The Travellers

By Kim 

 

Chapter One

   Leaning his forehead against the window, he stared out at the unfamiliar landscape, flat as far as he could see, its monotony broken only by the buffalo grass moving over the vast expanse like the gentle swell of a great ocean. On the path alongside the track where the engine had stopped to take in coal and water, he saw in the distance a ragged Indian family walking slowly beside a thin pony. It was the first sign of life he had seen all day. They had passed isolated shacks at long intervals and vainly he had sought for the presence of human beings to ease his impression that they had come to the wild edge of the world, a place of his boyhood dreams, but which, on sight, made him afraid in its unyielding emptiness. Someone had told him that this was Wyoming, but it meant no more to him than the fabled lands in the stories he read to the children on dark winter afternoons in the schoolroom.

   Some people had left the train to stretch their legs or to stride into the long grass, rifle in hand, in the hope of shooting a jackrabbit, but Robbie stayed in the train watching the driver struggle to place the water pipe in the engine’s tank. Small boys played five stones in the dust by the train’s giant wheels while the great machine sighed and ‘pinked’ in rest, suddenly still after its mighty, relentless shaking and clattering across the eastern states. His eyes shifted to the sight of a young girl in a shabby pinafore pulling a thin white object out of the ground and frowning at it before raising the rib bone against the grey sky. Whooping, she leapt among the grasses, waving the bone and causing the small boys to stop their game for a moment and raise their heads.

   The Indian family and the thin pony reached the train. Red paint shone on their impassive faces as for the first time they raised their heads to scan the first class carriages. As one, the family of five stretched out their hands, palms upwards, their expressions as void, in Robbie’s eyes, as the landscape behind them.

   “Poor hopeless wretches.”

   Robbie drew in his breath to resist his father’s stern verdict. Certainly, these were not the savage redskins he had secretly thrilled to as a boy, charging across the plains on their painted ponies, feathers in their coal black hair, their bare torsos glistening with the colours of war and death. The children were dirty, shoeless, no recognisable piece of clothing in the layers of rags that covered them. The dark eyes of the adults held neither hope nor despair behind their upraised arms, and their expressions did not change when the stoker jumped down from the train and chased them away like dogs.

   “Oh, you really don’t wanna be wastin’ none of your pity on those people, sir.”

   Robbie turned from the window to see the conductor, his thumbs tucked in the waistband of his pants, regarding the departing family with something like a smile.

   “We are all God’s creatures, sir, no matter how low our estate.”

   Robbie raised his eyebrows at his father’s softly spoken reprimand. For a moment, the conductor frowned in discomfort, before his innate optimism bounced back into his well-fed features. He regarded the lean man’s bearded face with complacency.

   “Well, that may be true, sir,” he smiled. “That may well be true, but I’m here to tell you that I’ve had personal experience – yes, sir – personal experience of their savage ways an’ I tell you now, you don’t wanna be wastin’ none of your Christian pity on such people.”

   The other man’s face hardened. Robbie recognised the signs of his father’s anger that anyone would dare dictate to him the direction of his godly path. Like so many other Americans they had met, the conductor seemed determined to press goodwill upon them like a welcome gift that could not be refused. He sat down next to Robbie so that he was opposite the young man’s parents, his chubby hands on his knees and his eyes shining with excitement.

   “Where you folks from, if I might be so bold?”

   Robbie saw his mother, who had been silently sewing a piece of embroidery in the opposite window seat, lift her head and glance at her husband. He appeared to struggle to compose himself before forcing the words in slow, measured doses from between his thin lips.

   “We have travelled from Scotland, sir, from Ayrshire.”

   “Well, you don’t say, sir!” The conductor seemed to swell with delight at the news. “You don’t say! Why, my wife’s folks are Scotch, good Scotch stock. Well, it certainly is a pleasure to meet you, sir, a real pleasure.”

   He held out his hand to the other man who hesitated before putting a large, strong bony hand into the plump pinkness of the conductor’s.

   “You come to settle, sir, or are you just visitin’ our great country?”

   “We’re visiting my uncle in California.” Robbie found he could not help giving eager voice to the thought that had possessed him since his father had suggested it over three months before. Evading Iain Lancer’s vivid blue eyes, darkening with disapproval, he added, “He owns a cattle ranch.”

   “You don’t say!” the conductor said, turning his head to the young man. “Well, isn’t the railroad a fine thing then, young feller? You and your folks able to travel all the way across America in comfort and style right into California. Seems to me that’s progress indeed, yes, sir. Wasn’t too long ago that all you’d find here was buffalo and Injuns. Now we got progress, and that beautiful lady out there is at the forefront, yessir!”

   “Yet, for some,” Iain said, looking severely at the conductor. “It seems a poor sort of progress.”

   Mary Lancer nodded slightly in agreement, her brown eyes directed to her embroidery, her slender fingers working another perfect stitch into the grey cottage among green and purple hills.

   “Well, let me tell you something, sir, if I might be so bold.” The conductor leaned forward a little and then bent his head, one finger pointing at a large reddened bald patch on the crown. “That, sir, is evidence of their savage ways.”

   Another passenger, a woman across the aisle from the Lancers, released a small gasp of horror while her husband leaned in eagerly for the tale. Robbie saw his father grinding his teeth behind closed lips, while his eyes regarded the patch with what might have been disgust or fascination. Only his mother looked coolly upon the mark with no visible change of expression.

   “Indians did this to you, sir?” she asked softly.

   “They sure did, ma’am!” the conductor replied, his face flushing in readiness to repel disbelievers. “As sure as I’m sitting here talking to you good folks. I was fishing in the creek one Sunday. Dirty critters shot seven arrows into me, took a piece of my scalp and left me for dead.” He looked defiantly at the man across the aisle who had turned to clutch the hand of his whimpering wife. “I crawled three miles home on my hands and knees, bleeding all the way. Damn near died that day, damn near.”

   The train’s whistle blew hard and long. The conductor rose from his seat with a small groan and jabbed his finger towards the window.

   “So don’t waste your feelings on those critters, ma’am,” he said, holding Mary’s unflinching gaze. “They’re not hardly human and that’s a fact.”

   Robbie watched him flip open his pocket watch, turn and hurry self-importantly down the aisle. Then the young man stood up, pulled open the window and called out to the shabby girl waiting her turn to reboard the overcrowded emigrant car, the rib bone still clutched in her hand. The Chinook blew her long brown hair in dirty tails across her face.

   “Excuse me, lassie?”

   The girl turned her sullen face and glared silently at the young man with the pale skin and thin moustache, dressed in a neat, well-cut brown suit.

    “The bone,” he said encouragingly. “Is it for sale?”

    The girl looked scornfully at him before turning away her head.

   “I want to buy the bone,” Robbie insisted. “How much d’ye want for it?”

   Frowning suspiciously, she moved a little closer to his window and tilted her head to look up at the young man.

   “A dollar,” she said boldly, her green eyes challenging him to refuse her. Robbie drew out his leather purse, dug out the heavy, still strangely exotic coin, and exchanged it for the bone. The girl let out a scream of excitement and raced wildly to her car while Robbie drew himself back into the carriage and sat down to the baleful glare of his father.

   “What do ye intend doing wi’ that, Robbie?” he asked, his voice heavy with disapproval.

   “Look at it,” his son replied, glancing at his mother. “Think about it.”

   “To what end, lad?”

   “To the end of knowledge.”

   Iain emitted a small snort and shook his head.

   “All that ye need to know, Robbie, is that bone is most likely that of a buffalo and therefore, part of our Lord’s creation, as ye teach those children, I hope.”

   The younger man breathed in tightly and nodded.

   “Yes, Father.”

   As Iain, with a satisfied nod, put on his spectacles and returned to his book, Mary reached across and took the bone from her son’s hands. She stroked the sun-bleached curve of it.

   “Murdoch told us there used to be millions of buffalo roaming these plains,” she said softly. “I would like to have seen such a sight.”

   Robbie smiled. The train picked up speed from its first awkward creaking and wheezing; he saw the Indian family and their pony pass by in a flash, like the sudden disappearance of summer shadows before an oncoming storm.

   “All I know of my uncle are his letters. I wonder what I’ll make of the man.”

   Mary returned to her needlework and seemed to Robbie to be intent on her work. Then she spoke in a tone outwardly cheerful, but with a reluctance her son had often detected when the subject of his uncle was broached.

   “It’s a very long time since any of us have seen him, Robbie.”

   “My brother will be as he always was,” Iain pronounced, without looking up from his book. “Perhaps, a little less wild and, I sincerely hope, a mite more God-fearing.”

   Robbie was certain he saw a flash of pain cross his mother’s face, a slight flushing of her pale skin as her fingers quickened their work at the backing.

   “From what I remember, Iain,” she said firmly. “He was God-fearing enough, just not enough for Angus.”

   Her husband shot a dark look at his son before turning it on his wife.

   “Our father, Mary, acted for the good of our souls,” he said severely. “And I, for one, am grateful for that nurturing. That is what a father owes to his children, is it not? – as our Lord gave unto his own son.” Iain looked at his son with a expression familiar to the young man, one he could only describe as one of distaste. “Your uncle, Robbie, was a reckless youth who was determined to disobey and resist every effort our father made to guide him along a godly path.” Iain nodded as if confirming to himself a thought. “I forgive him for that, although it caused me much pain at the time – much pain – but we must tread carefully in this land.”

   Mystified by his father’s final words, Robbie withdrew into his corner and contemplated the little he did know of his uncle, and his two sons with their strange histories. Knowing Scott to have been raised by his wealthy grandfather in the city and educated at a venerable university, and Johnny to have grown up wild and fatherless in a hostile land, he found, as usual, that he was unable to imagine the characters of such men. While, months before, Mary had read the contents of his uncle’s letter, his father had received the news of their homecoming in silence. There had been no emotion expressed in Murdoch’s letter, no suggestion of pleasure, merely the plain fact that his sons had returned home to help run the ranch. For days, his father had brooded over the letter, until one morning he had announced, without ceremony, that he wished them all to visit the Lancer ranch in California. Robbie’s heart had leapt in his chest, though outwardly he had remained calm. While the children had laboured with squeaky chalk over long division and past participles, he had gazed out at the deep snow resting over the tiny play yard and dreamed of hot sun and orange dust.

   Now he was afraid. He feared his mother’s unusually anxious eyes, his father’s refusal to lift his gaze to this alien landscape, so different from their small, green valley, from the hills of purple heather; in spring, electric with the sound of bees and the colour-flash of butterfly wings. He feared his uncle, the black sheep, the rebel who had strode away from his native land, unafraid to cross oceans, to face hostiles, to build a life out of strange earth. Most of all, he feared these cousins, like the smaller children in his school feared the sole twelve-year old among them, a raw-boned, fat-faced boy who trod on mice and bit off their tails between rotten teeth. That was how the schoolteacher felt now, despite his carefully tended moustache and his twenty-seven years – small, defenceless, at the mercy of this vast land and of the idea of his unimaginable cousins – big, tough men who wouldn’t waste their spit at his feet, who would back him into a corner and crush him like a mouse.

 

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

 

   “Missing those boys of yours, Murdoch?”

   He had been caught. How else could his oldest friend interpret his useless, wistful gaze out of his study window in the middle of a spring working day? Quickly, he turned from his position with a brief, abashed smile.

   “No, Henry,” he replied, walking forward to shake the other man’s smaller hand. “Glad to have got them out from under my feet.”

   Springer smiled at the lightly spoken lie and took the broad, calloused hand in a firm greeting.

   “What brings you out here, Henry?” Murdoch asked, after they had seated themselves in the sunny porch overlooking the blossoming fruit orchard. As he sipped his Scotch, he was certain he could smell the spring chasing away the dead, flat air of the long winter.

   “No particular thing,” Henry replied. “Just a feeling that I should be keeping in touch with old friends.” He paused. His tone became animated, but with an edge of reluctance. “My new foreman’s the man, Murdoch, you know. No stone left unturned. I feel I could leave the ranch for six months or more and it would be running better than ever without me on my return.”

   Murdoch frowned and looked disapprovingly at the other man.

   “It’ll be a cold day in hell before I let a hand, even a foreman, allow me to believe I’m not needed on my own ranch.”

   “You have sons, Murdoch,” Henry said. “I don’t. It makes the difference to the way a man sees himself.”

   “How?”

   “Well, for instance, you’re here gazing out of windows while your boys and my foreman are out there on spring round-up, roping and branding calves, doing the things we once did for lack of anyone else to do it, but your blood’s out there, at least.”

   “What’s your point, Henry?” Murdoch asked sourly, unhappy and mystified with the direction the conversation had taken.

   “I’m not truly sure,” Henry laughed abruptly. He suddenly slapped the arm of the chair hard. “Only that I’ve worked my butt off to keep a gaggle of women in dresses and shoes and it’s set me thinking lately, that’s all.” Murdoch watched the older man run a finger around the rim of the glass. “Yessir, it’s set me thinking, for sure.”

   Henry swallowed a mouthful of the Scotch. Silently, Murdoch observed the deep lines that age had scored down Henry’s cheek, the hair turned pure white and thin so that the pink of his scalp showed through.

   “I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about John,” Henry said.

   “John?”

   “My John …”

   “Ah …” Murdoch could not help it. He resented this conversation. His first sight of Henry had lifted his heart – a chance to talk idly of the weather, the prospect of profits from the season’s beef, the recent spate of rustling, perhaps a game of chess, something to ease the solitude. Now, he found that his old friend was intent on digging around in the painful past.

   “I know it was over twenty years ago,” Henry said. “But he’s been on my mind a lot lately. Don’t know why, but I can’t seem to get those eyes out of my thoughts. They were blue, you know, very deep blue.”

   ‘Jesus Christ,’ was his thought as Murdoch tipped the last of the whisky in his mouth and poured another, all thoughts of a slow, comfortable sipping in the long afternoon gone. He stared at the apple trees, their new leaves gently brushed by a warm breeze, in silence, and waited for the older man to continue.

   “I hear your family’s paying you a visit, Murdoch.”

   Surprised, Murdoch turned his head. Henry’s tone was robust now as he took hold of the whisky bottle and poured another shot.

   “That’s right,” he replied, feeling suddenly guilty that he had found no response to his friend’s memory of his dead son. But, still, he was relieved. “My brother, Iain, and his family from Scotland.”

   “Well, isn’t that something?” Henry smiled. “How long is it since you’ve seen them?”

   “Nearly thirty years.” Murdoch found himself again reluctant. When he had received Iain’s letter, he had kept the news from his sons for almost a week while he wrestled with the idea of somehow postponing the visit; then Scott had found the letter where his father had hidden it, in the new copy of Robinson Crusoe, bought to replace the one given to Ellen as a leaving present.  While Scott had frowned at the obvious subterfuge, Johnny had grabbed the letter and read it, before lifting his eyes to Murdoch, a delighted grin on his face.

   “Uncle Iain’s comin’?” he had asked. “All the way from Scotland? Your brother’s really comin’ here?”

   It had been enough to sink the older man’s resistance, to see his younger son’s expression of wide-eyed excitement; it still startled Murdoch when the boy emerged in this man who had seen too much too soon - startled him and cauterised his heart.

   “You must be pretty excited at the thought of seeing him again,” Henry said. He chuckled at the sight of Jelly trying to catch a chicken that had escaped from the coop into the yard. Leaning on his rake in the vegetable plot to the left of the orchard, Elijah was watching his friend’s noisy antics, the habitual blankness of his expression warmed by the slightest of smiles.

   “If you want the truth, Henry,” Murdoch said, standing up to watch the chicken’s progress across the yard towards the corral where his horse, Amo, was regarding the bird with snorting alarm. “I’m scared as hell.” He looked back at his old friend with a brief embarrassed smile. “Why d’you think I came to America?”

   “To escape your brother?” Henry frowned sceptically. “Surely not.”

   “No,” the younger man sighed. “Not exactly. He was still barely more than a boy when I left …” He paused, relieved to see Jelly catch the bird in a flurry of curses and feathers, and returned to his seat. “But he was shaping up to be the kind of man I was determined not to be, the kind of man my father wanted me to be.”

   “So you’re not sure what to expect?”

   “That’s about the size of it.”

   For the rest of the afternoon, the two men returned to the safety of everyday things, the weather, their cattle and the perennial problem of water supply. They made jokes; they laughed, although behind it all, Murdoch felt the presence of his old friend’s painful discontent as surely as he felt his own unease at the thought of Iain’s imminent arrival - and of seeing Mary, of looking again upon that sweet face after so many long years.

 

 Chapter Two

   Tick blew out the fart long and loudly into the cool night air. Johnny, close to falling asleep in the lee of his saddle, woke suddenly; he smiled at the second eruption, louder than the first, a rough tearing of the night’s fabric.

   “Hell, ol’ man …” An invisible young voice drawled its complaint. “You’ll spook them beeves, fer sure.”

   “You shut ya yap, boy.” Tick’s voice – belligerent, offended. “A man’s ‘titled to blow out iffen he’s a mind to when an’ where ‘e darn well pleases. Don’t do no good a-holdin’ it in.”

   Johnny shifted under his blanket and missed the soft, terse reply. Blinking, he saw his brother there by the fire, as still as the rock he leaned against; in his hands, a book, opened to catch the light from the flames. Mesmerised into wakefulness, Johnny watched Scott turn a page and run a long finger down the inside of the spine to settle it into place. From over by the herd of softly grunting cattle, breathing out their sweet, raspy breaths, came a lullaby, a working song, sung roughly, for the need of it, but making a home of the dirt ground and the star-crammed sky.

   “Y’reckon on sleepin’, Boston?”

   Scott lifted his head and gazed across at his brother, no more than a dark shape across the other side of the fire.

   “In a while,” he replied. “I thought you were asleep.”

   “Was, just about. Got woke by Tick’s blowin’”

   Scott smiled. He closed the book, placed it in his saddlebag and untied his bedroll. Every movement was careful, deliberate, precise. Johnny enjoyed watching the way his brother moved, so unlike his own sprawling ways – every action, the writing of a letter, the pouring of a drink, the turning of a page, was a comfort to the younger man’s restless eyes. Though at times, his brother seemed a stranger to him still, just knowing that this man was blood was enough to keep him there, on the edge of Scott’s mystery, wanting more. Burning for him to speak, he pitched out his first thought.

   “You still frettin’ on that calf?”

   Scott stopped in the act of smoothing out his bedroll and frowned across the crackling flames.

   “I think my pride can let one calf go, Johnny,” he said.

   “Ain’t what ya said this mornin’,” his brother grinned. “I swear I heard some real choice words flyin’ about.”

   “Yes, well, it didn’t help that my own brother was nearly falling off his horse laughing, did it?” Scott lay down and pulled his blanket over himself.

   “When I fall off my horse, Boston, I mean to,” Johnny smiled. A coyote howled then, a thin, ululating call that made him shiver. He sat up, his blanket around his shoulders and stared out across the shadowy heavings of the cows. The stars seemed low enough to touch their backs.

   “Fuckin’ coyotes,” he whispered. He reached for his rifle, made sure it was loaded.

   “You wouldn’t be scared, would you, little brother?”

   “Nope,” Johnny replied. “Just hate ‘em.”

   “In the war we heard them all the time.”

   Johnny moved a little closer, nearer his brother’s side of the fire. He remained sitting up, his rifle resting over his crossed legs.  

   “You did?”

   “They came to eat the dead.”

   Johnny shivered again slightly. Surprised, Scott pulled himself up to sit next to him, the large, thick blanket, a present from his concerned grandfather, draped over his shoulders. He made sure his arm was pressed against Johnny’s.

   “You shoot ‘em?” Johnny had dipped his head at the gesture, this instant response to a need he would hardly dare to admit to.

   “Yes, and sometimes we ate them.”

   “You’ve ate coyote?”

   Scott nodded, smiling at his brother’s incredulous expression.

   “And worse …” He stared into the fire, enjoying the sound of Billy’s voice, lulling the cattle against the night’s terrors. Soldiers had sung then too, years before, around their blazing fires, while they waited for the dawn.

   “What’s it like?”

   “When you’re starving, Johnny, everything tastes glorious, better than the finest food in the grandest hotel in Boston.”

   Johnny nodded. The coyotes continued their mournful howling, and Billy’s voice seemed to take on an edge of urgency in its low, repetitive soothing.

   “When you’re alone out here, seems like they’re surroundin’ ya,” he said quietly. “That’s what I remember. Seems like they’re comin’ at ya from all sides, so ya start shootin’, but shootin’ wild an’ ya don’t hit nothin’ but air, an’ the coyotes know ya scared, know y’alone.” He shook his head so that his long black fringe fell over his eyes. He pushed it back and smiled diffidently at his brother. “Dios, you an’ Murdoch got this picture in ya heads of this colder’n the backside o’hell gunfighter, but y’shoulda seen me then, brother.” He tossed a small stone in the fire. “Shoulda seen ol’ Johnny Madrid then.”

   “No, we haven’t, John,” Scott said, pushing him gently with his shoulder. “We’ve never had that picture, and I certainly don’t have it now.”

   “Maybe the Old Man did.” He began to break a branch, gathered for firewood, and throw it piece by piece into the fire.

   “Perhaps, but not now …”

   Both brothers raised their heads at a sudden soft clatter from the direction of the chuck wagon, a dark shape against the backdrop of a stand of cottonwood trees.

   “Carlos,” Johnny called out threateningly. “If I find ya wi’ y’finger in that sugar again, I swear I’m gonna take an iron to ya sorry hide, brand ya with the cows, ya hear me?”

   He waited, listening and watching for further movement. Around the wagon, in the light of the dying fire, all he could see were the shrouded shapes of sleeping cowboys. Soft snores rose and fell and Tick jabbered softly, contentedly as he slumbered. Johnny turned back to their own fire. He continued to break off bits of branch to feed the fire.

   “Did ya ever think of ‘im, Scott?” he asked. “Times like these, sittin’ round fires in the night?”

   “You mean Murdoch?”

   “Yeh.”

   “Maybe a little.” Scott frowned. He tried to remember anything he had thought then, between the waiting for death and the attempts with bottle, books and sex to blot it out. “It’s hard to think of someone you’ve never met.”

   “You met ‘im once.”

   “Yes, I did,” Scott admitted reluctantly, taken aback by the blunt reference to an event he had spent years analysing, like a strange creature preserved in a jar -one of a kind, not enough evidence for identification. “But I was only six.”

   “D’ya remember anythin’ about ‘im?”

   Scott heard the tension in his brother’s voice, the hopeless attempt of a passionate man to remain detached. Johnny’s frailty could still take Scott by surprise, and the emotions it stirred in him were unlike anything he had felt in his previous life.

   “Only his height. He loomed over me like a giant.” Scott smiled. “He scared me a little. I think he smiled. We shook hands. I remember staring at his hands. They felt coarse, rough. I was shocked, being the refined little brat that I was.” Smiling again, he took a handful of dust and allowed it to drift through his long fingers back to the ground in front of his crossed legs. “He was a stranger, Johnny. I don’t believe I was even told he was my father …”

   “An’ that don’t make ya mad when ya think of it?”

   Scott met the enquiry with an unflinching return of his brother’s gaze.

   “Sometimes, but I guess I like to be philosophical about these things. I wasn’t meant to go with him then. Fate brought me here in its own good time.”

   Johnny bit his lip and threw the last of the branch in the fire.

   “Know what I did in those nights, Scott? I spent  ‘em drawin’ pictures in my head of someone who might be my pa. Thousands of pictures an’ ev’ry man I met gave me ‘is eyes or ‘is mouth or ‘is nose.” Johnny looked hard at his brother. “An’ I carried ‘em in my head ‘til that day we met last year, an’ ya know what?”

   “What?”

   “The Ol’ Man didn’t look like any one of ‘em.”

   Johnny laughed then at his brother’s serious expression. He leaned back, grinning, and punched him lightly on the arm. Scott, still caught in the sticky web of their conversation, forced out a smile. Uncertain now of his brother’s mood, he watched Johnny get to his feet, the rifle still in his hands, his features alert but impassive. Then he saw what his brother had seen and heard long before him, an approaching horse and rider.

   “Tom,” Johnny acknowledged softly, coolly, as the older cowboy came more clearly into view. Tom Simmons seemed never to sleep, was out night-minding even when it was his turn to rest, stayed away from the others, even at meal-times, ate little in his measured way, drank coffee as if it were the precious last liquid of a dying earth. He had no gift with guns, just enough to keep him safe through his working day, but still Johnny feared him in a peculiar way that he was unable to explain. He had seen that his father held the same feelings, but on the face of it, merely said that Tom Simmons was the best hand he had ever known, would ever know, and young men, even the boss’s sons, would do best to mind that.

   “Johnny.” Tom dipped his head fractionally to take in Scott, still sitting on the ground, shrouded in the blanket. “Scott.”

   “Evening, Tom.” Scott stood up to stand beside his brother. “How are things out there?”

   Tom seemed to be considering a reply to the older brother when he looked straight at Johnny, his saddle creaking a little when the horse shifted a leg. He ground out his report in his reluctant way.

   “Coyotes took a calf, a runt more or less, but figured you’d want to know.”

   Johnny nodded.

   “Reckon I’ll get out there,” he said. “See if I can’t scare ‘em off a little. Tell Billy to keep at his croonin’. Keep those cows restin’ easy.”

   “Sure thing, Johnny.”

   Tom turned his horse and eased his way back into the darkness, away from the comforts of men and fires.

   “I’ll go with you,” Scott said, as Johnny shrugged on his warmer jacket and jammed his hat firmly over his head. He picked up his saddle.

   “Best stay here, Boston,” he replied. “Cip’s out there too. We need one boss in camp.”

   Scott let out an exasperated snort as Johnny placed a saddlecloth on Barranca’s back.

   “Boss, Johnny? When, like my kid brother, I can outrope, outride and outshoot every man here, then maybe I’ll be considered a boss.”

   Johnny tied the cinch, grabbed the reins and swung himself swiftly up into the saddle. He looked down sternly at his brother.

   “Ain’t all it takes, Scott. Had ‘em eatin’ outta your hand at supper, reading ‘em that stuff ‘bout that whale.”

   “Reading ‘Moby Dick’ is entertaining the men, Johnny, not leading them …”

   Johnny shrugged and stroked the horse’s solid neck.

   “Well, I sure couldn’t do it, Brother. Can’t shoot a rifle like you either. Can’t add up them ledgers like you. Can’t do a business deal like you.” Seeing the discontent still on his brother’s face, he leaned down a little and spoke firmly. “Look, you’re a Lancer, Scott. That’s enough for ‘em.”

   “But not for me,” Scott replied, forcing a smile. He slapped Johnny’s leg. “Go on, get out of here and be careful, will you. I’m not taking you home to Murdoch in the back of a wagon again. For some reason, he thinks I’m responsible for keeping you in one piece.”

   “Well, ain’t you?” Johnny grinned. “Ya shoulda caught me when I fell outta that tree.”

   “Brother, if you must go climbing trees to rescue young ladies’ kittens, then you should learn that some branches won’t hold a grown man, as I believe I told you at the time.”

   “No, Boston,” Johnny laughed, nudging Barranca into a walk. “Ya yelled it.” He looked back at the older man. “See ya later. Get some sleep.”

   Scott watched his brother disappear in the direction of the herd before returning to his place by the fire. It seemed to him, as he fell asleep, the huge herd grunting close by like a resting monster, that the coyotes howled at a greater distance from the camp than before.

 

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

   She drew in her breath in a great gasp of surprise and fear. All along the length of the train could be heard the cries of passengers as they peered out of the windows to find themselves gazing down a chasm, so vast, dark and deep it seemed ready to swallow whole even the huge engine. Unlit by any sun under a snow-laden sky, the sheer cliffs of red rock loomed on both sides of the long bridge. Single pine trees, looking as small as weeds, grew defiantly from a thousand crevices and from them great birds flew so close to the train that reckless men went for their guns. Waterfalls thundered grey water down to the dark ribbon of river below, but even their sound seemed drowned in the silence of the chasm’s vastness.

    Many people, emigrants from the flatlands of Kansas and Dakota, had never before seen such a sight and Mary was sure she could hear someone intoning a prayer, while others wept and clung to their husbands.

   “Why have we stopped here, on a bridge?”

   Robbie, mesmerised by the evidence before him of the ancient collisions of shifting continents, held gently on to his mother’s arm and shook his head.

   “Perhaps because some of these people may never see such a sight again,” he said softly. A dog from the emigrant end of the train began barking. Came a rough, angry shout, and it lapsed into a mournful howl.

   “They might be glad of that.”

   They were alone in the dining car, the first to brave the unfriendly breakfast of cold, tough steak, ham and heavy biscuit. Iain Lancer, frugal and abstemious even on a weekday, denied himself food on a Sunday until sunset and remained in their tiny sleeping car with his bible. As Robbie settled his mother back in her seat, three young boys ran past the carriage whooping and yelling, followed moments later by a guard waving a little red flag and blowing a whistle. The young Scot smiled. Dearly, he would have loved to join the boys and run howling up that track the full length of the bridge, seen his breath white against the glowering red of the tall cliffs. He poured hot, black coffee for his mother.

   “How I long for tea.” She smiled into the dark liquid. “D’ye think they’ve even heard of it in America?”

   “Perhaps Uncle Murdoch may have a supply in just for you.”

   “Men don’t think of such things, Robbie.”

   “He might.”

   Mary risked a glance at her son before sipping cautiously at the coffee. Carefully, she placed the cup back in the saucer.

   “Well, at least I can take ma morning coffee like a civilised human being for once,” she smiled. “I never thought we’d be in for such a shaking and rattling on our journey.”

   “But you’re not sorry we came?”

   “Oh no, Robbie,” she said. “I’ve not left my village or your father’s side for thirty years, but when I was young I never thought of myself as the timid sort, too afraid to venture beyond ma own front step. In fact …” She paused, raised her dark eyebrows a little. “Quite the opposite.”

   Robbie heard that note of something like defiance, perhaps even resentment, in his mother’s voice. He had heard it before. As a child, he had feared it. Used to a woman gentle and unassuming in her ways, this evidence of a passionate inner life had left him confused and disturbed, eager for a return to a self as placid and comforting as a summer lake.

   Now, as an adult, he found he wanted to crack open the shell of her, pull out into the light this guarded, secret self, but he caught only glimpses, drifts-by that he could no more grasp than motes in a ray of light.

   Somehow, Robbie knew he was treading on dangerous ground with his next words. He had always known it, but away from the grey stone walls of their home, from the everyday strictures of their simple, careful lives, he felt reckless, felt he could risk breakage of delicate things.

   “What about Uncle Murdoch?” he asked, tempering the effect of his words by looking away from his mother to observe a family who had just arrived in the car, the youngest, a boy of about seven clad tightly in Sunday best, complaining in bitter tones of his thwarted wish to ‘go on the bridge’.  “Was he always an adventurer?”

   Mary hesitated. She glanced towards the door of the dining car before nodding.

   “He was the most restless boy I ever knew.”

   Alert to his mother’s wistful tone, a chink of light from behind her closed doors, Robbie looked at her. He was about to speak when she spoke again.

   “Ye couldn’t just go for a walk with Murdoch. You’ve to be scrambling over rocks, climbing to the tops of mountains, straining your eyes ta see what he could see in the far distance. His father took the rod to him so often, he could barely walk at times, but nothing stopped him, and he was always planning, always dreaming …” She smiled. “Well, to me they sounded like dreams.”

   She turned her face to the window, the smile still on her lips.

   “He used ta say there was a land where folk didn’t have ta live such little, narrow lives, where they could breathe in deep under a giant blue sky, where they could travel for hundreds of miles and they wouldn’t be trespassing on anyone’s land but God’s, and that he was going to find it and make a piece of it his own.”

   “Was he a hard man ta know?”

   “Why d’ye ask that?” Mary asked, turning to look at the young man, a slight frown in her dark brown eyes. Suddenly uncomfortable, Robbie dipped his head and rubbed his finger on a few stray grains of salt, his gaze on a stain in the tablecloth.

   “I suppose I’m curious ta know if all the Lancers are as difficult to penetrate as ma father,” he said quietly. Mary placed her smaller hand over his long fingers, stilled them with a squeeze.

   “Murdoch had as big and open a heart as ye could wish,” she smiled. “But he was wild. He had his mind set on only one thing and he didna care who he hurt in achieving it. Your father …” She squeezed his fingers harder. “Your father has been the rock in ma life. He was the rock in his mother’s life after Murdoch broke her heart wi’ his wild ways, so don’t ye …” She brought the side of his face to her lips and kissed the young man gently. “Don’t go finding things amiss in your life, Robbie, just because you’re far from home in a strange land.”

   The young man received his mother’s kiss dutifully, rose with her to return to their carriage, though in his mind he saw his uncle standing on the summit of a mountain, gazing at something no-one else could see, his eyes ablaze with passion for a new life.  

 

Chapter Three

   Out of sight of his father’s workshop, he allowed himself the luxury of lying under the great blue sky, his head cradled in the springy mass of the heather. He pulled in the scent of it with a long intake of breath. Like the smell of the honey his mother gathered from her hives at the bottom of the orchard in the summer, it made him dizzy, almost drunk with felt life. It drove away the stink of hot metal, of oil, of polish from his senses. Close to his ears, came the drone of the first bees of late spring, tumbling drowsily from flower to flower, from thyme to heather and back again; it lulled him to the edge of sleep.

   “Now, ye wouldna be avoiding your work, would ye now, Murdoch Lancer?”

  He opened his eyes suddenly and the intense blue of the sky startled him, as if it was a lingering part of the dream he had just entered. Turning his head and seeing her, her figure etched against the sky like a perfect woodcut, he smiled.

   “Father believes I’m wi’ Ma, walking her ta ma Aunt Fia.” He reached up with his hand and pulled her down beside him. Gently, he kissed her lips and she pulled away with a blushing smile.

   “Why aren’t ye?” she asked, putting up her hand to his thick brown hair to take out a thin stalk of heather.

   “Iain walked her,” Murdoch said. He grasped her hand, kissed it briefly and picked up the book he had brought with him.

   “What if your father finds out?” Mary frowned.

   “Mmmmm?”

  “Your father, Murdoch,” she repeated, placing her hand on his arm. “He’ll be so angry when he finds out.”

   Touched by the anxiety in her voice, he closed the book and took her face in his hands. He made to kiss her, but she hardened her mouth against him and pushed her palms into his broad chest.

   “No,” she said angrily. “That’s your solution ta everything. Kiss the wee girl and shut her up. Well, I’m not sae easily tamed, Murdoch Lancer.” He dropped her hands from his face and looked at her silently as she picked up the book and gazed at the title.

   “History of Upper and Lower California,” she read. She looked up into the young man’s vivid blue eyes. “So ye run fro’ your work to dream of America, wi’ no thought for the consequences …”

   “It’s no dream, Mary,” Murdoch said. “Ye know me well enough. I said I would one day escape ma father and I meant it.”

   “Those were the dreams of a boy.” Mary’s tone was resentful as she placed the book back on the cushioning heather, disturbed a bee which flew a zigzag journey away from them across the purple hills. “Ye have a trade now …”

   “I hate it,” he interrupted with cold anger. “Ye know I do.”

   “It’s a good trade.” His eyes grew colder at her words. “Respectable.” She began to falter. “I know ye find it hard ta work for your father, but …”

   He knew what she wanted. It had been a year now, the traditional wait of a girl for the offer of marriage by her suitor. They had known each other all their lives, and once she had lain with him in the heather listening, rapt and worshipful, to his descriptions of the untamed wilds of America, of how one day he planned to escape his father’s rod, his cold silences, his vengeful god who would never be satisfied. For some time now, he had understood that Mary had left behind her childish self and had set her mind fast on her adult future. It had quickened his desire to be gone, although he had been conscious of concealing the betrayal from her. He breathed in, seeking a honey scent of courage, but the air seemed suddenly old and stale, stifling him.

   “I canna stay, Mary,” he said. “Ye’ve always known it. Since I was a wee lad, I’ve saved every penny, every farthing I could for ma journey. I’ve read every book I can, learned how ta ride a horse – I’ve even learned cattle raising from Mr McDonald down in the valley.” He turned so that he was kneeling directly opposite her and grasped her hands. “Come with me, Mary. I’ve enough money for both of us. Come with me and I’ll build ye a fine ranch in the great open spaces and we’ll raise our bairns in a free country wi’ no fences, no churches and no old men seeking ta run our lives.”

   Mary had been contemplating Murdoch’s strong, capable hands enclosing hers. She looked up now into his eager face.

   “You can never escape those things, Murdoch, not even in America. Wherever we lay down our roots will come fences, churches and old men. Why not make the most of what ye have here?” She looked around her, as if seeking support from the sunlit landscape, so silent she could hear the flicker of butterflies’ wings over the heather. “This is a safe place to raise a family.” She looked back into his deep blue eyes, noticed the coldness had returned. “America’s dangerous, full o’ wild animals and Indians. Ye’ve told me that yourself …”

   “Ye used ta love me tell of such things,” Murdoch said. He allowed his hands to slide away from hers and stood up, his back turned to her, his hands in the pockets of his trousers.

   “Aye,” Mary frowned. “When we were bairns. When we allowed our imaginations ta run wild. When we had no responsibilities, no future to consider, but now …”

   “Now we must die,” Murdoch interrupted harshly. He turned back to face her, to see her confused, hurt expression. “Because that’s how I see it, Mary. If I stay here, I will shrivel up and die, like ma father before me. I want ma children to be free. I don’t want them growing up in this valley’s shadow, wi’ its narrow minds and hearts. I don’t want any child ‘o mine anywhere near that old man and his prison soul. I want them ta play and laugh and smile upon me …” He hesitated, surprised by his own emotion. “And I’ll smile back and kiss their wee heads.”

   Mary almost smiled, and for a moment he wanted to pull her into his arms, kiss her into union, but then the cloud that moved to cover the sun, seemed also to take the light from her face.

   “So ye intend ta go whatever I say, however ma feelings are set against it?”

   “Aye.”

   “Your mother and Iain. Have ye no thought for them?”

   Murdoch frowned. He stooped his tall frame to pick up a few stones from among the heather and began to throw them in the direction of the village further down in the valley.

   “Aye, but a man has a right ta make his own way in the world. Iain’s content ta stay here, but me …” He hurled the last stone as the sun reappeared. The stone arced against the blue and fell into the pillows of heather; it amazed him as always to see how the sun seemed to set the colours blazing. He imagined that California would be full of such fires of colour. “Ma feet are burnin’, Mary, and I intend to keep walking until they find their right ground.”

  

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

   Scott licked his lips, tasted the salt of his sweat and the dust of the morning’s round-up. He liked the taste; it rooted him in the day. He could not take a breath without pulling more dust into his lungs. The very air was dust, clouding the shapes of the men on the ground, muting their colours into one pale brown blend, as they struggled to hold down a bawling calf. Mixed with the dust came the stench of scorched hair and hide as the branding iron met living flesh. For a moment, it sizzled and smoked over the calf’s stretched terror and under the men’s laughing curses before the iron was thrust back into the fire and the calf released in one quick tug of the lariat.

   Under the strong May sun, Scott lifted his eyes to watch his brother cut an animal from the main herd with the ease of turning the page of a book, his horse performing a dance of twists, stops and turns to frustrate the wild dodging of the cow. It seemed to Scott that Johnny and Barranca were playing with their prey, laughing at its hopeless attempts to outwit them, until he saw the look of serious intent on his brother’s face, his lack of emotion as the cow was cut out, followed by its bleating calf.   Then they began the chase for the calf, lariat looped in Johnny’s gloved right hand, both waiting for the perfect moment. Scott knew it would come. It always did.

   “That’s some pegger, that horse.” The cook, Whip Tyler, spat in the dust at his feet and shaded his eyes against the sun. From his horse, Scott could see the older man’s scalp shining through his thinning grey hair. “Johnny ain’t hardly even touchin’ ‘im.”

   It was true, Scott thought. Man and horse were one, tracking the panicked calf’s movements, blocking it as it tried to return to the main herd, and then, close to the branding fire, the wide loop of rope was flying through the dust-laden air and found the animal’s back feet, spilling it in a flurry of legs and more dust. Immediately, as the rope jerked tight, Johnny dallied it hard around the saddle horn and Barranca hauled back until his hocks were only inches above the ground. His expression softening a little then, Johnny dragged the animal a short way to the fire and watched as the brand went home, drawing out a long, loud bawl of pain from the calf. It bawled again as a sharp knife castrated it and took a wedge of ear, both parts being thrown in a pail already bloodily half full. Released finally, the calf, still bellowing, ran in a scatter of high-tail and dust back to its mother, before Johnny gathered his lariat and returned to the main herd.

   All through the long afternoon, the men worked, cutting out, roping, branding, and guarding the herd. Scott put in a frenzy of hours at the fire, sitting on the heads of kicking, wailing steers, digging his heels in the dirt in furious determination to submerge himself in the swirling ocean of dust, flames and smoke, to be unnoticeable in the frame of sweating, cursing men with their brutal, unsparing efficiency of action. Taking his turn, he took the branding iron, pressed it home while sweat mixed with dirt poured stinging into his eyes. In a steady, relentless queue that left no room for rest, Johnny and the other riders brought in their haul of cattle, with little time to waste on words or even a glance at the men on the ground. Occasionally, the younger Lancer snapped a reprimand at a sloppy, careless action or gave out a terse order to a fellow rider.   Alert to every strategy Johnny was using to keep the day tight and well-oiled, Scott heard him offer a few words of praise to an eager, but troublesome young waddy who two nights previously had complained of task allocations to a group of other cowboys. Later, he was careful enough to ask the advice of an older hand, although Scott suspected his brother had not needed it.

 

   At the end of the day’s work, while the cook fried up prairie oysters, sizzling and popping in the pan, and fed them to those who savoured such delicacies, Johnny sat on a rock above the creek in the setting sun and watched the young cowboys play in the river. The older ones, crouching in the shallows, scrubbed at socks or shirts with bars of pale red soap. Nearby, Tom Simmons smoked a cigarette and placed neat stitches along a tear in his chaps, the needle a glint of bright metal in the last orange rays of the sun. Though his hands, brown and calloused, had stiffened with age, his fingers worked the needle with a nimble familiarity. It seemed to Johnny, still feeling his way into his new self, that everything the man did was like a prayer, that if there was a God, then Tom Simmons spoke to him in these quiet corners of the day. When Tom looked up suddenly and found the young man’s eyes upon him, he returned the gaze briefly and acknowledged Johnny with a nod before grinding the cigarette into the dust and cutting the thread with his teeth. He stood up, his figure blocking the blazing disc of the retreating sun, threw the chaps up over his shoulder and walked up to camp, passing Scott on the way with another barely perceptible nod.

   Scott returned it, smiling to himself at how few words he had spoken these two weeks; grunts, nods, curses - that was the vocal currency of this working life, and he was easing himself into it like a colt into the full flexing of its muscles, with an unconscious joy.

   “Here.” Scott passed a cup of coffee down to his brother before taking a seat on the rock beside him, his hands wrapped gratefully around his own cup. Johnny put down the cup and took off his gloves, flexing the fingers of his right hand with an irritated frown.

   “Is it bothering you?” Scott asked, expecting Johnny’s usual scowling denial when he or their father touched on the subject.

   “Some,” Johnny replied. “Two weeks ropin’ ain’t done it too much good, I’ll tell y’that.”

   “We’re nearly done.”

   Johnny nodded. His gaze on the golden arcs of water thrown up by the playing cowboys, he sipped at the hot coffee and made a face.

   “Damn the Ol’ Lady,” he hissed. “He can cook up a mean Red Bean Pie, but he sure can’t make coffee.”

   “Soon be home, Brother,” Scott smiled, realising as he said it that he had missed his father, the chess, the books, the conversation, the rare full-on smiles that could still make his heart leap. “Maria will make all the coffee you can drink.”

   “Yeh, an’ she’ll make me take a bath too.”

   Scott knocked Johnny’s hat off his head and ruffled his scruffy dark hair.

   “Well, that wouldn’t be so bad an idea, boy.”

   Grinning, Johnny picked up his hat and beat clouds of dust from it on his thigh.

   “No, I guess it wouldn’t at that.” He jammed the hat back on his head and pushed small stones down the slope to the creek with the toe of his boot. “Y’think Uncle Iain’ll be there by now?”

   “Maybe, if there haven’t been any delays on the railroad. Charlie Porter was telling me that there’s still heavy snow on some parts of the line.”

   Johnny nodded.

   “What’ll he be like, y’reckon?”

   “Well, as Murdoch’s told us virtually nothing, it’s hard to guess, but I suppose there’ll be similarities between them.”

   Johnny turned his head and smiled broadly at his older brother.

   “Think so? Reckon he’ll yell as loud?”

   Scott smiled and threw the dregs of his coffee in the dust.

   “Better not put that to the test, little brother.”

   “Hell, not me.” Johnny shrugged, a glimmer of a smirk on his lips. “I’m all-fire responsible nowadays.”

   Hearing Whip’s holler of ‘Come’n git it ‘fore I throw it away’, Johnny laughed away his brother’s sceptical look and stood up. Cowboys surged from the creek, scrambling still wet into vests and long-johns. The campfire roared against the descending colder night air as the men gathered in huddled groups with their piled-up plates of stew and biscuits. Pete Merritt, a teenager still too green to appreciate the custom of quiet supper times, began a brag of his mastery of the difficult skill of fore-footing calves with his rope. Instantly, Sam Wester growled out his reprimand.

   “Shut ya damn leaky mouth, boy, an’ eat.”

   Red-faced, the boy obeyed, his eyes averted from the critical stares of the older hands. Away from the main group, the brothers sat together in an instinctive, unspoken desire for one another’s company. They both recognised it and wondered at the strength of it.

   “Reckon if we’d grown up together in the same place, we’d be more alike?” Johnny asked through the last of a mouthful of stew. Around him, the men bolted the food like hungry dogs. Only Tom, seated apart from the others, and Scott ate slowly with the idea of tasting, although Scott had begun to understand that Whip’s food was designed for filling a man’s stomach quickly and well, not for dwelling on with any real pleasure.

   “I don’t know, Johnny,” he said, poking with his fork at an unidentifiable piece of meat. Suspecting a stray prairie oyster, he pushed it to one side of the plate. “It depends if similarities come from blood or circumstance, nature or nurture.”

   “There ya go now,” Johnny said, shaking his head. He plucked the strange meat from his brother’s plate and put it in his mouth, chewing it twice before swallowing it. “Ain’t a chance in hell I’d’ve grown up sayin’ stuff like that, even if I’d gone to that fancy school of yours.”

   Scott watched his brother clean his plate with dust, wondering if Johnny was angry.

   “Johnny …”

   “Want some apple pie?” Johnny smiled then, kicked Scott’s foot gently. “Both like that, don’t we.”

   “Yeh, we do,” Scott replied. He watched Johnny walk over to the chuck wagon, the only man in the whole outfit who could approach Whip at a meal time and coax both an extra helping and a friendly word out of the fiery cook. Most others, including Scott, had learned to keep their distance. Billy Donner still liked to show off his bruised left buttock like a trophy after taking a bet with the other young hands that he could, like Oliver Twist, ask for more. Whip’s ladle, swift and sure, had found its target, to the raucous laughter of the other youths.

   Johnny returned with two large slices of pie on his plate. Scott quickly dust-cleaned his plate, still surprised to find that he hardly cared if his apple pie met up with a smear of dust and gravy on its way to his mouth.

   “Reckon Cousin Robbie’ll take to cows?” Johnny said. He had despatched his pie in a few mouthfuls and was sitting cross-legged, throwing small stones into the fire. “Him bein’ a schoolteacher an’ all.”

   “He won’t have much choice considering we’ve got over thirty thousand of them.”

   His brother smiled. As men finished their meals, cigarettes were lit, voices began low and confiding, a harmonica was pulled from a saddlebag and a game of cards was started on a rough blanket.

   “I’ll tell ya.” Billy Donner’s voice louder than the rest, almost passionate. “I ain’t boshin’ ya. I’d ride a hundred miles jesta watch ‘er sittin’ on ‘er porch scratchin’ ‘er elbows, I swear.”

   “Yeh, an’ that’s all ya’d be watchin’, boy,” another voice said.

   “If that don’t beat all,” Charlie Hewson said, spitting tobacco juice into the dust. “Scratchin’ ‘er elbows. Boy, you bin ridin’ drag too long. Got dust fer brains.”

   “I ain’t no drag rider, Charlie, an’ y’know it,” Billy said irritably.

   “Well, the orders ain’t up fer the drive yet, so mebbe I don’t know it.”

   Johnny walked around the camp, rifle in hand, catching phrases in the air, certain smells, the sounds of resting men and animals. After the frantic sweat and blood of the day, the atmosphere was heavy with stupor. He stopped to stroke Barranca and heard the wheels moments after the horse had raised its head, ears hard forward. Raising his rifle, he stared into the dusk, waiting for the wagon to show itself through the grove of oak trees.

  

Chapter Four

   It was a plain buckboard wagon, pulled by a bony grey horse. The driver was a man in middle years, unshaven and wrapped in layers of worn clothes, a stained, broken-rimmed hat on his narrow head. Next to him was a woman, younger than the man and heavily pregnant, a thick, green shawl around her shoulders. When the man drew the wagon to a halt with a weary tug on the reins, Johnny moved from the remuda and stood at the horse’s head to look up at the couple. In the back of the wagon sat another person, a girl of around fourteen, huddled in blankets, apparently asleep.

   “Howdy.” Johnny greeted them neutrally, his hands gently on his rifle, his eyes taking in every visible detail of the strangers.

   “Howdy,” the man replied. He was afraid. Johnny sensed it and lowered the gun. He moved one hand to stroke the grey horse’s bony head. Catching the woman’s fearful eyes, her hand tense upon the folds of her shawl, he allowed his expression to soften.

   “Where you folks headin’?”

   “A place south o’ Stockton, Green River.” The man looked across at the campfire in the near distance, the evidence of a large group of people, the sounds of a harmonica, of low laughter. He swallowed, licked his thin lips and looked at Johnny with sudden fervour. “You got a place by your fire for a spell, Mister. My wife, she’s real tired and the girl here …” He looked back at the sleeping girl.  “She ain’t well.”

   By now, other men, including Scott, had appeared.  Johnny heard Tick spit hard in the dust behind him and mutter contemptuously, “Sodbusters.”

   The young man nodded.

   “Sure. You can rest here awhile. We got coffee and somethin’ to eat, too, if y’want.”

   The man drew in a deep breath and allowed the reins to drop from his hands.

   “I’m obliged to you, son.” He sighed and looked at his wife. “We’re obliged to you.”

   “What’s wrong with the girl?” Scott asked, resting his hand on the side of the wagon and gazing at the young woman. She was flushed, her breathing irregular and thick. The man seemed disconcerted by the fresh voice asking the stern question and looked anxiously at Johnny.

   “I’m Johnny Lancer,” the young man said. “This is my brother, Scott. This is our land.”

   In the face of such clear poverty and desperation, Johnny felt an ache of sudden guilt at his own words, that he should lay claim to such vast stretches of the untamed land, when once he had fought for scraps in the street, but still the larger part of him liked the feel of the words in his mouth. The man stared back at him as if he barely understood and looked at Scott who had placed his hand on the girl’s burning forehead.

   “She just got sick,” he said.

   “She’s my sister,” the woman said, turning round and stroking the girl’s flushed cheek with the back of her fingers. “She was sickenin’ when we got thrown off our land, and now she’s worse.”

   Grim-faced, Scott walked over to Johnny.

   “Can we talk, Brother?”

   Johnny nodded. A short distance away from the wagon, Scott glanced at the family before turning a determined look upon his brother.

   “Johnny, I don’t like this,” he said. “We don’t know what’s wrong with the girl. It could be infectious. Keeping her here, even for a night, could put us all at risk.” He lowered his voice still further, but kept his gaze locked on his brother’s unreadable expression. “We have to put the health of the men first.”

   Johnny threw a smouldering glare at Tick who had stepped forward and spat tobacco juice in the dust prior to opening his mouth. He stopped in the face of Johnny’s anger and, muttering, headed back to the campfire.

   “I ain’t turnin’ ‘em away, Scott,” Johnny said. “They’re cold an’ they’re hungry.” He hesitated and looked down for a moment before raising his head to meet his brother’s eyes with what seemed to Scott a now familiar mixture of amusement and deadly intent. “You could fight me on it, Brother, but you’d lose.”

   Scott ground his teeth a little before nodding. Determined to chase away an uncomfortable feeling of being dictated to by his younger brother, he helped the family to the fireside. Sensing the men’s unrest surrounding them like bees disturbed in their hive, he fetched water and a cloth and began to bathe the girl’s fevered skin. He heard Johnny instructing Whip to cook up some food for the family, the cook’s irritable, outraged protests silenced by his brother’s sudden angry order for him to “Shut the hell up, Whip, an’ do what I’m tellin’ ya.” Apparently indifferent to the brooding silence of the men, he poured out coffee for the couple, placing the mug with particular care into the young woman’s hands. She smiled up at him wearily as she took it.

   “Thank you. You’re real kind. We been travellin’ a deal o’ time.”

   Johnny nodded and sat down close to the couple. He watched them blow on the hot coffee, until, as if by some secret signal, they both took several rapid sips.

   “Where ya from?” he asked. Close by, his brother attempted to persuade the sick girl to drink water.

   “Fresno way,” the man replied, watching with wide, hungry eyes the angry cook fry up meat in a large pan. “Name’s Will Jackson.” He nodded at the woman. “This here’s my wife, Louisa, an’ that’s her sister, Laura.” He took a larger gulp of the coffee. “We had us a piece of land once in Fresno. A good piece.”

   “What happened, Mr Jackson?” Scott asked, again soothing the fevered girl with a damp cloth to her forehead.

   “C’n I eat first?” Jackson said, his gaze fixed wildly on the frying meat, his throat swallowing back another mouthful of saliva. “I swear I could take that meat as it is.”

   “Ain’t hardly even cooked yet,” Whip said. “We eat civil in this outfit. We ain’t dogs …”

   “Give him the meat, Whip,” Scott ordered, glancing at Johnny who acknowledged the gesture with the merest glimmer of a smile. “Unless you don’t know what it is to be so hungry you’d eat your own shoes?”

   Whip looked suspiciously at the older Lancer, the meat sizzling in the pan in his hands. A low whistle from one of the other men seemed to galvanise him into action. Roughly, he thrust the meat on a plate and handed it to Jackson who took it, ripped off a piece for his wife and then plunged his teeth into the meat with the unthinking abandon of the starving. Louisa Jackson was hardly less decorous as she tore at the beef, its juices running down her chin, although she slowed down in her eating after a short time, seeming suddenly conscious of their animal behaviour.

   “Sorry,” she said. “We ain’t eaten in three days.”

   Johnny shook his head, his gaze mild upon her. As her husband continued to eat voraciously the further cuts of meat and hot biscuits Whip now set quickly before them, Louisa took small bites, chewed slowly.

 

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

    “So this is California.”

     Sweeping down into the town of Colfax out of the great mountain passes of the Sierras that had induced even in him, a student of geology, a feeling akin to horror, Robbie shared his mother’s relief at the expanse of sunlit land set out before them - a vista of gently rolling hills and valleys, of clusters of pine, oak and maple trees breaking the monotony of wheat-planted fields, and down in the valley bottom, a winding blue river, flashing in the high noon sunlight.

   “A wee bit more like home, Ma,” Robbie smiled, squeezing his mother’s thin shoulders as the train descended in such a curve that when they looked back in the direction of the snowy mountains, they could see the entire length of the eleven laden carriages like an insignificant toy in the vast landscape.

   “Aye,” Mary smiled. “A wee bit.”

   She looked uncertainly at her husband who was gazing out at this new, gentler landscape with the same severe disapproving expression with which he had earlier regarded the plains, canyons, deserts and mountains of the American landscape.

   “Iain, is the sight of California pleasing to ye?” his wife asked.

   “As pleasing as any of God’s works, Mary,” he answered, forcing out a thin smile. “Nothing of what we have witnessed has displeased me.” He looked squarely at his son. “Here is God’s creation made manifest in all its sublime glory, is it not, Robbie?”

   “Aye, Father,” the younger man replied. He smiled at his mother. “If ye’ll excuse me, I’m away to take a look at that fossil bone Mr Dawson bought in the mining camp yesterday morning.”

   Iain watched his son leave the carriage, his expression working between anger and despair.

   “I was wrong to bring Robbie,” he said. In his tone, both vulnerable and fearful, Mary detected the rare sign that her husband wished to confide in her. In her company alone, he would drop his constant guard, reach for her hand, look into her eyes with the need of a child. She lived for such moments, as a drowning person might grab at a branch floating in the sea, knowing it would not hold, but hoping nevertheless.

   “Why d’ye say that?” she asked softly, grasping his hand and feeling, in return, that ever-surprising squeeze of gratitude.

   “I wished him to see the wider world, so that he would know such mighty things could not be the work of some blind, mechanical force of nature, as he seems determined ta believe, but I feel his heart opposing the heart of me…” He paused and drew in a heavy breath. “… the heart of our Lord, in every look and word.”

   “He has no wish to hurt ye, Iain,” Mary said. She moved in a little closer to her husband, relishing the intimacy, and put up her hand to his thick greying hair.

   “But he does hurt me, Mary.” She saw his forehead crease in pain and her fingers caressed the furrows as he had once allowed in their most intimate moments when they were young. For a minute, he was silent; then he turned his head to look into her pale brown eyes. “As Murdoch hurt me, as he hurt our mother and now we are so close, I fear I will not find it in ma heart to forgive him. It has been much on ma mind these past days. I have prayed for guidance, Mary, but God has not answered, and when we crossed over those mountains, I didna feel humbled by his works, but, in the face of their savagery, so afraid that He is not here, that I left Him in Scotland.”

   “No, Iain,” Mary protested. “He is everywhere. We carry Him in our hearts to the very ends of the Earth.”

   “That is not what ma son believes, Mary!” Iain pulled away from her and grasped the brass rail underneath the carriage window, his face to the window. Clouds had swept down from the mountains and it had begun to rain. As the train slowed for a steep part of the track, he could see rough little shacks on the hillsides and people in strange, coned hats digging in the earth or washing clothes in tin tubs. “That is not what ma brother believes. When he left home, he wished to leave behind everything he had known, scratch it out of his soul until there was nothing left, until he was reborn - that’s what he told me the night before he took ship for America.”

   Mary frowned, surprised at the pain her husband’s words caused her. Through the long years, she had learned to close the door on that terrible moment of truth where for some months after she had believed herself beyond hope of recovery. She went to her husband again and pressed her right hand hard down on his left hand.

   “Murdoch’s your brother, Iain. We have travelled five thousand miles to see him. I didna question why you suddenly wanted so much to come here, but now we are here, I believe it’s God’s will.”

   When he turned his blue eyes upon her, she could see that some of the pain had left his face, that she had worked her magic. Quietly elated, she reached up to kiss his lips, surprised when instead of pulling away, he pressed his mouth on hers with an urgency that expressed to her all his sense of helplessness against the strange, godless land outside.

   “Robbie?” he whispered, searching her eyes intently. “What of Robbie?”

   “Robbie’s a good son,” she whispered back. “He’s still journeying in the wilderness, but his soul will find its right place in time.”

   Iain nodded. He allowed her hand to rest in his until the moment another couple entered the observation car, then he retreated from her like a tortoise pulling back into the dark safety of its shell. To Mary, it was as if for a brief moment she had succeeded in grasping a shadow, felt its form and substance, before it once more became an unknowable shape over the surface of things.

 

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

 

   “It was like we’d never bin there, never travelled a thousand miles to stake our claim, build ourselves a home, never spent three damned years sweatin’ an’ breakin’ our backs to grow crops an’ raise our cattle an’ hogs. I look back an’ I swear, it was like we was shadows on that piece o’ land, cus there ain’t nothin’ left of us there now, for sure.”

   Jackson was comfortable now in the warmth of the fire. Food and coffee had brightened his eyes and loosened his tongue. His pregnant wife lay sleeping on a mound of blankets collected by Cipriano, who could still be heard gently chiding those who resented the family’s presence. The girl, Laura, had taken a little broth and conscious now, was staring in exhausted bewilderment at Whip as he held spoonfuls of sugared water to her cracked lips.

   “How did you lose your land?” Scott asked. Jackson looked scornfully at the younger man, and Scott could see that he was a man of some spirit, after all. He sucked hungrily on a cigarette Billy Donner had given him, pushing the smoke out hard through his nose as he glared at the ground at his feet.

   “The way all men lose what’s theirs, Mr Lancer,” he said. “Someone bigger took it away.”

   “Another farmer?”

   “Farmer?” Jackson almost smiled. “Farmers don’t take from farmers, Mr Lancer. It’s the big ranchers that do the takin’. We had us a place by a river in a valley, stand ‘o trees for shade and wood, sheltered from the winds, but a feller named Jed Albright bought the waterin’ rights to that stretch of the river, shallow an’ stony enough for his cattle to drink safely. Told us that it weren’t legal no more fer us to use the water there an’ anyways we was in the way of his cattle trail, so we’d best go.” Jackson finished the cigarette and threw the stub in the fire. “Held out fer a coupla months, but the sonuvabitch killed my hogs an’ cows, even my damn dog. Hired men to do the killin’, so the sheriff, he didn’t look too hard into it. So we upped and left a coupla weeks back with nothin’ but a few tools an’ pots, our clothes and a damn clock.” Jackson shook his head ruefully. “Louisa, she’s real attached to that damn clock, says it’s like we ain’t lost our home, but, Jesus, I ain’t sentimental like that, no sir. We lost our home, for sure.”

   He looked up at Johnny who had listened silently to the story. Glancing at the sleeping wife, he smiled briefly.

   “Women gotta feel for such things, Mr Jackson.”

   “Yeh, well, the only thing I gotta feel for is this …” The older man pulled a rifle from his few belongings and handed it crossways to Johnny who took it and nodded appreciatively as he brushed his hand over the lovingly polished brass chamber and walnut stock.

