle and Mr Adams, sir,” Donner said. He sounded pissed off and the sweat was popping out of his pores. “Run a very respectable publishing enterprise in New York City. I consider myself most fortunate to be in their employ.”

   “So what’s your speciality, Adam?” Johnny asked. He shook his head at the dish of greens offered to him, scowling when Maria put some on his plate anyway.

   Donner cleared his throat and glanced at Murdoch who, Johnny noticed, had retreated like a cat into the undergrowth to watch the birds in secret. He appeared to be hardly listening. Had he seen his son’s sneering face etched on the cover of a dime novel, read of his boy’s evil life spread out on a rug of lies for the entertainment of the masses? Johnny didn’t know. Murdoch read stuff written in the dust of two thousand years ago about ships, battles and warring kings. That, or histories of great men, or fat books by that Englishman who never wrote two words when twenty would serve in telling of orphans who made their shit lives good, or mad women who never left their rooms. Still, in an idle moment in a store, his father might have picked up ‘The Blue-Eyed Killer of the West’ or ‘The Boy Who Rode Out Of Hell’.

   “I’m proud to say,” Donner said, “that I have written a series of novels that have been top of Beadle and Adam’s list of best selling titles for some time now.”

   “You ain’t exactly answered my question,” Johnny said, his gaze cold upon Billy’s brother.

   “John,” his father said. “Eat your dinner and allow our guest to eat his. We’ve all had a long day and I, for one, would like to get through the rest of it without conflict.”

   “Wasn’t fixin’ on conflict, Murdoch.”

   “Enough. Eat or go and do your evening chores.”

   He ate. Thorn and his father began an old man’s conversation about railroads with not even a fatal accident or a robbery to spice it up, so he ate quickly, excused himself before the peach pie and waited on the porch for Donner. 

 

   He didn’t have to wait long in the evening sun. Donner emerged soon enough, looking like he’d just seen blood on a clean floor. From the swing seat, Johnny watched him remove his glasses. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief, before breathing on his glasses and polishing them.

   “Kinda hard to take the two of ‘em together, ain’t it?”

   He’d spooked the man, for sure. Donner stopped polishing his glasses and put them back on, pulling the wire loops hard behind his ears. He cleared his throat a little and glanced back at the doorway.

   “Your father is a gentleman, Johnny, and Mr Thorn is most certainly a … character.”

   “Guess that’s a polite way of sayin’ he ain’t no gentleman,” Johnny said, smiling. He pushed himself off the swing seat in one quick movement. “He got character enough to wind up in one your books?”

   Donner’s eyes widened a little, before a scared sort of smile showed on his mouth.

   “Perhaps.”

   “Or d’you just write about folks you’ve never met?”

   “Excuse me?”

   “Come on, Adam. I wasn’t born yesterday under no gooseberry bush, and if you treat me like I was, I’m gonna get real mad, real quick.” He looked at the closed door and lowered his voice. “I don’t give a fuck that you make a livin’ spinnin’ tales off my back. You sure as hell ain’t the only one. Just tell me you got nothin’ outta Billy’s trap, that’s all.”

   As soon as Donner’s gaze made its move downwards, Johnny felt the hard truth hit his gut. He walked away towards the barns.

   “He did you a favour, Johnny,” Donner said. His voice seemed to have found a new cold hardness in the dying light.

   Johnny stopped and turned.

   “How the hell d’you figure that?”

   Donner walked to him eagerly.

   “When I found out from Bill that Johnny Madrid had come home to his father and given up his lawless ways, it was like … well, it was as if I’d seen the light on the road to Damascus …”

   “What the fuck’re you talkin’ about?”

   “Listen, for two years I’d scraped a living making up stories about you, Johnny. Wild stories, I know that now. All I knew was that some blue-eyed, half Mexican kid was taking on men twice his size and age and leaving them dead in the dust. Now I have a whole new audience, even ladies, who want to read about how even a hardened gunfighter can repent his ways and begin a new life!”

   Shaking his head, Johnny walked further away. He didn’t want to hear this shit, but Donner followed him like a damn puppy. At the main corral, he swiped up a stray pail and headed for the barn. Inside, he scooped feed into the pail for Barranca and the rest of his string.

   “Billy told me the truth about you, Johnny,” Donner said.

   “Well, that was real smart of ‘im, Adam, seein’ as he didn’t know the damn truth. Not even my father and brother know the truth, as you wanna call it, so why would I tell a two-bit cowboy like your fuckin’ brother?”

   He picked up a bale of hay and slung it over his shoulder, before grabbing two pails of feed in his right hand and heading for the door.

   “You were friends, good friends. Bill said you were a reformed character, that you’d renounced your miscreant ways to settle down as a respectable rancher.”

   For the first time since meeting Donner, Johnny wanted to laugh out loud.

   “Mister, either we knew a different Billy or you’ve twisted his words in real interestin’ ways.”

   “Are you telling me it’s not true?”

   Johnny stopped. The weight of the hay bale was hurting his shoulder.

   “What’s true is, Adam, I grew up crooked away from my father and now he’s straightenin’ me out. Sometimes, I appreciate that, an’ sometimes I don’t. That’s all the truth left about Johnny Madrid, so you’d best keep to your stories about a cold-blooded, blue-eyed half-breed killer an’ forget about your soul savin’.” 

   Out in the pastures, Johnny whistled his string and they came thundering up, heads thrown and tails flying, stopping before him in a cloud of dust and grainy breath. He loved the depths of their wildness, wondering how they could ever bring themselves down that narrow point where they allowed him to sling a saddle on their backs and ride them. He patted and spoke to each one in turn, fed them oats and hay to supplement the thin, end of summer grass.

   “So,” Adam said, “If, underneath it all, you’re still Johnny Madrid, why is my  kid brother dead and the man who murdered him still alive?”

   In the dust rays of the setting sun, Johnny turned and looked at Donner.

   “Guess if life was as simple as you make out, Adam, then things’d be different than they are.”

   Donner stooped and picked up a handful of dust. He jostled it in his palm for a moment before tipping it back to the ground. When he looked up at Johnny, his eyes were squinted against the setting sun.

   “It seems to me, Johnny, that we can make things as simple or as complicated as we want them to be.” He stood up and rubbed the dust from his palms. “Billy was a simple man, easy to please. He loved you like a brother.”

   The horses grinding the hay between their teeth sounded loud against Johnny’s thoughts. He could feel that strange dance in his chest where it seemed his heart had escaped its cage and was darting about behind his ribs.

   “If he had been your brother,” Donner said, “Would he still be alive, Johnny? Would you have let a brother die in the dust as you let Billy die?”

   “Fuck you.”

   “If there was one man who could have saved my brother, it was you.” Johnny picked up the pails and slammed the gate shut behind him, walking hard away from Donner. “You’re a disappointment, Johnny Madrid,” Donner called after him. “Either way a man looks at it.”

   To stop himself mashing Donner’s cajones to a bloody pulp, Johnny went up to his room and punched one of his pillows until feathers filled the air. It didn’t do much good, though. The damn tears still came, ripped out of him as painfully as jagged arrowheads. No amount of rageful cussing would stop them.

   Ashamed, he turned over on his belly. A cow bawled suddenly from the barn. He hoped it would stop, but it continued until the bellow took on a higher, more desperate note. He saw Elthea making pies while her dead husband hung in the dark and the cow went unmilked and unfed.

   He shouldn’t’ve fixed the damn roof. Shouldn’t’ve given Walt Dickson the chance to hate him for being young and hate himself enough to put a rope around his neck. Shouldn’t’ve taken Billy across the fence line. Shouldn’t’ve  let Cain Trencher even draw breath before he put a bullet in his gut. Two man-sized holes in the ether and somehow he’d put them there without hardly a twitch of his muscles. 

  

Chapter Fourteen

   He’d slept badly. Hadn’t helped that he’d got up in the night to raid the larder and found his father in the kitchen accompanied by a single glass and a two-thirds empty bottle of whiskey. He knew his brother had quarrelled violently with Murdoch earlier in the night. Johnny hadn’t been able to figure out what time it was, but it’d been late, much later than he’d ever dared to come home. Hearing their raised voices, the pure defiance in his brother’s words, his father’s furious responses, he’d reckoned to go down, but even as he’d thought it, his brother had come pounding upstairs. Jesus, he’d never liked Jennie Black, but now it was pure loathing. On the landing he’d gazed into his brother’s eyes and seen a hollow-eyed stranger, a man tormented by his wants. It’d seemed a sure thing right then that love could take a worse grip on a man’s soul than opium. He’d started to speak, but his brother’d cut him down faster than shooting a porcupine out of a tree, told him to stay out of it, before going into his room and locking the door.

   Later on in the night, he’d woken hungry as hell, his belly clawing for the peach pie he’d missed at dinner. In the kitchen, his father had quickly folded away a letter he’d been reading, barked at him for being there, told him to go the hell back to bed. He’d reacted like a spark to dry grass at the injustice of it, at the sight of the near empty bottle. He’d grabbed it off the table and poured the rest down the sink, his heart pounding like a smith’s hammer.

   “If you get another bottle, Murdoch, I’ll shoot the whole fuckin’ shipment to hell.”

   Not drunk, but close, his father had gazed at him in dark silence, his lips pressed together thin and bloodless. For himself, he was certain that the horror he’d felt at what he’d just done was written clear on his face, even while he stared his father out.

   “I believe you would,” Murdoch had said, his tone so flat there’d been no telling the feeling behind it. Then he’d taken up the letter and left Johnny standing there in the cold, dark kitchen. He’d heard his father go upstairs then, just as the grandfather clock struck midnight.

   He’d tried to eat a wedge of the pie, but the spoon had shook in his hand and his belly was still churning, so he’d left it on the table for Maria to get steamed about in the morning.

 

   It was the smell of frying bacon that pulled him out of a bad dream of trying and failing to rescue his brother from a stampede. He’d reached for him from a galloping horse, but the thundering herd had got there first and swept Scott away like a leaf on the wind. Their father had said and done nothing, just sat there on his big horse, smiling a little. He’d shot his father then and watched him crumble into grey dust. When he woke up, he was certain for a moment that Murdoch was dead and gone and he was alone in the world. Dread flooded his veins so painfully that he groaned into the pillow. Then he heard Murdoch’s heavy tread past his bedroom door and he had to stop himself running out in his long johns to make sure of his father’s flesh and blood.

   Shivering in the morning cold, Johnny poured water from the pitcher into the bowl and lifted handfuls to his face for longer than usual. He got dressed quickly and crossed the landing to his brother’s room. He tried the handle and found the door still locked. Knocking, he spoke his brother’s name, then again louder when he got no response.

   “Scott, open the damn door, willya.”

   Waiting, he glanced down the corridor towards the stairs and rattled the handle hard.

   “Scott, open the fuckin’ door or I swear I’ll bust it down.”

   He waited again. Then his brother opened the door. He’d pulled on that fancy robe from Boston, the one with his initials sewn on the chest in scarlet thread. Johnny still enjoyed the novelty of his brother’s wardrobe, all fine fabrics and pernickety details. Not that he wore much of that stuff nowadays. Johnny looked him up and down before settling his gaze on Scott’s dark-ringed eyes.

   “You look like shit.”

   Scott smiled, though he didn’t look like he was tickled. “Thank you, Brother. I can always rely on you for an honest appraisal of my condition.”

   He turned and Johnny followed him into the room, closing the door behind them. There was an open book lying on the bed, a glass and a half bottle of brandy on the bedside table. Scott sat back against the headboard and picked up the book. Johnny bit his lip, his gaze darting from the brandy to his brother. He sat down at the end of the bed. He could hear his own quickened breath, feel his right leg jigging up and down in tiny, frantic movements. He made an effort to still it, but it was like the leg had a damn mind of its own.

   “You slept?”

   Scott turned a page. He didn’t look at him.

   “Not much, no.”

   “You comin’ down?”

   “When I’m ready.”

   “Jesus, Scott!” He grabbed the book out of his brother’s hands and flung it across the room. “What the hell’s got into you!?”

   “That’s a first edition Thackeray.” His brother’s tone could’ve iced the devil’s coffee. “If you’ve damaged it, Johnny, you’ll pay for it.”

   “I don’t give a fuck!” Johnny stood up and picked up the book from the carpet. He looked at in disgust, opened the window and hurled it outside. “Jesus, I don’t give a fuck!!! It’s a goddamn book, Scott.”

   “You won’t be saying that when Murdoch finds out that you’ve ruined a book he spent three years tracking down.”

   Ok, so that settled his blood a little. He found himself hoping the book had landed somewhere soft, like the lavender bushes. Leaning against the window frame, his arms folded, he watched his brother pour water into the basin.

   “Maybe Murdoch’s got other things to worry about, Scott,” he said. “Like the fact that his son and heir is fuckin’ around with a married lady.”

   He saw Scott hesitate in picking up a bar of soap.

   “Shut up, Johnny.”

   “He knows you ain’t sweet on Martha, y’know.”

   His brother had begun to work up a lather with the soap, but now he stopped and turned to face him.

   “And how would he know that?”

   “’Cus he ain’t stupid, that’s how. He mightn’t’ve worked out that you’re ballin’ Jennie Black, but he can see when a man ain’t interested in a woman he’s supposed to be marryin’.”

   “He’s told you that?”

   “Yeh, yesterday, when we were drivin’ to the Dicksons’ place.” He hesitated. “We found Walt Dickson’s corpse hangin’ from the barn rafters, in case you’re interested, but then I guess you ain’t nowadays.”

   His brother frowned.

   “Of course I’m interested, Johnny, and I’m sorry to hear about Walt. How’s Elthea taking it?”

   Johnny shrugged.

   “Can’t say she’s not glad of it, Scott, if you want the truth.”

   Scott nodded.

   “Sometimes it might be better to be alone,” he said. Quickly, he turned back to the wash station and lathered his face. Johnny watched him scrape a swathe through the lather. Underneath the door crept the smell of bacon and strong coffee. Their father wasn’t averse to dragging either one of them out of their rooms if they weren’t down by whatever hour had been decided on for the day. He glanced at the clock on the wall above the fireplace. Ten to six. He sighed.

   “You got to finish with Jennie Black, Scott.”

   The blade stopped mid-scrape for a moment.

   “I can’t.”

   “So you’re goin’ to keep on fightin’ with Murdoch, drinkin’ alone, losin’ sleep and riskin’ everything for a woman who’s done nothin’ but fuck up your life since the moment you met her.”

   “That’s about the cut and thrust of it, brother, yes.” Scott washed the blade in the bowl and picked up a towel. “When you fall in love, you’ll understand.” He pressed the towel over his face.

   “I reckon I been in love, Scott.” He smiled a little. “Well, more or less, anyhow.”

   Sighing, his brother took the towel from his face and folded it over the rail. Then he went to the wardrobe. Taking a brown shirt from the neat pile, he looked at Johnny.

   “No, you haven’t, or you’d understand what I’m saying now. You use women to relieve an itch in your pants. I love Jennie with heart and mind. I can no more give her up than give up breathing. There’s no more or less about it.”

   Johnny frowned.

   “You’d put her before the ranch, before what Murdoch wants from you?”

   Shaking out the shirt and gazing hard at it, his brother hesitated.

   “You don’t understand, Johnny. She needs me and I cannot …” He drew in a breath and let it out quickly. “I can’t do anything but what she needs, even if it’s just to sit with her and take tea in the garden. Damn it, I’d cut her toe nails if she asked it of me.”

   Dazed into silence by that idea, Johnny watched his brother shrug on the brown shirt in his neat and careful way. This was a new side he was seeing, but not that surprising. Scott in love was as stubborn and determined as the man who had ridden out with Will Jackson and hung him from an oak tree, as the man who had hurled himself onto a steer for the first time in his life and wrestled it to a standstill. He could stand his ground with their father, beat down the savviest man over a deal and give most men a good kicking if the need arose. He sure wasn’t going to let his kid brother tell him how to run things in his private affairs.

   “Don’t she have any care for her daughter?” Johnny asked, picking up Scott’s silver comb from his dressing table. Like almost everything his brother owned, it was engraved with his initials. Snatching it from his restless hands, Scott stood in front of the mirror to comb his hair.

   “Of course she does.”

   “Well, it sure don’t seem like it from where I’m standing.”

   Scott glared into the mirror at Johnny’s reflection behind him.

   “And what the hell would you know, Johnny?”

   “About parents lovin’ their kids enough to put them first?” Johnny said. “Well, about as much as you do, brother, I guess.”

   “What does that mean?”

   Johnny dropped his head away from his brother’s gaze.

   “Nothin’” He raised his head. “You screwed her yet?”

   “You see,” Scott said, placing the comb on the table with a cold, hard click. “That’s exactly why I can’t discuss this with you, Johnny. You think that’s all this is about, getting underneath her damn petticoats.” He jabbed a finger in Johnny’s shoulder. “Well, I’ve got news for you, little brother, I’m prepared to accept that might never happen.”

   Frowning, Johnny turned as Scott straightened the covers on his bed. Damn, but his brother would attend to the order of things in a tornado. For his part, his thoughts were wild and whirling things like blown leaves. When had he lost the knack of seeing things clear, clear enough to know exactly what to do?

   “You sayin’ you don’t want to screw Jennie Black?”

   “I’m saying, Johnny, that I’ve never wanted anything more, but that I’d be willing to forego that immeasurable pleasure if that is what must be.”

   “I don’t get it, Scott,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “It don’t make sense.”

   “No,” Scott said, smiling now like he had won some kind of contest between them. “Of course it doesn’t. Now, I believe you’re doing what Jelly would term as barking at a knot, little brother, so can we drop the subject?”

   Johnny watched him take one last look in the mirror, as cool and as calm as the army officer he’d once been. He admired the hell out of the man, but he couldn’t allow him to screw up his life over a damn woman. It was one thing maybe he could do something about, and there was Murdoch to consider too; fighting with Scott mightn’t be the whole reason his father was drinking more heavily again, but it sure wouldn’t be helping any.

  His brother turned to face him, a smile on his face, but this time it looked like it hurt a little. Apart from the shadows under his eyes, though, he looked as sharp and neat as a new pin. Scott glanced at the clock.

   “If we make a dash for it, Private Lancer, we’ll be across the battlefield before the enemy sparks his cannon.”

   He liked it that his brother had some humour in him, but he felt his heart burn at the words.

   “He ain’t no enemy, Scott.”

   Scott frowned at him, then smiling, reached out to muss his hair.

   “Alright, little brother. Just a figure of speech.”

   Scowling, Johnny jerked his head away from Scott’s hand. Scott tried again and Johnny grabbed his wrist. Laughing, they tussled until the clock began to strike for six. They scrambled out of the room, racing each other down the corridor and down the stairs.

   In the kitchen, Murdoch was already seated at the table reading a Cattlegrowers’ Association newsletter, his reading glasses perched near the end of his nose. When they rough-housed it, breathless, into the room, their father looked at them hard over the top of his glasses. Straightening himself, Scott slid into his seat with the ease of a cat and a polite ‘Good morning, Sir’ - which was returned with something close to a bear’s growl -, but Johnny wasn’t so brave, not after what he’d done a few hours earlier. Jesus, what was it about the deep night that a man would dare to pour his father’s expensive imported scotch down the sink, and right in front of him too? Worse, the book he’d thrown out Scott’s window was sitting right there at his father’s elbow, in two parts, torn clean down its fancy gold-lettered spine.

   He was hungry, so he avoided Murdoch’s gaze as he sat down. No-one spoke much in the mornings anyway. He filled his belly, endured a telling off from Maria over the peach pie and rehearsed in his head what he would say to Jennie Black. Hell, if it came to it, he might just shoot the damn woman.

   Sam Wester came in for orders at six-fifteen. It was pretty much known what had to be done that day. Men had already ridden out at five to check for late summer calves, replenish salt licks and ride the fences. The rest of the hands would wait for the sun to burn the dew off the hay grass before finishing the haying. His father gave out extra orders for the continuation of the fence bordering the Trencher land. Told Sam to ensure there was an extra two strings of wire along the whole stretch.

   “And take rifles, Sam,” his father said. “No man’s to work on that job without protecting himself.”

   “Yes, Boss, might be a man short for the job, though. Curly got a thorn in his foot yesterday an’ it’s blowed up bad. Might be wantin’ to send for the doc, I reckon. Jelly’s taken a peek an’ he can’t do nothin’ for it.”

   “Alright, Sam. I’ll send one of my boys into town for the doctor after I’ve taken a look. Do what you can with the crews. I want that fence done before we bring the main herd back to the East Pasture in the winter.”

   Johnny swallowed a mouthful of coffee to chase down the last of his breakfast. He hated fencing. He’d damn near ruined his gun hand hammering in a post, but there was hardly anything his father admired more than a well built fence, and no damn cows had broke through one of his yet.

   “I can get that fence done, Murdoch,” he said. “I can get a fence up quicker’n than anyone, you said it yourself. Give me Miguel, Pete an’ Elijah …”

   His father didn’t even look at him as he cut him down hard.

   “You’re not going within five miles of that line, boy.” Murdoch kept his gaze on his foreman. “Tell Curly I’ll be out to take a look at his foot in a short while.”

   “Yessir.”

   Johnny waited until Sam had closed the door behind him.

   “I can look after myself, Murdoch.”

   He met his father’s gaze for the first time that morning. Expecting a slap down, he was surprised by Murdoch’s gentle tone and look.

   “I know you can, Johnny, but I’m not going to risk the lives of my sons if other men can do the job. Cain Trencher’s a loose cannon, right now.” His father folded the newsletter carefully. “He’s likely to take a shot at any Lancer who goes near the line.”

   “Who’s talkin’ about shootin’ someone, Scotty?”

   Pete Thorn was talking to his father, but he was looking straight at him with those hawkish eyes. The old man sat down next to Scott and made a grab for the biscuits. Johnny saw his brother frown and make a small movement away from Thorn.

   “It’s nothing, Pete,” his father said, standing up. “Johnny, we’ll go take a look at Curly now, and then I want you to ride into town to fetch the doctor. Pick up the mail and eight ounces of my tobacco from Sven and come straight home.”

   “Ok.”

   It was not what he’d expected, but he sure wasn’t going to argue with a ride into town, not when he had the chance to get Jennie Black off his brother’s tail. He finished his coffee and stood up.

   “And what are my orders for today, Murdoch?” Scott asked, his tone sharper and colder than Johnny had ever heard his brother use with their father.

   He looked from Scott to his father. Pete Thorn stopped his jaws working on a piece of bacon and slurped a mouthful of coffee.

   “You’ll wait for me here,” Murdoch said. “We have a few things to discuss, not least the damage to my book.”

   Johnny tensed as his brother wiped his mouth with a napkin and threw it on the table.

   “Murdoch, I …”

   “If it’s all the same to you, Sir,” Scott interrupted him and stood up, “I think we discussed all we needed to discuss, last night. I believe I would be of more use out on the hay pastures.”

   “You’ll do as I tell you, Scott.”

   “No, Sir. I don’t think I will. I’ll sweat my guts out for this family bringing in the hay or fencing the Trencher line, but I won’t allow you to interfere in my private affairs.”

   Johnny saw his father glance at him before he spoke. If his brother was playing the devil’s game in courting the banker’s wife, then this surely was standing on the edge of the fiery pit of hell. He expected his father to explode, but his tone was as tight as wire stretched against a post.

   “Your affairs are no longer private when they compromise the future of this ranch. Now we can have this out in front of your brother and Pete or we can talk like civilised men in my study.”

   That stopped his brother in his tracks, and Johnny was glad of it. For a moment, he’d been afraid that Scott would spin on his hooves and crash the corral fence, like he’d done himself so many times at first. It seemed like there was always a way back for him, but he wasn’t sure the same was true for his brother, not in this battle. Still, Scott looked rebellious, his arms folded tight against his chest. His eyes seemed to glitter in their sockets. Johnny couldn’t tell if it was from lack of sleep or pure fury, but it scared him.

   “Well, you kin count me outta the party, Scotty,” Pete said, wiping his mouth on a napkin. “I thought I’d take me a ride over to the Widder Dickson, see if she’s wantin’ any chores doin’.” The old man looked hard at Johnny, before smiling a little above his egg-stained beard. “Might take a detour on the way home, help them fellers with fencin’ that line.”

   “Be careful, Pete,” Murdoch said. “Johnny was in a fight with Cain yesterday. I’m riding over to the Trenchers this morning to see if I can straighten things out, but I don’t know how much control Trencher has over his son.”

   “A fight, huh?” Pete said. Narrowing his eyes at Johnny, he stood up and pulled his jacket off the chair. “Gunfight?”

   “No,” Johnny said, glaring at the old man. “I punched the sonuvabitch in the mouth and I’d do it again.”

   “If you don’t want to be confined to the ranch for the foreseeable future, boy,” his father said, “you’d do well to change your attitude.” He looked at his elder son. “I expect you to be in my study when I return, Scott. Come on, Johnny. We’ve wasted enough time this morning.”

   Johnny gave his brother a sympathetic glance before following his father out of the kitchen.

   “I broke the book, Murdoch,” he said as they crossed the yard. The sun was nearly up now, casting long shadows. Jelly’s hens scratched hard in the dirt, warbling and fussing like old women. His heart raced as his father stopped and frowned at him.

   “Why did you do that?”

   “It was an accident.”

   His father seemed to rise another inch or two in height as he turned fully on Johnny and stared down at him.

   “Oh, it was an accident that my first edition copy of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair ended up decorating the rose bushes under Scott’s window, was it?”

   “Well, not exactly an accident …”

   “So what exactly was it then, John?”

   He’d been about to lie. But there’d been enough lies, he figured. Lies were poisoning everything. And his father had got damn good at reading him lately.

   “I was mad at Scott, so I threw the book out the window.” He sighed and frowned, his hands on his hips as he scuffed the dirt with his boot. “I didn’t know it was yours. Sure wouldn’t’ve done it if I’d known.”

   Charlie Hewson passed them carrying a pail of kitchen scraps. The old man’s left eye was red and still weeping from catching a spark in the forge two days before. He was one of several old men Murdoch kept around the place, like beat up cow ponies put out to pasture. They did light chores and helped out with the harder jobs only when things got desperate. Some ranchers, Johnny knew, paid hands off when they got too old for a full day in the saddle. It was one more curiosity to add to his list of things he hadn’t quite fathomed about his father yet; the combination of ruthless businessman – he’d seen Murdoch cut deals so hard, his opponent’d been left pale and twitching like a corpse on a rope – and fierce protector of the weak.

   “Mornin’, Boss.”

   “Morning, Charlie,” his father said. “Is your eye no better?”

   Charlie stopped and looked back, blinking fiercely at the sun.

   “Worse, Boss. Dang thing’d be better out, I reckon.”

   “Johnny’s fetching the doctor for Curly’s foot. He can take a look at your eye, too.”

   Charlie nodded and walked on. Johnny watched him. The old man hadn’t even looked at him. In the bunkhouse sometimes, Charlie Hewson had taught him old cattle soothing songs and told the finest tall tales he’d ever heard. It was a hell of a thing to lose.

   “Why were you angry with your brother?” his father asked.

   He could feel the flush burn under his skin and he dropped his gaze.

   “Johnny?”

   Agitated, he rubbed the back of his neck and swallowed hard.

   “Jesus, I can’t tell you, Murdoch.” He looked up. “I’m real sorry about your book, but I can’t tell you. I’ll pay for the book.”

   “Yes, you will, all thirty-two dollars of it.”

   “Thirty-two dollars!? For a book!?”

   Suddenly, his father smiled and cuffed his chin.

   “It might teach you the value of words, my boy.”

   He smiled back, although he was stunned by the cost of the book and wished he’d thrown Scott’s chamber pot out instead.

 

   Curly’s foot was bad, as swollen as a ripe marrow and of a purplish colour. Curly lay moaning in his cot, half out of his head and Murdoch demanded to know why he hadn’t been told of it earlier. His father’s voice sounded huge in the low-roofed bunkhouse and hands who hadn’t yet left for the range stood rigid like men posing for photographs.

   Outside, Johnny saddled his horse while Murdoch supervised Curly’s removal to a small clean room next to the hacienda’s kitchen. The women fussed around the wounded man like a flock of cooing doves, settling their gentle hands on his face, giving orders in Spanish so rapid that even Johnny could barely make out what was being said. He checked his rifle and slid it into its scabbard on the left of his saddle. Adam Donner emerged from the hacienda, a cup of coffee in his hands. He placed the cup on the wall and took out a small notebook and a pencil from his jacket pocket. He began to write quickly, his dark eyes scanning the goings on around the house and yard. He caught Johnny’s gaze and nodded. Johnny returned the nod and finished tying down his rifle. He thought of Billy and breathed deep.

   Pete Thorn brought his mule up alongside Johnny’s horse and made a long show of checking his Henry. His foul pipe jammed in the corner of his mouth, he counted the bullets in a small leather pouch hanging off his ancient saddle. Johnny saw a bunch of lavender, sweet fennel and pineapple sage tied next to the pouch.

   “Walt Dickson ain’t cold in his grave,” he said. Pete Thorn chuckled, slapping his mule when it jigged at the second cinch pull.

   “Oh, I hear Ol’ Walt’s real stone cold, boy.”

   Johnny watched the old man mount up. Thorn turned the mule on a dime and looked down on him. Did men like Thorn ever die? He was like an ancient tree, its bark grey with the centuries, but its wood so hard and gnarled you’d break an axe trying to cut it.

   “You mind your daddy, boy, and stay away from that fence line. You got no business there.”

   “You ain’t, either, Pete.”

   Thorn smiled and patted his rifle butt.

   “Oh, I hear the varmints there make real good shootin’, Johnny.”

   He turned the mule and rode out, raising his pipe at Murdoch who was emerging from the little sick room, ducking his head to avoid the low lintel. His father waved, but not even a glimmer of a smile crossed his face. Johnny’s belly churned and he mounted up. Murdoch grasped the bridle and stroked the animal’s nose.

   “You’ll need to get him here quickly, Son, so ride fast into town. Don’t forget the mail and my tobacco, and …”

   “I know, Pa,” Johnny said, smiling. “Stay out of trouble.” He looked down at the reins in his hand and sighed. “Last time you told me that, I got Billy shot.”

   His father placed his hand on his leg.

   “When’re you going to stop beating yourself up over Billy’s death, John?”

   Johnny gazed at a scar on the back of his father’s hand, the shape of a sickle moon, another thing to ask about sometime. Half-smiling, he shrugged at the question.

   “When the damn sonuvabitch quits spoilin’ my dreams, I guess.”

   Murdoch shook his head.

   “You’re way too hard on yourself, boy, and you wonder why I want to shield you from any more hurt.” His father sighed. “However impossible that is.” He smacked Johnny’s leg. “Now get going and watch your back.” He stared at his father. What should he make of those words dropped from nowhere? Murdoch frowned and slapped the horse’s rump. “Get going!”

   The horse jigged forward a little, but Johnny held him back.

   “You ain’t goin’ to apologise to Trencher for what I did to Cain, are you?”

   “I’ll do what I have to do to protect my family. Now go!”

   He went, his father’s tender words still pulsing in his brain. For awhile they pushed all other thoughts away.

   Before the point on the trail that forked off in a north-westerly direction to Elthea’s place, he came up at Thorn’s mule ambling along, its skinny tail swinging at flies. Thorn smiled as Johnny passed at a fast lope and raised his pipe. 

 

Chapter Fifteen 

   The doctor, Tom Finlay, was new, a young man fresh from medical college and already the talk of the town with his good looks and smart ideas. Johnny had heard Ike Kinsey say that since the doc’s arrival, the number of women, young and old, with nervous complaints, fainting fits and plain old colds had trebled. The barber had wondered out loud how he could drum up such business with so little effort. Not that the doctor paid the women much mind, according to his housekeeper. He was known to stay up late at night with a plate of sandwiches, a pot of coffee and his books, hoping to be the first medical man to discover a chemical treatment for gangrene.

   The old doctor would’ve grumbled to be fetched from breakfast on his porch to drive fifteen hot miles to treat some bungling cowboy with a swollen foot. He’d have needed coaxing with the idea of a good lunch at Murdoch Lancer’s expense to forsake his roses, shrug on his worn frockcoat and dawdle out to his buggy. Not Tom Finlay. Eagerly, he’d listened to Johnny’s account of Curly’s symptoms, grabbed his bag and leapt on his horse, riding out as if he had the devil on his tail. Clearly, the chance of a gangrenous limb had been too good to pass up. 

   Johnny’d ridden fast to give himself more time in town. His horse needed resting and watering so he put it in the livery and fetched the mail from the post office. As usual, it was a mixture of letters for his father and brother and the journals they favoured rolled up tight and wrapped in brown paper. Only one item got him curious as he pushed the mail in his saddlebag – a letter for Murdoch, postmarked in Scotland. The stamp had a picture of a pretty young woman wearing a crown, the Queen of England he guessed, although he’d heard Scott say that Victoria was a plain woman of fifty who’d shut herself away in a gloomy castle since her husband’s death in 1861. Idling by the fire in the Great Room after a hard day’s work, he’d imagined taking the queen for a gallop across Lancer and then asking her if she still wanted to waste her life in the black weeds of mourning.

   He thought of the letter he’d seen his father reading in the kitchen the night before. Murdoch’d been quick enough to fold it out of his sight and yell at him for being there, and how much of that bottle of whisky had been drunk to dull the sting of the letter’s contents? Now here was a new letter, from a place that had brought little but pain and trouble to his father last spring. Jesus, he was tempted to tear it up and throw it in the nearest creek to be taken and lost far out in the Gulf of California. Sighing, he stuffed the letter in with the rest of the mail and walked across the street to Sven’s store.

   It was still early. Gerta’s old black dog, its coat speckled with the white hairs of age, sat on the steps, its eyes closed, its face upturned to the sun. Johnny smiled and patted its head. Petey Winkleman walked out of the store cradling a basket of eggs. His gaze was fixed on the eggs, the tip of his tongue pressed against his upper lip.

   “Hey, Petey.”

   The boy looked up, his frown of concentration turning into a smile.

   “Hey, Johnny.”

   “Doin’ errands for your ma?”

   “Yeh.” The boy looked down into the basket and sighed. “She says if I break one of these damn eggs, she’ll break a switch on my rear end.”

   “Tough deal,” Johnny said, smiling. The boy squinted up at him again.

   “Is it true you broke Cain Trencher’s jaw?”

   Johnny glanced down the street and drew in a breath.

   “Who told you that?”

   “All the kids’re talkin’ about it. Deke Sawyer says he saw you fightin’, that you wus real mad an’ your pa hauled ya offen Cain ‘fore you killed ‘im. Mamie Johnson says her pa wus fetched out to the Trencher place to pull two of Cain’s teeth. Mr Johnson says his jaw’s swelled up like a water melon.”

   “That so?”

   “Uh, huh.” Petey shook his head. “Boy, that musta been some punch. Wish I’d seen it. Cain got what wus comin’, though, my pa says, killin’ Billy Donner like that. Pa says he should be strung up like a possum in a trip wire for what he done.”

   “He does?”

   “Yeh. That’s what everybody thinks. Anyway, I gotta go. Ma’s bakin’ an’ she needs these eggs quicker’n last week. See y’around, Johnny.”

   “Yeh, see you, Petey.” Johnny watched him make his way down the steps. A rider went by, nearly hitting the boy and he stepped back with a cry and a curse. “Stick to the boards, Petey. Your ma’d sooner you broke those eggs than your head.”

   “Wouldn’t be so darned sure ‘bout that,” the boy yelled back as he carried on down the street. Johnny laughed and walked inside the store.

   Sven was turned away from his counter weighing sugar into brown paper bags. From the back of the store, Johnny could hear the Bergson’s parrot squawking its usual mix of Swedish, Spanish and English, and Gerta’s soft voice scolding it. Scanning the store, Johnny saw Mrs Sowerbridge picking out cloth from the ten or more bolts Sven’s assistant had pulled off the shelves.

   “I particularly wanted that colour but a shade darker. It’s too light. Yes, it’s too light. Fetch me that one up there. No, not that one, boy, the one next to it.”

   His good drinking buddy, Tommy Fielder, met Johnny’s look as he turned on the stepladder with the bolt. He rolled his eyes and drew a finger across his throat. Johnny smiled and then took in the sight of Laura Finney at Sven’s china display, stroking the face of a figurine, before resting his saddlebags on the counter.

   “Mornin’, Sven.”

   The storekeeper turned from his task.

   “Johnny!” He didn’t know why he always lit a smile on the Swede’s face, but it was a good feeling alright. Better than the fear or hatred Madrid had so often seen, though it’d taken him a while to know it. Sven rubbed his hands on his apron. “You come for your papa’s tobacco?”

   “Yeh.” He felt Laura Finney’s head turn his way. He didn’t look at her, but smiled a little. “Said he hoped there’d be a shade more Perique in the blend this time round.”

   “Ah, your papa!” Sven shook his head, smiling. “I swear he could tell the mix down to the last leaf.” He took a package from beneath the counter and placed it in front of Johnny. “My Gerta won’t let me smoke, but I’ve smelt it and it smells good, more Perique than Virginia, I reckon. You want anything else?”

   “Yeh, some of that Woodward’s for Sarah. Her teeth’re paining her again.”

   Sven took the bottle from the shelf and put it next to the tobacco.

   “Ah, that baby! Lupeta brought her in to see Gerta last week. Stole my old girl’s heart.”

   Johnny packed the tobacco and the gripe water in his left saddlebag. He smiled.

   “Yeh, she has that effect on ladies. She’s a real darlin’.” He paid for the items and hoisted the bags over his shoulder. “Oh, an’ Murdoch said to remind ya to get that wagon of supplies sent out to Elthea Dickson.”

   “Already done, Johnny. Gerta and me, we plan to shut up the store and take it to her personally.” Sven shook his head, staring at his large hands outspread on the counter. “It’s a bad business, for sure.”

   “Yeh, it is, but Murdoch will appreciate you doin’ that for Elthea, Sven; he really will.”

   “Not much point in calling one another neighbours if you don’t act like it. You be sure to say ‘hello’ to your papa for me, Johnny.”

   “Sure will.”

   Laura Finney was looking his way as he turned to leave. In her hands, she held the figure of a dancer. He touched his hat and smiled. The girl was pretty alright, big brown eyes in a clear, honest face, hair the colour of horse chestnuts. Dressed prettily, too, but quietly, not like Lindy’s fashion parade ways – he’d been almost scared to touch her sometimes, like she might break like a china doll. Not this girl. There was something as tough as rocks in her.

   “Mornin’, Miss Finney.”

   “Good morning, Mr Lancer.”

   Encouraged by her smile, he walked over. She was standing in a sunbeam and the sun glanced off the gold paint on the dancer’s head and made a little dazzle at the tips of her fingers, like she was holding fire. His belly flipped at the sight.

   “Shoppin’?” he said. She smiled again and he felt suddenly stupid and uncertain of himself.

   “Yes,” she said. “For my aunt. Papa warned me that I might find her a little …” She hesitated. “… set in her ways, but I didn’t expect her to possess so few necessaries.”

   “Is the figurine a necessary?” He found himself glad that his brother’d put him right on that word.

   Blushing, the girl laughed and clutched the dancer to her chest for just a moment. It was enough to make him want to buy it for her there and then.

   “Well, no, but she has so little. I thought I’d buy her one nice thing to go with the new broom and the curtain material.”

   “That’s a real sweet thought,” Johnny said, touching the dancer’s head, although he could no more imagine the figure in the gnarled claws of Widow Finney than a shovel in her niece’s hands.

   “Perhaps you’ll buy one for your daughter when she’s older.”

   He frowned.

   “My daughter, ma’am?” Then he smiled. “Oh, you mean Sarah. She ain’t my daughter, though I’d be real glad to lay claim to her. Her folks’re … well, they’re gone, so we kinda adopted her, not legally, although I’d like to, if I can persuade my Old Man.”

   The girl looked down at the figurine and then glanced at him. Jesus, she had the finest eyes for looking straight into a man.

   “So Lupeta isn’t Mrs Lancer then?”

   “Lupeta?” He laughed. “Hell, no!” He shifted the heavy saddlebags on his shoulder. He waited until she looked at him again and then drew out his slowest smile for her. “Anythin’ else you’d like to know, Miss Finney, seein’ as how that was about all me and ol’ Sven talked about?”

   Boy, did she blush then! He wanted to laugh, but just kept up a steady smile. He was enjoying himself, more than he’d done for days.

   “I’m sorry,” she said. “You must think me awfully rude.”

   “No, Miss Finney. Actually, I think you’re awfully sweet.”

   She blushed again, and then seemed to find some of that rock in herself. When she looked at him this time, he was reminded of girls when he was a kid – tough girls who might just as soon fire stones from their catapults at your head than kiss you. He’d wanted to tup them before he knew what his dick was for.

   “Well, I have shopping to finish, Mr Lancer …”

   “The name’s Johnny,” he said. “Look, there’s a church social on Saturday afternoon. I mean, usually my Ol’ Man has to drag me there by my collar, but I reckon I’d go more willingly if you’d come with me.”

   She looked at him. She liked him; he was sure of that, but she was being cautious now. He couldn’t blame her. He’d surprised himself with the invitation. Church socials were one of his new life’s difficulties. There were a helluva lot of them and Murdoch felt it his duty to attend at least the larger ones which celebrated the harvest or Independence Day, even Christmas, and he expected his sons to go with him. Scott went gladly enough. His brother seemed to like the chance to dress up, meet the neighbours, talk a little business, charm the ladies with his Boston manners and admire their flower arrangements and cakes. Well, if he didn’t like it, he sure put on a good show of it for their father’s sake.

   “I’m not sure my aunt will be going,” the girl said.

   “Oh, she always goes to the socials, Miss Finney. Sets up a stall for her goats’ cheese an’ bottles of lavender water.”

   Laura dipped her head quickly, just the way he liked in a girl, and raised it again, just enough to look at him from under her lashes.

   “Well, in that case, Mr Lancer – Johnny - I could ask my aunt if she’d allow me to meet you at the church gate at three o’clock.”

   Johnny smiled and raised his hat.

   “I’ll be there, Miss Finney.”

   “It’s Laura,” she said.

   He raised his hat again.

   “See you Saturday, Laura.”

   He left the store. There was that bounce in his boots he always felt after he’d spoken to a pretty girl and she’d made it plain she was interested. He’d soon know the grit in her, too. Widow Finney was sure to raise a ruckus over her niece stepping out with a gunfighter, however long it’d been since he’d done anything more with his revolver than clean it. If Laura didn’t show at that gate, he’d know enough of her. Not that he wanted her to act like Lindy. She’d practically crowed the fact she was courting a deadly pistolero. He’d guessed it wasn’t coincidence that she’d always seemed a little cooler towards him when he wasn’t wearing his gun, and, boy, how she’d liked to unbuckle it and hold the rig in her hands. It’d lit the fire in her eyes brighter than the bulge in his pants had ever managed to.  

 

   A quick glance in the bank’s windows, told him that Joshua Black was behind his dark oak desk, head bent to his books. The Blacks lived in a three storey home set in its own landscaped grounds on the outskirts of town, and Johnny made his way there. Only Lancer outdid the property’s size and attitude, but his father’s home lacked the clear-cut smartness of the Black house. Lancer sprawled and ran a little wild where it could; this place sat stiff-backed and as proper as a colonel among its ranks of flowers and trees. Ike Kinsey’s younger son, a skinny kid of seventeen, was snipping bits from a hedge that had dared to sprout a few bits of new growth. He nodded as Johnny rode by.

   As soon as he’d tethered his horse in front of the house, a man of about his father’s age came out onto the porch, his sleeves rolled up and a long green apron covering his clothes. The man looked at him with half-closed eyes, his smooth and shiny chin slightly lifted. There was no mistaking his scorn.

   “Can I help you, sir?”

   It was a strange and cold accent. Green River’s gossips had enjoyed the Blacks’ decision to ship an English man-servant from London. It had confirmed their belief that Mrs Black was an uppity piece who wished she was some place else than a town where cattlemen and farmers easily outnumbered folk who owned a silver tea tray.

   Johnny patted his horse’s neck and remembered to take off his hat.

   “Lookin’ for Mrs Black.”

   The man seemed to wince.

   “Is Madam expecting you, sir?”

   “Nope, but I sure would appreciate it if I could see her, if it ain’t too much trouble.”

   “What name shall I give, sir?”

   He had to admit, the man had been well trained. It was clear he’d’ve sooner let a beetle in through the door than a cowhand with dusty boots and hair a darned sight more in need of a cut than the banker’s hedges.

   “Lancer.” He let the name sink in, let the cold eyes heat up a little. “Johnny Lancer.”

   “I will see if Madam is available, sir.”

   He waited a long time, long enough to glance at the watch his father had given him and start worrying a little over being late. Finally, the servant reappeared.

   “Madam will see you in the garden, sir. If you’ll follow me …”

   He followed, although he was starting to wish he’d hadn’t come. A girl his own age he could deal with, or even an older woman when she had a mind for mothering him, but Jennie Black was out of his league and experience.

   “Mr Lancer.” She was seated at a little fussy table. There was a pot of coffee and china cups with tiny handles. Around her, bright late summer flowers waved papery petals in the breeze. She was as cool and white as a snowy mountain; suddenly he felt grubby and worse, Mexican to his very bones. Jesus, but he wasn’t ashamed of that - his mother had been earth and fire in her dark-skinned, long-haired beauty; she’d have melted Jennie Black with one blistering stare. He toyed with his hat and felt a bead of sweat trickle down his back.

   “Ma’am, I’d like to talk with you about my brother.”

   Jennie Black’s gaze darted to her servant.

   “Alright, Page. That will be all.”

   When Page had gone, Mrs Black looked up at Johnny with hard eyes. Well, he hadn’t expected her to be friendly.

   “Will you take coffee, Mr Lancer?”

   Oh yeh, anything to take his mind off that he’d stepped like a crazy fool into a pit of hissing vipers. He nodded and sat down opposite her. He watched her pour coffee into two of the little china cups. Already he was wrestling with the thought of how he was meant to hold one. She handed a cup on a saucer to him and he took it. He wanted the coffee, but he didn’t want to tackle the damned cup, so he placed it on the table. He stared at it while Mrs Black sipped hers, her thumb and forefinger pressed together to hold the handle.

   “I can’t imagine what you’d have to discuss with me about Scott, Mr Lancer,” she said. She put down the cup and rested her hands in her white dress. They were as pale as the china tea service.

   “I ain’t like my brother, ma’am,” Johnny said. He drew a breath. “I don’t make polite conversation. I just speak my mind right out and I want you to tell Scott that it’s over between you and him.”

   She breathed out and there was a tremor in her voice now. Only a moment ago, she had seemed as cool and still as water down a well. Now, her hands quivered as she picked up her cup and took another small sip of coffee. His blood racing, Johnny grabbed his own cup from its saucer and drank the coffee in one swallow. She didn’t seem to notice that the cup rattled in the saucer when he replaced it.

   “So he didn’t send you?” she said, almost in a whisper.

   “No, ma’am. He’d as soon give you up as breathin’, but it’s like a poison in his blood, an’ it’s killin’ him.” He looked her full in the eyes then, though he was still afraid of her. “I’m tellin’ you straight, Mrs Black, I ain’t prepared to lose my brother to somethin’ that’s leading nowhere good.”

   He waited, expecting her to speak, but she was staring at him, her eyes seeming suddenly huge and dark in her pale face, so like his brother’s look last night on the landing. It wasn’t the first time he felt as if he was caught in some picture frame with no way out to the real world. All around them, the flowers waved their colours, and this woman in her pure white dress and huge eyes was giving him nothing to fight against. He’d meant to give her hell, show no mercy. Jesus, but it was harder than drowning a kitten.

   “I ain’t judgin’ you, ma’am,” he said. “A man can’t help where his blood takes ‘im, but you got a husband, a daughter …”

   “It means nothing, Johnny.”

   “Ma’am?”

   “None of it means anything without Scott.” When she looked at him now, the hardness had somehow left her face, and damn, she was beautiful, probably the finest woman he’d ever seen. She was looking at him now, searching his face as if she’d never met him before. “You’re barely more than a boy. I don’t expect you to understand what the effect of living in a town like Green River has had on a woman like me. I was born among theatres, wide boulevards, museums, art galleries, libraries. Coming here was like …” She hesitated, spread her hands on her dress and stared down at them. “When I was a girl, I had the same dream for many weeks. I dreamed I had been buried alive in a coffin deep under the ground. I remember that the coffin was lined with purple silk and how the purple slowly faded as the light went out with each shovelful of earth. Well, that’s how it felt to me coming here, as if a light had gone out, as if I’d turned to dust.”

   He frowned, not understanding, although he’d lived long and hard enough to know that each person carried his own particular measure of pain, and just because you didn’t share it, didn’t mean it wasn’t real.

   “Ma’am, I …”

   “When I met Scott,” she interrupted, “It was as if my dried up roots had been sent rain. I didn’t think it was possible that one man could embody everything I’d lost, everything I’ve dreamed of for so long, but your brother did.” She sighed. “So cultured, so refined, so sensitive, like the boys of my youth, who wrote me poems and read them to me in the shade of our cedar tree.” She stood up suddenly and walked the little area of her flower garden. Johnny stayed seated, trying to imagine the world she spoke of, but failing. “I thought it would be enough for me that Martha would marry Scott and at least he’d be near, part of the family, but we fell in love, Johnny, and I …” She stopped walking. “I can’t imagine … can’t bear the thought of life without him.”

   Jesus. He was out of his depth, for sure, but he was on a mission and the job had to be done. He stood up and spoke to her back.

   “Ma’am, you’re goin’ to have to do without him. He’s fightin’ with our father, cuttin’ his chores, drinkin’ liquor in the night. If you don’t tell him it’s over, I got no choice but to tell Murdoch what’s happenin’. I wanted to avoid that, but I’ll do it if I have to. In fact, I’ll tell the whole damn town if it means I save my brother from ruinin’ his life.”

   She kept her back to him, but he saw her shoulders rise, heard her breathe out.

   “Then, you kill me.”

   “You’ll get up in the morning, same as always.”

   He knew he’d sounded harsh. It was enough to make her turn and it seemed her face was set hard again, like she’d been playing some kind of game and he’d broken the rules.

   “Not such a boy, are you, Johnny.”

   “No, ma’am.”

   She gazed at him as if she wanted to ask him a question, but then she looked away at the flowers.

   “Then I’ll do as you ask, but I will instruct Scott to break the engagement with Martha. He doesn’t love her and I would spare her the pain of that, at least.”

   Her surrender threw him sideways. He looked darkly at her.

   “You know Scott was plannin’ to go ahead and marry Martha, ma’am, so he could stay close to you?”

   Mrs Black seemed about to laugh before she frowned at him.     

   “Do you think I’d have allowed that, Johnny? Do you honestly believe that I would have allowed my daughter to marry a man who’s in love with her mother? Good gracious, young man, you must have a very low opinion of me!”

   Johnny shrugged and twisted his hat through his hands.

   “No, ma’am, just a confused one. You sayin’ you were plannin’ on marryin’ Scott yourself?”

   “Of course not. That would’ve been absurd.” He just couldn’t figure her feelings as her gaze drifted over her flowers. “No, I was just waiting for my dream to end somehow, as it has this morning, but I hoped very much that it would last longer, just a little longer.” She smiled at him briefly. “I never thought my nemesis would arrive in the shape of a gunfighter.”

   “I ain’t a gunfighter, ma’am, not any more.”

   “No? Then I suppose, one day, I won’t be in love with your brother any more, if that is the way of things…”

   He left her in the garden. Breathing out, he mounted his horse and headed for home, as mystified as he’d ever been in his life over the ways of women. Passing the saloon, he saw Lyra in the upstairs window. She waved and he touched his hat. He thought of Laura and wondered if she might be the one who’d finally settle his wandering gaze. 

 

   His father was in the study when he got back early in the afternoon. Johnny stood in the doorway watching him. He wondered what Murdoch was writing so carefully, his glasses perched on his nose like a school teacher. He didn’t like the picture; preferred his father in the forge, raising his arm to bang shape into red hot metal.

   “You missed lunch,” his father said, without looking up.

   “Sorry. Got held up by Mrs Black.” God’s truth so far. He hoped the Old Man wouldn’t push. His father stopped writing and looked up. He removed his glasses and leaned back in his chair, his fingers clasped over his belly. Jesus, but when his father looked at a man like that, there didn’t seem any place to hide. If he’d ever wondered where he’d got his ability to stare down another human being to bug-size, he’d stopped wondering the moment he’d met Murdoch Lancer.

   “Mrs Black?”

   “Yeh, she needed some advice.”

   “About what?”

   His mouth was bone dry and he heard himself talking too fast.

   “One of her buggy horses. Fetched up lame yesterday. Musta been a stone. Just bruisin’ … There’s a letter for you.” Heart hammering in the heat of his lie, he put the letter in front of his father. “It’s from Scotland.”

   His father dropped his gaze from him to the letter. It was quiet enough to hear Murdoch’s intake of breath and its slow release. Unclasping his fingers, he picked up the letter and placed it in a draw of his desk.

   “From Uncle Iain?”

   “No.”

   “You don’t seem too happy about it.”

   “My private business, John.”

   “Seems like that’s the kind of business that sets you at the liquor bottle, Murdoch.”

   Well, he’d known he was tickling the bear’s nose. Sure enough, his father’s gaze darkened, and though he tried not to be, he was afraid.

   “You’ve overstepped your mark by a very long way, boy. Before you dig yourself in any deeper, I suggest you go wash up and get something to eat in the kitchen.” His father put on his glasses and picked up his pen. “I have this agenda for next month’s Cattlegrowers’ Association meeting to finish and then you can help me with August’s bills and invoices.”

   Johnny felt his heart plummet to his belly. He heard his voice come out of his mouth like some whiny brat’s, like Petey Winkleman’s.    

   “Aw, Murdoch, I got horses to work this afternoon.”

   Murdoch’s head snapped up. His father looked surprised more than angry, maybe even a little tickled. Well, he’d surprised himself, but he was disappointed as hell. Truth was, just looking at the spiked piles of paper on his father’s desk, the heavy ledger resting, smug as an old judge, beside them, made him want to throw up.

   “You can’t pick and choose what you want to do around here, Johnny,” his father said. “Book work is as important to the running of this ranch as working livestock or mending fences.”

   “I know, but …”

   “That’s enough,” his father interrupted. “I don’t want to hear another damn word about how it’s your brother’s task to learn the book keeping side of things.”

   The ‘damn’ startled him. It was a clear signal that Murdoch had reached the bottom of his short stack of patience. What had seemed a long-running joke about the books had turned into something else – and he hadn’t even heard it creep up behind him.

   “I wasn’t …”

   “I’ve just spent the morning convincing Aaron Trencher that we can rub along as neighbours. You made an unholy mess of that boy’s face, and his father’s not happy about it.”

   “Well, I ain’t apologisin’ for it.”

   “I’m not asking you to, but it’s made me even more determined to instruct my sons in all the skills they’ll need for the future.”

   Johnny frowned.

   “Well, if one of ‘em’s gettin’ along with the Trenchers, reckon I’ll stay unschooled.”

   “Whatever’s happened between you and Cain, Johnny, the Trenchers are our neighbours. We share water rights. I’m not about to make enemies out of people we might need as friends one day.”

   “I’m done makin’ friends outta murderers and liars. If that’s all you’ve got to offer me, then I’d as soon draw pay as a cowhand for the rest of my life.”

   His father stared at him, long and hard.

   “You still don’t get it, do you, boy.” His father took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Well, I suppose that’s not your fault, although I believed a year might be long enough.”

   “For what?”

   “For you to take who and what you are now, seriously. For you to see that the land and our ownership of it takes precedence over everything, even our personal feelings for a friend.” Murdoch hesitated, glancing away from him to fiddle with his glasses. The words came softer now. “For you to toughen up a little more.” Before he could shape a reply that didn’t come out as crazy as he felt, his father replaced his glasses quickly and spoke at the unfinished agenda on his desk. “Go and eat. Be back here in twenty minutes. We’ve got a lot to get through.”

   He went, though he barely tasted the food Maria put in front of him. This wasn’t going to go away then, this track his father had set them on. Murdoch was disappointed in him, that was certain. Whatever he’d chiselled out of himself to survive as a gunfighter, it didn’t serve his father’s wishes. He stared down at the black coffee in his cup. So hadn’t he been a man then that first day back in his father’s house? Had Jarini Higuera’s teaching been no more than playing, like dogs with a ball? It had felt like the world of men with its raw violence, its liquor and opiates, its rough fucking, its blood-hot money. He looked around the quiet kitchen, Maria at the table, cutting white slices of apple into a black pan, the smell of tomatoes ripening outside the open window, the sound of men laughing, their voices rounded and sweet in the afternoon sun. Death came rarely here. This place breathed life like it had itself created it from the very beginning of things.

   “What d’you think of my father, Maria?” he asked. She stopped cutting apples and frowned at him.

   “Your father?”

   “Yeh, I mean …” he hesitated. “I guess I’d like to know how other folk see him.”

   Maria wiped her hands on her apron and sat down near him. She placed her palm against his cheek. It was warm and still a little sticky with apple. There were moments when women could bring him to the edge of being undone with their sweetness and this was one of them. Her voice was soft, like she knew he needed some tenderness.

   “He is the patron, niño. He watches over us all. Gives us work and life. Without the patron, there is nothing but dust and coyotes.”

   “Other men would come.”

   Maria nodded.

   “Si, maybe so, but it is the work of many years to build what your papá has built, many disappointments, much pain. Not all men are made for such sacrifices, such patience and courage. Men like your father are needed in so cruel and harsh a world as we have come into, and you niño,” she leaned forward and kissed his forehead, “you will be as fine a patron, one day, as your papá.”

   She smiled and went back to her apples, slewing the knife through the white flesh without even looking down at her hands. He thought of his father sitting behind his desk, head bowed to his work, like a fisherman who knew the movements and habits of every creature in his pool, and need only watch for the bubbles on the surface of the water. Johnny sighed and drank his coffee. Hell, he was so far from that pool, he couldn’t even picture where it lay.    

 

Chapter Sixteen 

   Maria had dressed Sarah in a white cotton dress and a sunbonnet that shielded her skin from the afternoon sun. Why he’d offered to take the baby from Maria’s plump arms and carry her around the Reverend Jones’ garden, he couldn’t say even to himself, but he liked the feeling of it. He liked how the good women of Green River, all done up in their Saturday finery, took a second look at Murdoch Lancer’s black lamb, a child gurgling and content against his chest. It was plain on their faces; they just couldn’t decide what to think. It tickled him, too, to take Sarah around the stalls, laid out with their usual fare of jellies, cakes, pies, cheeses, quilts and handicrafts. Better than staying with his father and brother, shaking hands with old men and yammering on about the lack of rain and the plans for the new railroad spur.

   Adam Donner was doing the rounds, too. No doubt enjoying the sympathy and condolences of the townsfolk, though since his arrival at Lancer, he’d seemed more interested in writing up Whip and Tick’s tall tales of cowboy life than in pining for his dead brother. Claimed he was writing ‘Yarns from the Bunkhouse’ as a tribute to Billy. Johnny hadn’t yet pointed out to Donner that his little brother’d liked nothing better than to mustard up the old fellers over their stories.