   “A Yellowboy,” he said. “Nice gun. Can you use it?”

   “Sure can,” Jackson replied. “That’s why I’m headin’ fer Green River. Heard tell they got a shootin’ fair comin’ up. $500 prize money. I could sure use that kinda money.”

   “Reckon you’re good enough?” Johnny asked. “That fair attracts the best shots in the county.”

   “Only one way to find out,” Jackson said, taking the gun back and wrapping it carefully in an old piece of tarpaulin.

   “Reckon so.” Johnny got to his feet and stooped to pick up his saddle. “I’m goin’ to check the herd. We’ll be headin’ back to Lancer in a coupla days, Mr Jackson. Our place is just outside of Green River. We’d be glad to give you an’ your family a place to stay while ya get yourselves straightened out, seein’ as how your wife’s expectin’ an’ the girl’s sick.”

   Jackson’s eyes widened in disbelief. He glanced at Scott who gazed back at him impassively before rising to his feet.

   “Sure, Mr Jackson,” he said. “Laura’s not well enough to travel tomorrow anyway. You’re welcome to come with us.”

   “Well …” Jackson released a deep sigh of relief that seemed almost to shake his thin frame. “That’s real kind of you boys. I’ll take you up on that offer. Thank you.”

   Scott nodded and followed his brother into the darkness of the trees where Barranca was tethered.

   “Murdoch might not like this, Johnny,” he warned. Johnny placed the saddle on the horse’s back and reached underneath its belly for the cinch.

   “He ain’t goin’ to turn away a pregnant woman an’ a sick kid, Scott,” he replied, tightening the cinch.

   “He won’t like being put in the position where he has to make that decision.”

   Johnny slipped the bridle over Barranca’s head and smiled at his brother.

   “I can handle the Ol’ Man, Scott. He bites, but his teeth ain’t so sharp these days.”

   Scott folded his arms and shook his head in exasperation.

   “I’m looking forward to going home, little brother,” he said. “I don’t want it spoiled by you and Murdoch falling out before we’ve even got through the door.”

   As so often lately, Scott found himself suddenly grabbed by his younger brother and held in a headlock while Johnny rubbed fiercely at his blond hair.

   “Don’t ya worry, Boston. I won’t let nothin’ spoil that rose-scented bath an’ manicure y’got lined up for yourself at home, I swear.”

   Scott kicked Johnny’s legs out from under him and they fell to the ground in a tussle of laughter and curses as each tried to pin the other to the ground. Finally, gasping for breath and grinning widely, Scott got his brother face down in the dust, one arm twisted up Johnny’s back.

   “Beg for mercy, boy.”

   “No fuckin’ chance.”

   “For that choice piece of language, young man, you’ll have to beg twice as hard.”

   “I ain’t beggin’ no greenhorn eastern dandy for nothin’ … anyway, you’re meant to be lookin’ out for me, big brother.”

   “As if you need it,” Scott said, releasing Johnny’s arm and slapping his backside before sitting back on his heels to brush the dust from his clothes. Johnny lay on his side, his head resting on the palm of his right hand, watching him with a smile.

   “Ya reckon Jackson can shoot?” he asked.

   “Not well enough.” Scott stood up and reached down for his brother’s hand. “He’s wound up like a spring.”

   Johnny took Scott’s hand and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. He brushed the dust out of his hair.

   “That’s what I figured.” He settled his hat back on his head. “ Guess I’ll have to teach him a few things …”

   “Johnny, for Christ’s sake,” Scott protested, as his brother swung himself up onto Barranca’s back. Grinning, Johnny nudged the horse into a jog and disappeared into the night. With a sigh, Scott returned to the campfire. Jackson had lain down where he had first sat, his head on the cold ground, and was snoring loudly. Scott rolled up a blanket and placed it under the man’s head before covering him with another blanket. He wanted to go home.

  

Chapter Five

   By the time Murdoch arrived in Green River, the town was already alive with the business of the day. It seemed, despite his apprehension in meeting the stage from Sacramento, that the town was conspiring to give him pleasure. Everywhere he looked - the bank, the sheriff’s office, the barber’s, the warm, well-swept boardwalks - he was hailed with waves and loud, cheerful greetings and the beaming smiles of strolling ladies, even the young ones. Was it his imagination or had the town changed towards him since his sons’ return? Was he liked now for the man he was and not just for the money he might spend or the causes he might support? Certain he was that this palpable warmth radiating in his direction was more than was due to a man even of his means and influence. When both George Stills at the General Mercantile and the barber, Ike Kinsey, yelled a friendly enquiry after the boys, why they had not been around lately, he realised that his sons had brought more than themselves into his life.

   As he drove the buggy past the livery stable, Amo tethered to the rear, his head held high and wide-eyed, only Tom Cooper reserved a curt, unsmiling nod for the rancher. Murdoch returned the nod, wondering briefly if Johnny was still interested in Tom’s daughter, Lindy. The subject of his younger son’s female companions was not one the father cared to pursue in any depth. When the thought did enter his head, he knew there was a small part of him that was waiting for an irate parent to come knocking on his door, a tearful, pregnant girl in tow. Shrugging the uncomfortable image away, he looked up at the colourful banner stretched over the street advertising the annual ‘Deadshot Derby’, before bringing the buggy to a soft halt outside Sven Bergson’s General Store.

   Nailed to a post on the store’s frontage, was a poster giving further details of the competition. Murdoch stopped to read it, although in the ten years the event had been held, he had shown no more than a passing interest.

   “Thinking of entering, Murdoch?”

   Sven, tall, thin and fair-haired, with the large, bony hands of his Viking ancestors tucked into the front pocket of his spotless apron, smiled at the rancher from the doorway of his store. Murdoch returned the smile cautiously. For years, he and Sven had conversed in monosyllables, men of business, saying no more than was needed to complete a transaction. Then Johnny, intrigued by Sven’s accent, had pulled a life story out of the taciturn Swede, the wild ocean, the near shipwreck, the loss of wife and child to Scarlet Fever on the immigrant trail. Now, like a tree on the edge of the snow line in spring, the rancher found himself included in the spreading warmth of the storekeeper’s regard.

   “Not me, Sven,” he replied gruffly. “I’m as good a shot as I need to be. I’m no sharpshooter.”

   “Maybe your boys then,” Sven persisted. He joined Murdoch on the street in front of the poster and patted the other man’s shoulder. “Last year, it was won by a fellow who couldn’t shoot a single dead centre. Bad for the town, Murdoch…” He lowered his voice slightly. “Bad for business. We need to please the spectators. They come from as far away as Fresno and Sonoma, spend plenty of dollars. Our competition needs a sure thing, as the Yankees say. You think Johnny, maybe?”

   Murdoch frowned. Sensing the rancher’s displeasure, as chill as a sudden squall of sleet, Sven patted his shoulder again.

   “Now Murdoch, I was meaning no offence, but the boy’s gift is not a secret in Green River, not since he shot the top of Jed Walker’s finger off at fifty paces, last fall.” Sven grinned widely, showing a row of perfect white teeth. “Boy, that was some shooting alright!”

   “Sven,” Murdoch said grimly, his pale blue gaze fixed darkly on the storekeeper. “If you’re aiming at persuading me that Johnny should enter this competition, I’ll tell you now, you’re making a damn poor job of it.” He nodded at the entrance to the store. “Now, I believe you have some books for me.”

   Chastened, Sven followed Murdoch’s heavy tread into the shop’s interior, a scrupulously kept space under a low ceiling that smelled of sacking and spices. Arrayed on the counter was a row of sweet jars filled with brightly coloured candy: groundnut brittle, comfits, liquorice, peppermint sticks and twists of barley sugar.

   As Sven rummaged under the counter, Murdoch’s gaze was drawn to the barley sugar, golden sticks behind the distorted glass of the jar. Knowing how near he was to meeting his brother again, he could not stop the memory emerging – Iain at five, on the tips of his boots, straining every muscle to reach the single sweet jar on the rough deal counter of John Carrock’s little shop in the village, and he at nine, restraining him. Carrock’s throaty laugh as he plunged a bony hand into the jar and offered them a stick each.  Iain grabbing the stick and sticking it in his mouth, sucking on it as if his next breath depended on it.

   But Murdoch had hesitated. In that dark, windowless little room, musty with smells of bread and mice, he had stared at that long golden twist of unimaginable heaven, his emotions at war. He was a dutiful son. Indulgence in the sensual pleasures of the body was a sin. He must not read the Song of Songs. He must not stand idly in the sun. He must not eat sugar. Even now, at fifty years old, he could feel his heart twisting and his mouth watering with the memory of it. He could hear the lapping of his brother’s tongue in the shining crevices of the twist, see Carrock’s kind, grimy face behind the proffered sweet.

   Finally, he had grabbed his brother’s arm and pulled him out of the shop. He had wrenched the barley sugar from the child’s grasp and ground it into the earth with his boot. All the way home, Iain had sobbed until a rough shake from the older boy had been reminder enough that their father sat in wait for the ink they had been sent to fetch. By the time they stood before his sin-watchful gaze, both faces were as blank as stone angels. Later, in the darkness of their bedroom, he had heard his brother’s whisper, “Can ye taste the sun, Murry?” “No” – his blunt, angry reply to such a query in that house. Sometimes he had allowed his young brother’s questions in the shelter of the night, indulged them with a like reply, but not this night, not while he lay in his bed, tormented by his sacrifice. “If ye could, wud it taste like the barley sugar?” His brother, undeterred. “How wud I know?” Spat out, almost; enough to silence the younger boy. Enough for him to feel a stab of guilt for hurting his only friend in the grey walls of their home.

   “Here you are, Murdoch. I believe that’s everything.”

   His gaze left the candy jar and surveyed the items piled on the counter. He checked the books, ran his long fingers over the leather covers. Alone, he would have brought the book to his nose, inhaled the leather, the unread pages – he had seen Scott do the same – but for now, he stroked the three volumes, two for him and one for his older son. Giving a bottle of his favourite aftershave a cursory glance, he frowned at the neatly folded shirt that Sven was wrapping in brown paper. It was red, patterned with tiny blue stars. Murdoch allowed his fingers to rest gently on the shirt.

   “What’s this?”

   “For Johnny,” Sven replied. “Nice shirt. Good quality. I had one in a few weeks back, but it was too large for him, so I ordered another. A little too fancy for my tastes, but …”

   “Mine too,” Murdoch interrupted him, his expression losing some of its severity. “The Lord knows where that boy got his dress sense from. Is it paid for?”

   “No, sir,” Sven said with a smile. He pushed the expertly wrapped parcel forward. “And that’s a total of twenty-eight dollars and fifty-two cents.”

   Grunting, Murdoch pulled out his wallet and nodded in the direction of the candy jars.

   “I’ll take a couple of those barley-sugar twists, too.”

   “Sure thing,” Sven said eagerly. He wrapped the candy in paper and placed it on top of the pile. “You developing a sweet tooth in your old age, huh,  Murdoch?”

   “Not so’s I’ve noticed.” Murdoch handed thirty dollars to the storekeeper and picked up the items. “Be seeing you, Sven.”

   “You bet.”

   When Murdoch emerged from the store, he blinked at the brightness of the day, before walking down the steps into the street and placing the parcels under the buggy seat. Over at the stage depot, Old Joe was sweeping the boardwalk lethargically in readiness for the incoming stage. Taking a deep breath, Murdoch patted Amo and strolled over to the newly opened diner next to the bank. There, he drank coffee and stared out of the window, trying to imagine what he would say to a brother he had not seen for thirty years. Would all be forgiven and forgotten at first sight, or would the past come flooding down on them, like a great wave, drowning any hope of reconciliation? He rubbed his large hand down over his face, knowing he would be willing to suffer again that first meeting with his estranged sons rather than face this man and woman he had deserted for love of himself.

   He had left in the early hours of the morning with a few clothes, two books, a loaf of bread and the price of his passage, no note for his parents and no backward glance. He could still remember his determination to look ahead, to feel the forward motion of his feet as if they were things with a life of their own. At the crossroads among the heather, where at six a stagecoach would come en route for Annan, he had waited, as still as the grey rocks in the glow of pre-dawn, the high, quivering calls of black grouse in their ritual dances of courtship the only sounds to break the silence. Was that where his ability to close down his emotions had been born? Later events, the death of Catherine, the loss of his children, had made his cauterised heart seem a natural part of him, but it was there, on that moor, he was sure, he had made the choice to steel himself against any feeling that would cause him to doubt his destiny.

   Later, he had stood on the decks of the clipper, The Mary Piper, while she rocked and creaked in the grey waves of Liverpool’s harbour and the stevedores had loaded the cargo with a rhythmic, swinging motion of their powerful arms. His feet off the ground, the gulls swirling and shrieking above his head, he had found it easier to detach his thoughts from home, as if the grey and purple hills, the little village, his family, even Mary, were part of an apprenticeship for life with which he was finished for good.

   Then came the pull of the ship out to sea. Even now, decades later, that thought could still flood him with excitement and joy – the moment of no return, the leap of his heart to the promise of the horizon, the wild laughter as the salt spray hit his face, the belief that if God did exist then he was there, in him, Murdoch Lancer, invincible and all-powerful.

   How far he was from that belief now! He watched his own hand stir a little sugar into another cup of black coffee, noting how the veins stood out, pale blue, from the weathered skin. His back ached, as it often did, and he was conscious of feeling heavy with life, as if he had carried that first bundle of few belongings too far and too long.

   Drawing his watch from his waistcoat, he glanced at it, irritated to see it had stopped. At times he regretted giving his old watch to his younger son, a perfect timepiece that had never failed, presented to him on his twelfth birthday by his father with the solemn reminder: ‘The time to do the Lord’s work is short indeed.’ It had been the only sign of his father he had allowed himself to keep. At first, he had considered throwing it into the ocean, but its quiet, precise beauty had stayed his hand. Now, it did reckless duty in Johnny’s loose grasp of hours and minutes, although Murdoch had, once or twice, noticed the young man gazing intently at the watch, tracing his finger across the inscription inside its silver cover – ‘To my son. Be blessed in the Lord. 1832’ – and, as so often in the year since his sons’ return, he had walked away, stricken by the turmoil in his heart. It was they, he knew, who had dragged it kicking and wailing back into life, and he was still surprised to find how little mastery he had of it lately, how easily he could find himself capsized in his own waters by Scott’s smile or Johnny’s shoulder against his on the Great Room’s couch.

   Shaking off the thought of his absent sons, he put on his hat, threw a coin on the table and left the diner, attempting to find some trace in himself of his old strength of will, but feeling instead his nerves bouncing haphazardly under his skin like trapped birds.  In the dust and heat of the street, he sought comfort from his horse, speaking gently to the animal and unaccountably moved when Amo placed his head against his chest and rested it there, eyes closed.

   “If I didn’t know better, Mr Lancer, I’d say you was sweet on that horse.”

   Murdoch lifted his head to gaze stonily at the sheriff, Val Crawford, who, arms folded, was regarding the rancher with a faint smile.

   “He has to earn his keep,” the older man said, placing his hand on the horse’s scarred neck and stroking softly. Only he and Johnny were allowed this liberty; others who tried it received a wild-eyed baring of teeth. That Amo, with his brutalised past, had accepted him was just another anomaly in his life that left him feeling both elated and unsettled.

   “Don’t we all?” Val smiled. He rested an elbow on the buggy’s side and scratched a grimy finger through his stubble. “You fetchin’ supplies?”

   “I’m meeting my brother and his family from the stage,” Murdoch replied. “It’s late.”

   “Oh, yeh,” Val said. “Johnny told me about how his uncle was visitin’ from Scotland. He was real fired up with it, like a kid with a jar of candy. Guess you’re looking forward to it too, huh?”

   “Yes.” Murdoch heaved in a breath. “Is there something I can do for you, Val, or are you just passing the time of day?”

   Val raised his eyebrows fractionally at the rancher’s curt demand then moved his arm from the buggy’s side.

   “As a matter o’ fact, I was on my way to fetch my horse from the livery. Jessie Springer sent a man out to tell me that Henry’s took hisself off and she don’t know where.”

   “Henry?” Murdoch frowned. “Where on earth would he go?”

   “Well, I guess that’s what she wants me to find out,” Val said with a shrug. “‘spect he’s just forgot to tell her that he’s gettin’ a haircut or somethin’”

   “I doubt that.” Murdoch heard the yell of “Stage a’comin’ in!” and looked intently at the sheriff. “Do me a favour, Val and let me know when you find Henry?”

   “Sure thing, Mr Lancer, but it’ll be somethin’ an’ nothin’, for certain.”

   “Maybe, but when he visited last week, he didn’t seem himself. Tell Jessie I’ll be out to see her when I can.”

   He was almost glad of it, this last minute distraction from his fears, although he felt a churning in the pit of his stomach at the news as he strode in the direction of the incoming stage. The vehicle was powering down the street like a crazed buffalo, a flurry of hooves, rattling wheels and a swaying roof full of bouncing luggage.  As usual the driver, Spit Harvey, overshot the depot, hauling at the reins and yelling curses at his horses, while the shotgun rider grinned with a mouthful of tobacco-stained teeth. Red-faced with anger, the depot manager dropped down from the boardwalk to berate the driver who waved his hand contemptuously, before beginning to untie the ropes holding down the luggage.

   Then down they stepped, one by one, onto the dust of the street. Hat between his hands, Murdoch waited, as nervous as a wrong-doing schoolboy, for them to notice him, for the man with dark hair, greying beard and blue eyes to look upon him. When he did, Murdoch was startled to see his younger son in the face of his brother. For a moment, he was mesmerised; then he stepped forward, his hand outstretched in greeting.

   “Iain.” The word emerged passionately, surprising him. For Murdoch, the years of their estrangement fell away like layers of an ice-shelf into the sea. Every instinct in him longed to embrace the younger man, but instantly, his brother’s expression, cold-eyed, unsmiling, told him that his feelings were not returned. Iain seemed to hesitate before grasping Murdoch’s hand and the older man was certain he drew in a breath before meeting his gaze.

   “Murdoch, how are ye?”

   “Well, Iain, I’m well.” Murdoch heard the simple words tumble from his mouth in response to the cold enquiry. He had not prepared for this. He had not expected to feel such powerful love for his brother, nor such biting pain in a moment so distant and passionless. As the luggage was unloaded to the tune of irritated shouts and the continuing complaints of the depot manager, he turned to Mary. She smiled shyly and held out her hand. Taking it, he sought in her brown eyes the ardent girl of his youth, but she too had armoured herself against him, stunting the flow of his blood with the politeness of a stranger.

   “I’m glad ta see ye again, Murdoch.” Declining to hold his gaze for more than a moment, she turned her head and placed her hand on her son’s arm. “This is our son, Robbie. Robbie, this is your Uncle Murdoch.”

   “Sir.” The young man thrust out his hand with a smile. “I’m delighted to meet ye, Uncle. I’ve looked forward to this for a very long time.”

   Relieved at his nephew’s friendly, eager tone, Murdoch shook his hand warmly.

   “Welcome to Green River, Robbie. I’m very glad you came. How was your journey?”

   “We’ve been travelling for weeks now, Brother,” Iain broke in. “We have a need ta wash and rest. Is it far ta your ranch?”

   “Of course,” Murdoch replied, glad to be propelled into action. He picked up the largest bags. “You must be very tired, all of you. The buggy’s across the street.”

   Gathering up the rest of the luggage, Robbie walked quickly beside the long, heavy strides of his uncle.

   “So much dust, Uncle,” he said cheerfully. Murdoch saw him attempt a friendly smile at a passing rider, only to receive a long, curious stare in return. “I hadn’t expected California to be so dry.”

   “We get our share of rain,” Murdoch replied, soothing Amo as he began to stow the bags in the buggy. “Only it comes fast and heavy here, not like Scotland. It can do a great deal of damage.”

   Helping Mary into the vehicle, he felt the smallness of her elbow. She turned to settle next to her husband and caught Murdoch’s gaze briefly before looking down at the clasped hands in her lap. Was he mistaken or was she agitated? He sometimes wondered if he had lost the ability to read even the most obvious ways of women, but he was certain she was pressing her lips together, that her pale skin was flushed, her breastbone heaving under her dark blue dress.

   “D’ye always take a spare horse along with ye, Murdoch?” Iain asked, frowning as Amo nudged his shoulder from behind the buggy.

   “No.” Murdoch, angry now at his brother’s frigid manner, was blunt in reply. “I brought him along for the exercise. He won’t trouble you once we’re moving.”

   “He’s a fine animal, Uncle,” Robbie said.

   “He is.” Murdoch hesitated. “He was a present from my son.”

   He had known that would do it for the woman, the mention of children. She raised her head, her brown eyes come to sudden life, her lips parted slightly. Abruptly, he pulled himself up onto the driver’s seat, Robbie beside him, and flicked the horse forwards into a jog, so that the passengers were thrown back slightly.  It gave him some satisfaction to hear their small noises of surprise and discomfort, and such was his disappointment and anger that he would have done worse to shake the frost from their bones.

 

Chapter Six

   ‘How the hell is he holding on?’ was Scott’s only thought as he watched his brother ride the mustang bare-back. Surrounded by a roughly built corral and a crowd of whooping cowboys, Johnny clutched the rigging behind the animal’s withers with his good left hand, his right hand carving the air.  Each twist and turn of the horse’s body seemed to Scott designed to hurl his brother at the sky, but Johnny brought the animal, snorting and squealing, back to earth every time. Sweat spun off horse and man. Flying dust made them both close their eyes and Johnny, in one rapid movement, jammed his hat further down on his head. Then he bore down hard, until the mustang’s nose was touching dust; his body arched back to nearly meet its hindquarters. He spurred it again into a furious leap that sent a flurry of dust at the spectators, causing them to blink and pull back a little from the fence. Mesmerised, Scott watched his brother spur the horse into a final buck. Its body almost vertical, it made one last effort to throw its rider. The bell rang. Instantly, Johnny released his hold on the rigging and leapt off, a grin on his face. All around him, Scott heard the hands whooping and cheering. Pete Merritt, seeming almost delirious with excitement, ran to catch the horse who stood quietly now, its sides heaving, pushing the breath from its nostrils in great heavy snorts.

   “Dang, Johnny!” Tick spat his approval into the dust. “That hoss’s some high roller alright. Dang, thought you was gonna eat dust fer sure on that last spur.”

   “Not me, Tick.” Johnny smiled, his eyes on his brother. He wiped his sweating forehead with his sleeve and took a mouthful of water from his canteen. He swilled it round his mouth once and spat it on the ground before taking a longer drink.

   “Jesus, Johnny,” Sam Wester growled from his seat on the fence. “You already won the steer-ropin’ and the saddle bronc’ing, and you let the kid there …” He nodded in the direction of Pete Merritt. “ … win the calf-ropin’. When you gonna let the rest of us in on the money?”

   “Hey, I won that calf-ropin’ fair an’ square!” Pete protested loudly.

   “Sure ya did, kid.” Sam smirked within his two weeks’ growth of dark beard. “Like I won that five bucks offen you fair an’ square last night.”

   The boy frowned suspiciously at the older cowboy and went silent against the laughter of the other hands. Johnny patted his shoulder gently.

   “Ya won the calf-ropin’, Pete,” he said. “Now take ol’ Cracker back to the remuda for me, ok.”

   “Sure, Johnny.” From under his battered hat, the boy’s eyes lit up with sudden admiration. “Boy, that wus some ridin’, though. Ain’t never seen nuthin’ like that in all my born days.”

   “An’ you got as many of those as notches on your bedpost, boy,” Billy Donner jeered as Pete began to lead the horse away.

   “I got some of those,” Pete said. “More’n you’d know.”

   “More than I do know!” Billy grinned. He turned to look at Johnny. “So, how about it, Johnny? What ya gonna let me win?”

   Johnny pulled himself up to sit on the fence next to his brother.

   “Oh, hell, Billy, I don’t know,” he drawled. He knocked back his hat a little and looked back at the camp to check that the Jacksons’ were out of earshot. “Maybe the pecker pullin’ contest. You’d win that one, for sure.”

   Billy flushed and scowled at the hoots of laughter surrounding him, before glaring at one of the younger wranglers.

   “Pedro, go saddle up your horse,” he ordered. “You can haze the steer I’m gonna bulldog in this dirt quicker’n ol’ Johnny-boy here can draw his gun.”  

   Johnny smiled slowly in response.

   “Sure would like to see that day, Billy, but bulldoggin’ ain’t on the day’s list of events.”

   “It is now,” Billy replied. “Or does the thought of losin’ at somethin’ scare ya?”

   “The boss don’t hold with bulldoggin’, Billy,” Sam Wester warned the younger man. “Ya know it.”

   “The boss ain’t here,” Billy said, holding Johnny’s cool gaze. “How ‘bout it, Johnny? Ain’t like you to go worryin’ ‘bout what your ol’ man thinks.” Billy smiled a little then. “Ain’t you the boss now, anyhow? Bulldoggin’ ain’t no more dangerous’n bronc’ing.”

   “Now, that ain’t the truth, Billy,” Whip objected, his hand stroking the brass of his precious bell. “Bulldoggin’s the worst of ‘em, aside from ridin’ the darn things.”

   “How ‘bout it, Johnny?” Billy repeated, ignoring the cook, the smile almost a sneer, challenging the young man. Scott frowned and drew in a breath. He sensed his brother’s hesitation under the cool exterior, knew Johnny was still boy enough to bridle at any threat to his pride.

   “Johnny …”

   “You go right ahead, Billy boy,” Johnny said with a smile. “Go right ahead an’ show us how it’s done.” His smile broadened. “Then I’ll go right in and whup your sorry ass.”

   Billy stared hard at Johnny, his jaw clenching behind his pressed lips, before turning on his heel and scrambling over the corral fence to fetch his horse. Tick slapped him on the back and sent of gob of yellow spit at the young man’s retreating feet.

   “Johnny,” Scott said. “Is this a good idea?”

   His brother smirked.

   “Hell, no, Scott. It’s a real bad idea. Billy’s gonna be spittin’ gravel from between his teeth for the next week.”

   “I meant going against Murdoch’s wishes,” Scott said, glancing at the other men who by accident or design had turned their backs to make bets and discuss the outcome of the challenge. Johnny grinned and nudged his brother’s shoulder.

   “What the Ol’ Man don’t know, brother …”

   “What if he finds out?”

   Johnny frowned at Scott’s stern persistence.

   “Then I guess he’ll burn my ears off, Scott,” he said with a wary smile. “Same as usual.” He gave Scott’s shoulder another nudge, aware that a dark mood had settled over his brother. “Y’ain’t scared of ‘im, are ya?”

   Scott shook his head, unwilling to look his brother in the eyes.

   “No, but I’m not about to wilfully disobey him for a childish bet.”

   Johnny raised his eyebrows and drew away a little. Chewing on his storm-tie, he silently regarded his brother, before spitting it out again.

   “Somethin’ on your mind, Scott?” he asked quietly.

   “Nothing you’d want to hear,” Scott sighed. In the distance, Billy’s angry voice yelling at young Pedro brought derisive snorts of laughter and comments from the other hands.

   “Try me.”

   Scott raised his head and looked across at his brother. Not for the first time, Johnny seemed a stranger to him. Through the long, hot afternoon, their final one before setting out for home, he had watched Johnny flaunt his god-given gifts before the men, noted how entirely they received and absorbed him within their fold, saw how the young man, despite his apparently casual attitude, revelled in their esteem. After the roping, where Johnny had demonstrated such skill that Scott could barely separate his movements from those of the best dancers he had seen in Boston theatres, he had felt a wave of jealousy so intense it had nearly swept him off the fence and flooded him back to camp. But he had stayed, both enchanted and irritated, returning his young brother’s cocky grins with thin smiles and battling the urge to risk pitting himself against him. He had seen how other young men had tried and failed, before throwing themselves back into the ring to try and fail again – and, yes, such was Johnny’s confidence, he could afford to give away the calf-roping to an eager, but talentless sixteen year old.

   “Well, aren’t you at all worried about what our father will say?” he asked finally, hoping to deflect Johnny’s suspicion of his lowered mood. He smiled suddenly in a bid to shake himself into the rationality he believed was a vital and sustaining part of his nature. “Doesn’t he scare you at all?”

   “Nope,” Johnny answered quickly and then hesitated, before smiling. “Well, maybe, a little, sometimes.” He looked up as Billy and Pedro arrived outside the corral with their horses and Scott saw his face light up with boyish glee. “But not enough to stop me puttin’ this boy’s ditty in the dirt.” He tipped his hat back, jutted his chin in Billy’s direction and yelled,

   “Hey, Billy, ya gonna dog dust? Where’s the beef?”

   Scowling, Billy ignored him and waited for the steer to be released from its tie ropes. The men walked across the corral to find a viewing point on the fence, knowing that the event was too fast and furious to be contained within their hastily built structure.  There was an expectant silence, punctuated only by Tick’s throat-clearing and spitting, as the two riders stood their horses on either side of the trussed steer. With a rapid tug, the rope was pulled from the animal’s legs; it hesitated only a second before scrambling to its feet in a desperate urge to flee. Expertly, the riders rode alongside the charging steer to keep its path straight until, with a suddenness that made the breath catch in Scott’s throat, Billy dropped from his galloping horse and grabbed the steer’s horns. Beside Scott, Will Jackson, who, tiring of keeping watch over his wife and sister-in-law, had wandered across to breathe the air of men, let out a low whistle as Billy wrenched the steer’s head round in a wild drag of dust and bawling. In seconds, the animal lay on its side, snorting hard in its rage and its mouth frothing with dirty spittle.

   “Ring that fuckin’ bell, Whip!” Billy yelled, the muscles of his arms bulging with the effort of holding down the steer’s solid bulk.

   “Need t’see all four feet out.”

   “All four fuckin’ feet’re out!!” Billy roared. “Ya blind or somethin’, ya ol’ coot!?”

   “Reckon they is, at that,” Whip grunted, and Scott had to smile at the cook’s obstinate nature. He rang the bell and Billy released the steer, rolling away in the dust as the animal was hazed away by Pedro towards the open pasture. Leaping up, his face flushed with heat and fury, Billy picked up his hat and strode over to where Whip was sitting nursing his bell.

   “What ya fuckin’ playin’ at, Whip?” he demanded. “That beef was good’n down ten seconds ‘fore ya rang that sonuvabitch bell.”

   “Didn’t see them feet, boy,” the cook replied. “An’ iffen ya cuss me again, ya can forget yer dinner tonight.”

   Defeated in an instant by the threat, Billy turned to Johnny. Scrubbing his moustache and mouth of sweat and dirt, he looked hard at the other man.

   “Your turn, Boss.”

   “No, it’s my turn,” Scott said.

   “Say again?” Billy frowned at the older Lancer.

   “I said, it’s my turn,” Scott repeated. In the sudden silence, Billy stared open-mouthed at the tall, slim young man. Then he dipped his head and let out a brief derisive snort before looking up again into Scott’s eyes.

   “Y’ain’t serious?”

   “I certainly am.” Scott pulled on his gloves. “I’ve observed how it’s done and I believe I can do it. Perhaps you’d be good enough to go and rope me a beef, Billy.”

   The cowboy turned his disbelieving look on Johnny, who after betraying his feelings with a frown had reverted to blank inscrutability.

   “Ya gonna let this happen, Johnny!?” he demanded. “He’ll git stomped fer sure.”

   “Do as the man says, Billy,” Johnny said quietly. “Go rope ‘im a steer.”

   “What? You’re gonna let this college boy bulldog a quarter ton of beef?”

   “Scott makes his own decisions, Billy, an’ I’d be obliged if you’d keep it civil when you’re referrin’ to my brother.”

   The cowboy scowled before grabbing his horse’s reins from Pedro’s hands and mounting quickly.

   “C’mon Pedro,” he said. “Let’s go rope us a nice big ol’ beef fer the man from Boston.”

   Johnny watched them go. His eyes met those of Tom Simmons, who was leaning his elbows on the fence and rolling a cigarette. The older man seemed on the edge of a smile before he looked away, stood up straight and lit his cigarette, throwing the match to one side with a flick of his wrist. Disconcerted, Johnny jumped down from the fence and walked with his brother back to the camp to fetch Charlie’s bridle and saddle.

   “You sure you wanna do this?” Johnny said in a rush of feeling, hurrying to match his taller brother’s long, quick strides. His mouth was suddenly dry and his heart pounding in his chest as he watched Scott pick up his saddle. Glancing at Louisa, who was helping Carlos peel potatoes over a large pan of soiled water, Johnny snatched Scott’s arm. “Jesus, Scott, I don’t want you to do this.”

   Scott shook the hand away and glared at his younger brother.

   “Why, Johnny?” he demanded. “Is it because you think I can’t do it!? Well, you damn well started this, little brother, just remember that!”

   “What the hell’s that supposed to mean!?”

   Scott hesitated and then began to walk towards his horse. Johnny waited until they had reached the remuda before speaking again.

   “Tell me what you mean, Scott,” he said, unable to keep a tone of distress emerging through his anger. His brother threw a blanket over the horse’s back and, grunting a little, hoisted up the heavy saddle.

   “Nothing,” he replied. “Just let me do this, Johnny, alright?”

   His nerves on a fine edge, Johnny watched his brother tie up the cinches on his saddle and then slip the bridle over Charlie’s head.

   “So what happened to goin’ against Murdoch’s wishes, huh?” he demanded, aware that he was not in complete control of his emotions. His stomach began to churn as Scott mounted up and he grabbed the animal’s head. Charlie snorted and stepped back. “What happened to not disobeying him, huh, Scott?”

   “Seeing as you’ve made a fine art of disobeying our father,” Scott said, resting a soothing hand on his horse’s neck. “I wouldn’t let my blatant hypocrisy worry you too much.”

   “What?” Johnny moved to one side as Scott quickly pulled Charlie round. “Why d’ya do that?” Indifferent to listeners now, he yelled at his brother’s departing back. “Why d’ya throw ya fancy education in my fuckin’ face like that?”

   Cursing, he kicked at the dirt and strode back over to the corral. He leant on the fence, aware of the uneasy silence of the other men, and took a deep, ragged pull of air as Tom Simmons settled beside him. In the near distance, Scott and Pedro waited for the steer to be dragged into place.

   “Get it said, Tom,” Johnny spat out. His whole body was rigid with fear and anger as he waited for the older man to speak.

   “You need my words, boy?”

   Making no reply, Johnny stared down at the rough corral rail, his chest heaving.  He heard Tom suck hard on the last of his cigarette and grind the stub into the dust with his boot heel. Johnny lifted his head and saw how the riders flanked the steer, a large, wild-eyed animal, already frothing and bawling. His brother seemed calm; the boy, Pedro, looked pale and tense under his wide-brimmed hat.

  “Shit.” Johnny breathed out softly, hardly aware that he was speaking his thoughts. “Shit. Goddamn shit.”

   Billy sprang back as he released the steer and almost fell over in his haste to get away. Charging forward as if fired from a gun, the animal roared out a bellow of confusion and, turning rapidly on its powerful legs, tried to double back. Pedro let out a furious yell and waved his hat to send it forward. Expertly, the boy set the steer running on a straight path while Scott rode in tandem, waiting for his moment.

   “Don’t fuckin’ do it, Scott,” Johnny whispered. He was aware of a foul taste rising up his throat. Swallowing it back did no good. “Let the sonuvabitch go. Please let it go.”

   At that moment, Scott reached down and dropped from the saddle of his galloping horse. His arm crashed down on the steer’s neck as he grappled for the horns. They felt hot in his hands and he held on, feeling the sheer power of the animal pulling him along the ground, feeling his muscles strain as if he were trying to stop a train from crashing, and failing. In the maelstrom of dust and flailing legs, he remembered in a split second that he had to tug the animal’s head around, pull it so hard that it might be enough to break its damn neck. So he wrenched the steer’s head round into his body and dug in his heels, aware that he was using every curse he knew in his heart to will the animal to submit. It felt to Scott like a fight to the death, to the very edge of darkness, a place he had been before. Like then, there seemed no life left outside this battle between man and animal and he would win, the animal would submit.  

   “Goddamn your damned black beast heart!” he raged in one final wrench into his chest. “Stop now!

   The animal fell. It crashed beneath him in a roar of pain, snorting a thin clear stream of mucus into the air above the flying dust. It felt beautiful to him, as if he and the steer had been falling through the blue sky and had met ground at last, but soft, yielding ground, like clouds might feel, so great was the sensation of bringing the animal to rest, so perfect was the sound of it as it breathed in great lungfuls of dusty air. He heard the bell ring and wanted to laugh out loud.  

   Relaxing only a little in his relief, and lifting his head to look for Johnny, he felt the surge of renewed power in the steer as, with seemingly no effort at all, it pulled away from him, turned and, slobbering its fear and panic, drove its head into the side of his body. Rolling away in agony, he felt the sharp jab in the back of his leg. The sound of gunshot came deafening to his ears, followed by a bellow that descended rapidly into a groan and then into a sighing release of a last breath, of yells and running footsteps. Before Johnny had scrambled down onto his knees into the dust beside him, Scott had turned his head and seen the steer kneeling worshipfully in the dust. Between its astonished eyes was a perfect, bloody hole, and its huge tongue suddenly too big for its mouth, was hanging in the dirt. Then he had felt an overwhelming pity fill him, as if they had both been cheated of a great prize.

   “Scott …”

   His young brother’s voice, desperate, choked. Scott swallowed, found his mouth was as dry as a bone.

   “Did you kill it?” he asked, realising that it hurt to speak.

   “Hell, yeah, I killed it,” Johnny replied. He softened his tone. “Where’re ya hurt, Scott? Tell me where it hurts.”

   “You didn’t have to do that, Johnny.”

   “The hell I didn’t. Tell me where it hurts for Christ’s sake!”

   Johnny cradled his brother’s head in his lap and looked distractedly at Tom Simmons, who lowered his stiff frame to kneel on the ground. He ripped open the left leg of Scott’s pants up to the knee and regarded the wound made by the steer’s horn deep in the young man’s calf.  

   “How bad?” Johnny asked.

   “Not so bad if I clean it up and bind it good,” Tom replied. He pulled a large, clean handkerchief from inside his waistcoat, wadded it and nodded at Pete Merritt to hold it to the bleeding wound, before beginning to unbutton Scott’s shirt. The young man groaned as Tom pressed his fingers gently over his ribs. Johnny grimaced at his brother’s suffering; he stroked Scott’s head in an effort to pacify him.

   “Easy, son.” Tom’s usual terse delivery had taken on a tenderness surprising to Johnny’s ears. Trusting the man completely, he watched him, his eyes wide with fear and hope.

   “Any broke?”

   “Maybe,” Tom replied. “Got any real bad pain, Scott, worse’n than feelin’ a mite winded?”

   “Breathing hurts,” Scott gasped out. “But no worse than when I was punched in the stomach by the college boxing champion in the fourth round.”

   “You were, huh?” Tom smiled. “Well, I sure would like to see that champ do what you just did. That was some bulldoggin’, boy.”

   Scott lifted his head to look hazily at Tom through his dusty blond fringe.

   “It was?”

   “Shit, college boy,” Billy interrupted, kicking the still kneeling steer over on its side. It landed in a great, breathing sigh of dust. “You whupped this beef as good as any I ever saw.” He stooped to wipe a smear of blood from the animal’s horn. “Only don’t let ‘im get even next time.”

   “I won’t.”

   “You all done yappin’?” Johnny demanded. “Or has my brother gotta lie bleedin’ to death in the dirt?” He glared at the young Mexican wrangler, Pedro, who was still standing by his horse, open-mouthed with shock. “Get a board from the wagon, Pedro.” The boy looked at him uncomprehendingly. “Now, dammit!! ¡Vaya!”

   “Johnny, it’s alright,” Scott said, wincing as he lifted his head in an attempt to look at his brother.

   “It ain’t alright,” Johnny snapped. “This ain’t alright.”

   His brother’s anger persisted as Scott was carefully tended by Tom and Louisa at camp. While they cleaned and dressed his wounds, Johnny stood near, his arms folded and his head lowered, his hat shading his expression from his injured brother.

   Later, when Louisa had returned to nursing her sister and Tom had taken his share of the slaughtered steer to eat alone under the trees, Johnny fed his brother spoonfuls of soup in silence, until Scott finally pushed the spoon away in exasperation.

   “Johnny, are you going to keep this up for much longer? Say what’s on your mind, boy, so I can at least rest my thoughts,” He winced as he attempted to get comfortable under his blankets. “If not my body.”

   Johnny put the bowl of soup down beside him and sat back, his head down, before he looked up suddenly, his gaze intensely on his brother.

   “You coulda been killed, Scott,” he said.

   “Come on, Johnny,” Scott sighed. “You do dangerous things every damn day.”

   “I know what I’m doin’.”

   “Oh, so you’re the only one in this family allowed to take risks with your life?” Scott said. “Is that it? No wonder Murdoch had to ride Amo in secret; he wasn’t prepared to be bullied into keeping his feet on the ground by a twenty-one year old know-it-all, and I’ll tell you what, Brother, neither am I!”

   Johnny stared at the older man in rigid silence, his emotions working between fury and confusion, until, getting to his feet, he glowered down at Scott, his fists clenched.

   “Fuck you, Boston,” he said. “I just had to watch you come alongside an inch of bein’ gored to death an’ you got the fuckin’ nerve to call me a bully. I don’t care what you or Murdoch say, I ain’t goin’ to stand by an’ let him or you kill yourselves just to prove a point!”

   “And what point would that be, Johnny?” Scott asked. “That he’s not too old and I’m not too soft? Well, I’m sorry, brother, but that’s not your battle, it’s ours. Now you know how we feel when we have to watch some of your reckless exploits.” Scott smiled suddenly in the face of another smouldering glare from Johnny. “Anyway, I brought that steer down in rather fine style, even if I do say so myself.” He continued to smile. “Come on, little brother,” he coaxed. “Wasn’t it worth a couple of cracked ribs to put a dent in Billy’s pride?”

   “Maybe,” Johnny replied grudgingly, for the first time allowing a brief smile to cross his face, before he fell back into sullenness. “Only now we gotta explain why you’re all bashed up to Murdoch, an’ I’m gonna be set on them damn ledgers ‘til I’m as old as Jelly.”

   Scott released a snort of laughter that quickly subsided into a groan of pain.

   “If I didn’t know better, Johnny, I’d swear that’s why you’re so upset.” He smiled and threw a small stone at his brother’s legs. “I thought you weren’t scared of our father.”

   “Yeh, well, this is one of those times when I might be, brother.” Placated by his brother’s gentle teasing, Johnny returned to Scott’s side and picked up the soup bowl. “Just glad I ain’t sixteen no more or I’d be gettin’ the mama of all whuppin’s.” He stirred the soup to bring its heat up. “Reckon that’d be better than those damn books, though.”

   Feeling reassured that his younger brother had regained some of his good humour, Scott relaxed and allowed himself to be cared for: to be fed soup, to be checked for fever by the warm, rough hand of Tom Simmons, to feel Johnny’s long fingers stroking his forehead as he drifted into fitful sleep.

   “Tough feller, your brother,” Tom said, watching Johnny pull the blanket up over Scott’s shoulders.

   “Yeh.” Johnny sat back on his heels and gazed intently at the sleeping man.

   “Took guts to bring that beef down.”

   Johnny looked at the cowboy darkly.

   “Yeh, an’ he’s not ever goin’ to do it again, Tom,” he said. “You can bet on that.”

   Tom frowned.

   “Men gotta live their own lives, Johnny. Ain’t worth a damn otherwise.”

   Johnny picked up his rifle and got to his feet.

   “You can say that, Tom.” His tone remained rebellious. “Y’don’t have family.”

   Tom stared hard at the younger man, and Johnny knew instantly that he had trodden on painful ground. He held the cowboy’s gaze, knowing Tom would despise him if he looked away.

   “I had family, boy,” Tom said. “And what I say still holds.”

   Johnny breathed in and gave the other man a curt, reluctant nod before turning on his heel and walking away, his heart still raging against the day’s blows.

 

Chapter Seven  

   His parents asleep and his uncle caught up in tending a sick animal, Robbie wandered through the house, constantly surprised by the opulence and comfort. He had been brought up in a modest dwelling of local stone, where each small room was allowed no more colour nor decoration than was serviceable to his father’s austere outlook, where even his mother’s simple vases of seasonal flowers seemed to cause her husband an unspoken pain. The bright colours of the rugs and wall-hangings in his uncle’s home made him blink.

    In the Great Room, he was reminded of the one time he had visited an art gallery in Glasgow, the sense of space, the feeling of wanting to turn and turn, arms outstretched like a dancer in celebration of the chance to move freely. The heavy, comfortable furniture had room to spread out and, though scrupulously clean and cushions neatly arranged, seemed lived-in. Books lined one wall and he searched the titles, excited by what they told him of a man who was as interested in history and literature as he was in stock-breeding and land management. He took out one small book of Robert Burns’ verse, much read and annotated, and inscribed in pale black ink: ‘To Murry, on the occasion of your fourteenth birthday, from your loving brother, Iain.’ Robbie stared at his father’s copperplate, the meticulous imperfect efforts of a ten year old; it seemed no more familiar to him than a hieroglyphic.

   Then, like a tourist, he clasped his hands behind his back and studied the maps and paintings - the landscapes of the American West, the ships on wild seas, the painted horses. When he looked closer at a tiny watercolour of green and purple hills, he saw the initials, MM, faint in the corner.

   “Mary McMillan.” He whispered his mother’s maiden name and stood back a little in an effort to recognise the location.

   “Your mother painted that.”

   Robbie turned to see his uncle’s tall, broad figure in the doorway, struck, as he had been on meeting him, by the older man’s warm, relaxed manner, so unlike his father. This black sheep of the family, he decided, was a man he would not fail to like. He nodded.

   “I guessed it, Uncle,” he said with a smile. “I was wondering where it was.”

   Murdoch had warmed to his nephew the moment they had shaken hands at the depot; a firm grip, a direct look – these were signs of a straightforward, honest man. He walked over to the painting and looked at it properly for the first time in many years. Instantly, he recognised the place where he and Mary had often met to lie in the honeyed heather, kissing and teasing; to gaze up into a summer sky and talk of the future, where he had taken her for the first and only time in a flurry of under-skirts, whale-bone stays and clumsy passion.

   “I can’t recall,” he said. “Somewhere in the hills near our village. They all look much the same.”

   “D’ye really think so, Uncle,” Robbie said with a frown. “I don’t find that at all.”

   Murdoch smiled uncertainly, caught out by what he had earlier admired, the young man’s direct and penetrating gaze. He watched him pick up the recent photograph of Scott and Johnny, taken at his older son’s insistence and vigorously resisted by his brother. Murdoch had smiled at the evidence of Johnny’s resentment. Sitting at the foot of a chair in which Scott reclined, hands clasped in easy assumption of the role of subject, the younger man’s stormy expression damned the lens for all time.

   “My cousins?” Robbie queried, staring hard at the two young men, one conspicuously fair, relaxed like his father, the other dark, angry as if waiting for his moment to smash the unseen camera. He felt a spasm of fear then, recalled the bully in the schoolyard, treading on mice and biting off their tails.

   “Yes,” Murdoch replied. “The one in the chair looking like a young Ralph Waldo Emerson is Scott, and that crabby-looking lad on the floor is the younger one, Johnny.”

   Robbie, alerted by the unmistakable tenderness in the rancher’s tone, looked curiously at his uncle, but he had turned to the decanters on the small table by the piano.

   “Scotch?” Murdoch offered, pouring out a shot for himself.

   “Thank you.” He took the glass and raised it. “Here’s to a pleasant visit.” He sipped the alcohol and nodded appreciatively. “I must say, Uncle, you’re not what I expected.”

   “Oh,” Murdoch said. “And what did you expect?”

   “Someone, let’s say, a little less refined in their tastes and surroundings.”

   “You mean a wild man of the west, spitting tobacco juice and shooting bears?” Murdoch smiled at the image. “Sorry to disappoint you, son, but I smoke a pipe, read Dickens and I can barely shoot a barn door at fifty paces.”

   “I must confess I thought everyone w’ud be carrying at least one gun, but I’ve yet t’see one. Don’t your workers carry guns?”

   “Not as a rule.” Murdoch was aware he was grinding his teeth between his words. “Not handguns, maybe a rifle just in case.”

   “Of Indians?”

   “Not in these parts, no – wild animals, cattle rustlers, a jackrabbit for the pot.” He gazed down into his drink. “I’m afraid life here might not be as exciting as you’ve imagined, Robbie. This is a working ranch and mostly it’s just work.” He finished the scotch and put down the glass.  “You’re a teacher, I believe?”

   “Aye, in the village school down the lane by the smithy. Ye remember it?”

   Smiling, Murdoch nodded.

   “Is it satisfying work?”

   “Aye, for the most part. I like the children. I like teaching them about the world.”

   Murdoch nodded. He gestured for the young man to join him on the Great Room’s couch. Robbie hesitated before placing himself, upright and awkward, at the other end of the couch, his hands splayed upon his knees.

   “Your father and I went to that very same school, but you must know that, of course.”

   “No, I didn’t, sir,” Robbie said with a frown. “I was led to believe that ye both were taught at home.”

   “Only when our father realised that Mr Brown, the teacher, was a man …” Murdoch hesitated, raised his eyebrows at the memory, and drew in a breath. “… not to his liking.”

   “Donald Brown?”

   “Yes, did you know him?”

   “I do know him, Uncle,” Robbie said eagerly. “He’s still alive.”

   “Good God, he must be over eighty now,” Murdoch exclaimed. “He seemed old when I was a lad.”

   “Seventy-eight,” Robbie corrected him, his brown eyes shining with excitement. For the first time, Murdoch saw youth in his nephew’s expression. “He taught me geology, a little palaeontology …” The young man stopped and stared down at his hands. “I wonder why he has never mentioned teaching ma father.” He let out an angry breath. “There’s so much that…”

   Murdoch watched the emotions on his nephew’s face and saw there all the frustrations of a man repressed and bursting to free himself, the man he had been thirty years before, who had crossed stormy oceans to breathe his own air. Now he was conscious that he had played a part in this young man’s destiny.

   “How old are you, son?” he asked.

   “Almost twenty-eight.  Ma father married ma mother soon after ye left. From what little I know and remember of ma grandfather, ma father saw marriage as his only chance of escape.” The young man bowed his head, fearful that he had said too much to this man, who even the villagers had blamed for breaking sweet Aila Lancer’s heart and putting her in an early grave.

   Murdoch swallowed back his unease at his nephew’s admission.

   “Perhaps it’s time to consider striking out on your own,” he suggested. He was surprised by the sudden flash of anger he saw in Robbie’s eyes.

   “D’ye not think I’ve tried, Uncle!?” the young man demanded. He glanced around and lowered his voice. “Not all of us have such wild blood in our veins that can take us away from every thing …” He paused. “… every person we’ve known.”

   He had been rebuked. Finally. Murdoch knew this would not be the end of it. After thirty years, the opprobrium he probably deserved was going to come washing down from the hills of his youth and through the mountain passes to his valley refuge. No ship, no youthful self-interest would lead him away this time. He was trapped, and though his robust and practical mind was already planning his defences, the sight of this pale, bearded young man, afflicted with his family’s particular strain of unhappiness, troubled his conscience. From the piano, the photographic images of his sons, one, looking away, smiling his secret smile, as if enjoying his sibling’s discomfort, the other looking directly and murderously at the camera, seemed to be joining in his condemnation.

   After Robbie had excused himself and gone upstairs, Murdoch sat brooding on this breaking open of the distant past, certain to be bloody. Hadn’t he endured enough in losing and finding his sons? He carried the guilt beneath the surface of his skin, fended its claws off each day of his life with hard work and a love for his children which continued to surprise and disturb him with its intensity. This ancient liability merely made him resentful, that his family could travel such a distance, their hearts loaded with blame and anger against him. His old reckless self toyed with the idea of locking the doors and riding away on Amo, and he smiled briefly before heaving himself from the couch.

    “Damn them,” he said. “Well, if they want a fight, I’ve had worse.”

   He walked out to the forge to vent his irritation by hammering links for a new chain, casting a look towards the entrance arch in the constant hope that his sons were home, and hoping no-one could detect his unaccustomed weakness.

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

   He wanted to apologise to Tom Simmons; despite the fact of his injured brother and the probability of his father’s displeasure, Johnny’s mind dwelled on the simple but thorny act of repentance. He had rarely said sorry for anything, although he had felt the itch of it many times before habit and his nomad life had set him hard against the intimacy of remorse. A few times he had offered a grudging ‘sorry’ to his father for an ill-judged word or misdeed, but mostly to prevent further reprimand and avert Murdoch’s sharp brand of payback.

   They had decamped before sun rise; such was his eagerness to be home. As the sun spiked the grey dawn with dazzling reds and oranges, it seemed to him that he had become super-aware of his surroundings, his senses picking up each detail of the journey: the churning wagon wheels spitting up dust into the sun rays, the strike of a match against a boot, the exhalation of Tom’s cigarette smoke, the curling grey strands squirming their way out of sight. From the rumbling, pot-clattering chuck wagon came Whip’s customary song of return, guttural but oddly tuneful. No-one was ever able to decipher the words, and Whip would not share, but Johnny caught the words ‘wandering fool’ and understood enough.

   The horses, knowing that the hard work was done with for now, dragged their hooves a little, their shoes clinking against stones.

   He was also curious about Tom. Ever hungry for histories, even while he suppressed his own, he brooded on what lay beneath the cowboy’s stoic surface. Carefully, over the months, he had gathered and stored away any memory or story his father had cared to tell, but among these men, he was downright cautious in asking personal questions. With Murdoch, he found himself recklessly unafraid, badgering him to the point where the older man resorted to comic threats of violence to shake him off. He could not help himself. Each fragment of lost history seemed like a piece of him found, as if he were painting himself into a picture of his dreams.

   Tom, riding next to him, was looking straight ahead, smoking slowly; the growing light picked out mercilessly each line of age’s damage. Johnny wondered how old the man was; he reckoned him anywhere between forty-five and sixty. As his hand drew the cigarette up to his mouth again, Tom glanced at the young man.

   “Somethin’ on your mind, Johnny?”

   Caught in the childish sin of gazing, Johnny dipped his head to contemplate his gloved hands crossed over the saddle horn. He was afraid of this man and he felt Tom Simmons knew it. Even the gun fighter in him, that cold and ruthless brother still murmuring through his blood, was afraid.

   “What y’said about family …,” he ventured. Immediately, he felt as if he had placed a boot unwisely, although Tom’s only reaction was the merest narrowing of his eyes.

   “Recallin’ conversation comes easy to me, boy,” he said, flicking ash into the dust. “Because I don’t do too much of it and, as I recall, that was a mighty short conversation.”

   Johnny nodded, before leaping into the wide, cold water.

   “I was out o’ line,” he said.

   Tom blew out smoke and contemplated the stub before flicking it away.

   “Had a wife and a boy,” he said finally. “He’d be ‘bout your brother’s age now, but ain’t seem him since his ma took off to ‘Frisco with a forty-niner. From what I heard of those gold camps, they might both be dead.”

   “What was his name?” Johnny asked.

   “Zach.” Tom nodded, released the smallest of smiles. “Zachary when he was up for a whuppin’”

   “Did ya look for ‘im?” The question emerged like an accusation.

   The older man looked hard at Johnny, who swallowed and felt a burning beneath his skin that he was certain Tom could sense.

   “Kids need their mothers. She didn’t want me, but I knew she’d take care of ‘im.”

   “He’s no kid now,” Johnny said. “Might come lookin’ for ya, one of these days.”

   “Well, if he do come lookin’, ain’t got nothin’ for ‘im but this horse and a saddle, an’ he ain’t havin’ either one of ‘em.” Tom brought up the reins.  “This conversation got awful long, Johnny. Reckon I’ll ride forward for a spell.”

   Johnny watched the cowboy ride towards the front of the group, before leaning over to the wagon and pulling the canvas flap aside. In an effort to dispel his uneasiness over Tom, he grinned at his injured brother. Scott lay on piled up blankets, his head resting on a sack of oatmeal, while Louisa tended her sister.

   “Hey, Boston, you enjoyin’ puttin’ your feet up in there?”

   Scott opened his eyes and blinked at the strong sun backlighting the form of his brother and the horse. The sky was hard blue after the dawn and, for a moment, he was the wounded soldier clattering along a road of shattered trees away from the front line; only, then, he had been numbed to all feeling. Now, he was conscious of elation at his success with the steer, and irritation with his stupidity in relaxing his guard. He observed his over-cheerful brother balefully.

   “About as much as you’ll enjoy our father’s welcome when we get back.”

   Johnny’s grin faded into a faint smile.

  “Y’need anythin’, brother?” he asked.

  “Only that thought.” Scott smiled. “And a very large whiskey.”

  “Well, reckon we ain’t too far from both of ‘em.” Johnny turned his attention to Louisa who was holding a cup of water to her sister’s lips. “If he gives ya any trouble, Ma’am, ask ‘im to tell ya how he caught his first fish. That should bring us right on home.”

   Scott saw his brother’s lazy smile disappear under a quick flick of the flap, leaving only Johnny’s silhouette hard against the sun-bright canvas. Louisa smoothed strands of her sister’s long brown hair from her damp forehead and smiled at Scott.

   “I’m guessin’ that was one big fish you caught, Mr Lancer.”

   Liking the humour in the young woman’s eyes, Scott returned her smile.

   “No, quite a small one actually,” he replied. “It just took a very long time to bring in, and as my brother implied, it gets longer with each telling.” He pulled himself up a little against the oatmeal sack. Now he was fully awake, he hankered after conversation. “How is your sister?”

   “Sleepin’.” Louisa sighed and shifted herself against the wagon side, her raw hands resting on the shelf of her pregnant belly. “Best thing for her, the poor child.”

   Scott frowned, certain he had detected a note of intensity in her voice that spoke of more than anxiety over a fever.

   “What’s really wrong with her, Mrs Jackson?” he asked. The young woman looked at Scott with what to him seemed like fear, before glancing to the front of the wagon. Behind the canvas, Jackson was sitting with Tick on the driver’s bench.  Scott could hear the old man, loud through deafness, regaling the farmer with outlandish tales interspersed with violent spits in the dust. Louisa dropped her voice to an unsteady whisper.

   “They violated her, Mr Lancer.”

   Scott swallowed back his surprise.

   “Who did?”

   “Two of Jed Albright’s hands.” She looked up, the silent gaze between them proof against the loud jolting of the wagon and Tick’s voice. “They came while Will an’ me was out in the fields. She was sewin’ somethin’ for the baby. Never was none too bright, but she can turn her hand to any kind o’ sewing.” Louisa took a deep breath, her eyes on her young sister. “Most innocent,” she whispered. “They took the most innocent.”

   Scott remained silent, aware only of the wagon’s turning wheels and the song-like quality of the young woman’s words.

   “We found her lyin’ in her first blood, starin’ at her fingers as if they were strangers to her. There was a note on her tellin’ us to get out or I’d be the next, baby comin’ or not. Laura hasn’t sewn or spoke since.” Louisa threaded her fingers together and held them pressed under her lower lip. “And the worst of it is, Mr Lancer, I can’t ever bring her back to where she was, where I promised our ma I’d keep her.”

   Filled with pity for the young woman, Scott watched her stroke the two sides of her nose with the tips of her fingers. He saw how her hands trembled and how her nails were dirty and worn to the quick.

   “It wasn’t your fault.” He spoke the words uselessly, knowing they would not serve, but hoping they would. When Louisa looked at him, her expression had hardened.

   “Yes, it was, Mr Lancer. I don’t ever mistake that for somethin’ it isn’t, like maybe I do that old clock. That’s my fault to own all my days, an’ I’ll own it.”

   Scott nodded. He could not argue against such strength of will, and wondered at its power. An urge to help her now ran a jagged, burning journey under his skin.

   “Your baby,” he said. “When’s it due?”

   “In about a month.”

   “We’ll take care of you, Mrs Jackson, all of you.” He looked at the sleeping girl. “We’ll care for Laura.” He hesitated. “We have women at the ranch. Wonderful people. Extraordinary. They’ll help your sister, I promise.”

   Louisa nodded.

   “I know it, Mr Lancer. You and your brother …” She shook her head. “You coulda drove us off, but you took us in, fed us. I know what some o’ your men think of us, sodbusters gettin’ what they’re owed, but your brother, he acted like we mattered as human beings. That hasn’t happened in a long while.”

   “My brother judges people by their actions,” Scott said. “It seems like a good rule to live by.”

   Against the canvas, Johnny’s dark silhouette rode alongside the wagon. Not for the first time did Scott wonder at the twists of fate that had brought them together. He found himself, as he had done before, playing with the words ‘my brother’ in his head, until he was convinced again of their remarkable truth.

  

Chapter Eight

   It was his brother’s voice, although it could just as easily have been his father’s, the same deep, melancholy timbre, the same edge of desperation, as if he feared God might not be listening. Silent on the landing, Murdoch was about to knock on the bedroom door when he realised that his brother was praying. His mind electrified with the memory of listening to their father pray, his heart pounded with the familiarity of the words.

   “Lord, I pray ye will guide ma son onto the path of righteousness. Keep him from the sins of the world. May he not be led away from your precious light.”

   Once again, he was pressing his small frame to the door of his father’s windowless study, waiting to be called, his mouth dry, his armpits sweating, his whole body twitching with the need to urinate.

   “May he walk among the wicked, pure in his embrace of your divine love. May he not stumble along the path and be lost to grace.”

   He would hear the call then and he would enter to see his father’s cane lying on the heavy desk and see his father’s face contorted with grief. He would have preferred anger. Even at ten, he knew that was something he could have confronted with a consoling inner defiance, but this manifest sorrow was worse; it confused and repelled him, especially when accompanied by the smart of the cane.