   Johnny had woken up that morning, his heart jumping a little in his chest at the thought of seeing Laura. Surprised the hell out of his Old Man when there’d been none of the accustomed protests and excuses. Spent good time, too, combing his hair, polishing his boots and getting his tie just right, although he’d griped at Murdoch’s order that he wear his best suit. Hell, though, he’d even submitted to being sat squashed up in the Bronson while Adam Donner scribbled in a fat notebook and his brother’d teased him about which girl he was out to impress this time. Maria, sitting opposite with the baby in her arms, had scolded Scott, but she, too, had sent him knowing looks and smiles.

   Jesus, but he’d all but prayed that his brother’s good mood wasn’t on account of a hope he’d see Jennie Black at the social. Two days had passed since he’d spoken to the woman and he was pretty sure Scott hadn’t found an opportunity to visit the Blacks since then. Murdoch had kept his brother hard at the books in the day and lined up visits to neighbours in the evenings. He’d’ve bucked hard against such a tight rein, but Scott was made of different stuff. Stood the gaff without a word of argument, though a man could’ve struck fire against the flint wedged between his father and brother. He knew there’d be worse to come after Jennie Black had done what she’d promised, maybe much worse, but then the splinter’d be out and the wound could start healing, at least.

   “You fixin’ to buy that, Johnny Lancer?”

   He’d picked up a wooden rattle at Mrs Hardy’s table, shaken it at Sarah. Eyes and mouth wide open, she was squealing and making grabs at the rattle. Johnny smiled and tapped the infant’s nose with the rattle, before allowing her to take it.

   “Reckon so, ma’am.” He dug in his jacket pocket for his money pouch. “I ain’t too sure Sarah’d let me give it back anyhow. How much?”

   “Three dollars.” He raised his eyebrows. Mrs Hardy’s gaze hardened. “All proceeds to the proposed memorial for our boys who gave up their lives in the Union’s mighty battle to free our land of the Confederate scourge.” She held out her hand for him to drop the pieces in her palm. “I’m sure your brother would think it a small price.”

   “Yes, ma’am.” Johnny kissed Sarah’s cheek to stop his mouth taking another direction.

   “I’m sure it’s a real shame that that child’s folks just upped and left her without a by your leave. If you took her to the mission, I’ve no doubt they’d find a real good home for a sweet little thing like Sarah.”

   “I’d take her on myself if I didn’t have five already.”

   “She’s a fine baby, that’s for certain.”

   He was surrounded. The women had gathered softly like butterflies on a sweet briar bush. They were tickling her toes and fingers, stroking Sarah’s cheek, cooing nonsense.

   “It’s a shame, a little girl being raised in a house of men. The mite needs a mother.”

   “We got women at Lancer,” Johnny said. “Maria’s …”

   “She’s paid help, boy. A growing child needs more.”

   “What can Murdoch Lancer be thinking, allowing one of his boys to tote a baby round like she’s a bag of flour?”

   “I got a good hold of her, ma’am, an’ I reckon Sarah’s as much of a daughter to me as any child bearin’ my name will be, so if you ladies’ll excuse me, I got to get her in the shade.”

   When he turned to escape the women, he found his father standing just outside the circle. Murdoch smiled and held out his hands.

   “I’ll spell you for awhile with Sarah. I believe the visitor you’ve spruced yourself up for has arrived.”

   He cursed himself for blushing. Murdoch chuckled and took the baby into the crook of his left arm, bouncing her. With his other arm, he grabbed Johnny close and spoke low.

   “I’m proud of you, Son. Now, you leave these biddies to me and go enjoy yourself with Miss Finney.”

   It couldn’t be helped. The strength of his feelings then almost bust him open. Since their wrangling in Murdoch’s study, he and the Old Man’d hardly spoken, except about chores, cows and the weather. Smiling, he jiggled Sarah’s foot. The baby lay as naturally in his father’s embrace as a cat in an old chair, burbling happily at the rattle.

   “Well, I reckon you know what you’re doin’, Murdoch.”

   “It’s not something you forget. Now go, before that very pretty girl gets swept away by another boy.”

   He went then, but not before he heard his father say, “Now, ladies, I believe you’d like to share some of your opinions on raising babies at Lancer.”

   How those good women of Green River changed their song when confronted by his father. How they wheedled and simpered. He couldn’t imagine he’d ever get to the point where he’d tame a flock of clucking townsfolk with a few quiet words. Cold fear he’d put in men’s hearts with the merest glance, but he was certain warm regard was a whole different game.

   Laura was helping her old aunt set up her stall under the turkey oak. Johnny headed over there. By the church steps, Scott was chatting easily with Tom Finlay, his arms folded, a smile on his face. The young doctor was already a hero with the Lancer crew after he’d settled Curly’s raging foot. Now, it seemed he’d found a sympathetic friend in his educated and quiet brother. Johnny glanced around the groups of townsfolk. It was a real nice scene, and not one he’d ever dreamed he’d be part of - women with parasols exchanging news while the children ran around, toffee apples or mint sticks jammed in their mouths, men talking business in the shade, a choir singing sweeter in the open air than they ever did in church. There was no sign of the Blacks, although everywhere he looked, he saw folk he knew. Some, it was true, shifted their gaze when they saw him, but enough people smiled or nodded or said a word or two in greeting. 

   Yeh, this wasn’t so bad, and even better when Laura Finney lifted her pretty face and smiled at him in that way that got his belly jumping. Widow Finney was placing her bottles of lavender water on the checked tablecloth. To see her leathery face shoot the blackest of glares in his direction was no surprise.

   “What’re you about, Johnny Lancer?”

   “Just enjoyin’ the afternoon, ma’am, same as other folk.” He pulled at his hat brim and smiled at Laura. “Howdy, Miss Finney.”

   “Good afternoon, Mr Lancer.” She held his gaze; then looked away with a small smile. Yeh, she liked him alright. She was blushing right to the tips of her ears. “Would you care for some goats’ cheese?”

   He wanted to laugh, but kept it down.

   “Er, no, ma’am, but I reckon a lemonade would be real welcome. I’d be glad to buy you a glass.”

   “Aunt?”

   The Widow Finney had been glaring at him all the while, her faded black bonnet and almost black eyes over a body scrunched up with age reminding him of the crows lined up on the church roof.

   “Where’s your father?”

   “Ma’am?”

   “You’re not going with my niece unless your daddy’s here.”

   “He’s over there, ma’am.” He nodded to where Murdoch was talking with Mrs Winkleman, the baby still in his arms. For a fleeting moment, Johnny wondered if his father’d once done the exact same thing with him, just stood there talking in the sun, holding him like it was the most natural thing in the world. He cut the thought down, as he did most thoughts of his distant past. They only started a hurting that he truly believed might not go away if he let it stay too long.

   “You stay in sight of me,” Widow Finney said. “If I catch you being fresh with my niece, I’ll take a broomstick to your rear end and Murdoch Lancer’ll have no say in it, much as he reckons he rules these parts.”

   “Yes, ma’am.”

   As soon as they had walked out of the old woman’s hearing, the laughter he’d been stifling, burst out of him, and he liked Laura even more when she did the same, leaning into him for a moment, while she tried to compose herself, a handkerchief over her mouth. He saw his father look across with a frown and that did the trick of sobering him up a little. Jesus, but how he wanted to hold her hand now, but he reckoned that’d probably fit Widow Finney’s idea of ‘fresh’. Instead, he paid for two glasses of lemonade and handed one to Laura with a smile. She was still dabbing the tears from her eyes. She took it, her gaze meeting his with so much liking, he almost choked at his first mouthful of lemonade. For the first time since he’d met Laura, he got that strange, twisting fear of the nice girl in her, the one that might take one look at what he’d been and run far and fast the other way.

   “Thank you, sir,” she said, curtseying a little. She sipped at the lemonade and then glanced back at her aunt’s stall. “Do you think it would be ‘fresh’ if we sat down together on the bench over there?”

   “Maybe not if we sit either end of it.”

   She took him at his word. They placed their glasses in the gap and smiled at the same time, their bodies half-turned towards each other. There were two large knots in the wood and they’d do to look at for a time while he struggled with a sudden, fierce shyness. He’d no idea where it’d come from, but it was biting him deeper than a rattler’s fangs. He wasn’t used to such a feeling. Most girls he’d known, even the ones he hadn’t paid, had been easy conquests. He’d learned early what looks, smiles and words would get him exactly what he wanted – most often a good time in the sack, sometimes a little more. Maybe that was the trouble. He didn’t know what he wanted from this girl.

   “You look very handsome, Johnny. Is that your best suit?”

   His head shot up. Jesus, but she was forward. Wasn’t he supposed to be the one saying how pretty she looked in that dress, the colour of a morning sky?

   “Er, yeh, I guess. If it’d been left up to me, I’d’ve worn my usual duds, but I got corralled by a feller a lot older an’ bigger’n me.”

   “I can’t imagine there are many people who can get away with telling you what to do, Johnny.”

   He smiled at the knots. “No, he’s pretty much the only one.”

   “Not your mother?”

   It was surprising to him how much it still hurt to be forced to think upon Maria’s loss. He shook his head.

   “Nope, she’s dead.”

   “Oh, I’m sorry.” She hesitated. “Mine too …”

   He lifted his gaze from the knots.

   “She been gone long?”

   “Six months. That’s partly why I’m visiting my great-aunt Martha. My father … he’s taken Mama’s loss very badly, so badly he …” She stopped and smiled quickly at him. “Heavens, I hardly know you. Why am I boring you with my life history?”

   “You ain’t borin’ me, Laura,” he said. He shifted a fraction closer and lowered his voice. “Your pa took to drinkin’, huh?”

   “Yes!” Her surprise turned into a frown. “How did you know?”

   Johnny shrugged and picked up his lemonade.

   “Guess I know men, that’s all.” He looked to where Murdoch was still talking with Mrs Winkleman. They’d been joined by her husband, a no-nonsense blacksmith who’d taught his father how to forge fancy wrought ironwork last winter. Johnny could hear his father’s deep laugh and was struck suddenly by his happy ease with the neighbours. His father liked people. He’d talk to anybody who had something worth saying, and he liked to laugh. In fact, he often laughed in the company of friends and neighbours. The truth was Murdoch Lancer was a popular man, with a warmth in him the depth of which Johnny had never met in another person.

   “Does Mr Lancer drink …too much, then?”

   Johnny looked back at Laura and gave her a half-smile.

   “Sometimes, yeh.” He drank a mouthful of the lemonade. It wasn’t sweet enough for his taste and he grimaced. “But I got my eye on him.”

   “Well, I certainly couldn’t do anything about Papa’s drinking. I tried, but it just seemed to make it worse, so my Uncle Henry, Papa’s brother, took him to live with him until he’s over the worst of his grief, and I …”

   “Got the short straw,” Johnny interrupted her, smiling.

   “Oh, Aunt Martha’s not so bad,” Laura said. “I feel rather sorry for her actually. All she’s got are her goats.” He couldn’t help it. He laughed and she did, too. “No, honestly, she’s quite kind really. I think she’s happy I’m here.”

   Johnny folded his arms. He was enjoying himself now.

   “And how does Widow Finney do ‘happy’?”

   “You’re terrible!” Laura said, laughing. “Has Aunt Martha got such an awful reputation?”

   “Well … ” He drew the word out long and rubbed the side of his nose. “I guess if it came to a contest between her and Mrs Bergson’s parrot, she might come second.”

   “Mrs Bergson’s parrot?”

   “It’s got a special set of cuss words for folks it don’t like, an’ that’s most of the town.”

   Smiling, Laura held his gaze then, and her eyes were so bright and clear, so full of easy liking, that he had to stop himself leaning over the knots and kissing her.

   “Does the parrot have any special words for you?” she asked. Her tone had changed, teasing and serious at the same time. His belly flipped again.

   “No, ma’am,” he said. “He likes me.”

   “I have a feeling, Johnny Lancer,” Laura said. Her head was down as she rubbed her forefinger over one of the knots, then she looked up, smiling. “You’re not to be trusted.”

   Jesus, but he wanted to kiss her real bad, just a little kiss. He’d be satisfied with her cheek, just wanted to feel the touch of her on his lips, to smell the freshness of her, and he knew she wanted him to kiss her. He grinned like an idiot and glanced back at the turkey oak, his fingers tapping a crazy rhythm on the bench. Widow Finney was selling a bottle of lavender water. Other people had arrived: the Crouches, with his good friend, Tyler and his sister, Amy, tight-lipped Mrs Trencher and her daughter, Katherine – he scanned quickly for Cain, but there was no sign of him or his father – and, dammit, just coming through the gate, Martha Black with her folks. His gaze sought his brother. Scott had spotted them, too, and was quickly making his way over to the party.

   “Johnny?”

   He looked back at Laura. God, but she was pretty, and he liked her enough to be glad just to look at her lips while she spoke, for today anyhow. He stood up and held out his hand. She took it and he waited for her to rise from the bench before he let go with a sigh.

   “You reckon there’s any way your aunt’d let me take you to a dance, Laura?”

   She was standing closer than she ought, closer than was good for his self-control, and her fingertips brushed his fingertips. There was none of Lindy’s fake modesty in this girl. She liked him and she wasn’t about to waste time pretending she didn’t.

   “Why wouldn’t she?”

   “’Cos of who I am.” He felt himself hold his breath; his head was dipped a little, so that he looked at her from under his eyelashes. He had to admit; he was as scared as a green girl.

   “I don’t know what you mean, Johnny.”

   He took a deep breath.

   “Your aunt ain’t said anythin’ about me?”

   “Nothing more than she’s said about all the young men in Green River, that you’re all after only one thing and I need to treat you all as if you’re ‘no-good varmints’.” Laura smiled. “I believe that’s the phrase she used.” She frowned and out of sight of her aunt, grasped one of his fingers with the softest touch.

“Johnny?”

   He couldn’t stop himself then. He gave her a quick kiss on her lips, his nerves burning. Laura blushed and her eyes widened, but she didn’t move away. So she didn’t know about Madrid. She believed she was getting to know a rich rancher’s son with no more dirt on him than a hard day’s work. He’d barely had time to gather his feelings when he saw his father striding across the dry grass towards them.

   “Jesus …”

   He looked at his father. His heart was racing. He felt angry and confused, ready to fight. Murdoch didn’t look at him.

   “Miss Finney,” his father said. “I believe your aunt would appreciate your help at her stall.”

   “Of course.”

   She was gone quicker than a rabbit into its burrow. Johnny watched her hurry down the slight slope towards Widow Finney’s stall. There was one old woman there, shaking a bottle of lavender water up in the air. The sun flashed off the bottle like the first spark of a fire. Johnny glanced at his father and then looked away.

   “So tell me what the hell I done wrong now?”

   “Nothing,” his father said. He didn’t sound mad, at least. “You’ve done nothing wrong, but …”

   “That’s a helluva big ‘but’ comin’ on down the line, Murdoch,” he said. He sat down on the bench and leaned forward, digging hard at the ground with his heel. “Ain’t sure I wanna hear it.”

   His father sighed.

   “You have to be careful, Johnny, that’s all I’m saying …”

   “You think I don’t know that?” He glared up at Murdoch. “You think I don’t know that I ain’t fit to mix it with these decent folk, that I ain’t educated in their pretty ways? Jesus, you sure want it every which way, Old Man!”

   “Johnny …”

    His father’s tone, a mix of pissed off and worried, settled his blood a little, but he was still angry.

   “It was just a little kiss, that’s all. I didn’t even …” He stopped. He wasn’t sure his father would fully appreciate the fact that he hadn’t stuck his tongue in the girl’s mouth. “I wasn’t about to drag her behind the damn church an’ …”

    The bench creaked and gave a little when his father sat down beside him.

   “I know that, but there are protocols …”

   “What?”

   “Accepted models of behaviour when two young people start courting …”

    Johnny took off his hat and swiped at flies after his sweat.

   “I ain’t courtin’ her.”

   “But you might be thinking of doing so?”

   “Yeh, well, I might’ve been, but once her aunt and the rest of the ol’ crones start gossipin’ I ain’t got a sparrow’s chance in a cage fulla crows.”

   “Clearly, one old crow isn’t cawing yet, my boy, or she wouldn’t have let you walk with her niece in the first place.” Murdoch smacked Johnny’s knee and stood up. “Think on that, before you jump in that hole you seem to think the whole town wants to put you in.”

   Johnny scowled, but his father’s words were making him think alright. Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder and spoke softly.

   “If you are interested in Miss Finney, then my advice still stands. Abe Lincoln himself couldn’t have got away with kissing a girl in front of her aunt so early in their friendship.” Smiling, Murdoch shook his shoulder. “Pick your moments more carefully, Son, alright?”

   Johnny nodded. His father smiled again and gave Johnny’s face a rub before heading back to the gathering.

   “Abe Lincoln kissed a girl?” he shouted after his father. Murdoch turned and smiled back at him.

   “Believe it or not, even he was your age once, and probably no better at putting a limit on his youthful urges, either.”

   His scowl just made the Old Man laugh. Sighing, but feeling better, he had to admit, he made his way down to his brother.

 

   Scott was pouring iced fruit punch into glasses. The punch was the colour of barley sugar, and the ice chunks danced around the sprigs of mint as his brother dipped the ladle in for another serving. Johnny grabbed one of the glasses and drained it.

   “Tastes good,” he said, banging the glass back down on the trestle table. “But a beer would be a whole lot better.”

   “Not very likely when Mrs Jones is a leading light in the town’s Temperance Society,” his brother said, smiling. “Where’s your new friend?”

   Johnny dipped his head, tickled by his own thought.

   “We been split up in case we cause a scandal, but, hell even I can’t get a girl into trouble just by standin’ next to her.”

   Scott laughed.

   “Murdoch’s exercising his parental muscle, is he? I’ll have to watch out.”

   “You with the Blacks?”

   “Yes, they’re over there listening to the choir.” Scott picked up the three punch glasses. “See you later, boy. Stay out of trouble.”

   He watched his brother go over to Martha and Jennie Black. The mother seemed as cool as the ice in the punch, taking the drink without smiling, and quickly returning her gaze to the choir. The girl, though, was all smiling, puppy-dog gratitude. Johnny felt sorry for her. It was clear Martha was smitten by his brother. After all, she probably hadn’t expected to meet a man like Scott Lancer in a small western town. Johnny had to admit, his brother had style. He had hardly to twitch before he got a woman interested. Acted like he didn’t care one way or the other, and then kept them at his feet with his measured, gentlemanly ways.

   Not that Scott didn’t know how to give a woman a real good time. Susie at the Silver Dollar had once said that Scott Lancer’s skill in that department was enough to make a whore give up her profession. That’d sure made him curious as hell to know his brother’s secret. He’d seen his pecker and had been relieved to find it no bigger than his own. So he’d listened once outside the door while Scott was upstairs with Rosie at the Silver Dollar. There’d been a lot of talking and laughing, and then Rosie’s soft moans, and it sure hadn’t sounded like she was faking it just to please her john. Her moaning and pleas for more had gone on long past the point he’d have been stuffing his dick back in his pants. He’d almost fallen asleep against the door when he finally heard Scott’s own cries from the top of the hill and Rosie’s howls of pleasure. Thirty minutes to get there. He hadn’t known whether to admire his brother or pity him.

 

   “Johnny.”

   He turned from watching his brother. Laura was there arm in arm with Katherine Trencher, and standing a little away, with Sarah in a basket, was Maria, smiling.

   “Hey …”

   “I’ve asked Maria to chaperone us, Johnny,” Laura said. “Mrs Trencher’s helping Mrs Jones out with the refreshments for the choir, so I asked Miss Trencher if she’d care to join us.”

   Johnny glanced at Maria, before touching his hat brim and smiling at Katherine. At least she wasn’t dressed in black, although her frock was drab and stiff enough, more suited to an old maid than a young girl.

   “Miss Trencher.”

   “Mr Lancer. Are you well?”

   “As well as I can be, ma’am, seeing as how I got a bunch of old folks just waitin’ for me to step outta line so they can whup me right back in.”

   The girl frowned and looked at Laura. She shook her head a little and smiled at Johnny. 

   “You’re safe from them now. I have your father’s and my aunt’s special permission for you to sit with us as long as Maria’s no more than twenty feet away …” He opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him to it. “… and before you protest, Johnny Lancer, your father had to bargain hard for twenty. My aunt wanted ten!”

   “Jesus!” He stopped his laugh when he saw Katherine’s look of alarm. “Sorry, ma’am, but I ain’t exactly used to polite ways yet.”

    The girl shook her head. Johnny caught her glance before she looked at Laura.

   “Please call me Katherine, please, both of you, or I’ll feel like I’m drowning more than I already do.”

   That did for any temptation to carry on joking. The girl had spoken in such a desperate note, with such an unhappy look that he wanted to hug it out of her right there and then. He saw Laura put an arm around the Katherine’s waist and stroke a strand of hair away from her face. His belly was jumping again at Laura’s tender touches.  He just couldn’t help imagining them on his own skin.

   “Let’s go and sit in the shade, Katherine, away from Johnny’s ‘old folks’.” She smiled at him. “Bring some fruit punch, Johnny. Maria’s got cakes for us in her basket.”

   God, but it was feeling like he’d known her his whole life, and he knew that was a dangerous feeling. He even liked being ordered around by her. It sent his nerves buzzing in a real exciting way.

   “Yes, ma’am.”

   He filled the glasses too quickly so that the punch splashed on his hands. He sucked it off and its cold sweetness seemed like a way through yet another new door in his life.  

      

Chapter Seventeen 

   He set the tray of fruit punch down in the grass under the oak tree. Maria had settled on a blanket with Sarah a certain distance away. Johnny wondered if it was twenty feet. He wouldn’t put it past his father to come and stride it out if there was any doubt of it. He lay down, head resting in one hand, a stalk of grass in his mouth. Laura and Katherine seemed already more like sisters than new acquaintances. He watched them silently as they sipped their punch, and smiled when, as one, they shivered and laughed a little over its coldness.

   “You settled in the old Springer place yet, Miss …” He glanced at Maria and lowered his voice. “Katherine?”

   “That ranch will never be my home, Johnny.” She rested the glass of punch in the grass. “If we are to be friends, secret friends, that is something you must understand, both of you.”

   Jesus, secret friends. His one year old new life was still throwing up surprises. He met Laura’s gaze. He’d known her almost no time at all, but he could feel something powerful working between them, something understood before he could even put words to it. He’d felt Katherine’s need that Sunday morning in the churchyard, and now Laura’d felt it too. The grass sang in the soft breeze around them and he’d swear he could hear a tune in it.

   “Where is your home, Katherine?” Laura asked.

   “Where my husband is.”

   Johnny took the grass out of his mouth.

   “You got a husband?”

   Katherine turned her head to look back at the church. Johnny followed her gaze and saw Mrs Trencher and other women putting out cakes and tea. The wind had got up and the tablecloths were snapping like irritated dogs.

   “At Fort Pierce,” she said. Johnny sat up and crossed his legs. This was no easy gathering, then, no casual, chance encounter.

   “A soldier?”

   “No, an army scout, a Paiute army scout.”

   Katherine was looking him straight in the eye, daring him to be surprised, he guessed. Well, he was surprised, for sure. She seemed barely more than a kid, and she’d got herself some Indian buck for a husband. He listened silently as she told her tale, taken by a Paiute raiding party when she was fifteen from her grandfather’s house outside Carson City – ‘they took me as calmly as if they were picking an apple in the sun. I wasn’t afraid, not nearly as afraid as I was of my grandfather.’ – kept kindly enough for a year, before the army tracked her down with the help of Sumu'yoo Taba, a scout the army had renamed Jem One-Braid. Before her parents could reclaim her, she’d run away with Jem – ‘the tenderest man I’d ever met. I’d given up hoping of finding such a heart.’ – they’d married and ‘lived in perfect bliss’ for six months in the woods, living on deer meat and berries. It was only when she’d got bitten by a snake and was dying that her husband had sought help in a town. It had been the end of them. They’d arrested Jem and escorted her back to her parents in Carson City.

   “Since then, my father has kept me under guard day and night. He’s only allowed me out today without him or one of my brothers because he wants the town to think better of us after what Cain did to your friend.”

   Johnny chewed on the grass. Glancing at Laura, he saw that she was waiting for him to speak. He sighed and spat out the grass.

   “Someone in your family done things to you, Katherine?”

   “Johnny!”

   He frowned at Laura. Sitting up cross-legged, he put a finger under the girl’s chin to raise her head.

   “There ain’t no shame in what you can’t do anythin’ about, Katherine, but I can’t help you if you tell fancy stories to cover up what’s really happenin’.”

   The girl’s eyes widened and she turned to Laura.

   “But it’s true. Everything I’ve told you is true, I swear.”

   He watched Laura pull the girl into her arms and whisper comfort to her, and hell, Laura was looking away from him, her eyes storm-dark. Jesus, and now Maria had got to her feet, the baby in her arms. His gut tight, he blew a fly off his sleeve.

   “It’s nothin’, Maria,” he said, not meeting her look.

   “You accuse an innocent girl of lying and you say it’s nothing?” Laura said. “I can’t believe you’re acting like this, Johnny!”

   “Laura …”

   “No!” He watched her stand up with the girl. “I’m taking Katherine back to her mother and when I get back you can explain to me how you can act so cruelly, Johnny Lancer.”

   He sighed. His head bowed, he pulled at the yellow grass until she returned, her shoes striking the dry stalks, loud in the still air. He squinted up into her face; her form was dark against the sun.

   “She ok?”

   “She’s helping with the refreshments.  I told her mother she’d been frightened by a bee.”

   He smiled.

   “A bee, huh? Bet it’d take more’n that to scare you.”

   “Yes, it would.” Laura knelt down in the grass. “Why did you do it, Johnny? Why did you just throw her story back in her face like that?”

   “’Cus that’s all it was, Laura. A story. A fairy tale.”

   “But how do you know? Why shouldn’t it be true?”

   He pulled hard at a tough stalk of grass.

   “Come on, Laura. Paiute raidin’ parties, deadly snake bites. We ain’t in no dime novel, y’know. Somethin’ bad’s goin’ on, but there’s no Indian husband, no livin’ on berries in the woods.”

   “I can’t see how you’d know that.”

   He breathed deep. Glancing at Maria, he saw she was watching him with a steady and loving gaze. Close by her, the baby slept in her basket.

   “I’ve been around, Laura. Seen a few things. Most of ‘em not good, but they were real enough. I know a phoney tale when I hear one.”

   “I still don’t understand how the spoiled son of a wealthy rancher could possibly know enough to decide Katherine’s lying.”

   Johnny nearly laughed, but allowed only a faint smile.

   “Is that what you think I am?”

   Relief flooded his veins when she returned his smile, spoke gently.

   “Well, your father’s a wealthy rancher, isn’t he, and aren’t younger sons of rich men always spoiled?”

   “Seems to me you been readin’ too many of them romantic kind of stories girls like to read.”

   She leaned forward slightly, her face upturned. Her skin seemed to glow, her eyes so alive with a teasing look.

   “And how would you know about those?”

   Jesus, but the air was practically bubbling between her and him. Surely someone had put sherbet in his blood, and knocked the senses out of his head, but hardly anything in his life had ever felt better.

   “Knew a girl,” he whispered. “She read ‘em all the time. Kinda got confused between real life an’ stories, though.”

   “Well, that’s not going to happen with me.” She reached out and touched his mouth with her finger, pulled his lower lip just a little. He swallowed hard. “I know the difference between a real man and a make-believe one.”

   “Niños!” He sat back quickly, his blood racing. Meeting Maria’s stern look, he half-smiled. His dick was throbbing and he found himself glad that he was wearing a longer jacket than usual. Laura had sat back, too, her head lowered, her hands in her lap. Did she know what she’d done? Somehow he knew that she did, although he was just as sure she’d never gone further, hoped like hell she hadn’t.

   “So what shall we do about Katherine?”

   Well, that sure cooled his blood. The Trencher girl and her lies had fled his mind as fast as a leaf in a storm.

   “Guess that’s easier for you to work out,” he said. “I ain’t exactly in a position to go askin’ what they done to her, seein’ how I stand with the Trenchers.”

   “You think her family’s harmed her in some way?”

   He crossed his arms and shrugged.

   “That’s my guess, Laura. Somethin’ about the whole set-up ain’t right, that’s for sure.”

   “Juañito, we must go now. Your papa instructed me - no more than forty-five minutes.”

   Nodding at Maria, he stood up and reached for Laura’s hand. She felt light in his grasp, light but strong and his heart waxed again that such a girl should want him. She released his hand and they followed Maria and the baby slowly through the long grass.

   “Laura, there’s somethin’ I got to tell you, before someone else goes twistin’ it all outta shape an’ you wind up hatin’ me before we even get started.”

   “Why would I hate you, Johnny? You’re the nicest boy I’ve ever met.” Blushing, she smiled. “Not that I’ve known too many boys.”

   He pulled off his hat and fiddled with the brim, more to disguise the squeeze of pleasure he’d got from her words than anything else. He took a deep breath.

   “I ain’t always been a rancher, Laura, that’s the truth of it. I ain’t always lived with my pa. I was born at Lancer, but my mama took me away when I was a baby.”

   “I know that, Johnny. My aunt told me. She said it broke your father’s heart and that it was the happiest day of his life when you and your brother came home.”

   He almost smiled, though his mouth was dry with anxiety.

   “Ol’ Widow Finney said that?”

   “I told you. She’s nicer than she allows others to see.”

   Frowning, he jammed his hat back on his head.