   He knocked on the door gently and pushed it open without waiting to be called. Iain turned from his position of kneeling at the window overlooking the orchard and glared at his brother. In his hands was a small bible. The early morning sun cast a beam on its faded brown leather.

   “I wud have thought even ye’d’ve known better than to interrupt a man at his prayers, Murry.”

   Murdoch felt his skin prickle at the contempt in his brother’s voice.

   “I apologise, Brother,” he said. “Only we’ve barely said a civil word to each other since you arrived.” He closed the door behind him. He drew in a breath.

    “My sons will be home very soon, perhaps today, and I would like us to at least be on speaking terms for their sakes.”

   Iain stood up in silence and placed the bible on the table by his bed. He had requested a room apart from his wife and the evening before Mary had apologised for Iain’s absence at dinner due to fatigue. She had sat at the table eating only a little, smiling at Robbie’s eager questions to his uncle and responding to Murdoch’s attempts at conversation with a remote cordiality, as chilling to his soul as a haunting. Waking to fearful thoughts of his missing friend, Henry, he had been determined to squeeze blood from the stone of his brother’s defences.

   “Not for our sakes then?” Iain said. He turned to the window again, his hands clasped behind his back.

   “You don’t seem to wish for that.”

   “I wish only ta do the Lord’s will, Murry.”

   Murdoch bit back a violent retort to the calmly spoken words; instead, he chose a reckless plunge into their past.

   “How was Ma when I left, Iain?”

   The moment he had spoken, Murdoch realised he had yearned for the answer for nearly thirty years. Iain turned slowly from the window and faced his brother, his hands still at his back.

   “Ye want ta know that now, Murry?” he said. “Is your conscience troubling ye? What happened ta your conscience the day ye left?”

   “For God’s sake, Iain.” Murdoch gazed at his brother in furious disbelief. “I had to go. You knew it. We talked of it. You understood.”

   “I knew ye broke our mother’s heart. Ye promised me ye’d talk ta her before ye left, ta gi’ her something  ta hold onto, but ye lied. Ye lied and the centre of her couldna hold …”

   “I wrote to her … every month.”

   “Ye think our father wud allow any word of yours in the house?”

   “She never read my letters?”

   Murdoch saw his brother’s severe expression falter then. For a fleeting moment, he saw the boy he had loved in the bearded man before him, the one who had shared his secrets, who had grasped his hand against the terrors of the night, who had wept for him as he was beaten.

   “No, she never did,” Iain replied. Murdoch filled his lungs with the soured air of the room and released it in slow anguish.

   “I could bear that she never replied,” he said. “But I always believed she had the comfort of my letters.”

   “No-one did, not until Father died. They were always burned.”

   Murdoch sought his brother’s eyes, certain he heard regret, even sorrow, in his voice, but Iain quickly turned away, his shoulders rigid with resistance.

   “These boys of yours,” he said. “One of them grew up wi’ his grandfather, I believe?”

   “That’s right,” Murdoch replied, glad of the change of subject although he was aware that every nerve in his frame sprang to alert at the mention of his sons.  “Scott, the older one.”

   “Wealthy, I understand?”

   “Very.”

   “So the boy had a sound upbringing, a good education, religious guidance?”

   “I believe so.” Murdoch ground out his answers reluctantly. He knew what was coming. He had known it the moment of his brother’s cold greeting at the stage depot and the ardent prayer had confirmed it. 

   “He attends church regularly?”

   “When he can.”

   “And the other boy - John?”

   “Not often.”

   Murdoch watched his brother turn from the window and met his cold look with defiant silence.

   “Ye wrote in your letter that ye’d found him in Mexico,” Iain said. “Ye didna say who raised him.”

   “His mother.”

   “And where is she now?”

   “Dead.” Murdoch hesitated, his mouth fighting the comfort of a lie. “When he was ten. She was killed.”

   “What happened ta the boy? Who took care of him?”

   “He was on his own.”

   What he spent each day repressing came back to Murdoch in the speaking of it. In his brother’s shocked face, he saw his own covert disgust and horror at the fate of his innocent child.

   “On his own? What are ye saying, man? That a ten year old bairn wandered the streets wi’ nobody ta guide and protect him?”

   “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.”

   Iain moved closer to his brother.

   “How did he live?” he demanded. “What of his morals?”

   “I don’t know a great deal of his past, Iain,” Murdoch replied. “Who he is now is what’s important to me. He’s a fine boy and I’m proud of him.”

   “The child is the father of the man, Murry. We are shaped by our earliest influences, as I was by our father.”

   “I wasn’t.” Murdoch’s tone was rebellious. “Unless you count resistance to those influences.”

   There was silence between the two men. From the garden came the sound of the cockerel. It crowed three times and loudly, before Maria, collecting eggs into her apron, hurled a stream of Spanish in its direction.

   “Why has John told ye so little if he has nothing ta hide?”

   “I haven’t asked for much and forgive me for saying so, brother, but my son’s history is none of your damn business!”

   Iain stiffened. He turned away again, his hand tense on the bedpost.

   “I have ma own son ta consider …”

   “For God’s sake, Iain! Robbie’s twenty-seven, a grown man!”

   “And fragile in his faith,” Iain said. “I know it, though I’ve tried ta block it from ma mind, but I canna allow … I’ve a duty ta …”

   “What?” Murdoch frowned. “To keep his soul from being contaminated by my boy!?” He grabbed his brother’s shoulder and forced him round to face him. “You’re on very dangerous ground here, Iain.”

   The brothers looked at each other with sudden fearlessness. To Murdoch it seemed they were both aware at that moment of their old relationship; their greying hair, the lines on their faces mere accidents during the years they had spent apart. He felt his anger begin to drain.

   “I must keep Robbie on the path of salvation, Murry,” Iain said. “I must!”

   Murdoch shook his head in renewed exasperation.

   “Tell me, Iain,” he demanded. “Why did you come? You fear the ungodly yet you’ve walked right in, of your own volition, brother, to the home of a sinful man whose children you’re condemning before you’ve even met them. Why have you come?”

   Iain sat down on the ottoman at the end of the bed, his hands clasped before him and his head lowered. Despite his brother’s avowal of a hated creed, Murdoch felt that each moment spent with him was bringing them closer to the lost core of themselves. Observing Iain’s bowed head, his senses reeled at the return of a desire to protect his brother.

   “I had ta come,” Iain said. “I had ta see ye once more, had ta see the land that claimed your heart.”

   Murdoch felt his breathing grow heavy as he struggled to control his emotions.

   “I had ta see if I could look ye straight in the eye, make peace wi’ ye before it’s too late. God canna have meant me ta lose my sight wi’out making peace wi’ ma brother, a brother I loved wi’ all my soul.”

   “You’re going blind?” Murdoch heard the crack in his own voice, and even then feared his own vulnerability. Iain placed his hands on his knees and looked up at Murdoch with something close to defiance.

   “Aye, Brother,” he said. “That’s the path God has chosen for me.” For the first time, Murdoch saw a glimmer of a smile appear on his brother’s face. “We spent too long reading Rob Roy by the light of our candle.” The smile disappeared quickly as if afraid of the picture it had brought to life, but it was enough time for Murdoch to see the two of them huddled on their bed, he reading forbidden tales to his enraptured brother, both of them listening for the footsteps on the landing.

   “I’m sorry, Iain,” he said. “I’m truly sorry.”

   “I want no pity, Murry.” The younger man stood up suddenly. He walked back to the window and stared down into the vegetable garden. “I want ta be certain Robbie sees his path clearly before my eyes fail me. I want ta see some of God’s mighty works of creation before they are lost ta me forever. I want ta embrace ye again as my true brother … but it’s harder than I thought, all so much harder …”

   Murdoch joined him at the window and saw Robbie in the garden, holding a microscope and gazing intently at a small object in his hand.

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

   For a moment after she emerged from the house, he thought she was going to walk over to the main corral where Robbie was watching Cip’s grandson lunge a small grey pony.  He was surprised to find himself tense with expectation as she stood in the yard, seemingly hesitant, before walking in his direction. 

   Outside the barn, he went on calmly brushing Amo’s mane, prepared to be indifferent. He had had wives, one the best of women, a soul-mate who would read to him at night and help change a broken wheel by day, the other, a wild, passionate girl with the power to melt the cells of his skin. This little woman in the plain brown dress, her brown hair pulled back tightly in a knot at the back of her head, who walked like a nun at prayer; what was she to him now? - a pleasant memory of his youth, crushed heather under their bodies, a mouth that tasted of raspberries, and a smile that had stopped his heart one Sunday morning across the aisle of a tiny chapel.

   “Good morning, Murdoch.” She was shading her eyes against the hot May sun, smiling uncertainly. No, he was not indifferent in the face of that smile, but he was cautious.

   “Morning, Mary. Did you sleep well?”

   “Aye.” Her tone was soft, tentative. “Very well. I never thought I would in such a large house. It’s very beautiful.” She came closer and placed her hand on Amo’s neck, straight upon the jagged scar. The horse twitched, but allowed the touch. “It’s all so very beautiful.”

   “I’m glad you like it.”

   “This scar …?”

   “We don’t know how he came by it,” Murdoch said, more bluntly than he had intended. “The man who owned him was a drunk. He won him in a game of cards. That’s all the history we have.”

   “This country,” Mary said, almost under her breath. “It scares me.”

   They were out before he knew it, the soft words of reassurance.

   “There’s no need.”

   Mary searched his face with a frown. Quickly, he stooped to the box of grooming tools and took out a soft brush. He started on the horse’s face, brushing with delicate precision while Amo snorted and flicked his eyelids in a lingering memory of fear. Hearing a sudden yell of anger from the corral, Mary again shaded her eyes with her hand and looked towards the men working there.

   “You should wear a hat, you know, Mary.” Murdoch spoke firmly. “It gets very hot here in the summer. Maria will find a suitable one for you.”

   “I have a hat.” Mary turned and smiled at him. “I have Aila’s old gardening hat.”

   Murdoch swallowed. He was stirred into anger, and he felt that was Mary’s intention.

   “Then wear it,” he said.

   “I will.”

   She was still smiling, smiling directly into his eyes, just as she had done thirty years before when she had been intent on dispelling his black mood.

   “Maria brought me tea this morning,” she said, as if it was easier now in the glow of her small victory over him. “English tea. Did ye ask her to do that?”

   “I did.”

   She nodded slowly.

   “Robbie said that it might be so, but I told him men don’t think of such things.”

   Murdoch stopped brushing for a moment and returned her enigmatic gaze before releasing Amo’s head and concentrating on the horse’s already gleaming neck.

   “Iain told me that he’s losing his sight.”

   Mary looked back at the upstairs rooms of the house before lowering her head.

   “Aye.”

   “Does Robbie know?”

   “No. Iain doesna want him ta know. To tell ye the truth, I’m a wee bit surprised he told you.”

   “We’re brothers, Mary,” Murdoch said. “The years and the miles don’t change that.”

   “Don’t they?”

   Murdoch bit back a harsh reply to the cold question and watched Robbie take something from Jelly’s hands. The young man, still dressed in his wing collar and tweed suit, examined it eagerly.

   “I like the boy,” he said, determined to drive away the chill between them. “He’s a credit to you both.”

   “Thank you.” It had worked. Her yielding was palpable in the air. “I’m eager ta meet your sons.”

   “They’ll be home soon, maybe even today.”

   “Robbie showed me the photograph. Such handsome lads. So different from each other.”

   “Yes.”

   “I’m sorry for the loss of your wives.”

   Murdoch hesitated, his thoughts wrestling with the unexpected sympathy.

   “It was a long time ago.”

   “No-one else?”

   “No.”

   Mary went to the horse’s head and carefully stroked the softly blowing nostrils.

   “So, Murdoch.” Her light, almost playful, tone had returned. “Are they their father’s sons?”

   “In what way?” Murdoch asked.

   “Wilful, stubborn, passionate …”

   “That certainly describes Johnny, but he got those traits from his mother.”

   Mary laughed suddenly, a sound so surprising to him, but so familiar that he stared at her in confused silence. She laughed again, covering her mouth with a pale hand, before giving Amo a final caress.

   “I’m going in ta get ma hat,” she said, her tone still amused. Murdoch had no time to consider the grounds for her laughter, only that he had liked the sound more than any other in the day, before he heard Jose’s high-pitched yell of ‘Wagons home!’. Smiling, he saw the group of horsemen ride through the arch, Tom Simmons at its head and Johnny’s distinctive palomino walking beside the second wagon. His eyes sought his older son and failing to detect his familiar form, he left Amo and began to stride quickly towards the group, his heart pumping a rush of alarm through his veins.

 

Chapter Nine

   Robbie knew it was him. It was more than the sullen likeness to the photograph in the Great Room. Despite the grubby, travel-worn look of the young cowboy, he was distinct from the other men - the vivid blue eyes and jet black hair, the bright blue shirt, and the gun belt, the first evidence of a handgun Robbie had yet seen, slung low on his thigh. This was his cousin, clearly a Lancer, but strange and wild to him, darker-skinned than the rest of the family, more dramatic, not quite the bully of his worst imaginings, but not benevolent, not soft, a man on guard.

   The wagons drew to a halt outside the barn. Robbie slipped the trilobite Jelly had given him into the pocket of his tweed jacket, his gaze intent on his cousin. He saw Johnny give him the briefest of glances - contemptuous, Robbie was certain - under his long, dark eyelashes before dismounting into the dust, landing lightly with a slight jingle of spurs. When the young man raised his head to face his approaching father, Robbie thought he saw the faint beginnings of a smile followed swiftly by a flicker of alarm.

   “Where’s your brother?” Murdoch demanded, his gaze fixed on Johnny. With a shock, the rancher realised there was still a part of him that doubted his younger son’s maturity, that he was expecting Johnny to be the cause of some trouble yet hidden from him. He could sense the simmering unease in the other men. “Where’s Scott?”

   “In the wagon,” Johnny replied. Seeing his father’s oncoming fury, he knew he would give much to reverse the events of the previous day, to say ‘no’ to Billy, to kick his fool brother’s legs out from under him before he had the chance to risk his life, to wipe his own reckless, cocky smirk off his own damn idiot face. But then, as he had considered on the journey home, there was nothing like watching a man drop from a galloping horse onto half a ton of charging beef - only that man must never be his brother, and he had best not get caught allowing it.  He walked round to the back of the wagon with his father. Murdoch stared grimly at his older son, lying under blankets, his face pale and drawn, but fully awake.

   “What happened?”

   “I fell …”

   “He was bulldoggin’,” Johnny interrupted, warning his brother off with a dark look. “The fellers wanted to do it, so I let ‘em.”

   “Bulldogging!?” Murdoch looked furiously from one son to the other. “Haven’t I made my feelings clear enough on that subject!?”

   “Yes, sir, you have,” Scott admitted.

   “John!?”

   “Yeh.”

   Johnny’s sullen reply gave Murdoch the not unfamiliar urge to cuff his younger son’s head. He suppressed it by pulling away the blanket from Scott’s heavily bandaged leg.

   “How bad is it?” he asked, his severe expression softening when he saw that his son’s attempts to sit up caused him pain.

   “It’s nothing, sir,” Scott gasped. Murdoch rested his hand gently, briefly, on the young man’s forehead.

   “The beef bust a coupla of ‘is ribs.” Johnny, tense and dejected, spoke brusquely. “Put a hole in ‘is leg. Tom stitched ‘im up.”

   Murdoch nodded at Tom who, still mounted, was regarding the family neutrally, a matchstick in the corner of his mouth.

   “I’m obliged to you, Tom.”

   Tom removed the matchstick and nodded.

   “Boy’ll be fine, Boss,” he said. “ Off ‘is feet for a coupla weeks, is all.”

   Murdoch ground his teeth in reply and turned his gaze on the young woman and girl at the front of the wagon. Louisa was cradling her sick sister’s head in her lap. Already distracted by Scott’s injuries and his own disappointed anger at this homecoming, Murdoch ground out his further frustration at the unwanted presence of strangers.

   “Who are these people?”

   “Came travellin’ through our camp coupla nights back,” Johnny said. “Girl’s sick an’ Mrs Jackson’s expectin’. Told ‘em we’d give ‘em a place to stay for awhile. Ma’am, this is our father, Murdoch Lancer.”

   Louisa nodded at the rancher.

   “Pleased to meet you, Mr Lancer. Your boys’ve been real kind to us. We was practic’ly starvin’ out there on the trail…”

   “We owe these boys our lives, Mr Lancer.” Will Jackson had joined them at the back of the wagon. He held out his lean hand to Murdoch. “They treated us like human bein’s, gave us food an’ shelter, an’ I’d like to shake their pa’s hand.”

   Murdoch took the man’s grubby hand reluctantly, unsure if his instant dislike of the man stemmed from his sour mood or an instinctive awareness that somewhere something was wrong in Jackson’s character.

   “Don’t worry, Mrs Jackson,” he said. “I intend to honour my sons’ promise to you.” He turned to look severely at the silent, waiting men, made uneasy and troubled by their employer’s bad humour.

   “Billy, Sam,” he ordered. “Bring Scott into the house. Tom, I’d be obliged if you would ride into town for the doctor. Pedro, take the Jacksons to Maria – get them settled in the annex rooms. The rest of you, get these wagons unloaded …”

   “Boss,” Billy said in a sudden, sweating rush of courage. “It was me wantin’ t’bulldog. It weren’t Johnny’s notion.”

   Murdoch glanced at his younger son who was glaring his disapproval of Billy’s confession.

   “Maybe not, Billy, but it was his job to put a stop to it. Now get going, all of you. Not you, John.” Johnny stopped in the act of unbolting the wagon back board; his face was averted from his father’s eyes.  “You and I have a few things to discuss in the house.”

   “I’d like to see my brother in first,” Johnny said in quiet defiance. Murdoch hesitated before nodding curtly.

   “Come to me in my study when you’re done,” he said. Johnny watched his father walk away with long, determined strides towards the house, before he looked at his brother, an edgy smile on his face.

   “Jesus, brother,” he said softly. “He’s madder’n stirred-up rattler.”

   Scott nodded.

   “Two ‘John’s. Not a good sign, brother.”

   “He scare ya now?” Johnny made sure the blanket was in place as Billy and Sam lifted his brother onto a stretcher fetched from the barn.

   “More than he did when he was fifty miles away. You?” Scott winced as the men lifted the stretcher quickly in their haste to get their task done.

   “Tell ya after he’s done chewin’ me out. Easy boys, I only got one brother.”

   Sam nodded and gentled his walk at the front of the stretcher.

   “Well, I’m sure glad he ain’t my ol’ man, I’ll tell ya that,” Billy said. “Why did ya let on we wus bulldoggin’, Johnny? Reckon your brother here weren’t about to tell the boss more’n he needed to know.”

   “You’re right, Billy,” Scott said. “I wasn’t.”

   Johnny looked down at the older man and shrugged.

   “Guess it don’t feel to me like a good day for messin’ with the truth.”

   He glanced back at the young bearded man in the tweed suit who was still observing them intently from over by the corral. When he had seen Scott into his room, he found the same man watching him as he removed his gun belt and spurs in the lobby.

   “You’re Robbie, huh?” he said, amused by the other man’s timidity, the clear apprehension in his eyes.

   Relieved that the cowboy had spoken first, Robbie nodded. Everything about the man before him gripped his imagination – his fluid movements, the worn gun belt now hanging off a wooden peg, the spurs lazily kicked off worn and dusty boots, the black hair, freed from under a brown hat made grey with dust, now almost falling into vibrant blue eyes until Johnny pushed it away. He was young, younger than Robbie had expected, only a few years into his manhood, but his eyes held a knowingness that unsettled the older man.

   “Aye.”

   “We’re cousins.” Johnny smiled a little with a corner of his mouth.

   “Aye, it would seem so.”

   “I’m Johnny.” The young man held out his hand. “The busted-up feller upstairs is my brother, Scott.

   Gladly, Robbie took his cousin’s hand, pleased to feel a warm, strong grip. A little of his fear eased away.

   “Is he badly hurt?

   “Nothin’ that won’t fix.” Johnny released the older man’s hand. “That’s a mighty fine suit ya wearin’, cousin, but y’ look kinda hot.”

   Taken aback by the teasing tone of his young cousin’s words, Robbie allowed himself a smile.

   “I am a wee bit warm, but this is ma summer suit. It’s all I have.”

   Johnny smiled more openly and thumped Robbie’s shoulder.

   “Could at least take ya jacket off, cousin. Might’ve noticed we ain’t too formal around here – most ‘o the time, anyhow.”

   “I thought, as I’m a guest …”

   Johnny shook his head, the smile still warming his features.

   “Boy, I’m gonna have to take you in hand, Robbie. I’ll set ya up with somethin’ a little more suited to our climate.”

   “Ma father won’t …” Robbie stopped himself and nodded. “Thank you, Johnny. I would appreciate that.”

   Johnny returned the nod and looked across at the closed door of his father’s study. His smile faded.

   “That is, if I get outta there alive. He’s so mad he could fry bacon with his breath.”

   “Your father?”

   “Yeh.”

   “Is he so fierce? He seems a quiet, even-tempered man ta me.”

   “Well, I gotta way of bringin’ out the worst in ‘im, cousin. See ya later.” Just as he reached the study door, he turned his head to look at the older man. “Can ya ride?”

   “No.” Robbie smiled. “I’m afraid horses scare me.”

   “We’ll have to fix that.” Johnny grinned and disappeared inside the study. Robbie was still wondering at their encounter when he saw his mother walking down the stairs, her sewing basket in her hands.

   “Who were ye talking to?” she smiled.

   “My cousin Johnny,” Robbie replied, as he took the basket from her hands and began to walk with her towards the morning room. “I can safely say, ma dear wee girl, that I’ve never met anyone quite like him.”

   “Will ye be friends, d’ye think?”

   Robbie considered the question as he placed the sewing box on a small table in the sunniest part of the morning room.

   “I’m not sure, Ma.” He sat down beside her on the couch. “There’s something a wee bit dangerous about him.”

   “Dangerous?” Mary said with a frown.

   “Maybe that’s not what I mean.” He attempted to reassure her with a pat to her hand. “Maybe I mean he’s the sort of person who might cause a man to reconsider who and what he is.”

   Robbie looked into the anxious eyes of his mother and smiled. He lifted her hand and kissed it.

   “Dear wee girl, why did we come if not to examine the state of our souls? Father’s up there, curtains drawn against the light, praying for guidance, but our paths may be marked in unexpected ways. I won’t make myself blind to what might open up ma heart.”

 

   Inside the study, Johnny saw his father’s back facing him. Murdoch was gazing out of the study’s narrow window, a construction mistake he had meant to rectify for twenty years. He heard the light footfall of his younger son and hardened his resolve to be firm. Each day, still, he struggled with his feelings for Johnny, aware of both a love for the boy that left him breathless, and of a need to remain objective, to hold his own against what still mystified and troubled him in Johnny’s presence. Earlier, he had wanted to drag his son from his horse and hug him home, so passionately glad he had been at his return. Somehow he was always surprised when Johnny rode under the arch, as if the young man was bestowing a favour upon him, the imperfect father.  How much easier it had been to be angry …

   “Tell me more about this family, John,” he said, still with his back to Johnny.

   ‘Jesus fuckin’ Christ.’ Johnny’s thoughts were swiftly violent. ‘Don’t call me that.’ For a moment, he hated his father, wanted to punch him for refusing to face him; then he swallowed back his anger and pitched in to get it over with, because he knew this would not last, this stand-off on this carpet from a foreign country.

   “Rancher named Jed Albright drove ‘em off their land. They got nothin’ ‘cept some ol’ clock an’ a gun. Will reckons he’s good enough to win the Green River Derby. Maybe he is, if … He stopped, smiled to himself. ‘Bite y’tongue, boy. Now ain’t the time.”

   “I know Jed Albright. Driving people off their land isn’t his style.”

   “Well, that’s what happened, Murdoch,” Johnny said.

   “What’s wrong with the girl?”

   Johnny shrugged in a deliberate bid to irritate his father.

   “Ain’t sure. Her sister claims it’s a fever, but I reckon there’s more to it.”

   Murdoch turned then. His arms folded, he looked severely at his son.

   “You know we’ve had a few cases of cholera in the area lately. You didn’t think to consider the child might be contagious?”

   Johnny met his father’s gaze. Yes, it was alright. For a terrible moment, he had thought himself adrift, as centreless as that first day they had met after nearly twenty years apart.

   “Scott did, but I made the decision to take ‘em in.”

   “And the bulldogging? Was that solely your decision too?”

   “Yeh.”

   The shade of insolence infected his tone before he had time to resist it. His father’s furious glare rocked his buoyancy and he lowered his head. He had only one option, although it aggravated him to be reduced to it.

   “Yes, sir, it was.”

   “So on two occasions where you were required to show maturity, common-sense and responsibility, you chose to act like a reckless boy?”

   “The hell I did!” Caution went to the wind. His father had overstepped the mark. “You tell me what’s so fuckin’ responsible about leavin’ a family to starve. You sure as hell wouldn’t’ve left ‘em out there.”

   “I’ll remind you to watch your language with me, young man!”

  “Well, y’ain’t goin’ to listen to anythin’ else I gotta say, that’s for sure!”

  “That isn’t true, Johnny.” It was enough to appease him a little, the return of his name, but he kept his resentment tight.

   “Feels true to me. Jesus, I bin callin’ the tune out there for two weeks now an’ now I’m getting’ yelled at like some green kid!”

   “You’re not out there now, John, and no-one’s the boss of me on this ranch.”

   Johnny stared at the older man in an effort to read the intent in his father’s pale blue eyes. Defeated, he threw himself down in the house’s oldest armchair, an object of faded brown leather, brought to Lancer by Murdoch’s first wife. It smelt of his father’s pipe smoke. He crossed one leg over so that his right ankle was resting on his left thigh.

   “You ain’t even asked how it went,” he said, sullenly picking at his boot. Murdoch frowned at his son’s unexpected action. He fought the urge to order the young man to stand up, knowing that for Johnny sitting down was something akin to submission. He softened his approach, sat on the edge of his oak desk, his hands in his pockets.

   “I’m assuming it went well or I’d have heard about it,” he said. “I don’t need to question your ability to work this ranch, Johnny, or to lead the men. This is about you considering the consequences of your actions. You could have put the entire ranch at risk with that girl.” He saw that Johnny was listening, although he was picking at his boots with his long fingers more vengefully now. “And your brother … what got into you letting him bulldog a steer?”

   “I tried to stop ‘im.”

   “You know my rules and as far as I can tell you deliberately disobeyed them.”

   Johnny sighed impatiently.

   “The fellers’d worked their butts off, Murdoch. I reckoned they were owed some fun.”

   “It’s a rule, Johnny.” Murdoch wanted to slap his son’s hand away from his boot as motes of trail dirt fell to the carpet below. “If my sons don’t respect that, how can I expect the men to?”

   “Scott ain’t to blame,” Johnny said. “I shoulda stopped ‘im.”

   Murdoch gazed down at the young man silently, wondering at the sudden coldness in Johnny’s tone. He remembered that Scott had been about to lie for his brother, but that Johnny had cut in with the harsh truth.

   “Then you won’t mind taking his share of the consequences, will you?”

   Johnny surprised him again by allowing a faint smile to appear that drove the anger even from his eyes.

   “Depends what it is. You goin’ to send me off ridin’ drag on the drive?”

   “You’re not going on the drive, Johnny.” Murdoch turned and picked up a ledger from his desk. “We’ve already discussed that.”

   “You have,” Johnny muttered.

   “I don’t suppose you’d care to repeat that,” Murdoch said.

   Johnny sighed deeply. His father opened the ledger and looked at it with satisfaction.

   “I’ve started to make an inventory of my book collection …”

   Johnny’s head snapped up to look at his father.

   “Ain’t that somethin’ to do with wills?” he demanded. Murdoch frowned at Johnny’s belligerent tone, met his gaze and understood his fearful anger.

   “It can be, Son,” he said gently. “But, in this case, it isn’t. I’m just curious to know what I have here. I want to put it in order. You can help me. I think a week should do it.” He closed the ledger. “That will give you time to think about the wisdom of respecting my decisions, and to get to know your uncle and his family.”

   Johnny sat forward and looked desperately at his father.

   “I ain’t no good with books, Murdoch, y’know it. Can’t I work my due outside? Help Jelly dig Maria’s new garden?”

   Murdoch smiled briefly for the first time since his sons’ return, before placing the ledger back on the desk.

   “No,” he said. “Now, I’m going upstairs to see Scott. I suggest you go take a bath or my brother will have another excuse to think us uncivilised barbarians.”

   Johnny raised his eyebrows, but his father’s expression made it clear he had finished talking on that subject. The young man pulled himself up out of the chair and headed for the door.

   “Johnny?”

   He turned to look at his father. Murdoch, arms folded, was contemplating the floor. He raised his head.

   “How did it go out there?”

   Johnny smiled involuntarily, a thrill of pride rushing through his veins.

   “It went good. Got near five thousand calves branded – Scott’s got the exact number wrote down – and we cut out a near a thousand for drivin’. They’re grazin’ the south range. They won’t go nowhere. Grass up there’s like green silk. Left Cip out there with Curly, Jack an’ young Pete. Tom’s ridin’ out soon as he’s fetched the doc.”

   “Any losses?”

   “No more’n dozen, an’ we lost a horse. Broke a leg down a gopher hole. Had t’shoot ‘im.”

   “Any trouble from the men?”

   “Nope, it went off real easy …” Johnny dipped his head and looked back up at his father, a faint, hopeful smile on his face. “Aside from the bulldoggin’, I guess.”

   Murdoch nodded. Despite the reminder that he had been disobeyed, he was elated, almost dazed by the obvious pleasure with which his son had recounted his success. Less than a year before, they had stood facing one another as strangers, no more than blood and blue eyes between them, and for months they had remained in their respective cages, regarding one another with a mixture of bewilderment and fury - until Bittercreek, until he had shot a man in cold blood to avenge and protect his son, until he had entered Johnny’s cage and stayed there, locking the door behind him.

   “You did well, Son, very well,” he said. “I’m proud of you.”

   Johnny hesitated in the face of his father’s sombre expression, before giving the older man a quick nod.

   “Thanks.”

  Wanting to yell out loud with joy, he calmly left the room, eager to immerse himself in hot water and his brother’s expensive bath salts, and savour what could never be easily gained – the approval of a man who grunted out praise with the reluctance of rain over a desert.

 

Chapter Ten

   This bath was an event after two weeks in the dust. He eased himself down into the steaming water made fragrant at his brother’s expense; his hand had slipped and the blue crystals from Boston had tumbled out of the fancy glass jar in their entirety, accompanied by a stream of Spanish curses. As the water lapped at his chin, he pulled in the scent of it, blinking at its pungency.

   “Jesus, brother, you sure y’ain’t picked out the women’s stuff?”

   He plunged his head right in and re-emerged, shaking an arc of spray from his hair across the room. Shoving his long fringe back from his forehead, he leaned back against the slope of the porcelain bath, a luxury his father had finally permitted himself last Christmas, and gazed at the white ceiling. For awhile, his mind empty, his body given over to the bliss of doing nothing in hot water, he watched a large spider, black against white, make its way from one corner of the room to the other. He liked spiders, their secretive, devious ways. He liked that girls screamed to be rescued from them, how they became part of the game of love with their too many hairy legs and scuttling habits. On the run, laying low in barns and shacks, he had watched a thousand spiders weave their elaborate webs. When once he had poked a finger through one, huge and the work of an hour or more, he had regretted it instantly. The spider had simply begun again.

    Through the misted window, the sun shone rhombuses of soft yellow light.

    From somewhere in the room came the sound of water dripping, slow and even, lulling him into closing his eyes. Outside in the yard, he could hear voices, sudden loud laughter, an angry protest – Billy’s voice, maybe – more laughter, before his father’s bellow came like a violent squall and left all silent behind it.

   Smiling, content, Johnny lifted his right hand from the water and gazed at it. He liked his hands. They were strong, capable with long fingers. He had seen other men’s hands, too fat or too white, fingers too short, too stubby. He had his father’s hands, ranch-building hands. He glanced across at the wooden chair where he had piled his clothes. Yes, he had forgotten again, just as he had the last time he had taken a bath in this room. His gun belt, worn to a shine by years of use, the gun’s grip as familiar to his palm as skin, was hanging on a peg in the lobby, unthinkingly put away like kicked off boots. He looked again at his hand, at the small scars from barbed wire, the calluses from roping, the blackened nail of his forefinger where he had trapped it removing the broken wheel of the chuck wagon.

   He clenched the hand into a fist and opened it again, feeling the slight pull of the damaged tendon in his palm. It had been three weeks since he had practised his draw; despite the several months that had passed since the injury he had seemed no closer to regaining his old speed. The thought was no easier to bear than it had been then. He pulled himself up into a sitting position, reached for the soap and lathered his arms, chest and hair before plunging back down into the water. Holding his breath for as long as possible, he broke back through the water and resumed his study of the ceiling, pleased that he had matched his record of fifty-one counts. The spider had reached the other side of the ceiling and was resting in its web. Near it, still free, was a fly darting haphazardly from one side of the web to the other, as if challenging the unmoving, larger creature. Johnny knew it would lose.

   Tomorrow, he decided, he would start practising his draw again, away from his father’s notice. In that sphere, he would tread carefully for a day or two, work the older man back into a right frame of mind. He had seen what had happened in the time he had been away; his father had been too much alone and brooding, had forgotten how to play their game. Still, Johnny knew it was partly his fault for getting caught breaking one of the Old Man’s iron clad rules. Smirking, he rubbed any lingering dirt off his face with the sponge and considered ways to bring an unbidden smile to his father’s face; it was one of his favourite games and success in it more satisfying than a cold beer on a hot day.

   Hot day. Blue sky. The smell of grass and her perfume. He was surprised that she had not entered his mind before now. Lindy Cooper. Finally, one fine, breezy afternoon just before round-up, after weeks of cuddling and kissing, she had allowed him inside her. He had wondered at her submission, but excited out of his reason, had taken her there in the long grass behind the Folsoms’ abandoned barn, their union as messy, noisy and wild as he had ever hoped. Her teeth-marks on his neck had only just faded away, and several times these past two weeks, he had wondered if she had managed to conceal his marks on her pale breasts.

   Dios en cielo, it had thrilled him beyond measure to hear the demure little Miss Cooper sob out his name at the height of her passion. Afterwards, she had stroked his face, her eyes bigger than he had ever seen them, and sworn that nothing had changed. They were still ‘just friends’. She wasn’t interested in marriage yet. It didn’t do to settle down too quickly. She wanted some fun first. She had read in a New York magazine that women were waiting until they were twenty-five before even thinking of marriage, and she knew, for a fact, that two of her friends had let local boys ‘do’ them. He smiled and heaved a sigh; he sure would like to ‘do’ Lindy Cooper again. Feeling his body respond to the thought, he reached down into the water with his hand.

    Suddenly, his name was being called, twice; his father’s voice outside the door demanding to know if he intended to spend the entire day in there, lazing around while there was work to be done? Cursing, he let the pleasure go.

   “I’m comin’!!” Smiling ruefully, he pulled himself up out of the bath and regarded his member regretfully, muttering, “Or maybe not,” before grabbing a towel and consoling himself with the thought that Lindy might just be ready for another bout of ‘fun’ in the long grass behind Folsom’s barn.

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

   “You’re awake.”

   “Yes, sir.” Scott raised his eyes from his book and smiled cautiously at his father. “Come in.”

   Murdoch gazed down at his younger son, fast asleep on the other side of the bed. Their closeness continued to surprise him – the streetwise gunfighter and the refined city boy; he would never have dreamed it. What had he expected last summer when he had called them to Lancer? Nothing. He realised that now. Unlike a mother would have done, he had not spent hours speculating on his feelings for them or theirs for each other. He had not rehearsed that first meeting, considered what he might say, do. No, he had blundered into it with all the grace of a bear stumbling out of hibernation, and the debris of his blind ineptitude had been scattered far and wide across his days. He touched Johnny’s head with the tips of his fingers.

   “How long has he been asleep?”

   “About half an hour. I think the thought of his new job’s worn him out.”

   Murdoch grunted and put his hands in his pockets. He regarded his older son sternly.

   “If you weren’t laid up in that bed, young man, I’d have found something equally suitable for you to chew on.”

   “Yes, Father.” Scott closed his book and calmly met his father’s glare. “I understand that.”

  ‘Oh, these two are getting good,’ Murdoch thought. Could they see how it affected him, that carefully placed ‘Father’ or ‘Pa’? Did that damn squeeze in his veins show on his face?

   “Good,” he grunted. He leaned down and shook Johnny’s shoulder. The young man woke quickly and sat up, rubbing his eyes.

   “Jesus, what d’ya wake me for, Scott? I was about to undo Lindy Cooper’s …”

   “I woke you,” Murdoch said.

   Johnny looked up, open-mouthed, at his father and stood up instantly, pushing his fringe from his eyes.

   “Her hat-strings,” he said quickly. Scott choked down a snort of laughter, and then winced at the pain in his ribs. Johnny risked a small smile at his father, but Murdoch was irritated by the mention of the girl’s name. Briefly, he wondered if his son’s dream was a recreation of what had already happened.

   “I thought you weren’t seeing Lindy anymore,” he said.

   “Only in my dreams, Murdoch,” Johnny replied, his tone as regretful as his conscience could manage.

   “That had better be the case, young man. I’m in no mood for dealing with Tom Cooper at the moment. Now go get changed for dinner.”

   Johnny looked down at his new shirt, red with small blue stars. It had been lying on his bed, carefully wrapped. He loved it wildly. He had tried to offer payment to his father, but Murdoch had waved him away with a grunt.

   “I’m changed.”

   “Your suit,” Murdoch said.

   “Y’ain’t serious?” Johnny looked at Scott for support. His brother shrugged. “They’re family, aren’t they?” His face clouded over. “You ain’t invited the Jones’, have you?”

   Murdoch nearly smiled at the thought, but managed to suppress it. He could not rid himself of the tetchiness he felt at what his sombre, cheerless brother might make of this uninhibited young man. Iain had managed to plead travel exhaustion all day and neither he nor Mary had been visible since mid-morning. Clearly exasperated, Robbie had managed to extract a promise of attendance at dinner from his parents.

   “No,” Murdoch replied. “But this is the first time you’ve met your aunt and uncle, so I’m asking you to wear a suit.”

   Johnny put his hands on his hips and took another look at his new shirt, before challenging his father’s eyes.

   “Ya don’t reckon they oughta see me as I really am, not got up like a Thanksgivin’ turkey?”

   “Nice try, John,” Murdoch said, finally amused enough to smile. “Get going.”

   Sighing deeply, Johnny left the room. Moments later, the two older men could hear the vengeful banging of draws.

   “Sounds like dinner’s going to be fun,” Scott said, smiling.

   “Johnny’s the least of my worries,” his father sighed. He sat down on the bed and leaned back against the bedstead opposite his son. Instantly, he felt relaxed and at peace, as if in this room was the lost part of himself, the part he needed to survive his brother’s visit. How he had missed this boy, he thought, lowering his head with something close to shyness at Scott’s silent, absorbed, faintly amused observation of him - their discussions of history and politics, their long and ruthless games of chess, the way Scott listened to people, to him, as if nothing and no-one else mattered in the world at that moment. Catherine had listened that way, intently, eyes fixed on him, whatever his nonsense.

   “Oh?”

   Gazing down at his folded arms, Murdoch shrugged. Scott wanted to laugh. So like Johnny.

   “Murdoch?” he said. “Say what’s on your mind.”

   The older man raised his head at the sharp tone. Unlike his younger son, who employed the often devious tactics of a born charmer to break his defences, this one went straight and strongly to the smallest chink in his armour and buried his arrow deep.

   “Later, Son,” he said. “When you’re feeling stronger. Suffice to say, if I could bring a bottle of Scotch and a chess board up here instead of sitting at that dinner table tonight, I would.”

   Scott smiled.

   “I’d like that.”

   Murdoch leaned forward and patted his son’s leg.

   “Perhaps later then. You must be feeling pretty sore right now.”

   “I am …”

   “Why did you do it, Scott?”

   His son frowned at the sudden, softly spoken question.

   “Would you ask Johnny that, sir?”

   “No,” Murdoch admitted, leaning back again. “I probably wouldn’t – I didn’t – but Johnny’s …”

   “Irresponsible?”

   “No, but still a little wild. I’m angry that he allowed the bulldogging, but I can’t say I’m very surprised.”

   “But you’re surprised at me?” Scott could not help the resentment in his tone. All the long, uncomfortable journey home, he had kept that moment of victory over the steer in his mind, the crashing down to earth of a creature so much more powerful than himself.

   “Well, yes, Son.” Murdoch noticed the unfamiliar irritation in his son’s voice and realised he was on shaky ground. “You knew my rule as well as Johnny did …”

   “And I’ll accept whatever punishment you see fit to give me, sir.” He glared down at his folded arms. “But the deed is done, and that being so, my only thought is how I could have prevented these injuries.”

   “Scott,” Murdoch said. “Wrestling a steer is the most dangerous practice on a cattle ranch. I’ve seen many a good man either killed or crippled by it. I’m not about to put the lives of my men, my sons, at risk for the sake of a boyish desire to show-off.”

   “You think that’s all it was?” Scott demanded. “You know me, and you honestly think that’s what it was?”

   “What else am I supposed to think?”

   Scott shook his head.

   “I think you’re getting me confused with my cocky little brother, Murdoch. If you want showing-off, that boy is a master of it.”

   “He led me to believe that things went well out there,” Murdoch said defensively. “Are you telling me different?”

   “No.” Scott’s reaction was instant. “Things went exceptionally well. Johnny’s a born rancher. He handled the men expertly and his skills are second to none. We branded more cows than I ever believed would be possible in two weeks, and the ones cut out for the drive are prime beef, the best we have. I have all the details in my notebook.”

   “Yes, Johnny told me,” Murdoch said. He had listened to his older son’s emotionless account of the fortnight with growing bewilderment. He knew something was wrong, that Scott was angry. He ventured a theory. “You were in joint charge out there, you know, Scott.”

   Scott, who had returned his gaze to his folded arms, looked up, surprised at his father’s intuition.

   “You’re both equally important to this ranch, and to me.”

   Scott hesitated before taking a deep breath and nodding his acceptance.

   “Thank you, Murdoch. That means a great deal.”

   “But not enough to scratch that itch?”

   “Not quite,” Scott replied with a faint smile. Pleased enough with his success for now, Murdoch gave his son’s leg another pat and stood up.

   “Get some rest, Son,” he said gently. “I collected some new books from Sven yesterday. I’ll bring them up later. The Hawthorne’s got the finest illustrations I’ve ever seen, as good as Phiz.”

   “Surely not,” Scott said, smiling. His father’s partiality for Dickens’ illustrator was a fond joke between them. Murdoch returned the smile.

   “Well, perhaps not quite.”

   He turned his head at the sound of a door being shut too heavily for his comfort. It reminded him of the ordeal ahead. Moments later, came the familiar thump of Johnny’s feet landing on the floor below, Maria’s protesting voice, Johnny’s rapid cajoling Spanish in reply and then the sound of his boots crossing the wooden porch below Scott’s room. Quickly, Murdoch went to the window and watched Johnny, dressed in his dark suit, walking across the yard towards the barn.

   “Damn that boy,” he growled. “If he dares go near that horse of his in that suit …”

   Amused, Scott watched his father leave the room and close the door as gently as his growing annoyance would allow. He closed his eyes, letting the unlooked - for luxury of resting in his own bed to overcome his troubled thoughts.

  

Chapter Eleven

   “Is it right that one man should own so much land?”

   Murdoch took another swallow of his scotch and mentally braced himself. His brother, a glass of water in his hand, was gazing at the map of Lancer above the fireplace. Mary and Robbie were sitting together on the smaller couch studying a large book on Californian flora and fauna. They were talking in low voices and Iain glanced at them suspiciously from time to time. Already annoyed that Johnny had not yet appeared, Murdoch ground out his reply resentfully.

   “I don’t know. The pasture’s poorer here and less concentrated than at home. More acreage is needed per so many head of cattle.”

   “And how many is that?”

   “Twenty thousand, give or take a few hundred.”

   “Good grief, man,” Iain frowned. “Is that an average number for a cattle ranch?”

   “Some have fewer,” Murdoch replied. He replenished his glass. “Some, more.”

   “Are there no farmers?”

   “There are some, scratching a living. Small doesn’t work out here, Iain. You think big or you go under.”

   “Darwin’s law,” Iain said. “I suppose ye have some influence around here wi’ your acres and your money?”

   “Yes, I do, a great deal.” Murdoch hardened his emotions against his brother’s critical tone. “It goes with the territory, and I try, to the very best of my ability, to put in as much as I take. I’m not like the lairds at home, Iain, keeping the small land-owners under my heel while I reap the rewards, and I’d prefer you wouldn’t think such a thing of me.”

   For the first time, Murdoch saw his brother, pale from fatigue and praying, look uncomfortable.

   “No, Murry,” Iain said quietly. “I would not think such a thing of you.”

   Moved by this evidence that their old relationship could still be touched, however scarcely, Murdoch softened his tone and his expression.

   “Would you care to see the land tomorrow, Iain? You and Mary? There are some very beautiful places I can take you to.”

   “Perhaps.” Iain hesitated, stared down into his glass of water. “Perhaps it would do ma heart good ta see the Lord’s creation, to be still a wee while, so I can contemplate it properly. The train was too fast, too dark. It made a prison of ma soul.”

   Murdoch risked a hand on his brother’s shoulder, patted it gently.

   “Good.”

   He looked up as the door opened and his younger son entered the room. Johnny smiled at him, but Murdoch recognised a familiar wariness in the young man’s expression.

   “Sorry, my watch stopped.”

   Murdoch frowned at his son’s audacity. Was he imagining it or was the boy, even now, playing with him? Played with, like a cat with a mouse – that’s how he often felt in Johnny’s presence, and it both enchanted and alarmed him. It made him feel out of control, always balancing on a knife-edge of reaction, wondering how he should proceed.

   “Is it going now?”

   “No, think I might’ve overwound it some.”

   Murdoch held out his hand.

   “Give it to me. I’ll fix it.”

   Johnny pulled the watch from his pocket and handed it to his father who took it and slipped it into his own pocket.

   “Iain, this is my younger boy, Johnny.”

   The young man held out his hand, a ready smile on his face, despite his instant appraisal of his uncle as a man with something dark and heavy on his mind. Iain took the hand, his own blue eyes intent on his nephew’s face.

   “Glad to meet ya, Uncle. Sorry I’m late, but I was pickin’ out a horse for my cousin.” Johnny turned and grinned at Robbie. “Found ya somethin’ special, Rob. A real nice grey mare. She’s gentle, well-mannered, but …”

   “A horse?” Iain frowned. “Robbie doesna ride.”

   “I know, sir, but …”

   “And he isn’t about to, lad.”

   “I’d like ta try, Father,” Robbie said. “If ye have no objection.”

   “Everyone rides around here, Uncle,” Johnny said, smiling. “Even the Ol’ Man here, though he’s kinda slow these days, even on Amo.”

   “The Old Man?” Iain’s expression darkened to a scowl.

   “He means me, Iain,” Murdoch said.

   “Ye should show more respect ta your father, lad.”

   Murdoch saw the mixture of resentment and surprise on the young man’s face, before Johnny looked enquiringly at him. Quelling his own anger at Iain’s chastisement of his son, he offered Johnny a fleeting smile, grateful when Mary approached them, her hand outstretched.

   “Johnny, I’m your Aunt Mary,” she said. “How d’ye do?”

   “I’m good, ma’am.”

   “I’m sure ye are,” Mary said with a warm smile. “Who could doubt it?”

   “No, ma’am.” Johnny, still unsettled by his uncle’s manner, felt the heat rise under his skin. “I mean I’m well, thank you.”

   “Ah, I see.” Mary laughed, releasing his hand. “It might take me a wee while to get used ta the language in America.” She smiled up at Murdoch. “Shall we eat?”

   “Good idea.”

   Murdoch placed his hand gently on the back of his son’s neck and rubbed it briefly before walking over to the dining table and taking his place at its head.

   Robbie saw the gesture and Johnny’s responding smile. It was enough to leave him almost breathless. Hands trembling, he pulled out a chair for his mother, before walking round to the other side of the table and sitting next to Johnny opposite his parents. He poured a glass of water and took two large swallows, angry with himself that such a simple thing could so shake his nerves.

   Johnny’s excitement had been reduced to a shade. He was wary now of this angry man, his skin pale in contrast to his greying hair and beard who across the table was regarding him critically with their family’s blue eyes. Apparent to him too was the tension between his father and uncle, as plain in the atmosphere as twitchy fingers on triggers. When Iain asked for grace to be said, Murdoch led it in a tone edged with rebellion, and his brother remained in an attitude of prayer a minute after Murdoch’s brusque ‘Amen’.

   “Tell us about the round-up, will ye, Johnny.”

  Johnny looked across at his aunt, a small, neat woman with mild eyes. Dutifully, she had waited in the silence for her husband to raise his head and begin to eat his soup. Suspicious of the unidentifiable bits floating in a brown liquid – Auld Reekie, Maria had proudly called it, an old Scottish recipe – Johnny had been fiddling with the spoon at the side of his plate. His father was eating the soup with an uncertain frown.

   “That is what it’s called, isn’t it?” she asked.

   “Yes, Ma’am.”

   “Is it dangerous? Your brother was injured was he not?”

   Johnny looked quickly at Murdoch who merely raised his eyebrows at him and tore a piece of bread in half.

   “Round-up isn’t dangerous, Ma’am, not in the regular way, anyhow. It’s just cuttin’ out the calves, brandin’ ‘em an’ pickin’ out the best steers for drivin’ to market.”

   “Cutting out?” Robbie queried.

   “It means using a horse to separate a single calf or steer from the rest of the herd,” Murdoch explained, glancing meaningfully at Johnny and then at the untouched soup. “This boy’s a master of it. I’m sure he’ll be able to arrange a demonstration for you during your stay, won’t you, Son?”

   Johnny stopped in the act of raising a spoonful of soup to his mouth, taken aback by the unexpected tribute to his skills.

   “Yeh, sure,” he replied. He glanced at Murdoch, and Robbie saw a look pass between them that was beyond his experience with his own father. While Iain went on gravely eating his soup, apparently uninterested in his family, Robbie felt a familiar swell of anger against him.

   “Wouldn’t ye like ta see that, Father?” he said. Iain looked remotely at his son and dabbed his mouth with a napkin.

   “It is always instructive to see a man at his work, Robbie. It can tell us much about the path he is on.” He pressed his fingers together and looked across at Johnny. “So, tell me, lad, if your work isna dangerous, why is your brother hurt?”

   “Accidents happen, Iain,” Murdoch said.

   “Aye, they do, but particular care must be taken wi’ a brother, wouldn’t ye say, Murry?”

   “It wasn’t an accident, Uncle,” Johnny said. He allowed Maria to lean in and take the barely touched soup, shaking his head at her when she muttered a few words of Spanish. “I let him do somethin’ I should’ve stopped him doin’. I’m sorry for it and it isn’t goin’ to happen again.”

   Iain glanced at Murdoch who was staring in grim silence at a silver fork in his hand.

   “Well, I’m glad ta hear it, John. Your repentance is commendable. Young men must learn ta rein in their naturally wild impulses for the sake of their spiritual welfare.”

   “Forgive me for saying so, Iain,” Murdoch said irritably. “But it isn’t your place to comment on Johnny’s conduct. Maria, can you bring the main course in, please?”

   “Si, Senor,” she replied with a frown. “Por supuesto.”

   “Did y’know my father when he was young, Aunt?” Johnny asked, now recklessly determined to break the angry mood at the table even if it meant further trouble for himself. He could see that the question vexed them all – the way Mary’s eyes quickly sought her husband’s, his glowering response, the tension that afflicted his father – but he had no sympathy for any of them, so long had he been denied his blood’s history.

   “Aye, I did,” Mary replied. “Since we were wee children.”

   “Pa was a kid?” Johnny smiled, glancing at his father. “He never told me that.”

   Robbie choked back a laugh, before lowering his head to avoid Iain’s angry look in his direction.

   “Well, he most certainly was,” Mary smiled, amused despite herself, despite her husband’s simmering discontent beside her. She was enchanted by this fearless youth who seemed to have little notion of the rigid formality she was used to at the dinner table. “A particularly lively one. Perhaps …” She smiled faintly at Murdoch. “… even a little naughty at times.” As Murdoch’s expression struggled between a smile and a frown, she turned with ease to Maria who had placed a plate before her. “Ah, this looks very much like haggis, Maria.”

   Beaming with pleasure, the older woman nodded vigorously.

   “Si, Senora,” she replied warmly. “The Patron, he gave me the recipe. I hope it is good for you. I have made, how you call them? Neeps and tatties, too, from your country. It was not hard.”

   “Well, it is much appreciated by me, Maria,” Robbie said, lifting the lid off the dish of steaming mashed vegetables. “I’ve sorely missed ma haggis, and it’s ma father’s favourite.”

   Johnny frowned at the unfamiliar substance, too pale and grainy to tempt his lowered appetite. He piled potatoes over it until his father spoke gently.

   “You might want to leave some for the rest of us, Son,” he said with a smile.

   “Sorry.”

   Johnny put the spoon back in the dish. Averting his gaze from his uncle’s grave observation of him from across the other side of the table, he sought again Mary’s mild brown eyes.

   “So Murdoch ain’t always been virtuous, huh?” he said. “I sure would like to hear more about that, ma’am.”

   Iain breathed out a sudden, violent sigh.

   “Must we continue to endure this boy’s lack of respect for his elders, Murry?”

   Murdoch drew in a breath and rearranged the napkin in his lap. His tone was stiff with quiet hostility.

   “Johnny is not being disrespectful, Iain.”

   “Then what would ye call it, man? He speaks to ye as if ye’re equals wi’ no regard for your age and experience!”

   “I got respect for my father, sir,” Johnny said coldly, meeting his uncle’s resentful glare. “More’n you’ll ever know.”

   Iain held the young man’s gaze under his black eyebrows.

   “I will not be addressed in that tone, John. Whatever liberties your father allows in your behaviour towards him, they will not apply ta me. Is that understood, lad?”

   “Iain,” Murdoch snapped. “You’re my brother and you …” He paused and drew in a hard breath. “You have my respect, but I won’t tolerate you disciplining my son in his own home without good cause.”

   “S’alright, Murdoch,” Johnny said, continuing to look at his uncle while he turned a knife in circles on the white tablecloth. “A man’s gotta right to say where he stands. Reckon I got the message loud and clear.”

   “I’m gratified that we understand each other, John.” Iain picked up his knife and fork and cut off a small piece of haggis.  He chewed it with no obvious sign of enjoyment. In the ensuing silence, Johnny ate slowly, his eyes and ears absorbing the landscape of his family’s emotions. Close to him, his father glowered down at his meal, cutting the food vengefully and drinking wine with swift, purposeful swallows. His aunt and cousin had retreated into what Johnny knew must be habit, a silent communion in which each of them moved, like waltzing partners, in measured steps, passing the salt, pouring water, eating with great care, as if the very act was guilty rebellion. Johnny burned with questions, but his life had accustomed him to waiting for answers. The restless buzzing under his skin began to hurt. He risked speaking to his father in a quiet undertone, pulling out one of his brother’s formal phrases to support his cause.

   “Can I be excused, sir?”

   His father put down his wine glass and dabbed his mouth with a napkin. He returned Johnny’s intense gaze, wrestling with both a desire to free his son and to teach him the virtue of well-bred patience against the worst odds.

   “We’re not done here, Johnny.”

   “I’m done,” Johnny said quietly. “I’d like to go and spend time with Scott, maybe go check on the Jacksons.”

   Realising in an instant that what he truly felt was resentment that Johnny was deserting him, Murdoch nodded briefly. As he watched the young man leave the room, he suffered the distinct feeling that he was being punished, that yet again he had let Johnny down. There were times, even now, he regretted bringing his sons home, the magnitude of his failure to raise them himself seeming too much for him to bear.

   “It is clear ta me,” Iain said, glancing at his wife. “That our father’s methods of handling sons have had little influence on you, Murry.”

   “And just exactly what aspect of Father’s methods of handling us would you recommend, Iain?” Murdoch demanded coldly. “The beatings, the hour long prayers for forgiveness, the days, weeks when he refused to look at us, let alone speak? Good God, man, we were too afraid to buy a sweet!”

   Iain’s eyes widened and the line of his jaw twitched. Murdoch knew that, for a moment, he had touched his brother’s soul, but it was as fleeting as a thought just before sleep. 

   “He taught us respect,” Iain said. “He taught us to examine our conduct each minute of our lives so that we might behave in a manner fitting to God and our situation in life. That you have chosen to ignore his teachings doesna make them invalid.”

    Murdoch poured out another glass of wine. Watching it splash red against the crystal never failed to ease his mind.

   “We were raised in fear, Iain. I don’t want my sons to fear me.”

   “Ye were not so harsh, Father,” Robbie said. Iain turned an angry frown on his son, but Robbie’s expression remained defiant. “Ye were not so harsh in your ways as my grandfather.”

   “And now I’m paying for it, lad,” his father replied. “If I had ma way wi’ ye again, I wouldna allow myself the moments when I lost sight of God’s purpose for ye.”

   Robbie found the courage to return his father’s hard stare.

   “Those were the moments that saved me, Father.” Robbie placed his hand on his mother’s hand. “Excuse me, Ma, I need some air.” He stood up and pushed in his chair.

   “Robbie!” Iain barked. “Come back here. Ye will not leave this room without my permission!” As the door closed firmly, Iain glared at his brother furiously.  “Ye see, Murry? Ye see what comes of your godless ways? My son has never openly disobeyed me in his life!”

   “Then it’s about time he damn well started.” Murdoch threw his napkin beside his plate. “Excuse me, Mary. I believe I’ve lost my appetite. You’re welcome to join me on the veranda if you’ve a mind to.”     

 

Chapter Twelve

   “That’s the third slam.” Scott smiled across the chess board as Murdoch’s exit from the Great Room resounded through the house. “Looks like you started a trend, little brother.”

   Johnny, sitting cross-legged on his brother’s bed, leapt off in one swift movement and went to the window. He leaned out into the warm evening air and gazed down into the yard, lit dusky gold by the setting sun. Seeing Robbie sitting against the chestnut tree by the bunkhouse, he whistled loudly and beckoned his cousin up. When he saw Robbie respond with a nod and a wave, he turned back and looked mischievously at Scott.

   “Know what, brother?” he said. “Seein’ as how there ain’t no escape for either of us from our lovin’ uncle for a week or two, I reckon I’m goin’ to shake things up a little round here.”

   “Is he so bad?”

   Johnny leaned back against the sill and folded his arms.

   “Told ya what he was like at dinner. If he was any more buttoned up, he’d be in a box headin’ for the bone yard. I sure would like to know what’s on his mind.  Whatever it is, it ain’t nothin’ pretty.”

   “That maybe so, Johnny.” Scott placed the chess pieces one by one back in their wooden box. “But there’s a lot of history between our father and his brother. If there’s a problem, as you seem to think, then it might be best to leave them to work it out for themselves.”

   “Where’s the fun in that?” Johnny smiled, inducing a sigh from his brother. He walked over to the door in his stockinged feet. “’sides, our cousin needs to loosen up a little before he sets in his pa’s mould for good.” He opened the door just as Robbie approached. “Good to see ya, Cousin. Come’n meet my big brother.” 

   Breathless, almost laughing with surprise, Robbie found himself grabbed from the corridor by his dark-haired cousin and pulled inside the room.  Against his will, he tensed as Johnny draped an arm around his shoulders; the young man’s exuberance unsettled his every nerve. “Robbie, this is Scott. He knows everythin’.”

   Scott smiled and held out his hand.

   “And everything I don’t know, he knows. How d’you do, Robbie?”

   Robbie grasped his cousin’s hand. He was overwhelmed by these men, so entirely at odds with the image he had played with a thousand times in his head. He knew instantly that the young man lying injured in bed, greeting him with a ready smile and a firm handshake would be his friend.

   “How d’you do, Scott? I was sorry ta hear of your accident.”

   “I was foolish,” Scott said. “It won’t happen again.”

   “Damn right.” Johnny’s soft affirmation caused his brother to look up with a sharp frown. Then Scott gestured at the other end of the bed.

   “Take a seat, Robbie. I hear you’re interested in palaeontology.”

   “Aye, I am,” Robbie said. “Very much interested.” He sat down on the bed, cross-legged, in imitation of Johnny who had sat next to his brother, his arms tightly folded, with, Robbie noted, something less of his good mood of moments before. “Your handyman, Mr Hoskins, gave me this earlier. He says he knows where to find others.”

   He handed Scott the trilobite fossil set in grey shale. Scott ran a finger over its dark ridges.

   “A trilobite. Where did Jelly find this?”

   “In one of your canyons, I believe.”

   “What the hell’s a trilobite?” Johnny took the fossil and sniffed it before rubbing at the black shiny surface curiously.

   “An ancient sea creature,” Scott replied. “Scientists think it died out about two-hundred million years ago.”

   “The earth been around that long?” Johnny’s tone was doubtful.

   “Longer, Johnny, according to scientists like Darwin, but not everyone believes so. Fossils like this are the evidence that refutes the Christian belief that the Earth is only four thousand years old.”

   Eagerly, Robbie pulled a small book out of his jacket pocket. He opened it and showed the brothers a coloured diagram of rock strata.

   “This is how rocks are formed over millions of years, layer upon layer, and in each layer is the history of our Earth. California is full of evidence that we are living upon a planet unimaginably ancient …”

   “You said this thing lived in the sea,” Johnny said suspiciously. “How come it’s lyin’ in a canyon in the middle of our land?”

   Robbie, delighted at the brothers’ acceptance of him, smiled confidently at the young man.

   “Wherever ye ride over your land, Johnny, no matter where ye go, it was all once covered by great oceans.” He took the trilobite from Johnny’s hand. “And this little creature was swimming there in the vast silence millions of years ago, long, long before man came wi’ all his noise and haste.” He looked up to see his cousins gazing at him, smiles on their faces. “I’m sorry. I get carried away. To me, nothing is more wonderful than this …”

   “Your father’s a minister, isn’t he?” Scott said.

   “Aye, in the Presbyterian Church.”

   “He must be opposed to your views.”

   “Aye, he is.” Robbie put the trilobite on the bed cover in front of him. “It’s a matter of great pain between us, but no man can help the passions that claim his heart.”

   “You eatin’ that pie, Scott?”

   Scott, who had been silently contemplating his cousin’s words, looked at his brother in bewilderment.

   “What?”

   “That cherry pie,” Johnny said, nodding at the tray on the table by Scott’s bed. “Didn’t get to eat too much dinner.”

   “You’re unbelievable …”

   “I’m hungry. You want the pie or not?”

   Scott looked apologetically at Robbie who could barely hide his fascination with his irrepressible young cousin. ‘Ye just tumble,’ he thought. ‘Like water down a mountain.’

   “It’s not that my brother doesn’t respect your interests, Robbie,” Scott smiled. “It’s just that he respects his stomach more. Have the pie, Johnny, before you starve to death.”

   Johnny grabbed the dish and began to eat with what seemed to Robbie close to joy, as if the pie was more than mere sustenance. All food seemed grey to him; it always had, not stuff of pleasure, but of daily need, inextricably linked with the solemn prayers that preceded it.

   The cherries shone bright red in the lamplight under a golden crust. To eat in a bedroom! … he had not even imagined such a thing, beyond the bowl of thin, pale broth at his sickbed. 

   “What do you think of our father?” Scott asked. Robbie, lost in his thoughts, raised his eyebrows, surprised by the abrupt question.

   “He’s not at all what I expected,” he replied, aware that Johnny had slowed his eating and was watching him intently. “I like him very much.”

   “What did you expect?”

   Robbie hesitated in the face of Scott’s question, unsure of his cousin’s purpose. This brother was no less watchful than the younger one, though his expression was milder, less disturbing. Still, Robbie felt caught out by the brothers’ subtleties; expecting a certain coarseness, even in the educated one, he had found men of complex layers.

   “Someone more or less like ma father, only of a more practical turn of mind. I was surprised to find him so erudite.”

   “What’s that mean?” Johnny asked, through the last mouthful of pie.

   “Educated, Johnny,” Scott said, his gaze fixed on his cousin.

   “Oh, like you, ya mean.” Johnny put down the empty bowl on the bed in front of him and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Yeh, Murdoch’s that alright. Educated as hell.” He smiled slowly. “You teach kids, don’t ya, Rob?”

   “Aye, I do, twenty-two of them.”

   “What d’ya teach them?”

   “Everything, arithmetic, reading, art, history, everything I can.” Robbie looked down, fearful that he had sounded too eager, too intense before these men, especially the younger one, who was leaning back against the bed rest, his arms folded, regarding him with a faint smile. Robbie wanted very much not to be the object of his cousin’s amusement. He looked at Scott. “I try ta open their minds, as far as I’m able, but it’s hard in our village – your father’ll tell ye that – God’s path is a straight and narrow one for most of the adults. They don’t want their bairns thinking for themselves, but that is all I want for them.”

   “That’s commendable, Robbie,” Scott said. “But it must lead you into difficulties sometimes.”

   “Aye, sometimes. I must tread carefully and sow my seeds with a slow hand.”

   Scott nodded.

   “A slow hand, huh?” Johnny smiled. “Last thing y’need around here, cousin.” He got off the bed and went to his brother’s wardrobe. Pulling out a pair of brown pants and a plain shirt from the neatly folded piles, he ignored Scott’s disbelieving frown and threw them towards his cousin. “Scott’ll lend you these.   He held up one of his brother’s immaculately pressed bandanas.

   “Jesus, Brother, what the hell is that?”

   “You know very well what it is,” Scott said. “It’s one of the neckerchiefs Grandfather sent me from Boston.”

   Johnny smirked and threw it to Robbie.

   “Here, Rob. That’ll scare the crows off the corn, and I’ll teach ya how to ride.”

   He closed the wardrobe door with a vengeful slam and sighed heavily. “Whenever Murdoch lets me off the leash countin’ his damn books.”

   Robbie looked down at the clothes, light and practical, smelling of the wind and sun.

   “Johnny, I …” He hesitated. “My father … I have ta be careful. He doesna wish me ta ride.”

   “Why not?”

   “He believes that horses are a dangerous influence on the human soul.”

   “D’you wanna ride or not?” Johnny demanded irritably. Robbie could hear the contempt in the young man’s voice. He felt that his entire soul was rising up in a desire not to merit either brother’s scorn.

   “Johnny …,” Scott warned. Johnny looked coolly at his brother, before repeating his demand with deepened intent.

   “D’you wanna ride, Rob?”

   “Aye, I do, I’ve always wanted to, but …”

   “Then I’ll teach you away from the ranch.”

   “I canna deceive ma father so blatantly, Johnny.”

   Johnny looked down at his tightly folded arms and shrugged.

   “What the old men don’t know, cousin.” He looked up again, his blue eyes challenging the older man. For a moment, Robbie felt himself to be that timid child in the schoolyard surrounded by boys who would destroy his self-belief with a single sneer. Johnny’s voice emerged in a slow drawl. “Anyhow, I’d say you were already deceivin’ ‘im with all this fossil stuff, aren’t ya?”

   “Johnny.” Scott looked severely at his brother. “You’re going too far. Robbie’s our guest. Please remember that.”

   Johnny glanced at Scott before returning his gaze to his cousin.

   “Is that all y’are, Rob, our guest?” he asked. “Cos if y’are, then I’ll let Maria bring you tea in the mornin’, Jelly take ya for a tour of the ranch an’ my father send y’to sleep in the evenin’s readin’ you the history of the War of Independence.” Johnny shook his head, smiled slowly at Robbie. “Dios, that’s one fat book.” He laughed when Scott smacked him on the thigh.

   “I want ta ride,” Robbie said with sudden fervour, afraid that if he prevaricated, Johnny would whip the gift of his time and attention away from him like a bored cat with a half-dead bird. “I want ta ride like I’ve seen men do out here.”

   “Attaboy!” Johnny grinned. He leapt off the bed and mussed Robbie’s hair. Robbie laughed out loud in surprise. “We’ll make a cowboy of ya yet!”

   “I don’t think you should do this,” Scott said.

   “Jesus, Scott,” Johnny said irritably. “When d’you get so old all of a sudden? Ridin’ a horse is every man’s right. If our cousin wants to ride, I’m gonna teach ‘im. What can Uncle Iain do, tan our hides?”

   Scott’s effort to remain composed and patient reminded Robbie of Murdoch at dinner, clearly furious at his brother, but too well mannered to display it in front of others.

   “It’s a question of respect, Johnny,” Scott said. Johnny folded his arms and shrugged.

   “I give respect as I find it, Scott an’ right now, Robbie’s old man ain’t impressin’ me too much.”

   “And what about Murdoch?”

   “Don’t reckon he’s too impressed with Iain either.”

   “That isn’t what I mean and you know it,” Scott said. “We’ve already gone behind our father’s back once this week. I wish you’d quit behaving as if …”

   “As if what?” Johnny demanded. For the first time, Robbie saw genuine animosity between the brothers. Scott glared up at Johnny, his arms tightly folded against the bandages binding his broken ribs, before looking away.

   “Nothing,” he said. “I’m tired, that’s all.”

   “As if what?” Johnny repeated.

   “Leave it!” Scott demanded, meeting his brother’s challenging stare. “I’ve made my feelings clear. Go ahead and do what you want. Perhaps you’re right anyway. Perhaps defying our elders is the only way we make our way in this world. I’ve certainly done my fair share in the past.”

   Scott picked up his book, opened it at a marked page and began to read. Johnny stared down at his brother’s bowed head, his face alive with emotion. Robbie could see that his breathing had quickened. His jaw was clenched so hard his cheek quivered and his eyes seemed a darker blue, as stormy as in the photograph downstairs.

   “I don’t want ta be the cause of ...,” Robbie began.

   “You ain’t the cause of anythin’, Rob,” Johnny cut in brusquely. “Scott’s got somethin’ on his mind an’ I reckon he’ll tell it when he’s ready.”

   Scott raised his head and looked in silence at his brother until Johnny, his eyes seeming to glow with unreadable emotion, turned and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

   “Do you play chess, Robbie?” Scott asked.

   “Aye, I do. I play wi’ ma father, when he’s a mind to.” He smiled cautiously. “When he thinks God’s not watching.”

   Scott smiled in return, his precise and deft placing of the chess pieces seeming to hold no trace of residual emotion from the argument with his brother. Though Robbie burned to know the root of their disagreement, he allowed his cousin’s cool, mannerly silence to escort him into the remoteness of the game.

 

   On the veranda, Murdoch was startled out of his reading by Johnny’s rapid, angry strides across the Great Room. The young man had nearly disappeared into the purple darkness of the night before his father spoke.

   “Johnny!”

   Johnny stopped abruptly and turned to look up at his father, seated in a pool of lamplight, peering down at him over the top of his glasses. Some of his anger ebbed at the craziness of it. One day he had been master of his own violent, wandering life in the blazing heat of the desert, and then it seemed this man’s giant hand had swept down from nowhere, grabbed his last breath and flung him into a kingdom of cattle and hard regulation. His father, austere and holding a heavy book, looked like a judge about to condemn him.

   “Is something wrong?”

   Johnny scuffed the ground irritably with his boot, his hands on his hips.

   “Ask Scott. I don’t the hell know.”

   “Have you two argued?”

   Johnny glowered at his father.

   “If y’can call it arguin’ when a man won’t say what’s on his mind, Murdoch, then I guess we argued. Goddamn Eastern …”

   “That’s enough, Johnny,” Murdoch interrupted sharply. “Whatever’s happened between you two, there’s no excuse for using words you’ll regret later when this has blown over.”

   Johnny sighed deeply in response, his head down. Murdoch regarded the young man silently, before returning his attention to his book.

   “I’ll leave you two to sort it out,” he said, turning a page. “If you can’t or won’t, then you can be sure I will. Understood?”

   “We’ll fix it,” Johnny said. He turned and strode towards the bunkhouse. Murdoch heard the familiar creak of the door and the bang that followed it.

   “Is it safe ta join you?”

   He turned his head and saw Mary standing at the edge of the light created by the lamp beside his chair. He smiled ruefully.

   “I’m beginning to think nowhere’s safe.”

   He put down the book, rose and guided her into the chair next to him. She shivered a little and looked round into the hardening darkness. The lights of the small bunkhouse windows picked out a pail, a rough barrel of flowers, the shape of the chestnut tree, but all the rest seemed lost under a moonless sky.

   “Are you cold?” he asked. She shook her head.

   “No, just a wee bit afraid of the darkness.”

   “You always were.”

   She looked up into his eyes and smiled faintly. Agitated, Murdoch removed his glasses and spent some time polishing the lenses.

   “Iain,” she said quietly. “He doesna mean ta be hard. He’s troubled …”

   “Is this how it’s always been, Mary?” Murdoch broke into her soft words harshly.

   “What?”

   “Life with my brother. Is that what I left you to?”

   Her expression, a fusion of hurt and anger, caught at his conscience, but she mastered it before he submitted to his impulse to take her hand.

   “No,” she said. “You left me to a good man.”

   Her vehemence stilled him. He gazed at the moths fluttering against the lamp, sometimes flying so close against the hot glass that he could smell scorched wings.

   “He’s so full of anger,” Murdoch said. “I can’t reach him. I could always reach him when we were children.”

   “You were all he had then.”

   “He was all I had.” Murdoch leaned back in his chair and tapped his glasses on the cover of his book. “God knows what would have become of me without my brother to care for.” He sighed heavily. “I think every human feeling would have been thrashed out of me and left to die.” His expression hardened. “He hasn’t forgiven me for leaving him, Mary.” He leaned forward and poured whisky into a glass at his side. “He wants to.” He swallowed a mouthful of the whisky and looked at her with renewed courage. “Because he thinks God would want it, but he can’t. That’s where God falls down isn’t it. Nature will win out every time against religion …”

   “Hush, Murdoch, please.”

   Mary placed a finger on his lips. It was warm and insistent. He almost kissed it before she removed it, her brown eyes holding his gaze.

   “A boy apart,” she whispered.

   “What?”

   “Ye did what …” She hesitated. “What ye had ta do, as unstoppable as rain falling. Iain was almost a man when ye left. If he has demons, they’re not of your making.”

   Burnt wings. The smell was strong. One moth had found its way to the flame. Murdoch swallowed away the nearness of her and filled his mouth with more liquor. Used to sipping, the flood down his throat felt like pain.

   “What of your demons, Mary?” he asked, not looking at her, but in the depths of his glass. “Were they of my making?”

   “Ye flatter yourself.”

   He looked up. She was smiling at him. He cleared his throat and drew in his breath.

   “Well, I guess I have enough of my own to last me to the grave.”

   He finished his drink and went to pour another. She stopped him by moving the decanter away from his hand.

   “Is it whisky?”

   “Of course,” he replied gruffly. “Talisker’s. I won’t drink any other, certainly not the rotgut stuff they drink over here.”

   “True to home.”

   He looked hard at Mary; she had spoken so softly he thought he might have misheard her.

   “Every day of my life.” He had spoken it, but the words surprised him. Did he mean them? He wanted more whisky. From the bunkhouse, they saw Johnny emerge, hurling a light insult to someone inside, before closing the door and making his way to the barn.

   “He’s a bonny lad,” Mary said as Johnny disappeared back into the shadows.  

   “Wilful,” Murdoch grunted, aware that he was holding his feelings for his sons as tightly to himself as a last possession on a scaffold. He was annoyed, too, at her determination to hold onto the decanter.

   “Ye handle him well.”

   “Iain doesn’t think so.”

   “Iain’s wrong,” Mary said. For a moment, Murdoch forgot how much he wanted the whisky. “He’s lost his way wi’ our son and Johnny disturbed him. He isna used ta young people speaking their minds. Our church expects the young to walk quietly in the paths of their elders.”

   “That boy doesn’t walk quietly anywhere,” Murdoch said. “Least of all on someone else’s path. Now, at the risk of sounding impolite, will you hand me the damn whisky, woman.”

   Mary stared at him. He met her gaze with silent defiance until she smiled, a little at first and then more, almost a laugh. She pushed the decanter across the small table. Smiling himself, his eyes still on her, he took it and poured himself a drink. ‘We’ve been here before,’ he thought, before he took a sip of the whisky. It spread warmth through his veins. ‘In that parlour.’ He looked at her again. Her smile was still there, but fainter now, contented almost. Settling back into his chair, he allowed the tenderness to seep into his bones.     

 

Chapter Thirteen

   Johnny stopped in the act of cutting his bacon and stared at his brother as Scott eased himself into the chair opposite him. He was already on edge, morosely contemplating a day of dusty books, and mouthing curses at ink blots in his father’s precious inventory.

   “What the hell you doin’ up?” he demanded.

   “Good morning to you, too, brother,” Scott said, nodding a greeting at Murdoch who regarded him with a frown over the top of his reading glasses, a newspaper in his hands. “Pass the coffee.”

   “The hell I will.” Johnny looked to his father. “Tell ‘im, Murdoch. Tell ‘im he’s bein’ a damned fool.”

   “Settle down, Johnny,” Murdoch said. “And how many times do I have to tell you to mind your language at the table?” He removed his glasses and looked seriously at his older son. “Are you sure you’re ready, Scott? That leg wound is pretty deep.”

   “Of course he ain’t ready,” Johnny objected. “If it was me, you’d be draggin’ me back upstairs by my damn ears.”

   Wincing, Scott reached for the coffee pot and carefully poured a cup. Ignoring his brother, he dropped in a little sugar and smiled persuasively at his father.

   “I’m not planning to pull tree stumps or rope calves, Murdoch.” He took a sip of coffee. “Just a little reading on the sofa, perhaps a game of chess with my cousin. I intend to take things very easy. I’m too sore to do anything else.”

   His father nodded.

   “Sounds reasonable to me.”

   Murdoch replaced his spectacles and re-opened his paper.  Scott smiled up at Maria as she placed a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him, fully aware that Johnny was nearly trembling in frustration and anger.

   “Reasonable!? Jesus, Scott, you were damn near killed out there. What the hell’re you tryin’ to do!?”

   Scott gazed at his younger brother silently. They were at odds and he was unsure how to deal with it. He remembered the moment when his whole being had burned in resentment towards Johnny, the moment at camp when he had become aware that his brother had drawn a line between them; he was the storyteller, the thinker, the man on the ground and he must not cross into the land where men pitted themselves against brute nature, where their frail bodies were hurled against the blue sky on the back of an unbroken mustang or went crashing to the ground in a welter of sweat, blood and roaring bull. He had dreamt of it again last night, the intoxicating moment of his victory over nature, only, in the ensuing silence, he saw it was his brother he had felled and it was Johnny who turned on him and took his violent revenge.

   “Johnny,” he said. “I suffered no worse than anyone else has on this ranch over the years. Someone or other’s always breaking a bone or tearing their skin open. They don’t lie around feeling sorry for themselves.”

   “They’re not …”

   “Not what?” Scott interrupted. “Not the boss’s son? Not from Boston?” He almost smiled. “Not a greenhorn, Eastern dandy?”

   “My brother,” Johnny said. Scott drew in his breath and sighed it out. He knew his father’s eyes were upon him now. He had no idea how Murdoch would react to what he was about to say, but he was determined beyond reason to make his stand in the face of his brother’s resistance.

   “That doesn’t make me some precious object, Johnny. I’m going to recover as quickly as I can and then …,” He took a deep breath. “I intend to take another shot at steer-wrestling, and I’ll do it somewhere away from Lancer if that’s what it takes.”

   Murdoch raised his eyebrows and was about to speak when his younger son broke in with cold fury.

   “No, Scott, you’re not.”

   “You seem to forget, little brother, that I’m not one of the hands. You don’t tell me what to do.”

   “¡Mierda! …”

   “Johnny!”

   He turned to look into his father’s fierce glare.

   “Well, you fuckin’ tell ‘im then, Murdoch!” Johnny yelled. He stood up and jabbed a finger in Scott’s direction. “You tell ‘im he isn’t makin’ the sense he was born with!”

   “I’m telling you, boy,” Murdoch said. “You’ll be getting another dose of soap if you use any more of that language in this house. Do I need to remind you that we have guests?”

   Johnny hesitated briefly and looked uncertainly at his father before the flame of his anger reignited and swallowed caution.

   “You’re belly-achin’ over my language, Old Man, when your son here’s fixin’ to get himself killed?”

   “It seems, Murdoch, that Johnny is the only Lancer allowed to get himself flung at the fence at regular intervals,” Scott said with cool sarcasm. Johnny put his hands on the table and leaned towards his brother.

   “I know how to fall,” he said. “I bin doin’ it since I was ten, while you were learnin’ what spoon to use for your soup.”

   “Johnny.” He turned his head to look at his father, his expression rebellious, but his resolve faltered against the severity in Murdoch’s pale blue eyes. The contrasting mildness in his father’s tone further undermined his anger. “Go and start your chores. You need to simmer down and give some thought as to why you’re so angry with your brother; then we’ll talk about it.”

   “You don’t know why I’m angry, Murdoch?” he demanded. Murdoch met his dark gaze inscrutably.

   “Go and give the men their orders, Son. Tell Jelly to fetch the salt blocks from town. He can take Elijah with him. That boy’s got the strength of an ox. They can take the blocks out to the waterholes as soon as they’re loaded.”

   The unruffled dictation of instructions stilled Johnny. He pulled away from the table with one last stony glare at his brother before walking out, glad at least that he had been directed outside. Maybe he could even make the moment stretch and curve away from the rows of regimented books in his father’s study. The morning sun hit his face. Barranca was at wild play, kicking up dust in the corral and he let go of his anger. Resolving, then, with youthful ease to bring Scott round, sooner or later, to his way of thinking, he opened his heart fully to the day.

   “Would you like to tell me what’s wrong with you two?” Murdoch asked quietly. He knew it went deep, this rift between his sons, deeper than even they had yet realised if his judgement was true. Scott lifted his head and gazed at him with troubled eyes, his usual self-assurance absent.

   “If you want the plain truth, sir,” he said edgily. “My brother seems intent on treating me as if I’m some rare species of hothouse flower. I’m rebelling and he doesn’t like it.” He breathed in as frustration took hold. “One damn lost moment …”

   Murdoch frowned at the unexplained allusion. He chose to let it lie.

   “Any notion why Johnny’s behaving that way?” he asked.

   “I can speculate, sir,” Scott looked directly at his father. “Just as I’m sure you can.”

   Murdoch nodded. For a few moments, he busied himself cleaning his glasses. Scott drank coffee in irritable silence.

   “And why would you want to risk your life bull-dogging, Scott?” Murdoch asked finally.

   “Do I need a reason?” the young man demanded, his tone causing his father to raise his eyebrows in surprise.

   “No, Son, you don’t, apart from the fact that I’ve forbidden it.” Murdoch replied. “But I’d appreciate one nonetheless.”

   Scott hesitated, poured more coffee, glared agitatedly into its dark depths.

   “It’s a skill I admire.” His tone was heavy with suppressed tension. “I believe I can do it. I want to do it!”

   “To prove what?”

   Scott raised his head quickly at his father’s softly spoken question.

   “Sir?”

   “In my experience, young men who deliberately seek danger have something to prove. Steer-wrestling is about as dangerous as it gets, if you’re not used to it.”

   Scott frowned at his father.

   “I really had hoped you would credit me with more maturity, Father,” he said with deliberate emphasis. “I’m seeking, as you put it, to learn a new skill, not recklessly pursuing danger just for the hell of it. I’ve seen enough danger already to trouble a lifetime’s sleep. I’m not looking for more.”

   “That isn’t how your brother sees it.”

   Scott clenched his napkin in one hand, squeezing hard, and looked bitterly at his father.

   “So what in the hell d’you want me to do, Murdoch? Allow Johnny to run my life, just because he’s afraid something will happen to me?”

   “If that is what he’s feeling,” Murdoch said, looking down at the spectacles in his hands. “Then it’s a very powerful fear for him, Scott, and you’ll need to take it into consideration.”

   “Well, well.” Scott shook his head and pushed the napkin away in disgust. “Why doesn’t that surprise me that you’re prepared to indulge Johnny at the expense of my freedom to make my own decisions?”

   “You’re being childish.”

   “And he isn’t?”

   “No, he isn’t.” Murdoch stood up with his paper and spectacles in his hands. “And you’ll know it, Scott, when you’ve given it some thought. Meanwhile, I’d like you to concentrate on your recovery, so that I can at least have one less thing to worry about.”

   Alerted by the strain in his father’s voice, Scott looked up with a sympathetic frown. He softened his tone.

   “I take it your brother’s visit isn’t going quite as you’d hoped?”

   “I’d hoped for better, certainly,” Murdoch sighed. He braced himself then, adopted the expression familiar to his son, a stubborn determination not to be defeated, a grim, downward turn of his mouth that had been Scott’s first adult sighting of his father. Until the day of the first smile, breath-taking in its ability to wipe away the bitter past, he had believed Murdoch incapable of joy. Now he knew his father kept guard over his emotions with the tenacity of a cowhand on night watch over a restless herd.

   “However,” Murdoch continued. “We have a ranch to run and, to top it all, Val rode in last night to tell me that he’s found Henry Springer living in one of our East pasture line shacks …”

   “What? Why would he be doing that?”

   “I have no idea, but I told Val to let Jessie know that I’d ride out there today to talk to him, see if I can bring the old fool to his senses.”

   At last, Scott felt himself smile at his father’s exasperated reference to his oldest friend. He saw Murdoch bring out Johnny’s watch from his waistcoat pocket and turn it over restlessly in his large hand.

   “I spent two hours trying to fix this last night. Can’t get it going. Lord knows what that boy did to it. Dropped it in a water trough, probably.”

   “Let me have it,” Scott said, stretching out his hand. “I’m good with clocks. I might be able to see what’s wrong.”

   Murdoch smiled and dropped the old watch into his son’s palm.

   “That doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “You have your mother’s patience. Not one of my virtues, I’m afraid.”

   Scott regarded his father with an amused smile, jiggling the watch gently in the palm of his hand.

   “Will I require my modest bequest of patience in meeting my uncle?”

   “I suppose that will depend on whether he feels God’s listened to his prayers this morning,” Murdoch replied. “See you at lunch.”

   Scott watched his father leave the room and gazed idly at the watch. Flicking it open, he read the inscription inside the cover. ‘To my son. Be blessed in the Lord. 1832’. Swallowing back a sudden wave of hot emotion, he closed the watch and broke open a biscuit.

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

   He blew the dust off the book’s gilded pages, watching curiously as the motes, disturbed from their sleep, swam haphazardly in the sunbeam making its slow way across the study carpet. Lindy, spread-eagled in the hot grass, came unbidden to his mind and his groin jolted. Sighing, he opened the book, ‘A History of Ancient Rome’ by Edward Atlee, and wondered again if he needed to write the title under ‘A’ or ‘H’. Baulking at the thought of a tedious explanation from his father, he decided to write it under both.

   A page further on, he found an illustration of a man in a white robe lying bloody on white steps, another, younger, man standing over him with a blood-covered knife in his clenched fist. Reading the caption, ‘The murder of Caesar by his friend, Brutus’, he resolved to ask his father or Scott about it, and then shook the thought away. He knew enough. A friend had got angry enough to kill a friend. He knew that story, had seen it, more than once, on the dirty street of a Mexican village when he was a kid. How would this hot fury on clean steps be any different? Still, he searched the dry pages for the picture’s story until, impatient with the vast acres of words, he closed the book and went to the window. He had heard an angry shout and then laughter.

   In the yard, he saw one of his stray dogs, a small three-legged creature of random habits and temperament, running away from the garden, a squawking chicken in its mouth. Behind it, Maria ran shouting, skirts lifted out of the dust while Jelly lay sprawled on the yard, cursing at his missed opportunity to catch the dog. By the corral, two hands, Billy and Pedro, had abandoned their task of checking tack for the trail drive and were doubled over with laughter. Johnny smiled. He reached for the window catch, ready to scramble out to help Maria, when his father appeared from behind the barn, driving the buggy. Mary, her eyes hidden by a large straw hat, was by his side. Instantly, the two cowboys stopped laughing and returned to their work. Johnny saw Murdoch stop by Jelly and listen, an impatient look on his face, to the old man’s explanation, before, in seeming response to a few quiet words from his smiling sister-in-law, he got down from the buggy. His quick, long-legged strides after Maria took him past the study window. Glancing in Johnny’s direction, he frowned and made a writing motion on the palm of his hand, before he strode from view.

   Johnny sighed and turned back into the room to find his uncle, book under his arm, standing in the doorway, observing him silently under his heavy, dark brows. The man was as pale as milk against the greying black of his hair and beard, his blue eyes set deep in dark hollows. The imprisoning walls of the study closed in a little more on the Johnny until he was certain he would suffocate.

   “I understood that this room was free,” Iain said.

   “Sure wish it was, sir,” Johnny smiled cautiously.  He watched Iain rest his gaze on the heavy oak desk, the objects on its surface as neatly arranged as a ship’s captain’s, and then on the pictures on the wall behind, of the ship that had carried his brother to America, of their mother in her youth, of Abraham Lincoln in a chair, loosely holding a pair of spectacles. Iain turned his stony attention back to his nephew.

   “Well, lad, I’m sure ye can find another place in which to idle away your time,” he said dismissively. He sat down at the desk and opened his book. “I need ta work.”

   “If you can persuade my father to unlock the cell door, Uncle, then I’d be real glad to leave you to your work.”

   The young man’s insolent drawl caused Iain to look up sharply, but Johnny had turned away to sit at the library table intent on knocking ink off the pen nib into the well.

   “Your father is punishing ye, is he?”

   Johnny concentrated on writing the book’s title in the inventory and spoke without looking at his uncle.

   “Guess I deserve it,” he said. “Breakin’ one of Murdoch’s five hundred and one rules.” He sighed as the ink blotted. “Can’t seem to move without trippin’ over one or other of ‘em.”

   “Ma brother always did like to know where he stood.” Johnny raised his head, intensely surprised to hear this shred of his father’s history from the mouth of his uncle. “When we were lads, he made up a list of rules for us to follow that wud keep our father’s rod off our backs.”

   “Did the list work?”

   “No, lad.”

   Johnny could see instantly that his uncle felt he had given too much. Iain set his mouth in a tight line and returned to his book. His curiosity deeply aroused by the sudden glow of light in his uncle’s dark shadows, Johnny observed him, saw how closely Iain peered at the page upon which he was writing with meticulous care, saw how his uncle’s mouth worked in fretful conversation with himself. His own work, and even his lustful daydreams of Lindy, forgotten, Johnny felt an obscure pity fill him for this unhappy man.

   “I guess you’re always writin’, huh?”

   Iain stopped and looked up with what seemed to Johnny to be a pained expression on his pale face.

   “Good Lord, lad. Are ye always so blatant?”

   “If that means do I speak my mind,” Johnny said, determined now not to be intimidated by the older man. “Then I guess I am blatant.” Leaning back in his chair, he placed one elbow on the table and rested his chin in his hand. “Just curious, Uncle. Don’t write too much myself.”

   “And why is that?”

   “Ain’t had the kinda life where I’ve had need of it, I guess.”

   Iain put down his pen and scrutinised his nephew.

   “And what kind of life have ye had, John?”

   Johnny met his uncle’s critical gaze with a cool blankness, his chin still resting in his hand, strands of his fringe falling across his eyes.

   “The killin’ kind.”

   Iain grimaced.

   “Surely ye’re too young to have fought in the Civil War.”

   Johnny knew now that his father had kept his violent past from his Scottish family. It made sense, he supposed, although he found himself harbouring a vague resentment against Murdoch for the deception. He looked away and rubbed his finger on the table.

   “Yeh. You’ll have to look to my brother for the war hero stuff.” He made a swift decision to change the subject. “So, are ya writin’ your memoirs? Murdoch’s always talkin’ of writin’ his memoirs, but I don’t reckon he’ll ever get to it.”

   “Why would that be?” Johnny could see the helpless curiosity in his uncle’s eyes at the mention of his older brother. He swerved then from the whole truth.

   “’Cos he’ll always find an excuse to go outside an’ shoe a horse or give an order or somethin’. That’s where his heart is, Uncle, no matter how many books he stacks up around ‘im.”

   Iain stared silently at the young man until Johnny, finally uncomfortable, sat up straight and turned back to the inventory.

   “What has Murry given ye to do, John?”

   Was he mistaken or had his uncle’s voice lost a trace of its harshness? He looked across at the older man, a faint smile in his eyes.

   “Makin’ an inventory of his books.” He shook his head and sighed. “Boy, the Old Man sure knows how to stick it to me.”

   “Let me see it, lad.”

   Johnny hesitated before picking up the heavy book and taking it to his uncle who turned over the pages, one by one, in silence.

   “Only just started it yesterday,” Johnny said in quick defence of the scanty, smudged entries. “Like I said, I ain’t one for writin’, not like you and Murdoch.” Johnny turned his head to look at Iain’s small, neat handwriting. “Your writin’s real fine, Uncle. Real fine, like my father’s.”

   Iain closed his book.

   “He taught me, lad.”

   “He did, huh?” Johnny felt his blood race at the nearness of what he could not help longing for. “You two musta been real close when you were kids.”

   “He was ma life’s blood,” Iain said. Johnny swallowed back a sudden dryness in his throat, devastated by his uncle’s words. Suddenly, Iain thrust the inventory back at his nephew with a scowl. “Away ta your work, lad. Your father won’t thank me for keeping ye from doing penance for your wrongs.”

   Johnny went back to the table, aware that he had lost a measure of his earlier self-possession in his uncle’s presence.  Silently, he picked up his pen and dipped it in the inkwell. Across from him, his uncle had returned to his writing, now as solitary and enclosed as a nut in its shell.

   An hour passed in which Johnny suffered all the agonies of the prisoner listening to the life of the world outside while he sat in a silence disturbed only by the ticking clock, the slow scratch of his uncle’s pen and his own restless shifting. Worse, he felt marked by his uncle, like a schoolboy trapped under the gaze of a master, like the orphan child he had been, caught wild in the streets after his mother’s murder, and thrust, kicking and screaming, into the dark rooms of charity.

   He glanced at his uncle, still bent to his work like a pious monk. ‘He was my life’s blood.’ His own father, the centre of someone else’s life, before his coming, before black thoughts of the absent Murdoch Lancer had assailed him in that place of silent, parentless boys. It was there he had devised a hundred plans to kill his father, the ruthless gringo bastard who had thrown him to the wolves, there he had rubbed at his copper-coloured skin to force it into white in desperate, yearning hope of his father’s acceptance.

   How he had hated himself for that weakness. A month in that place and he was gone, schooling himself into steeling his heart against hope or desire for his father’s love. Years of shaping his gun fighting life had convinced him that he had succeeded, that he would be able to look his father in the face and feel nothing.

   Even now, almost a year after his return, the thought haunted him – that he hadn’t known himself well enough, that the cold skin in which he lived blazed with the heat of another self. How easily the sight of his living, breathing father had thrown his cool exterior into chaos. How much had he wanted all that he had educated himself into not wanting. ‘He was my life’s blood.’ His uncle’s words. The life unseen under the fortress skin.

 

Chapter Fourteen

   She had pressed her hand over his and kept it there, skin to skin, as they drove along in the morning sun. It had seemed as natural to him as breathing, as if the thirty years since their parting had folded like the leaves of a concertina between them, bringing the same touch, the same wordless communion. She was wearing his mother’s hat, wide-brimmed, made of straw from the old meadow behind their house. It allowed points of light to fall upon Mary’s pale face. She was close to him, shoulder to shoulder, bumping gently to the movement of the buggy. When he stopped on an escarpment that gave them a view of a river valley, she lifted her head as if she had suddenly been woken.

   “This is the place where I made up my mind about where I wanted to be,” Murdoch said, gazing out across the gleaming blue river to the mountains beyond. “Build my empire. I was on my own then, but I never felt more powerful, more invincible.”

   He felt her fingers thread into his fingers and he dared to turn his head and look at her.

   “Tell me about your wives,” she said.

   He dropped his gaze, aware that his colour had risen, that his heart was pounding in his chest. His wives. The useless, hopeless subject. The subject that could bring nothing but regret and anger. Not even his sons could coax more than an obscure sentence out of him, a brief, easy memory of some far-off happy moment.

   “I had neither of them for very long, Mary,” he said, grounding out the words. “They gave me a boy apiece and were gone, one way or the other - with my children. That much you know.”

   Mary squeezed his hand and pushed back her hat to see him more clearly.

   “I meant their characters. What sort of woman did ye choose for a wife?”

   Murdoch felt resentment rise in him against her. He pulled his hand away and rested his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped, his jaw twitching with the effort to remain calm.

   “I’m sorry,” Mary whispered. “If I had known …”

   “I don’t talk about them,” he interrupted her. “What use is it? There’s no use in it.”

   “Not even to Scott and Johnny?” she said. “No words for them?”

   He felt hopelessly trapped and his temper was unleashed.

   “My boys are my business, Mary!”

   Undeterred, she placed her hand on his arm and spoke tenderly.

   “Aye, they are. I had not meant to interfere.”

   She stirred his conscience. They had been friends, true and honest, in the days before he had understood the swirling chaos of passion, before he had lost himself to Maria and understood how a man might fall out of his own life.

   “You’re not interfering, Mary,” he said awkwardly. He braced himself, hurried out the words as if flushing out a wound. “Catherine was like you, quiet, loving, practical. Losing her was like losing my soul.” He drew in a breath, could not help the dip of his head. “Maria was a firebrand. She burnt every part of me. Does that answer your question?”

   Mary nodded. It was then that he kissed her, quickly, lightly on her cheek, before gathering up the reins and flicking the horse into a jog towards the line shack.

 

   “Should you be out of bed?”

   Scott lowered himself carefully on the bench beside the wash house and smiled at Will Jackson’s young wife. She had brought a tub out into the sun and he could see she was washing their few, grubby clothes with something close to rapture. He knew then she had suffered. So it had been with him after battle, taking almost orgasmic pleasure in shaving into a cracked mirror. The moment was still holy in his thoughts.

   “No, but I’ve had all the lectures, thank you.”

   Louisa looked at the young man suspiciously, before seeing the humour in his eyes. She smiled a little shyly which enchanted him. She reminded him of maids in his grandfather’s house, girls who had pulled him in with their knowing timidity, who had not minded, who seemed to have expected, the young master to take them to his bed when the old man was away. He knew Louisa liked him. It gave him the usual frisson of excitement, despite her marriage and her heavy pregnancy. Like most men he had known, he was unable to resist the fact that a woman, almost any woman, found him attractive. After the painful dispute with his brother, he was in need of easy, sympathetic company.

   “Where’s Will?” he asked, holding out his hand to accept a glass of lemonade and taking pleasure in watching her put wet clothes through the mangle. Was it years of exposure to the maids’ work that made him so enjoy seeing a woman turn a handle high and bring it down again in a stubborn push and a little sigh of effort?

   “Your father put him to work with the men, loading up the supplies for the drive,” she replied, pushing long strands of brown hair from her forehead. “Will said we weren’t stayin’, that we were headin’ out for Green River, but I persuaded him to go to work and stay for a spell.” She pushed hard on the handle. Her full breasts, pressing hard against the fabric of her dress as she bent over, gave Scott another spasm of pleasure and longing. He needed to go to town, and soon. “Anyway, your father don’t seem like the sort of man who puts up with folk goin’ against his will.”

   “You’re right,” Scott smiled. “He isn’t. Everyone has to pull their weight around here, even the dogs.”

   Louisa laughed and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand before sitting down on an upturned half barrel, her palms resting on the swell of her belly, her legs apart for the comfort of it. Scott averted his eyes, but allowed the image to stay in his head.

   “Well, that three-legged one’s sure got some sass, I’ll give you that. Got clear in the kitchen last night and stole a chicken leg right off the table.”

   “Tequila – he’s one of my brother’s strays. Johnny’s always bringing home some lost creature. It drives Murdoch to distraction, but he lets them all stay.”

   Louisa nodded slowly.

   “Your brother has a powerful feelin’ for lost things, Mr Lancer,” she said quietly. She moved her fingers gently over the fabric of the dress covering her stomach. “I feel sure he knows what it is to be lost.”

   “Yes,” Scott said. “He does.”

   Troubled by her innocent touch on Johnny’s past and his own unexpected desire for her, Scott was glad to see Louisa’s sister emerge, blinking, from the cabin, a thin, pale girl in a blue dress, her hair long and loose over her shoulders. Instantly, Louisa heaved herself onto her feet and walked over to the girl. She placed her hands on either side of Laura’s face and looked at her intently.

   “What you doin’ up, darlin’?” she asked anxiously. “Come over here. Come and sit in the sun for a spell.” Scott saw Laura’s face crease in fear when her confused gaze found him. Her older sister shook her head and tugged gently on her arm. “No, honey. This is Mr Lancer, remember? One of the men who gave us help. He’s a good man. He owns this ranch …”

   “Perhaps I’d better …”

   “No, Mr Lancer,” Louisa insisted. “She has to know there are decent men in this world or where will she be? I’d be obliged if you’d stay a spell.”

   Though he longed to escape the young girl’s silent, fearful gaze, Scott nodded. He smiled encouragingly.

   “Are you feeling better, Laura?”

   The girl stared hard at him with large brown eyes, before nodding cautiously. Louisa put her hand up to her sister’s forehead and brushed hair from her eyes.

   “She’ll speak,” she said. “She’ll speak when she’s ready, won’t you, darlin’?”

   “Louisa!” They heard Jackson before they saw him, a sharp, angry voice. Scott saw the effect of it on the girl, a rabbit trapped too far from its burrow. “Come an’ put some damn salve on this hand. Sonuvabitch let go the wheel too soon …” Jackson stopped when he saw Scott, transforming his sour face into a hasty smile. “Mr Lancer. Didn’t see you there. Excuse the cussin’. Hurts like hell. Louisa, you got salve?”

   Scott had regarded the man with cool distaste, not caring for Jackson’s language or attitude. He watched the couple disappear into the cabin, an uneasy frown on his face.

   “I won’t speak, not to them, not ever.”

   Scott gazed at the girl in disbelief. She was looking straight at him, her thin face hardened into willing him to listen, her brown eyes, previously dull, suddenly vivid with intent.

   “Laura …”

   “Keep our secret, Mr Lancer,” she whispered. “Promise me.”

   “But why?” he blustered, glancing towards the cabin entrance. He could hear Jackson’s whining tone from inside. “Will you tell me why, Laura?”

   “They’re liars. They’re both liars an’ they’ll go to hell for it, I swear.”

   He opened his mouth to speak again, saw Louisa and Jackson emerge from the cabin and closed it, his eyes fixed on the girl. She mouthed the word ‘Promise’ and lowered her head to stare at her clenched hands in her lap. She flinched visibly when her brother-in-law sat beside her on the small bench opposite Scott, who had thrust his shock and discomfort behind a soldierly mask of cool superiority.

   “Hey there, Mr Lancer,” Jackson said, wordlessly accepting a glass of lemonade from his wife. “How you feelin’?”

   “Well. Thank you.” Scott glanced up at Louisa who was standing behind her sister and plaiting the girl’s long brown hair. “I hear my father’s put you to work.”

   He watched Jackson down the lemonade, his sharp Adam’s apple stretching the skin of his thin neck as he swallowed. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, Jackson nodded.

   “Ain’t reckonin’ on stayin’ long, but I’m willin’ to work my way while I’m here.”

   “Good, because my father won’t have it any other way.”

   “He’s a tough man, I can see that,” Jackson said. He took off his hat and wiped inside the crown with his dirty bandana. “These big ranchers, they’re a different breed, I reckon. Can sweep away the likes of us with a no more’n a word.”

   “I think you’ll find my father’s a fair man, Mr Jackson,” Scott said. “And you could do a great deal worse than work here.”

   Jackson pursed his lips and nodded slowly. He placed his stained and battered hat firmly on his head.

   “Reckon that’s true, but I’m fixin’ to win that contest in Green River. Your brother’s bin showin’ me a thing or two, sharpenin’ me up.” He smiled and shook his head. “Dang, that boy sure can shoot, though. Never saw the like. Where’d he learn how to use a gun like that?”

   “Didn’t he tell you?”

   “Well, no,” Jackson grinned, showing his yellow teeth. “He don’t talk too much, do he. Reckon he’s fixin’ to enter the contest?”

   Scott smiled. He could not help the satisfaction that flooded his veins.

   “If he is, Mr Jackson, you’ll lose,” he replied. “They’ll all lose.”

   Jackson stared at the young man, his features twisted with uneasy suspicion, before he snorted out a short laugh.

   “Hell, then I’d better hope he finds somethin’ better to do that day.” He stood up and put a hand to his back, stretching his muscles. “Guess I should get goin’. Don’t want your pa to catch me slackin’.”

   “You wouldn’t want any of us Lancers to catch you slacking, Mr Jackson,” Scott said. He held Jackson’s suddenly hostile gaze until the older man turned away and headed back to the barns.

   “We won’t be no trouble to you, Mr Lancer,” Louisa said. She tied a ribbon at the end of her sister’s plait. “Any of us.”

   His eyes on Laura, who had resumed her piercing observation of him, he nodded.

   “I’m sure of it, Mrs Jackson,” he said. He raised his head and smiled at her, but he was aware that the sympathy he had felt towards her had chilled, to be replaced by a simmering unease.

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

   “Henry, are you here!? Henry!?”

   Receiving no reply, Murdoch pushed open the door of the line shack. It stood by a stream in the shade of a cottonwood grove. A recent storm had filled the stream to the top of its banks and it rushed wildly as if trying to shake off the excess that had destroyed its tranquil course.

   It was Lancer’s newest shack, built to Scott’s design. To the amusement of his father and brother, he had spent several evenings drawing up plans for a building ‘that will bring worker’s accommodation into the modern age.’ He had insisted on a wooden, not a dirt floor, ample shelving, two windows with glass and curtains, space for a table and two chairs, a fold-out bed and a kitchen area. Resistant to his brother’s constant teasing that it was ‘too good for cowboys, better for entertainin’ young ladies’, Scott had persevered and Murdoch had enjoyed indulging his elder son’s whim, despite his own misgivings.

   Murdoch saw that Henry had made himself at home in what he privately, though fondly, thought of as ‘Scott’s folly’. On the small table were Henry’s pipe, some tobacco, a lamp and a few books. Automatically, Murdoch picked up the books and scanned the titles and then self-consciously replaced them.

   “Where d’ye think your friend is?” Mary asked, gazing at the neatly arranged dry and tinned provisions on the shelf in one corner.

   “I don’t know,” Murdoch replied. Already agitated by his feelings for Mary, this homely, deserted room further rocked his senses.

   Against one wall, the bed had been carefully made and covered with a bright Indian blanket. Above the bed was a single framed water-colour picture of the sea, an amateur effort, painted from dreams not reality, blues too bright, the waves too drawn and rigid, not fluid. Murdoch removed his hat and stared at the painting; he felt Mary come up close beside him, touch his hand. He allowed his fingers to feel for hers.

   “Either we are travellers or we dream of it,” she said. “There seems no escape from it.”

   Murdoch drew in a breath and nodded.

   “Murdoch, you’ve come. I’m glad.”

   He released Mary’s fingers and turned to see Henry in the doorway, his hat full of early summer blackberries. The older man looked curiously at the woman close by his friend’s side. Characteristically impatient to get to the bottom of the mystery of his old friend’s behaviour, Murdoch frowned.

   “Henry, this is Mary, my brother’s wife,” he said.

   “Ah.” Henry smiled, stretching out his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Mrs Lancer.” He looked apologetically at the berries in his hat. “Forgive me, I couldn’t resist Nature’s bounty. Everything will be provided if a man cares to look for it.”

   “Henry,” Murdoch broke in forcefully, deeply irritated by his friend’s unruffled disposition, no more disturbed than if they were sitting down to cold lemonade on Henry’s porch. “Why are you here? Jessie and the girls are worried sick.”

   Henry placed his hat carefully on the table and set about making coffee.

   “They’ll survive, Murdoch,” he replied. “Women always survive.”

   “That’s not the damn point, Henry.” Murdoch moved to confront the older man while Henry spooned coffee into a jug. “They’re confused, upset. They don’t understand why you’ve left home, and, damn it, neither do I!”

   Henry screwed the lid on the coffee tin and added water to the jug from another jug simmering on the small stove. His tone remained easy, and to Murdoch’s ears, something close to scornful.

   “You’re my oldest friend, Murdoch, but you’re too practical, too prosaic at times. You want simple, ordinary answers to life’s questions …”

   “I resent that, Henry. There’s been nothing simple or ordinary about my life.”

   “But you’ve always striven to make it so and caused yourself a great deal of grief in the process.”

   “Damn it all to hell, this isn’t about me, Henry!” Murdoch said. “This is not about me …”

   “Sit down. Have some coffee.” Henry smiled at Mary and gestured at the only chair in the room. “It’s a hot day. You must be tired, Mrs Lancer. Please sit down.”

   Mary looked to her brother-in-law who, flushed from anger and confusion, nodded his curt agreement. She accepted a cup of coffee from Henry and rested it tight between her hands on her lap. Arms folded hard, Murdoch stood in square refusal of a seat on the wooden bench opposite Mary while Henry sat down on it with a small sigh of relief. In silence, he drank his coffee. Murdoch glowered down at him, hearing the sound of his own breath, fast and annoyed, through his nose. He was no longer sure of the root of his anger – his friend’s inexplicable behaviour or Henry’s criticism of his nature. Mary sipped her coffee, her eyes averted from both men until she suddenly looked up and met Murdoch’s gaze with such resolute encouragement that his pulse raced.

   “Forgive me for using this shack without your permission …,” Henry said softly, breaking the spell of her regard. She dropped her gaze back to her coffee.

   “Don’t be a fool,” Murdoch said.

   “When I mentioned it to John, he felt you wouldn’t object.”

   “John?” Murdoch frowned. “My John?” Henry nodded in reply. “What the hell has he got to do with this?”

   When Henry hesitated, Murdoch finally sat down and deliberately softened his tone.

   “Henry? What does Johnny have to do with this?”

   The older man put down his cup, leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and rubbed his hands together.

   “Last month, when you sent him to help us with that stallion, we got talking. I found I could talk to him better than almost anyone I’ve met in my entire life. I told him how I’ve had such a desire lately.” He paused and swallowed hard.  Murdoch was shocked to see tears start in his friend’s eyes. “A desire so powerful, Murdoch, that I can’t hardly explain it to myself, to get away from it all, from everything, the ranch, the house, even my family, and God knows, I love them. God knows, I do.”

   Murdoch nodded. He reached over and rested his hand over Henry’s clasped hands.

   “I know that, Henry. I know that.”

   Henry looked up then, his expression wiped of any trace of self-pity, his voice firm.

   “John understood that desire, Murdoch, better than any boy his age has a right to. Didn’t question it. Didn’t laugh or even smile. Just offered me this shack and for the first time in a long time, I feel content.” He nodded and smiled to himself. “Just content.”

   Drained of anger, Murdoch glanced at Mary, who had plainly absorbed the old man’s story and taken it to her heart, her mild brown eyes seeming to reveal nothing but pitying compassion.

   “What shall I tell Jessie and the girls?” Murdoch said. “I have to tell them something.”

   “Tell them I’ll come home when I’ve finished my travels.”

   “Your travels?”

   “There’s more than one way to travel, Murdoch,” Henry said, patting his friend’s shoulder. “Ask that boy of yours. He’s wiser than either of us’ll ever be.”

   Murdoch’s expression darkened.

   “It’s wisdom too expensively got, Henry.” He stood up abruptly and put on his hat, before holding out his hand to the older man. “Stay as long as you want. I’ll make sure your family’s alright. If you need anything … well, I’ll stop by in a week or so.”

   Henry grasped the hand and shook it firmly.

   “There’s no need.”

   “Nevertheless.”

   Henry nodded. By the time Murdoch and Mary had climbed in the buggy, he had closed the door to the cabin, and no more than a wisp of smoke curling upwards through the trees denoted any sign of life. Murdoch held the reins loosely in his hands and gazed at the building.

   “I’ve been alone, Mary,” he said. “But never without wanting not to be after a few hours. What drives a man …?”

   “The loneliness of the soul, Murry,” she answered. “Ye can have the world at your feet and still feel ye have nothing at all.”

   Shaking his head, Murdoch snapped the reins to move the horse quickly away from the clearing and back onto the road.

   “He’s abandoned his wife and children, Mary,” he said. “I don’t pretend to understand why he would do that.”

   She hooked her arm through his as the buggy rocked over a rough part of the track. He liked the feeling of it. Every action of hers, each look and touch, made him feel stronger, less hopeless against the aggravating mysteries of this day.

   “Then perhaps you’d better ask Johnny.”

   “Right now, I’m more inclined to shake the teeth out of his mouth,” he growled. “If that boy’s not rescuing strays, he’s making them.”

   He felt her press closer, a teasing lift of her hat’s brim to look up into his granite face.

   “Ye don’t fool me, Murry,” she said. “Ye never did.”

   Murdoch grunted in reply. He was falling and he knew it with every cell of his skin, and, for now, for this journey, he gave himself up to it.

 

Chapter Fifteen

   “Dammit!” he cursed to himself. “In for it now.”

   His father’s powerful tread was unmistakable, a ground-covering gait that, to Johnny, despite his ferocious love for the older man, always sounded like the tolling of a doom bell. Though he had tried, he could not shake the old fears, of men with heavy footsteps who would come in the night to use their greater strength against him, to apply fists and feet to make him feel their power, their pure right to crush an unwanted half-breed brat.

   Even now, as he felt the weight of the gun in his hand, he savoured the glow of superiority it gave him, had always given him since the day of his first killing. They all wanted him to admit that it had emptied his soul, the roll-call of his victims. Maybe it had, by the end, when he was kneeling in the dirt waiting for his last bullet, but not at the beginning. They could never understand the beauty of it – the way it had taken his squalid little half-way life and lifted it into the shining world of men - and he would never try to explain.

   He heard his father stop at the fence and wished he had headed out to practise his draw. Although the small corral behind the old barn was out of sight of the house, everyone knew that was where he went and they left him alone. Only his father broke the unspoken pact.

   Murdoch leaned on the old fence and watched his son. He knew Johnny was aware of his presence and had chosen to ignore it, continuing with the rhythm of the draw, the soft clunk of metal into leather. Murdoch tried to count the seconds it took from hand hovering over grip to ready for firing, but it was too fast, a blur of speed that both mesmerised and troubled him.

   “How is it?” he asked finally. On his way from the house, he had been ready to ask his son many things, but not that question. He saw Johnny hesitate fractionally, before drawing again, his gaze still averted from his father.

   “Still ain’t where it should be,” he replied.

   “How d’you feel about that?”

   Johnny stopped and looked doubtfully at the older man.

   “None too good.”

   Murdoch nodded. He clasped his hands together and held his son’s wary gaze.

   “Sam says there’s a doctor in Sacramento, a specialist in hand injuries. I could take you to see him.”

   “You’d do that?”

   “Yes.”

   “I’m good for my chores, though,” Johnny said. “It don’t stop me workin’.”

   “I know.”

   Johnny gazed silently at his father from across the corral until a small smile appeared at one corner of his mouth.

   “You feelin’ alright, Pa, or should I go fetch the doc?”

   Murdoch could not help his own smile.

   “Don’t push it, boy.” He opened the corral gate. “Come over here, Johnny. We need to talk.”

   His heart sinking, Johnny went through all possible reasons for earning his father’s displeasure, before joining him at the fence. Not for the first time, he wished they were of equal height until, seeming to read his thoughts, his father sat down on one of the straw bales deposited around the ranch by Tick, who insisted on the reassurance of a seat nearby wherever he was working. Johnny removed his gun belt and sat down, placing the belt on the bale between them.

   “Have you thought about this problem with your brother?” Murdoch asked, annoyed that his son had averted his gaze and was picking at the straw in clear expectation of something other than kindness.

   “Nope. It’ll work out.”

   “For you or for him?”

   Johnny raised his head and scowled at his father.

   “What’s that s’posed to mean?”

   “It means that you can’t always make another man walk your path, Johnny. Your brother’s a grown man with a distinguished war record and …”

   “He don’t need to ride broncs or dog bulls, Murdoch,” Johnny interrupted roughly. “I got that stuff. I’ve been doin’ it since …” He stopped and scrubbed his hand through his dark hair. “Y’don’t know. You weren’t there when he fell, when that beef turned on ‘im. Jesus!” Johnny stood up suddenly and walked over to the fence. Leaning on the rail, he rested his head on his arms, his back to his father, furious at the onslaught of emotion that came with the thought of that moment in the hot dust.

   “Johnny.” His father’s voice next to him, characteristically firm, but coaxing. “Son, look at me.”

   Reluctantly, he turned his head to meet his father’s eyes, aware that he had been close to tears and determined to drive them away from Murdoch’s notice with a cold stare.

   “Scott and I aren’t going anywhere, Son,” Murdoch said. “Not for a long time.”

   Johnny listened to his own quickened breathing, his gaze on his father. He wanted to be sick, to throw out his churning emotions from his stomach and leave himself cold and pure and unmoved, as he was sure he had once been.

   “You can’t say that, Murdoch,” he said, more harshly than he intended. “No-one can say that.”

   Disturbed to his bones, Murdoch nodded. Full of confidence at breakfast that he would be able to help solve his sons’ quarrel, he now felt out of his depth. He considered walking away, but decided instead to sit back down on the bale and wait, certain that Johnny would leave him there without another word, but unwilling to leave his son to suffer alone.

   “I saw Henry Springer today,” he said finally, after a long silence in which the only near sound had been his son’s boot scraping the ground. Johnny tensed, amazed that his father was still there.  He wanted him to go. He wanted him to stay. He wanted to do what he had done once, walk away from any person who might ask for more than the price of a killing.

   “Yeh?”

   “He’s living in the new line shack out on the East Pasture.”

   Still leaning on the fence, his face hidden from his father, Johnny made no sign that he cared.

   “He is, huh?”

   Murdoch felt his temperature begin to rise. No matter how many times he was exposed to his younger son’s insolence, he found it hard to bear. It was not his way, yet he felt keenly the injustice of too much disapproval. Still he could not help his tone hardening.

   “He told me you said he could use it.”

   His son hesitated and scuffed the ground harder.

   “You mad about it?”

   “No, but don’t you think you should’ve told me?”

   Johnny turned then. Leaning against the fence, his arms folded, he looked challengingly at his father.

   “He’s your oldest friend, Murdoch. Don’t ya think you shoulda known?”

   Instantly, he knew he had gone too far. His father glared up at him, red-faced. For the second time that week, he plunged into the alien waters of apology. “Sorry, Murdoch. I was outta line sayin’ that.”

   As he had observed with Tom Simmons, the apology had an interesting effect. It immediately softened the lines of Murdoch’s face and his father’s look of genuine surprise almost made Johnny smile. Resolving to apologise more often, he saw the older man shake his head.

   “No, you’re right. I should have known. I knew he was feeling restless, but I didn’t take it seriously.”

   “Restless?” Johnny smiled down at his folded arms, more at ease now. “Is that what ya call it?”

   Murdoch stood up and went to stand in front of his son, gazed down upon his bowed head.

   “What would you call it?”

   Johnny looked up at his father.

   “Desperate,” he replied softly. “Lost.”

   Grinding his teeth, Murdoch put his hand up to the side of his son’s head and caressed it briefly before turning away towards the house.

   “Let’s get lunch,” he said, his usual gruffness restored. “Then we’ll take a look at how that inventory’s coming along.”

   “Er, well …” Johnny grabbed his gun belt and hastened after his father, walking quickly, spurs jingling, to match Murdoch’s long strides. “Hope you ain’t expectin’ too much, Murdoch. I mean it ain’t exactly my line o’ work, is it?”

   Murdoch forced back a smile at his son’s blatant appeal to his emotions. How long had he lived in the desert of himself, dry and unmoved by anything but a business deal or a timely rainstorm? Inside the house, his brother was at his prayers, pleading for guidance, signs to the way ahead.  His own way had come without prayers or notice, slipped in through his ribs and taken possession of him before he had known the nature of it.

   Seeing Mary through the open doors of the great Room, bent to her embroidery, his heart missed a beat. Had love for his sons made him more reckless now, less careful of consequences? When she raised her head at their entry and smiled, he had the sensation of being singled out for approval, for acceptance without questions. The danger and delight of it made his head spin. Before he knew it, he had made jokes at lunch and had surprised his son beyond measure in allowing Johnny’s few smudged entries in his inventory to pass without comment. Taking the time to satisfy the young man’s curiosity about assassination in Ancient Rome, he stayed with Johnny in the study the entire afternoon. Gladly, he answered his son’s questions and pretended not to notice that most of the new entries in the ledger were his.

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

   He had not expected either the sight, or the feelings that it stirred in him. There were his father and brother, late in the afternoon, sitting side by side at the study table. Through the open window could be heard the sound of the blacksmith hammering horseshoes in the forge, and the repeated lowing of a cow, separated from her calf the day before and still grieving her loss. Murdoch, his right arm resting on the table, was watching intently as his younger son, black fringe falling across his brow, wrote something in a large book. Leaning in the doorway, Scott saw his father press a finger on the page and murmur a word or two. Johnny nodded, so engrossed in his task of writing that he did not lift his gaze from the page. A smile then from the older man, soft words of what sounded to Scott like praise or encouragement. In nearly a year of knowing these men, he had never seen them like this, wrapped up in their own little world, never seen his brother so at ease with their father or Murdoch so … Scott struggled to define what picture he was seeing of his father, once so cold to them both, so angry and ruthlessly business-like, that he had felt like running back to Boston, back to his perfectly veneered life and his grandfather’s certain love.

   He had not had to wait long for the ice to crack and a human being to rise, spluttering and complicated, to the surface. Yes, that was it. Finally, he understood what he was seeing now, warmth radiating from the man, the soft lines of true and loving engagement with another person. Had he ever sat with his grandfather in such complete communion? With anybody? He had come close in the mountains last winter with this very man, his father, who had made a special trip to see him, to bring him home from his self-imposed isolation. Scott remembered that feeling, the pain of years lost, the pleasure of finding that it mattered less than he had believed. Still, he had held back, keeping his secrets and seeking closeness with his father through the safety of chess, books and business.

   Not Johnny though. His brother was raw with want of union, wore it like a coat on fire, though Scott had to admit Johnny could still surprise him with his ability to close off, pare himself down to a core of remoteness. When his brother suddenly raised his head and smiled at him, he found himself smiling back, despite their unresolved quarrel.

   “Hey, Boston. You gotta see this.”

   Scott made to move forward and realised that he had been on his feet too long. His grimace of pain urged Johnny out of his seat and to his brother’s side. He lifted Scott’s arm onto his shoulders, wrapped an arm around his waist and helped him to the library chair, sitting down on the arm next to him. Murdoch was at his older son’s side then, propping up his legs on a footstool. Fuss. He loved it, revelled in the warmth of his brother’s body close to his, in the way his father removed his boots and felt his forehead. Unlike Johnny seemed to, he made no bother of feigning irritation. Too long had he lived without the comfort of a mother to have the spirit to resent these little tendernesses.

   “Damn fool boy,” Murdoch grunted. “You’re as bad as your brother.”

   Scott felt the teasing nudge of Johnny’s elbow against his shoulder and smiled weakly.

   “So show me what I’ve got to see.”

   He saw his father’s face relax into a smile as Johnny went to the table and picked up the book.