   “She told you anythin’ else about me?”

   “You asked me that before. She thinks that you’re still a little … wild, but she says you’ll grow out of that, and she believes your father is a fine man, a good influence on you.”

   Johnny shook his head. What was he to make of such mysterious generosity from the Widow Finney?

   “So she ain’t told you about …”

   “Johnny Lancer!”

   He looked to see who’d called his name. They were close to the church now. People were sitting at the long trestle tables, eating and drinking. Mrs Trencher and her daughter were walking around with jugs of cordial for the children. They were both smiling. Their gladness shone out beyond their plain, drab dresses. It was a noisy, happy scene. Petey Winkleman was doubled up with laughter over something, his mouth full of cake. Beside him, a little girl in a lemon coloured frock was scowling, her arms folded tight against her plump chest.

   His father was there, too, sitting between Mrs Jones, the Reverend’s wife and her sister-in-law, Anna Drayman, newly widowed and bearing the marks of unhealed grief, though she hid it well. Johnny had seen it before. There was no disguising eyes that still looked upon the black depths of loss. He knew if he got closer to Mrs Drayman, sat next to her, he’d smell the grief on her, like death. It was plain, though, that she was enjoying his father’s company. He was listening hard to her over the general babble, elbows on the table, his long fingers clasped in an arch. Johnny looked for his brother, but he could see neither him nor the Black women.

   Lounging against a tree, Adam Donner scribbled in his notebook. Johnny tried to imagine what Donner could see worth his notice. He’d read a few dime novels in his time, and never yet seen a church social described. Maybe the writer was going to have Johnny Madrid gun down a whole town while they ate chicken legs and talked about the harvest. Try saving the kid’s soul after that.

   It was Elthea Dickson who’d called him from the end of one of the tables. Sitting next to her was Pete Thorn, stuffing his face as usual. The old man’d gone to some trouble, though, to smarten himself up. He’d tied his long grey hair into a pony-tail, and he was wearing pants so new they still had the shop creases in them. Elthea looked happy enough, not weighed down by anything too much as far as Johnny could see. He wondered if it was different for old people. Had she done her grieving in those days her husband had swung from the rafters of her old barn? Had the bawling cow, in pain from her oozing tits, said all there was to say about Walt Dickson’s leaving? Plain fact was, old Elthea looked happy in the afternoon sun, surrounded by her neighbours drinking tea and helping themselves from the mounds of corn, chicken legs and pies laid up on the tables.

   Laura had brushed her hand against his fingers and gone before he could say what he needed to say. He saw her go to her aunt who was sitting on a stool, some way apart from the tables, stroking the head of one of her goats. A skewbald with yellow eyes, it looked like it knew secrets, like it was guarding the old woman. As was her way, the widow looked neither happy nor unhappy, though when he caught her eye, her gaze seemed to darken. Sighing, he took off his hat and sat down next to Elthea, who patted his arm and handed him a platter of sandwiches.

   “Lancer beef, Merry Cannon’s ham with Señora Rodriguez’s special recipe mustard or my blackcurrant jelly. Take your pick, boy. All that courtin’s gotta make a man real hungry.”

   Pete Thorn snorted and took a gulp of punch to help push down his latest mouthful.

   “Best give the boy some iced tea, Elthea. Looks kinda warm to me. Give ‘im some of that special recipe mustard an’ he’s likely to boil over.” The old man wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He was wearing another of Murdoch’s shirts, one his father had worn when they’d last gone hunting. Johnny wished he’d buy his own damn shirts. “She’s a pretty little piece, boy, I’ll give ya that.” Thorn grabbed at a leg of fried chicken before the platter was whisked away by Mrs Winkleman. “She know your history?”

   Johnny swallowed half a glass of frothy cold milk and wiped his mouth and let his tone come out low and icy.

   “Not all of it. Does Elthea know yours, old man?”

   “Now, now, you two,” Elthea said. “It’s twenty years since I come to town on a social footing, an’ I was plannin’ on enjoyin’ myself, so I’d be obliged if you’d practise a little civility. Johnny, honey, Pete’s told me all I need to know about himself …”

    Johnny gazed hard at Pete, who stared back at him with the coldness of a hawk as he chewed on the chicken leg.

   “He has, huh?”

   “Yes, an’ I’m sure you’ll do the same with your girl.”

   “She ain’t my girl, Elthea, not yet anyway.” He sighed and picked up his hat. “Excuse me, ma’am. I gotta go find my brother.”

  

   He found Martha Black sitting alone in the shade of Mrs Jones’ half-dead willow tree. Town folks had told the Reverend’s wife that the land was too dry for willows, that it’d ache for water and die a slow death; but Mrs Jones was a southern belle, as she’d told everyone who’d cared to hear. As a child, she’d played and made dens under giant willows. Their roots would seek out water, she’d insisted, even when it seemed there was none. They would seek it like God sought sinners, however deep they had to go. Well, what leaves the tree had were green. Maybe it had found enough water to live some kind of life, though not perfect.

   “Miss Black … Martha?”

   A book was lying open on her lap. She looked up at him and smiled. He’d expected tears, but the girl looked sleepily peaceful, like she’d taken opium.

   “Johnny, I haven’t seen you all afternoon.”

   “No, ma’am, I’ve been socialisin’. Leastways, that’s what my father and Scott call it.” He hesitated. “You been left alone?”

   “Oh, it’s alright. Mama developed one of her terrible headaches and Scott has very gallantly escorted her home.” Martha smiled. “He’ll return presently, and we’ll join the tables.”

   It took all he had not to breathe ‘Jesus’ out loud. Instead, he offered his arm.

   “I’ll take you there now. It ain’t right you sittin’ here alone. My pa sure as hell’d take exception to it.”

   “It’s perfectly alright, Johnny. I’d rather wait for Scott …”

   “Johnny!”

   Seemed like someone was always calling his name, and mostly like he was in trouble. In his old life, hardly anyone had said his first name, and that was how he’d liked it. Madrid – hard, tough, older. Even the whores had used it while they’d unbuckled his belt. He watched his brother come like a storm up from the Reverend’s front gate.

   “Hey, brother, I was just …”

   He was flat in the dry grass looking up at the willow before he knew it. He’d banged his head on a root that stuck up like someone’s elbow out of the earth. Blood filled his mouth. He’d just tasted its familiar metal tang when he was dragged half-way up by his jacket lapels and found himself looking at his brother’s mouth spitting words in his face.

   “I’ll never forgive you, Johnny! You’ve ruined my life, you damn sonuvabitch! Tell me why you did it.” Scott shook him hard. “Tell me!”

   “I saved you, brother,” he said. He knew he’d be punched again for that, and he was, hard enough for him to see stars. Was it the first time in his whole life he hadn’t fought back? He lay in the dust, dazed. Loud voices around him, women squealing, his father yelling, feet scuffling, someone lifting his shoulders, laying him back against something soft, somebody crying.

   “Johnny … open your eyes, Son.” His father’s voice, sounding worried, not mad. He tried to open his eyes, but it hurt. His mouth hurt, too. He wanted to spit out the blood, but he lay there against his father’s bulk, breathing in the smell of dust and people. “Thank you.” His father’s voice again. The sound of liquid splashing. Then the feel of water so cold on his brow, on his cut mouth, he was shocked into crying out and pulling his head away from the cloth. “Easy, son, easy. You’re ok. I’ve got you … Pete, let him go now. I doubt he’ll try to take me on.”

   “Murdoch, I …” His brother’s voice, quite close, not crazy anymore, sounding more like a scared kid.

   “No, I won’t discuss this here.” His father’s voice had cut in on Scott’s like a blade. “Reverend, I apologise for the disturbance. Thank you, Mrs Jones, for your hospitality. Will you ensure that Miss Black is escorted home? Can you stand up, Johnny?”

   Well, he tried, though all he wanted to do was lie in the willow’s shade until his head cleared. His father suddenly scooping him up into his arms and striding off felt like anger and impatience, like he’d failed somehow, and he tried not to groan all the way to the doctor’s.

 

   The surgery was cool and dark with its white walls and small windows. He lay on the table coming back slowly to life, like he was waking out of deep nightmare, the kind where you’d seen things you didn’t know lived in your head. It was silent, except for a fly in the window, and the room smelled of iodine, or maybe that was him. He reached up to touch the pain by his left eye and pulled his fingers back to gaze at the yellow stain. Jesus, but his brother must’ve loved that damn woman to punch his lights out like that. He had to admire a feeling like that, even when his face hurt like hell. He’d helped to break his brother’s heart and he’d learned something – it hadn’t happened to him yet, not over a woman, and he never would let it if he could help it.

  

   His father asked Donner to drive the Bronson, said all he had to do was hold the reins, the horses would do the rest. Billy’s brother, with his milky skin and city-slick hair, looked scared stiff and that was the only thing there was to smile about. His head hurt, Scott wasn’t with them and Murdoch was stone-faced, wouldn’t answer any of his questions. Halfway home, he puked up the fruit punch into the dust, surprised at how red it was, like nothing he’d ever vomited before. Only last month, Billy’d puked up green liquid, and they’d gazed at it, wondering what Will Clutterman had put in the beer.

   Murdoch rubbed his back until he was done. Then the baby started crying like a crazy thing and Maria soothed it until it was making no more than upset little gurgles. His father gave him water and said to rest his head against his shoulder if he needed to, and he did after awhile, his gaze on the snuffling baby, the shock at what his brother had done to him, emerging slowly, like a blowfly maggot out of a cow’s back. 

***********************************  

   “Why didn’t you defend yourself, Johnny?”

   He’d asked himself that question twenty times already, but he hadn’t come up with an answer yet. His father, sitting on a chair by his bed, expected one, though; that was certain. He’d been allowed to sleep when they got home, but his sleep had been restless, filled with his brother’s twisted mouth and Billy’s green puke in the dust. It’d been a relief to wake, until Murdoch’d come into his room and asked that question.

   “Guess I musta thought I deserved it.”

   “How on Earth could you possibly have deserved it?”

   Johnny shrugged. He saw an irritated look cross his father’s face. Murdoch was always ticking him off for shrugging. Said it was childish and rude.

   “Is Scott home?”

   “No.”

   “Where is he?”

   His father looked down at his clasped hands.

   “I’ve no idea. He went soon after Pete pulled him off you.”

   “Ain’t you worried?”

   Murdoch still wasn’t looking at him.

   “He’ll be back. He’s not about to give up his stake in Lancer for some …” His father hesitated, cleared his throat a little. “Fleeting love affair. Not while he’s got my blood pumping in his veins.”

   His father met his gaze then. Johnny’s gut churned.

   “You know about Mrs Black?”

   “I worked it out, yes, and … I’m guessing you told her to end it.”

   “Yeh.” Johnny hesitated. “Guess I should’ve kept out of it, huh? Scott ain’t some green kid.”

   Murdoch sighed. He stood up and walked to the window.

   “No, but in this case he’s been a damn fool, and it was better ended sooner rather than later.” He turned and looked at Johnny. “I wish you’d told me earlier, Son, let me deal with it.”

   “I couldn’t, Murdoch, you know that.”

   His father nodded. Walking back over to the bed, he gently grasped Johnny’s chin.

   “Next time, you defend yourself, boy, brother or not. Just because he’s a good man at heart doesn’t entitle him to use you as a punch bag, however badly he’s hurting. D’you understand what I’m saying?”

   Murdoch jigged his chin a little. Johnny didn’t want to tell him that it hurt.

   “Yeh, Murdoch, but I’m kinda hoping there won’t be a next time.”

   His father smiled and mussed his hair.

   “Come down when you’re ready. That blue roan mare’s had her foal, a colt. A real beauty. He might help to ease the hurt a bit.”

   “He might at that … Murdoch, what’re you goin’ to do with Scott?”

   “From the look on your brother’s face when he’d calmed down a little, he’ll punish himself more harshly than anything I could come up with, although I’ll have a few words to say to him about the way he’s behaved towards Martha Black. He’ll be lucky to find a wife within a hundred mile radius after what he’s done to that girl.”

   “Guess he couldn’t help it.”

   His father sighed. He tapped the counterpane on Johnny’s bed with his fingers. “I understand passion, Son. God knows, I’ve travelled that road myself, never more so than with your mother …”

   “Murdoch …”

   “I know I haven’t spoken of her much, Johnny, but since I realised what was happening with Scott, I’ve been thinking about her a great deal, how I felt about her…”

   Johnny drew in his breath. He looked up at his father; he’d folded his arms and seemed like a man who was in a mood to say anything. Johnny wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it.

   “Maybe you should be tellin’ this to my brother.”

   “How can I, when what I felt for Maria was so different for what I felt for Catherine? I’m not sure he’d understand.”

   That was it. Murdoch had him hooked like a catfish on a pole. He was struggling, for sure, but the bait tasted too rare and fine to let go. He looked warily at his father.

   “You loved ‘em both, though, huh?”

   “Yes, but loving Catherine was like finding the other half of me. Loving your mother …” His father stopped. Then he seemed to decide that as he’d begun on this road, he might as well finish it. His sigh was deep, though, his gaze dark. “I didn’t know myself. I lost the old me. It was as if a spell had been cast over me, and I was no longer in control of my fate. Feelings like that aren’t meant to last.”

   “Sounds bad.”

   His father looked up sharply.

   “Not in the way you’re thinking, Johnny. Bad for my peace of mind, maybe, but good if you want to know what living feels like.”

   “That good, huh?”

   “Yes, Son,” Murdoch said, meeting his gaze. “That good.” He smiled. “It used to scare me that you look so much like her, but I’ve gotten used to it.”

   Embarrassed, Johnny looked away, though he knew he’d remember for the rest of his life every word of what his father had said.

   “So I understand how your brother is feeling,” Murdoch said. “But he needs to come back down fast and get on with working this land.”

   “That what you did, after my mother an’ me were gone?”

   Murdoch hesitated, searched Johnny’s gaze as if he feared a trick.

   “Yes, when I’d …” His father stopped, swallowed hard, his jaw twitching with the effort. “Yes, I worked it so hard my fingers bled. You put passion into the land and you can build something that lasts, Johnny. Women come and go, but Lancer stays, thrives, grows, and you two boys are my insurance that it will continue to grow. Scott might be hurting now, but he knows what really matters. He knows where his duty lies.”

   In a few words, his hopes had bitten the dust. He blamed himself for daring to ask the question that he’d carried with him before he’d even been old enough to put words to it. Silently, he bore another muss of his hair, and watched his father leave. What had he expected? Admission that his father’s whole world had fallen apart when his wife and baby had left, long descriptions of tortured nights weeping into his pillow, stories of long, desperate journeys across America in search of his lost loved ones? Some idea that that all-consuming bitch, the land, mattered just a little bit less now that he and his brother’d come home? He’d scorned Katherine Trencher for her fairy tales, yet here he was doing the exact same thing, clinging on to the same stupid dreams he’d clung onto as a kid until their not coming true had turned them bad, turned his absent father into something to hate, something to dream of crushing so small, he’d never have to think of him again.

   Yeh, the Old Man had fucked him up either way he looked at it. Got him aching like a kid for something more than his third share of an empire. Making it pretty damn plain that when it came down to it, if you weren’t here to shoot your best load into Lancer dirt, you were nowhere. Nowhere at all. Maybe his brother was right, those times when he’d told him he hadn’t grown up yet. Maybe even running with Jarini’s gang had been no more than a game, those tough banditos no wiser than little fat Pasha playing with the shadows by the hacienda’s outer wall.

   The room had got suddenly darker. He heard a roll of thunder in the distance. He got up and went to the window. Lightning flashed over the mountains and he smelled hard rain in the air. He heard his father shouting orders and men ran to obey them, some clinging onto their hats as the wind got up. Johnny wondered where his brother was.    

  

Chapter Eighteen 

   It was a heck of a late summer storm. Its rain drove into the hard-packed ground like wave upon wave of iron tipped arrows and sent the dust flying. The wind blew men sideways, so they had to cling onto creaking buildings for support. Jelly, a chicken under each arm, and a cow on a rope, bent into the wind like an old tree as he crossed the yard to the main barn. Johnny ran down to help tie down loose tarpaulins and secure gates and doors. Hand on hat, his father yelled at him above the wind and thunder to get back in the house, but he ignored him, too excited by the storm. It was a hell of a thing; it rocked the world, made a man think known things could be swept away on an instant and you’d have to start again. Billy’d hated them, hunkered down in his bunk as soon as the first blaze of lightning cracked the mountain tops.

   Billy’s favourite horse, a grey called Amigo, had jumped out of one of the corrals. It skittered around the yard, wild-eyed, whinnying almost to a scream. Men tried to grab it, contain it with their arms outstretched, cut it off, but it dodged them like a gazelle. In the driving rain, its long mane and forelock stuck to its skin, so it looked gaunt and haggard like a grey ghost. Johnny didn’t feel confident about calming the horse, but he stood there in the yard, water pouring off the front of his hat, wet through to his skin, and waited. He was good with horses; mostly, he believed because he actually liked them. He’d’ve liked them even if he didn’t need them, and he wasn’t sure many men felt that way. Still, he was surprised when Amigo came to him almost at once, came splashing through the mud like he’d spied a friend at a party. Johnny took hold of his halter, patted his neck and led him into the smaller barn.

   Pete Thorn was there, quieting his mule with mutterings and pieces of windfall apples. Johnny put Amigo in the stall next to the mule and saw that the creature was quivering down to its hooves, ears flat back, ignoring the apple. He felt pity for it. About them all, the wind raged and shook the barn, so that the timbers squealed like trapped cats. Though the barn was strongly built out of Lancer oaks, it was being tested. Its creaks and groans had the quality of a man using every ounce of his strength to haul a cow out of a mud hole. Johnny grabbed a handful of hay and rubbed at Amigo’s coat to push out the water.

   “You got Elthea home ok?”

   Thorn hardly glanced at him, his gaze on the mule.

   “Left her with the Reverend’s wife when I saw the storm a’comin’. Soon as it’s over, I’ll go put whatever’s broke at her place to rights.” Thorn frowned and pushed his hand again beneath his mule’s nose. “C’mon, Sancho. Ain’t like y’aint heard a storm’s keenin’s before.”

   Johnny rubbed harder at Amigo’s coat.

   “You got intentions regardin’ her?”

   Thorn smiled.

   “Just keepin’ ‘er comp’ny for a spell, boy. Ain’t no harm nor plan in it.” Thorn looked clear across at him then. “Your brother did a fine job messin’ up your face for ya. It hurt still?”

   “Some.”

   “What’re y’goin’ to do about it?”

   “Nothin’.”

   Thorn barked out a laugh as he stroked the mule’s neck.

   “For a man who made his livin’ puttin’ holes in bad people, kid, you sure are the forgivin’ kind. You let me whack you around an’ then you don’t raise a finger to save yourself from another beatin’”

   “He’s my brother. He was hurting.”

   “No more’n he deserved if y’ask me, foolin’ with a married woman.”

   “I sure as hell didn’t ask you, old man.”

   Thorn smiled again.

   “Well, Johnny, it’s a good thing for you I won’t be needin’ to beat on you again, boy. It would’ve troubled my conscience sorely after what your brother did.”

   Johnny stopped rubbing the horse’s coat, his heart pounding.

   “What the hell’re you talkin’ about?”

   Thorn turned his head as the barn door opened and Murdoch came in, water dripping from his hat and slicker, a calf in his arms. Behind him, Jelly led one of his milk-cows on a halter; she was bawling hard. Beyond them, the rain slanted in silver rods against black clouds.

   “Here you are, John,” his father said. “I thought I told you to go back in the house. The doctor said you needed to rest.”

   “Yeh, Murdoch, but Amigo here was runnin’ wild in the yard. Just gettin’ the water out of his coat.”

   His father put the calf gently down in straw and came closer.

   “Go on inside and get dry,” he said. “I’ll see to the horse.”

   His hands on Amigo’s back, Johnny dipped his head and raised it again to meet his father’s eyes.

   “Pete an’ me got unfinished business, Murdoch.”

   His father frowned and then flashed a glare at Thorn. Johnny saw something close to fear in the old man’s eyes.

   “I’m certain Pete’s got no business with you that I shouldn’t know about, Johnny. Go on back to the house. Tell Maria to make sure the coffee’s strong and hot. I’ll be in shortly.”

   Johnny hesitated, his blood burning with resistance. The milk-cow was licking her calf with long sweeps of her tongue and the mule continued its trembling, but the men were still.

   “I want to hear what he’s got to tell me, Murdoch. I believe it was somethin’ important.”

   Thorn shook his head. His eyes had recovered their hawkish indifference.

   “It was like I was sayin’, boy. I’m glad you an’ me can see eye t’eye over Elthea Dickson. Wouldn’t’ve liked to’ve fallen out with ya over a woman.”

   “That ain’t what you were tellin’ me, old man.” Johnny kept a cold gaze on Thorn. “That wasn’t it.”

   “Well, boy, I’m sayin’ that it was,” Thorn said. “Now, do like your daddy tells you and git outta here ‘fore you catch your death.”

   Johnny threw the hay rub on the floor and stepped out of the stall.

   “I’m not finished with you, Pete, you lyin’ piece of shit.”

   “Johnny!”

   “He’s a damn fuckin’ liar, Murdoch. You think you know him, but you don’t!”

   His father took off his hat and shook out the excess water.

   “Go back in the house, John, before this situation gets out of control.”

   The pain and the fury rose in him like the unstoppable wind outside; his father and Pete had shut a cold door on him and he felt like banging on it until his fists bled.

   “It’s already out of control. It’s been out of control since I didn’t put a bullet in Cain Trencher’s brains. The one damn thing I should’ve done, an’ I didn’t. You wanted me to fight Scott off. Hell, you probably wanted me to lay one on this old man here for whackin’ me, but I have to sleep at night knowin’ I should’ve protected Billy, an’ I didn’t. I let him die like a fuckin’ coyote in a gin trap.”

    Murdoch replaced his hat and gave him a hard look.

   “We’ve had this discussion, Johnny, and the subject is closed. Now, do what I tell you and go back inside.”

   Something was wrong. He could feel it in the air of the barn while it groaned and keened in its battle with the wind. The two older men knew something he didn’t, and they were uniting to keep it from him. Suddenly, he felt the cold come upon him. He hadn’t noticed it until now, how his wet-through clothes were clinging to his skin and chilling him past his blood to the bone. His anger drained into a dull realization that his head hurt from his brother’s blows. Glaring at Pete, he left the barn.

   The yard was deserted now, and the bunkhouse lamps were lit yellow against the gloom. God knew, the rain was needed after months without it, but it’d chosen the wrong moment. Somewhere out there, his brother was wandering, his knuckles smarting bad and his heart, worse. He knew what Scott was feeling. He’d heard it in his voice at the social, before Murdoch’d cut him short. He knew his brother was sorry for what he’d done. Might still be mad at him though for awhile over Jennie Black. Maybe Scott wouldn’t even speak to him for a long time, and he’d understand that, take it all, as long as his brother came back, as long as he didn’t leave him alone with the vast acres, the dozens of working men, the burden of their father’s wishes pressing on his back like a ton of boulders.  

 

   The rain continued on into the evening, although the wind had lessened. After supper, he sat out on the swing seat and watched for his brother. He’d grabbed one of Scott’s work jackets from the cloakroom, the thick checked one he used for timber work up in the mountains. Murdoch’s old dog, Bess, sat at his feet; Tequila, his own three-legged stray, jumped up on the swing seat and lay across his legs. Johnny frowned, surprised that the self-governing little terrier would seek the comfort of a lap. It spooked him a little, made his gaze out into the rainy dusk more intent.

   When his father came out, he didn’t look his way. They’d hardly spoken at supper, except to pass the potatoes, make comments about the bridge over Ransom’s Creek. However many times they fixed it, it usually broke in a storm; they’d need to send a crew out there in the morning, and then there was nothing else to be said. Luckily, Adam Donner had been in a talkative mood, asking about Green River, its history as a raggedy little mining town, built on the hope of gold and grown large on the reality of prosperous cattle ranchers. His father’d been more than happy to tell what he knew and Johnny found he knew a heck of a lot. Not that he’d been that interested, though Donner had let his food go cold scribbling in his notebook.

   Murdoch struck a match. Johnny looked up then to see him lighting a cigar, blowing out the first drag of smoke to go weaving into the grey dusk and the rain. He was standing side-on to Johnny, just out of the rain, looking out into the yard.

   “How’s your head?” he asked after he’d smoked for a minute or two.

   “Ok.”

   His father looked at him then, smiled. He didn’t smile back. Murdoch sighed.

   “If I know Scott,” he said, “he’ll take a few days to straighten himself out before he comes home.”

   Johnny didn’t reply for awhile. He scratched Tequila’s ears and listened to the cigar being smoked, the suck of breath that drew in the smoke, the long blow out.

   “Supposin’ he don’t come home, Murdoch? Supposin’ he just wakes up in the mornin’ an’ takes off down some other road?”

   His father hesitated, kicked at the ground with the toe of his boot.

   “I’ll worry about that when and if it happens, but my guess is, it won’t.”

   “Would y’miss him? I mean you’ve only known ‘im hardly a year.”

   Murdoch looked at him like he was loco, and suddenly he felt ashamed of his needling.

   “Good Lord, boy, of course I’d miss him. What makes you ask such a damn fool question?” Johnny dipped his head. Murdoch came and sat down on the swing seat beside him. “We’re a family, Johnny. We stick together.”

   Johnny sighed.

   “For the land’s sake,” he said. “Yeh, Murdoch, I heard it already.”

   “No, for our sakes, Johnny, after what we’ve been through, the three of us.”

   The softly spoken words brought his head up so quickly, the bump from the tree root gave him a jolt of pain. His heart racing, he watched his father take out a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket.

   “I want you to read this,” Murdoch said. “You can get mad at me about it if you want. God knows, you’re entitled to be angry with me, all of you, for the terrible fact that I wasn’t there while you were growing up.”

   Johnny stared at the paper his father held out to him. ‘All of you’; those three words had leapt out at him like a rattler under his horse’s hooves, throwing him sideways.

   “What is it?”

   “It’s a letter from your sister, Tira, in Scotland.”

   “What the hell …?” Johnny glared at his father, though he was more scared than angry, his blood pumping through his veins so hard, Tequila jumped off the swing seat and curled up beside Bess. “What the hell’re you talkin’ about, my sister? I don’t have a goddamn sister.”

   “You do.” Murdoch put the letter in the space between them on the seat. He drew the last of the cigar, flicked the stub and heeled it into the dirt. “I fathered a child with your Aunt Mary before I left Scotland for America, just over thirty years ago. I had no idea she was with child or I’d have stayed with her. Your uncle placed Tira with a family, a saddler’s family, a couple of villages away and that’s all I knew until the girl – the young woman – sent me this letter. Your aunt wrote me last month that I could expect it, but I never believed it would happen.”

   Johnny sat forward, his gut churning. A sister. Jesus, he had a sister. A sudden desperate longing to see her besieged him, to stand in front of her, study her face, her eyes – were they blue, like his, like their father’s? - touch her hand, hear her voice. He wasn’t angry; Jesus, no, but he wanted to cry with the sheer power of what he was feeling. Instead, he leaned on his knees and looked across at his father. Murdoch was taking his second cigar out of his pocket.

   “You got any more kids you ain’t owned up to yet, Murdoch?”

   “No, and I’m not excusing the fact that I fathered an illegitimate daughter either. It was reckless and irresponsible, but it doesn’t change the fact of Tira’s existence and I’m not apologising for it. You’re just going to have to learn to accept it, Johnny.”

   Johnny smiled.

   “Jesus, Murdoch, I accepted it already. You got a picture of her?”

   Cigar in his mouth, his father had been about to light a match. The surprise was plain on his face as he turned his head and met Johnny’s look.

   “No, but she’s seen a picture of you and your brother.”

   “She has?”

   “I gave Mary one of the studio photographs I commissioned last spring.”

   Johnny frowned.

   “Jesus, Murdoch. I look bad in them pictures!”

   His father lit the cigar and blew out the first draw.

   “No, Son, you were sulking – in every one of them, unfortunately.”

   “Yeh, well, you an’ Scott practically bull whipped me into that damn studio. Never felt so damn stupid in all my life.” He hesitated, looked shyly at his father. “So what does she – Tira – say about the pictures?”    

   “Read the letter,” his father said. He stood up. “I need a drink. Don’t stay up too late. You need to rest that blow to your head.”

   “Murdoch?” His father looked down at him. “What if Scott don’t come back?”

   “Then I’ll go after him, Son, bring him home, and I don’t care how long it takes for him to get himself straight either, as long as he’s here.”

   Swallowing hard, Johnny nodded. After his father had gone, he gazed at the letter resting there on the Mexican blanket that covered the swing seat. He couldn’t help wondering if his father hadn’t chosen this moment to tell him about his daughter to shock his thoughts away from what’d happened in the barn. All through supper, he’d wrestled with the question he wanted to ask – had Pete Thorn done something with Cain Trencher and did his father know about it? Thorn would’ve had to have done it during or after the church social, or surely the Trencher women wouldn’t’ve been there. They’d’ve been shut up at the ranch while Aaron Trencher rode like a pox-ridden avenging angel looking for Cain’s slayer. And would he be glad of it, glad that the old man’d done what he knew he’d never do, however many nights he woke, the violence of Billy’s death shaking the blood out of his veins? Truth was, if he’d been going to kill Trencher, he’d’ve done it there and then where Billy lay bleeding, and he hadn’t. That was the thing that he carried like a cloud in his head.