   “I’ve been teaching him copperplate,” he said. He gave a little shrug, almost shyly it seemed to Scott. “There’s not much else I can teach him.”

   “Don’t ya believe it, Ol’ Man,” Johnny said with a grin. He handed the ledger to Scott who looked down at the unfamiliar handwriting, clearly the result of great effort and care. A child’s god-given right denied to his brother until now. He nodded approvingly.

   “It’s very fine, Johnny.” He smiled up at his brother. “So I take it you’ll be doing the bookwork from now on?”

   Johnny snorted and reclaimed the ledger.

   “That’ll be a cold day in hell, Brother.”

   He placed the book on the table and returned to his seat on the chair arm next to Scott. Murdoch flipped open his watch and raised his eyebrows before snapping it closed.

   “It’s later than I thought. I need to check the remuda, make sure of their shoes before the drive. This is the first year I haven’t helped out with the shoeing.” He sighed heavily. “Then I’d better see if my brother’s back from town.

   “He went to see Reverend Jones, didn’t he?” Scott said.

   “Yes,” his father replied. “And I’m sure they’ve both profited from their meeting. Whether Mary and Robbie have is another matter.” His wary glance at Scott told the younger man that he felt he had said too much and too bitterly.

   “I’ll check the remuda, Murdoch,” Johnny said quickly. He looked at his father. “That is, if I’m done here?”

   “You’re done here,” the older man said with a small smile. “For today.”

   “Hear that, Scott?” Johnny grabbed his brother’s neck and ruffled his blond hair. “I’m a free man. You get some rest, ya hear me?” He released Scott and made to leave. “See y’later.”

   “Wait, Johnny,” Scott said. “There’s something I need to tell you both.” He looked up at his father. “You’ve put Will Jackson to work?”

   Murdoch folded his arms and regarded his son severely.

   “I certainly have. What of it?”

   “What do you make of him?”

   “Well, if you want the truth, Son, I don’t trust the man.”

   At his side, Scott felt his brother tense. He was not surprised to hear the guarded tone in Johnny’s voice.

   “You gotta reason for that?”

   Murdoch turned his frown on his younger son.

   “Call it intuition. I’ve hired a lot of men over the years and Jackson doesn’t ring true. For a start, I don’t believe his story about Jed Albright. I think something happened out there, but I doubt Albright had much to do with it.”

   “Then that’s one helluva fairy tale Jackson came up with, Murdoch,” Johnny said. Scott heard the trace of resentment in his brother’s tone and tensed a little. “You sayin’ Mrs Jackson’s lyin’ too?”

   Scott broke in before his father, clearly beginning to bristle, had a chance to reply.

   “I think she might be, Johnny. In the wagon, she told me that Laura had been raped by two of Albright’s men. That’s why the girl doesn’t speak.” Scott told them then of the incident outside the cabin, releasing a heavy sigh at the end of the story. “She made me promise to keep her secret, but …”

   “I’ll tell them to go,” Murdoch said. “We don’t need this kind of trouble.”

   “What about the kid, Murdoch!?” Johnny demanded. “From what Scott says, there’s a good chance he’s hurt her, maybe both of them have. If we kick ‘em off the ranch, there’s no tellin’ what’ll happen to Laura.”

   “And Louisa,” Scott said. “Whatever she might have done, she’s heavily pregnant and they have no money.”

   Scott noted that Murdoch took care to look at both sons before speaking.

   “So what do you suggest?”

   Johnny stood up, his hands on his hips.

   “I take Jackson round the back of the barn and beat the crap outta him.”

   “The girl might be lying, Johnny,” Scott said, keen to quell the flash of anger in his father’s eyes that had followed his brother’s words. “I think we should hold our horses for a few days. I’ll try to get Laura talking again, maybe persuade her to tell me what happened.”

   His gaze on his folded arms, Murdoch nodded.

   “Alright.”

   “Murdoch …”

   Murdoch stopped Johnny’s protest with a hard look.

   “The girl chose to communicate with Scott, Johnny, so we’ll do it his way. Understood?” When his younger son failed to reply, Murdoch, to Scott’s surprise, softened his tone. “I understand why you might have a problem with that, Son, but, like it or not, that’s the way we’re going to play it.”

   Johnny hesitated, his gaze on his boots, before nodding briefly. When he raised his head, he looked coldly at his father.

   “But if you find out that he’s done somethin’ to that kid, Murdoch, you’d better keep ‘im away from me, ‘cos he won’t live to do it again.”

   Scott felt the heat of his brother’s hand rest upon his head fleetingly.

   “Get some rest, Brother,” Johnny said. “Ya look like hell.”

   Scott closed his eyes and listened to the young man’s rapid, angry footsteps cross the study, the too loud closing of the door. Opening his eyes again, he found his father’s gaze upon him.

   “We might have a problem reining him in, Scott,” Murdoch said. “If Jackson has harmed that child, you might have a problem reining me in, too.”

   Scott nodded wearily.

   “I’ll go carefully, Murdoch, but I’ll rely on you to keep a check on Johnny. One disagreement with my little brother is quite enough for me to deal with at the moment.”

   “I tried talking to him about that,” Murdoch said. “I’m afraid I didn’t make much progress.”

   Scott smiled thinly and rubbed his brow.

   “You do surprise me, sir.”

   “Come on, boy.” Murdoch reached down and placed his hand on his son’s arm. “You need your bed.”

   He did not object. The day had exhausted him and he had yet to meet his uncle, acquainted with him only through his father’s dark mutterings and Johnny’s scornful disappointment.

 

Chapter Sixteen

   Under the impassive gaze of the blacksmith, Johnny checked every one of the horses. The late afternoon sun cast rays of light through the chestnut tree onto the backs of the animals; it lit up the dust as they moved restlessly in the corral. Dust and horses. His dust. His horses. He could feel the heat radiating from their skin as they milled around him, smell the sweet, grainy scent of them. There were times in his past he had called nothing his own except his gun and the clothes he stood up in, believed himself fated, fitted, for such a life. Now, hearing the soft hoof falls of his horses, their snorts of expectation that soon they would be given food and water, he felt again the sensation of the gunfighter observing, with a small, cold smile, the rich and well-fed rancher.

   Blinking against the sun, Johnny lowered the brim of his hat, his gaze finding that of the blacksmith, who had been watching him in silence; his tanned, muscled arms, scarred by years of burns, hung loosely at his sides. He was a small, wiry man with a large, bushy moustache, who rarely spoke and never rode, one of Murdoch’s original hands; Johnny knew he had to tread carefully with such men. Meeting the blacksmith’s gaze, he nodded. The older man nodded back with no visible sigh of relief or pleasure. He seemed about to turn away when he stopped and observed Johnny jumping down from the corral fence.

   “You still got that burn mark on your arm, boy?”

   Johnny stared at the blacksmith. The man had said no more than one or two words to him since last summer - work-like words, ‘utilitarian’, his smart-ass brother had called them, no more than needed.

   “Your left arm.”

   “Ain’t got no burns, Sam,” Johnny said with a near-smile. “I know my scars real well, ‘cept maybe the ones I can’t see.”

   “You gotta scar on your left arm. I put it there.”

   Mystified, Johnny rolled up his sleeve and gazed at the tanned skin, recognising a knife wound, inflicted by another street-child when he was twelve, both of them intent on bad fruit thrown out of the back of a cantina, and a small oval-shaped white mark. He realised then that he had no story for this scar, only that it had been there forever. The blacksmith surprised him again by grasping his arm with a powerful hand and staring at the mark. Nodding, he released the arm with a little thrust. Johnny was aware that he could still feel the lingering smart from the older man’s hard fingers.

   “Y’toddled in my forge,” he said. “Your mama was sleepin’. She wus always sleepin’. You put ya hand up to touch a shoe just hot outta the flames, so I dropped the shoe and dabbed your arm a little with the tongs. Just enough to set ya screamin’.” Johnny had never seen the blacksmith smile. Briefly, he wondered if it was because he had a mouthful of bad teeth. “Boy, you wus screamin’. Folks musta heard you in Green River. Only quit when your daddy got ya in his arms, fussin’ an’ kissin’ ya like you wus dyin’. Told the boss I was teachin’ ya a lesson. He was sore at me, real sore, but I reckon it wus your mama got the bull end.”

   “Did I learn my lesson?” Johnny asked. He felt himself smiling, although underneath his skin his nerves buzzed like bees against a window.

   “Hard ta tell,” the blacksmith said. “Your mama lit out a week or two down the line. Took you.” His dark eyes looked hard into Johnny’s. “Took everythin’.”

   Abruptly, he turned away and walked back, slow and stiff-legged, to the forge. Johnny leaned against the fence, the horses shuffling and snorting in the dust behind him, and gazed at the scar, starkly white against his copper skin. He rubbed it with his finger. He knew his mother had taken nothing from this place but him and a bag of clothes, not even his father’s gifts of jewellery.

   He breathed in sharply and turned to the fence to stroke a horse. How he had longed for such a memory, of being hurt, of being gathered in his father’s arms, of feeling rescued and loved, and here it had come without his asking, against his every vow never to ask. Why had he forgotten it? It might have saved him. It might have put him in search of his father after his mother’s death.

   Looking down at his waist, he realised that yet again he had forgotten to strap on his gun belt and wondered at it. For the first six months at Lancer he had slept with it, argued relentlessly with his father over wearing it the house, kept it at his side at every possible moment, even when – he smiled to himself - especially when, taking his pleasure with one of the girls upstairs at The Silver Dollar. Now, it hung in the hallway along with the family’s hats, coats and boots. Would it become like his father’s old six-gun, gradually submerged under layers of seasonal jackets for spiders to make a home in?

   Pushing himself back from the fence, determinedly enough to unsettle the horse he had been fussing, he went over to the bunkhouse and yelled orders for the remuda to be removed to pasture. Young cowboys downed their coffee cups and strapped on their chaps before scrambling out of the bunkhouse; the older ones followed more slowly, finishing cigarettes. Mounted on Barranca, Johnny watched them do their work, his wrists crossed on the saddle horn, his thoughts intent on the horses as they passed by him in clouds of dust.

 

    From his bedroom window, Robbie gazed down at Johnny. The soft flicking of Barranca’s ears was the only movement of horse or rider that he could see. To the tune of whoops and whistles from the hands, the remuda jogged past them; the swirling orange dust fed into the sun’s slanting rays and muted the hard lines of horses and men. For a moment, Johnny seemed to Robbie the cowboy of his dreams, part of the landscape, with barely more consciousness than the animal he was sitting on - just enough feeling and thought to get by. He turned to look at himself again in the mirror. Dressed in Scott’s borrowed clothes, a pair of plain brown pants, a checked shirt and a pale green bandana, he stared at his image, knowing at once that it did not fit his fondest imaginings, but still as fascinating to him as a newly discovered fossil.

   “Put on the hat.”

   Shyly, he looked at his cousin. Scott was observing him from an armchair with obvious amusement, but Robbie knew it was fondly meant. In their short friendship, they had already played chess, discussed palaeontology and history and discovered a common love of Dundee marmalade.

   “Go on,” Scott urged. “It’s a spare one. I don’t wear it often.”

   Robbie picked up the Stetson, fawn with a darker brown ribbon at its crown and placed it on his head. He smiled self-consciously at his cousin.

   “All I need is ma gun and I’ll be a man of the West.”

   In town, he had seen a photographer’s studio. Despite his father’s grumbles, he had spent a few minutes gazing at the photographs of young men posing with six guns, comic-book scowls on their fresh faces. Jelly had told him scornfully that most of the boys who ‘have them pictures took cain’t even hold a gun right, never mind shoot it.’ Still, Robbie had felt a tingle of excitement at the photographs; he had imagined taking such an image of himself back to Scotland, showing it to the children and hearing their gasps of admiration.

   “That’s what I thought when I first came,” Scott said with a smile. “Of course, I’d used guns in the war, rifles mostly, but I wasn’t used to men wearing them in the streets as I’d heard everyone did in the West.” He smiled again. “My grandfather had almost convinced me that I’d be shot to death on my first day here.”

    His back to Scott, Robbie adjusted the hat before the mirror.

   “Aye, that’s what some of the old folk back home believed would happen ta me.” He chuckled. “I’ve yet ta hear ma first shot and the only gun I’ve seen is Johnny’s. Does he use it?”

   “Sometimes.”

   Certain he had detected hesitancy in Scott’s tone, Robbie removed the hat and sat down on the other chair opposite his cousin.

   “Jelly told me that Johnny’s the best shot in California, maybe the whole West. Is that right, Scott?”

   His cousin gazed at him impassively, his grey-blue eyes seeming suddenly colder, less generous.

   “Jelly talks too much,” Scott said. “My brother uses his gun when he needs to, like the rest of us.”

   “Is he going to enter the contest in Green River?”

   “I very much doubt it.”

   Robbie heard the coldness in his cousin’s voice and swallowed back a feeling of being caught in alien territory where he was not welcome. Intrigued rather than daunted, he decided to proceed as cautiously as if he had found a rare fossil; he would reveal the shape of the thing by delicate touches.

   “This is a working ranch, Robbie,” Scott said. “It really is mostly just work. Sorry if that disappoints you.”

   “No, no,” Robbie replied hastily with an awkward smile. “That’s exactly what your father said, too. It’s just that growing up in a wee village in Scotland …” He shrugged. “Well, ye’ve only your imagination and fanciful stories ta guide your expectations. I suppose I was hoping ta take back stories of dangerous gunfighters, and wild cowboys fighting Red Indians ta tell the children.” He smiled as he stroked the Stetson’s wide brim. “Daft thing is I’d probably be scared out of ma wits if I met a gunfighter.” He looked at his cousin and saw that he was wearing the merest of smiles. “I suppose ye’ve not met one, Cousin?”

   Scott shook his head slowly.

   “No, nor a fierce Indian, nor a deadly outlaw, nor a man who’s killed another man without  feeling that he’s forfeited the right to life. Those people exist, Cousin, but you’re more likely to meet the same people here you’d meet anywhere, the bankers, the shopkeepers, the gossiping widows, the pretty girls and those men out there, working their guts out for less money a month than I paid for my last pair of boots.”

   Feeling mildly rebuked, Robbie nodded. His cousin’s reticence matched his uncle’s. Both men, he felt strongly, were steering him away from dangerous ground, but he had never been one for turning back on a journey when he met an obstacle. Rocks, rivers or fences, even those put up by the laird – he had braved them all on his long walks across the hills, determined to see what lay beyond the next slope. Returning to the window, he gazed down at the corral. Johnny was saddling a grey horse, maybe for him. He trembled a little. There was the danger - in his dark-haired cousin; Robbie felt it as surely as he felt the warm evening breeze on his face, and his hatred of secrecy, of the hidden truths that had blighted his family life, made him feel careless. Freed from the shackles of home, he had become slowly aware that he might not be the man he had long believed himself to be.

   Johnny was on the horse now, turning it on the forehand in dance-like circles, asking for rein-back, patting it on the neck between each perfect movement. Suddenly, he jumped off the horse and looked up to catch Robbie’s gaze. Smiling, he made an elaborate bow, his black hair falling over his forehead, before pointing at his cousin and then at the horse. Robbie felt his heart leap to his throat and he nodded, knowing he was about to take a further step away from his old self.

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

       His brother was smiling, a genuine smile it seemed to him. It freed Iain’s face from the weary discontent that Murdoch had seen from the first moment of their meeting at the depot. It made him appear younger and more like the man he had known, eager to share his thoughts with him, to look him in the eye and seek his older brother’s approval and opinion. Throughout dinner he had been silent, apart from the usual social courtesies, while his wife and brother had shared memories of village life in their childhood. At times, it had seemed to Murdoch, Iain had been about to make a comment or was on the verge of a remembering smile, but then had closed himself off as abruptly as a slammed door.

   His nephew, too, had been unusually silent. Johnny, as Murdoch had expected, had listened avidly to the stories, asking questions with exaggerated politeness, but clearly determined to plunder the older generation’s reserves of distant memory - Murdoch had observed with amusement how quickly Mary had lost her heart to his younger son. Robbie, like his father, had eaten frugally, withholding himself, not angry or sullen, Murdoch believed, but certainly distant, his thoughts elsewhere. He had left the room immediately after dinner and Murdoch had seen the grey residue on the heels of his boots, a clear sign he had been on a horse. Catching Johnny’s gaze, Murdoch had known everything in an instant and had surprised himself immeasurably by electing, there and then, not to interfere.

   “He’s a fine man,” Iain was saying to Murdoch and to his wife, who sat intent on her embroidery in front of a small fire. “Very well-read. He knows a great deal about Darwin. He’s even read the man’s wretched book …” He looked at Murdoch. “Only so he might protect his congregation from its blasphemies, of course.”

   Murdoch, his pipe in his mouth and comfortable in his favourite armchair, nodded silently.

   “Did ye not think him a little uncharitable, Iain?” Mary ventured. “His thoughts on the native Indians and the army deserters …?”

   “We must remember the particular circumstances of a servant of God, Mary,” Iain replied severely. “Even our Lord had to overcome the resistance of the unbelievers, and this is a new land full of turmoil and dissent. Would ye not agree, Murry?”

   Murdoch removed his pipe in order to reply, but Mary broke in firmly.

   “I know that ye believe the natives to have been ill-treated. Ye’ve said it often enough.”

   Murdoch listened hard, impressed by Mary’s challenging tone. She had not changed, he realised. This was the girl who had joined in their heated debates when they were young, unafraid to disagree with two strong-minded young men. He saw by Iain’s troubled, disgruntled look that she had touched his brother’s conscience in a way she had always been able to do.

   “Aye, I do believe it,” Iain confessed. “Nevertheless, Mary, they are heathen who must …,” He paused. “… in the most Christian manner, be brought to God.”

   “Wud ye care to inform Mrs Jones of that, Iain?” Mary demanded. She picked a new skein of thread from her needlework box. “I never met a less Christian woman in my life.”

  Already amused by Mary’s condemnation of Mrs Jones, Murdoch wanted to smile at his brother’s expression, a mixture of irritation and surprise. Contentedly, he puffed on his pipe, happy for now to observe. Iain’s affronted tone only increased his enjoyment.

   “I was led ta believe that ye enjoyed your time wi’ Mrs Jones.”

   “Aye, by her.” Mary looked up at Murdoch from under her long brown lashes. How he loved the playful gleam in her eyes. “What do you think of the good Reverend and his wife, Murry?”

   Murdoch removed his pipe and wrestled with an emerging smile. He looked at his brother who surprised him with a look that told him that his opinion mattered. Although, for a moment, he had wanted to be wicked, he sobered his expression.

   “I think the Reverend does a fine job within the limits of his sympathies, and I suppose I‘d say the same of Mrs Jones.”

   Mary seemed about to laugh, but closed it to a smile and looked quickly down at her embroidery.

   “Aye,” Iain said. “Always the clever one, Murry, undermining me wi’ your sharp remarks …”

   “I’ve never done that, Iain,” Murdoch said, with a sigh. He stood up to pour himself a whiskey. “I was asked for my opinion and I gave it.” He smiled thinly at his brother and gestured at the decanter. They had used to drink together up in the hay-loft above the stable, and then chew their mother’s garden mint to disguise their breath. Now it seemed a vain hope that Iain would accept his offer.

   “Is it Talisker’s?”

   “What else?”

   They locked gazes and it happened again. It was the strangest feeling to Murdoch, as if he had been swept back down all his years to a particular moment in his youth when his brother had been all in all to him, and nothing that had happened since seemed of any consequence. He knew that his brother felt it too.

   “Then I’ll have a wee dram.”

   Murdoch poured the drink and handed it to Iain who took it and sniffed it, before taking a sip.

   “I wasn’t sure you’d still take a dram,” Murdoch said, settling down in his chair again, passionately glad to see the glass in his brother’s hand.

   “Aye, well, I’m a Scotsman, Murry.” He took another sip and his face again lost some of its unhappy lines, although his tone sounded defensive. “And our church sees no wrong in a wee dram now and then.” Then he smiled at his brother, making Murdoch’s skin prickle with sudden emotion. “D’ye have any mint?”

   “In the garden,” Murdoch replied, returning the smile and marvelling at the power of alcohol. “And barley-sugar in the pantry.”

   He waited for Iain’s look of recognition. For him, that had been the abiding memory of their short, hard childhood, but his brother’s face had lapsed into a frown and stayed there.

   “I’d like t’go ta church on Sunday,” Iain said, after an uneasy pause in which Murdoch had begun to tap out his pipe. “I’d like us all ta go, including your lads, Murry.”

   “That would be up to them, Iain,” Murdoch said. “I can’t make them go. Scott, if he’s well enough, will go if I ask him too, but Johnny will probably flat-out refuse.” He caught Mary’s gaze as she looked up from her work. “I’m afraid he shares Mary’s opinion of the Jones’s.”

   Mary smiled.

   “I’m sure he can overcome his feelings for his family’s sake, Murry. D’ye mind if I ask Johnny ta come?”

   Murdoch shook his head as he began to press fresh tobacco into the bowl of his pipe.

   “No, I don’t mind, but he’s a stubborn little cuss at the best of times, so don’t expect miracles.”

   “The lad’ll go if I ask him to,” Iain said. Surprised, Murdoch stopped filling his pipe and raised his eyebrows. Iain was turning his whiskey glass before the flames, his gaze averted from his wife and brother.

   “You sound very sure of that, Iain,” Murdoch said. He struck a match and put it to his pipe, watching his brother as he sucked on the stem to draw the smoke.

   “Aye, I’m sure of it.”

   Murdoch threw the spent match in the fire, bewildered by his brother’s quiet certainty. After last night’s dinner, he had been gloomily convinced that his younger son and his brother would remain at loggerheads for the duration of the visit. He made no further comment, envisaging the consequences of Johnny’s inevitable refusal and his brother’s outrage; he suppressed the desire to sigh heavily.

   Iain swallowed the last of his drink and stood up abruptly.

   “I’m away to ma bed,” he announced. “Are ye coming, Mary?”

   “Soon,” she replied softly. “When I’ve finished this corner.”

   Iain nodded, wished his brother good-night and left the room. Murdoch smoked his pipe and contemplated the woman opposite him, surprised to find himself glad that her quiet presence reminded him of his wives, particularly Catherine. Many evenings in that year before he had lost her, he had sat gazing at her while she sewed or played the piano, or read a book, her fingers absently stroking her pregnant belly. When she had looked up at him, her blond hair illuminated by the fire’s glow, she had always smiled lovingly and teased him a little. They had not had time to grow stale, no time for his enchantment to fade into familiarity, no time for her to discover that her father had been right – she had married a great oaf who could not possibly make her happy with his fruitless dreams of cattle empires in a barbarous land. He knew they had been happy then, in those months of waiting for their child. Now it seemed like a strange dream, so quickly had she been wrenched from his life.

   There had been no such contentment with Maria. Yes, he had sat like this, gazing at her, his young Mexican wife, drinking in her beauty and marvelling that she had agreed to marry him against her powerful family’s wishes, but it had not been the same. Maria – a runaway girl pregnant with his child within two weeks of their meeting. No matter how many times he had tried to convince himself that marrying her, that his passion for her, would be enough, he had known the truth. He had seen it in her eyes on evenings like these – accusation, disappointment, boredom. In hope of adventure, she had been trapped. Her subsequent appetite for sex had fooled him. Used to women reserved in their attitudes, he had happily confused her nightly enthusiasm for him for love. Later, he had understood that, for Maria, sex was preferable to sitting before the fire, the object of a loving husband’s gaze. Was that why for so long he had been unable to think of her without a burning fury consuming his thoughts? He had been rejected by her in every single way a man could be rejected. The final humiliation, that other men would replace him in her bed. The simple, final truth. He had not been able to keep her satisfied - with his money, his friendship, his body.

   “What are ye thinking?”

   He looked up, shaken out of his reverie. Mary was smiling. He knew that face. It had come before everything, all the pain, all the anger, all the loss.

   “Maria,” he replied, with a soft sigh. “I was thinking of Maria.”

   “Johnny’s mother?”

   “Yes.” He stood up and refilled his whisky glass. “I’ve hated her for so long, it’s become a habit, automatic.” He turned and looked at Mary. “But now I don’t think I want to hate her anymore.”

   He joined her on the sofa, the glass in his hand. Unafraid of anything at that moment, he pressed his arm to hers and gazed at the embroidery in her hands. He could hear her swallow, her heart beating more rapidly, but she made no effort to move away. Softly, he pressed his finger on the place where she had been working and stroked the perfect stitches, blue, purple and grey.

   “I know this place,” he said. “I can smell it. Sometimes, I can be lying in my bed or sitting in the garden or reading a book …” He closed his eyes and breathed in, sighing out his next words. “And the smell of it. God, it’s like I’m still there, lying in the heather, and I wish myself back there, Mary. I wish it with every bone in my body.”

   “Ye left.” She put her forefinger next to his on the embroidery. “Ye left me.”

   That voice, small, broken, as if someone had scratched away a statue’s smile to reveal a cry of misery beneath. It took his breath away after so much coolness, so much quiet implication that he had been forgiven, even forgotten. She had suffered and somewhere deep inside her, Murdoch now understood, it continued, on and on, zigzagging its sightless way underneath the surface of her quiet, obedient life.

   “I’m sorry,” he whispered. He rubbed his finger against hers very gently. “I’m sorry, Mary.”

   It was not enough. He knew it. His moments of regret, however deep, paled against the lifetime of hers. Sometimes, when he was alone and unwilling to dwell on the tragedies of his life, he preferred to see it as a picaresque adventure, of the kind he had read as a child, a hero’s wanderings, a man who would not be defeated whatever life threw at him. Only the thought of what Johnny’s life had been away from his love and protection could shake this comforting idea, but he rarely allowed that thought purchase.

   “I loved you,” she said, her gaze averted from him to the dying fire.

   “I know.”

   “I let you ...” She paused. “I thought I could keep you there if we …” She stopped, before seeming almost to sigh the words out. “ … made love.” Suddenly, she jabbed the needle into the embroidery and thrust the work to one side. “How wrong, how stupid, how blind I was!”

   “Mary …”

   “I didn’t want ta come, Murdoch,” she said, with a vehemence that silenced him. She stood up and glared down at him; her brown eyes seemed huge and almost black in their distress.  “I tried ta persuade Iain to come without Robbie and me, face his demons on his own. I wanted no part of it, because …” He saw the tears begin. “Whatever he’s suffered because of you, it’s nothing, nothing compared ta what ye put me through.”

   “I had to go.” Murdoch then heard himself say a phrase he was sure he could only say to this woman. “You knew my heart.”

   “Aye, Murry, through and through, and the pain of understanding that ye didna know mine has never left me.”

   He could only stare at her, feeling wrong and stupid and clumsy in the face of her passionate fury. Women could still frighten him beyond the power of any man to do so, the way they forced him to play by rules he had not yet mastered, and never would, he was certain. Then, seeing her there, in front of the fire, her fury spent, looking so small and fragile, he felt the only thing he could do was take her in his arms, keep her from breaking. She did not resist, allowed herself to be folded in, and when he kissed her, she opened her mouth to him as easily as she had done once long ago among the purple hills.

 

Chapter Seventeen

Friday 25th May 1871

   My fifth day here and I must write at last. If my father has taught me anything of value, it is to set my thoughts down when I can, although he would scarcely wish to see these thoughts of mine!

   I have spent my second evening learning to ride my beautiful grey horse, Viajero. Johnny says she is mine as long as I am here, and I wish never to leave. Johnny tells me I’m a natural horseman. Me! It’s extraordinary! The first moment I sat in the saddle, I felt absolutely no fear, just an overwhelming feeling that I belonged there. My young cousin is a born teacher, patient, calm and kind – so much for my initial fears! He and his brother are so far from being bullies of my imagination that I feel ashamed that I ever entertained such a notion.

    I am, however, never entirely at ease in Johnny’s company. It’s hard to explain, yet I feel I must try. He’s as friendly as I could ever wish a man to be, certainly, but there is an element in him that I can only call primitive, as if he has been here on Earth so much longer than the rest of us and knows its secrets, knows our secrets. There seems to be nothing I could do that would surprise him. I know this without testing it. Even his father, my dear uncle, who shows an affection for Johnny that surpasses anything I have seen from a parent for his child, seems to feel it.

    I could sense it tonight when Uncle Murdoch appeared suddenly while Johnny was teaching me how to ask Viajero to ‘rein-back’ – so many new terms to learn! I will be honest here; I was thoroughly unnerved when I saw my uncle. So far, I have successfully managed to conceal my actions from Father and Mother (although this deception, I cannot deny, is causing me some pain) but my uncle, however kind he has been to me, is a formidable figure, so tall and rather fierce-looking (until he smiles!) and clearly a man used to being obeyed. To my astonishment, Johnny simply ignored him and carried on with his teaching, and stranger still, Uncle just sat calmly on his horse and watched us. It was the first time I’ve seen him on a horse, a magnificent stallion named Amo. If anything, Uncle looked even more imposing. I’ll confess to these pages alone that I very much wish he had been my father. How different my life might have been!

   I asked Johnny quietly if he’d told Uncle Murdoch about my learning to ride and he replied that he had not, but he’d known his father had guessed it. When I asked him if he was concerned, he just smiled and said that if his father was going to ‘explode’, he would have done it by now. What a family! It’s as if I have been transported to a new world where every human behaviour I have known has been subverted into how I would wish it to be.

   Eventually, my uncle called Johnny over and spoke to him quietly for a few moments. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but neither man seemed angry or upset. Then Uncle beckoned me over, so I rode Viajero to the fence. My heart was beating so fast that it was quite painful, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Uncle merely asked me how I was progressing and if I was enjoying learning to ride. My enthusiastic answers to both questions seemed to give him pleasure and he rode away then, simply reminding us to be home in time for dinner. When I asked Johnny what Uncle had said to him, he laughed and told me that his father was just checking that he had finished his day’s work in the study! I don’t know if it was quite true, but my cousin didn’t seem at all unhappy with his father’s unanticipated visit.

   After my lesson, I asked Johnny about his gun. He allowed me to hold it and I found it surprisingly heavy. It’s a well-worn Colt, the gun I fondly imagined I would see in every man’s hand out here in this wild territory. I let my excitement get the better of me and I asked my cousin if he had ever shot a man with it. It was as if a winter chill had come between us and he took back the gun without replying. How then can I help supposing that this very young man has at some time shot another human being? Perhaps he fears my condemnation of his actions, yet how could I bestow judgement on men who have been raised in such a new land among hostiles and desperate outlaws? I mustered the courage – some might call it foolhardiness! – to ask Johnny if he might give me a demonstration of his skills, perhaps even allow me to shoot a gun myself. He seemed to consider my request for a moment and I was relieved when he smiled and told me that I was certainly a Lancer with my liking for danger! He said the riding was one thing but his father would tear his head off for letting me use a gun. Then he smiled the same rascally smile I saw later at dinner and said he would think about it.

   Outside, the moon is shining very brightly. The night looks purple and I can hear the cry of an animal far in the distance, a coyote, perhaps! I have never seen so many stars crowding the sky. The house is silent. Everyone must be asleep. The last sound I heard was my uncle reprimanding Johnny for falling asleep with his clothes on and insisting he get undressed ‘like a civilised human being’, but it was all said dotingly. I confess I am captivated by their relationship. By my own father’s standards, Johnny is wilful, disrespectful, even insolent (these are all words Father has used to me in referring to his younger nephew) but my uncle either ignores it or makes it obvious, even when he’s angry, that Johnny’s attitude is not one that troubles him unduly. Although I am several years Johnny’s senior, I would not dare to behave in such a manner to my own father. It’s unimaginable, but, oh, how I would love to tease him a little, see him smile, the way my uncle does at Johnny, because he simply cannot help himself.

   At dinner tonight, my young cousin made a comment about Mrs Jones. I confess, I did not quite understand the reference. My father looked appalled, my mother hardly less so, but Scott burst into laughter which seemed to unsettle my uncle. Unfortunately, he was taking a spoonful of soup at the time and some of it ended up on his shirt. I think almost everyone, including the culprit, expected him then to lose his temper. Certainly, we were all silent in expectation of it, until Johnny dared to ask his father if he wanted help eating! Even Scott, whom, in the short time I have known him, seems imperturbable, looked alarmed then, but Uncle merely dabbed at the stain with his napkin, replied, ‘ No, thank you, John,’ and resumed enjoying his soup, a smile on his face.

   My cousin, Scott, of course, is a different matter to his brother. My father approves greatly of his manners and his general demeanour. They spent time together this afternoon discussing religion, and my cousin was circumspect when the conversation strayed to Mr Darwin’s evolutionary theory. He has already detected that this is an extremely sensitive subject for my father and it was clear that Father was attempting to solicit Scott’s opinion on the issue. I much admired the manner by which  he contrived to avoid wounding my father’s sensibilities by praising Mr Darwin’s  industry while questioning aspects of his methodology. I know for certain that my cousin is a deep admirer of ‘The Origin of Species’, while my father, as Scott probably suspects, has scarcely read it. Father, rather precipitately, changed the subject!

   Scott intrigues me quite as much as Johnny does. Here is a man who has been educated at one of the world’s great universities, who has many intellectual interests, who has been wounded in battle, yet is quiet, modest and seems content to live hundreds of miles from any major city. It is clear that he holds his father in the highest regard, and he treats his young brother with every sign of a strong attachment, although I have detected a certain reserve between them at times. Today, when Scott was describing to me how it felt to fall from a horse onto a charging steer – how can such a thing be imagined!? – Johnny, who had previously been in good spirits, was clearly upset with his brother. He walked away from us and slammed the door. I could see Scott was affected by this, but he remained silent as to the cause of Johnny’s distress. Later, I saw them in the study, laughing together over something in a book, so whatever bad feeling exists between them, it seems they will not allow it to influence the powerful affection they feel for each other.

   Perhaps if I had had a brother or a sister, my life would not have been so insular and, at times, so lonely. Mother has been all I could wish a mother to be, tender, kind and loving, the dearest of companions, but I had no friend near my own age while I was growing up. Despite their differences, I know Father and Uncle Murdoch derived great comfort from each other’s company, especially in the face of my grandfather’s harsh discipline. It grieves me that they appear so divided now, and it’s Father I hold responsible for that. Uncle Murdoch has done everything in his power to make us feel welcome in his home. In him, I detect a genuine desire for reconciliation with his brother, but Father seems entrenched in his bitterness and in his refusal to forgive the past. They are polite to each other, certainly. Father even accompanied Uncle this morning on a drive out to see some of the Lancer acres, but when I asked Father for his impressions, he said he was always moved by the evidence of Our Lord’s almighty hand. Of course, he observed me with an eager eye upon saying this, and, coward that I am, I dutifully expressed my pleasure.

   How I wish I possessed Scott’s canny diplomacy! When his conversation with my father turned to the Civil War, he carefully and modestly avoided any reference to his role in that terrible theatre – my uncle has told us that he was awarded the Medal of Honor for valour – and described to us instead of the suffering of the men on both sides of the conflict and how many had found comfort in God, thereby ensuring that my father had no option other than to listen and commiserate, rather than launching into a long diatribe against the sinfulness of warring nations.

   It’s late and my poor muscles are aching for rest. Tomorrow, the Lancer family is attending church. My father is looking forward to it with great anticipation. Even Johnny, at Father’s request, and to my uncle’s quiet astonishment, has agreed to accompany us, although he has insisted on riding his horse into Green River rather than sitting in the buggy with the rest of the family. I envy him greatly, but, for now, I must conceal my slow metamorphosis from Scottish school-teacher to Western cowboy!

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

   He woke to the smell of herbs and spent some time lying warm in his bed gazing at the vase on his dresser. Someone, Maria he supposed, had filled it with herbs from the garden, lavender, thyme and marjoram. They still surprised him, even after nearly a year, these little signs of love and home. Inhaling the scent with a secret joy, he remembered it was Sunday and he was not expected to work in the study. On the other hand, he thought, with a sinking heart, he had agreed to sit in a church for over an hour listening to the self-satisfied sermonising of the Reverend Jones. Sighing deeply, he turned over onto his back and rubbed his hand through his hair. The sun was not yet up and the cool dawn seemed tense with expectation of another hot day. At least he would be riding his horse into town and not sitting like a fool in the buggy. He wondered if he could avoid showing himself until the very last moment, giving his father no time to insist that he wear a suit and the suffocating collar and tie. Even now, he could feel its strangulating hold on his neck. Surely, after an hour in church he would be dead, his skin as blue as a hanged man’s.

   His uncle’s request for him to accompany the family to church had thrown him into confusion. He knew that if his father had asked, he would have resisted and argued, maybe even resorted to shameless pleading, but he had not found it in himself to defy his uncle. Given his loathing of sermons and especially ones spouted by Jones, a man he might be persuaded to shoot for two bits, along with his sour pickle of a wife, he wondered why he had surrendered so easily. Did he feel sorry for Iain? Almost smiling, he dismissed the idea - that pity would be enough for him to sacrifice an hour of his life to inhaling the twin aromas of wax polish and bullshit. Maybe his uncle scared him a little? Those steely blue eyes sure gave him no quarter, nowhere to hide. He knew that had been his own special gift – to switch on a winter gaze when he chose, putting fear in men’s hearts, although it had never worked with his father, not even when they had barely known each other. Perhaps his family’s determination to relegate his gunfighter’s gaze to the realm of ordinary rebellion had weakened him? He had been defenceless against his uncle’s silent intensity.

   Sighing again, he turned his head to gaze again at the vase of herbs, their pale colours muted further in the greyness of dawn. Maybe Lindy would be there, he comforted himself. He was sure she went to church on Sundays, dressed up pretty as a picture against the dark, serious shapes of her once-a-week devout parents. His groin jolted sharply at the thought of her. Before the afternoon behind Folsom’s barn, he had jacked off regularly to the thought of undressing her, slowly revealing flesh and the mouth-watering dips and hollows of her body. Since these things had been revealed to him, his hand had worked a dozen times to the thought of her pale flesh in the golden grass, the way her heat had broken open the smell of summer, her little mews of complaint when the grass scratched her skin.

   He was sure he did not quite love her. Her small-town gossipy ways amused him; at times her girlish frailty made him feel tender towards her, but he did not trace the path of his future with his hand in hers. Although, he had to admit, he was only just getting used to seeing a future for himself beyond the age of twenty-five. No, he did not love her yet, but he knew such things had a way of changing without warning. Seeing her in church, her parents usefully preventing access, might give him some notion of what his absence had done to her heart. Had she regretted allowing him to take her and want nothing more to do with him? Did she now expect him, despite all her wide-eyed denials, to declare his undying love and make her an offer of marriage? Or was it as she had faithfully promised, a sweet taste of more pleasure to come without conditions? His brother had warned him never to trust a woman’s promises on the doorstep of losing her cherry. Scott sounded like he’d known what he was talking about, but still he had lost control the moment Lindy had allowed his hand between her legs and he had felt the hot, damp evidence of her desire.

   The smell of frying bacon reached his senses and, suddenly hungry, he got up quickly, splashed cold water over his face and pulled on his clothes. Out on the landing, he hopped up onto the banister. No matter how many times he did it, it still gave him pleasure – to mount the rail, carved by his father’s hands, and slide downstairs, gathering speed, feeling the heat build up through the seat of his pants, the paintings on the wall going by in a blur of colours, until he landed softly on the floor below. He always aimed at a particular large knot in the polished wood, so that the toes of his boots landed precisely upon it. Once he had landed in his socks at speed and slid unceremoniously across the floor into his father’s powerful grasp. It had been the first time they had made physical contact since his return and the irony of it had silenced them both, until Murdoch had released him with a gruff rebuke and a small smile.

   He could hear the bacon sizzling in the kitchen before he opened the door and the sound of eggshells being tapped on the edge of the pan. Creeping up on the warm, broad bulk of Maria, he pressed his hands on her shoulders and kissed her cheek.

   “Gracias por las hierbas, cariño Mari,” he said, reaching around her to filch a piece of bacon from the pan. She laughed and smacked his hand with the tongs.

   “Lejos con ti, niño. Tu padre está con Señora Lancer en el Gran Cuarto.”

   Johnny nodded, his mouth full of the sweet bacon, and grabbed another piece before heading for the Great Room. He was disappointed. He had hoped his father would be alone, so he could ask him about the burn mark on his arm. Since Sam had told him the story, he had yearned to hear it from Murdoch’s lips, dig for details, so that that forgotten moment of their shared history might come alive. Something in him rebuked himself for this need after so long living a man’s life away from home and family, but he found he could no more resist it than he could Lindy Cooper’s smile.

 

   Their fingers had been touching – he was sure of it – before they both pulled them in under their palms like water creatures hiding under rocks. His father, often remote, even grim, in the mornings, seemed flushed, his smile too hasty, almost embarrassed. That his aunt and father were something more than friends and relations had crossed his mind briefly, but now he sensed something deeper, that he had interrupted a secret, passionate moment.

   “You’re up early for a Sunday,” Murdoch said, picking up his napkin and spreading it over his lap. Johnny sat down and poured out coffee.

   “Yeh, well, seein’ as I gotta sit still for an hour listenin’ to the good Reverend Jones damn my soul to hell, I reckoned I’d start work on Bill Lehner’s mare. Mornin’, Ma’am.”

   “Good morning, Johnny. Did ye sleep well?” Mary asked brightly. Johnny saw that his father had been about to rebuke him and he was amused to see how Murdoch was stopped in his tracks by his sister-in-law’s intervention.

   “Yes, Ma’am,” he replied with a slow smile. “I always sleep well.”

   He yawned suddenly as he stirred sugar in his coffee.

   “Excuse my son, Mary,” Murdoch said, his tone relaxed. “It takes at least three cups of coffee to wake him in the morning.”

   “You ain’t no better,” Johnny said. He drank half the coffee and picked up the jug to refill the cup.

   “No, I suppose that’s another character trait you’ve inherited from me.”

   Johnny stopped and looked suspiciously at his father.

   “Thought I took after my mama?”

   “Yes, well,” Murdoch said, holding his son’s gaze. “I know you a little better now.”

   Johnny wanted to laugh at the admission, so much had he wanted to hear it. Instead, he smiled and reached for a warm biscuit. He was buttering it lavishly when Tom Simmons entered the room, his hat in his hands. Tom ignored him and nodded briefly at Mary before looking straight at Murdoch, who seemed unable to mask his surprise.

   “Tom?”

   “Excuse me, Mr Lancer, for interrupting your breakfast, but I wanted you to know my mind before I leave for the herd today.”

   “Go ahead, Tom,” Murdoch said. Johnny gazed into his coffee. He was sure he knew what was coming and already he saw in it the workings of destiny, the way things were meant to be. As usual, he could feel his heart beating at the nearness of the flow of life. Such times made him want a child, so he could press it to him and feel his own life living on through it.

   “I’ll be moving on after the drive, Mr Lancer.”

   Johnny watched his father’s face. It behaved as it always did when confronted by unwelcome news; it seemed set in stone.

   “Might I know the reason?”

   For the first time, Tom glanced at Johnny, who gazed back at him intensely.

   “I have a boy, Mr Lancer. Haven’t seen him since he was six. I’d like to try finding him.” He looked at Johnny again. “Hadn’t reckoned on looking, but since I got to thinking about it, it won’t quit my mind.”

   Murdoch nodded.

   “You’re a free man, Tom.” He sighed. “I can’t pretend that I’m happy to lose my top hand, but I respect your decision.”

   “You got your top hand there, Boss,” Tom said, nodding at Johnny. “You won’t find a better in anyone’s books.”

   Johnny glowed inside at the unexpected praise. His father stood up and held out his hand.

   “I hope you find your boy, Tom,” he said. “There’s always a job for you at Lancer if you need it.”

   Tom shook Murdoch’s hand, his features as close to being moved as Johnny had ever witnessed.

   “Thank you, Mr Lancer. I appreciate that.”

   When Tom had left the room, Murdoch sighed deeply and looked severely at his son. Johnny had picked up the jam pot and was searching for the largest whole strawberry.

   “I presume this has something to do with you, young man.”

   “I just talked to the man, Murdoch,” Johnny said, intent on his quest. “Asked him about his family.”

   “You suggested he should leave?”

   “No, sir.” Johnny’s tone barely concealed his irritation. “I don’t do suggestions to a man like Tom Simmons. If he’s made a decision to leave, that’s his concern.”

   “It’s my concern when my top hand walks out after twenty years on a fruitless quest.”

   Johnny stopped searching for strawberries and stared hard at his father.

   “Fruitless?”

   Murdoch fiddled with his knife and averted his eyes from his son’s critical gaze.

   “I shouldn’t have said …”

   “You don’t reckon it’s worth Tom looking for his kid, Murdoch?”

   “I didn’t say that …”

   “Then what are ya sayin’?”

   “Perhaps your father is worried that Mr Simmons will be disappointed, Johnny,” Mary suggested. “Does he even know where his son might be?”

   Johnny regarded his aunt calmly.

   “Maybe not, Ma’am, but in my book, a journey in a good cause ain’t never wasted, whatever happens at the end of it.”  He stood up and took two biscuits from the plate in the centre of the table.  “I’m gonna start work on that mare. See ya later.”

   “We’re leaving for church at ten,” Murdoch said; he poured coffee, his expression now void of emotion. “Make sure you’re ready.”

   “Since you ain’t given me my watch back yet, you’re gonna have to yell for me.”

   Johnny left the room before his father had a chance to retaliate. Outside, he found Tom saddling up his horse outside the main barn. In silence, he stroked the animal’s neck, watching as Tom tightened the cinch.

   “Your pa mad?” Tom asked, his gaze averted from Johnny.

   “Not at you.”

   Tom looked at him with a small smile.

   “When ain’t he mad at you, boy?”

   Johnny grinned and dipped his head.

   “None too often.” Lifting his head, his face became serious. “You reckon you’ll find Zach?”

   “I don’t know, Johnny.” Tom mounted his horse in one practised movement and looked down at the young man. “But somethin’s sure pressing on me to try.”

   Johnny nodded. He watched the cowboy ride away. The sun had come up over the distant mountains and it seemed to Johnny that Tom Simmons was already gone, riding into his strange new future, just as he himself had done a year ago. Jelly’s cow bellowed hard and long and the old man emerged from the bunkhouse, a pail in his hand. He waved at Johnny and the young man smiled. He felt happy, even more so than usual. It was still surprising to him, this contentment that at times seemed to nestle in his bones like an old cat curled up in the afternoon sun. Sometimes, resentful, he tried to shake it off by picking up his gun or jumping his horse as high as it was willing to go, but mostly, especially lately, he allowed it in and did not trouble to disturb it.  

    

Chapter Eighteen

   “You asleep, Mister?”

   Scott opened his eyes with a start to find the young girl’s gaze upon him. Clothed in a shapeless blue dress and old boots, she was standing among the flowers and herbs that grew profusely in front of the side porch leading to the kitchen. It caught the best of the sun and was favoured by cats and convalescents alike. Bruised by Laura’s movements, the thyme and marjoram released their fragrances and brought him out of his daydreams.

   He had been lost in the moment of falling. Such a moment could not be forgotten, where a man did not know if he was about to die, to fail or to find glory. The warmth of the horns. He hadn’t expected to feel such heat, as if they were living things. He had grasped them and held on for his dear life in that welter of dust and spittle, knowing that the animal was stronger, so much stronger than him. Yet, he had stopped it, had ground it to a halt with his bare hands. The girl had spoken just as the memory of Johnny’s gunshot had put his dreams in a painful, angry place. In the early morning sun, he regarded her unsmilingly.

   “No, I was thinking with my eyes closed.”

   Laura moved closer, a stalk of lavender in her hands. She glanced back in the direction of the bunkhouse, before taking a seat on the porch’s lowest step.

   “You got a fine home, Mister,” she said quietly. “Musta been real nice growin’ up here.”

   From his chair in the sun, Scott sighed and shook his head. It continued to surprise him how much the truth of it still hurt.

   “I didn’t grow up here. I was raised in Boston by my grandfather.”

   “How come?”

   “Long story,” Scott said dismissively. He watched her pull the lavender head apart. Cautiously, he asked, “What about you, Laura? Where did you grow up?”

   She shrugged and brushed a fly from her face.

   “Too many places to count. Wore my ma out in the end, lookin’ for the right place to call home. Somethin’ was always wrong. Too dry, too wet, too dangerous, too lonely. Always somethin’. Shoulda stayed in Kansas. Least we knew what we were there, poor dirt farmers who got by somehow.”

   The breeze stirred the leaves of the apple tree, growing so close to the porch one of its branches reached in and touched the porch ceiling. Tiny applets had started out of the dying blossom. Only recently had Scott discovered that the tree had been planted in celebration of Johnny’s birth, and he had refrained from asking Maria if such a tribute had been granted him.

   “How long has your mother been dead?” he asked.

   “Near three years.” Laura threw the stalk on the step and tugged out another one from the lavender bush. “We was doin’ fine on our own, workin’ our little piece o’ land. We had a cow, a few chickens. We could feed ourselves. We was still a family…” She paused and smiled faintly. “Maybe even happy.” She shook her head. “I was happy. I think my sister was happy; then Louisa met him.

   “Jackson?”

   The girl nodded, her face twisted into angry concentration as she began to desiccate the second flower head.

   “She reckoned we wasn’t safe on our own.” She looked up then at the young man in the chair. “He made her believe it, that two women wasn’t safe without a man around.”

   “That might be true, Laura,” Scott said. “There are all kinds of dangers in this land, even for a grown man.”

   The girl regarded him with a cold smile. So much did she remind him then of his brother, he knew for certain that, like Johnny, she had suffered too much, seen too much, not to see right through all belated attempts to soften the blows of her life.

   “Worse when the danger comes knockin’ on your door an’ you let it right in.”

   Scott understood now that he was not dealing with a child, struck dumb by a single unthinkable event. This was an old wound, endured, lived with, unshared with anyone, until now. For the first time, he felt a powerful connection with the girl; he too had carried wounds inside his head until, for want of sharing, he had wanted to scream out loud.

   “Has Jackson harmed you in some way, Laura?” he asked. The girl dipped her head and Scott could see her breathing more heavily as she tore the lavender stalk into pieces. The heavy scent of it drifted up towards him, a smell so pungent it was inescapable. Fat bees buzzed in the clumps like drunken clumsy old men. “Laura?”

   She looked up with sudden defiance, her pretty freckled face twisted against pity.

   “Nothin’ I can’t handle myself, Mr Lancer.”

   “You’re a child!”

   The girl shook her head, a contemptuous smile directed straight at the young man’s eyes.

   “Reckon that depends on how you look at it,” she said, without animosity. “Some folks’ childhood’s over real quick and there ain’t no goin’ back to it.” She looked at Scott with renewed intensity. Scott might even have called it hopefulness. “Can ya go back, Mr Lancer? Can ya go back from bad things happenin’?”

   The question, so pure and so artless, stung him to the core. How often had he asked himself that question since the war? Could a man go travelling down one bad road and then go back to where he had started, try again? He wondered if Johnny had asked himself the same thing. Perhaps even Murdoch had.

   “I think so, Laura,” he replied. “I think perhaps you can go back some of the way.”

   The girl nodded slowly.

   “But not all?”

   “No, not all.”

   She stood up then and brushed fragments of lavender from her dress.

   “I have to go,” she said. “S’posed to be askin’ Mr Hoskins fer milk fer Lou.” She smiled her old woman’s smile. “Guess she’s hopin’ that I’ll break out talkin’ tryin’ to make maself plain.”

   Scott watched her turn away, fear gripping his senses through the scent of lavender.

   “Laura, are you safe with him, with them?”

   She turned her head and nodded; the expression on her face seemed like one from a mother to a fretful child.

   “While I’m here, I’m safe. Jus’ tell that brother o’ yours not to train Jackson up too good so’s he wins that shootin’ contest.”

   Scott nodded.

   “You can count on me,” he said.

   “I know it.”

   He watched her walk along the path past the vegetable patch and through the fruit trees, as long ago he had watched young soldiers walk in fields of golden wheat towards the enemy lines, as casually as if they were going to church on a Sunday.

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

   Through the window high above Lindy Cooper’s head, wind-blown branches of an oak tree showed clear-cut against a deep blue sky. Nearer to Johnny’s consciousness than the reverend’s earnest monotone, the droning buzz of a large bluebottle in the same window seemed to him to fill the whole church.

   He wouldn’t look at her yet. He would bide his time. He knew she was casting furtive glances at him from her seat across the aisle. Her father, too, rigidly erect beside his crisply dressed wife, was aware of him. Earlier, Tom Cooper had managed the admirable trick of respectfully shaking Murdoch Lancer’s hand while glaring accusingly at Johnny with his small pale brown eyes. Johnny’s exaggeratedly polite greeting and hovering smirk had done nothing to appease the livery stable owner.

   Johnny occupied a few minutes fantasising over shooting the fly dead centre. Would there be anything left of the fly or would it be obliterated without trace? He imagined the faces of the congregation, woken from their stupor - their expressions of horrified disbelief. Shifting on the hard wooden bench and pulling irritably at his tight collar, he released a deep involuntary sigh; a warning look from his father sitting next to him stilled his restlessness. Next to Murdoch, his uncle sat in rapt attention to Reverend Jones’ every word; his hands were clasped tight in his lap, and in his eagerness to harmonize with the minister, he would sometimes lean forward, lift his bearded chin and seem as if he were about to speak. Johnny wished he would, even if was only to agree with whatever Jones was spouting on about. A look at his older brother, seated in front of him, was enough to tell him that Scott was both irritated and profoundly bored; in his daydreaming state, Johnny imagined the glory of his well-bred brother suddenly on his feet, damning the minister in ripe language, ripping his sermon apart expertly on every point and marching out of the church to the tune of ‘Shall We Gather at the River?’

   Jones raised his pitch and his words came harder and faster. Johnny could feel his father tense up beside him, his teeth grinding above his twitching jaw line, his broad fingers tapping softly on the hymnal on his knee. The bluebottle’s buzzing grew angrier and louder. It sounded trapped. Johnny’s gaze idly sought the insect and met Lindy Cooper’s blue eyes. She looked hopeful, maybe even a little desperate, he decided. He smiled lazily, holding her gaze until she blushed and looked away to the little blue bag on her lap. Another little bag. He hadn’t seen this one yet. Before he had tumbled her behind Folsom’s barn, she had coyly allowed him to rifle the contents of a little yellow bag; handling her small female requirements – the scented handkerchief, the powder box, the tiny glass bottle of perfume – had given him almost as much pleasure as easing himself inside her. Almost.

   He was nudged hard by his father’s elbow. In a rustle of silk skirts and the creaking of old joints, the congregation was standing up in readiness to sing. Grabbing his hymnal, he looked randomly for the right page until Murdoch showed him his own hymnal and jabbed his finger at the chosen song. He pretended to sing, confident that his father’s deep rhythmic bass booming out beside him would drown his own sullen efforts. It intrigued him that Murdoch and Iain alike had no need of the words; they sang as if one man, up and outwardly as if they were ridding themselves of unwanted demons. On the other side of Murdoch, Mary sang with a high, sweet voice.

   His own lustful thoughts interrupted, Johnny remembered his father’s and aunt’s earlier embarrassment at breakfast, their flushed faces. Was his father capable of such loss of self-control, of such deep betrayal? He didn’t know. Murdoch’s secret inner life was a mystery to him. Did a man of fifty still have the desires that coursed wildly and sometimes unstoppably, through his own twenty-one year old veins? He wasn’t sure he wanted to contemplate it, so he looked at the words on his page instead. At the same time, he heard his father’s voice boom out with renewed fervour.

           ‘Through many dangers, toils and snares
            I have already come.
            Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
           And grace will lead me home.’

   He liked those words. While the rest of the congregation sang on, he studied them. He wasn’t sure what grace was, although it sounded like something good, something worth having. He spent the rest of the service watching a sunbeam make its slow way down the aisle, and exchanging playful glances with Lindy Cooper, until an angry jab from her mother’s parasol into Lindy’s ribs stole that pleasure from them both.

 

   Johnny trailed behind the rest of his family as, in their slow turn, the townspeople shook hands with Reverend Jones, the women holding onto their hats against the warm, strong breeze. Beside him, his cousin was contemplating another fossil, this one given him by Elijah who had taken to scouring the nearest canyon in the long early summer evenings. Johnny knew that Robbie had paid no more attention to the service than he had; inside his cousin’s hymnal had been another book with illustrations of strange beasts – dinosaurs, Robbie had called them, ancient cold-blooded creatures that had roamed the earth in a time so distant, it was almost unimaginable. Johnny tugged at his collar and nudged his cousin. He nodded towards Lindy’s family who were standing under the oak tree talking to neighbours.

   “There she is, Rob,” he whispered. “What d’you reckon?”

   Robbie looked up, puzzled.

   “Who?”

   “Lindy Cooper.” His gaze on the girl, his tone became detached, private. “I’ll tell ya, Cousin, I could eat her up right now.”

   Robbie studied the girl briefly, before giving Johnny a faint smile.

   “Very nice, Johnny. Will ye be marrying the girl?”

   The younger man looked towards his father, who was dutifully shaking hands with Jones, and smiled dangerously.

   “Might at that, Cousin, but not yet. Reckon we’ll have us some fun first.”

   “Ye don’t mean …” Robbie lowered his tone to a startled whisper. “Take advantage of the girl?”

   “Already did,” Johnny replied, with a slow smile. Before Robbie had a chance to react, Johnny was thrusting his hand at Reverend Jones who took it with an uneasy frown.

   “Mighty fine sermon, Rev’rend,” he said. “I learned a helluva lot.”

   “Oh.” Jones cast a surprised glance at Murdoch who appeared to him to have a trace of the boy’s insolent smile on his mouth. “And what did you learn that was of particular importance to you, John?”

   “Not to waste my time with talkin’, Rev’rend, when I could be doin’ God’s work with my hands.”

   “Oh, indeed,” Jones blustered. “Indeed, that’s a very fine lesson. Yes, indeed. The Devil makes work for idle hands, that is certain.”

   “Exactly what I was thinkin’!”

   “Come along, Son,” Murdoch said firmly. “I think you’ve taken up quite enough of the Reverend’s time.”

   “I’ll catch you up.” Johnny looked at his father seriously. “I think me and the Rev’rend ‘ve got somethin’ goin’ here.”

   “Johnny.”

   Smiling suddenly, he dipped his head and heeded his father’s warning tone. Across the street from the church, Scott was introducing their aunt and uncle to the Bergsons. Above their heads was strung a large banner advertising the Dead Shot Derby. Johnny thought again about entering; the temptation to see off all pretenders, who would come from miles around, was very powerful and made his blood sing with excitement.

   “My hat!”

   He heard the familiar little scream and turned his head to see Lindy’s blue hat blown in the strong wind like tumbleweed down the street. Local children began to give chase, laughing and yelling in delight and ignoring their parents’ commands to return. Johnny leapt on Barranca, who was tethered by the church, and galloped down the street, scattering shrieking children; they watched in awe as Murdoch Lancer’s younger son caught up with the fleeing hat, leaned down from his horse and swept it up in one graceful movement.

   Returning, he rode up to Lindy’s family, jumped off Barranca and presented the hat to the girl, his face lit up by a broad grin. Her delight was clear to him, and he gladly ignored her father’s scowl.

   “Your hat, Miss Cooper,” he said. “Reckon it’s a mite dusty, but it’s good for a few wearin’s yet.”

   “Thank you, Mr Lancer.” Lindy took the hat, smiling so happily at him that his heart missed a beat. After the moment’s pulse when they simply stared at each other, Tom Cooper’s voice cut in roughly.

   “We’re obliged to you for the hat, boy. Go on back to your folks now.”

   Johnny glared briefly at the older man, before stealing one more grateful glance from Lindy. He smiled and then led his horse back to his family, his thoughts on Lindy and his passionate yearning for her now that he had seen her again.

 

   Murdoch had been unable to suppress a surge of pride and amusement in watching his younger son retrieve the bonnet; he kept his good humour when Scott swiped at Johnny’s hat and joked that he would need a bigger horse soon to carry the weight of his head. Grinning, Johnny picked his hat out of the dust and swatted his brother.

   “Jealousy don’t become you, Boston.”

   “Alright, you two,” Murdoch said, seeing his brother’s look of disapproval. “Knock it off now.”

   “You think I could ride like that if I was a few years younger, Johnny?” Sven Bergson said with a smile. His wife, Gerta, her arm wrapped around her husband’s, slapped him affectionately.

   “Many years younger and if you could actually ride a horse, Sven.”

   The storekeeper laughed and winked at Johnny.

   “I’ve as much chance of winning the Dead Shot Derby, huh?”

   Murdoch saw his son smile briefly in reply and wondered if Johnny had it in mind to enter. He sighed inwardly; yet another possible source of conflict between them. Sven turned and swept his arm towards the entrance to his store.

   “Mr and Mrs Lancer, I would be much honoured if you would take a few moments of your time to view my little enterprise. I feel sure that as visitors from Europe, you will appreciate our efforts to make a new life in this wonderful country, so far from our home in Sweden.”

   Murdoch saw the resistance in his brother’s face, but Mary smiled readily and nodded.

   “I would be most interested ta see your shop, Mr Bergson,” she said, taking Robbie’s arm. “Everything about America is so new ta us. In our village in Scotland, the shop is very small, although it serves our needs well.”

   Murdoch felt a jolt of affection pass through him at her simple words. He saw Iain clench his hands hard behind his back and follow the group, his body stiff with reluctance. Inside the shop, it pleased Murdoch to hear Mary enthuse over the wares and the neat, spotless interior. He was happy to stand and watch her animated face, the way she listened with such intent to Sven’s prideful nonsense. It amused him, too, to see how his sons had deployed themselves – Scott had already found a book to read and Johnny was leaning, chin in hand, over a cabinet full of women’s necklaces and bracelets, entirely absorbed. Lindy Cooper, pretty, fresh as new milk, and clearly still in his younger son’s thoughts, came to Murdoch’s mind – another reason for the father in him to worry.