   He touched the letter. Jesus, though, a sister, a woman who shared his blood and skin, who spoke with a strange accent and lived in a landscape he could barely imagine - damp and grey in the winter, green and purple in the summer,. Already, he’d given Tira long raven-black hair, sea-blue eyes, a small face with delicate features like Mary’s, a checked woollen robe about her as she stood looking out to sea, wondering about America, about her father … Did she know about him? Had she heard his name? Spoken it out loud? Rolled the idea of a kid brother, two kid brothers, around in her mind until she ached with it? He picked up the letter, folded it again and put it in his shirt pocket. He’d read it later, when it didn’t feel like it might explode in his fingers.

   Tequila was barking out in the rain. He hadn’t noticed the dog had gone. Looking up, he saw a horse, saddled but riderless, jogging towards him, its flaring nostrils forcing out hot plumes of steam, its sweating skin smoking as if on slow fire.

   “Murdoch!” Stepping over Bess, he dashed out into the churned mud of the yard and grasped the horse’s bridle. It yanked away from the wildly yapping dog. “For Christ’s sake, Tequila, quit that fuckin’ noise! Murdoch!!”

   His father came out with Pete and Adam.

   “It’s one of Scott’s,” Johnny said. “That new gelding he tied off to the Bronson this mornin’. I don’t even know its damn name.”

   “Sherman,” his father said, coming out into the rain to place his hand on the gelding’s nose. “Easy, fella, easy.” He looked at Thorn. “Pete, go rig up a wagon, would you, and tell Jelly to saddle Amo. I’ll get some supplies together.”

   “I’m going with you,” Johnny said. Murdoch shook his head as he turned towards the house.

   “No, you’re not. Not while your head’s still bothering you.”

   Johnny grabbed his father’s arm.

   “He’s my brother, Murdoch. You’ll have to shoot me to stop me lookin’ for him an’ you know it.”

   His father drew in his breath. He looked like he might swat him away as if he was a pesky fly, but Johnny knew that he’d won.

   “Alright, but you put a slicker on, boy, and you stick with me, you got that?”

   “Yeh.” Johnny hurried to keep up with his father’s long strides. “Murdoch, you reckon Sherman threw Scott an’ high-tailed it back home? He’s pretty green.”

   His father grabbed his saddlebags off the peg and threw Johnny his slicker.

   “Possibly. If so, the best we can hope for is that Scott’s walking home right now with a couple of bruises and a dose of dented pride.” He gave Johnny’s face a quick rub. “It’s alright, Son, we’ll find him. Scott’s a tough lad. He might have a broken heart, and even a broken limb, but he’s a born survivor. Now, go get a couple of spare blankets from the cupboard upstairs. I’ll sort out the medical supplies.”

 

   They rode for hours, long into the night. The wind blew the tree tops sideways and the rain found gaps in their slickers. They held lamps with guttering flames that barely lit the darkness, and their eyes ached with gazing along the main trail to Green River from Lancer. Calling Scott’s name, louder to combat the rain and the wind’s noise, made their throats raw.

   When they reached the town, Murdoch made enquiries of the marshal while Pete went to the Red Dog saloon and Johnny, to the Silver Dollar. Lyra’s face lit up when he pushed open the doors to a place seeing off its last drunken customers. She left the lap of a fat man with greasy hair and dirty, chewed nails, and sashayed across the floor, smiling, drunk.

   “Johnny, you come for some late night fun?”

   Dripping water from his hat and slicker, he ignored her.

   “You seen my brother, Will?”

   Clutterman quit pushing the broom around the tables. He leaned on the handle and looked at Johnny, studying him, taking his sweet damn time over answering like he always did.

   “Wouldn’t’ve thought you’d be wantin’ to see too much of ‘im after this afternoon, Johnny.”

  “Just answer the damn question,” Johnny said, shrugging Lyra’s hand off his arm. Clutterman shrugged.

   “Nope, ain’t seen ‘im.”

  Lyra came close, grinding her hips hard against him, stroking his cut mouth.

  “Come on, baby,” she whispered. “Let me ease your hurts away.”

  He looked at her then, saw her smeared lipstick, smelt the stink of sex and whisky, of the fat man who’d when he’d come in, had his dirty hands under the cup of her breasts.

   “You can’t do that, Lyra. You sure as hell can’t do that.” He looked around at the other girls there, most of them too far gone with their long evening’s work to even look at him straight. “Any of you seen Scott?”

   “Hell, no,” Rosie said, her gaze not leaving her poker hand. “But when you find that brother of yours, you can tell ‘im he owes me a few tricks. He ain’t dipped ‘is wick in me for a month or more. He got took for a monk or somethin’?”

   “Nope, just had his mind on other things.” He gasped as he felt Lyra’s hand go to his crotch and squeeze. He pushed her away. “Jesus, get the hell off me, Lyra!”

   She glared at him, her eyes unfocused, her body swaying a little.

   “What’s the matter, Johnny? Ain’t I good enough since you been sparkin’ some little Miss Pure Draws from outta town?”  

   “You’re drunk, Lyra. You should go sleep it off.”

   “Go to hell!”

   He breathed deep and left the saloon, Lyra yelling after him, even as he crossed the street.

   When he got back to the marshal’s office, his father was already mounted. Dead beat and scared, he looked up at Murdoch, expecting somehow that he’d have an answer to this craziness of a brother vanished into nowhere. But his father turned his horse in silence and led them back out of town. They resumed the search along the road, shining the lamp along the scrubby edges, calling his brother’s name, the wagon’s wheels splashing up mud. Half-way home, head pounding and ready to puke, he slumped forward in the saddle and nearly fell. His father pulled him to the ground and waited while he vomited so hard his eyes burnt. He knew he was sick, didn’t need Murdoch to tell him he was running a fever. It was the end of the search, though, however hard he argued for them to carry on. Silently ignoring him, his father made him ride up front of him on Amo. Through the still driving rain, Murdoch yelled at Pete to make his way back to the ranch, but to keep looking, before putting Amo into a steady lope towards home.   

 

Chapter Nineteen 

   It was past dawn when he woke. The sun put a slice of light through the gap in the drapes and it rested just where his left foot lay under the cover. He jiggled his foot as if making to dislodge the beam. Then he remembered that his brother was lost, that they’d stopped searching because of his sickness, that his father’d ridden hard home in the rain, holding him tight against his ribs. He’d puked again, over the horse, over Murdoch’s arm, heard his father cuss, felt a hand clamp his forehead, more cussing. That was the last thing he could recall clearly, Murdoch cussing like a trooper while the cold rain came down, using words that didn’t sound right coming from his mouth.

  

   Downstairs, he found Pete Thorn sitting at the kitchen table pushing eggs and biscuits in his mouth like he hadn’t eaten in a month. The old man’s hair and beard were still damp and his eyes were red-rimmed, exhausted.

   “Where’s Murdoch?”

   Thorn took a big swallow of coffee to push down a mouthful of food. He glanced at Johnny before stabbing another forkful of eggs.

   “Out with a crew lookin’ fer your brother, just like I been doin’ all night.”

   “He didn’t wake me …”

   Thorn gave him a scornful look.

   “Boy, you wasn’t fit to be out last night, an’ you ain’t goin’ now. Your daddy told me to keep you here, no matter what.”

   “You can go to hell, old man.”

   “That’s the plan, kid, only not yet. Now, sit down an’ eat.”

   Johnny shook his head.

   “I’m ridin’ out to look for Scott, old man, an’ you sure as hell can’t stop me.”

   He headed for the door.

   “An’ where you gonna look that we ain’t looked already, kid?” Thorn said. He got up from his chair, took the coffee pot off the stove and poured out two cups. “You think you can do better than an old buffalo hunter and a man who could track an Indian blindfold in the dark.”

   He’d been halfway out the door in search of his hat and gun belt. Thorn’s words stopped him cold.

   “My father’s no tracker. I’ve seen him track wild turkeys, but he said that was about all he could do.”

   Thorn held out the cup of coffee. Johnny hesitated and then took it. It smelled good, and Thorn, a man who’d known his father when the blood had run wild in his veins, was looking like he was about to feed the craving that never left him.

   “There’s a whole lot you don’t know about your daddy, boy, a whole lot. You think you got the up on him with your past bad ways, like he’s been sittin’ in clover all his damn life. I don’t know why he don’t choose to tell y‘bout the things he’s done, but I reckon it’d be a good thing fer a kid like you to know. Might put a bit of respect in your bones.”

   Johnny glared at Thorn, who’d sat down at the table again.

   “I got respect for my father.”

   “Not enough fer ya to snap to an’ do exactly what he tells ya, not like I’d expect if you was mine. I see ya talkin’ back, sassin’ ‘im, actin’ like you know better’n ‘im, outrightly defyin’ ‘im. Most men, includin’ me’d take a belt to ya to teach ya respect the hard way, grown though you might be, put right what’s been done wrong away from your home’n kin, but Murdoch’s soft with ya fer some reason I can’t fathom.”

   Johnny drank half the cup of coffee, sat down and split open a biscuit. He realised he was hungry, that he needed to fuel up for whatever lay ahead in the day.

   “He ain’t a violent man. Most men I’ve met’re like you, whack y’as soon as look at you. Murdoch ain’t like that. I know he can use his fists, but mostly he favours words.”

   Thorn snorted.

   “Maybe these days. Iffen he’d been of the gentle persuasion thirty years ago, we’d’ve been dead men, for sure.”

   Johnny took a bite of his biscuit and chased it down with coffee.

   “You goin’ to tell me about it, Pete, or are you just goin’ to carry on walkin’ round what you got to say like a woman?”

   “It ain’t up to me, boy.”

   “Ain’t up to you to say what you’ve already said.”

   Thorn hesitated; then he nodded and slurped the rest of his coffee.

   “Whether ya like the fact of it or not, Johnny, I’m only here ‘cus your daddy tracked down a renegade Indian and squeezed the life outta him with his bare hands. I was there. I saw it. That injun was the meanest cuss this side of the Sierras. Killed twenty or more - sodbusters, drifters, trappers, miners, settlers, lawmen, women an’ young ‘uns – he weren’t fussy.”

   “Did he have a name?”

   Thorn frowned.

   “Yeh, he had a name. Kiowa named Red Crow. Ranged near the whole of Wyoming at one time or another. Soldier boys, bounty hunters, even the Pinks’d tried to hunt him down, but it was like ol’ Red Crow was a magic man. He could disappear just like that.” Thorn snapped his fingers. “Melt away like dew in the sun.”

   “How come you an’ Murdoch tangled with ‘im?”

   Thorn barked out one of his laughs and shook his head.

   “Boy, a man don’t choose to tangle with a sonuvabitch like Red Crow. You happened upon ‘im an’ that was enough excuse fer ‘im to slit yer throat an’ take what he pleased.” Thorn poured more coffee. “You musta met ‘em, Johnny, in your line o’ work, them fellers who just kill fer the hell of it. They like killin’, like the smell an’ the shame of it.”

   “Yeh, I met ‘em.”

   “Ain’t your way though, is it, boy. I’ll bet you had to drink’n whore your way round every killin’, even when the man’s heart wus so black, you coulda used it to blot out the sun.” Johnny held the old man’s gaze, but his heart was thumping hard. Thorn smiled. “Yeh, you weren’t no Red Crow, fer sure. You weren’t no black-hearted desperado, though you sometimes might’ve wished you was.”

   Johnny realised he’d been holding his breath. He let it out and stood up quickly, wincing at the sudden stab of pain in the back of his head.

   “You’re wastin’ my fuckin’ time, old man.”

   He went to the hallway, grabbed his gun belt from the peg and strapped it on. His hat was still damp, but he took it and walked outside. The yard was drying quickly and Jelly’s hens were back in their coop. Horses were in the pens pulling at hay and the doors of the barns were wide open to the early sun. Jelly was sitting on a little stool, milking a cow while Tequila leapt at butterflies in Maria’s herb garden. It seemed nothing was left of last night’s havoc.

   “Red Crow took it bad, us campin’ on his side of the river, so he slit our mules’ throats while we was sleepin’, took our saddles an’ our boots.” Johnny made no move. Staring out into the yard, he listened to Thorn. “Don’t know why he didn’t kill us there an’ then. Would’ve been as easy as breathin’”

   “Maybe that’s why,” Johnny said. “Some men like a challenge.”

   “Yeh, well, he didn’t have one in me, an’ I ain’t afraid t’say it. Next mornin’, he was there, starin’ right at us from the other side of the river. Spoke good English, like he’d been among white men for awhile. Told us that he’d give us three days an’ then he’d come after us an’ it wouldn’t be no mules’ throats he’d be cuttin’. I was scared, boy. I don’t mind admittin’ to it.”

   “What about Murdoch?”

   “He might’ve been scared, but mostly he was mad. I’d known that boy fer two years. He’d already fought some fights, mostly to keep what was rightfully his, like with them Crows, sometimes just ‘cus a mudsill took a likin’ fer squarin’ up to a big man like your pa …” Thorn smiled. “Once over a woman.”

   Johnny looked at Thorn then. He’d store that one for later.

   “Murdoch went after Red Crow?”

   Leaning on the adobe wall, Thorn rubbed a bony hand over his face. Johnny felt a flash of pity and gratitude for the old man, worn to a string by his all night searching.

   “Like a wolf after a coyote, boy. I told him to let it go, head fer the nearest town, buy new mules and git out of Wyoming, but he’s as stubborn as they come, then an’ now. He revictualled in the nearest town alright, but then he lit straight out fer Red Crow’s territory, though his feet was still in bad shape from walkin’ in his socks, an’ carryin’ me half the way.”

   “He carried you?”

   “On his back, boy. I’d got sick from a mule bite turnin’ bad on me.” Thorn shook his head. “First time any of them mules’d showed a mean streak. Musta known we wouldn’t save ‘em from their throats bein’ cut an’ dyin’ in a spreadin’ pool of their own blood. Poor beasts.”

   Johnny waited, let Thorn have his moment of remembered grief.

   “How long’d it take for Murdoch to catch up with Red Crow?”

   “Sooner’n the injun expected, that’s fer sure. Caught ‘im at dawn peein’ in the long grass. Said he knew Murdoch’d come. Was hopin’ he would. Said he’d never gutted an’ scalped a man your pa’s size. Good coup.”

   Johnny swallowed. Even at a distance of thirty years, he could feel the hot blood running between the Kiowa and the young buffalo hunter. It excited the hell out of him. He wanted to be there.

   “How’d he kill Red Crow?”

   “Told you. With his bare hands. Started out with knives, just like Red Crow wanted. I’d come along, sick though I was, an’ I thought Scotty was a goner, fer sure. Thought I’d have to watch ‘im kill my friend, an’ then he’d rip the scalp offen my livin’ skull.”

   Johnny turned his head from watching the arch in the distance.

   “Murdoch fought with knives?”

   “Yeh, until he gotta hold of Red Crow’s neck and throttled the life outta him. He got a few cuts offen the injun’s knife, but he said he’d blood to spare.”

   Johnny looked back at the arch. His father was riding under it, followed by six men, Sam Wester and Pete Merritt included. There was no sign of his brother, and his father looked as grim as death as he approached them. Johnny stepped forward to grab Amo’s bridle as Murdoch dismounted.

   “Murdoch …?”

   “He’s at the Trencher place,” his father said, walking past him into the house.

   “What the hell’s he doin’ there?”

   In the kitchen, Murdoch went to the coffee pot on the stove and poured a cup. He sat down at the table, grabbed a biscuit, took a bite and chased it down with a swallow of coffee. Johnny had never seen his father hungry enough to forget to chew. For a moment, it struck him into silence.

   “Murdoch?”

   His father looked at him then, as if he hadn’t realised he was there.

   “Jesse Trencher, Cain’s older brother, found Scott unconscious early this morning in one of their line shacks. I met Jesse on the road that forks off to Elthea’s place. He’d ridden out to tell me that they’ve fetched a doctor out to him.”

   Johnny felt his skin prickle with fear.

   “How bad is he?”

   His father took another swallow of coffee and rubbed a hand down in his face. He sighed heavily.

   “I don’t know, Johnny, and I don’t know how the hell Scott ended up in one of Trencher’s shacks, but I’m damn well going to find out.” He looked at Pete who stood silently in the doorway.

   “Tell Jelly to hitch up the buck board, Pete. I’m going to fetch Scott home whatever shape he’s in. Tell him to load up plenty of blankets and some straw sacks to soften the ride.” Murdoch stood up. “I’m going to get a wash and shave before I head out… where are you going, John?”

   Johnny had turned to follow Thorn. He stopped, his back to his father.

   “To saddle up my horse.”

   “No, you’re not.”

   “I’m riding out there, Murdoch. My brother’s in the hands of that bunch of cut-throats and …”

   “And you’re not going in there on your own, even if you were fit to ride.”

   Johnny turned and glared at his father.

   “Stop treatin’ me like some green kid, Murdoch! I’ve scraped better men than the Trenchers off the sole of my boot.”

   “That maybe so, but Jesse told me that Cain’s disappeared during the night. He may well have something to do with Scott’s accident and, until this is resolved, Johnny, you’ll stick with me.”

   His father strode off quickly and headed for the stairs. Johnny followed him, his heart racing, but his voice cold.

   “You think I can’t take a shit-headed low-life like Cain Trencher, Murdoch? I think you’re forgettin’ what I’m best at.”

   He hadn’t held out much hope that he could swing this man with his gunfighter’s line of attack, and the rigid set of Murdoch’s shoulders was enough to scare him a little. His father turned, his face offering not a trace of the kindly lines Johnny had got used to lately.

   “I don’t give a damn about that, boy. You’re with me now, a Lancer, and we work together to head off any threat to this ranch or its future. If you can’t accept that, then you’d better do as you said you wanted to the other day and be a cowhand for the rest of your life, that or go back to hiring out your gun, but I’m warning you, Johnny, I’m offering you the toughest option. All the rest is just playing in the dust.”

   His father began to climb the stairs.

   “You think I been playin’ all my life, Murdoch?”

   He held his breath, felt a pain in the pit of his belly. Murdoch stopped. He turned another severe look on Johnny.

   “No, I don’t think that, but I do believe you don’t know yourself yet, who you are, who you’re meant to be. You need to step out of the shadows, Son, walk with me.”

   Johnny swallowed hard and let out a jagged breath.

   “I don’t know how.”

   “Just put one foot in front of the other,” his father said. “Now, you can ride with me on the buckboard or you can stay here and do a little bookwork, rest your head. Make your choice. I’ll be down directly.”

   “You sure don’t make it easy for me do you, Old Man?”

   This time his father didn’t turn, but spoke as he reached the top of the stairs.

   “I never promised you a soft ride, Johnny, and now’s one of those times you can show me what you’re really made of.”

   He didn’t get it, not all of it, not the full long, deep draw of it. His head span with the remnants of his concussion and his father’s words. All he wanted to do was ride in to Trencher’s place, rifle and pistol loaded and demand his brother back. He wanted to see fear in Trencher’s eyes as he swore to track down his gutless son and feed his carcass to the turkey vultures. He wanted to feel his old power surging through his veins like the crackling run of a lit fuse. He’d wrestled with the thought of killing Cain long enough and now was surely the time. The boy’d shot Scott, for sure. What more proof did his father want?

   Johnny rested his head against the end banister, and then, cursing, turned and walked outside. 

 

   It had been awhile since he’d seen the Springer place. He remembered the flowers trailing around every wall and pillar, and planted in front of the meanest little buildings, so it’d seemed like you were entering some kind of lost garden. At first, he’d reckoned Jessie Springer for the show, but Henry’d soon put him right. While his father’d frowned away at the distant mountains, Henry had given Johnny the lowdown on his views on colour, how it was the most important thing in life, how a man shouldn’t and couldn’t live without it. He’d listened dutifully, but not closely, too aware that Murdoch was somehow angry, that Henry sounded a little bit crazy.

   Now it was the Trencher place and the flowers were gone, the walls and pillars bare, exposing wood and stone. For the first time, Johnny saw a man’s philosophy of life made plain in his home. While Lancer commanded with its three stories and white walls, its strategically placed sentry posts, it also sprawled into softer places, the kitchen garden where lavender, marigold and peppers grew, the veranda with its bowls of water and old bones for the dogs, its creaky swing seat, draped with faded blankets, his apple tree growing so near the house it seemed like it was trying to get in.

   The Trencher place wasn’t letting anyone be fooled into thinking they might be meeting a man not on his guard night and day. Nothing was hidden behind gentler lines. The place reminded Johnny of a military fort, and not even the horses quietly grazing in a nearby pasture could soften it. His father drove the buckboard under the Cottonwood Creek Ranch sign, a carved oak plank supported by two tall stone pillars.

   “It’s as if he was never here,” his father said, above the rattle of the buckboard.

   “You heard from him?”

   Murdoch glanced at him, as if surprised by the question.

   “No, but I think that’s part of the old fool’s plan, cut himself off from everything he’s ever known. God knows what can bring a man to that kind of path.”

   “Hatin’ his old life bad enough, I guess.”

   His father grunted and flicked the horses into a faster walk.

   “You know well enough what I think of that idea, Johnny, and I’m no more convinced by it than I was four months ago.” Murdoch looked at him again. “How’s your head?”

   “Sore.”

   “You should’ve stayed home.”

   “You didn’t order it.”

   “Would you have stayed?”

   Johnny frowned.

   “Yeh, I’d have stayed, Murdoch. Can’t guarantee I’d’ve taken it with a yessir an’ a salute, but I’d have stayed.”  He hesitated. “Last night, did I puke up over you?”

   “You did.”

   “Sorry.”

   “No need. Just throw-up. Better on me than anyone else. Anyway, I’ve had worse on my clothes. I was more angry that I’d let you come with us.”

   “You think you coulda stopped me, Murdoch?”

   His father smiled, though it was quickly replaced by a grimace as he pulled up in front of the ranch house. A stone-faced man with a rifle stood at the door, a dark heavy slab of wood studded with iron and still carved with Henry’s initials.

   “We’ve got to get Scott the hell out of this place,” Johnny said. He wasn’t afraid, but the silence unsettled him. He knew the forge, the bunkhouse and the other working buildings were, unlike Lancer’s set-up, some distance from the house, but he could see or hear no sign of life, no cats, dogs nor cows, no whistling, hammering nor even an insect, apart from the grasshoppers that’d eaten up the only apple tree’s leaves and now skittered and hopped in their dozens around their team’s hooves and the buckboard’s wheels.

    “We will,” his father said, tying up the reins. Johnny jumped down among the flicking grasshoppers.

    “How come we ain’t got hoppers like this?”

    Murdoch got down off the buckboard. He kicked a grasshopper away from his foot.

   “I don’t know. It’s a long time since I’ve seen this many in one place.”

   “That tree’s got nothin’ left but its apples.”

   “Mr Lancer.”

   Johnny turned with his father to face Aaron Trencher. He walked stiffly on his stick towards them, his eyes strangely bright and welcoming in his pale, pockmarked face. He thrust out his hand at Murdoch.

   “Welcome, Mr Lancer.”

   Johnny watched his father hesitate before he took the hand and shook it.

   “Mr Trencher, I wish I could say this visit was a pleasure.”

   “Of course, of course, under the circumstances, sir, but I assure you that your son is receiving the best possible care. It is but a flesh wound, a clean wound.”

   “Is he conscious?”

   “Yes, he regained consciousness half an hour ago.” Trencher gestured at the entrance and Johnny followed the two men into the house. “He has, however, lost a great deal of blood.”

   Johnny scowled at the news and his mood wasn’t improved by the sight of the large painting above the fireplace in the main room. In his later years, Henry had covered the walls with his bright paintings of trees and flowers. He’d even removed the map of his land to make way for a portrait of a Mexican kid fishing in a green pool. Now there was a dark painting of men at war, the only colours the blue of their tunics, the bright blood spilling on the ground. Soldiers’ faces were twisted in protest as they fell, and the horses – he could hardly stand to look at animals so mangled, so far from their birthright. One, a grey, downed with a sword through its throat, looked out from the painting, frozen in its panic and terror. It made him sick to see it and his head throbbed again.

   “A grim subject for a living room,” his father said.

   “It was a grim war, sir,” Trencher said. “I believe your son is a veteran.”

   “Yes, he is.”

   Trencher looked at Johnny.

   “And you, Johnny? Did you join your brother?”

   “Johnny was too young,” his father said, before he could reply.

   “Of course,” Trencher said. “My eldest – Matthew - died at Cumberland Church. He’d enlisted in ’61 and his mother had allowed her heart to believe that he would come home once Lee’s days were done, but she had to content herself with my return.”

   “You served?” Johnny heard the gruff surprise in his father’s tone.

   “I did. I was a major in the 116th Illinois Infantry attached to Sherman’s 15th Army Corps.” Trencher knocked his leg with his stick. “I thought I would lose this leg, but even if I had, it would have been a small loss compared to what was lost on those battlegrounds.”

   “Indeed,” Murdoch said. “Might I see my son now?”

   “Of course.” 

 

   Upstairs, Johnny removed his hat and followed his father and Trencher into a large room. His brother was lying in a bed, his skin as pale as the sheets. Tom Finlay was there, putting away his instruments in a black bag, and Trencher’s wife, who’d Johnny had last seen at the church social, was by Scott’s side pressing the sweat from his face with a damp cloth. The room smelled of iodine and carbolic, and the young doctor looked slicker and sharper than a banker to Johnny, so used he was to that rose-growing old soak, Dr Drake.

   “Tom,” his father said, “How is he?”

   “Weak, Mr Lancer.” Johnny returned Finlay’s nod. “But he’ll recover. The bullet went in his shoulder clean and missed his bone. He’s lost a lot of blood, but there’s no fever. He’s lucky that Jesse found him when he did.”

   “You call this luck?” Johnny said. He watched his father go to Scott’s side and press a hand over his forehead. His brother appeared to be sleeping. For himself, he didn’t know what to feel. The last time he’d seen Scott, his brother had punched his lights out and he wasn’t sure his face would be a welcome sight when Scott woke.

   “I call anything luck where a man might have died but for the intervention of another,” Finlay said.

   “Or God’s work, Doctor,” Mrs Trencher said. Finlay looked uncomfortable then as he buttoned his cuffs. He was silent as the woman took Scott’s hand. “I believe this boy was brought to us so that neighbour might meet with neighbour and resolve their differences.”

   “How the hell we goin’ to do that, ma’am, when it’s most likely that your kid shot my brother?”

   “Johnny, settle down,” his father said.

   “Am I missin’ somethin’ here, Murdoch? We didn’t come on no neighbourly visit, did we? We didn’t come here aimin’ to sit down with these people and drink tea? We came to get Scott and find out what happened to ‘im.”

   “And that’s what we’ll do,” Murdoch said. “But, meanwhile, Mrs Trencher has done a fine job caring for my son.” He looked mildly at the woman who smiled before she lowered he gaze. “And for that, I’m grateful.”

   “I don’t think Cain shot Scott, Johnny,” Finlay said, before Johnny’s frustration found its voice. “The bullet was no ordinary one.”

   “What shit you cookin’ up now, Tom?” Johnny glared at the doctor. “Whose side are you on, anyway?”

   “Medicine’s and the truth’s, Johnny, and if you’ll take your father’s advice, you’ll calm down and listen.”

   “Don’t you tell me to calm down, you goddamn sawbones! That ain’t your brother lyin’ there, an’ it ain’t your friend who’s goin’ to be feedin’ the worms in Idaho!”

   “Johnny, that’s enough,” his father said.

   “I knew it!” Johnny shrugged his father’s hand from his arm. He dropped his voice, but the rage still galloped through his veins. “I knew you’d come here an’ talk it out. Well, if you think I’m goin’ to sit at your side like some weak-livered calf while you put the interests of your precious goddamn ranch before my brother’s life, you’re wrong!”

   He left the room, turned inside out by his misery. Every part of him felt raw. He was certain that if he met Cain now, only putting a bullet in his face would cure the poison eating away his gut. He found himself outside, staring at the sun beaten buckboard. Hoppers were climbing through the wheels. Others were being shaken off the horses’ hooves or trampled on.

   “One of these days, boy, you’re just going to have to punch me as hard as you can and get it over with.”

   Johnny breathed deep. He didn’t look at his father. He didn’t understand what Murdoch was saying and yet knew the truth of it deeper down in his belly than anything he’d ever heard. When his father took him into his arms and pressed him close, his big hand gently rubbing his head, he believed he was dreaming, that his father would do such a thing in this foreign place, with their enemies all around. What was real, though, was the way his rage drained away like water into sand.

   “However angry you are with me, Johnny, you can’t allow that anger to ruin your future. It might be hard, but you have to let me deal with this in my own way, and trust me. You’re not on your own anymore and it’s not all up to you now. D’you understand, Son?”

   Johnny sighed.

   “No, but I guess I’ll listen to what Tom’s got to say.”

   He heard his father chuckle above his head.

   “Well, that’s a start.” Murdoch released him and glowered down at the hoppers at his feet. “When God wanted to punish the Egyptians for enslaving the Israelites, he sent a plague of locusts, but not all the Egyptians were guilty.”

   He had no answer to that. He was too dazed by his father’s behaviour. For some reason, his mind chose that moment to remember that this man had once strangled the life out of another man. Silently, he walked beside Murdoch into the house.       

 

Chapter Twenty 

   “It’s a Minié ball,” Tom Finlay said, holding up the bullet. It was clean of Scott’s blood, so that the three grooves at its base were clearly visible. “It would need to be fired from a Springfield rifle musket or something similar.”

   “So?” Johnny said. Arms folded tight, he was perched on the arm of the chair his father had taken at Trencher’s invitation. Trencher was sitting opposite, his hands trembling upon his cane, his face revealing nothing.

   “So Mr Trencher assures me neither he nor Cain owns such a weapon,” Finlay said. The doctor was pissed at him, for sure. He had to admit, calling the fiery young doc a sawbones might take some forgiving on Finlay’s part.

   “An’ you believe that?”

   “As a matter of fact, Johnny, I do.”

   “Those bullets helped the Union win the war, Johnny,” Trencher said. “Before we got our hands on them, we were merely hoping to hit our targets, and at a slow rate. The Minié was easy to load and found its target at two hundred yards.”

   Johnny turned a dark look on Trencher, though the fact the man’d fought on the same side as his brother kept his tone careful.

   “I appreciate the history lesson, Mr Trencher, but all you’re doin’ is provin’ that you’re real well acquainted with the bullet that hit my brother.”

   “Yes, indeed, young man.” Trencher took the bullet from Finlay’s hand. “Only not with this particular one. I will, however, not easily forget the Minié that shattered my leg.”

   Murdoch stood and gave Johnny’s shoulder a rub before standing in front of Trencher, his arms folded.

   “You’re saying that you have no gun that would fire that bullet?” Murdoch said.

   “No, sir,” Trencher said. “I do not, and Cain has neither the wit nor the means to lay his hands on such a weapon. He is forbidden the use of any firearm…”

   “So I imagined the rifle that killed Billy?” Johnny interrupted him.

   “Cain took the key from the gun cabinet from his brother’s pocket while he was sleeping. That rifle is mine, a Winchester. My older sons and I favour modern weapons.”

   “Why the hell should we believe you?” Johnny said. “You weren’t savvy enough to keep a gun out of a green kid’s hands!”

   “Johnny,” his father warned.

   “No, Mr Lancer,” Trencher said. “The boy’s quite correct. I was indeed at fault for allowing such a thing to happen, knowing as I did his inexperience and foolhardy disposition, and I regret it most acutely.”

   “Not enough to stop him roamin’ around shootin’ men off their horses. If he didn’t shoot Scott, then where the hell is he?”

   “That I don’t know, but I’m certain that Jesse will find him, as certain as I am that he’s innocent of your brother’s injury.”

   “Well, I sure as hell ain’t certain!” Johnny looked at his father, who was rolling the Minié ball between his thumb and forefinger. “Anyone can get a gun, Murdoch, even an old war rifle. You know that. It ain’t that hard.”

   “That’s true, Son, only this bullet’s been hand-forged, and it has some initials at the base – CG. This is the work of a craftsman.” With a sigh, he handed the bullet back to Finlay. “I have no idea who shot Scott, but I don’t think it was Cain.”

   “You’re takin’ …” Johnny stopped and looked down, his heart racing, his hands clenched into fists. Taking a deep breath, he turned from the other men, his hands now clenched behind his neck. He heard Trencher speak in the quiet, measured way that in his mind marked the man as a wrong-doer, a silver-tongued phoney.

   “As Dr Finlay has suggested that it would be detrimental to Scott’s health to move him before the evening at least, would you do me the honour of staying for luncheon, Gentlemen?”

   Johnny waited, his breath held. Surely his father would refuse. Surely, he’d ride straight on through that damn doctor’s caution and take Scott home now, no matter what.

   “That would be most welcome, sir,” Finlay said. Jesus, but he was trapped in a cage full of these smooth-talking critters. “I missed breakfast, this morning.”

   “Mr Lancer?” Trencher said. “May I …”

   “Thank you,” Murdoch said, though his tone was as tight as a drum. “You’re very kind, Mr Trencher.”

   “Hell!” Johnny swallowed back a sudden sour taste in his mouth. “Goddammit all to hell!”

   He walked outside, left them to it. If showing his father what he was made of meant … Savagely, he kicked the wooden post at the top of the steps. A man cradling a rifle stood at the foot of the steps. He looked up as Johnny kicked the post again, hard enough to shake it. It scared a small bird in a cage hanging in the porch. It fluttered wildly and sang a frantic song.

   “You got somethin’ on your mind, boy?” the man asked. “Cus I’d advise ya to quit kickin’ that post ‘less ya want a rifle butt across your rear end.”

   “You can go right to hell.”

   The man went to raise his rifle. Johnny’s revolver was out of its holster before even he knew it. Instantly, he saw wide-eyed surprise followed by fear in the man’s eyes, and it felt good to him. In the next moment, though, he was feeling stupid. Sighing, he up-ended the revolver, spun it and dropped it back into the holster. The man had gone pale. Now he swallowed hard, his gaze still on Johnny. He glanced at the closed door and spoke softly.

   “Cain said you was Madrid, but I reckoned he wus fulla blow, like usual.”

   Johnny saw the man for what he was – a cowhand drafted into sentry duty and no more fit for it than an old dog. He sat on the steps and took off his hat. He was calm now. If nothing else, drawing his gun had cooled his heels well and good. He smiled.

   “What’s your name?”

   “My name?”

   “Yeh, you got a name don’t you?”

   “Lyle. Lyle Carr.”

   “Well, Lyle, I don’t go by that name anymore, but I was Madrid, yeh.”

   Lyle Carr edged closer, up a couple of steps, his face as curious as a ten year old’s. He hadn’t shaved and his teeth were bad.

   “Then how come Cain’s still breathin’?”

   Johnny looked down at the wooden step. There it was again, that damned question. This time, he’d just say what came up in his head.

   “Well, Lyle, there just ain’t been the set of circumstances happen to stop ‘im breathin’.”

   “You gunfighters need a ‘set of circumstances’?”

   Lyle Carr had spoken the phrase mockingly. Johnny smiled faintly at him.

   “As much as anyone does, maybe more.” He glanced around before settling his gaze back on Carr. “You do anythin’ else around here, Lyle, besides playin’ guard dog for these city slickers?”

   Carr looked pissed, maybe even angry, at the question.

   “Well, I sure as hell do, boy. You think I like sittin’ around, restin’ flies on my hat?”

   “What d’you do well?”

   “What in doggone are ya talkin’ about?”

   “Come on, Lyle. Everyone’s got somethin’. Mine’s killin’,” He smiled then, enjoying himself, and spun his hat on one finger. “Or it was ‘til I got me a share in twenty thousand head of cows.”

   Carr was caught out, for sure. He looked nervous.

   “Well, I guess wheelwrightin’. I reckon I can build as good a wheel as any man in the state can.” He glanced at the door again. “Only Mr Trencher ain’t had much call fer it. Brung ‘is own wheel man from Carson City to tend ‘is fancy wagons.”

   Johnny smiled again. He put on his hat and squinted up at Carr.

   “Just so happens we’re lookin’ for a good wheelwright, Lyle. We got plenty of work for you at Lancer if you want it.” He shrugged. “’Course, if you’d prefer to sit around this shit hole scratchin’ at your fleas like some old hound dog…”

   “I ain’t got fleas!”

   “An’ soon you won’t have a job either,” Johnny said. “’Cus the Trenchers ain’t goin’ to last out here. They don’t have what it takes. Might take them awhile to see it, but they’ll see it.”

   “You’re givin’ me a job? Jus’ like that?”

   “Just like that, Lyle, an’ you can tell Jess he’s welcome at Lancer, too.”

   “Oh, he’s gone, Mr Lancer. Lit out the day after Cain kilt that boy.” Lyle thrust out his hand. “Got no respect for these folks, anyways. They ain’t ranchers. Trencher’s boys don’t know the eatin’ from the shittin’ end of a cow. I’ll take that job.”

   Nodding once, Johnny shook Lyle Carr’s grubby hand. He had no notion of why he’d done such a thing. Tick would be pissed as hell, though more often than not, his wheels hardly survived a week before needing Murdoch’s skilful hand to put them right. Johnny hoped Lyle was good. He could take Elijah on as his apprentice, something the boy had yearned to do, but had been put off by Tick’s bad temper. His father could quit a task he didn’t enjoy; that or he’d have one more excuse to stride out of the house muttering about fools who couldn’t do the work they were paid to do. He watched Lyle Carr throw a sour look at the house before the cowhand downed the rifle in the dust and ambled towards the bunkhouse.

 

   He looked back at the silent house. In an upstairs window, a lace curtain fluttered in the rising wind. Round his feet the hoppers scuttered and he smelt another storm brewing, though the sun shone hot yet when it got its chance among the clouds. He thought about going to see Scott, but feared messing up his brother’s head with their unfinished business; he’d wait until they’d got him to home’s safer ground. He stepped up back onto the porch. The pale yellow bird was now cheeping miserably at the bottom of its little cage, its eyes half-closed. A dumb tiny creature, scared out of its wits. What stupid weakness was it in him that made him nearly puke to see the suffering of the innocent? It happened everywhere, all the time, but he’d never gotten used to it – it still cut into him like a knife in the belly.

   “Sorry, little feller.” Johnny opened the door and reached in. Carefully, he grasped the bird. He felt its heart beating through the feathers. The weight surprised him; the bird seemed no more than bones, something he could crush just by squeezing his hand. He walked down the steps and round the side of the house. Grasshoppers bounced off the clapboard like troops trying to break through an enemy’s defences.

   At the back of the house he found a garden. It wasn’t much. What the hoppers hadn’t eaten, was overgrown or gone to seed. There were hens warbling in a coop, and a row of sheets and shirts blowing on a line between two stripped plum trees. Paper wasps whined and squabbled round the ripened fruit. The smell of overripe plums was heavy in the air. At home, Maria had already gotten Jelly and Elijah to pick the plums and her every spare moment was spent turning them into jam and pickles. For the first time, Johnny wondered if Henry Springer’s neglect of home and family had started long before he left.

   But someone was trying. A small patch had been cleared and there was a trug on the ground containing a hand fork and a trowel. He placed the bird in a small bush. It still had leaves. Maybe it hadn’t been to the hoppers’ taste. The bird continued its one-tone cheeping and he crouched down watching and waiting for it to fly.

   “What are you doing, Johnny? Why are you here?”

   He turned his head and saw Katherine Trencher out on the back stoop. She had a white pinafore on over a pale blue dress and looked much younger than on the previous occasions he’d seen her. She also, at this moment, looked scared and angry. He remained crouched in front of the bush where the bird still sat.

   “Waitin’ for this bird to fly away, Ma’am.”

   “What bird?” She stepped down into the garden, her curiosity quickly turning to panic. “Oh, my bird! Why in heaven is he out of his cage? What have you done!?”

   “I scared ‘im out on the front porch. I reckoned I owed ‘im.”

   “You stupid hick cowboy idiot, Johnny Lancer!” She reached into the bush and lifted out the bird. “I told Papa we should never have left Carson City for this backwater!”

   “Ain’t that the truth!”

   She met Johnny’s glare with one of her own, her chest heaving as she cradled the bird.

   “You’re all blockheads, unfeeling blockheads. My grandmother warned me that ranchers cared only for cows and horses, because they haven’t the sensibilities to appreciate anything else. You’ve just proved it.”

   “An’ you figure that keepin’ a bird in a cage proves you got more feelin’s than me?” Johnny shook his head. “Katherine, you’re crazier than I already took you for.”

   Rattled, he began to walk away, stopping when he heard her cry out.

   “Oh no, oh no, please no!”

   He turned back, saw the bird dead in her outstretched hand and her pure distress. It wasn’t in him to keep walking. She was like a kid in her grief as she sank to her knees sobbing, the dead bird in the dust before her. Glancing at the stoop, partly hidden by the flapping sheets, he kneeled down opposite her. He’d hardly ever seen anything more pathetic in his life than the sight of that yellow scrap, eyes closed and legs stiff; even its colour seemed to have lost its claim on living.

   “It was my fault, Katherine,” he said. “I scared ‘im. Heart couldn’t take it, I guess. I’m real sorry.” Her hands covering her face, the sobs still shaking her frame, she didn’t reply. “I’ll buy you another one. Sven’ll know where to get one of these yellow birds. What kind is …was it, anyway?”

   Her hands fell away from her face. Expecting her to speak, he saw that she wasn’t even looking at him, but staring at something beyond him. He turned his head, saw nothing, and looked back at her. She had fallen softly to the ground and lay there, eyes wide open, her body jerking like a badly handled puppet.

   “Jesus, Katherine …”

   Spit dribbled from the side of her mouth into the dirt and he smelled piss. Scrambling to his feet, he rushed into the house, certain the girl was dying. Trencher was out without a word, limping over to the girl, his stick tapping hard and quick on the ground. Katherine was still by now, not even twitching, her eyes closed as if she was asleep. Johnny watched her father lean down and kiss the side of her face.

   “My poor dear girl.”

   He lifted her up into his arms, staggering a little, so that Johnny itched to help him. He could see the dark stain in her pale blue dress where she’d pissed herself and he dropped his gaze, ashamed of looking.

   “We were talkin’, sir,” Johnny said. “Her bird died. She was real upset …”

   “It’s alright, young man,” Trencher said. “This isn’t your doing.”

   Trencher stepped up onto the porch with the unconscious girl and disappeared into the house’s dark coolness. Johnny looked at his father who’d stood silently watching.

   “Jesus, Murdoch. One minute we were …”

   “The girl has epilepsy, Johnny,” his father said. “Fits, seizures. I’ve seen it before. She’ll be alright.”

   “She was ok. She was cryin’ over her damn bird, but she was ok.”

   “It happens like that. There’s no cure, but the fits don’t last long.” Murdoch put an arm around his shoulders. “Come inside, Son. You could do with a drink. Aaron has some good brandy.”

   Frowning, Johnny shook himself free.

   “Aaron? When’d he get to be Aaron all of a sudden?”

   His father looked guilty, there was no doubt of it, but he was quick to change his expression. His hands in his pants pockets, Murdoch looked hard at him.

   “We’ve been talking, Johnny. He’s no rancher, but he’s not a man I’m unable to respect either. With help from us and other neighbours, he can shape up and it’ll be in all our interests that he should.”

   Johnny shook his head once, his breath trapped in his throat like dry dust. Stooping, he picked up the dead bird.

   “Johnny …”

   “Murdoch, if I speak right now it’ll come out bad. I’m goin’ to bury Katherine’s bird.”

   He walked away from his father. When he looked again, Murdoch had gone and he was glad of it. He took the bird further away from the house, to bury it under one of the turkey oaks that, safe from hoppers, still spread broad shade against the sun.

   The bird was nothing. Felt like nothing at all, a crazy, flimsy piece of nothing, lighter and punier than the pulse of blood that had kept it alive. He dug a hole with the trowel from the basket and laid the bird in it. For awhile, he just looked at it. He thought of Billy still lying in that damn creepy undertaker’s unburied, forgot about. Why the fuck was Adam Donner still around? Billy needed burying. He could see that now. He could feel like a pain that it bothered the hell out of him that Billy was still above ground and not knowing it. Dead things needed to be laid to rest. That was the truth of it. He pushed dirt over the bird. He sure as hell hadn’t meant to scare it. If it hadn’t been in a goddamn cage, then … He pressed his hand over the filled in hole, thought of saying a prayer, felt dumb, stood up just as it began to rain. He looked across at the stone pillars in the distance. Lyle Carr was riding out under the arch in a yellow slicker, leading a string of three horses. Further along the track South to Lancer, another rider was coming. When he looked hard, Johnny could see Pete Thorn’s mule, its tail twirling in circles like a damn windmill. In the thunderous sky, sheet lightning flashed. He’d have spurred his horse into a gallop to escape the storm, even close to home, but Thorn kept up a steady pace.

   Behind Johnny came excited shouting as two women fought the washing line in the wind. The sheets were flapping around their bodies like great white birds, but he was sure he heard the women laughing. He loved the sound. It sounded like home and love. He went to help them and before he knew it he was being fed stew and biscuits in a warm kitchen. It was good and he was hungry. As he ate he watched Lillian Trencher supervise the preparation of two trays by her Mexican housekeeper. She was fussing, but not overly so. Though he’d seen her twice before, and spoken no more than a few polite words, he felt he’d known nothing of her at all until now. She had a strong, serious face, but he’d seen her laughing. She meant business in the way she moved, but kindly, not a bit like the stiff, starched woman he’d imagined. This was Cain’s mother. It didn’t fit, and for that matter neither did Aaron Trencher’s tender ways with his sick daughter.

   “No, not too much salt, Abila. Mr Lancer needs his food as plain as possible while he recovers, and be sure that it’s not too hot. If it’s too hot when you arrive in his room, then wait for it to cool a little.”

   “Si, Señora. I understand.” The housekeeper sounded pissed. Lillian Trencher was quick to smooth her feathers her, though.

   “Oh, I know you do, Abila. I know you do, but the young man is our guest and the precious son of our neighbour. I so fear I might not do all I could do for him.”

   “You worry too much, Señora. You always have.”

   Johnny drank coffee and watched Abila leave the kitchen with the tray for his brother. Maybe filling his belly’d helped to settle his bones. He was calmer now and his mind seemed as cool and clear as a mountain creek, like it could look upon anything and not allow a little stirring in its depths to cloud its vision. He’d known moments like this as a gunfighter, sweet, clear moments where he felt nothing, believed nothing, wanted nothing. It hadn’t been hard to kill a man on such days; only afterwards did he feel the roaring rush of awareness crash back into his veins like a bad drug.

   “Do you want more, Johnny?”

   It shook him to be spoken to. Lillian Trencher’s voice was soft and interested. She smelled of flour and perfume. Outside, the rain was hard enough to rattle the stoop’s roof. He wondered if it might drown those damn hoppers.

   “No, ma’am, thank you. How’s Katherine?”

   “Bless you for asking. She’s better. She’s resting upstairs.”

   “The bird, ma’am. I sure didn’t mean for it to die.”

   The woman nodded.

   “Yes, that’s understood, Johnny. Anything can trigger Katherine’s fits. She’s suffered from them since she was quite a small child. You’re not to blame and she’ll be perfectly well again in a very short while.”

   It was back again, that nameless confusion of his senses. He was in the house of an enemy, of a man who’d escaped punishment for Billy’s death, and here were his folks, gentler than a summer Sunday afternoon. Trencher, the war veteran, had scooped his daughter up in his arms, though she was soiled and he was half crippled, and his wife watched over the food for his wounded brother like a fretful dove.

   Cain’s name was in his mouth, but he couldn’t say it. Didn’t want to hear her defence of her son. Didn’t want to see her weep over his misunderstood ways. He liked her. She’d only shame herself in his eyes with her soft underbelly of love. Parents defended their kids, no matter what. Good, loving parents did. It was the way of the world and no amount of reasoning could overcome it. He stood up.

   “Thanks for the food, ma’am. It was real good.” He hesitated, then looked her clear in the eye. “When d’you think we’ll be able to take my brother home?”

   “Not in this storm, Johnny, and the doctor tells us that Scott needs time to recover from his great loss of blood before we risk moving him.” He nodded, flinching as she placed her hand on his arm. “I know how angry you are with my son…”

   He swallowed hard. He felt like a colt wanting to bust its corral.

   “Ma’am …”

   “I know what Cain is, Johnny. I have never loved him. I can say it to you. I have never loved my son. I tried like any mother would, but the love wouldn’t come. Does that shock you?”

   “No, ma’am.” It did, though. It shocked him to his boots, that she would come out and say it. He sat down again. Whatever more she had to say, he knew he had to hear it now.

   “So whatever Cain’s done, it’s my fault, because I couldn’t love him, and an unloved child can’t go right in this world. It was I who killed your friend, Johnny, not with a gun, but with my cold heart.”

   Jesus, was this a trick? Some mother’s special pleading, sacrificing herself for a worthless shit of a son? It was as if she’d read his mind.

   “I hope Jesse doesn’t find him. I hope he’s gone. I hope I never see him again.” She laid her hand over his. “I know you doubt my feelings, Johnny. Anyone would, but for ten years our lives have been governed by our son’s actions. He has burned down a schoolhouse, poisoned dogs, lied, stolen horses, sold his father’s Medal of Honour …” She moved her hand to her lap to clasp the other and looked down, sighing. “We left Carson City because he … molested a girl, spoiled her. She was only fourteen. Cain escaped a trial, because the girl’s mother didn’t want to put her daughter through further torment, but we were told to leave the state and never come back. We came here because Aaron believed that a ranching life might settle Cain, but I knew it wouldn’t.”

   Johnny sat back in the chair and gazed silently at Lillian Trencher. He knew the truth when he heard it, and this was a bitter truth. He wanted time to think about what it meant, but, suddenly, through the mesh door that opened out onto the stoop, he saw Pete Thorn, standing there. A pale ghost against a gun-metal grey sky, his long hair loose and bedraggled on his shoulders. Looking calmly at the old man from his chair, Johnny waited for him to speak.  

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

   “Who is that man, Johnny?” Lillian asked.

   “Well, Ma’am,” Johnny said, his gaze on Thorn who made no move. “I guess he’s kind of like a grandpa to me, only he ain’t too kind. Don’t worry. I’ll chase ‘im off for you.”

   She stood up and picked up the second tray.

   “I must take this tray up to Katherine. Tell your grandfather he’s welcome to eat if he’s hungry.” She looked towards the door and raised her voice. “Please don’t be shy, Mr Lancer. We don’t stand on ceremony here. All comers are very welcome.” She hesitated as if expecting Pete to respond, but he remained still. “Give him some coffee, at least, Johnny. He must be wet and cold from the storm.”

   He waited until she’d gone, before opening the screen door. Thorn stood in front of him, paler than ever, his eyes wide and dark with pain. Johnny looked to where the old man was clutching his left arm; blood was oozing over his fingers and dropping like the ticking of a clock to the floor below.

   “What the hell happened, Pete?”

   “What does it damn well look like, kid? I been shot. Close the damn door. I don’t want these critters knowin’ our business.”

   Johnny closed the door.

   “Our business, huh?”

   “Ain’t no-one else I can tell, Johnny, so it’s ours.” He looked at the door. “Go get me some of that food and coffee, and somethin’ to tie up this arm while that peachy little woman is gone. Bring it to the woodshed over there.”

   “The bullet still in your arm?”

   “Nope, I got it out.”

   “Jesus, Pete …”

   “Just get the stuff, kid. I ain’t feelin’ so good.”

  

   It was still raining hard and for once he was glad of it. No-one was about as he slipped inside the woodshed. Pete Thorn’s mule was pulling at the old cabbage stalks in the neglected vegetable patch, its ears drooping in the rain. Inside the shed, the old man was sitting on the dirt floor against a pile of sacks. Johnny poured him coffee into a cup and watched him drink.

   “Will you let me take a look at that arm, Pete?”

   The old man had been about to tear open a biscuit. He stopped, drew in a breath and nodded. Johnny worked off Thorn’s wet coat.

   “It ain’t as bad as it looks.”

   Johnny shook his head.

   “It ain’t good, Pete. It needs proper doctorin’. Doc Finlay’s in the house. Will you let me fetch him?”

   “The hell I will. You got experience, ain’t ya? Jus’ clean it up and wrap that length of cloth around it.”

   His father’s shirt was ruined for sure. He had to admire Pete Thorn, though. The tough old bird ate biscuit and cold chicken with his usual lack of manners, while he swabbed the wound with iodine he’d found in the kitchen.

   “How’s your brother?”

   “Lost a lot of blood, but he’ll pull through.”

   “Good. You talked to ‘im?”

   “Not yet.”

   “Scared, huh?”

   Johnny hesitated.

   “A bit, I guess, yeh.”

   “So ya don’t know who shot ‘im?”

   Johnny took a deep breath and began to wind the cloth around Thorn’s skinny arm.

   “Not Cain, that’s all I know.”

   Pete finished swallowing a chunk of biscuit and washed it down with a gulp of coffee. He wiped his mouth with his free hand.

   “Yeh, I know it, too.”

   Johnny tied off the bandage and looked darkly at the old man.

   “D’you know for sure who did shoot my brother, Pete?”

   “Not for sure, no.” Thorn touched his wounded arm and breathed deep. “You got any whisky, Johnny?”

   “Thought you’d quit it.”

   “The hell I have, right now.”

   Johnny shook his head.

   “Got no whisky, Pete, but Murdoch’s got some Apple Jack under the wagon seat. Says it’s only fit for bad times.”

   “Smart boy, your pa. Fetch it for me, kid. My blood feels like it’s about to freeze in its tracks.”

   The wagon had been stowed in one of Trencher’s barns. As Johnny rummaged in the box for the Apple Jack, he wondered what the hell he was doing fetching liquor for Pete Thorn in the driving rain. Damn old sonuvabitch had got him running around like a fool and he hadn’t yet spilled a word of what’d happened out there. Wet through to the skin himself and shivering, he hurried back through the mud. Pete grabbed the bottle and glugged a good amount, before handing it back. Johnny didn’t wipe the top like he might’ve done usually. He swigged a couple of mouthfuls, and was glad of the fire that burned his throat. Jesus, but it was good stuff for a kick in the head. He sat back and looked at the old man. Pete had dragged an old sack over his shoulders. His eyes were red-rimmed and he was trembling. It seemed like the first time Johnny had ever known him to be truly old. He passed the bottle over.

   “Who shot you, Pete?”

   Pete sniffed and drank more Apple Jack. This time he kept hold of the bottle, grasping the sack around him with his other hand. Above their heads the rain still beat down on the shed’s rough shingles.

   “Cyrus come fer me, Johnny, like I knew he would.”

   Johnny nodded.

   “He shoot Scott, too?”

   “Maybe.” Thorn drank again, his bony Adam’s apple bobbing under his neck’s scraggy skin. Johnny took the bottle from him and swallowed a mouthful. He hardly ever drank liquor from a bottle nowadays, but he had done once, like it was life-saving, that or blotting out bad stuff - lots of times. He set the bottle down between them.

   “Tom dug somethin’ called a ‘minnie’ ball outta Scott. Trencher said it was from some old musket used in the war.” Johnny glanced across at a mouse that suddenly darted out from one pile of wood to another. “What’s Cyrus’s other name, Pete?”

   He saw Pete’s face harden as he pulled the sack harder about his neck.

   “Gale, Cyrus Gale, and he puts his name to every bullet in that old Springfield, Johnny.”

   “Why the hell would he shoot Scott?”

   Pete picked up the Apple Jack again and swigged hard at it, sighing as it went down. He shrugged.

   “Maybe he’s like us all, kid, gettin’ blind in his old age. Don’t know why I ain’t dead. Should be. He would’ve made sure of it once. Only reason I rode in, so I can go back out there an’ have some chance of fightin’ back.”

   Suddenly, he threw off the sack.

   “You did good doctorin’ me, Johnny.” He slapped the stopper in the bottle and stowed it in his coat, along with the rest of the food. “You’re a damn good kid an’ that’s a pure fact.”

   Johnny frowned as the old man tried to rise, and reached out to grab him as he staggered.

   “What the hell you doin’?”

   Righting himself, Thorn stood as shaky on his feet as a new born calf.

   “Finishing it, Johnny, one way or the other.”

   “No, you’re not, Pete. You’re not goin’ out there.”

   The old man frowned and then smiled, though his face seemed to fight it.

   “You worried about me, boy? After all I done?”

   Johnny stared at the old man, his hand still grasping Pete’s arm. He thought of his father, feet cut and bleeding, carrying this man on his back for miles, while behind them their mules bled into the Wyoming dirt. How Murdoch must have loved Pete Thorn to do such a thing.

   “He’ll kill you. Jesus, you can hardly stand, you dumb sonuvabitch. He’ll kill you in cold blood for somethin’ you ain’t done.”

   Thorn picked up his rifle. He began to push bullets into the breech.

   “In case you’re forgettin’, kid, I killed his sister.”

   “Yeh, to put an end to her suffering. Because you loved her.”

   Heaving a deep sigh, Pete nodded.

   “Yeh, only Cyrus don’t see it that way, Johnny. He’s a god-fearin’ man, and killin’ me is doin’ God’s work.” He pushed in the last bullet with a click. “Can’t say I disagree with ‘im either. Maybe I should’ve let be, let God take my Clemmie in his own good time.”

   Johnny snatched the Henry out of the old man’s hands.

   “You’re not goin’ out there, Pete. You’re stayin’ here while I go talk to Cyrus. As long as he’s out there, you’re not safe and neither is my family.”

   “You can go to hell, boy!” The old man made a grab for the rifle. Johnny backed off and Pete fell to the dirt floor groaning. Fighting the urge to help him, Johnny turned away.

   “You can whack me later for it, old man, but I’m lockin’ you in this shed for your own damn good.”

   “You stupid little sonuvabitch!” Thorn shouted as Johnny closed the door behind him and padlocked it. “You think you can talk to Cyrus Gale? He’s a goddamn avengin’ angel! Johnny!! Johnny!!!”

   Thorn began to beat on the door. Johnny walked across to the barn, his boots splashing through the mud puddles. In the barn, he emptied the Henry and threw it in the wagon. Taking his father’s Winchester from under the canvas, he checked the rifle and his own pistol. He chose a likely looking horse, a chestnut paint, from the stalls, saddled it and rode out into the rain.

****************************

   Despite the rain and cold, it felt good. It felt good to be riding out loaded up for a reckoning. It was something familiar, something he was damn practised at, and it was pure. It hardly took much thinking about. He would either kill Gale or Gale would kill him. There were no dark places, hiding complications that messed up his head. His father’s Winchester, its silver breech polished to a mirror shine, was the finest gun he’d ever held. Last week, in his father’s hands, it had shot a porcupine out of a fir tree. Today, it would do more if it came to it.

   The rain began to ease as he rode the trail towards Lancer. He figured Cyrus would be in the rocks either in Red or Cloud Canyon. That’d be where he’d wait if he was looking to pick off a man with a rifle. Still, he held the Winchester at the ready as he rode, his gaze scanning every tree or bunch of rocks.