   “Is it right that we should enter a shop on the Lord’s Day, Murry?”

   Broken out of his reverie, Murdoch frowned in response to his brother’s harsh whisper.

   “Would it be right to insult our neighbours by refusing their invitation, Brother? These are good people and Sven has gone out of his way many times to meet our needs. I believe the Lord would approve.”

   “Are these for sale, Mr Bergson?”

   Robbie’s loud, excited voice cut short Iain’s response to his brother’s words. He immediately walked over to where his son was standing before a wooden box on the counter. Inside it lay half a dozen fossils nestling in cotton wool. Sven nodded enthusiastically.

   “They sure are, young feller. Travelling man came through last month. Told me some crazy story about creatures swimming in seas right where we’re standing now. Can you believe it?” Sven tapped his head. “A bit touched, for sure, I reckon.”

   “You still bought those old rocks off him,” Gerta said scornfully.

   “My cousin, Rob, here knows all about those creatures, Mr Bergson.” Johnny picked up one of the fossils. “This one’s an ammonite ... ain’t that right, Rob?”

   Robbie smiled.

   “I’ve taught ye well, Johnny.”

   “And that talk of seas bein’ here ain’t fanciful, not accordin’ to Rob’s books.”

   “You will not talk such blasphemy on the Sabbath, John Lancer!” Iain said furiously. “You will not!”

   Johnny put the fossil back in the box and glanced at his father, before looking directly at Iain.

   “Sorry, Uncle. That wasn’t my intention. I guess Rob’s got me interested, that’s all.”

   “Aye, in his fairy-tales, lad. You’d be better applying yourself ta that history of the Romans ye found in your father’s study. They at least had some part ta play in our Creator’s plan.”

   Murdoch pressed his hand on his brother’s arm.

   “Let’s not allow bad feeling to undo the pleasure you found in Reverend Jones’ sermon, Iain,” he said. “The boy meant no disrespect to you.”

   Iain considered his older brother’s words for a moment and then nodded curtly.

   “The sermon did give me pleasure,” he admitted, almost softly. “It comforted me. Excuse me, Mr and Mrs Bergson, I believe I may still be suffering from the detrimental effects of our long journey.”

   “Of course, of course,” Sven said. “I understand entirely, for sure. You must rest. My Gerta will tell you; I was not myself for many weeks when we first arrived. I hope you will visit us again when you are feeling better.” 

   As the family left the store, Scott stopped by the jars of candy lined up on the long counter and pulled out a few twists of barley-sugar.

   “I’ll owe you for these, Sven,” he said, pocketing the candy. “I have a young friend who will appreciate them.”

   “No problem, Scott, next time you’re in town, huh?”

   Murdoch, himself struck by his son’s choice of sweet, saw that his brother, too, was transfixed by Scott’s simple action. Amazed, his own mouth dry with anticipation, he watched Iain approach the jarful of golden barley-sugar and reach to tap the clear glass gently.

   “Barley-sugar,” he whispered. “It’s years since I saw it.” He turned to look at Murdoch, who once again felt the sensation that everyone else in the room had disappeared, leaving just the two of them alone in the world. “I wonder, would it taste the same, Murry?”

   Before Murdoch could reply, Iain shook his head, as if ridding himself of an itch, and walked out, his hands clasped behind his back. Murdoch, walking beside Mary, struggled to quell a strong feeling of being cheated of a vital moment with his brother by the presence of others.

  

Chapter Nineteen

   “See there.” Robbie pointed upwards at the canyon face. Shadows moved across the ledges and fissures like dark fingers exploring silently, softly. “See the layers. They tell the whole story of the world, Cousins.”

   Both brothers looked up from tethering their horses to a cottonwood tree. So eager had their cousin been to see the canyon that he had not yet dismounted, his gaze as rapt as his father’s had been in church the day before.

   “Reckon Viajero might appreciate a rest, Cousin,” Johnny said, his long fingers scratching at the mare’s forelock. Understanding, Robbie dismounted awkwardly and took the reins from Johnny’s hand.

   “I apologise, Johnny, I got carried away.”

   Johnny gave him a small smile and patted his cousin’s shoulder.

   “Now that you’re a cowboy, Rob, you always gotta put your horse first, even before those old rocks.”

   Robbie smiled. He felt foolishly pleased by the title. It had been hard-won, after all. For the first time that morning he had presented himself at breakfast in the clothes of a working cowhand. His father’s angry reaction had been expected, as had been his mother’s determination to mitigate it with cautious approval. Emboldened, he had gone further, informing them that he had been learning to ride. Immediately, his father had rounded on Johnny, berating him with such bitter words that his infuriated uncle had intervened and taken the responsibility upon himself. Like a bear, confused by shadows, his father had turned all his rage on his brother until Murdoch had ordered him out of the room. His mother had wept while Robbie had sat in mute rebellion, feeling the steel course through his blood.

   “You ride well,” Scott commented, as Robbie tied his horse to the tree.

   “Thank you, Cousin. I had a fine teacher.”

   Untying his saddlebags and rifle from Barranca, Johnny snorted softly.

   “Reckon that’s not how my uncle sees it.”

   He sat on a rock and began to clean his rifle. Since his uncle’s furious attack that morning, he had been silent on the subject. He was surprised by how much it had hurt. After church on Sunday, he had asked his uncle about the meaning of Grace. Iain’s expression, fretful after the visit to Sven’s store, had been transformed into pleasure, and Johnny had felt glad, even while he grew bored by the long explanation. The only words he could recall now were ‘loved by God, even when we are not worthy of being loved.’ He had liked the idea, but mostly he had liked his uncle’s warm, confiding tone, just as he treasured those times when he was able to win a smile from his father. When he bothered to wonder why he craved such moments, he was irritated with himself, but then, like a bird flying south for the winter, he submitted to the force of his nature. It felt too good to resist.

   “I shouldn’t have told ma father about the riding, Johnny,” Robbie said. “I’m sorry.” He smiled briefly. “Ye’ve made me a reckless soul.”

   Johnny looked curiously at his cousin. His beard removed to leave just a moustache, Robbie looked much younger, almost innocent.

   “Strange thing that, Cousin,” he said, his hand resting on the rifle across his knees. “If I’ve got a soul, it sure ain’t reckless.”

   Scott had been gathering wood for a fire and returned to hear his brother’s words.

   “No, but his heart sometimes is.”

   Johnny smiled slowly and carefully replaced the bullets in the rifle.

   “Hey, Boston, what ya doin’ workin’? That leg still needs restin’”

   Scott dropped the bundle of dry sticks into the dust.

   “I need coffee, and I didn’t see you stirring your butt to make a fire.”

   “Horse first, Brother, then gun.” Johnny stood up fluidly, the rifle over his shoulder. “Fire last.”

   Scott shook his head and kneeled down carefully to arrange the sticks. He smiled at Robbie who knelt down to help him.

   “He never makes the fire.”

   He struck a match and lit the kindling, adding more sticks until there was heat enough to set up the coffee. Absorbed, Robbie watched his meticulous actions.

   “I’ve never had ma coffee from a camp fire before. When I go out walking in the hills, I take a can of cold tea and some bread.”

   “Walkin’, cold tea, bread,” Johnny said, sighting his rifle at a jackrabbit in the scrub. “Don’t sound like too much fun, Rob.” He fired, startling Robbie. The rabbit’s body arched up with the force of the bullet and was still. “Got our lunch, fellers.”

   “We don’t need to cook a rabbit, Johnny,” Scott said, watching as his brother returned, the rabbit dangling from one hand, small drops of blood splashing into the dust. “Maria packed us enough to feed an army.”

   “Figured after all that cold tea and bread, Rob might wanna sample some real American outdoor cookin’”

   Johnny knelt down, took out a knife and began to skin the rabbit. Robbie could see that he had done it many times before.

   “Tell us more about those layers, Cousin. I like stories.”

   Happy to distract himself from the sight of Johnny’s hand pulling the guts from the rabbit, Robbie stood up and scrambled over a few rocks to the canyon wall. He pointed at a layer just above his height.

   “See this layer? This is the third chapter in the story, the Cambrian layer. This is where the trilobites are.”

   With bloodied hands, Johnny threw the rabbit’s guts away from him, and narrowed his eyes at his cousin.

   “Ya mean those things that look like horse hooves?”

   “Aye.” His eyes shining with excitement, Robbie gazed upwards at the massive canyon wall. “Millions of years ago, Johnny, they swam here. Nautiloids, graptolites, molluscs – they swam the great seas in an enormous, dark silence, wi’ no human to mark them, just the long, long twists and turns of geological change.”

   Johnny washed his knife and hands with water from his canteen while Scott set up a spit for roasting the rabbit.

   “So what killed ‘em?” Johnny asked. “Why aren’t they around any more?”

   “Mother Nature, Cousin,” Robbie replied. “She kills her own when they’ve served their time, and all she leaves behind is a memory in the rocks.”

   “Our fate, too, then, Cousin?” Scott said, with the faintest of smiles.

   “I can think of worse,” Robbie said, meeting Scott’s amused gaze with something close to irritation.

   “Like roasting in the fires of hell, perhaps?” Scott checked the coffee, before skewering the rabbit. “I can’t disagree with you there.”

   Robbie clambered back over the rocks towards the brothers.

   “There’s no heaven and there’s no hell, Scott; there’s just life, teeming life, and if ma father could see it, he wud be a happier man.”

   Johnny leaned back against a rock and gazed at the flames licking the coffee pot’s blackened bottom. It felt good to be out of the study, out here with his brother and cousin, waiting for hot coffee, and whittling wood with his knife.

   Content, he watched Scott poured coffee into three mugs; then his brother placed the rabbit over the fire. He was quiet, too quiet for Johnny’s comfort. It had been days now since Scott had expressed his intention of wrestling another steer, and Johnny hoped he’d thought better of it, but in his heart, he knew it was unlikely.  He was glad when Scott rested against the rock next to him, shoulder to shoulder, his coffee in his hands.

   “I’ve seen some things, Robbie,” Scott said, surprising both his cousin and brother. “Terrible things.” He sipped the coffee and swallowed gratefully. “Hell on Earth, I suppose, and what concerns me is if there is no God, if there’s nothing else, as you claim, but a billet in a layer of rock, then what does that make of the faith of all those soldiers who died in the war, that faith which gave them comfort as they lay dying, that faith which gives your father consolation? I’m not saying I don’t agree with your views, Robbie, but where does your atheism leave them?”

   Robbie tasted the black, bitter coffee. Still not used to it, he grimaced and lowered the cup, reluctant to meet what he felt to be his cousin’s mildly critical gaze. He could smell the rabbit’s cooking flesh.

   “It’s no more than man’s cry against the darkness, Scott,” he answered. “Some of us need it. Some of us do not.”

   “Well, I sure ain’t doin’ no cryin’,” Johnny said, aggravated by the conversation. “I’m lookin’ for heaven any way I can get it, and right now, it’s in that jack rabbit.” He smiled as he turned the carcass. “And maybe in Lindy Cooper’s drawers.”

   Scott choked a little through a mouthful of coffee.

   “Do you ever think of anything else but girls and filling your stomach, Brother?”

   “Yep.” Johnny grinned. “Horses.” He hesitated. “And cows, when I got to.”

   Scott laughed.

   “There you have it, Robbie - my little brother, the trilobite of the modern world, happy to swim in the sea of life and leave the worrying to the likes of us.”

   “If I thought ya might be insultin’ me there, Brother,” Johnny said, smiling dangerously. “I’d be inclined to whup ya pretty little Boston ass.”

   “Save your energies for Lindy,” Scott said, returning the smile. Johnny opened Scott’s saddle bags and took out the parcels of food. He found a biscuit and took a large, hungry bite. Leaning back against the rock, he swallowed the mouthful and shot a cool grin in Robbie’s direction, before turning to his brother.

   “I been meanin’ to ask your advice about Lindy.”

   “My advice?” Scott looked sceptically at the younger man. “Isn’t it a bit late for that, boy? I gave you the benefit of my extensive knowledge of women and you entirely ignored me.”

   “Yeh.” Johnny grinned. “But it sure was fun.”

   He threw a piece of biscuit in the direction of a small flock of sparrows that were fussing close by. It amused him to see how they descended on the treat, squabbling like girls over the last hat in the store. He kept his tone casual, although he coloured slightly with embarrassment.

   “So, how d’ya know if you’re in love?”

   Scott smiled and nudged his brother.

   “Oh, that’s what this is about. I thought your gallantry outside the church on Sunday was something more than politeness.”

   “Whatever the hell that means, big brother, I’m feelin’ a powerful lot of it for Lindy, I tell ya.”

   Scott sensed Johnny’s genuine unease and swallowed back his desire to tease his brother. He turned the rabbit and cleared his throat.

   “Well, from my experience of being in love, which isn’t actually that extensive, I would say that a man knows he’s smitten when he can barely think of anything or anyone else but the girl, if he wants to please her above everything else in his life, and …” Scott hesitated and smiled. “… if he starts looking at jewellery in Sven Bergson’s store.”

   Johnny blushed and dipped his head.

   “What would you say, Robbie?” Scott asked, unable to keep the humour from his voice at his younger brother’s discomfort. Their cousin had been observing the sparrows and now looked at Scott with some confusion.

   “Oh, I wouldn’t know, Cousin. I have limited experience in that area. All my energies are directed towards ma studies and ma teaching.”

   Johnny looked up then, surprised out of his awkwardness by the older man’s stiff, passionless words.

   “You’ve kissed a girl, though, right?”

   “No, Johnny,” Robbie replied. “I intend to leave such things for the sanctity of my wedding night, if and when that may occur.”

   Johnny sat forward and swiped at his cousin with his hat.

   “Whoever sanctity is, she sure doesn’t sound like much fun, Rob. You need a trip to town, Cousin.” He looked at his unsmiling brother. “What d’ya say, Scott?”

   “I think a man’s morals are his own business, Johnny,” Scott replied severely. He checked the rabbit and then set about spreading a cloth on the ground for lunch. Feeling rebuked, Johnny poured himself more coffee and watched his brother’s careful preparations with a mixture of irritation and respect. At times, he could hardly believe he was related to this man, who could, with a few words, cut him down to size with ruthless effectiveness, outdoing even their father. Robbie had returned to the rocks and, bent to his task, was jabbing at the rock face with a small, sharp pick.

   Thoughts of what he had seen the previous evening came to Johnny’s mind – his father taking Robbie’s mother’s hand and kissing her open mouth with an intensity he had thought beyond men no longer young. Shocked he had been, for sure, but something in him, too, had rejoiced to see his father lost to the world in the arms of a woman. Hurrying away to play cards in the bunkhouse, he had let go any lingering desire to judge the couple. Now, as he listened to the steady tapping of Robbie’s pick, he toyed with the idea of telling his brother, but Scott spoke first.

   “So, are you in love, Brother?”

   Smiling cautiously at the return of the older man’s good humour, Johnny shrugged, his fingers playing with a short piece of stray twine.

   “By your reckonin’, Boston, I might be.” He sighed dramatically. “If I don’t see her soon, I reckon I’m gonna explode. I swear I want her so bad, it hurts.”

   Scott put the coffee pot back over the fire.

   “Johnny, you need to be careful," he said. "It's easy to mistake a lustful craving for a woman's body for love." He threw a small stone at Johnny's knee with a smile. "Especially at your age, little brother. You do know where babies come from. I suppose?" 

    Johnny grinned and swatted Scott with his hat.

    "I know about the birds and the bees, Scott," he said. "It's not like I haven't thought about that. It's just …" He shook his head and accepted a plate of food from his brother.

   “You’re not sure enough about her?”

   Johnny took a bite of the rabbit and swallowed it before replying.

   “I like her, Brother, more than any girl I’ve ever met. She’s real pretty, she can cook an’ sew, an’ it sure feels good holdin’ her, an’ sometimes …” He hesitated, searching for the right words. “…when she looks at me or does some stupid little thing, some girl thing, you know?” He looked hopefully at his brother, who nodded. He breathed out in sudden relief. “Then I’d kill for her, Scott, I swear.”

   Scott put down his plate and pushed gently at his brother’s shoulder.

   “So what’s your problem, boy? It sounds like love to me.”

   “It does?” Johnny regarded the older man doubtfully. “Then how come I ain’t feelin’ ready to marry her?”

   “Ah, well,” Scott said, shaking his head. “That’s for you to find out. Only, you’d better make your mind up soon, because if you don’t want to marry her, you’ll have to stop seeing her and let Ricky Hanson in with a chance.”

   “Ricky Hanson!?” Johnny glared furiously at his brother. “If I catch that mudsill sniffin’ round my girl, I’ll horsewhip ‘im from here to Sacramento.” He banged his plate down and stood up suddenly, his hands clenched into tight fists at his side as he looked down at his brother. “What the hell d’ya know about Ricky Hanson, Scott?”

   “Johnny, will you calm down,” Scott said. He smiled reassuringly at Robbie who had rejoined them and gave his cousin a plateful of food. Robbie took it, but his gaze was upon his enraged young cousin.

   “The fuck I’ll calm down!” Johnny picked up his hat and jammed it on his head, before grabbing his rifle. “I’m goin’ into town right now to put a spoke in Hanson’s fuckin’ wheel.”

   Scott got to his feet and limped after his brother.

   “Johnny, for Christ’s sake,” he said. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Everyone knows Ricky’s sweet on Lindy. You’ve laughed about it often enough.”

   Johnny turned round and threw a smouldering look at his brother.

   “Well, I ain’t laughin’ now, Brother.”

   “I can see that,” Scott said. “But can you see how you’re going to have to make up your mind about that girl, Johnny? If you can’t stand the thought of any other man having her, then you’re going to have to marry her. D’you see that?”

   His shoulders still heaving with emotion, Johnny nodded. Subdued, and disturbed by his own anger, he walked back to the camp fire with his brother. Then, his heart suddenly contracting with guilt, he held out his hand to help Scott to the ground. For awhile, the three young men sat in silence, enjoying the food and coffee and allowing the windless peace of the canyon to enter their blood.

   Robbie, who had been thoroughly alarmed by Johnny’s show of raw emotion, bided his time before daring to speak out loud to either one of the brothers. The rabbit tasted good, like nothing he had ever eaten before, smoky from the fire and bringing with it the memory of its last leap at life before the bullet had stopped its blood.

   Women. It was a subject that possessed him in the lonely hours of the night and in any fleeting moment when the pull of work and duty failed to engage his mind. Striding over the hills, he sometimes found himself walking more quickly in an effort to shake off his confused and lustful thoughts, and now – now, this passionate youth had awoken his scarcely buried yearnings. He almost hated him for it.

   “I’d like ta go to town.” He heard himself say it with attempted innocence, hoping to hide the intention behind it, but Johnny’s responding smile told him he had failed.

   “Reckon that can be arranged, Rob,” he said. “Get us a game of cards and a few beers, huh? What d’ya say, Scott?”

   Scott sipped his fresh cup of coffee and looked circumspectly at his cousin.

   “I could certainly do with a night in town,” he said. “But we must be cautious, gentlemen. If you’re bound and determined, Cousin, to defy your father’s wishes, then I’d be grateful if you went about it a little more diplomatically than you did this morning. When dealing with our elders, it pays to know when to be honest and when to be economical with the truth, even when the elder has our love and respect.”

   Silence greeted Scott’s words, until he released a slow smile from his previously stony expression. Relieved, Robbie returned the smile.

   “I understand, Cousin. You have friends in town we could meet – respectable friends whom I would profit from knowing?”

   “I do.”

   Johnny licked a deposit of biscuit from the undersides of his teeth and shook his head.

   “When you two’re done speakin’ in code, how about we start lookin’ for these fossils before they swim right outta those rocks?”

   “They’re not going anywhere, Johnny,” Robbie laughed. “They’ll be here long, long after we’re gone.” He stood up, took a deep breath and thrust his arms out in sudden elation. “We’re merely fleeting shadows over the land, and we must live while we can.”

   Johnny gazed at the older man, half a bemused smile on his face. He removed his hat from his head and resettled it.

   “Sometimes, I feel mighty heavy for a shadow, Cousin, but I’ll second that.”

   He stood up and held out his hand to Scott, who took it and got to his feet. Before them, the sheer rock face glowered, crammed with strange, unknowable creatures. Shivering a little, Johnny imagined briefly the great, ancient sea washing over him and sweeping him away like a leaf down the canyon.

  

Chapter Twenty

   The ship had been his home for almost three months. In the second week, he had come close to falling overboard. Waves, twenty feet high, had reared before him like giant, fluid horses, before engulfing him in a wash of grey salt water. Murdoch could still remember lying on the deck, yelling his lungs out and grabbing for anything that would keep him anchored to his life. Afterwards, in the profound silence after chaos, he had lain against coiled ropes, unmoving, sticky with salt, tasting the blood in his mouth. From somewhere had come the sound of a man praying, pleading and repetitive, as if the man had not yet noticed that the storm was over, that he had been saved. In his survivor’s daze, Murdoch had listened to the words and it had occurred to him that not once had he appealed to God to spare his life. As the sailors, yelling orders and curses, had brought their ship back under their hands, he had gazed up at the sudden sun. Was there anyone to be thanked for his survival? Later, he had heard that five passengers had been lost, including a child – a fair-haired boy of six who, at breakfast, had stuck out his tongue at him. Was there anyone who had decided that it was a twenty-two year old man, and not an innocent child, who should see a new day?

   Through his glasses, Murdoch looked hard at the painting. He had bought it on board from another young emigrant – a youth with unruly red hair and bad teeth – just before docking in New York. Having nothing, the boy had been glad of the money, but Murdoch had seen it had cost him to let it go, and he had almost relented; let him keep the painting and the money. Often, he was grateful that he hardened his heart, although the boy’s sad face haunted him still with a power beyond the memory of their brief acquaintance.

   The Mary Piper – they had survived with her. They had hung on while the furious seas tried to drag their bodies into the waves.  In the rough detail of the painting, Murdoch could make out the deck where he had stood, his back turned to his past, his gaze ever on that distant horizon, waiting for that cry of ‘Land Ho!’ When the clipper had sailed into harbour, he had been suddenly conscious of a destiny; his heart had been so full, he had almost wept on the deck of that brave little ship. The painting wrapped in a shirt in his knapsack, he had strode the gangplank into the teeming mass of arrival. Then, for the first time, among the bubbling crowds, among the sharp-eyed men seeking out lonely innocents, among the tired-looking whores in their shawls, he had lost confidence. In wild fear, he had looked back at the ship, swaying gently in her moorings, and he had wanted to return – wanted anything but to feel such a stranger in this strange, bold new land.

   She slipped her hand in his. He grasped it gently in barely conscious need.

   “Your thoughts?” she whispered.

   “The past,” he replied, his gaze still on the painting. “The long distant past.”

   Then he turned to look upon her face. Those eyes, so completely open to him, so knowing of him, as if he and Mary had been born together out of the same womb. He kissed her, drank the wine of her mouth, certain that if he lost her now, he would shrivel away like a leaf in winter. How had it happened so quickly? But then, it hadn’t. He had picked up her love like hearing the notes of a familiar childhood tune. He had found himself humming it, before he even knew he was making music. Hearing the closing of a door, they parted. Murdoch watched her stroke her fingers over the pipe on his desk. She picked it up. Briefly, she placed the stem in her mouth and laughed a little at his stern face.

   “Where’s Iain?” he asked, taking the pipe from her fingers. Immediately, he felt guilty at her chastened expression. She walked to the window and gazed out, her left hand clutching her right arm.

   “He asked Mr Hoskins to drive him into town to see Reverend Jones,” she replied softly. “I think he believes the Reverend is the only man he can talk to now.”

   “You mean after this morning?” Murdoch could not help the angry bitterness emerging in his tone.

   “Aye.” Her voice sounded cold.

   “I’ve tried to talk with him, Mary. God help me, I’ve tried, but …” He sat in his desk chair and put his head in his hands. “He’s set hard against me. I can accept that, but I can’t accept him taking his anger out on my children. They’ve done nothing to deserve his hatred.”

   After their sons had left the ranch for the canyon, the brothers had railed against each other. Murdoch had listened with growing horror to Iain’s frenzied attacks on his character – a damned soul, headed for hell, who had killed their mother and abandoned his family. It had spilled out like heavy rain from an engorged cloud. Murdoch had endured it until the mention of Johnny, until his brother had denounced his son as ‘a wicked sinner’ who had corrupted his own innocent child and turned him against God. Murdoch had struck him then, sent him reeling across the room with one blow. For minutes, he had gazed in breathless confusion at his brother lying there, until, stricken with remorse, he had offered his hand. With utter coldness, even while his mouth bled, Iain had refused it. It had seemed like the end of any hope.

   “And what of us?”

   He lifted his head. She had turned to face him. Outside, the men were making final preparations for the drive. He could hear their shouts and laughter. He should be out there. He should be riding out to the drive herd with them, as he had always done. Proud on his horse, he should be watching the cream of his stock, their chestnut brown backs glinting in the sun, as they began the long trail to the railroad. Oh, but she was so gently, perfectly beautiful. She rested his soul, even while it was in turmoil over the wrongness of their actions.

   “Us?”

   He saw her look of pained exasperation.

   “I love ye, Murdoch.” She heaved in a breath. “I’ve loved ye since the day I saw ye, when I didna know what love was.” She took another breath and closed her eyes. “God in heaven, how I loved ye, and nothing that ye said or did has ever changed that. I knew it before I came here, and I knew it as soon as I saw ye again. However angry …” She paused. “However betrayed I felt when ye left, I have never known a moment when I did not love ye, even when I hated ye.”

   He stared at her from the safe harbour of his desk. For a moment, he wondered how a woman could appear at once so strong and so fragile. When he saw she was trembling, he went to her and folded her in his arms, undone entirely when she felt her weeping against his chest.

   “Oh, Mary,” he whispered. “My love, my love, don’t cry.”

   Damn, damn tears. He would not suffer them. He gritted his teeth and swallowed them back. They felt like poison at the back of his throat.

   “There was a child.”

   His heart missed a beat. He had heard her clearly the first time, but he still breathed out, “What?”

   “A child. Ye left me with child.”

   He prised her away from his chest and searched her eyes.

   “You were pregnant when I left?”

   She nodded, before suddenly pulling away from him. Sitting down in a chair, she pulled out a handkerchief and, avoiding his gaze, pressed it to her nose and mouth. Murdoch looked down at her in stunned bewilderment, before he found his voice. He had not formulated the question; it seemed to emerge in the way he had seen fish leap out of water, recklessly.

   “Did it live?”

   “Aye, it did,” Mary said, her head still lowered away from his gaze. “She did.”

   “She?” His heart pounded in his chest. “I had a daughter?” When she failed to answer his question, he went to her and knelt at her feet, grabbing her hands from her face. “Tell me, Mary. Did I – we – have a daughter?”

   “We did, Murry.” She gazed at him then, and he felt her eyes searching his. “The most bonny girl ye could wish for, so, so beautiful.”

   His throat was dry now. He could barely find moisture enough to speak. Shaking his head, he got to his feet and went to the whisky decanter. He poured a glass carelessly and drank it in one hard swallow, before pouring another. He was about to drink it when he stopped and gazed down into the glass instead.

   “Is she still alive?”  He looked at her sharply when there was no reply.  As usual with him, the whisky had given him a harder edge. “Is the girl still alive, Mary?”

   “As far as I know.”

   “What the hell does that mean!?” The words came out harshly, he knew. Mary met his gaze with something close to her old defiance.

   “They took her from me, Murdoch. She was ripped from my arms, screaming. I tried to tell them. I tried with everything I had to keep her, but they were too strong. They were all too strong.”

   He felt the tears crowd his eyes, pushed them back with another swallow of whisky.

   “Who took her?” he demanded. “Who made you give the child up?”

   Fury was coming now. He could feel it scorching along his veins like fire. He wanted to hurl the glass at the wall, watch the liquid run down to the floor. He could see no rights or wrongs, only his innocent daughter torn, screaming from her mother’s arms.

   “It was my brother, wasn’t it?” He slammed the glass on the table and gazed at her, his eyes bright with anger. “My brother forced you to give up your child!” He stopped, breathing hard as a new thought came to him. “Why, why didn’t you tell me, Mary? Why didn’t you tell me you were going to have my child? I would have …” He stopped, swallowing hard.

   “No,” Mary said. “Ye wouldn’t have, and I would not have wished for it.”

   Her words, so calmly spoken, were enough to stop his protest. He stared at her silently for a few moments, before leaving the study. Striding through the Great Room, he picked up his hat and pounded across the yard to the barn. Men who had been loading wagons, stopped briefly to observe their boss, until he stopped and glared at them.

   “Saddle my horse, Elijah!” he barked.

   “Amo, Mister Lancer?” the boy asked, the cow he had been leading rasping at his bare forearm.

   “Who the hell else, boy!?” Murdoch’s gaze swept across the faces watching him in fear and apprehension. Worse, Jelly, who had been twisting skeins of hemp into new rope, was watching him with what seemed like mild contempt.  It settled him down enough to lower his tone. “Never mind, I’ll fetch him myself.”

   Amo would not allow his anger. As soon as he entered the barn, the horse began kicking at the stall, snorting its fear and displeasure. It forced him into his now habitual gentleness with the animal. Stroking the long neck scar, always his first act of greeting, he began to murmur soft words. Then, without warning from his heart, he broke. Leaning against the stallion’s powerful neck and grasping its mane in two tight fists, he wept hard, bitter tears. It was painful to cry. His chest ached at the strangeness of it, as if his tears were being ripped out of the deepest, darkest part of him. If he could have shoved them back in their crevices, he would have, so harshly did they leave his body. The horse was still. It had turned its head and was resting its chin lightly on his shoulder. Even while he fought to regain control of himself, the animal’s love for him seemed like some sort of miracle.

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

    From his vantage point on the hill, he could see the herd begin to stir down in the valley. The chuck wagon, ponderous with its supplies, had moved off first, Whip Tyler’s sonorous holler echoing around the valley like a call to arms. Tom Simmons, as tall and straight in the saddle as Murdoch would wish any trail boss to be, rode ahead of the herd. With seeming casualness, the point, swing and flank riders rode alongside the cattle, teasing into clumsy, stumbling flight any reluctant ones and letting out easy whoops of joy that at last they were on the move. Thousands of shining nut-brown backs moved forward as one, and from the herd came the first bellows of irritation and confusion. The grass had been sweet in the valley and there was still good grazing to be had. Heavy with their well-fed bellies, the cattle dragged their hooves, kicking up dust, until the drag riders were forced to pull up their bandanas to stop from choking.

   In front of the remuda, Murdoch could see Johnny, distinctive in his new shirt, riding alongside one of the young wranglers, the sun flashing off the silver conchos on his pants. Scott and Robbie, he noted, were further from the drive, watching from a distance, Robbie imitating Scott’s pose of leaning forward slightly, his wrists crossed over his saddle’s horn. For a moment, Murdoch wondered if, despite his orders, Johnny was going to leave with the drive. He could hardly blame the boy if he did, and Murdoch wasn’t sure if he’d try to stop him at that. He drew in a hard breath. What was stopping him riding down there, calling for his boys and all three of them taking off with the drive? Leave his damn brother to suffocate in own his resentment, in his refusal to forgive. Leave her. His heart raced at the thought of Mary, enough for Amo to sense the change in him and tremble a little. Murdoch reached forward and scratched the place behind the horse’s ear. The action always consoled the animal.

   My daughter. The shape of the words was so bitterly sweet.  They would not leave his mind. Earlier, he had heard Louisa Jackson, her time prematurely come, screaming her agony. About to mount Amo, he had waited, imagining the emergence of the baby, bloody and steaming, into the hard face of the world. That was how he remembered Johnny’s birth. His wife’s extreme pain, his own horror at it all, the blood, the unearthly, guttural shrieks, her Spanish curses, blaming him for everything. Immediately after their son had been pulled from her body, she had begun to bleed. They had thrust the baby in his arms - this terrible creature, red-faced, slippery and already wailing – and he had stood helplessly outside the bedroom, feeling like a fool, the heat of his child burning through his shirt’s thin layer onto his skin. He had wanted children, but not like this, not this inferno of pain and anger. Even the baby had seemed furious with him, until calming himself, he had held it closer, his head bowed towards it, murmuring words he had never heard himself use before, walking the floor, gently wiping its face of the mess of birth. In those moments, the child suddenly quiet against him, its eyes seeking his, he had fallen in love with his son. He hadn’t even been certain he was allowed, if it was natural in a man, to feel such a sudden upsurge of passion for this stranger in his arms. Overwhelmed then by thoughts of his first son, the one never seen, never touched, he had wept, until someone, her voice both chastising and tender, had taken the baby from him, but it hadn’t mattered; his heart was already lost.

   He dismounted and sat on a rock, allowing Amo to graze the few blades of grass growing there. Johnny had left the wrangler’s side and was helping settle the remuda down, the horses too eager to be off, and restless to pass the slow-moving cattle.

   It had taken time to find that buried part of himself. He had thought it dead, was almost certain of it, until he had looked into the eyes of his sons last year and seen, in one, his beloved first wife, and, in the other, a reminder that once he had been a living, breathing, passionate human being, that once he had not met every day as stoic as the rock he now sat on. Was that why he had been so harsh, so cold, with them? He scuffed the ground hard with his boot. Perhaps, he would have been better off leaving them where they were. Life was so damn complicated now. How much easier to be alone, please himself, read his books, smoke his pipe, give orders that would be obeyed without question, sole master of his domain, of his heart. If they hadn’t come, he would never have written to Iain. His brother would have stayed in Scotland, growing old with his bitterness. He would never have seen Mary again. Dammit it all to hell, his mind would be clear! It would be as it had been for nearly twenty years – shut down to memory, to reflection, to feeling.

   Had Mary named her? Who had taken her? Good Lord above, he hoped good people had raised her. He hoped she’d never had to fight for food or watch men do their worst to one another or wander his younger son’s path, a trail so lonely he could still hardly bear to contemplate it. He hoped people had been kind to his girl. He clenched his teeth and stood up as he saw his nephew and sons riding fast up the slope in his direction. Unhooking his canteen, he swallowed a few mouthfuls, before banging the stopper in and replacing it. He busied himself with adjusting Amo’s bridle, certain that his boys would sense his agitation.

   Johnny was there first, pulling his horse up in a welter of dust and small stones, as he turned, grinning, to observe his brother and cousin ride up over the brow of the hill. Scott was right. The boy was a barefaced show-off, but as often as it irritated him, he found himself glad of it – that the gunfighter, hard-bitten and cynical only months before, now felt safe enough to be young.

   When Scott and Robbie arrived moments later, Murdoch could see the pure exhilaration in his nephew’s face. It seemed to him that someone, somehow, had knocked the stiffness out of the young Scot. Easy and loose-limbed in the saddle, he suddenly looked like a Lancer, like another son and brother. The thought was swiftly painful and he gritted his teeth.

   “Reckon that horse of yours needs an extra dose of oats,” Johnny teased. He reached forward and stroked Charlie’s ears. “Or you do, Brother.”

   Scott raised his eyebrows in his father’s direction. Murdoch smiled sympathetically.

   “I was minding my manners by not racing off while we have a guest who has only just learned to ride.”

   Johnny jumped off his horse with the swiftness and ease that always took Murdoch by surprise. A grin was still wide on his younger son’s face.

   “You might have a convincin’ case there, Boston, if Rob hadn’t been doin’ his all-fire damndest to catch me. That right, Rob?”

   “I was trying, Cousin,” Robbie said, with a laugh. “Does anyone ever catch you?”

   “Only when I want to be caught.” Grinning, Johnny ignored his brother’s heavy sigh and turned to his father.  “You keepin’ an eye on us, Murdoch?”

   Murdoch regarded his son sombrely, his hand on Amo’s neck. The effect of Johnny’s youthful exuberance was sometimes charming to him; today, it felt like too much cold water on an empty stomach.

   “I was watching the drive leave,” he replied. He ignored Johnny’s sudden, enquiring frown at his unfriendly tone and observed Scott critically. “You look tired. You should head on home.”

   “Thank you, Sir.” Scott’s retort was as blunt as his own words. “I’m perfectly well.” He moderated his tone. “Actually, it’s been a very interesting, illuminating morning. Robbie’s made me see Lancer in a whole new light.”

   Murdoch nodded, offering his nephew as much of a smile as he could manage in his lowered mood.

   “And what light would that be?”

   “The light of science, Uncle,” Robbie said. “Penetrating the darkness of our former ignorance. To know that all this …” He indicated the valley with a large sweep of his arm. “… all this magnificent landscape is the result of cataclysmic natural events, and will be subject to more of those events in the future, is truly liberating.”

   Murdoch gazed out across the valley. The herd was farther out now, like a vast flotilla of close-gathered little boats, swaying towards the horizon.

   “You know, Robbie,” he said. “I think I prefer the thought of a kinder hand than Nature’s out there.”

   “Even if it doesn’t exist,” Robbie said. Murdoch heard the youthful irritation in his nephew’s voice and almost smiled.

   “Yes, even if it doesn’t exist.” He put his foot in the stirrup and mounted up. He knew that Johnny was still watching him warily, knew that the boy was waiting for some thaw in the frost, but, for now, he was unwilling to leave the safety of remoteness. “I’ll see you boys later.” He nudged Amo into a jog and then quickly into a fast lope, a luxury he rarely allowed himself. When the horse stretched out its neck and launched into a gallop, he gave himself up to it. Hearing the animal’s hooves powering over the land he loved, he forgot everything else, certain that Amo understood his need as no-one else could.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

   What a day I’ve had today! – although the healthful effect of it on my spirits has been tempered somewhat by my father’s failure to return from his trip to Green River. He was, at least, considerate enough of our feelings to send a message via  a boy from town that he would be staying the night with Reverend and Mrs Jones. Still, Mother seemed deeply grieved at his absence and barely spoke at dinner. My uncle, too, seemed unusually taciturn and sombre, even more so than when we met him this afternoon out on the range. Not even Johnny could tempt a smile from his father. In fact, my uncle rebuked him sharply at one point for being insolent. Both my cousins were clearly surprised at his reaction and the rest of dinner was a rather silent, bleak affair.

   Later, Mother suggested to me that we should cut our visit short. I believe I convinced her that we should not allow my father’s behaviour to affect what for us has been a most pleasurable visit. I pointed out to her, furthermore, that the cost and trouble of travelling home a month earlier than our original plan would cause her discomfort and some distress. She, dear girl, seemed to concur, but I confess, her spirits seem very low, which troubles me a great deal.

   However, it is hard for me to feel too despondent. I have enjoyed a splendid day with my cousins, both of whom have proved to be the very best of companions. Johnny is a little more rough and ready than his brother – I shall not soon forget the sight of him gutting and skinning that rabbit, and his language, at times, can hardly be termed gentlemanly! – but he is no less eager to listen to my theorising than is Scott. In fact, he seems captivated by the idea of his land once being home to prehistoric sea creatures. He told me a little about the more recent history of the area, about the Indians who were forced by Spanish missionaries into labour camps, their children taken from them and put into schools where they might  forget their natural ways and become ‘civilised’. Before he became too impassioned, Scott reminded him that their land was part of the Indians’ original territory and would he care to return it? Quickly, I suggested that there was no more possibility of that than the trilobites returning from the ancient seas. One race sweeping away another is the natural law of things and, once set in motion, cannot be diverted from its course. With none of the rancour I might have expected from a compassionate man who is not entirely convinced by the operation of natural laws, Scott and I debated this point energetically for some time, until Johnny suggested we ride out to the drive herd.

   Well, a fellow of ideas I might be, but I am surprised to find within myself, also, a man of action! I have never experienced anything like galloping across a vast stretch of land on a fine horse, and I felt my heart lift as it has never done! I felt like another man entirely, -indeed, another being entirely, as if I had been transported from the heaviness of this world to the realm of birds. I cared for nothing but the flight. Is this the man I have known, content to spend his hours in contemplation of  Nature’s workings? I’m beginning to understand how a person of Scott’s education and intellectual acumen might choose to make a life for himself herding cattle and digging post-holes. Here, a man can be challenged as a man, as Nature intended. Here, he can discover his true potential, away from the narrow constraints of a small community, ruled by religion and conformity.

   I wonder what the children are doing. Do they miss me? Does she miss me? It’s strange how I’ve barely given her a thought until now. Isabel. It’s a pretty name. Isabel. It’s pleasant to contemplate her gentle, honest face, so far from it as I am. I have not even held her hand. I have touched her fingers in passing her a book and that so quickly I thought it was my imagination until I saw her blush. I confess, Johnny’s candour in discussing women disturbs me. He seems entirely unembarrassed in admitting his dissolute behaviour in that sphere, and Scott, although more circumspect, appears similarly untroubled. In fact, I now have no doubts that both my cousins have indulged their male urges on more than a few occasions. I must conclude, then, since I honour and respect both these men, that their actions are not to be measured against the yardstick of my previous experience. Is this yet another area in which I will find myself confounding my accepted idea of who I am? I have agreed that, on Friday night after supper, I will accompany my cousins to Green River. Part of me wishes to make an excuse to avoid the trip, but I will admit to these pages alone that I am also curious to see what will become of it.

   The strangest thing just occurred. On hearing a noise outside my room, I opened the door to see my uncle, clearly the worse for drink, standing outside my mother’s room. His arms were folded, his gaze fixed darkly upon the closed door. He was swaying slightly and when I asked him if anything was the matter, he simply shook his head and walked past me down the corridor to his own room. I have never yet seen my uncle in such a dismal state. Is it because of my father? I know he is hurt and bewildered by his brother’s behaviour, but I took him for a man of greater fortitude. All is quiet now. Perhaps tomorrow, I should go into town in search of my errant father. Although I’m certain he will refuse to talk to me, unrepentant sinner that I am, he has to be made to see that this refusal to forgive the past will destroy more than his own peace of mind.

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

   From behind the bunkhouse came the baby’s cry, a piercing scream that not even the muffling cloak of midday heat could obviate. Scott winced a little, despite himself, as he settled the saddlecloth on Charlie’s back. His nerves already on edge, it was not a welcome sound. The girl, Laura, sat on the top corral rail, looking down on him, her face a mask of seeming indifference. Sucking on a barley sugar stick, she allowed the heel of her shoe to tap lightly on the rail below.

   Since the drive’s departure, two days before, the ranch had eased into summer lassitude. There were still fences to be mended, streams to keep flowing fast and clean, and a hundred other smaller chores to occupy a man’s time, but, everywhere, it seemed to Scott, there was a sense of a great task completed. Even his father’s brisk, impatient orders appeared to lack their usual urgency, and Scott had spotted him only this morning, hands in pockets, talking to Sam, the blacksmith. He had even heard them laugh together, albeit briefly, a very welcome sound against the black mood that had descended on his father in the last few days; their low, easy tones had reminded him of men in a city park, content to swap stories under the sun. How he had always rushed along the roads of life, always intent on chasing the next bend. It had taken him all these months to begin to feel life as very much like those lumbering cattle headed towards the railhead, flowing like a great river under a watchful sky. The herd’s journey had filled his mind all morning, the trek away from home, through valleys and over hills, wading across deep rivers and threading their slow way along narrow gully trails. Dull-witted bovines they might be, but their travels were epic and they gripped his imagination as surely as any novel.

   He looked up at the sound of the barn doors opening and Billy appeared, dragging a sack well stuffed with hay. The young cowboy acknowledged Scott with a nod and a slow smile. He released the sack into the dust of the corral.

   “You ‘bout done shinin’ up that horse’s shoes, Boss?”

   Scott returned the smile coldly, suppressing a spasm of irritation at Billy’s swagger, the mocking tone.

   “Whenever you’re ready, Billy.”

   “I’ll just go saddle up,” Billy turned away, a grin on his face, his hands stuffed in the back pockets of his pants. “Then we’ll have us some fun.”

   Scott shook his head and sighed heavily.

   “Damn!”

   “You cussed.”

   The girl’s tone was soft and accusing. The barley sugar stick, bright with her saliva, glistened in the sunlight. It was the first time she had spoken in two days; he had begun to believe she had reverted to silence. Scott regarded her uneasily.

   “You’d curse if you had to depend on Billy Donner for your life, Laura.”

   The girl glanced across to the corner of the bunkhouse and the well trodden path beside Jelly’s vegetable patch that led to her cabin, where her sister was tending her new-born.

   “I don’t depend on no-one for my life, Scott, an’ I never will again,” She dropped down from the rail and placed her hand on Charlie’s nose.   “Why’re you askin’ for his help if you don’t trust ‘im?”

   “Because he’s the only hand remaining who knows how to haze a steer, Laura,” Scott replied brusquely. “And it’s my intention to practise dropping down onto that sack until it’s as natural to me as breathing.” He dug his foot in the stirrup and mounted up.

   “You still set on doggin’?”

   “I believe I am, yes.” He saw Billy emerge from the barn with his horse. “Just once will do.”

   “Why’s it so important to go throwin’ yaself on some dumb cow?”

   Scott heard the scorn in the girl’s voice.

   “If I could explain my motivation, young lady, I probably wouldn’t have to do it,” he replied. “Now, I don’t want you hurt, so stay off the fence.”

   In the corral, Billy had mounted up. His wrists crossed over the saddle horn, he was holding the rope ties of the hay-filled sack, the corner of his mouth lifted into a half-smile. Scott felt the sweat stinging his forehead under his hat’s rim, but determinedly ignored it. Billy lifted his own hat, wiped his brow with his sleeve and replaced the hat, the mocking smile still apparent on his mouth. Scott quelled the urge to drag the younger man from the horse and punch him. Since the moment he had understood that his brother had shot the steer, his steer, the anger inside had rarely left his blood. He wondered how far this mouthy, impudent youth would push him.

   “Johnny know ya doin’ this, Boss?” Billy drawled. Scott ignored the question and positioned his horse behind the sack. “Only if he don’t, I wanna be sure he don’t come gunnin’ fer me.”

   “I’ll handle my brother,” Scott said. “Now, you know what to do, so I’d be obliged if you would proceed.”

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

   It had been a bad morning, so far. Certain that he would be able to persuade his wayward uncle home from the Jones’, he had failed even to gain access. He had itched to push his way past the snooty Mrs Jones and give his uncle a piece of his mind, the trouble he had caused, the grief his aunt had buried beneath needlework and silence, Murdoch’s brooding anger that seemed to Johnny to infect his father’s every action, even the way he filled his pipe. This, Johnny hated above all. For the past three days, his father had retreated behind a fence so damn thorny and unyielding, he had been reminded of the first day of their meeting. Then, Johnny wasn’t sure he had cared too much. Ablaze with his own brand of fury, he had been almost glad to see that his opponent was going to give no quarter, no tear-filled welcome home. Now, it bothered the hell out of him, this coldness, this door slammed against his every effort to get in.

   This morning had seen a small improvement. They had got through breakfast without his father finding a reason to growl at him – his language, his elbows on the table, his uncombed hair - any damn thing had seemed a fair target in the past three days. It had been a painful relief to be ignored, but still he had rebelled. Knowing he was expected to work in the study, he had lasted five minutes before his anger with Murdoch and his desire to see Lindy had won out against duty. Barely giving his horse time to warm its muscles, he had raced out under the arch, certain he could hear his father bellowing his name. His heart had sunk within him then that he should feel like a wilful kid, after he had worked so damn hard to help his father see the man in him. He hadn’t turned back though. There hadn’t seemed much point, knowing that however long he stayed out, he would get the same ear-blistering yelling on his return. That was the main reason he had gone to the Joneses, why he was leaning against their hitching rail now, his arms folded, his storm-tie in his mouth, hoping his uncle might see him and relent. If he returned with Iain, he might earn himself a little of his father’s precious grace.

   Yesterday, Robbie had ridden out here and had come home, grim-faced, with the report that Iain was staying with the Joneses and had accepted the Reverend’s offer of writing and preaching a sermon for next Sunday’s service. Murdoch had welcomed the news with a swift refill of his whisky glass and, like the night before, had sat in his favourite chair staring into the fire, the whisky bottle undecanted at his side. Scott had advised Johnny to leave their father with his demons, that sometimes a man needed to work through his troubles alone, but Johnny’s every nerve had mutinied at the advice. Had he been alone too long himself to bear the sight of a man sunk in the depths of his own pain? He had shot, drank, hell, even fucked, his way out of his mind’s darkness since the age of ten. Only with one man, one human being, his father, had he dared to tell something close to the worst of it. If he could just bring his uncle home, he would force the two old goats to let it out – hell, he’d even referee a fistfight if that’s what would it take to blow a hole in their stupid damn secrets and lies, and if that meant all the world could see that his father loved Mary Lancer then so be it. No point in hiding love, not with so much shit in the world.

   His heart squeezed a little at the thought of Lindy on that afternoon before round-up, the way the pale blue ribbons of her dress lay, untied, over her milk-white breasts. One ribbon had rested over a nipple and he had watched, fascinated, the rise and fall of it under her rapid breaths, until he had blown it away; otherwise, he might have lain there forever, gazing upon that perfect meeting of material and flesh.

  He looked up from his contemplation of the ground to see Mrs Jones’ irritated face at the window. Moments later, she emerged, the corners of her mouth curved down in disapproval.

   “John Lancer, are you planning on trespassing on our property all day?”

   Johnny spat the storm-tie from his mouth and regarded the woman coolly.

   “Ain’t this the Lord’s ground, Ma’am, your husband bein’ God’s representative on Earth an’ all?”

   Mrs Jones lost her composure for a moment, before glaring at the young man.

   “Your uncle had made it quite clear that he does not wish to converse with any members of his family,” she said vehemently. “That most certainly includes you, John, especially as you’re the principal reason he has sought sanctuary with us.”

   Johnny felt himself grow hot with sudden fear, but he gazed at the woman with the same icy calm.

   “What the hell you talkin’ about?”

   Mrs Jones glanced back at the open door, as if to reassure herself of its promise of safety, before looking at Johnny with renewed distaste.

   “Well, what man would relish the discovery that his apparently respectable nephew was a notorious gunfighter who has been responsible for the deaths of several men?” She lowered her tone. “Believe me, John, I have, in the spirit of Christian duty, attempted to convince your uncle that you are a reformed character, that you regret your past wickedness…”

   “Well, you got that wrong for a start, lady,” Johnny said. “All I regret is not killin’ the first man I shot.” He took no pleasure in the woman’s shocked expression, her stupefied silence. “I guess you reckoned it was also your Christian duty to tell my uncle about me, huh?”

   Mrs Jones shook her head. Johnny found it strange to hear her sudden lack of confidence, her hesitant reply.

   “No, Mr Jones assumed your uncle already knew and was praising your efforts to begin a new life, but I fear we have been too charitable.” Her tone hardened. “You are full of sin, young man, and until you show true penitence, you are destined for hell.”

   “Already been there, Ma’am.” Sighing, he turned and untied Barranca from the hitching rail.  He mounted quickly and looked calmly at the woman. “Tell my uncle that his wife and my father deserve better’n this. I got no quarrel with ‘im hatin’ me for what I’ve done, but he’s got no cause to …”

   “I have every cause, John.” His uncle had emerged from the doorway’s shadows, a book under his arm, his strong, handsome face darkened with suppressed feeling. He moved past Mrs Jones to stand on the edge of the stoop. “Aye, I’m sickened by what I’ve heard of your past misdeeds, but when I think of my brother’s capacity for treachery and betrayal, it surprises me little that his child should also walk a crooked path.”

   Rarely was Johnny lost for a response, one way or another, but for a few moments he stared at his uncle in disbelief, his stomach churning with nausea at the bitter words.

   “Whose path is straight, Uncle Iain?” he asked finally, his tone bladed with its own sharp edge.

   He was pleased to see the momentary loss of self-control in his uncle’s blue eyes, but his satisfaction was short-lived.

   “I have tried, John,” Iain said. “I, at least, have tried ta walk our Lord’s path. All my life, even when I felt …” He hesitated and drew in his breath. “… when I felt the way ta God’s grace was closed ta me, I have refused ta be led astray by earthly temptation. Yet, what do I have but a wife who chooses not to support me, an ungrateful, heretic child, and worst of all, the very worst, a brother who …” He shook his head, his jaw quivering with suppressed emotion. He looked at Johnny with renewed determination. “Ask your father, lad. Ask him how far he strayed from the path of righteousness in his youth. Ask him how far he fell from grace, how far he was – is - from God’s love.”

   “That’s a hard creed, Uncle, comin’ from a Christian man.” Johnny said. “It don’t leave too much room for forgiveness.”

   “Forgiveness? When I see evidence of true repentance, of the sincere admission of sinfulness, of the desire for salvation, then will I search my heart for forgiveness, though I doubt I will find it.”

   “Mr Lancer,” Mrs Jones said. “We must be charitable in the face of true repentance.”

   Johnny looked at the Reverend’s wife, and was surprised to see her gaze fixed on his uncle, a troubled frown on her face. It occurred to him that Iain Lancer’s brand of Christianity might be too hard even for the old dill pickle to swallow. It made him dislike her a little less than before. His uncle, though, seemed unmoved by her appeal, and turned back to the house.

   “Reckon my grandpa’d be proud of you, Uncle,” Johnny said. “Yeh, I reckon that old god-fearin’ man’d be real proud.”

   Not waiting for his uncle’s reply, he turned Barranca quickly away and spurred the animal into a fast lope towards the other end of town where he knew Lindy would be waiting in the garden of her grandmother’s house. He hoped old Grandma Tyler was indeed away at her sister’s in Black Creek Falls as Lindy had promised.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

   Seated under an apple tree, she was fanning herself in the heat of midday. The young apples above her had already begun to weigh down the tree’s branches. In the rough grass of the orchard, crickets were churring unseen. Lindy, in a dress of the crispest white, appeared to be reading a small book, but Johnny didn’t believe she was actually reading. For awhile, crouched down low by the corner of the chicken run, he watched her. How would she behave when she was alone? Would she be a different person than the one he knew? Would he like her more … or less? Would he know his feelings at last?

   The chickens scratched in the hard-packed ground close by. One had settled in a shallow depression in the dirt and was throwing up dust over itself with rapid sweeps of its wings. Lindy turned a page and the other hand came up to the back of her neck to brush away a fly. He knew he longed to kiss her there, to brush his lips from where her hair line ended and her backbone began, but had there ever been a time when a woman’s soft skin hadn’t lured him into forgetting himself? Sure, she was cleaner than many of the girls he’d lain with, prettier than some, younger than a few, but … Swallowing, he saw her let the book drop to the grass as she closed her eyes and lifted her face to the dappled light. Her mouth was slightly open as if to drink in the one ray of sun that had penetrated the tree’s canopy. Creeping up to her, his hat in one hand and aware that the crickets had paused in their churring, he kissed her mouth quickly. She opened her eyes and smiling into his face, allowed him to kiss her again. Her eagerness, the way she pushed her tongue against his, took him by surprise. Easing away with a ghost of a smile, he looked towards the house.

   “Your grandma at her sister’s?”

   “I said she would be,” Lindy said, almost petulantly. He sat down on the bench beside her and took her hand. She was shy again, and blushing. It bothered him for some reason and he stooped to pick up the book, feeling her hand grip tighter as he did so.

   “What you readin’?”

   “Oh, something silly,” she said, taking the book. “Ruth lent it to me.”

   “What’s it about?”

   “You wouldn’t be interested …”

   “Yeh, I would,” Johnny insisted. “I’d be real interested.”

   With a small frown, Lindy opened the book at the first page. Johnny saw a drawing of a girl at the reins of a wagon, her long hair blowing in the breeze, her face contorted in terror. She was being pursued by a group of painted Indians on ponies, axes and bows in their hands.

   “It’s about a girl called Charlotte,” Lindy said, brushing a stray blond lock of hair behind her ear. “Her family are killed by Indians and she has to lead the other families to safety across the prairie, and she hasn’t even got a gun.”

   “That’s a lot for one girl to handle,” Johnny said, smiling.

   “Yes, well, she meets a boy…” Lindy stopped and dipped her head, her fingers playing with the book’s ribbon marker.

   “She does, huh?”

   Lindy smiled and looked up at his teasing tone. The sudden confidence in her eyes made him bolder and he squeezed her hand.

   “Yes, she does, a handsome mountain man called Jem Hawkins. His parents have been killed by Indians years before and he’s grown up in the wild, no-one to care for and no-one caring for him, living on buffalo and drinking creek water.”

   “Don’t sound like he’d be any too handsome livin’ like that …”

   “He knows how to take care of himself,” Lindy said. Her injured tone made him smile and he kissed her flushed cheek lightly.

   “Reckon he’d need to, honey,” he said with a chuckle. “So, does this mountain man save the day with his six gun, sweep ol’ Charlotte off her pretty little feet and give her a clutch of babies to fuss over while he’s out huntin’ buffalo?”

  Releasing his hand suddenly, Lindy got to her feet and picked an unripe apple off the tree.

   “No, the story has a tragic ending,” she said. “And if you tease me anymore, Johnny Lancer, it won’t be the only tragic ending around here.”

   Johnny stood up and grabbed her from behind, delighting in her little squeal of protest, his mouth on the back of her neck. Squeezing her, he felt her yield against him, wondering if she had noticed he was already hard. He kissed her neck gently three times, before resting his chin on her left shoulder.

   “If I promise not to tease ya, willya tell me what happens in the end?”

   She wriggled against him in a feeble effort to free herself, before becoming still again and resting her arms over his arms encircling her waist.

   “He’s shot by a jealous lover and dies in her arms.”

   Her bold, matter of fact tone cooled him just a little. Tentatively, he breathed in against her neck.

   “So, who’s this other rip, then?” he asked, aware that his heart was doing a strange, uneven dance in his chest.

   “A shop-keeper’s son,” Lindy replied, her flippant tone still hard-edged. “He’s not as good-looking, as exciting or as brave as Jem, but he’s steady. She can depend on him.”

   “She marry this broom-pusher?” He scorned his own faltering, angry question.

   “No, she shoots him dead in front of his store and dedicates her life to saving poor, unfortunate saloon women.”

   Alerted by the bubbling humour in Lindy’s tone, Johnny turned the girl round in his arms and looked into her bright, laughing eyes.

   “Damn woman,” he breathed. “I oughta put ya over my knee an’ spank your lyin’ little ass.”

   “Try it, Johnny Lancer,” she said, smiling. “And I’ll scream so loud the whole town will come running.”

   She broke away from his arms and, giggling, ran round to the other side of the old tree, gazing at him through its gnarled branches. He gave chase round the tree, feigning missed grabs at her fleeing form. The chickens were sent squawking into their house as Lindy, now breathless with excitement and laughter, ran behind the coop, waited until Johnny was close and, lifting her skirts, jumped up the steps to her grandmother’s porch.

   There, in her grandmother’s spare bedroom, on freshly-laundered sheets, she submitted. Hardly giving himself time to shrug down his pants, Johnny pushed inside her, only faintly aware of her responding cry, before he kissed her mouth and she curled her arms around his neck, her gaze fixed on his face. Johnny closed his eyes to everything but the blood thundering in his veins, and rode hard and quickly to his purpose.

   Only after he was done and lying next to her, recapturing his breath while the sun shone bright on the bed, did he seek her gaze. Lindy was staring at the low ceiling, one hand over her rising and falling stomach, the other stroking the quilt beneath her. Johnny hooked her little finger with his.

   “Hey,” he said softly. “You ok, honey?”

   Nodding, she pushed down her petticoats and dress. Johnny turned over on his side and stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers, unnerved by her silence.

   “I didn’t hurt ya, did I?” When Lindy shook her head, he shifted a little nearer. A twinge of guilt softened his tone still further. “I guess I had a burr under my saddle today. Musta been all that chasin’ around.”

   He waited, the only sounds, their breathing and the crickets in the grass outside the open window. Suddenly, she turned her head and looked into his eyes.

   “D’you love me, Johnny?” she asked. He was sure the question held a trace of hostility. Her blue eyes, usually light, seemed a heightened, hardened sapphire.   His stomach contracted and he swallowed back his first answer.

   “Yeh, of course.”

   Alarmed, he saw her face soften with what seemed like relief. She smiled and grasped his hand.

   “Well, you love me and I love you,” she whispered. “And we know that …” She hesitated. “Well, we know about each other now, so why should we wait? We won’t have to hide anymore. We could lie in bed all day if we want. We could …”

   “Hold on, Lindy,” Johnny interrupted. “Just hold on.” He sat up against the headboard and looked at her suspiciously, panic rising in his chest. “One minute you’re sayin’ that you wanna wait, take it slow, and the next you’re sayin’ we should get married right now. You’re goin’ a mite fast for me, honey.”

   She moved up next to him, her confident smile still firmly in place.

   “I’m not saying we should marry tomorrow, Johnny,” she said, running her fingers through his unruly hair. He resisted the urge to grab her wrist and stop her caresses. “But I don’t see why we should wait more than a few weeks …”

   “Weeks?” Johnny stared at the girl in disbelief. Her hands went to the sides of his face and she kissed his lips.

   “Johnny, you’ve proved you love me, haven’t you?”

   “What?” He had never known such panic. No gunfighter on Earth could reduce him to this, he was certain. In an instant, he realised he had only been playing with the idea of marrying Lindy. Now that the reality was here, stroking his cheek, the scent of their desire still permeating the hot morning air, he was paralysed by uncertainty. She was speaking again and he struggled to listen to her words.

   “I know we said we wouldn’t hurry into things, Johnny …” Had her tone taken on a hint of pleading? He felt the waters rising faster than he could paddle. “But my father’s watching me all the time, and I think he suspects something, not that we’ve …” She blushed. “Well, you know, but he’s always asking about you, how I feel about you, what your intentions are. I know he doesn’t trust you now, but he respects your father, and when we marry he’ll accept you. I know he will.”

   Pulling away from her, he got off the bed and stood with his arms folded, his gaze on the bare wooden floor.

   “Lindy, I …”

   “You’re not the only one, you know, Johnny.” He looked up at her sharp tone. Those sapphires, hard and beautiful, were glowing again. A dull throb invaded his head. “Ricky Hanson has asked me to marry him.”

   The throb became a blaze of pain. He glared at the girl.

   “That deadbeat,” he said furiously. “I’ll put a bullet between his goddamn legs.”

   “I refused him, Johnny,” Lindy said quickly, scrambling off the bed to go to him. She took both his hands. Her voice had returned to its pleading, persuasive tone, as wheedling to his ears as a preacher’s. In his passionate confusion, he wanted both to fuck her and to slap her face. “Of course I did. I don’t love Ricky Hanson. I love you, but …”

   “But you got to the point where the sonuvabitch asked ya to marry him,” Johnny interrupted her acidly. “How many tea parties in your folks’ front parlour did that take? I bet your old man’s bustin’ out of ‘is waistcoat now he’s got a goddamn storekeep for a son-in law.”

   “Johnny, I said no,” Lindy insisted. “It doesn’t matter what my father wants. I want you. I want to be with you, eat with you, sleep with you. I want to have your children. I want to sit on the porch and grow old with you, but …”

   “But you ain’t goin’ to wait much longer?” Johnny said, searching her eyes for what he knew to be the truth. She wanted a husband, and soon, despite all her earlier denials.

   “No, I’m not.” Her tone seemed as cold as his own. “I thought I could, but I can’t.”

   Johnny ground his teeth and let out a breath through his nose.

   “So you want us to marry real soon?”

   “Yes, I don’t see any reason to wait, Johnny. You’re going to inherit the largest ranch in the San Joaquin Valley …”

   “With my brother,” he interrupted, knowing the needlessness of the remark.

   “Still, your future’s secure, isn’t it? We love each other. I don’t understand why we should wait.”

   He looked in her eyes. He felt less tense now, less angry, but his senses were still in wild disarray. Suddenly, his desire for her seemed as treacherous as a brown widow spider’s fangs. Was it so short a time ago that he had chased her around the orchard, the crickets sounding like a crowd cheering him on? Mierda, he should have listened to Scott. Like some fool kid, he’d allowed his dick to rule his head, and now he was paying for it. Did he love this girl? Could he bring himself to marry her? He needed time to think.

   “I’ve gotta go,” he said. “I’m expected home.”

   He walked out of the house and into the orchard. As he picked up his hat from the bench, Lindy walked up behind him, twisting a small lace handkerchief in her hands.

   “When will I see you again?”

   He put on his hat and shrugged, his gaze averted from the girl.

   “We’re real busy on the ranch.”

   “I’m not a fool, Johnny,” Lindy said. “I know that isn’t true. Round-up’s over and the drive left two days ago. Billy Donner told me.”

   “Got horses to break.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek quickly. “I’ll see ya soon.”

   “Johnny …”

   “Lindy…” He hesitated and sighed. “I’ll make it back to town when I can, ok?”

   Furious with himself, he left her there among the crickets. He wondered if the day could get any worse.

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

   There she was, in the little yellow morning room, sitting on the flower-patterned sofa, head bent to her sewing. The sun was in the fireplace, showing up the dust. It had been a fancy of his first wife, this room, a hiding-place for women, Catherine had said, laughing away his male suspicion. Soon after, she was dead. Few women had sat in there since. It seemed obvious to him now why his sister-in-law had chosen it; the rest of the house was a male stronghold – dark, heavy furniture, maps on the walls, rugs that had once been the coats of wild animals, pictures that only a man could admire, of ships, presidents and scenes of battle. Murdoch could not help taking pleasure in the sight of Mary. She was so still in the frame of the little room; just the tiniest movements of her fingers gave life to her portrait.

   Was it so long ago that he had first visited her, hat in hand, as bashful as a schoolboy, in her parents’ parlour? It had been the only place they had been permitted to meet, and her older sister had sat, silent and watchful, in the corner, coughing each time he had dared to move an inch closer to Mary. So they had resorted to subterfuge, meetings during the long church services on Sunday, when she had pleaded a headache to her parents, and he, already in rebellion against his father, was no longer attending. Later, a little more freedom had been sanctioned, even the chance to hold hands, although vigilant eyes had observed their entwined fingers with the eagerness of a hawk watching a mouse in grass.

   It was on a Sunday he had taken her, not meaning to, there in the heather, on a day of unusual heat and a thousand butterflies. Her passion had astonished him. Growing up in a community of the virtually silent, where the young women walked as softly as lambs, he had imagined a quiet consummation of his male desires. Her cries had disturbed the butterflies. She had sought his mouth with all the fervour of the famished, as if her life depended on it. Closing her eyes on her pillow of heather, she had called out his name in a strange pitch. Even now, he could remember how he had thought her lost to him at that moment, gone to another country, while he had never felt closer to her. Many times over the years had he thought of that morning; if he had died then, life would have been worthwhile.

   At his step into the room, she looked up and smiled. They had barely spoken since her revelation, just mere politeness at meals, platitudes about the weather and the young fruit on the trees. Was he still angry with her? He wasn’t sure. He was angry at someone, and every thought of his unknown daughter brought an ache to his heart, a defenceless little creature abandoned by them all, abandoned by him.

   “It’s a beautiful morning,” Mary said, resting her sewing in her lap.

   Murdoch looked out of the room’s single window, his hands in his pockets. He saw Scott, his face already bloody from an earlier attempt, drop from his fast-cantering horse onto the hay sack and cling on while Billy pulled.

   “Yes, and my son seems determined to mark it with his blood.” He turned away from the window and regarded her neutrally. She spoke before he could find words.

   “Why don’t ye stop him? I seem to remember ye telling us that ye don’t allow steer-wrestling on your ranch.”

   “I don’t,” Murdoch said. “If it was one of the hands, I’d give him a month’s wages and set him on his way.”

   “But …”

   “But my sons are a different matter.” He picked up a small trinket box from the table next to her and traced his finger over Catherine’s initials woven under its glass top. How she had liked to put her mark on things; her initials were everywhere – napkins, chairs, this little box so delicate in his large hands. “Scott’s a grown man, a decorated soldier. He never does a thing recklessly, only with forethought and deliberation. How can I stop him facing his chosen battles without losing him?”

   Mary nodded and went back to her sewing.

   “Wud ye stop Johnny?” she asked, with a small smile. Murdoch’s answer was blunt enough to cause it to retreat.

   “Yes, if he had no better excuse than showing-off, which seems to be his special talent lately.” He sat down next to her, his elbows on his knees. He swallowed hard. “Did you name her, Mary?”

   For a moment, she stopped sewing, before quickly resuming, her gaze on her embroidery.

   “Aye,” she replied. “But I don’t know if she kept it.” She breathed in. “I named her Tira.”

   “Tira.” He breathed out the name. “Earth.”

   “Aye, as soon as I saw her, it came to me.”

   Murdoch nodded. Rubbing his hands together, he contemplated the woven Mexican rug in front of the hearth, yellow, red and orange, his second wife’s contribution to the room.

   “Who took her, Mary?”

   “Good people, Murdoch,” she answered, a little too quickly for his liking. “From the next village. He made saddles, a good living. They had no bairns of their own. They were glad to have her.”

   “Have you seen her since?”

   She nodded, her mouth seeming to fight the emergence of words. Instinctively, he pressed his hand over her hands.

   “Tell me,” he whispered.

   For the first time, he saw her falter as she found his hand and grasped it.

   “She was with her …” She squeezed his hand harder. “ …father, sitting at his side on a wagon. She was about twelve. There was a fine saddle in the back of the wagon. I don’t know why I remember that.”

   Hungry for more, Murdoch leaned in closer and gripped her other hand.

   “How did she look?”

   “She had Johnny’s eyes, Scott’s fairness, his seriousness.” Murdoch felt his heart stop. He had not expected to gain so vivid a portrait of his daughter. Suddenly, he was certain he could see her, sitting on that wagon, gazing outwards, perhaps looking for something, someone.

   “Did you speak to her?”

   “No,” Mary replied, shaking her head. “I thought my heart wud burst wi’ wanting to, but I was afraid of ma feelings, where they wud lead, and I had ma wee boy to consider.” Murdoch nodded. Releasing Mary’s hands, he stood up and returned to the window. In the corral, Scott was talking to Billy. Maybe, perhaps, the boy had got that damn business out of his system. He could still lay down the law; there was still time … “But she looked bonny, Murry.” Mary’s tone was eager now. “Well-fed and clothed …”

   “She’s ours, Mary,” he interrupted her. “You should have told me you were with child. Despite what you think, I would have stayed.”

   “For Tira, but not for me,” Mary said. “Ye think that’s what I wud have wanted, Murdoch?”

   “She was innocent!” He turned from the window and glared at her. “I have three children, Mary, and not one child, not one, could I save from pain, from loss. I’ve failed them all. Nothing in the world can change that. I’ll tell you, it’s a damn good thing my relationship with God is as tenuous as it is, because I don’t think I’d have a cat in hell’s chance with him when I die!”

   Alerted by shouting outside, Murdoch closed his emotions to Mary’s obvious distress at his words and looked through the window to see Johnny bring his horse to a fierce halt in the yard, leap off and scramble over the corral fence. Before Murdoch had time to understand what was happening, his younger son had pushed Billy Donner to the ground.  

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

   “What the hell d’ya do that for?” Billy got up from the ground, his eyes flashing with anger at Johnny, who, resolutely ignoring his brother, was untying the hay sack from Billy’s horse. Scott regarded him silently. Sore and covered in dust, he had no intention of adding fuel to Johnny’s fire. His brother was angrier than he had ever seen him, and his rational mind waited for satisfaction that he was not the only cause.

   “I told ya to stay the hell out of this, Billy!”

   The hay sack untied, Johnny kicked it savagely across the corral, causing the two horses to snort loudly and shy away. Scott grabbed Charlie’s reins and soothed him.

   “Johnny,” he said. “It’s me you should be talking to, not Billy. If you’d just calm down, we’ll talk about this.”

   Johnny made no indication that he had heard him and turned again on the young cowhand.

   “You ever feel like challengin’ me again, Billy,” he said. “You’ll fuckin’ regret it. Now get the hell out of here!”

   “Y’ain’t got no call to talk to me like that, Johnny.” Billy’s reply was defiant, as he picked his hat up from the ground. I was jus’ doin’ what your precious goddamn brother here …”

   Johnny cut him off with another rough shove towards the barn, so that Billy nearly fell back into the dust.

   “Just get the fuck outta here, Billy!”

   “Johnny!!”

   Murdoch’s voice cut harshly across the corral. All three young men turned to look at him as he pushed open the gate and strode towards them, but Johnny quickly dipped his head, his hands tense on his hips.  Sensing the passionate fury that still possessed his younger son, Murdoch calmed himself in the few strides it took to reach the group.

   “Would someone like to tell me what’s going on?” he asked, looking hard at Scott who, arms folded, was leaning against his horse, a trickle of blood from earlier in the day, re-emerging through the caked dust on his brow. Murdoch frowned with irritation at Scott’s silence. Even his older son, normally reasonable enough to dispel hailstorms, was radiating the impenetrable stubbornness of the Lancers. “Billy?”

   Billy glared at Johnny’s bowed figure before looking defiantly at his boss.

   “Ask your boys, Mr Lancer,” he said resentfully. “Reckon that’s one heck of a shindy they’ve kicked up between ‘em.” He put on his hat and wiped his mouth with his shirt cuff. “An’ I ain’t about to take no blame for it.”

   Johnny raised his head and looked fiercely at the young man.

   “Get the hell outta here now, Billy, before I clean your goddamn …”

   “That’s enough from you, young man!” Murdoch interrupted. “Billy, get yourself cleaned up and make a start on painting the orchard fence, which I believe was on your list of chores for today.”

   Billy set his mouth hard against replying and nodded briefly. He took his horse’s reins and headed for the barn, his shoulders hunched in mute resistance. Murdoch glanced across at Laura who, wide-eyed, was still hanging off the corral rail, rolling the stick of barley-sugar over her teeth.

   “Go on back to your sister, honey,” he said, knowing even in that moment that it was the golden translucence of the sweet, catching the sun, he wanted gone rather than the girl. She leapt quickly off the fence and ran off in the direction of the cabin. Murdoch drew a deep breath and looked at Scott, aware that Johnny was scuffing hard at the ground with his boot heel. He decided on a safer topic to break the silence.

   “Has that girl said anything else yet?”

   Scott shook his head. As if he had been suddenly awoken from a trance, he stroked Charlie’s neck and grasped the reins.

   “I need a bath,” he said, with abrupt composure. “I believe I’ve practised enough for today.”

   Johnny hissed softly.

   “Scott, I swear,” he whispered. “Goddamn you!”

   He turned and walked away from his father and brother. Quickly mounting his horse, he kicked it into a fast lope towards the arch. Murdoch looked severely at his older son, as the sound of galloping hooves faded into the distance.

   “Is proving something to yourself worth alienating your brother, Scott?” he asked.

   “Did it ever stop you, sir?”

   Silenced by the young man’s cool reply, Murdoch watched him lead his horse towards the barn, convinced now that he had lost all control of his family, that somewhere, a long time ago, he had taken the wrong turning, made the wrong decision, and this was his punishment – to feel constantly like a man hanging off the edge of a cliff, his fingers growing numb with the effort not to fall. He was tempted, like the night before, to seek the enduring comfort of the bottle.

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

    Johnny swallowed hard at the sound of an approaching horse. If he was going to let out some of this rage in tears, he sure didn’t want any witnesses. He’d ridden hard all the way to the line shack, determined to flush this poison from his system, this fury – unmanly, chicken-livered - that had overwhelmed him the moment he’d seen Scott falling onto that damn sack, turned his frustration with Lindy and his uncle into something much more. He still wasn’t sure he wouldn’t have killed Billy, if his father hadn’t intervened. He’d felt like it, felt like beating him to a bloody pulp, ignoring the little voice in his head that told him it was none of Billy’s fault. He couldn’t remember a time in his adult life when he had allowed passion to rule his actions, until he had come home, and this time had been the worst. This time he’d felt mad enough to kill in hot blood.

   They were Amo’s hoof beats. His father, then. Johnny whittled harder at the wood in his hands, vengeful cuts that would produce nothing good. He wasn’t ready to explain himself; all he knew was that the anger was still eating away at his insides like a painful disease.

   Murdoch tethered the horse next to Barranca. He patted both animals, before walking over to his son, sitting on the ground against the shaded west side of the shack. What had possessed him to try this? Hadn’t he been through enough these last few days? Surely, he would only add to the sum of his failures. It was clear Johnny was still angry, the chips of wood flying far and rapidly from his knife, his blue eyes stormy. The boy didn’t want him there, he was certain, yet where else should he be? Trying to fathom the mystery of Scott’s quest for mastery over a dumb animal? Battling with his brother over the past? Brooding on his lost daughter? Avoiding Mary, whose hurt gaze reminded him of how much he still loved her? Dammit, he definitely should have had that drink.

   Silently, he lowered his bulk down next to Johnny, who continued to attack the wood, making no acknowledgement of his father. Murdoch sighed, leaned his head back and closed his eyes, surprised to find himself enjoying the peace and the shade. Strange where we find our comforts, he thought.  When Johnny spoke after a silence of some minutes, it seemed almost an intrusion.

   “You got y’self down, but what’re the odds on you gettin’ y’self up again?”

   Murdoch smiled.

   “Pretty low.”

   Johnny allowed the faintest of smiles to escape, but kept his gaze on the piece of wood. He was impressed by Murdoch’s restraint. Calmer now, he reviewed his behaviour in the corral and knew he deserved whatever his father chose to throw at him - only Murdoch was silent, resting in the shade like an old turtle. Whatever move this was on the Old Man’s part, it was clearly part of a game that had its own rules.

   “I ran out on my chores,” he said finally.

   “Mmmmm,” his father said, nodding, his eyes remaining closed. “You did.”

   Johnny frowned and drew in an agitated breath. He stared hard at Murdoch’s profile, as if by sheer strength of will he could provoke the older man into his usual temper.

   “I went to see Uncle Iain, see if I could persuade the stubborn old coot to come home.”

   At this, Murdoch opened his eyes and looked at Johnny.

   “You did, huh?”

   “He knows about me,” Johnny said, holding his father’s unruffled gaze.  “Reverend Jones told him who I used to be.”

   Murdoch nodded silently.

   “Jesus, Old Man!” Johnny threw the piece of wood away and stood up, glaring down at Murdoch. “Say something! Yell at me, for Christ’s sake! Ever since I came home, y’ain’t never been lost for words. Why start now?”

   “What d’you want me to yell at you, Son?” Murdoch said. “That I’m angry you went looking for my brother, despite the fact that from the moment he met you he’s treated you like a leper; that I don’t have an idea why you should be so mad at Scott?” He smiled briefly. “Aren’t gunfighters supposed to be able to read people?”

   Out of the shade, the sun beating down on his bare head, Johnny stared in disbelief at his father.

   “I ain’t no gunfighter, Murdoch,” he said, clenching his fists hard at his sides.

   Murdoch stared back at his son, his arms resting on his upraised knees. If someone had asked him why he was feeling as undisturbed as an old tree on a windless day, he would not have been able to answer. All he knew was that Johnny’s words were unsurprising to him, that somehow he had been expecting them. Clearly, the same could not be said for his son who threw himself back down beside him in the shade, unbuttoned his cuff and thrust his left arm out.

   “See this scar?”

   Murdoch gazed at the small white mark on his son’s tanned skin. He nodded, shaken for the first time out of his self-control.

   “Yes,” he said. “Sam gave it to you.” When Johnny glared at him silently, he ploughed on. “In the forge, when you were two. He wanted to teach you a lesson about hot metal.”

   “You remember that?”

   “Why would I forget it?” Murdoch smiled. “You screamed the place down. I thought for a minute that even my magic arms wouldn’t stop you crying.”

   Chewing on the inside of his lip, Johnny looked suspiciously at his father.

   “Magic arms, huh?” he said, smiling faintly.

   “I could always settle you, Johnny, from the moment you were born. Must be because I was the first person to hold you.” Murdoch dipped his head, tried to drive back his emotion with a deep breath. “God, I loved you, boy. I loved you with every bone in my body.”

   Johnny gazed at his father’s bowed head in silence. He knew what it had taken him to say such a thing in the day’s full light. Fearing that Murdoch was already regretting his words, he moved away and went to his horse. In his father’s saddlebags, he found what he’d hoped to find, a small hip flask full of scotch. He sat down again by Murdoch and swigged a mouthful before offering it to the older man. He grimaced a little as it stung the back of his throat.

   “Good stuff,” he said, smiling. “Wasted on me.”

   Murdoch took the flask and drank, before replacing the stopper. For the first time since his sudden confession, he looked straight into his son’s eyes. Johnny swallowed hard at the nearness of his father’s gaze.

   “Son, you know you’re going to have to let your brother finish this thing, don’t you?”

   Johnny frowned, his skin prickling with tension.

   “You want him killed, Murdoch?” he demanded.

   His father sighed and shook his head.

   “I don’t like it anymore than you do, and I don’t pretend to understand what Scott is trying to prove, but I do know we can’t stop him.”

   Johnny scrubbed his fingers through his hair, glaring at the dust between his feet.

   “I’ve seen a man get killed doggin’, Murdoch, tough old bird who’d done it a dozen times. He got mashed up so bad, you could hardly tell his front from his back by the time that beef was through with ‘im. I’m not goin’ to let that happen to my brother, and nothin’ you can say can change that.”

   Murdoch traced his finger over his initials embossed in the flask’s leather cover. The scotch had calmed his blood, but his earlier words still burned in his veins. He hadn’t meant to say them. They had poured out like raw honey from a cut comb, miring him before he could stop their flow. His next words, designed to warn, came out with his habitual severity.

   “Then you risk a permanent rift with him, Johnny. Can you handle that?”

   Beside him, his son breathed hard, a scowl on his face while he scored deep, horizontal lines in the dirt with the tip of his knife, and then overlaid them with imprisoning verticals.

   “You could help him,” Murdoch said, his gaze on the side of his son’s angry face. It was painful to see the boy so troubled, so uncertain of his ground … and, for once, it seemed he was not the cause. That was a comfort, at least, and his own pain eased a little. Johnny stopped scratching at the dirt and looked at him warily.

   “What d’ya mean?”

   “Well, you could offer to train him up to dog a steer and haze it yourself when it comes to it. Then you can at least be sure your brother’ll be as safe as it’s possible to be when he’s throwing himself down on a quarter ton of beef.”

   Johnny frowned.

   “He won’t go for that, Murdoch. He’s already got it fixed in his head I got too much mustard for my own good. He ain’t goin’ to take kindly to me playin’ teacher with ‘im.”

   Murdoch smiled. He risked reaching up and lightly cuffing Johnny’s head, pleased when his son responded with a hesitant smile.

   “You have got too much mustard for your own good, boy, but that doesn’t mean your brother doesn’t value your skills. Why don’t you try him? In fact …” He paused, his gaze searching his son’s sceptical face. “ I’m asking you to, Johnny. I’ll feel a great deal better about this whole damn business if I thought you were looking out for Scott.”

   Johnny sighed. He was caught as surely as a bug in a web and his father knew it. He nodded reluctantly.

   “Ok, I’ll give it a try, but if he won’t bite, then …” He kicked at the dirt drawings with his boot. “Hell, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

   “Son, if I can endure it,” Murdoch said. “Then I’m damn sure you can.”

   Johnny looked at the man by his side, his father’s tone driving away the last traces of his anger. Swallowing away a sudden rush of emotion, he put on his hat and stood up quickly.

   “Don’t know about you, Old Man, but my belly thinks my throat’s bin cut. I need food.”

   He offered his hand to his father who hesitated only a moment before taking it and allowing himself to be helped to his feet.  Johnny left him rubbing his stiff back while he fetched the horses. He handed his father Amo’s reins and mounted Barranca.

   Murdoch put the hip flask in his saddlebags.

   “Murdoch?”

   He looked up at his son who had leant forward to stroke his horse’s ears, and had commenced his habit, always irritating to his father, of chewing his storm tie.

   “Yes, Johnny?”

   “What’re y’goin’ to do about Uncle Iain?”

   Murdoch clenched his teeth for a moment and checked his rifle was securely in place.

   “The way I’m feeling right now, Son, I’d shoot the sonuvabitch for two cents.”

   Johnny’s sudden laughter caused him to jerk his head up with surprise and look into his son’s grinning face.

   “Now, that’s my Old Man, but as shootin’ him ain’t legal, you got any other ideas?”

   Murdoch pulled himself up onto Amo’s back.

   “No,” he said bluntly, gathering the reins and patting the horse’s neck to reassure it against the sudden harsh call of a crow in a branch above them.

   “What about Aunt Mary?”

   “What about her?” Murdoch knew his tone had suddenly become hard, almost hostile.

   “Don’t like seein’ her unhappy.”

   “Good God, boy,” Murdoch said, glaring at the young man. “D’you think I do?” Kicking Amo’s sides, he started on the track home, shocked by his own surge of anger.

   Johnny followed at a slower pace. That was it then. He had touched upon the private man and there was no getting in. Not that he’d expected to, or even wanted to. There were some things not for sharing. No way in hell would he talk about Lindy to his father, certainly not the part that was twisting his gut even while he thought of it – wanting her so bad when he saw her he could bust apart, but not wanting it all, not the way she did.

   Johnny leaned down low to avoid a branch, his gaze on Murdoch’s solid back just ahead of him. Was his father truly in love then? He doubted that a man like Murdoch would kiss a woman as he had seen him kiss Mary and not mean it with every drop of his blood. Then the man was in trouble, for sure. Loving another man’s woman was bad enough, but your brother’s wife? Had they …? He squirmed a little at the thought of it. He had thought his father done with such things, going no further than the well-mannered flirting he had witnessed between Murdoch and Senora Carrenza in his uncle’s house. Did Iain know of it, maybe guessed at it? Was it the true source of his fury, despite his talk of Murdoch’s sinful youth? Whatever the truth, he sure wasn’t about to ask the Old Man, not if he wanted to keep his ears anyway.

   “Johnny?”

   His father’s voice broke into his thoughts. He rode up alongside the older man.

   “Yeh?”

   “When Sam burnt you,” Murdoch said, looking not at Johnny, but straight ahead, up the trail. “Do you remember any of it?”

   Had his father been thinking of this all along, of that time that was their shared history, but he could no more grasp than a forgotten dream?

   “Nope,” he replied. “Nothin’ at all.”

   They rode the rest of the way home in silence, though Johnny kept his sleeve pulled back and gazed at the scar, willing the memory to resurface, certain that such an event must still be hidden somewhere in his bones.

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

   A drop of condensation fell from the ceiling and into his left eye. Scott blinked and sighed. As the water, reassuringly scented, lapped gently against the sides of the tub, he felt the memory returning like a photograph in fluid, slowly revealing each inescapable truth. One early morning in the trenches, he had lain like this, wounded, his blood running pale pink into the mud, rain falling like stones, smacking his face. Around him, the dead were slumped in the places where they had fallen. Unable to move, either from pain or shock or disbelief (he could never remember which), he had willed his eyes open to the skies and watched the rain come down, great grey drops chasing one another down from heaven. It had seemed to him then that the rain had a life of its own, that it was pushing him further and further down into the earth, that he would disappear under its power and mass.

   He turned his head aside to avoid another drop of condensation, remembering that rain like a memory of a vivid childhood nightmare, the kind where he could not escape the incubus sitting on his innocent chest. He had been certain that this was his nemesis and that there was nothing he could do against its determination to bury him. Close to the end, certain that his time on Earth was done, he had closed his eyes. What had compelled him to open them again, to confront those terrible skies? Screaming out in pain and defiance, he had pulled the upper half of his body out of the mud. It had been enough, enough to send the rain back to the realm of ordinary nuisance, cold and wet, trickling down his spine, enough to drag him out of the clutches of oblivion.

   He sat up, almost breathless, the warm, scented water running down his skin. Grabbing a flannel, he scrubbed at his face and stared at the bubbles in the water.

   So sweet had been that victory, slipping by unseen in the annals of Civil War history, with its pages of battles, generals and the numberless dead.  He, Second- Lieutenant Scott Lancer, had stopped the flow, the sheer power of Fate’s intent on crushing the life from him. Never had he felt so certain that he had deviated Nature from its path, just as he had done with the steer. He’d felt again that overwhelming sense of completion, so perfect that had Johnny’s bullet found him instead of the animal, he would not have cared – only by then, the moment had been destroyed, the steer had re-found its power and turned on its conqueror.

   He knew that this was his souvenir of the war – that nothing could be left to lie unfinished. Despite his brother’s fears, he would pick the biggest, fastest steer in the remaining herd and bring it down. He would hold the beast until it stopped struggling, until it lay there feeling every inch of his victory. For Johnny’s sake, he had tried to think his way out of this desire, to apply customary reason to something that gnawed to the very marrow of his bones. Now, he submitted to it, knowing that some things were beyond thought. Plunging back into the water, he closed his eyes and rehearsed every moment of the impending battle, as he had so often done in the field, hoping that by imagining it enough, it would all fall into place as he desired.

  

Chapter Twenty-Four

   He had taken his supper alone, up in his room, away from his family’s reproachful eyes. Earlier, Murdoch had returned with a quieter, less angry Johnny, but it was clear to Scott that his father was hoping his older son would change his mind. Standing in front of his dressing mirror, adjusting his tie, Scott regarded his own face sternly, as he always did when he felt the need to resist weakness. It was a strong face that looked back at him, tanned now, grown out of its first youthful softness. It had seen terrible things, this face, the worst of human behaviour. Well, he would be ready soon to do battle again, and then it would be over with. His brother’s violent fury had unsettled him, but the lure was too strong. How could he send this haunting to flight if he let it lie there unshaped into reality?

   Giving himself a final appraisal in the mirror, he went downstairs, lured to the Great Room by the sound of his piano; a Brahms waltz was being played with the delicacy and perfection of a recital. It must be his aunt, or perhaps Robbie; for a moment, Scott rejoiced that there were others to share his finer sensibilities. His father enjoyed music, but could be surprisingly sentimental in his choices, while Johnny – he was hopeless in his scorn for anything classical. When Scott felt like indulging his younger brother, he would play a ‘cowboy’ song or two, but not without feeling he was insulting the piano.

   At the entrance to the Great Room, he braced himself – mentally shrugged away his fears. Even if Johnny refused to accompany him to town, he hoped his cousin might join him. Nothing seemed more tempting on this Friday evening than a few beers and the company of easy women. Just the thought of that age-old remedy for too much thinking was enough to put some determination in his manner.

   The twin doors were slightly ajar. Through the gap he could see his father, one leg crossed over the other, in his favourite chair; he was smoking his pipe, his gaze, not quite smiling, set in the direction of the unseen piano and its player. At Murdoch’s feet, so close that his hip was resting against his father’s boot, Johnny sat, absorbed in a chess game with their cousin. Robbie looked bewildered and Scott could see, with a sudden amused relief, that he was already doomed. The young Scot needed rescuing.

   Entering, he felt immediately like an invader, so suddenly did the dynamics of the room change; quick glances of unease from both his father and brother were replaced in a moment by a cautious smile from Murdoch, an unreadable gaze from Johnny. Mary had turned her head and stopped playing, her expression both welcoming and concerned.

   “Scott,” she said softly. “We missed ye at dinner.”

   He smiled faintly, enough to be polite. Since his uncle’s departure for the Jones’, he had become aware of something between his aunt and father, something that required restraint in both of them, like starving creatures who had to resist the food in the cage that would trap them.

   “I’m sorry, Aunt,” he said, walking over to the piano. “I was feeling a little tired.” He stooped to look at the music in front of her. “Brahms, one of my favourite composers. You play him very knowingly, Aunt.”

   The look she gave him then surprised him immensely. It had been a flash of fire in her eyes, as if he had touched a painful place. Seeming to regain control, she smiled.

   “Thank you, Nephew. I rarely obtain the chance to play the music of my youth.”

   He saw her glance back at his father and just caught Murdoch’s responding frown.

   “Reckon that’s checkmate, Cousin.”

   Scott looked to the players, cross-legged on the rug. Johnny’s tone had held his usual trace of arrogance, no sympathy for his hapless opponent. Only when playing their father did he show any sign of humility in victory, except that neither brother often had the pleasure of beating Murdoch.

   “It seems so,” Robbie said, still regarding the board in mild confusion. “I must say, I don’t quite know how I came to that point, though.”

   Scott laughed, and was pleased to see that his father was joining him.

   “He cheats,” he said, grinning at his brother, who offered him a half-smile, before getting to his feet.

   “I’m thinkin’ you’re plannin’ on goin’ into town, Brother,” Johnny said, looking Scott coolly up and down. “Unless you’ve dandied y’self up for playin’ that piano.”

   “That’s my plan.” Scott kept his gaze fearlessly on the younger man. Uncertain now where they stood with each other, he had decided his best option was to brazen it out. “Are you and Robbie coming with me?”

   Johnny’s faintly smiling gaze went to his cousin.

   “What d’you reckon, Rob?” he said. “Think y’can handle a night on the town with this sweet-smellin’ dude here?”

   Scott saw Robbie glance at his mother, before he nodded eagerly and stood up.

   “Aye, I can. I certainly can.”

   “Boys.” The warning tone in their father’s voice made both brothers turn their heads simultaneously in Murdoch’s direction. “Robbie’s our guest. Make sure you take care of him.” Scott saw Murdoch’s gaze turn and fix on Johnny. “And you come back tonight. D’you hear me? Not some godforsaken hour near dawn.”

   Scott wanted to smile at his brother’s suddenly rebellious glare.

   “What you lecturin’ me for, Old Man?” Johnny demanded, his colour rising.  “Dios, you usually at least wait until I’ve done somethin’ wrong before ya start yellin’”

   “I’m just saying …”

   “Yeh, well, say it to my big brother,” Johnny said, waving his hand in Scott’s direction. “He’s in charge tonight. I’m goin’ to slick myself up a little. Can’t go disappointin’ the ladies. Comin’ Rob?”

   Scott saw Robbie cast eager, excited glances at both his uncle and mother before following Johnny out of the room. Murdoch’s heavy sigh, Scott felt, could have extinguished the fire burning in the grate. His aunt’s gaze was upon him, her hands clenched in her lap, her expression fretful and enquiring.

   “Don’t worry, Aunt,” he said, smiling reassuringly. “I’ll bring my cousin back safe and sound.”

   She nodded mutely, but merely turned her look of appeal on Murdoch who regarded his son severely.

   “Robbie may be a grown man, Scott, but he isn’t used to what Green River has to offer on Friday nights. I expect you to stick with him, whatever Johnny gets up to, …” Murdoch hesitated. Scott knew what was coming, and felt himself mature enough to find it amusing, although he hid his smile behind a mask of sober attentiveness. “… and restrain yourself from your usual excesses.”

   “Murdoch,” Mary said, leaving the piano and walking quickly over to Scott. She placed a hand on his arm. “I’m sure Scott can be trusted to act responsibly. I want Robbie to enjoy himself. Heaven knows, he’s had little enough of the joys of being young, only …”

   “Only what, Aunt?” Scott probed gently. Her passion had wiped the inner smile from his mind. He turned and gave her his whole attention.

   “I feel ma boy is slipping daily from ma sight, Scott.” She frowned and drew in a breath. “Iain, I lost sight of long ago, if I ever saw him clearly, but Robbie was my friend, ma dear friend. Now, he is so taken up wi’ his journey away from his old self, that I fear he will never come back to me.”

   “We come back, Aunt,” Scott said. Wishing only to comfort his aunt, he used some words he’d heard from his grandmother, but they surprised him with what sounded like truth. “We always come back to those who truly love us, however many miles we might travel away from them.”

   Avoiding his father’s gaze, he kissed his aunt’s cheek quickly and left the room, certain that somehow he had made a fool of himself with that wretched platitude. He shook the thought away and concentrated his mind on how he was going to find a little comfort in a woman’s soft arms and fulfil his promise of keeping an eye on his tenderfoot cousin.

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

   As they passed the Reverend Jones’ house, Robbie glanced in the direction of the lighted windows. Acutely aware of how deeply his father would disapprove of his behaviour – riding to a saloon on a Friday night, dollars in his pocket and the unallowable thought of women in his mind – he averted his gaze and sighed.

   “Somethin’ on your mind, Rob?”

   He looked at Johnny who rode beside him, seemingly his usual confident self, dressed in his new shirt and clean pants. Around his hips, he wore his gun belt, each loop loaded. Earlier, Robbie had noticed for the first time, with some discomfort, how worn it was, how clinically Johnny had loaded the revolver with six bullets before leaving the hacienda.  His expression had seemed cold and intent, as if he and the gun were in a different world, one that had no room for the exuberant young man Robbie had come to know. Then he had holstered the gun and looked at Robbie, his face lit by a wide grin, his buoyancy restored. For the last mile, he had described each girl at the Silver Dollar in more detail than Robbie cared to hear. Scott, apparently deep in thought, had finally and sharply told him to button his lip, and to Robbie’s surprise, Johnny had fallen silent, although a smile had lingered on his mouth.

   “Just thinking of ma father.”

   Johnny let out a brief snort of laughter.

   “Cousin, on a Friday night in Green River, my Old Man’s the last thought on my mind.”

   “Yes, brother,” Scott said. “I think Robbie might have worked that out for himself.”

   “Hell, Scott.” Johnny pulled his hat further down over his brow as they approached the livery stable. In the small office, Tom Cooper could be seen, his head bent over his desk in the fading light. “You sure ain’t no saint, so don’t you go all old maid on us just ‘cos Murdoch’s got you on babysittin’ duty.”

   Scott waved at Tom Cooper, who had suddenly emerged from his office, his gaze firmly and sourly in the direction of the three young men.

   “You know, little brother,” he said. “One day someone’s going to have to put you in your place.”

   It unnerved Robbie, still wary of the brothers’ relationship, to see Johnny’s gaze darken from its previous good humour, but the moment was brief and he half-smiled at Scott.

   “That gonna be you, big brother?”

   “Might be,” Scott replied easily. “On the other hand, it could be Tom Cooper with a loaded shotgun. He certainly isn’t looking too friendly.”

   “Old Man Cooper couldn’t shoot a buffalo at three paces,” Johnny said with a smile at Robbie. “Anyhow, he’s got nothin’ on me. Lindy an’ me, we’re coolin’ it down for awhile.”

   “You mean you are,” Scott said, his tone amused. “What brought that on? Did Lindy offer to make an honest man of you?”

   “Somethin’ like that.”

   “I warned you, Johnny. She’s not knocked up, is she?”

   “Hell, no, Scott,” Johnny replied irritably. “She damn well ain’t knocked up. Quit with the lecturin’. You sound like the Old Man.”

   As Johnny kicked his horse away from them towards the Silver Dollar, Scott smiled and raised his eyebrows at Robbie.

   “I think the sooner we have some beers, Cousin, the better.”

   Relieved that the brothers’ exchange hadn’t ended in a full-blown argument, Robbie nodded. By the time they reached the hitching rail, Johnny had already disappeared inside the saloon. Dismounting, Robbie tied his horse up beside Scott’s, aware of the unearthly noises coming from within the building – a woman’s high laugh, a bashed out piano tune, the bedlam of drunk men’s voices, calling for beers, refuting another man’s point, telling a joke. The saloon itself seemed to breathe out a contagion of alcohol, smoke and unwashed bodies. Scott smiled at Robbie’s anxious observation of the building.

   “It was a shock to me, too, when I first came out here, Cousin, even with my experience of some less than salubrious Boston bars, but it’ll grow on you.”

   To one side of the polished doors, a woman and man sat, plainly dressed, their pale faces expressionless; in the woman’s tightly clenched hand was a placard. Robbie paused to read it: Touch Not, Taste Not, Handle Not the Unclean Thing.

   “Don’t go in there, brother,” the man said. “One step upon that path will lead you to ruin and perdition.”

   Robbie looked at Scott; under his borrowed hat, a glint of amusement showed in his eyes.

   “What d’ye think, Cousin?”

   “I think he’s probably right,” Scott replied. He lifted his hat and acknowledged each of the couple in turn. “Good evening, sir … ma’am.”

   As they entered the saloon, the powerful smell and noise of it seemed both repellent and intoxicating to Robbie. He found he was glad to be with Scott; despite the lure of his mercurial younger cousin, this place inspired a need in him for a steadier companion. 

   Inside, bright chandeliers lit up a smoky scene of men. Men round poker tables, nursing cards or throwing in bets. Men with brightly dressed women on their knees. Men sitting alone in corners, watching the doors. Men at the bar, already drunk and unsteady on their feet. Some looked like cowboys, young and full of the same bragging ways Robbie had witnessed at Lancer. Others were older, fatter, more complacent, men of the town – such as one who glanced briefly at Robbie, a cigar in his mouth before glancing at a gold watch out of a pin-striped waistcoat. He nodded at Scott who returned the gesture, as he had done several times since entering.

   At the long wooden bar, Robbie saw his younger cousin pour tequila into a shot glass and drink it in one swift movement even before he and Scott had joined him. Scott removed his gloves and nudged his brother’s arm. His tone was low and cautious.

   “Hey, boy, what’s your hurry? I thought we were going to take it slow tonight, start with the beers.”

   “It’s all goin’ the same way, Brother.” Johnny smiled at Robbie and indicated the bottle. “You ever tried tequila, Rob?”

   “I canna say I have,” Robbie replied, attempting to sound cheerful, despite his unease.

   “And he isn’t about to,” Scott said. He nodded at the barman. “Three beers, Isa.”

   “Brother,” Johnny said, with a slow smile. “You’re just goin’ to wear yourself out babymindin’ Rob an’ me. Ease off, ok?”

   Scott regarded the younger man silently for a moment before returning the smile.

   “Make that two beers, Isa.”

   “If it ain’t them two Lancer boys. Ain’t seen you in a month o’more. Where ya the hell ya bin?”

   Robbie, his hand holding a glass of frothy beer, saw a red-haired giant of a man, Murdoch’s height, but younger and much heavier. When he held out his hand to greet the brothers, a powerful scent of sweat let go, leaving Robbie’s senses reeling.

   “Red,” Johnny said, shaking the man’s hand. “I swear you ain’t gettin’ any smaller. How the hell are ya? Still courtin’ the schoolteacher?”

   “Tryin’, Johnny boy, still tryin’,” Red said, his round, cheerful face suddenly as bashful as a child’s caught stealing an apple. “She smiled on me the other day, looked right at me from the schoolhouse gate while I was passin’ with my mule.”

   “Did you give her flowers like I advised, Red?” Scott asked, wiping the beer froth off his mouth.

   “Nope, but I give her a bullfrog.” Seeing the disbelieving looks on his friends’ faces, he hastily continued. “Read it in one o’ them magazines. Frogs’ legs. In Paris, France, they eat ‘em like they was gold-plated, an’ ya know Miss Taylor’s hankerin’ fer Paris, boys.”

   “Er, Red,” Scott ventured cautiously. “Was the frog alive or dead?”

   “Fresh dead, o’ course,” Red replied, with a scornful look. “What d’ya take me for?”

   Johnny, who had failed to hide a grin at his brother’s question, now laughed out loud and punched Red’s huge upper arm.

   “That’s a fine present, big man. What’s a girl want with flowers when she can have a frog?”

   Still laughing, Johnny took his bottle of tequila and the glass and headed for one of the card tables. Frowning, Red stared after him.

   “He ain’t joshin’ me, is he?”

   “No, Red,” Scott said. “He’s impressed.”

   “He is, huh?” Red frowned again, before seeming to recover his good spirits. “Well, I’ll see you boys later. Now’s ‘bout the time she sits out on ‘er porch, watchin’ the fireflies.”

   Scott smiled at Robbie as the other man left the saloon, shoving the doors aside so hard they swung for almost a minute.

   “As you can see, Robbie, we have very sophisticated methods of wooing our women out here.”

   Robbie laughed and followed his cousin to where Johnny had joined a poker game with four other men. His younger cousin had already been dealt in and was leaning casually in the chair, one leg stretched out, while he contemplated his hand. In front of him was a refilled glass of tequila which he tossed back, before throwing a half-eagle into the middle of the table. Robbie sat down with Scott at a nearby table and sipped his beer, glad that, for now, the piano player had shifted into a melancholic state and was playing a slow ballad. A young cowhand, his eyes half-closed, was leaning on the piano, a half-empty whisky bottle in one hand. Bellows of laughter greeted his fate minutes later when he slid to the floor, his tongue lolling from his open mouth. The piano player, Robbie noted, didn’t miss one poignant note.

   He watched the game proceed into its second and third round of betting. Two players folded with the customary look of disgust and headed for the bar.

   “D’ye not play cards, Scott?” he asked finally, mesmerised by the lack of animation on Johnny’s face, even when a young woman, dressed in tight frock of shiny mauve, blond curls falling onto her shoulders, leaned down low and whispered in his young cousin’s ear. There was no mistaking her intent, Robbie felt, not with those ample breasts nearly pushed up out of her dress, like bread dough left on a warm shelf. She reached across and poured out another tequila. Responding to a raise, Johnny leaned forward slightly and threw an eagle into the pot.

   “Yes,” Scott replied. “But not yet. Perhaps later. Johnny plays better when he’s hungry. I like to play on a full stomach.”

   Alerted by the change in his cousin’s tone, Robbie turned to Scott and saw that another young woman had joined them, her lips painted a vivid scarlet and her green eyes enhanced into hugeness by long, dark eyelashes. Seated on Scott’s lap, she listened as his cousin whispered something in her ear, and then she looked at Robbie directly, her head tilted to one side, those green eyes now half-closed like an inscrutable cat’s. His stomach contracted.

   “Alright, Johnny boy, let’s see what you bin hidin’.” Robbie pulled his gaze from the girl’s feline observation of him. At the poker table, a large man, his black stubble glistening with sweat was staring hard at Johnny, his meaty hands splayed flat on the table on either side of his revealed cards. “Reckon you can beat my Three of a Kind?”

   “No, Joe,” Johnny said, with a smile. He displayed his five cards with a slow sleight of hand. “Not unless a straight whups a three.”

   Joe’s face twisted in disgusted incredulity. Like an aggravated steer, he blew hard through his nose.

   “Ya damn smart-aleck,” he said angrily. “Ya damn well know it does.”

   The scowl still on his face, he watched a smiling Johnny pull in the pot of gold and silver coins. He swallowed a mouthful of beer and set the glass down with a bang.

   “Ya know, boy,” he said, his tone a shade warmer, Robbie felt, than only moments before.  “I was wonderin’ why I ain’t missed ya bein’ around lately.”

   “Sure missed you, Joe,” Johnny replied, winking at Robbie. “Been havin’ to pay for my own tequila.”

   Joe snorted loudly and looked at Scott, who was regarding the exchange with an amused smile, his arms wrapped round the saloon girl’s waist. Her fingers were entwined in his hair.

   “Any chance of takin’ this cub home early, Scott?” he said, now seeming to have lost all trace of his original anger. “Before he has the damn shirt offen my back.”

   “Kinda big for me, ain’t it?” Johnny said, grinning, before his brother had time to reply. “Maybe I can give it to my Old Man.” He dragged the girl at his side onto his lap and buried his face in her curls. Kissing her neck, he placed a ten dollar coin between her breasts. She gave a small squeal and, smiling, he pushed it in a little further. “Go get these men another beer, honey, and a bottle of bug juice for Joe. Reckon he needs loosenin’ up a little.”

   The girl smiled and lazily pulled herself away from Johnny, who poured out another tequila, threw in his dollar ante and watched Bill Wicks, one of the town’s three barbers, deal the start of a new game.

   Robbie leaned back in his chair, determined to relax. Unused to beer, he could already feel a certain looseness in his limbs and thoughts. Across the table, the girl in Scott’s arms was running the tip of her tongue over his cousin’s eyebrow, down the trail of his hairline and into his ear.  Scott pushed her away with a smile and nodded towards Robbie. Giving the young rancher a sulky look, she left his lap and headed for the narrow flight of stairs at the back of the saloon. By now, the piano player had struck up a jauntier tune and each note was vivid in Robbie’s consciousness. He leaned across to Scott.

   “Who’s your friend, Cousin?”

   “That’s Rosie,” Scott replied. He drained his glass and reached for one of the beers Johnny had bought with his winnings. “She and I have a special relationship.”

   “And who’s the girl with Johnny?”

   Scott leaned forward confidentially.

   “Lyra,” he said softly. “The rumour is that she’s in love with my brother, poor girl.”

   “Why ‘poor girl’?” Robbie asked, in the same cautious undertone.

   Scott raised his eyebrows and smiled faintly.

   “Do you really need me to explain, Cousin?”

   Robbie felt the colour rise in his cheeks and he took another swallow of beer. Scott stood up, his beer in his hand.

   “Anyway, boy, we’ve got business upstairs,” he said, his tone so matter-of-fact that for a moment Robbie thought that Scott meant a meeting among men with cigars and contracts. He glanced at Johnny who was absorbed in another hand of cards, his expression as unreadable as a dead man’s. At another poker table, a heated argument had begun. Almost immediately, it was resolved by a man standing at the bar, a metal star on his chest and a rifle close by, who told them to ‘fix your flints, boys, or go on home.’

   “Ye mean …?”

   Scott smiled and gestured with his head towards the stairs.

   “Cousin, if you wait any longer, you’ll be too far over the water to appreciate the view.” Robbie stared at the young man in bewilderment. Shaking his head, Scott took his arm and pulled him out of his chair. “I’ll explain upstairs,” he said good-naturedly. “I’ll explain everything.”

   Allowing himself to be led between the tables and up the stairs, Robbie glanced back once at his younger cousin; cards in hand, Johnny was regarding him with an amused and knowing smile.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

   It was the kind of ordinary Californian sunset that Murdoch had seen many times, one that had formed the backdrop to the end of his day’s labours from the first moment he had staked his claim to this land. Down in the valley the hills’ curves and the outlines of sycamores and cottonwoods were lost in waves of misty purple; these merged gradually into a band of a fiery pink above the horizon where the sun’s rays were still penetrating the lower cloud over the far mountains. Above it all was the fire, the great licks of orange and yellow that seemed dragged across the sky by a furious artist intent on capturing the end of all things.

   Beside him Mary breathed. She had finished doing up her dress; now she was engaged in rearranging her hair to its former tight neatness. Captivated, he watched her long pianist’s fingers, gather the fallen hair and twist it into place at the back of her neck. Behind them, Amo grazed what little he could find in the scrubby bushes among the rocks, his bit jangling as he tugged at the stubborn plants.

   The house suddenly and painfully empty after the young men’s departure for town, Mary had not resisted his suggestion that they ride out here, to his favourite place on Earth. She had not resisted lying down with him on the still-warm earth under this oak tree; no protest emerged from her eager mouth when he’d pushed inside her, only a gasp which had quickly turned into his breathed out name.

   Nor did she now resist his hand enclosing hers as they sat there in the evening’s warmth. He was expecting her to talk of the sunset’s beauty, the easiest subject, but she was silent except for the sound of her long and steady breaths.

   “We used to watch sunsets when we were young,” he said. Even to his ears, his voice seemed like an intrusion.

   “Aye, we did,” Mary agreed. “Only ye never watched them, Murry. You were too busy dreaming of what lay beyond.”

   “I’m not dreaming now.”

   She turned her head then and smiled.

   “No, but you’re thinking.”

   He gave a snort of amusement and lifted her hand to his mouth. He kissed each knuckle in turn, before leaning forward and kissing her mouth. Holding her gaze, he whispered, “Stay with me. Stay at Lancer.”

   She drew back a little, frowning.

   “I can’t,” she said. “Ye know I can’t.”

   “You love me.” Murdoch held fast to her hand and with the other caressed her hair. “I love you. My boys love you. Stay with us, Mary, with me.”

   “Iain needs me, Murdoch. He needs me.” She pulled away and got to her feet. She folded her arms and gazed down at him unhappily. “You still think that ye can direct your life the way ye wish it, Murry, with no thought for the effect your actions might have on others. Ye accuse Johnny of recklessness, yet I never met a man so reckless with other people’s hearts.”

   “I just know what I feel and see,” Murdoch replied, stung by her reference to his younger son, that what he felt was the truest thing he had ever felt for a woman could be compared to a twenty-one year old’s promiscuous ways. “You don’t love Iain. He doesn’t make you happy. He never did, so why waste whatever years we have left?” When she turned away from him and moved closer to the edge where the slope began its steep drop down into the valley, he stood up, although he didn’t go to her. “I’m a practical man, Mary. My brother isn’t going to forgive me for anything, not for abandoning him to our father, not for turning my back on Scotland, not for leaving you pregnant with my child, not for following my dreams come hell or high water, so stay here, where you can be happy.”

   It was some moments before he realised she was crying. Feeling the same useless ineptitude he always felt around tears, he went to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. She shrugged him away and heaved in a deep breath.

   “I would do anything to start again, Murdoch,” she said passionately. “How many times d’ye think I haven’t gone back to that moment when ye asked me to go with you to America? How many times d’ye think I haven’t imagined you, me and our daughter together as the family we should have been?” She shook her head vehemently. “But we can’t go back and my place is with Iain, and I will return home with him when he is ready to go.”

   Her stubbornness angered him. So convinced was he now that he was doing the right thing, that he was salvaging from the past the best of what could be salvaged, he took her resistance as strategy, and wondered what her game was. He had not mistaken her desire for him, he was sure. Hadn’t she, such a short time ago, given herself to him for the second time in their lives with all the passion and need he had last felt in the teenage Maria? Even now, his body was aching to touch her again, to pull open that dress, undo the hair which would tumble over her white shoulders and breasts – he had forgotten the softness of a woman’s skin – and hear her groan the past away under his thrusts.

   “You love me,” he said. “I can make you happy. I can make up for some of it, all of it!”

   Mary smiled, and he knew she was laughing at him.

   “For such a practical man, you are so easily led astray by love, Murry.” She took his hand, swung it a little in hers. “Or something very like it.” Her tone was teasing, as if she hoped to help him through his foolishness. “I took the moment in your arms, my dearest lad. I took it gladly, although …” She heaved a hard sigh. “… I’m certain my soul will be damned for it, but my place is with your brother. It was with him the moment I made my vows in your father’s church. I have broken those vows. I have broken them every day of our married life, in thought if not in deed, but I will not abandon him in his utter loneliness. When his eyes fail him, he will need me in a way ye never did.”

   In the fading light, Murdoch’s only reply was a grinding of his teeth. He had been caught out as easily as a green boy, and this quiet little woman had as much power over him as she could wish. Silently, he mounted Amo and held out his hand to pull her up behind him. Expecting a certain coldness now, he was surprised to feel her press her face against his back, her arms firmly around his waist. Sighing, he nudged Amo forward, his mind determinedly on the large scotch he was going to pour for himself when he got home.

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

   It wasn’t a dirty room, but even in the failing light, it was clear it had seen better days. Wall paper decorated with small flowers that was now brown, but might once have been yellow, had peeled away in the corners and on the ceiling directly above his head was something unidentifiable, the old stain of some hurled substance, beer maybe, perhaps blood. He swallowed away his distaste and turned his gaze on the girl lying next to him, a thin creature with her chestnut hair lying across her face in neglected ringlets and nails that were bitten down to the quick. She appeared to be sleeping, her mouth slightly open, showing small white teeth and the tip of a red tongue. Lust stirred in him again.

   He wondered how long he should stay here. From the next room, where he knew Scott had taken Rosie, he heard muffled laughter. Earlier, while he had watched this girl, Mollie, reveal in shocking flesh the elements of a woman’s body he had seen only in forbidden books, he had heard a rhythmic creaking through the thin wall. Mollie had laughed and had said that ‘them Lancer boys sure don’t leave a girl waitin’ at the station.’ It had taken him longer, although not much, so patient and expert had been her touch. In wild disbelief, he had watched her lower herself down on him, had grabbed her naked hips as she rode him. Had the bed creaked? He couldn’t remember now. Only the explosion of himself into her, the unstoppable shuddering violence of it, remained with him now. He was sure he had cried out, a loud, drawn-out wail of something long repressed.

   “You want more, Robbie Lancer? We got fifteen minutes. Business is slow tonight, and you was real quick.”

   Her eyes were open, a mild brown like his mother’s. He shuddered as she reached across and placed her hand on his still-damp thigh, allowed her fingers to touch what needed no encouragement to respond.

   “You gonna ride me again, cowboy?” she smiled, shifting her body closer. Her red lipstick had smeared a little and her eyelashes were stiff with mascara. He could see now that she was young, probably no more than nineteen. The creaking had begun again next door, loud and rhythmic, accompanied this time by uneven thumps and giggles. He reached for her mouth with his, but she turned her head away into the pillow, closing her eyes as he fumbled his way into her. The first time, she had smiled down at him, raising her eyebrows and opening her mouth as she had ridden him; now she looked bored with his efforts. He closed his own eyes to her half-dead gaze and tried to enjoy the simple pleasure of his flesh inside hers, but, this time, the end when it came seemed no more than overspill, like beer frothing over a glass. It was a disappointment.

   Downstairs, Johnny had thrown in his hand and was sitting at a table drinking beer with Scott and two other young men. They were not familiar to Robbie, but he guessed from their outfits and demeanour that they were ranch hands. Self-consciously, he approached the group, relieved when a shade of a smile on his younger cousin’s face was accompanied not by an interrogation, but by an invitation to sit down. Johnny pushed a glass of beer towards him.

   “Guess you’ll be needing this, Cousin.” He nodded at the other men. “This is our cousin, Rob, boys, from Scotland. Rob, this is Jack Salter and that mudsill with ‘im is Tyler Crouch. His pa owns the Rockin’ J, a bitty little spread north of Lancer.”

   “Mightn’t be as big as Lancer, but it’s got prettier cows.” Smiling, Tyler held out his hand to Robbie. “Pleased to meet you, Rob. Johnny tells me you’re interested in old rocks.”

   “I certainly am,” Robbie said, shaking his hand. Avoiding Scott’s calm and amused gaze, he shook hands with Jack and sat down.

   “Well, we got plenty of ‘em at the Rockin’ J,” Jack said, smirking into his beer. “So, Rob, you find any old rocks upstairs?” He dipped his head at Johnny’s glare and sniggered.

   Robbie smiled uncomfortably and took a cautious sip of his beer, before looking at his younger cousin.

   “Did ye win at cards, Johnny?”

   “Yep, a little bit,” Johnny replied, turning his glass round slowly on the table.

   “Before he got whupped by that ol’ fox, Bill Hicks,” Tyler said, with a grin. “You sure didn’t see that Four of a Kind coming, Johnny.”

   Johnny shrugged and took a swallow of his beer. Jack belched loudly and leaned back easily in his chair. It creaked under his weight.

   “So how wus Rosie tonight, Scott?” he asked, casting a side glance at the young woman, who was leaning against the piano, her head resting on her hands. She appeared to be listening to the drunken ramblings of the grain merchant’s younger son, but Robbie could see that her eyes showed the profoundest boredom. “Reckoned on takin’ me a little bite of that sweet cherry tonight.”

   Robbie saw his older cousin’s eyes darken with a fleeting hostility before he released a slow smile.

   “Rosie doesn’t let just anyone taste her fruit, Jack.”

   Jack frowned while Tyler spluttered a laugh into his beer.

   “Well, Mr Gentleman from Boston, is that so?”

   “That is so, Jack,” Tyler said, grinning and slapping his friend’s shoulder. “Set your sights a little lower, boy. How about Mollie? She looks like she might be ready for a little attention.”

   With Jack, Robbie turned his head to see Mollie walking downstairs in her slovenly, disinterested manner, her white finger tips stroking the banister. Jack chewed a little at the inside of his cheek and shrugged before taking a noisy slurp of beer.

   “Poked ‘er last week,” he said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “She wouldn’t let me suck on her tit, though. Damn high-falutin’ bitch.”

   “Jesus, Jack,” Johnny said, glancing uncomfortably at Robbie. “You’re a real ace-high feller, ain’t you. Shut your yap an’ go get us some more beers.”

   “What’s up with you, Johnny?” Jack drawled, standing up. Swaying a little, he  elaborately hoisted up his pants. He was a tall man, Robbie could see now, a good six inches taller than the rest of them. “You got particular lately? I ain’t seen you takin’ the stairs tonight.” He picked up his empty glass and smiled. “That Lindy Cooper givin’ ya free rides or somethin’?”

   Tyler stood up with an exasperated sigh.

   “Come on, you big galoot, we’ll get those beers before you put a bullet in your other damn foot.”

   The young rancher pulled his friend away towards the bar and Scott smiled at his brother.

   “So, why haven’t you ‘taken the stairs’ tonight, Johnny? Lyra certainly didn’t look like she’d have needed much persuasion.”

   His gaze on his half-empty glass, Johnny smiled faintly and shrugged. Scott ruffled his brother’s hair and grinned. Expecting Johnny to scowl, Robbie was glad to see his younger cousin swat Scott’s hand away with a grin of his own. There seemed little of their earlier animosity left and Robbie wondered at the power of alcohol to soften the edges of a man’s world.

   “Lancer! I thought I’d find you here with the rest of the cowboys.”

   He was a short, stocky young man, his stomach just beginning to push over the edge of his belt, challenging the strength of his waistcoat buttons. He was too well-dressed, Robbie thought, to be a man of the land, and the nails at the end of his white fingers appeared to be manicured. Robbie knew he was no expert in these things, but the gun belt around the man’s waist, stiff with newness or under-use, looked like an uncomfortable accessory, not the everyday tool his cousin wore. Johnny met the young man’s belligerent gaze with what seemed to Robbie to be cool indifference, and took another swallow of beer before speaking.

   “Your mama let you out for the evenin’, Ricky?”

   “He’s drunk, Johnny,” Scott said.

   “You know where I’ve been, Lancer?” Ricky cut in, with a glare at the older brother.

   “No, why don’t you put us all to sleep tellin’ us?”

   “I’ve been eating dinner with the Coopers.” The young man paused, his gaze on Johnny, clearly waiting for a reaction. Fascinated and anxious at the same time, Robbie saw the merest flicker of some dark emotion cross his cousin’s features. “Yes, sir,” Ricky continued, with a touch of swagger now. “I was their invited guest, and I’m here to tell you, cowboy, that me and Lindy are officially courting, so you’d better stay away from her from now on.”

   “Shouldn’t that be Lindy and I, Ricky?” Scott said. Robbie’s eyes widened at the remark, spoken in a tone as cool as Johnny’s. Ricky glared at the older brother.

   “You stay out of this, Scott,” he said, his irritation slurred by the effects of too much wine. “This is between your brother and me. He doesn’t need you riding shotgun for him …” He hesitated and looked at Johnny, who was grinding his teeth behind firmly closed lips. Robbie knew enough of his cousin to understand that he was about to become dangerous. Ricky put both hands on the table and leaned in closer. “… or do you, Johnny? Does the no-tori-ous gunfighter need his big brother to defend him?”

   It happened before Robbie had time to consider the storekeeper’s son’s words. Johnny had stood up and grabbed Ricky Hanson’s shirt in both hands, his face so close to the other man’s, their noses were almost touching. Scott, too, had risen and had his hand lightly on Johnny’s shoulder.

   “You come heeled for a reason, Ricky?” Johnny demanded, spitting out each word between almost clenched teeth. “Or you just paradin’ yourself, as usual? Get outta here before I make you look real, real stupid!”

   In his own cloudy state, Robbie heard the murmurs of other men in the saloon, a soft drawl of warning from the deputy at the bar, but Hanson, emboldened by wine, returned Johnny’s dark look with one of his own.

   “Lindy’s mine, Lancer, just remember that next time you get an itch in your pants.”

   The shove Johnny gave the other man was enough to send Ricky crashing into the table behind him where five men had continued stoically to play cards, despite the heated argument close by. They let out cries of anger and surprise when the young man fell backwards on their game, up-ending the table and sending beer and cards flying. Shocked, Robbie heard a mixture then of loud curses and laughter from around the saloon, a plaintive “What ya goin’ to do about this, Deputy?” from one of the card players, a “Settle down now, boys” which was cut off in its ineffectiveness by Hanson recovering himself and launching his stocky frame at Johnny like a charging bull.