   Maybe he’d come across Cain, too. Then it occurred to him while he rode that the boy’s mother had done what no-one else had been able to do; with her despairing words, she’d wiped clean his desire to kill her son. Others, including the girl he’d raped, had greater cause to wish him dead. Sure, he’d kick at Cain’s useless carcass if he found it under a tree, leave him for the turkey vultures to feed on, with no burial, Christian or otherwise. But if the kid was still alive, he’d let the next man put a bullet in him or drop a noose round his neck, as would surely happen one day.

   Billy Donner, horse wrangler, had been killed by a fool - that was the plain and simple truth of it - a vicious-minded fool with a gun. Murdoch’s Winchester in his quiet grasp seemed to whisper it in his ear; he should’ve yanked that damn rifle out of Cain’s idiot hands before its wild use took his friend’s life. Billy would be of the same mind, he knew, would call him a Sunday shooter and cackle at his ways gone soft with family living, but he wouldn’t blame him. As he had at most things gone wrong, Billy’d have put it down to bad luck and stupid, crazy people. Billy, for all his dawdling ways, always had seen things clear.

***********************

   Cloud Canyon often spooked him a little. Its echoes bounced like giant’s hand claps off the rocks. Underneath him, Trencher’s horse was dancing and snorting at the ricochet sounds of its own hooves. It was a fine animal, though, and not some cowhand’s mount. He’d probably picked out old Aaron’s horse and the thought almost made him smile.

   He felt Cyrus before he saw him. Knew exactly where he was. Up in a set of rocks behind which there was a flat resting place and an old Indian cave for shelter. As soon as he heard the Springfield hammer’s click, Johnny leapt down from the horse, slapped its flank and scurried into rocks directly underneath the shelf where Cyrus was. The Springfield hadn’t fired. Old Cyrus Gale sure didn’t waste bullets.

   He waited, his heart thumping in the silence, his finger on the Winchester’s trigger. A single crow flew cawing over the canyon. He waited until it had passed.

   “Cyrus!” he yelled. “Cyrus Gale!”

   There was no reply but his own voice bouncing around the canyon walls. He listened hard for movement above him, glad that the canyon was so still, he could’ve heard a beetle crawling.

   “You shot my brother, Cyrus. I ain’t walkin’ away from this place until we talk or you’re dead. Maybe both.”

   He waited again. He heard the slightest rustle of a coat or a jacket, a boot scraping the dust. On the instant, he walked out into the open and levelled the Winchester at the man on the ledge. He was quite a bit younger than Pete, and bigger with a broad chest and shoulders from what he could see. He was tidily dressed, too, in a white shirt and string tie, and his hat was large and black, pulled down low over his eyes. He was resting his hand over the Springfield laid on a rock.

   “Who the hell’re you, boy?”

   It was a deep, rasping voice, like the man had swallowed a blacksmith’s file.

   “Johnny Lancer, a friend of Pete Thorn’s. Now you just throw down that Springfield, Mr Gale, and we’ll talk.”

   “If you tell me that goddamn sonuvabitch’s dying, boy, and you swear to bring me his worthless carcass, then we won’t need to talk.”

   “He ain’t dyin’. You got ‘im in the arm.”

   Above him, he heard Gale cursing. He doubted he’d ever heard language like it, even in the gold mining camps. It was then, to either side of him, that he heard the levers of two other rifles pulled back almost at the same time. Sighing, he stayed still and raised his hands.

   “Best you put that piece in the dust, Madrid, or the next time your best gal sees ya, she’ll have to tell who ya’re by somethin’ other than your pretty face.”

   Someone chuckled, but it was a nervous sound.

   “Looks like someone got there first, anyhow, Jed.”

   “Shut the fuck up with usin’ my name, ya damn bunny! Drop the rifle, Madrid!”

   Mindful of how Murdoch would react to scratches on his prize rifle, Johnny placed the Winchester carefully on the ground.

   “And the revolver.”

   Lifting the handgun out of its holster with two fingers, Johnny dropped it next to the rifle. The men came down from the rocks then. His hands up and his head down, he listened for any lowering of their guard, any clue that they were swaggering fools, but they were tight upon him, weapons held steady. He could feel their fear, though, and one of them at least, knew what he’d once been. When they were all three in front of him, he lifted his head and stared into Cyrus Gale’s ice green eyes.

   “You’re related to Murdoch Lancer?” Gale said. Up close, he was a powerful presence, a granite face partly hidden by a carefully trimmed white beard and moustache.

   “He’s my father.”

   Gale looked at the one of the men. They were both quite young and had the look of lean, hungry dogs. He thought he recognised the older one, some half-breed Crow from Spanish Wells who hired out to ranchers wanting itinerants off their land. His hair was long under his hat and he smelled of whisky and sweat.

   “Jed, tie his hands; then you can both go back to the camp. I don’t need your help with this.”

   Johnny winced as his arms were pulled behind his back and his wrists tied with cord. He made no resistance; experience told him that he might just end up with an arm pulled out of its socket or his blood supply cut off by a cord pulled tight in vengeful irritation. After he was done, he felt Jed’s palm shove at the back of his head, smelled the stink of his sour breath by his ear.

   “How’s that feel, Madrid? Ain’t so cocksure now, are ya?” He blew hard in Johnny’s ear and grinned when Johnny moved his head. “No, y’aint the man I saw a couple years back bed down the Orly brothers … all four of ‘em, Major, an’ their fuckin’ dog, too.” 

   Jed’s companion was frowning, and definitely scared now, Johnny saw. The gun in his hands had taken on a little trembling. It irked him to be helpless in the filthy hands of such two-bits as these. Keeping his breathing steady, he gazed at Gale. The old man was as clean and self-possessed as a hawk on a rock. Even if he felled Jed and his partner, Gale would kill him with that long rifle.

   “You hired us to protect ya, Major,” Jed said. “This feller’s Johnny Madrid. He’s a damn cold-blooded killer.”

   “I hired you for your goddamn eyes, nothin’ more,” Gale said. “I got no problem seeing this boy in front of me and I’ll have no problem levelling his rise if he gives me any trouble. Now take his guns and get off my goddamn piece of our good Lord’s Earth.”

   The men picked up the weapons and moved off, grumbling. Even now, Johnny wondered what his father would say about the missing Winchester. Gale, his gaze fixed on Johnny and the Springfield like an old friend in his hands, jerked his head to one side.

   “Get into those trees, Mr Lancer, out of sight of the road.”

 

   It had stopped raining, but the trees were still dripping as they moved deeper into the small patch of forest. At the bottom of the draw, a small tributary of the Chowchilla flowed. Johnny tried not to shiver as he sat down on a fallen willow. Though there was some sun after the rain, they were in deep shade and he was wet through to his skin. Gale leaned against a rock, the old Springfield aimed at Johnny’s heart. Johnny knew little about Springfields; he made quick calculations on how speedily Gale could pull back the hammer and fire; would he have enough time to disarm the old man before he got a minie ball blasted through his guts for his trouble? But Gale was no fool. He kept his distance and fixed a hawk’s unblinking gaze upon him.

   “So you’re a Lancer,” Gale said finally. “One of those sinners giving refuge to that murdering fuckin’ sonuvabitch, Thorn.”

   Johnny looked up.

   “You use some real choice words for a man of God, Mr Gale.” 

   “The evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart, Mr Lancer.” Gale said. “For out of the overflow of a man’s heart his mouth speaks. Luke 6:45.” He sighed. “Thorn has put evil in my very soul, boy, and until he’s dead, nothin’ good will come out of my heart or my mouth, but I shall be redeemed by the Saviour. I shall be redeemed when Thorn is dead.”

   Religious zeal always scared him. He’d seen too many men use it to justify bad ends. The quiet faith of townsfolk like Widow Finney seemed like a different thing entirely, even a fine thing. Cautiously, he worked his wrists against the cords, feeling for slack.

   “Your sister was dyin’, Cyrus. She was hurtin’ real bad. Maybe Pete shouldn’t have done what he did, but he loved his wife. I know that much.”

   For the first time, he saw pure fury twist the lines of Gale’s face. The old man pushed himself off the rock and leaned forward, almost spitting the words at Johnny.

   “Pete Thorn put a pillow to my sister’s face and choked the life out of her before her time, boy. She was a believer and she wouldn’t have wanted it that way. That makes Thorn a goddamn murderer, and murderers are headed for hell, and I intend to put him there. I didn’t spend four years fighting in that goddamn war, so that evildoers can walk free on the Earth.”

   Johnny stared at the old man calmly. He knew for sure now that Gale wasn’t going to harm him.

   “That the reason you shot my brother, because Pete’s at Lancer?”

   Gale frowned.

   “If you mean that rider who came tearing like a crazy Indian out of the darkness into my camp, last night, I shot him because the stupid sonuvabitch wouldn’t stop. Gave him plenty of warning. Is he dead?”

   “No, but he’s shot up bad.”

   Gale nodded slowly.  

   “Well, I’ll tell you, boy, I’m sorry for that. I’ve got no grievance with you Lancers, unless you reckon on protecting Pete Thorn. Then I’ll gun down every goddamn, fuckin’ one of you to get to him.”

   Johnny gave the old man a dark look.

   “I’ll tell you somethin’, Mr Gale, I ain’t allowin’ Pete to ride out here so you can shoot him down in cold blood like a dog. He’s old and he’s hurt.”

   “Then I’ll bide my time, boy, and while you give Pete Thorn refuge, none of you will be safe, not your father, not you or your brother. You go and tell Thorn that. See if you can stop him coming out to me, then, boy. We’ve got a reckoning, him and me, and he knows it, and he isn’t going to risk Murdoch Lancer’s life, or the lives of his pups, to save himself. He might be a murdering sonuvabitch, but he’s no coward.”

*********************** 

   Trencher’s paint was grazing not far off. Gale took Johnny there and untied his hands, holding the Springfield while he mounted the horse.

   “So you’re Johnny Madrid,” Gale said, looking up at Johnny while the paint danced restlessly to be gone. Gazing down at the reins in his hands, Johnny sighed.

   “Not any more.”

   Gale nodded slowly, his eyes narrowed, so that the green irises faded into black.

   “That right, what Jed was saying, about the Orlys?”

   Johnny sighed again.

   “Yeh.”

   When had he last thought of those four red-haired brothers sent to kill him by a Mexican landowner for helping a family hold onto their little scrap of land? Jesus, he’d regretted the dog’s death more, but it’d been a big and vicious sonuvabitch for all that. Still, that day he’d hit the tequila hard, and found the fattest whore in town to ride him. He could still remember the weight of her pushing him down hard into that filthy bed, and the feeling of wanting to disappear.

   “I saw you once,” Gale said. “Down in Puerto Palamas, just after the war. You were good, put the fear of God in men, even though you were a scrawny little runt who hadn’t even got his first shave yet.” Gale nodded; then his green eyes seemed to glow in the black depths of their sockets. “But you were clowning, boy. All you damn, fucking gunfighters are just clowning. Put you in a trench facing a battery of machine guns, you’d all piss yourselves and cry for your mamas. Put you in real men’s shoes and you’d know what fear truly is, what hate and anger and pity and love is, what depths a man’s heart can sink to, what heights to which it can ascend. I‘ve known gunfighters after they got old, boy. They’re washed up shells. They’ve got black holes where their souls should be, because feeling was never part of their game. Even when they hang up their guns, and try to live right, they can’t, because they’re just shades trying to be flesh and blood.”

   Johnny had wanted to be gone. He was damn cold and he felt naked without his gun. The horse fidgeted beneath him like a bronc in a chute, but he’d held it, listening hard to Gale.

   “So what’re you tellin’ me, Cyrus, that killin’ is a fine thing so long as it’s done with feelin’?”

   “I’m saying that I owe Clemmie this death, boy. I owe my beloved sister, who raised me up with the gentlest of hands after our parents died, reparation for what was done to her.”

   “And you reckon puttin’ a bullet in an old man who couldn’t take seein’ his wife hurtin’ anymore is better than shootin’ a man for money?” His sore wrists crossed over the saddle horn, Johnny shook his head. “Seems to me you’ve got things twisted, old man. At least, I ain’t turnin’ nothin’ I’ve done into somethin’ good to suit my peace of mind.”

   Johnny kicked the horse forward and upwards into the trees.

   “You tell Thorn I’m coming, boy!” Gale shouted. “I don’t care how long it takes. I’ll hunt him down and kill him like the vermin he is!! So help me God, I will!!”

 

Chapter Twenty-Two 

   “Why did you do it, Johnny!?” His father’s hands were gripping his upper arms so tight it hurt. He’d expected the yelling, but not the shaking. He struggled to release himself, panic rising at the nearness of Murdoch’s blood-filled face. “For God’s sake, what possessed you, boy!? What possessed you?” He was shaken again. “Answer me!!”

   His father didn’t seem to care that Trencher was watching, that the whole house could probably hear him.

   “If you let me go, Old Man, I’ll tell you.”

   It had been a risk to meet his father’s rage with cold self-possession, but it worked. Murdoch hesitated, before releasing his grip on him and turning away, his hands clasped at the back of his neck. Frowning, Johnny watched his father struggle to steady his breathing, his broad shoulders moving up and down with the effort.

   “I’ve told you before, Murdoch. I can take care of my …”

   “Don’t you dare throw that in my face again, Johnny!” his father said, turning round. “Don’t you dare!”

   Johnny fell silent. He’d never seen his father this full of rage with anyone or anything.

   “Murdoch …” Trencher said. He was standing there, by the fire, leaning on his cane. “Perhaps I’d better leave you to …”

   “No, Aaron,” Murdoch said, his gaze fixed on Johnny. “Stay and listen. I want you to listen to how this boy justifies riding out of here alone to face a man who’s already put a bullet in his brother and another in my oldest friend.” Murdoch put his hands in his pants’ pockets. “Well, go on, Johnny. Out with it. Defend yourself against ignoring everything I’ve tried to instil in you for the past year. Against defying my wishes so completely that right now I feel like telling you to get the hell out of my life and go back to gun fighting, to going it alone, if that’s what you want!”

   Johnny knew the colour had gone from his skin. He felt cold all over. Cold to his bones.

   “That’s not what I want.”                                                                       

   “Then what do you want, boy? Because if you want the truth, I’m getting pretty damn tired of trying to figure it out!”

   Johnny dipped his head, his hands on his hips; then looked up again at his father.

   “Well, I guess I want you to stop yellin’ for a start, Pa.”

   Breathing hard, Murdoch was still glaring at him, but there was no doubt of the powerful effect of that small title. Johnny gazed back at his father, waiting for something to happen. In the grate, a log tumbled in the flames, cracking out sparks like distant gunfire. Suddenly, Murdoch turned and walked out of the room, closing the door softly behind him. Johnny gazed at the closed door. He knew he was cold and that the fire was roaring; that was all he knew.

   “Your father deserves better.”

   He looked at Trencher, ready to spit out a reply to the cold words, but thought better of it. Trencher had leaned down to light a spill from the fire. He put it to the cigar in his mouth and calmly drew the smoke.

   “Where’s Pete?” Johnny asked. Trencher shook the spill away into the fire.

   “Mr Thorn is upstairs being attended to by Doctor Finlay. We found him in the woodshed.”

   “Yeh, I put him there, Mr Trencher.”

   He went to the fire and leaned in, his hands grasping the mantelpiece. Steam rose from his damp clothes and he kicked at a burning ember.

   “Did you find the man who shot your brother and Mr Thorn?” Trencher asked.

   “Yeh, I found ‘im.” Johnny turned his head and looked at Trencher. Where was the cold and black-hearted man he’d thought he’d known? Sure, Trencher’s dark-eyed gaze was hard upon him, but it was no worse than his father’s. “He’s still out there, and he’s not going to stop until he gets Pete.”

   “You took a great risk going after Gale.”

   Johnny nodded and smiling, let out a short breath through his nose.

   “Yeh, I can see that now. Thought the Old Man was going to shake my teeth out.”

   “That’s not what I meant.”

   “No, sir, I know.” He looked at Trencher again. “Sorry I took your horse.”

   Grimacing, Trencher shrugged. Looking down at the fire, he flicked cigar ash into the grate.

   “I don’t ride very much nowadays. He needed the exercise.”

   “He’s a fine animal.”

   “A present from my regiment.” Trencher said. He blew out a long plume of smoke. “Rather ironic, seeing as I was, at the time, in great danger of losing my leg.”

   Johnny hesitated, his gaze on the flames.

   “You think that’s why Cain went wrong, ‘cause you were away fightin’ in the war?”

   “I don’t know,” Trencher said, grimacing again. “Perhaps, or maybe I bequeathed to my son something deficient in me. Some inability to feel another man’s pain.” He tapped an ember back into the fire with his stick and looked hard at Johnny. “But he’s my son, nonetheless.”

   “Yeh.” Johnny drew in a breath. “Is Katherine ok?”

   Trencher raised his eyebrows, as if surprised by the question.

   “Yes. The dear girl’s still resting, but she usually recovers her spirits quickly. In fact, she rarely remembers anything of her convulsions.”

    Hesitating again, Johnny pushed strands of his drying hair out of his eyes.

    “Y’know, sir, at the church social yesterday, she told Laura Finney and me some story about bein’ married to a Paiute army scout …” He smiled a little, remembering the tale, though the memory of Laura’s anger with him still hurt. “Lived in the woods with ‘im, eatin’ berries.”

   Trencher looked pained, for sure. The veins in his hands over the cane top seemed to grow larger.

   “Yes, that’s one of my daughter’s favourite stories.” He struggled to smile as his dark eyes met Johnny’s gaze. “Did she get mauled by a cougar or bitten by a snake?”

   “The snake.”

   Trencher almost smiled again, but there was no humour in his dark eyes. He pulled on the cigar and sighed out the smoke.

   “She weaves a fine tale, my Katherine.”

   “You know why she makes up stories, sir?”

   Trencher tapped the ash off the cigar and shrugged.

   “Why do any of us spin tales? To make up the shortfall in our own lives, although, in my situation, such deception has not been needed.”

   Johnny nodded. That much he understood, at least. His heart jumping in his chest, he stood up straight and held out his hand.

   “I judged you wrong, Mr Trencher, and I hope you’ll accept my apology for it.”

   Trencher gazed at his hand for a moment, and Johnny thought he might not take it. It was practically the only real apology he’d offered to another man in his whole life. He was damn sure he’d never offer another if it was scorned. Then Trencher took his hand and shook it.

   “I accept it, young man, as I must assume some of the responsibility for my son’s actions and therefore for your friend’s death.” He released Johnny’s hand and threw the half-smoked cigar in the fire. “Now, what’s to be done about this brigand running wild out there with a Springfield? Where was he when you encountered him?”

   “Up in Cloud Canyon, with two other fellers, hired guns, but second-rate, both of ‘em.” Johnny sighed and turned his gaze back on the fire. “If he’s got enough supplies, a man can hide out up there for a good long while and be real hard to track down, and it ain’t like Gale’s some bandit lookin’ for riches. He just wants Pete, and a man who’s got a single aim like that on his mind is a helluva lot more dangerous than a whole heap of bandits.”

   Tapping his cane on the polished wood floor, Trencher nodded.

   “And Mr Thorn is worth the havoc this man might wreak if you don’t hand him over?”

   Johnny hesitated, but he knew it wasn’t because he was unsure of his answer.

   “Well, sir, I guess he must be, because I ain’t handin’ him over.”

   Nodding again, Trencher drew in a deep breath.

   “Then as your father’s friend and neighbour, I will send a dozen of my men over to Lancer, men from my old regiment who now work for me here, to ensure that the ranch is safe, at least.”

   Johnny watched Trencher limp out of the room, the tap of his cane quick and loud on the wood floor. He admired men of action. In another life, he might even have admired Trencher. He’d have been a man to respect from across a hot, dusty street, a gun at his side, and it wasn’t hard to imagine him giving orders to blow a trenchful of soldiers to bits. His weakness for his rotten kid skewed the picture, though; it seemed as damaging to the man’s strength as his shot-up leg. 

   Suddenly, it felt like someone had mashed up the bones in his own legs, and his head had started a powerful throbbing. The couch in the Trenchers’ living room, deep and soft and all fussy with embroidered cushions, looked as inviting as a cloud on a summer’s day. He thought of Scott upstairs and wounded, how they needed to talk, how he had to tell his father about the lost Winchester, although that one could wait until Murdoch’s heels’d cooled, for sure! That was his last thought as he fell onto the couch and closed his eyes – his father’s red face and his furious mouth yelling at him to get the hell out of his life.

 *******************************    

   When he woke, there was a sliver of late sun piercing the gap in the closed drapes. Someone had pulled off his boots and gun belt and placed a blanket over him. Rubbing his face, he pushed the blanket back and sat up. His boots had been splattered with mud. Now they were clean and polished to a shine. He sat for a while staring at the boots, as if they might tell the tale of who’d tended them. Then he listened for sounds, but none came, only the tick-tocking of a grandfather clock in the corner.  He grabbed a boot and pulled it on. His gaze caught the empty gun belt hanging on a chair. He remembered that Gale’s men had taken his pistol, and for a moment, he couldn’t summon the spirit to pull on the other boot.

   “Sonsuvbitches!”

   Snatching up the second boot, he shoved his foot in and stood up. The silence was bothering the hell out of him now. What if his father’d gone crazy and had lit out after Gale? The mood he’d been in, anything was possible.  

 

   The hallway was quiet, too. It smelt of the purple flowers on the little table and a woman’s loving ways. He stood for a time at the bottom of the stairs, looking up the flight, his fingers tapping the newel top. He knew he’d been avoiding Scott. Hell, maybe he’d even risked his life trying to avoid him! He smiled a bit at that and his fingers stopped their tapping.

   “Oh, you’re awake.”

   He turned to see Lillian Trencher behind him, a tray in her hands. On it was a bowl of a stew that smelled so good, he was straightaway hungry as a bear.

   “Yes, ma’am.”

   She smiled.

   “I was just taking this up to your brother.” She hesitated. “Would you like to take it to him, Johnny?”

   His heart raced and he dropped his gaze, tapping the toe of his boot against the first step’s riser.

   “No, ma’am. I reckon not.”

   “I think you should.”

   He looked up, surprised at her plain-spoken tone. When a woman took to bossing him, it almost always made him smile, even now, when he was feeling low and a little bit scared.

   “I ain’t sure he’d want to see me.”

   “Nonsense,” Lillian said, holding out the tray. “He’s been asking for you.”

   He didn’t take the tray.

   “You checked if he’s got a gun under the blankets?”

   “I’m quite sure that whatever it is that’s come between you, Johnny, you can sort it out. You seem like that kind of family to me, you two boys and your father.”

   He was so surprised at that, he took the tray to stop himself making some kind of stupid remark. The steam from the stew came right up his nose like a torment and his mouth watered.

   “D’you know where my father is, ma’am?”

   “He’s outside with Aaron.” Sighing, she raised her eyebrows and smoothed her hands down her apron front. “Jesse’s home.”

   “He find Cain?”

   “No, not a single trace.” She took a breath and pushed his arm a little. “Take that stew up before it gets cold.”

  

   The tray in his hands, he hesitated outside the bedroom door. His heart was jumping around like a polumna. It was only a short time ago that his brother had hit him with a blow so hard it had felt like the killing kind. Surely such rage couldn’t be doused by a single day’s length.

   He pushed open the door. The drapes were drawn against what was left of the day’s light and a lamp burned low by his brother’s bed. Johnny stood in the doorway, half-hoping Scott was asleep. He could hear his own hard breaths in the semi-darkness as he gazed at the form in the bed. The steam from the beef stew still coiled its way into his senses, so that he felt a strange mix inside him of fear and hunger.

   “It’s about time you came by, little brother.”

   Jesus, but he was glad to hear that voice, that soft, goddamn know-it-all voice. Whatever he’d expected to feel, it wasn’t that, not that wash of sheer relief that surged through his blood and stopped his own words.

   “Are you going to stand there like a man who’s lost his way or are you going to give me that food?”

   Like a man dead to feeling, Johnny closed the door and walked to the bed. His brother was propped up against pillows, his skin almost as white as they, his left arm and shoulder wrapped up tight in bandage. Scott looked thinner and older, and his eyes were big in their sockets, gazing hard at him. For a moment, Johnny didn’t get why his brother suddenly looked as if he was about to lose his self control.

   “Damn it, Johnny,” Scott said. “Look what I did to you.”

   He’d forgotten the bruising on his face. It hadn’t mattered a damn as soon as it was done. Now he found himself curious to take a look in the mirror.

   “I’ve had worse, brother.” He put the tray on the small table close to Scott’s bed and put his hands in his back pockets. “You want help eatin’?”

   “Damn, it, John!”

   “What, Scott? What the hell d’you want me to say? I got in the firin’ line of your business and you whacked me one for it.” He shrugged. “Can’t say I wouldn’t’ve done the same thing myself, put to it.”

   His brother shook his head, his pale features as sad as Johnny had ever seen them.

   “It doesn’t excuse what I did. It doesn’t even go halfway to excusing it.”

   Sighing, Johnny hesitated and turned to look at the tray.  

   “The stew’s getting’ cold, and it’s a real good stew.”

   “I don’t give a damn about the stew! We have to talk about what happened.”

   Johnny sighed again. “Well, that’s where you an’ I ain’t the same, Scott, ‘cos I ain’t feelin’ any kind of need to talk about it.” He smiled a little and put a hand over his grumbling belly. “I sure do need to eat, though.”

   His brother grimaced and shook his head.

   “I’m trying to apologise, Johnny, and all you can do is think of your stomach!”

   “A man’s got needs, Scott.” He knew he was irritating the hell out of his brother, but somehow, the more he did it, the better he felt. Taking the chequered napkin off the tray, he tucked it under Scott’s chin. He picked up the bowl and sat on the bed. The stew was still hot and smelt like heaven. He stirred it with the spoon and lifted a spoonful to his brother’s mouth. Scott glared at him. “You lost a lot of blood, brother. You need to eat.” He jigged the spoon a little. “So eat.”

   Smiling, he watched Scott take the food and swallow it down. A death stare, not unlike their father’s, was still in his brother’s eyes, although Johnny saw the softening there, the little clue he needed. He dug the spoon in the stew again and put it in his own mouth. Jesus, but it tasted good. He had to stop himself from just gobbling the whole lot down. His brother was smiling a bit, though, and that was damn near as good as eating beef stew.

   “You really are the damndest man I ever met, Johnny,” Scott said.

   “Takes one to know one, big brother.”

   They ate silently, in turns, him feeding his brother, until the bowl was empty and scraped clean. Still hungry, he put it back on the tray; he could’ve eaten six more helpings easy.

   Wishing there was apple pie or something, he sat down on the bed, his back against the high end bedstead, so that he was opposite Scott. It troubled him to see how pale his brother was, and it occurred to him that it was awhile since he’d seen him eat a good meal. Laura Finney popped in his head right then; hell, if this was what love did to a man, maybe he’d better see her onto the next stage and wave her goodbye. Dammit, though, she was pretty and she liked him, and, Jesus, he sure liked her. Just remembering the sound of her voice gave him ease, and that’d never happened before with a woman; the thought of their thighs, yes, or their soft tits or their peachy lips, but not a voice, like she was some kind of friendly angel watching over him.

   Scott was lying back deeper in the pillows now and gazing at him, his eyes looking like he needed to sleep. Just the act of eating seemed to have turned his brother’s bones to jelly.

   “Can I ask you a question, Scott?”

   “Ask.”

   Johnny took a breath and sighed it out. He couldn’t look at Scott just then.

   “You done with Jennie Black?”

   His brother didn’t answer, so he looked up to meet his gaze.

   “She’s done with me,” Scott said. Johnny heard the tired misery in his voice and frowned.

   “That ain’t the same thing.” He knew his words had come out like stones, but the anger that rose in his blood could not be kept down. His brother had his own brand of anger, though. His eyes were suddenly burning with it.

   “What the hell d’you want from me, Johnny? D’you want me to torment myself over what I’ve done to Martha? Well, I do, every damn second I’m lying here. D’you want me to regret deceiving our father and causing a rift in our family? I regret that so much I can’t tell if it’s my wound or that which hurts most.”

   Jesus, but his brother was torn up inside and it tore at his own heart to hear it.

   “I just …”

   “No,” Scott interrupted him. “I’m not done with Jennie, brother, not yet, but I will be. The seasons will pass and I’ll be done with her like old leaves that rot in the ground, but not yet. That’s too damn much to ask.”

   His brother was close to tears, although Johnny could see he was fighting it, his fists clenched on the bedspread. Johnny sighed. He might never’ve been yet as crazily in love with a woman as his brother’d been, but he knew what it was to carry feelings around that wouldn’t leave however hard you wished for it. He swung his legs off the bed and stood up.

   “Get some sleep, Scott. We got trouble out there and we need to get you home.”

   His brother seemed to recover himself at the hard, matter-of-fact words; he swallowed hard and looked up at Johnny.

   “Murdoch told me that you’ve spoken to the man who shot me.”

   Hands on his hips, Johnny toed the carpet with his boot.

   “He did, huh?”

   “He was pretty mad about it, brother.”

   Johnny smiled. “You’re tellin’ me. My ears’re still burnin’.”

   “So what’s your plan now?”

   “You know me, Scott. I don’t make plans. All I know is that I ain’t lettin’ Cyrus kill Pete.”

   “Even if Pete is all he wants?”

   “He’s a sick old man. Hell…” He shook his head. “Pete ain’t easy to like at times, but he’s done nothin’ wrong enough to die for and he’s like some kind of father to Murdoch. That’s enough reason to protect him.”

   Scott gazed up at him. It sounded like it hurt his brother to speak, but he was smiling a little.

   “Have you thought, Johnny, that Pete might not want protecting? I never met a man more intent on his own business, except maybe you.”

   Johnny wanted to laugh out loud at that, but he just smiled.

   “He’s laid up in bed with a bullet wound. He ain’t got a choice in it, Scott.”

   His brother let out a deep sigh, and he wasn’t smiling this time.

   “As far as I know, Johnny, Pete’s brought the wrath of Cyrus Gale down on his own head with an act, though understandable, justifies Gale’s desire for retribution. When will you learn just to let things run their course, little brother, let men make their own mistakes and be damned?”

   “Can’t see how that’s better than lettin’ worse things than bad happenin’, Scott. Not if they can be helped. You sure didn’t let Will Jackson run his course.”

   His brother’s gaze darkened.

   “He was going to kill a child. In his last breath, he swore to hunt Laura down and kill her.”

   Johnny nodded.

  “Yeh, I know, Scott. I ain’t judgin’.” He sighed. “I’m just sayin’ that maybe that makes it right sometimes to put the hobble on good men’s mistakes. Maybe if Murdoch’d …” He stopped, not wanting to let the thought turn into words.

   “If he’d what, John?”

   “Nothin’.” This was too close to feeling like something out of his control. He turned away. “I’ll see you later. Get some sleep.”

   “Johnny …”

   He closed the door on his brother’s voice. Outside the room, he leaned for a moment against the corridor wall, taking deep breaths. Then he allowed himself to slide down the wall so that he was sitting cross-legged outside his brother’s room. In his back pocket was Tira’s letter. He’d felt it there when he was talking to Scott. Too much had happened since Murdoch had given it to him, last night, to take time to read it. Now he had time while the darkness saw off this troublesome sonuvabitch of a day.

   The letter was only a little messed up and damp at the edges. The writing, clear and flowing, was easy to read, as good as his father’s.

 

Dear Father,

   I have no difficulty in addressing you as such, because I have longed for so many years to write those words to the man whose blood runs in my veins. I was well cared for by the dear folk who raised me from an infant, but I cannot pretend that I didn’t know, from the earliest age, that something was amiss in my life, that something fundamental to my being was missing. Another might not have known it, but I felt it so powerfully at times while I was growing that I was not fitted for the ground in which I found myself – like sea thrift trying to grow in boggy soil – that I wanted to cry out for the knowing of it.

   When my mother, my blood mother, sought me out, I was nothing but glad of it. Believe that, Father. It was as if I’d found my true home at last. Some folk might waste time regretting all those years we have spent apart, but I rejoice like the butterfly which lives just for a day, feeling the sun on its wings and the colours of the hills under its heart! Mother and I walk together twice a week now, with my uncle’s blessing – he himself wished me most especially to assure you of that. Sometimes, my brother, Robbie, accompanies us and he has many tales to tell of your ranch and of his travels in America. I listen with an ear so eager, I forget hunger and thirst, and can barely sleep at night for thinking upon what he has told me of you and your home.

   Now I discover I have two more little brothers!  Who could have imagined such a thing? I keep their pictures at my work table while I sew, such bonny lads, although Johnny looks a wee bit crabit! My mother and brother assure me he is nothing of the kind, though. How I would dearly love to meet the lad and see his smile for myself, but I know that can – must – never be, so I will be content with knowing that thousands of miles away in a free and wild country, I have a family whose blood I share.

   So my dear, dear father, I will say farewell for now, and I will look for your next letter every day. I understand if my brothers are not to know of my existence. You have explained to me how easily hurt Johnny, especially, can be, and from what I now know of the poor lad’s own history, I can readily sympathise. Know, however, that you and my dear young brothers are always in my thoughts.

Your loving daughter

Tira.

   He read it three times in the fading light, and then read it again slowly, taking in every word. For damn sure, he’d never read anything like it in his life. It didn’t seem real, this stranger, his sister, writing his name, his feelings, his past down on a paper five thousand miles away. Yet she said things that rang so true with his own life, that it knocked the breath out of him. Was it possible to feel a connection to a person through ink, just knowing that the hand that held the pen flowed with the same blood? He stared at his own hand, rough and calloused with ranch chores. ‘Easily hurt.’ It was as if he was seeing those damn words written on his palm. Jesus, that was how his father had described him to his sister. He didn’t even recognise those words. Never entertained them, not for a moment in his whole life.

   He let out the breath he’d been holding and folded the letter back along its creases. He put it in his pocket and stood up. From somewhere down the corridor came the sound of loud, angry voices, his father and Pete arguing fit to shatter the windows. He reached the door of Pete’s sickroom, just as the old man wrenched it open.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three 

   “You get out of my damn way, boy!”

   He grabbed hold of Pete’s good arm. His father’d come up hard behind the old man, his hand on Pete’s shoulder. Pete, half-dressed in pants and a shirt dragged on inside-out, struggled against them both. Johnny pushed him back into the room so that Murdoch got a good hold of the old man, and closed the door.

   “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, Pete,” he said. Leaning against the door, he kept the handle in his grip.

   Wild-eyed and still as pale as new milk, Pete fought again to free himself of Murdoch’s grasp.

   “You goddamn little sonuvabitch! No-one in heaven or hell can tell me what to do!”

   “Then I guess I must come from somewhere in between, old man,” Johnny said, “because you’re stayin’ right here, even if I have to lock you in this room for the next year of your miserable life.”

   His father had been silent, his gaze fixed upon Johnny. Now he squeezed Pete’s shoulder and spoke against the grey strings of hair hanging over the old man’s ear.

   “Johnny’s right, Pete. We can’t let you go out there to face Cyrus alone in your condition.”

   Still glaring at Johnny, Pete yanked his good arm out of Murdoch’s hold.

   “Since when have you two become my goddamned guardian angels!?”

   Johnny met his glare full on, and wondered why this old man had ever troubled him so sorely. Truly now, he did think of him as a grandfather, a cussed ornery one, but a man he desired to protect, and he would, come hell or high water.

   “Since you came ridin’ in on that old mule with a hell-bent avenger on your tail.” Johnny looked at his father. “He tell you the whole story now, Murdoch?”

   Murdoch nodded.

   “Yes, he has, and one or both of you should have told me the truth long before this day.”

   Johnny dipped his head, his fist clenching the door handle.

   “It was Pete’s story to tell.”

   “An’ mine to keep!” Pete said. He went back to the bed and sat down at the end, gripping the stead for support. He looked so thin and frail then, his verve squeezed out of his veins by loss of blood. No-one spoke for awhile. Then Pete did, thoughtful and quiet, his gaze on the buffalo skin on the floor.

   “I’d got it planned out. I was goin’ to stay fer a week or so, no more. Then I was goin’ to set out to meet Cyrus somewhere out along the trail and be done with it once an’ fer all …” He sighed. “But I got into easy ways with my boy…” He put out a shaky smile at Murdoch, before turning a searching look on Johnny. “An’ you, kid, you got under my skin an’ wouldn’t let go.” He sighed and shook his head. “First, I only wanted to save your daddy from pain. That’s why I was so hard on ya. I wasn’t goin’ to let some damn wild pup put my boy through worse’n he’d been through already.” Pete smiled a bit and shrugged his good shoulder. “Hell, how was I to know you was goin’ to prove so damned needful of some mindin’, kid?” He sighed again. “Not that I give ya too much of that, but, goddamn, you’re the orniest little cuss I ever met fer gettin’ a man thinkin’ sideways ‘bout his life.”

   Johnny smiled. Twice in one day he’d had to see a man in a different light, and it didn’t feel so bad to find something like trust hiding in the shadows.

   “That mean you’re goin’ to get back in that bed?”

   The old man scowled.

   “Maybe, boy, for an hour or two, ‘til I can get on that goddamn idle mule of mine.” He looked from Johnny to Murdoch, who’d kept still and silent for a length of time that got Johnny feeling edgy. His father looked as grim as a crow in the rain. “What you goin’ to do about Cyrus?”

   “Nothing,” Murdoch said, laying the word down like a stone. “Neither of you is going out there alone again. We wait until Scott is fit to be moved and then we go back to Lancer with you in a covered wagon, Pete, and Aaron’s men riding shotgun. We deal with Cyrus Gale as a family.” He looked clear at Johnny then. “Agreed, John?”

   Johnny hesitated, uncertain about what he was agreeing to. No way in hell was he going to hide from Gale. He planned to ride alongside the wagon; that much he was sure of.

   “Johnny?”

   He didn’t look at his father, needled by the hard tone of his voice, the king deciding the rules of a game he’d already started by riding out to talk to Gale. He hadn’t decided what his next move was going to be, but it seemed it was already blocked.

   “Yeh.”

   “Yes, what?”

   Now he met his father’s eyes.

   “Yeh. Agreed.”

   Holding a dark gaze on Johnny, Murdoch nodded once. Johnny left him helping a grumbling Pete back to bed. It was almost dark and he was hungry. Downstairs, he sought out Lillian Trencher in the kitchen, but found Katherine instead. The girl was feeding a small grey cat, crouching down beside it as it ate from a dish. She turned her head when he came in the room. On her cheek was a thin scratch where she’d fallen on sharp stones in her fit.

   “Johnny …”

   Hardly without thought, he picked up a piece of bread from the table and took a bite. Jesus, but he was hungry. He swallowed the bite and took another. Sitting down on a chair close to her, he stroked the cat.

   “You ok?” he said.

   The girl nodded.

   “Are you hungry, Johnny?”

   “Enough to eat my best horse, an’ I really love that horse.”

   She smiled.

   “I’ll fix you something.”

   He didn’t object. He was too damned starved. Watching her take down pans off their hooks, he thought of Laura, imagined her at Lancer, fixing him breakfast. It was a real peaceful thought. As for this girl, it was hard to forget the image of her twitching and pissing herself in the dirt. Truth was, it had scared the hell out of him, like she’d been possessed or something.

   “Have you been to see your brother?” she asked. She’d already got fat sizzling in a pan.

   “Yeh.”

   “How is he?”

   Johnny rubbed hard little circles on the table with his finger. Thinking of Scott made him sadder than he’d have believed possible.

   “Like some kinda ghost of himself.”

   Katherine dropped two thick slices of ham into the pan. Quickly, the smell of it got his mouth watering. He chewed on more bread.

   “I’m sorry I lied to you and Laura,” the girl said suddenly. She glanced at him from her task of cracking eggs into a bowl.

   “You got nothin’ to be sorry for, Katherine. We all need to make up stories for ourselves sometimes, I guess. Life can be real shitty.”

   She whisked the eggs, her right shoulder lifted to the task and the bones of it pushing up under her simple dress. In that moment, he wanted to hold her and take away her pain.

   “I suppose I read too many books,” she said. “There isn’t much else to do around here.”

   Katherine poured the eggs into another pan and stirred them. He glanced around for evidence of hot pepper sauce to dash on them, but doubted such a purely gringo family would favour such fire in their bellies.

   “You could learn ranching.”

   Laughing, she forked the ham onto a plate.

   “I have seizures, Johnny, sometimes three times in a week, and they’re coming more often. I forget things. I lose control of my bladder.  I wouldn’t make much of a rancher.”

   She set the plate down before him, a steaming heap of scrambled eggs alongside the ham. Her honesty had surprised him; it had made her sound older and a whole lot more interesting, but the food was calling his name real loud.

   “Don’t suppose Abila’s got hot sauce stashed away in her pantry?” he said, attacking the ham with a knife and fork. He put a big chunk in his mouth, chewing on it like a starving man, the meat’s juices sweeter than a girl’s kiss. When she returned from the pantry and placed a bottle by his plate, he picked it up, sniffed it and splashed it over the eggs. It was as hot as he liked it, jumping with jalapenos and green chillies. For a minute or two, he just ate, while she sat quietly, her elbows on the table, watching him.

   “Do you like Laura, Johnny?”

   Well, that one almost got him choking on his eggs. He took a big swallow of the cold milk she’d set by his plate and gave her a small smile.

   “Yes, ma’am, I like her.”

   “Good, because she likes you a lot.”

   He smiled again. Sweat was gathering at the back of his neck and he knew it wasn’t just the jalapenos putting it there.

   “She tell you that?”

   “When your brother hit you, she was so upset my mother had to hold her while she cried. We had to stop her running after your father when he lifted you up and took you away.”

   Johnny frowned. Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to him that Laura had seen Scott whack the shit out of him.

   “Was she alright?” he said. “Did you see her home?”

   “Her aunt took her home.”

   Gazing at the food on his plate, he nodded. Well, that was that, then, for sure. Old Widow Finney would have it all over town by now that he was nothing but trouble, just like she’d said all along. He shoved in another mouthful of food, but it had lost its flavour.

   “I told her who you were,” Katherine said. She got up and fetched the coffee pot off the stove. He frowned at her back.

   “What the hell’re you talkin’ about?”

   She turned, as cool as the milk in his glass.

   “Well, you’re Johnny Madrid, aren’t you?”

   He stared at her in cold silence.

   “That’s who Cain said you were. Even when my father was cleaning him up after you punched him, he was boasting about how he’d faced up to the great Johnny Madrid when your friend got killed, gloating just like he did after he burned down the schoolhouse.”

   He didn’t speak for awhile. Should he cuss or thank her?

   “That’s who I used to be, yeh,” he said finally. “But there wasn’t too much great about it.”

   She poured the coffee, a hot, strong stream in a mug to the brim so that it bubbled on the surface, just the way he liked it.

   “She didn’t care, you know.”

   He sipped at the coffee. Was it possible that this innocent child was no more than a year or two younger than him? It sure didn’t seem so right now.

   “She don’t know enough about it to know if she cares or not, Katherine.”

   “She knows you were a gunfighter.”

   He had to smile at that.

   “Gunfighters kill people.”

   “Well, I know that, but …”

   He looked at her hard.

   “I killed people.”

   That seemed to do it. Suddenly she looked scared, her breath coming harder, though she tried to keep it down.

   “But …”

   “There ain’t no buts about it.”

   “You’re young …”

   “You don’t have to be so old to kill a man, Katherine.” He swallowed more coffee and put the mug down for a refill. “A kid goes to it easier than a man and by the time you’ve notched up two or three it starts to feel somethin’ like livin’.”

   “How many?”

   He wasn’t going to answer that one. He’d known she’d ask it, but damn straight, he was never going to answer it. Jesus, he’d never even told his family that one. He gazed into her wide and blameless eyes.

   “Twenty-seven.”

   He didn’t know where it had come from, why he’d told her what he’d never spoken aloud to anyone, not even himself. It sounded bad, worse than the thought of it. It sounded bad in this home of nice people, in this kitchen with its pretty tablecloth and its sweet smells of herbs and bread. She was staring at him, her lips slightly parted, her chest rising and falling with her quickened breaths. Then she looked away from him to the coffee pot. Her hand shook as she poured coffee into a mug. He watched her lift the mug to her mouth and drink. Was this how Laura would react? Like she’d just been spoiled by him. Like she was hardly able to breathe the same air as him now that the truth was known. Well then, if the Widow Finney didn’t jab her ash stick in his hopes of Laura, then twenty-seven dead men surely would.

   At least she had no chance to put words to her feelings, as his father came into the kitchen then and she hurried away like a prairie dog under an eagle’s shadow. Murdoch watched her leave and then sat down at the table opposite him. It seemed easier to go back to the ham and eggs, cold though they were. His father poured a mug of coffee.

   “Are you alright?” his father said. He looked up. His neck felt like it had a knot in it.

   “Shouldn’t you be askin’ that about Katherine?”

   “Why? Did something happen?”

   “Hell, no, Murdoch, nothin’ has to happen. Words just have to be said and it’s done.” He knew he was letting his hurt show. Damn stupid, right now. Tapping his fingers on the mug, he saw that his nails still had Pete’s blood under them. ‘Easily hurt.’ He was damned if he’d let that be true now. “I lost your Winchester.”

   “What?”

   “Your Winchester. I took it when I rode out to Gale. They’ve got your rifle and my Colt. Sorry.”

   “It doesn’t matter.”

   His father’s tone was gentle and Johnny knew he meant it, but right this moment, he’d have preferred a yelling, an excuse to storm out, to stop this weakness seeping under his skin like a disease. He took a breath and hardened his thoughts.

   “Pete asleep?”

   His father hesitated, frowning.

   “Yes.”

   “You locked the door?”

   Murdoch nodded.

   “Good, ‘cos I wouldn’t put it past that old mudsill to bust out of here tonight an’ go after Gale in nothin’ but his nightshirt.”

   His father smiled.

   “No, I wouldn’t either.” Murdoch ran a finger over a sugar grain on the tablecloth. “You’ve spoken with your brother?”

   Johnny twisted the fork in his unfinished meal, mixing the red sauce in with the cold eggs.

   “Yeh.”

   “Will you be alright, the both of you?”

   Johnny lifted his head then to meet his father’s gaze, and he saw only worry there. He nodded.

   “Yeh, we’ll be alright.” He swallowed. “Will you? I mean ol’ Joshua Black’s goin’ to take it pretty bad that a kid of yours has messed with his little girl’s hopes, even if he don’t find out about Scott and his wife.”

   “Yes. We’ve certainly got some fences to mend, although Scott has assured me that his relations with Mrs Black never went beyond …” It tickled him to see his father colour up as he cleared his throat. “…a kiss.”

   Johnny couldn’t help but smirk at that.

   “He told you that?”

   “Yes. Why? Do you know different?”

   “Hell, no, Murdoch. I’m not sure I’d want to know different! Jesus, Jennie Black. She’s got more starch in her skirts than a whole Chinese laundry.”

   His father laughed then and it was good to hear the sound. Murdoch reached across and cuffed his chin.

   “That sounds more like the boy I know,” he said. “I was beginning to think he’d gone into hiding.”

   Johnny smiled, but his heart was thumping like a war drum.

   “You think you know me, Murdoch?”

   His father stood up, the pot of cold coffee in his hand. His mouth was smiling a little, but his eyes were as serious as Johnny had ever seen them.

   “You think I don’t?”

   Murdoch turned to make fresh coffee, but all Johnny could do was stare at his father’s broad back. Johnny Madrid, outgunned again by the twenty-eighth man. Shaking his head, he tipped a small hill of salt onto the table and pushed it around with his finger.

   “I read Tira’s letter.”

   For a moment, his father stopped spooning coffee into the pot.

   “You did, huh?”

   “I like the sound of her.”

   Silent, Murdoch poured water onto the coffee and set it to boil. Then he turned back to the table and sat down. Johnny’s finger was still in the salt. He watched his father rest his elbows on the table and press his fingertips together. Jesus, but the Old Man looked as sad as he’d ever seen him, and it was a hard thing to see, like he was witnessing something private.

   “Yes,” his father said. “Me, too.”

   “I’d like to meet her.”

   Murdoch raised his head, frowning.

   “That won’t ever be possible, Johnny. You know that.”

   “Why not? You an’ Scott are always sayin’ how the world’s got small nowadays with the trains and the big ships. You got the money. You could ship her over here.”

   “It isn’t that simple, son.”

   “Why isn’t it, Murdoch?” Agitated now, he staved his anger off by pouring more salt on the table. “Why isn’t it?” He took a breath and glared at his father. “Don’t say it’s ‘cause of me, ‘cause I can take it, Old Man. I can take whatever you got, except you believin’ that I can’t.”

   His father frowned again, staring at him. Behind him, the coffee came to the boil and he stood up. Wrapping a towel around the handle, he brought the pot to the table and set it down.

   “It’s not about you, Johnny,” he said. “It’s about me.”

   Ok, that took the blow out of him. He watched Murdoch pour coffee into cups. He took one and sipped at it. He was about to spur his father with another question, but Murdoch spoke first. Johnny’d never heard him so hesitant, so unsure, like he was trying to talk with a broken jaw.

   “When you boys came home, I was rough on you. I didn’t know what to expect.” His father heaved a sigh, forced a smile at him that went out as quick as a candle in a draught. “Certainly not what I got. A stiff-backed, over-educated dandy and a rough round the edges gunfighter. You were a shock, both of you, not because of who you were, but because there you stood before me, fully fledged men, without one ounce of my love and guidance in what you’d become.”

   Johnny heard his own breaths coming hard through his nose, his gaze on his father, the coffee going cold in the cup against his fingers.

   “You know what I did when you left the room that day?” Murdoch said, looking clear at him now. Johnny shook his head.

   “I was sick. I threw up until my throat hurt.”

   Jesus. If he’d imagined his father doing anything at all after he and Scott’d left the room, it’d been drinking several shots of whisky and brooding until it got dark over his mistake in getting his kids home, getting him home, anyway. Not puking up his lunch. It was one hell of a picture to consider.

   “It was the worst feeling of my life,” his father said, looking away from him. “Worse that losing Catherine, worse than finding you gone, worse than any drought, deluge or swarm of pests threatening my land over the past twenty years.” He stopped then and took a hard swallow of coffee. It seemed to give him the courage to look at Johnny again. “Truth is, at that moment I wanted you gone, both of you. I wanted your limbs, your guts, whatever you could give the land, but I sure as hell didn’t want what I saw in your eyes.” His father breathed deep. “Especially yours.” He shook his head. “If there was one thing I’d wish for you boys is that you never have to look in your children’s eyes and see angry strangers looking back at you. I’d kill to stop that happening, Johnny.”

   He dared to speak, though when the words came, they were hard to say.

   “Tira don’t sound like she’s angry.”

   His father’s lips were pressed hard together, touching the hot coffee pot with his fingertips and then moving them away from it in little repeated movements, like he was challenging himself or something.

   “Murdoch. She ain’t angry with you.”

   “I can’t do it,” his father said. “I can’t do it again.”

   Johnny stroked the coffee cup’s handle. He couldn’t think of anything else to do but smile.

   “Turned out ok last time, didn’t it?”

   This time, his father’s fingers clenched into a fist away from the coffee pot. He looked up, frowning.

   “What?”

   “We’re ok, ain’t we? You, me an’ Scott?”

   His father shook his head, but he was smiling a bit, at least.

   “Yes, son. We’re ok.”

   In the silence that followed, Johnny felt something leave him. He didn’t quite know what it was, but it was a bad thing, a thing that had chafed at his spirit for a long time, as long ago as his first thought of killing this man.

   “So you goin’ to write to my sister, fetch her over, or d’you want me to do it?”

   His father had been taking a swallow of coffee; he practically snorted it out of his nose.

   “Good god, boy,” he said, wiping his mouth with a handkerchief. “If you ran the country, we’d be done making laws in a day.”

   Johnny leaned forward, closer to his father.

   “I want to meet her, Murdoch. Scott’ll want to meet her, and don’t tell me you wouldn’t pull out your own teeth to settle your eyes on that girl.”

   His father hesitated.

   “Give me time,” he said. “Give your Old Man time, ok?”

   Johnny sat back again, his fingers stroking the salt into a circle.

   “If you’ll do the same for me.”

   He met his father’s narrowed, uncertain gaze. He felt calm, though his finger was turning and turning in the salt circle. When Murdoch nodded, he knew it had to be enough. He stood up and took a breath.

   “We could travel tomorrow, you know, Murdoch,” he said. “No sense waitin’. Scott’s fit enough to travel, I reckon. Trencher’ll loan us enough men to keep Gale quiet, an’ we’d be in a stronger position at Lancer.”

   He’d expected a discussion, or maybe even a flat-out refusal, but after a few moments, his father just nodded again. It unnerved him a little, these silences from a man who’d made it clear from the outset that he was the one who called the tune. Was this what talking about the painful past did for a man? A long time ago, he’d decided pretty much to let the shadows keep his worst secrets; nothing he was seeing now made him think different, though it was true that he stood in his father’s own shadows, goading little bits of the past out of him, like a woodpecker tap-tapping grubs out of rotten wood.  Maybe he should stop now – let it all lie.

   “I’m going to take a walk outside, check all’s nice an’ quiet. Don’t want anythin’ disturbin’ Scott and Pete’s dreams.”

   “Be careful,” his father said. “Take one of Aaron’s rifles.”

   “Yes, sir.”

   Murdoch gave him a short-lived smile. It’d been good to hear the order, some evidence that his father was still the tune-caller, but it was harder than hell to see his brooding sorrow. He thought of the flask of whisky his father always kept in his saddle-bags. Johnny went to him and grasped his hand.

   “Come with me,” he said, taking a step back and pulling to get his father up from the chair. “I’ll feel safer with two of us listenin’ for trouble. Don’t want another of Gale’s bullets findin’ lodgin’ in a Lancer.” He tugged again when he felt his father’s reluctance. “C’mon, Murdoch. I’m dog tired an’ Gale’s got my gun. You really want me goin’ out there alone?”

   His father looked at him then, like he’d woken from a sleep.

   “No, I damn well don’t.”

   Johnny felt Murdoch’s hand grasp his own tightly, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. They went to the reception hall. From there, Murdoch took two rifles from the cabinet and handed one to him. They checked them for shells and, taking their hats and coats from the stand, went outside. 

 

   Trencher was on the porch, the smoke from his cigar curling up towards the star packed sky. Offering one to Murdoch from a small case, he lit it in cupped hands as Murdoch drew the first smoke. Johnny heard the sigh of relief behind his father’s first exhalation.

   “I’ve got men out there,” Trencher said. His hand shook a bit as he tapped the cigar ash off on the porch upright. “Gale won’t get past them.”

  “I wouldn’t underestimate him,” Johnny said, dropping down the two porch steps to the dirt ground below. He gazed into the darkness, studying shapes. “He’s an army man.”

   “So am I, young man.”

   Johnny turned and looked up at Trencher. He nodded.

   “Then I guess it’s a case of who’s the biggest toad in the puddle, sir. You got more soldiers, but ol’ Cyrus’s sure good at hidin’ his moves.”

   Trencher smiled. His pale, pocked face seemed to glow in the small light of the lamp hanging over the steps. He sat on a chair, and rested his leg on a footstool, his stick across his thighs.

   “Any sign of your son?” Murdoch said, sitting on the bench near Trencher and leaning his elbows on his knees while he smoked. He kept the rifle close.

   “No.” Trencher glanced at Johnny, and then looked at Murdoch. “I believe he’s dead.”

   His hand on the rail, Johnny walked back up the steps and sat next to his father.

   “What makes you think that?”

   “I can feel it in the air.”

   “Didn’t take you for the sooth-sayin’ kind, sir,” Johnny said. “You seem like a man who’d need a body laid out in front of you.”

   “Johnny.” He heard the warning in his father’s voice.

   “No, the boy’s right, Murdoch,” Trencher said. “I am that sort of man, only rationality seems to have succumbed to instinct in the case of my child. Cain is dead. I’m sure of it, but as Johnny says, I will need to see his body before I can accept it.” He pulled on the cigar and blew out a long plume of smoke with a sigh. “I know he was bad, Murdoch, that nothing I could say or do could make him any less so, but he was my boy for all that.”

   “You think I killed ‘im, sir?” Johnny said. “You know I wanted to.”

   Trencher looked surprised at the question.

   “No, Johnny, I don’t. I think you’d have killed Cain when you had the chance after he killed your friend.” He paused to smoke and blow out another cloud. “That’s when I would have done it. I’ll admit I was surprised to find Cain still alive when I realised what he’d done, especially as I already knew who you once were.” Trencher looked from Murdoch to Johnny, his dark eyes reflecting the lamp’s light like the moon in a pool. “It would have been so easy to shoot him there and then, but you, my boy, took the harder road. Jess told me that you tried to talk Cain into dropping the gun.”

   “He was a fool kid. I don’t shoot fools unless I have to. I guess no-one could’ve known that horse was goin’ to rear up an’ set things goin’ the way they did.” Johnny glanced at his father. He’d known Murdoch’s gaze was upon him. “Guess I didn’t want to see it that way for awhile.”

   He felt his father’s hand go to the back of his neck.

   “Which still leaves us,” Murdoch said, “with the question of what has happened to your son, Aaron.”

   The long look Trencher gave his father then, bothered him enough to come close to asking the meaning of it, but Trencher spoke before he could summon the grit.

   “Yes, but that is my concern now.” He coughed as he stood up and ground the cigar butt under his stick. “Excuse me, gentlemen. I think I’ll retire for the night. It’s been a long day.”

   Johnny watched him limp into the house, the stick tapping on the porch’s wooden floor. His father finished smoking his cigar, staring out into the cold night, lit pale lilac by a waning moon. Then he turned his head and looked at Johnny.

   “I don’t suppose it will do me any good to tell you to go to bed, would it?”

   Smiling, Johnny looked down at the rifle in his hands.

   “Not unless you’re lookin’ for a fight, Pa.”

   He heard his father laugh and he looked up.

   “I’ll spell you in four hours,” Murdoch said. He threw the spent cigar butt in the dust and took off his thick jacket. He handed it to Johnny. “You’ll be too tired to buck me off by then.”

   Taking the jacket, Johnny smiled.

   “I’ll probably try anyway.”

   “Yes,” his father said, looking at him. “You probably will, and then you can discover how it feels to be dragged upstairs by your collar and tied to the bed with my belt.”

   Johnny snorted at the idea, but as he watched his father walk into the house, he wasn’t entirely sure Murdoch had meant it as a joke. Sighing, he sat on the porch steps and looked up at the room where his brother lay. A light in the room glowed dimly, but the window of Pete’s room was dark. Shivering with cold, Johnny pulled on his father’s jacket. It was still warm and it smelled of cigars and that powerful shaving lotion from San Francisco Murdoch favoured. He didn’t care how many of Trencher’s men were out there watching for Gale; this duty was his - he buttoned the jacket up to his neck - his and his father’s.   

  

Chapter Twenty-Four  

   It’d been a quiet night, not even a coyote’s howl to break the deep silence. His father, an hour earlier than the four stated, had spelled him at one o’clock, and he hadn’t protested, but trudged upstairs to fall face down on the strange bed, to wake only when Murdoch shook his shoulder and placed a cup of coffee in his hand.

   They were ready to go mid-morning. It took that long to bring Pete roun