   To Robbie, uncomfortably reminded of an altercation between two boys in the playground at home, it was if someone had thrown a lighted match on kerosene. No-one, it seemed, intended being left out of the fun. The moment Hanson drove Johnny back against the wall, dislodging a picture, already askew from neglect, of a girl draped in a feather boa, the saloon’s atmosphere of relative calm almost immediately descended into bedlam. Hoots and hollers of excitement went up, and from every side, men began to throw punches with no apparent acrimony; some, Robbie noted, even had smiles on their faces.

   Suddenly, he found himself pulled urgently out of his chair by Scott, who was then set upon by one of the card players. In disbelief, Robbie watched his older cousin deliver a punch of such power that the card player fell backwards, out cold, into other brawlers, one of whom cheered and, eyes bright with joy, swung a drunken fist at Scott. Robbie saw his cousin duck the swing and raise his eyebrows at him with a rueful smile, before delivering another precise and powerful uppercut. In that moment, Robbie realised that Scott’s prowess was only attracting ever more opponents and that his cousin was bound and happy to retaliate.   His younger cousin still in the throes of a battle with Ricky Hanson, one that had so far resulted in a broken table, two smashed pictures and a floorful of spilt beer, Robbie wondered why he alone remained unchallenged. Before he had time to decide whether or not he should succumb to the temptation of leaping on another man’s back and bringing him to the floor in a welter of blows, a gunshot was fired, followed quickly by another.

   It was enough to stop most of the combatants who, still wild-eyed from excitement and drink, regarded the sheriff and his deputy with varying degrees of muzzy respect. It took the sheriff, a tidy, hard-eyed man, to end the fight between Johnny and Hanson – he grabbed Johnny and yanked him with violent force away from dealing another blow to Ricky’s face. When, still on his knees, Johnny made another lunge at Hanson, the sheriff cuffed his head, stamped a foot on his thigh and cocked his rifle, pointing it in Johnny’s face.

   “You just settle your blood, boy, before I’m tempted to knock you out cold, you hear me?”

   His chest heaving and blood trickling down his face from a cut under his eye, Johnny nodded. The sheriff gestured at his deputy with a nod towards Ricky, who was slumped on the floor groaning in pain.

   “Get this one up, Ryan. Reckon he might need a doctor.” He looked at Scott, his rifle still in Johnny’s face. “You. What’s your name?”

   Scott’s gaze had been on Johnny, while he calmly dabbed away blood from the corner of his mouth. He looked coolly at the sheriff, a man who had been quickly drafted in to replace Val after a horse had stood on their friend’s foot and broken three toes.

   “Scott Lancer, Sheriff. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

   “None of your damn lip, Mister Lancer,” the sheriff growled, turning his glare on Robbie, who swallowed back a feeling of horrified embarrassment. “I’ve heard about you Lancer boys.” He looked hard at Johnny, who, kneeling on the floor, was still staring darkly at the groaning Ricky Hanson. “Well, big bug daddy or not, you’re going to jail.”

   “Sheriff, I’m quite sure that isn’t necessary.” For the first time, Robbie saw consternation cross his older cousin’s face, perhaps even real alarm. His own stomach constricted at the incredible prospect of arrest. “Ricky came in here looking for trouble with my brother. He made a number of provocative remarks and Johnny retaliated, unwisely perhaps, but understandably, I believe.”

   The sheriff regarded the young man severely.

   “You swallered a book, son? If so, you’d better get chewin’ on one concernin’ the law. You’re goin’ to need it.” He removed his foot from Johnny’s thigh and stooped to lift the revolver from his gun belt. With that, Robbie saw Johnny instantly turn his gaze from Hanson to the gun in the sheriff’s hand. The sheriff turned the weapon over slowly, rubbed the worn grip with his thumb. “This is no cowhand’s piece, is it, boy?” Johnny glowered silently at him. “No, sir, it’s not even a rich rancher’s kid’s piece.” He kicked the young man gently and grabbed his arm. “Get on your feet.”

   Johnny in his grasp and his rifle at his side, the sheriff looked round the saloon. Most people were watching in silence, but the bar keeper was already attempting to rescue his broken pictures from the bloody, beer soaked floor. “Anyone else want to interrupt my sleep tonight, I got plenty of space in the jail. Happy to clean out Crawford’s cobwebs for ‘im.”

   Scott smiled weakly at Robbie and rubbed his shoulder as they left the saloon, the sheriff leading the way with a dishevelled and bloodied Johnny.

   “Don’t worry, Cousin,” Scott said softly. “This is just a little local difficulty. It’ll all be sorted out in the morning.”

   “But we’re supposed to be home tonight,” Robbie said, with a frown. He felt his heart race in cold panic that swept away the effects of the alcohol and left him with a  sudden, horribly clear picture of what was happening to him. “My God, Scott, what’s Ma going to say? What if my father hears of it?”

   Scott grabbed his neck and brought him closer.

   “I’ll handle everything, Robbie,” he said. “You haven’t done a thing wrong. Trust me.”

   In growing horror, Robbie watched the sheriff open the jail door and push Johnny inside, before he stepped back and did the same with him and Scott. He was sure that the metal sound of the key being turned in the lock was the worst thing he had ever heard. 

   The deputy lowered the still groaning Ricky Hanson onto the bed in the next cell and allowed the doctor in to tend to him.

   “Guess you’d better take a look at these boys, Doc, when you’re done with ‘im,” the sheriff said. “I’m off back to my bed. Any trouble from Murdoch Lancer’s pups, Ryan, throw a pail of cold water over ‘em. That should cool their heels.”

 

   His gaze on the moon behind the bars of the cell’s small window, Robbie listened to the final sounds of the night - the men staggering drunkenly home, the crisp trotting of hooves in the cool air and a lone dog barking. There was a single lamp burning low on the sheriff’s desk, where the deputy slumbered in a chair. Scott was sitting beside Robbie on one rough bed, while Johnny lay, apparently asleep on the other. For some time, Robbie allowed his mind to imagine what his pupils would say if they could see him now – a locked-up miscreant in the American West. If he wasn’t so afraid, he might even be enjoying the novelty of it!

   “What d’ye think Uncle will say?” Robbie asked, aware that his voice sounded unnaturally loud in the quiet room.

   “I’m trying not to think about it,” Scott replied, his eyes closed and his hands draped over his upraised knees. “But I think my brother and I might very well find ourselves wishing we’d never been born.”

   “Speak for yourself, brother,” Johnny said, from the other side of the cell. “I’ll settle for wishin’ myself in some other state until the steam’s stopped comin’ out of his ears.”

   Scott opened his eyes and smiled.

   “You’re awake. How’re you feeling?”

   “Like I been rollin’ around a saloon with a fat, broom-pushin’, lyin’ sonuvabitch.”

   “Leave it now, Johnny,” Scott said. “We’re in enough trouble, and Val’s not here to give us the benefit of the doubt. We could have our work cut out convincing this sheriff that we’re law abiding citizens who just had a little too much to drink tonight.”

   Johnny sat up with a gasp of pain and sighed as he rubbed his hand through his hair.

   “Yeh, I forgot about him. Val said he was one tough hombre. Jesus, my head hurts.” He turned his head and scowled through the bars at the snoring figure of Ricky Hanson in the next cell. “Whatever I did to that fuckin’ broom-pusher, it wasn’t bad enough.”

   “I warned you, Johnny,” Scott said. “You said you’d cooled it with Lindy. Hanson was just waiting for his chance and he took it.”

   “He’s a lyin’ sonuvabitch, Scott. Lindy might be mad at me, but there’s no way she’d take up with that four-flusher.”

   “Not even to make you jealous?”

   Johnny looked suspiciously at his brother before shaking his head irritably, hissing with pain as he did so. Robbie waited a little and asked the question that had been troubling him since the moment it had first shaped itself in his thoughts.

   “Johnny?”

   The young man raised his head and looked directly at him. ‘He knows what I’m going to ask,’ Robbie thought. ‘Yes, he does. He knows exactly, so it must be true.’

   “Mr Hanson called you a gunfighter.” He swallowed back the dryness in his throat. “Is that what ye are?”

   Cross-legged on the bed, Johnny gazed across the cell at him, no longer a wild youth, but a sober and serious man, so much older than himself. His answer was quiet and matter-of-fact.

   “That’s what I was, Rob, yeh.”

   Robbie waited for more, but Johnny was silent, watching him with eyes that were not unfriendly, but held no trace of guilt or regret.

   “Ye killed men?”

   “Yeh.”

   “Many?

   “Yeh.”

   Robbie nodded. Beside him, he felt Scott move off the bed to fetch water from the jug in the corner. He poured out cups for all of them and handed the first to Robbie.

   “Drink this, Robbie,” he said, in a tone that suggested more questions would not be welcome. “Then try to get some sleep. We’ll take care of things in the morning. You don’t have to worry about any of it, I promise.”

   Robbie drank the water and lay down on the bed. Before he drifted into fitful sleep, he heard his cousins softly talking over on the other bed. They sounded like conspirators, closed off in their own secret world of which he would never be a part. How many men had Johnny killed? Was it murder? Was his cousin a murderer? His mind recoiled from the word, and all the accounts of gunfights he had read, sensational and brutal, could not help him decide. Gunfighters were lost souls who lived to kill. They took pleasure in killing. Yes, they took pleasure in the deaths of other men …

  

Chapter Twenty-Six

   “You ripped your shirt.”

   “Yeh, kinda liked this shirt, too.”

   They were sitting opposite each other, cross-legged on the bed, the moon giving them enough light to see each other’s cuts and bruises. Both, almost simultaneously, had scorned the doctor’s offer of a clean-up, exchanging brief smiles at his bad-tempered response.

   “You ever spent a night in jail, Scott?”

   “Not a whole night. A few hours when I was seventeen for being drunk and disorderly. Grandfather was very embarrassed.” Scott smiled at the memory. “He would’ve paid a king’s ransom to get me out of there. How about you?”

   “Yeh, three times.” Scott leaned forward slightly to hear his brother’s quiet words. “The last was the night before I was due to be shot by the rurales.” Johnny’s head was lowered. He was tumbling a dollar piece between his fingers and laughed softly. “I’d got ready for dyin’. Reckoned it was my time, for sure. Kind of a waste, I guess.”

   “A waste of what?”

   Johnny lifted his head and smiled into his brother’s curious gaze.

   “A whole night of thinkin’. If I’d known the Old Man was goin’ to reach out an’ grab my sorry ass from the devil’s grip, I’d’ve got some shut-eye instead.”

   He laughed at Scott’s hesitant frown and gave the older man’s shoulder a gentle shove. Scott smiled and returned the gesture, before gripping Johnny behind his neck and shaking him a little.

   “If he hadn’t done that, brother …”

   “You’d be tucked up in your li’l ol’ bed at Lancer, dreamin’ of all those acres you wouldn’t have to share with a no-account gunfighter.”

   “Johnny …” Scott’s tone was reproachful as he removed his hand from his brother’s neck.

   Johnny grinned. “An’ we wouldn’t be stuck here, wonderin’ if life’ll be worth livin’ in the mornin’.”

   “You’re planning to take the sole blame for this, are you?”

   Johnny looked soberly at the older man. Had his brother’s tone been close to resentful?

   “I started it.”

   “And I was happy not to finish it.”

   Johnny searched his brother’s hardened gaze, considered the bullish tone. He smiled slowly.

   “Yeh, I saw that. That’s some right hook you got there, big brother. Hope I never make you that sore at me. I’d lose, for sure.”

   “You would,” Scott said, holding the younger man’s gaze. He dug in his pocket and handed Johnny their father’s old watch. “I fixed it. I meant to give it you earlier.”

   Nodding, Johnny took the watch and flipped it open.

   “He nearly threw this old watch in the ocean,” he said quietly. “Did he tell you that?”

   “No. Why didn’t he?”

   Johnny shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he thought he’d have kids someday who’d appreciate it.” He rubbed his thumb over the newly polished inscription. “Should’ve given it to you.”

   “Only, I’m never late, brother,” Scott said, with a hovering smile.

   “Didn’t make it back home tonight, though.” Johnny snapped the watch shut and carefully placed it in his jacket pocket.

   “No.” Scott reached across and ruffled Johnny’s hair. “Worried now, boy?”

   “Some. You?”

   “A little, but not enough to regret it. I had fun.”

   Johnny smiled and shook his head. “I’ll remind you of that when he’s rippin’ our heads off, brother.” Shifting to one side of the bed, he stretched out and lowered his head carefully down onto the grubby pillow. 

   Scott lay down at the other end of the bed, pushing Johnny’s stockinged feet away from his face. He was about to drift to sleep when his brother’s voice came again out of the purple darkness.

   “Scott?”

   “Yes, Johnny?”

   “You still set on doggin’ that bull?”

   Scott heard his own heart beating in the silence, tried to gauge his brother’s intent from the softly spoken question.

   “Yes, I am,” he replied finally.

   “Then I’m the only one who’s goin’ to set it runnin’ an’ haze it for ya, you hear me?”

   Scott smiled in the dark. “I hear you, brother.”

 

   The morning sun on his face woke him. Blinking, he turned his head to see the feet of his sleeping brother next to him. He groaned and rubbed at his unshaven face, wincing when his fingers met the cut under his eye.

   “Dios, I feel like shit.”

   Scrambling over Scott’s sleeping form, he almost fell off the low bed and went over to the cell door, rattling it hard to gain the attention of Val’s young deputy, Ryan, who was pouring coffee in a tin mug.

   “Give a man a cup of coffee, Ryan, willya?”

   Was it his imagination or did the well-scrubbed youth in his spotless clothes, courtesy of a loving mother, seem more than usually happy and self-satisfied? The boy loved his job. Johnny knew that and often joshed him about his star, polished to such a shine that it dazzled a man’s eyes. Now, as the boy turned and regarded him with a less than friendly gaze, Johnny suddenly felt like a fool – a dirty, unshaven, hungry fool.

   “You look like hell,” Ryan said, turning back to the coffee pot. Yes, the boy was definitely enjoying his scrap of power. Johnny hardened his gaze.

   “You goin’ to hand me some of that coffee or not?”

   Ryan took an elaborate swallow of his coffee and swaggered nearer the cell, the cup in his hand.

   “Well, Johnny, I ain’t none too sure the Sheriff would be wantin’ me to hand out good coffee to a bunch of desperadoes like you.”

   Johnny would have laughed in the boy’s face if he didn’t, at that moment, feel like reaching out and throttling him. He grasped the bars harder in his hands.

   “You got a death wish, Ryan?” he said. “You wanna remember I’ll be outta here before the mornin’s done.”

   For a moment, Ryan looked like the boy he was, before bravado got the better of his fear and he shrugged.

   “Wouldn’t be too sure of that. Sheriff Adams ain’t Val. He don’t know your daddy from Abe Lincoln. Might decide to press charges. You and your brother sure ripped up The Silver Dollar, last night. Near on two hundred dollars worth of damage, Jack Creasey reckons.”

   “Bullshit,” Johnny said, his mouth and brain aching for coffee. “The whole stinkin’ place ain’t worth that.” He softened his tone. “Now, I’m askin’ you real friendly, Ryan, for  some of that coffee, and I’ll forget we ever had this conversation.”

   “Make that three, Ryan, if you’d be so kind. I know you make excellent coffee – certainly better than Val’s.”

   Scott’s soft, polite tones beside his younger brother seemed to make an immediate impression on the boy. “Sure,” he said quickly. “I was only joshin’ anyways. Johnny knows that.”

   In subdued disbelief, Johnny watched the boy pour out three mugs of coffee from the pot boiling on the stove. He took his coldly, but still savoured its heat and aroma, before smiling at his brother and sipping it with intense pleasure. When he turned, he saw that Robbie was now awake, and the look in his cousin’s eyes reminded him, with a harsh jolt, of what the older man now knew and clearly had not forgotten in the cold light of a new day.

 

   Murdoch made no haste on his way into town. On hearing the news of his sons’ arrest, via a cowhand returning from town at dawn, he had been tempted in his fury to abandon them to their uncertain fate. Then, with Mary still sleeping upstairs, he had recognised his duty and desire to save her pain and to retrieve his nephew at all costs.

   Amo moved easily beneath him in the early summer heat, his hooves kicking up puffs of dust. Murdoch realised he was glad to be alone with his thoughts and his horse on this familiar road where the orioles sang in the cottonwood trees. His feathers were a little more settled now, although he could feel his colour rise when he allowed his imagination to consider what might have happened in the saloon. The cowhand had not been forthcoming on the subject and had beat a hasty retreat to the bunkhouse. Murdoch had no doubt that his younger son was at the root of it, but was determined, this time, to lay some of the blame on Scott if it could be in any way justified. These last two weeks his elder son’s behaviour had been a mystery to him, and he resented the sudden loss of their friendly, easy-going relationship. He wanted it back, just as he wanted Mary to stay and for his daughter to disappear from his dreams.

   Tira. He could not rid himself of her imagined face, the girl – the woman – who might be the best of himself and Mary, who might now have children of her own, his grandchildren. Scottish grandchildren, with accents like the one he had slowly and surely lost in this melting-pot of languages and cultures. He was certain that, like Mary, their daughter would be strong, a powerful force in a small frame. He wanted to meet her, and each day that passed only intensified his desire to know this piece of himself who troubled his mind like the last unreachable, perfect fruit at the top of a tree.

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

   At least his sons had the grace to look apprehensive, was his first thought when he saw them. Sheriff Adams, hard-eyed and thin-lipped, had tried to prolong the moment of their release, but had submitted after one glare and a reminder that in Green River a saloon brawl with no fatalities had never yet justified a court appearance. Murdoch waited while the cell door was unlocked, his arms folded, and a murderous stare directed at his sons as they emerged, worse for wear in every way possible, bloodied, dishevelled and smelling of stale beer. He looked at Robbie with a milder expression. It was apparent by his relatively clean, neat appearance that the young man had not been involved in the fight.

   “Are you alright, Robbie?”

   “Aye, Uncle.” His nephew’s tone surprised Murdoch with its hard edge and he raised his eyebrows, before turning his attention back to his sons. He reached out and put his hand under Johnny’s chin, lifting the bowed head to look at the deep cut under his younger son’s eye. Johnny winced when his father touched it with his thumb, before jerking his head away irritably.

   “They were offered doctorin’,” Adams said, forestalling Murdoch’s question. “Wouldn’t take it. Now I’d be obliged if you’d take these boys home, Mister Lancer and I don’t wanna see them in town for the next month of Friday and Sat’day nights.”

   Murdoch nodded, his gaze meeting that of his older son who clearly had recovered some of his self-possession and was gazing calmly back at him.

   “You won’t be seeing them, Sheriff Adams,” he said grimly. “You can be certain of that.” He nodded curtly towards the door. “Outside, boys. Now.”

   Turning to follow them out, he saw Johnny’s gun belt hanging behind the desk and stopped.

   “I’ll take that, Sheriff,” he said, gesturing at the belt. Adams folded his arms and glanced at Johnny in the doorway whose rebellious gaze was on his father.

   “Reckoned on keeping it awhile, Mister Lancer, until your boy’s learned to handle his temper.”

   “Did he use the gun last night?” Murdoch demanded.

   “No, he didn’t, but …”

   “Then you have no legal right to confiscate my son’s revolver, Sheriff. I’d be obliged if you’d give it to me.”

   Grimacing, Adams pushed open the gate, unhooked the belt and thrust it at Murdoch.

   “I know you got a lot of say-so around here, Mister Lancer, but the law’s the law, and the day’ll come when it’ll come down a whole lot harder even on your flesh an’ blood.”

   Making no reply, Murdoch took the belt and strode out into the strong sunlight to where Amo was tethered. Already, Johnny was stroking the animal and speaking softly to it. The sight softened Murdoch’s emotions, but he hardened them again as he handed Johnny the gun belt.

   “Here.”

   He saw Johnny’s look of surprise, heard a grunt of thanks, before his son took the belt and buckled it on. Scott was leaning, arms folded, against the hitch-rail, gazing at the ground, while Robbie stood, blinking at the bright sun, looking as lost and out of place as a child at an adult party.

   “I ought to knock your damn heads together,” Murdoch said, with sudden ferocity, causing Scott to raise his head and glance at Johnny who turned from stroking Amo and leaned on the hitch-rail next to his brother. “I presume Robbie had nothing to do with this.”

   “No, sir, nothing,” Scott replied quietly.

   “So would one of you like to explain …?”

   “I started it, I guess,” Johnny cut in. “I pushed Hanson into the poker table.”

   “You were provoked,” Scott said.

   Johnny smiled briefly. “Yeh, I guess I was at that.”

   Murdoch hesitated. They were up to something, he was sure of it, and he scowled in his discomfort, furious at his sons’ lack of shame.

   “Why did you push Ricky Hanson?”

   Johnny avoided his father’s glare.

   “It’s private between me an’ Hanson, Murdoch.”

   “Not when you’re my son, carrying my name, it isn’t!”

   Murdoch saw Johnny flinch and his colour heighten, before he looked up at his father with a frown. His words came in an angry rush.

   “Look, I’m sorry for embarrasin’ you, alright, and I’ll pay for the damage I caused, but I ain’t tellin’ you what the fight was about.”

   Murdoch drew in his breath, schooling himself not to react out here in the street while neighbours passed with their morning greetings and curious faces. He turned his gaze on Scott, who continued to unsettle him with his refusal to appear even remotely apologetic.

   “And what was your role in this?”

   “Someone hit me and I hit him back,” Scott replied.

   “Someone?”

   “I didn’t pay much attention to his face, sir.” He paused. “I didn’t pay much attention to any of their faces.” Scott suddenly pushed himself off the rail and faced his father squarely, his arms folded. “Like Johnny, I apologise for any embarrassment I’ve caused you and we’ll pay for the damage, but it was just a saloon brawl, Murdoch. It’s not the first in Green River’s history. Val would have hog-tied us to our horses and sent us on our way last night. We were unlucky to cross Adams, that’s all …”

   Murdoch met his elder son’s direct gaze, aware that it was taking every ounce of his self-control not to reach out and shake the younger man.

   “The salient point is, Scott, that I asked you specifically to look out for your cousin …” He paused. “For your aunt’s sake, and for his, and you failed in that responsibility, failed to the point where your guest, your relative, was forced to spend a night in jail. If you’re going to have the temerity to stand there and attempt to justify your actions, then you’re not the man I believed you were.”

   Relieved of some of his fury, particularly when he saw his son visibly pale and swallow back what Murdoch presumed in Scott’s present rebellious mood would have been a smart reply, he turned his attention back to Johnny.

   “Would I be wrong in believing that the fight was about Lindy Cooper?” he demanded, snorting when Johnny shot him a surprised look. “You might think I’m ready to be put out to pasture, boy, but I’m not stupid. Either marry the girl or make it plain to her that it’s over.”

   Johnny, still leaning against the hitch-rail, smiled and kicked dust in Scott’s direction.

   “That’s what my big brother keeps tellin’ me.”

   “Then listen to him,” Murdoch said. He untied Amo and pulled him away from the rail. “We’ll fetch the horses and get home. I don’t want to your aunt to suffer any more than she’s done already.”

   “She’s alright, isn’t she, Uncle?” Robbie said, shaken out of what had seemed to Murdoch a dazed silence while he had castigated his sons.

   “Yes, she’s fine,” he said. “We just need to get you home.” He turned to his younger son who was attempting to stop a fresh ooze of blood from his face wound. In no mood for what he knew would be an objection, he kept his tone hard. “Get over to the doctor’s, Johnny, and have that cut seen to. We’ll meet you over there with the horses.”

   “It’s nothin’.”

   “Do as I damn well tell you for once, boy!” Murdoch said, with a sudden burst of temper. “You’ll put me in my blasted grave with your damn backtalk.”

   He met Johnny’s smouldering glare with one of his own, before he had the small satisfaction of seeing his younger son turn on his heel and head for the doctor’s house across the street. Noting that Tom Cooper was observing them from the livery stable on its long diagonal across from the sheriff’s office, Murdoch was tempted to send Scott to retrieve the horses. Then, overcome by an inner defiance of anything more the world could throw at him, he strode along the diagonal, Amo beside him, and stood squarely in front of Cooper. Arms folded, the livery stable owner regarded him now with an insolence that, Murdoch, had they been alone, would have been happy to punch off his face. At that moment, he was struck with alarm at his own feelings of violence and anger; he heaved in a deep breath and calmed himself into a cool resolve not to be spiked by this man. He offered Cooper a brief nod.

   “Tom.”

   “Murdoch.” Cooper’s unhurried gaze slid over to Scott and Robbie. “That was quite a ruckus your boys caused last night. Two hundred dollars worth of damage, I’m told.”

   “You were told wrong.” Murdoch took out his wallet. “Now, you’d oblige me by fetching the boys’ horses.”

   Without unfolding his arms, Cooper turned his head and nodded at his nephew.

   “Todd, saddle up the Lancer horses and bring them out here.” Before the young man had even jumped off the fence, Cooper turned back to Murdoch with a fresh look of confidence. “You won’t be blaming me now, Murdoch, if I tell that half-breed brat of yours to stay the hell away from my daughter. He beat young Hanson almost half to death, I’ve heard.”

   Beside him, Murdoch felt Scott react, but he stilled his son with a hand on his arm, mastering his own rage at Cooper’s words.

   “Hanson’s in the diner eating ham and eggs, Tom, and bragging that he won the fight …”

   “And I’ll be proud to call him my son-in-law.”

   “I’m very happy for you,” Murdoch said. “But if you ever refer to my son in that way again, I’ll make sure you spend the rest of your working days shining boots. One word from me and there won’t be a supplier in this valley who’ll give you as much as a grain of barley. Have I made myself clear?”

   Cooper hesitated and nodded. Accepting payment from Murdoch, he walked back to his little office and slammed the door.

   “I’m willing to bet that hurt him a great deal more than Johnny hurt Ricky Hanson,” Scott said, taking his horse’s reins from Cooper’s nephew. Murdoch turned and looked at his son, struck by his tone. Was his son impressed with him? Scott’s small smile went some way in taking the edge off his anger with the young man.

   “Hit a man hard in his pocket, Scott, and he’ll still be hurting a month, a year, a lifetime from now.” Murdoch pulled himself up onto Amo. “I’ll ruin Cooper if I have to and I won’t even break sweat doing it.”

 

   Robbie remained silent as they headed out of town. Beside him, Johnny, his wound cleaned and dressed with small strips of adhesive plaster, made no attempt to engage him or anyone else in conversation. Wondering if his cousin had detected his own changed feelings towards him, Robbie stared at his uncle’s broad back in front of them. Who were these people? One had earned a living killing other men; another talked of ruining a neighbour with no trace of regret or hesitation. Even Scott, educated and civilised beyond Robbie’s highest expectations, was clearly no stranger to violence. He felt suddenly and completely out of his depth, unable to reconcile what he had seen and heard with the family he had come to know.

   At the edge of town, Reverend Jones was out in the early sunshine tending his garden, snipping at unruly flowers that had dared to lift their gaze beyond the fence. Robbie’s heart raced in panic as they stopped outside the gate and his uncle leaned down calmly to speak to the minister. There was no sign of his father behind the white-netted windows, only a ginger cat licking its paws, serene in its indifference to the visitors.

   “Might I ask how my brother is faring, Reverend?” Murdoch asked, his gaze on the house. Jones removed his straw hat and wiped his brow; he regarded the younger Lancers in their unkempt condition suspiciously before adjusting his expression for Murdoch.

   “He prays, Mr Lancer,” he replied. “He prays and studies.” The Reverend lowered his tone. “I feel he is much affected in his soul. Mrs Jones and I have attempted to persuade the poor man to return to his family, but he is adamant.” Robbie saw his uncle tense visibly at the emphasis. “Quite adamant that he needs time alone with God, away from his family.” Robbie saw the distasteful gaze that swept over them all. “Even from his wife and son.”

   Murdoch nodded, apparently unmoved. He gathered Amo’s reins.

   “You can expect a considerable donation to the upkeep of your ministry, Reverend, for your hospitality towards my brother.”

   Jones paused in the act of cutting a flower. Robbie observed and knew the signs of a man about to practise the delicate art of hypocrisy.

   “He is my brother in Christ, Mr Lancer,” Jones said, throwing the flower in his basket. “I require no return for an act of Christian duty, although, of course, all donations towards the new church organ will be gratefully received.”

   Murdoch nodded again.

   “Good day, Reverend,” he said, turning Amo from the gate.

   “Good day, Mr Lancer.”

   The Reverend regarded Robbie, the last to move away, with something very close to a smile before bending to cut another flower. In this land of codes and secrets, where nothing seemed as plain or straightforward as his father’s faith and his mother’s love, Robbie no longer felt his initial eager curiosity. As he rode in the wake of his uncle and cousins, he longed only for the peace of his schoolroom or the certainty of fossils.

 

   Johnny had merely given Jones a morose stare, before nudging Barranca away alongside his father, his storm-tie in his mouth. He had, at least, made some kind of peace with his brother, but the rest of his life was pure shit. Murdoch had been more than ordinarily furious with him, his face hurt like hell, and whether he wanted it or not, he was pretty sure he had lost Lindy. Knowing that he would never again kiss those lips or have the right to undo the hooks and buttons of her crisp and sweet-smelling dresses was a growing torment in his mind. He looked tentatively at his father, trying to gauge the older man’s mood – impossible when Murdoch was up there doing his famous rock impression. Hell, he knew his father had a right to his anger. Not only had his brother’s visit been a disaster, but he and Scott had acted like jackasses lately. He was definitely sorry about it, but doubted his father was ready for one of his half-way apologies.

   When he could no longer bear the silence above their horses’ deafening hoof beats, he glanced at Scott - who shook his head warningly - before allowing the storm-tie to drop from his mouth.

   “Murdoch?”

   His father’s jaw twitched.

   “What is it you want, Johnny?”

   “You reckon I’m ready to marry?”

   “Dammit, boy!” Murdoch stopped his horse and glared at his younger son. “That’s a hell of a thing to ask me right now!”

   Johnny held his father’s angry gaze and risked a glimmer of a smile.

   “I know it, but I’m askin’ for your advice. You’re my father, aren’t you? Fathers give advice, don’t they?”

   “He’s right, Murdoch,” Scott said. “That’s what fathers do. I read it somewhere.”

   Johnny couldn’t help but enjoy the look on Murdoch’s face, although his heart was thumping at the precariousness of his situation. Would he ever rid himself of that last fragment of belief that his father might wake up one morning and want him gone? When Murdoch suddenly smiled, the miracle of it shocked him into wide-eyed silence.

   “Is that what fathers do?” Murdoch’s tone was amused. “I thought they just blistered their sons’ ears and paid for the damage they cause.”

   “Well, that, too,” Johnny ventured, feeling an elated relief fill him that banished his earlier depression. “So what d’you reckon?”

   “About you being ready for marriage?” Murdoch said, still smiling. “What I think, son, is that after a month confined to work duties, you’ll have forgotten all about Miss Cooper and be more than ready to fall for another silly, pretty girl who cares more for hats than for life, but if you haven’t, then you should propose to her.”

   Johnny looked uneasily at his brother who did little to hide his hovering smirk.

   “That don’t exactly answer my question, Murdoch.”

   His father’s expression lost a measure of its good humour as he nudged Amo into a walk.

   “No-one’s ready for marriage, Johnny,” he said. “It either works or it doesn’t, but for it to work, you have to believe it will. If you want my honest opinion, I don’t think you’re ready to believe that, not with Lindy. My advice is that you should let it go for now.”

   Johnny turned to his brother with a frown.

   “You reckon that, too?”

   “I do,” Scott said. “That’s damn fine advice, brother.”

   “It is?”

   “None better.”

   Johnny nodded and then sighed heavily.

   “Sure goin’ to miss those honey lips, though.”

   Scott laughed out loud and knocked Johnny’s hat so it fell off to hang behind his back. Retrieving it, Johnny hazarded a smile at his cousin, but Robbie’s faint returning smile before he averted his gaze, told him all he needed to know about the young Scot’s state of mind.

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

   Robbie could see his mother from where he stood by the horse and buggy. She was laughing as she, the housekeeper and that odd silent girl, Laura, fought to peg a large sheet on a line in the garden. When had he ever seen her laugh like that – a giggling, girlish laugh, abandoned and forgetful? It was then he realised she had changed in the short time of their visit. She had relaxed her customary guard, even more so since his father had put himself into exile. What would the severe and earnest ladies of their church think of their lay preacher’s wife now? He imagined it and couldn’t help but smile.

   His uncle appeared suddenly from the hacienda, pulling on gloves and propelled by a determined stride. He looked large and angry and Robbie heaved in a breath of courage, surprised when Murdoch smiled briefly at him.

   “You’ve changed, Robbie,” he said, going to the horse’s head to check the harness. Robbie looked down at his suit and nodded.

   “Aye, I had a hankering to feel like myself again.”

   Murdoch stopped in the act of adjusting a strap and regarded him thoughtfully for a moment before buckling the strap and rubbing the horse’s nose. Another peal of women’s laughter, almost a scream, caused both men to turn their heads in the direction of the garden; the second sheet had escaped in the strong breeze and had wrapped itself around the apple tree by the porch. Unsmiling, Laura leapt up and down to grab at a corner until Mary, still laughing, stroked her head, and pulled the sheet off the tree with one hard tug.

   “Ye wouldna think ma mother was a woman naturally inclined to seriousness,” Robbie said, holding his uncle’s gaze when Murdoch turned his attention back to him.

   “No, you wouldn’t think it,” he replied. “Are you ready to go?”

   “Aye.” Robbie looked towards the house. “Are ma cousins not coming wi’ us?”

   “No.” Murdoch took the reins and climbed into the buggy. “They’re busy considering the consequences of their behaviour last night. Get yourself up here, son. I want to be back before sundown.”

   Robbie obeyed and settled himself beside his uncle who immediately slapped the horse with the reins and set off at a brisk pace. Robbie held onto his hat with one hand and gripped the seat with the other as the buggy flew under the Lancer arch and out into the vast expanse of a sun-baked land. The dust rose under the wheels and the horizon seemed lost under a heat-haze so intense that everything – the trees, the lines of the hills - seemed lost in its own misshapen strangeness.

 

 

   “They gone?”

   “Yes.” Scott returned to the ledger from his place at the window and sat down. “We’ll just finish this page and then we can take a break.”

   “You can do what ya like, brother,” Johnny said, getting up from his chair. “I’m outta here. I done my share of sweatin’ over the Old Man’s books.” He stretched and yawned elaborately. “I’m goin’ for a siesta. Got hardly a wink of sleep in that damned cell.”

   “If you’ve done your share,” Scott replied, continuing to scribe in the ledger. “Then how is it that most of the entries are in Murdoch’s handwriting?”

   A smile accompanied Johnny’s shrug.

   “Reckon he got worried that he’d have more blots than writin’ in his ledger.” He leaned on the table next to his brother, his hand under his chin. “I mean, just look at your writin’, as neat an’ pretty as an old maid’s.”

   Scott smiled and blotted the entry carefully. There was no doubt – he was proud of his hand and the pleasure it would give his father. His brother’s next words made him wonder if Johnny had read his mind.

   “Anyhow, this stuff’s your game, ain’t it?” Johnny stood up and pulled himself up to sit on his father’s heavy oak desk. He picked up the fossil Robbie had given Murdoch and tossed it from one hand to the other. “In fact, I’d say this chore ain’t no ball’n chain for you, big brother. No sir, I’d say you were enjoyin’ it.”

   “Well, you needn’t worry, John,” Scott said, his attention caught by the elaborate cover of the next book, a rare and musty copy of Paradise Lost. “Murdoch’s asked me to work with Tick tomorrow, moving his dratted pigs and fixing their sty, so you can gloat all you want then.”

   Johnny stopped throwing the fossil.

   “Asked you, huh? How come you always get asked and I get told?”

   Alerted by the change in Johnny’s tone, Scott looked up and tried to gauge his brother’s disposition. Relieved to see that he was smiling, he gently slapped Johnny’s thigh.

   “Because you, brother, haven’t yet acquired the sense and maturity to deserve such a privilege.”

   Johnny raised his eyebrows at the remark and then released a snort of amusement.

   “You’re fulla shit, Scott Lancer, and tomorrow, boy, you’ll be wadin’ in it, too.” He replaced the fossil and slipped off the desk. “I’m gettin’ some shut-eye out on the porch. Five o’clock, we’ll go practise for tomorrow.”

   Scott frowned as Johnny reached the study door.

   “Tomorrow?”

   “When you’re goin’ to dog that bull, Scott, or ain’t you ready?”

   His brother’s suddenly harsh tone seemed designed to needle him and Scott regarded Johnny impassively.

   “I’m ready.”

   Johnny hesitated at the door. Scott could see that he was struggling to master some painful emotion; then he nodded slightly and left the room. Scott gazed at the closed door, his heart pumping a sudden rush of hot blood under his skin. Since last night he had been cherishing a faint hope that Johnny had come to accept, even understand, his resolve to do this thing. He knew now, with his every nerve, that his optimism had been misplaced – his brother was unhappy. More than that – he had felt Johnny’s fear, as palpable to his senses as the odour of the musty book in his hand.

 

   Robbie waited until they were long on the road away from the ranch before he ventured to speak more than platitudes about climate and landscape to his uncle. So far, Murdoch, his gaze on the road ahead, had replied only in the fewest words needful to answer him. Like this morning, Robbie sensed in the older man the quintessential rancher of which he’d dreamed – rough-hewn out of the vast tract of land he had claimed as his own and as hard to separate from it as an ammonite in a rock. Murdoch and his sons were not his people; they were a different tribe and he was no longer so sure that they would not crush him like a beetle if they found a reason to.

   “Uncle Murdoch,” he said loudly, above the churning wheels of the buggy. “May I ask you something …” He hesitated, swallowed back a mouthful of fear. “… about Johnny?”

   Murdoch turned his head briefly, his mouth set into a grim line.

   “You may, but I won’t guarantee I’ll answer it.”

   He lost courage then. Dipping his head, he sat back in the buggy seat, gripping hard on the hand rail. Murdoch suddenly drew the horse to a halt beside a deep gully where one of the tributaries of the great river that sustained the land narrowed and tumbled down, silver against black rock.

   “Ask,” Murdoch said, the reins held loosely in one hand, his gaze on the waterfall.

   “I was just curious …” Sighing, Robbie sat forward, rubbing his hands together. “I want ta know, Uncle, does it not trouble ye a wee bit, what Johnny was?”

   Bolder now that he had asked it, he looked at Murdoch who was now chafing at the leather rein with his broad thumb.

   “Did Johnny tell you what he was?” he asked; the final word seemed scraped out from his throat like a last trace of poison.

   “Aye, that he used ta be a gunfighter, and that he’s killed many men.”

   Murdoch nodded.

   “Are ye not troubled by it?” Robbie heard the insistence in his own voice, the urgent desire for the truth to be cracked open and exposed to the air. His uncle’s reply was swift and blunt.

   “He’s my son.”

   “Is he not a dangerous man?”

   Murdoch turned his gaze from the reins to him and Robbie saw for the first time the younger son in the father – a perilous edge to the man, beyond which it would be foolish to go. The subsequent mildness in his uncle’s tone surprised him.

   “Do you find him dangerous, Robbie?”

   “At times, I feel he could be, aye.”

   Murdoch nodded.

   “Does it make you like him less?”

   “I’m not sure,” Robbie answered, feeling the excitement of the slow revelation of the truth he sought. “I suppose that’s why I’m asking ye. Does it affect how you feel about Johnny, Uncle?”

   Murdoch had returned to his observation of the reins.

   “Once, I thought it did,” he replied. He gathered the reins in readiness. “But now nothing on earth could affect what I feel for that boy.” He flicked the horse into a fast jog round a bend into a grove of trees, leaving Robbie once again clinging to stay aboard, his uncle’s words as ungraspable as the birch leaves that rustled high above their heads.

 

   The baby had been crying, but now it had stopped – too quickly for his comfort, although he had been irritated by it. Eyes closed, he shifted in the hammock, listening intently, almost hoping that Louisa’s Jackson’s baby would give him proof of life by crying again, although he knew he would again resent the disturbance to his siesta. Other sounds emerged instead – the slow creak of the hammock between the porch struts – it had driven Murdoch mad enough one evening to try curing it with grease, but he’d failed - the leaves of his apple tree fluttering in the warm breeze, the hens scratching for bugs in the marrow patch and the bees in the lavender; the fact that his father would have his hide if he could see him now, but was miles away, made the sweet afternoon even sweeter.

   Another sound - the soft footfalls of a man intent on not waking him from his apparent slumber. His gun was raised and cocked a fraction before he opened his eyes to look straight and coldly into Jackson’s startled gaze. Down among the lavender bushes, Jackson raised his hands, swallowing hard, attempting a smile.

   “Hey, I ain’t the enemy, son,” he said, blinking away a fly that had settled near his eye to taste his sweat.

   Johnny uncocked the gun and rested it on his stomach, wondering why he had not seen before what his father had seen – the predatory and furtive nature of Jackson, a man who claimed to be a farmer, but who, according to Jelly, could neither milk a cow nor name common grasses.

   “Sneakin’ up on me isn’t wise, Mr Jackson.”

   Jackson licked his lips and carefully lowered his hands.

   “I can see that sure enough. Jes’ didn’t wanna wake ya, is all, I swear. Jes’ comin’ to ask your housekeep fer some milk for Lou. She’s a mite wore out now the little un’s come.”

   Johnny stared at the older man in silence, his hand resting on his gun, a fleeting scan of Jackson’s whole frame telling him that not only was the man filthy, but his flies were undone. His mind hardened into a single thought.

   “I’ll get the milk,” he said. When he returned with the jug, he gave it to Jackson. “You done on that forge roof yet?”

   Jackson held the jug hard between both hands and shook his head.

   “No, sir,” he replied. Johnny could feel the man’s nerves bouncing with desire to get away, and the stink of his sweat oozed from his pores. “Need a couple more shingles made, is all, an’ that roof’ll be good fer a hundred years.”

   Johnny smiled with his mouth, below a gaze of icy contemplation.

   “That’s some claim, Mr Jackson, seein’ as you ain’t goin’ to be around long enough to testify to it.”

   He saw Jackson’s face harden and the choice he made not to respond, before the older man turned and walked quickly out of the gate, milk slopping into the dust from the jug in his hands. From around the corner of the henhouse, Louisa suddenly appeared, holding the baby in her arms. Johnny saw her wave in his direction and she rocked the bundle a little, until Jackson reached her, pulled her round sharply by her elbow and they disappeared into the sharp shadow cast by the henhouse.

   “Not sleeping, brother?”

   Johnny turned and looked up at Scott who was standing on the porch, his hands in his pockets, regarding him with a faint smile.

   “You seen Laura lately, Scott?” he asked. Scott frowned and nodded.

   “Yes, just after I left the bath house before lunch.”

   “She ok?”

   Scott stepped down into the lavender to stand beside Johnny and in imitation of his brother, snapped a purple flower-head and began to dessicate it.

   “Well, she took great delight in watching me get another ear bashing from Murdoch over how long I’d spent taking a bath.”

   “She spoke?”

   “No, she only speaks when we’re alone, and she hasn’t told me anything more than we already know. What is this, Johnny? Have you seen something?”

   “Nope.” Johnny dropped the lavender’s leavings onto the ground. He hated the smell; it reminded him of old age and death. “Just felt it.”

   “I trust your feelings,” Scott said. “Tell me.”

   Johnny turned his head and looked hard at his brother.

   “Jackson’s done somethin’ bad today, Scott. Might be to Louisa. Might be the baby, but my money’s on the girl.”

   Scott nodded and turned quickly back towards the house. Johnny watched him take the porch steps in one leap, apparently heedless of his recent injury.

   “Where ya goin?”

   “To fetch my rifle.”

   Johnny smiled at his brother’s swift and sure decision. There was nothing of the dandy about a man who cut so quick to the chase, more of the soldier or the rancher or even … he smiled again … the gunfighter. Though he dreaded what they might find in that little cabin, his blood raced at the promise of a deadlier side to his brother’s character.

 

   Leaning against the west side of the shack were paintings, a dozen or more. Murdoch tied up the horse and buggy and removed his gloves, his gaze already on the unexpected sight. His hands in his pockets, he walked over to the paintings and regarded them silently – some of the pictures were of the sea, of ships, rough-daubed slatherings of blue and white paint, seas in turmoil, the ships no more than black shapes lost among the towering waves; others were gentler – a man walking down a long road to distant mountains, a calf curled up under a tree. Beside him, Robbie kneeled down to look closely at a portrait of an ammonite.

   Murdoch heaved in a deep breath at the strangeness of it and raised his head at the creak of the shack door opening. Henry emerged, but it was not the Henry Murdoch had known. This man was unshaven, even unclean, his hair lank and unwashed. He wore a loose shirt splashed with blue paint and his feet were bare. Had it been only four weeks ago that he had spoken with this man as a fellow rancher at a dinner in town, commented on the loveliness of his daughters, the charitable works of his wife, the health of his cattle? Here before him was a hermit, a Robinson Crusoe. Here was a shipwreck of a man, lost to himself - Murdoch was absolutely certain of that.

   “Henry …”

   The older man smiled broadly and stepped into the dust with his bare feet.

   “Murdoch, I’m so glad you came or I would have left without seeing you.”

   Murdoch took Henry’s paint splattered hand and shook it, trying not to see the paint coagulated in the grey beard, the old shirt haphazardly buttoned so that his pale chest showed.

   “Left?” he forced out harshly, holding hard onto Henry’s hand. Henry smiled, pulling gently until Murdoch released his hand; he turned his attention to Robbie, who now stood beside his uncle, his expression mild and curious.

   “And you have brought me a new face … Mary’s son, perhaps?”

   “Yes,” Murdoch said distractedly. “My nephew, Robbie. Henry …”

   Henry held out his hand to the young man.

   “I’m very pleased to meet you, Robbie. I’ve met your mother. You favour her.”

   Smiling, Robbie shook the old man’s hand.

   “She told me about her visit to you, sir. She said ye were taking respite from the world. I was much intrigued.”

   “Is that what she said?” Henry seemed pleased with the remark. Utterly confounded and exasperated, Murdoch broke in harshly on the conversation.

   “Henry, will you tell me what the hell is going on here!”

   “I’m painting, Murdoch,” Henry replied. “You know that I have always liked to paint a little as a harmless pastime when ranching and …” He hesitated. “… my family have been pressing hard upon me. I believe you have one of my paintings hanging in your study.”

   “You know I do,” Murdoch said. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

   Henry raised his eyebrows and gestured with his hand towards the line shack door.

   “Let’s go in for tea.”

   “I don’t want tea,” Murdoch snapped. “I want answers, Henry. I want to know why my best friend has apparently lost his reason and sanity.”

   “Do I appear as if I’ve lost those qualities, Murdoch?” Henry said, his previously calm expression hardening into a glare that was as new to Murdoch as his friend’s serenity. Henry had always had odd ways, a tendency to daydream, to reflect too long and too hard on life’s vagaries, but above all that, Murdoch had been confident that in Henry, like himself, there lay a man of business, robust and practical. Uncomfortable and red-faced in the older man’s glare, Murdoch folded his arms and lowered his head to stare at the ground. Reluctantly, he followed Robbie and Henry into the shack. In the tiny room, and dominating it, was an easel, displaying an unfinished picture – another tortured - as it seemed to Murdoch’s unhappy mind – vision of the sea.

   Like his mother had before him, Robbie sat down at Henry’s bidding and gazed around the small shack. To his uncle’s irritation, the young man seemed undisturbed by the ludicrousness of it all.

   “I wish you had brought John, too,” Henry said, pouring hot water into a pot.

   ‘Cold day in hell!’ Murdoch thought, before Henry spoke again. “I would have liked to have thanked him.”

   “What for?”

   “For bringing me to my senses.”

   Glaring at the old man, Murdoch took a step closer to him, his hands now on his waist.

   “Well, you see, Henry,” he said. “This is the part I don’t get. Exactly where does sense come into this?” He waved his hand at the door. “You abandoned your wife and family to hole up in a line shack on someone else’s land. I came today expecting that somehow you would have got whatever …” Murdoch gestured at the easel with a nod. “… this  is, out of your system, but instead I find a  - forgive me for saying this – dirty, unkempt man intent on painting what’s already been painted a thousand times …”

   Henry stirred the tea leaves with a spoon.

   “No-one has ever painted the sea the way I feel it, Murdoch, not even Turner … that is what’s important to me. I have no idea if my paintings are good or bad. That has no meaning for me. All I want, all I’ll ever want again is to walk this world drawing and painting what I see.”

   “What!?”

   “The ammonite …?”  Robbie’s soft voice broke across Murdoch’s disbelief, causing him to stop open-mouthed and turn his gaze from Henry to his nephew.   “Where did ye find it?”

   Henry smiled and handed the young man a mug of hot tea.

  “Out walking in the canyon. It took me a day with my hammer and brushes to reveal the beauty of it. You have an interest in the new science of palaeontology?”

  “Indeed I do, sir,” Robbie said eagerly. “A passion for it. To think that your ammonite once …”

   “Swam in the great, ancient seas,” Henry finished quickly for him.

   “Aye!”

   “Henry,” Murdoch said, making a determined attempt to rein in his temper.  “Tell me what you mean about walking the world.”

   Taking his mug of tea, Henry sat down on the bench Scott had made from the wood of an old oak tree blasted by lightning the previous summer. Murdoch had wanted to keep it at Lancer, but his son had insisted on its practical use in the shack.

   “I mean exactly what I say, Murdoch,” Henry said, rubbing his finger around the edge of the mug. “I’m done with ranching. I explained it all to Jessie and the girls yesterday. They will want for nothing …”

   “Nothing but a husband and a father!”

   “I’m no use to them now, Murdoch. I’m sixty-four years old. I’ve spent thirty years building up a small empire which my father carved out of the wilderness. Charlotte is to marry in a few months, a young man who is eager and willing to take on the responsibilities of the ranch …”

   “And you’re just going to walk away into the distance with nothing but a paintbrush and a bag of tea leaves?”

   Henry smiled.

   “If I didn’t know better, Murdoch, I’d say you were close to making a humorous observation.”

   Murdoch glared at the older man and went to the window, irritated suddenly by the neat striped curtains and their fussy tie-backs.

   “Where will you go?” he asked tightly, his gaze on the horse outside, shaking its head against the summer flies. “How will you live?”

   “I’ll go where my feet take me, first to the sea, and I will live as simply as possible.”

   “Good God,” Murdoch said. “You talk like a reckless boy.” He turned round to observe Henry calmly sipping his tea. His paint-stained fingers were wrapped round it as if cradling a precious object. “You’re not telling me Jessie’s accepted this …”

   Henry gazed down into the mug.

   “No, she hasn’t. She thinks I’m a sick man.” He lifted his head and looked defiantly at Murdoch. “Well, I was sick, but I’m not now. I know exactly what I must do. I must set out on the long road while there is still time, just as you did thirty years ago.”

   “I was a boy!” Murdoch said. “Not a sixty-four year old man with a family and responsibilities.”

   “You had both, Murdoch, yet you still went. Does it matter whether we make the journey at the beginning or the end of our lives, as long as we make it?”

   Murdoch stared at his old friend and knew he was facing the implacable resolve of a man who had come to a crossroads in his life and had set his foot down firmly on the path he had chosen.

   “Damn you, Henry!” he growled. “You’re trying to make a virtue of this and there is nothing right about it, not one damn thing.”

   “I wonder if John would agree with you,” Henry said. Murdoch felt his temperature rise at the reminder that his younger son might have been partly responsible for Henry’s reckless swerve off his life’s course.

   “The day old men start directing their lives based on the opinions of twenty-one year old boys will be a bad day, Henry.”

   Henry smiled again. It seemed to Murdoch that the older man had done nothing but smile, while he had wanted to explode with rage from the moment he had seen the paintings leaning against the shack to dry in the sun.

   “Doesn’t that rather depend on the quality of the boy, Murdoch?”

   He chose to ignore the remark. Instead, he found a safer place to make his stand.

   “You were one of the best business men I ever knew, Henry. Not only could you sniff out a good deal two hundred miles away, you knew how to get the very best from the men working for you and there was nothing about cows that I could ask in those early days that you didn’t have an answer for. I respect and admire you, but I can’t approve of what you’re doing now, and I think you’ll live to regret it.” Murdoch took his gloves out of his hat and put the hat on firmly.  “Come on, Robbie. We need to get back home before dark.”

   Robbie stood up and returned the empty mug to Henry.

   “I wish ye well on your travels, Mr Springer,” he said. “Not all of us have such courage.”

   “Thank you, Robbie. I wish you well in yours.”

   Grimly, Murdoch waited until he had seen his nephew through the door before looking at Henry once more.

   “I’ll look out for Jessie and the girls, Henry,” he said. “You can be certain of that. Goodbye.” Ducking his head to avoid the low door frame, he walked outside into the sun, dazzling to his eyes after the dimness of the little shack. He pulled the brim of his hat lower, mounted beside Robbie and drove the buggy away from the shack without a backward glance.

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

    No sound came from the cabin as the brothers approached. Scott, striding ahead of Johnny, kept his rifle at a low angle. His gaze on the closed door, an unusual event in the heat of the day, he listened briefly for noise. Hearing only the stand of birch trees rattling in the strong breeze beside the cabin, he stopped a few yards from the cabin door and shouted Jackson’s name. Behind him, he felt his brother’s mood, as tense as a watchful rattler in grass, yet he knew that, this time, Johnny would take his lead from him.

   The door cracked open and Jackson’s feral face appeared. He glanced at Johnny and then at the rifle in Scott’s grasp.

   “Somethin’ I can do fer you, Boss?” The tone wasn’t quite polite, Scott detected, although he could smell the man’s anxiety.

   “I’d like to see Laura, Mr Jackson,” he said.

   Jackson’s lips moved as if to speak, but Scott saw his silent gaze move over his shoulder to rest on Johnny. Lifting the rifle into both hands, Scott pulled the lever back hard. Jackson’s gaze snapped back to the older brother.

   “If you don’t get her, Jackson, I’ll go in there myself.”

   “What would you boys be wantin’ with her?” Jackson’s tone was harsh as he stepped out of the cabin, his Yellowboy rifle cradled in his arms. “What’s she to you?”

   Scott’s gaze rested briefly on the man’s rifle. He had expected to hear Johnny’s gun clear leather, but his brother made no move.

   “I’d advise you to put the gun down,” Scott said, surprised and caught out by the swiftness with which Jackson suddenly levelled the rifle straight at him. Still he waited to hear his brother stir or speak. Instead, Jackson’s voice came slow and vengeful.

   “We ain’t given you no cause to come marchin’ over here, loaded fer bear and disturbin’ a man’s rightful rest.” Jackson licked his lips and nodded at the two young men. “Throw down them weapons, both of ya …” He glared at Johnny who made no move to unbuckle his belt. “You too, boy, or I’ll blow a hole in your brother’s belly no doctorin’ on Earth’ll fix, even with all ya fuckin’ acres and beeves.”

   Scott heard the slow unbuckling of the belt behind him. It landed heavily in the dust at Jackson’s feet.

   “Get the girl, Jackson,” Johnny said. “We just want to see she’s alright.”

   “Why the hell shouldn’t she be alright!?” Jackson said, his gaze flicking to Johnny while he held the rifle trained on Scott. “Just because you own the place, don’t give you the right to come bustin’ in on us whenever ya feel like it. I’ve had enough of ranchers interferin’ in my goddamn business!”

   “What business would that be, Mr Jackson?” Scott asked. “From what I hear, you know as much about farming as I do about human aviation. That was quite a story you cooked up for my brother and me, but now we no longer want to give you the benefit of the doubt. We want to see Laura.”

   Jackson glared at the two young men, his unshaven jaw clenched in pale fury, his hands gripping the rifle hard enough for it to shake.

   “You fuckin’ sonsuvbitches,” he whispered. “Just stay the hell outta my family business.” He glared hard at Scott and yelled, “Louisa!! Louisa! Come out here, woman!”

   Scott remained as still as his brother - although he would have given much to know Johnny’s mind - as they waited for a response to Jackson’s demand. Louisa appeared moments later from the shadows of the cabin. Scott hardly had time to register her expression of defeat and misery before Jackson reached back and pulled her roughly to his side. For the first time, Scott was aware that his brother had reacted with the merest of movements forward, before easing back into stillness.

   “Get our things together, Louisa,” Jackson said harshly, his gaze fixed on Scott. “We’re leavin’.”

   “We can’t, Will.” Louisa looked at the brothers, her eyes wild with sudden panic. “We got no money, no place to stay. What about the baby?”

   “You can thank these boys fer pitchin’ y’out  on the trail, Lou. Ain’t my doin’. Now, git packin’ an’ quick.”

   Louisa hesitated, her gaze finding Scott until a rough shove from Jackson propelled her towards the cabin door. Then came a scream, loud and long, from inside, not that of a baby, Scott knew, a guttural scream that tore the air with its power. It threw Jackson – his gaze darted sideways. At the same moment, Scott ran the few steps to Jackson and hurled himself at the older man, slamming him to the ground with all the strength of his fury. The rifle fired once, deafening to his ears, and he grabbed it, wrenching it from the man’s grasp and throwing it to Johnny who caught it and, aiming it at Jackson, now kneeling in the dust, snatched back the lever. Scott tightened his grip on Jackson’s neck and spoke low and harshly in his ear.

   “You’re going to stay kneeling in this dirt, Mister Jackson, while I go and see Laura and if you move, my brother won’t hesitate in shooting you.”

   Jackson spat in the dust.

   “Take the bitch. She ain’t nothin’ but a millstone round my fuckin’ neck anyhow.”

   Receiving a nod from Johnny, Scott released Jackson and stood up. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the cabin door. He saw Louisa first, sitting at the table, her arms cradling her wailing baby, hopeless tears streaming down her face. She looked at Scott in surprise, before her gaze darted to the open door.

   “You shot Will?”

   “Not yet.” Scott surveyed the small room, the smell of baby, cabbage and tobacco masking the worst fears of his imagination. “Where’s Laura?”

   “In the little bedroom.” She bent her head to the now snuffling baby. “Shhh, shhh, my sweet one.” Scott regarded her coldly, struck by the loving mildness in her tone. He moved past her towards the closed door.

   “Mr Lancer.” He stopped abruptly and stood listening, half waiting for her, half intent on the silence behind the door. Louisa’s words tumbled out in a jagged, plaintive rush, some of them lost in the distress racking her body. “He’s my baby’s father. What am I gonna do without a father for my baby? Laura knows we got to stick together. She knows …”

   Scott shook his head and strode forward. Gently, he opened the bedroom door. Inside the tiny room, barely big enough to fit a bed and a chair, he found the girl sitting on the floor in front of a small, open carpet bag. She was dressed in shirt and dungarees and she had cut her long hair haphazardly to a boy’s length. When she looked up and smiled, he swallowed down his surprise, but his sense of horror refused to quite leave his mind and stomach.

   “Laura …”

   “It worked.” Her voice was soft, perhaps happy, not the voice of a victim. “I knew it would.”

   “What worked?”

   “Screamin’. Jus’ let it out when I saw ‘im holdin’ that rifle on ya. Ain’t never screamed before. My throat’s sore with it, but once I started it came out like it’d been waitin’ to come out since Ma died.”

   Scott looked back briefly and closed the door. He sat on the chair, his hands clasped, aware now of a smell, heavy and musky, the smell of sex, raw and unmasked by the perfumes and incense sticks of brothels. He knew it. He’d always known it and now, as at other times even in his short life, he wished with a desperate longing that he had acted earlier, that he had not waited for proof. Proof was not what he’d needed.

   “Laura …” He heaved in a sigh, lowered his head and then raised it only to meet her beautiful, smiling face, as fresh as that of a child. Now he could see it and he wondered why he had missed it before. She was beautiful.

   “It’s over, Scott,” she said, smiling away from him and into the old frayed bag. “I felt it the moment I hollered. I knew that whatever he’s done, whatever I felt when he was doin’ it, that I would never let ‘im do it again an’ that I gotta do the worst thing I’ve ever done.” She took a breath. “I gotta do what I swore to my ma I’d never do. I got to leave my sister, low though she is.”

   “You don’t have to leave, Laura,” Scott said, his gaze now taking in the red marks on her neck. “We’ll deal with Jackson, send your sister on her way.”

   Tying up the laces of her boots with resolute tugs, Laura shook her head.

   “No, Scott,” she said. “You an’ Johnny can do what the hell ya like with Jackson, but I want you to take care of my sister, least ‘til she’s well enough to move on.” She looked up and Scott recognised the same indomitable spirit that often governed his own heart. It was useless to oppose such determination. “But I’m leavin’, jus’ like I always planned when the timin’ was right.”

   Scott watched her stand up and turn to the bed, his nerves constricting with sudden anguish when he saw her pick up an old rag doll from the bed. He swallowed hard as she gazed at it.

   “You should take it,” he said, aware of how strange his voice sounded. She turned her head and smiled at him.

   “I reckon not.”  She threw the doll back on the bed and picked up the bag. Her expression became shy, her tone hesitant. “I know it’s a lot to ask, Scott, but I could sure do with a horse, jus’ to get me on my way.”

   Scott nodded, grinding his teeth as he followed her out of the room to where Louisa was still at the table, cradling her sleeping baby. He wasn’t sure what expression he’d been expecting to see on the older sister’s face – perhaps scorn, perhaps hatred and resentment – but he instantly recognised it as panic.

   “You’re leavin’,” Louisa said, her distracted gaze going quickly from the bag to her sister’s face. “You can’t leave. We gotta stick together, Laura. We told Ma we’d …”

   “She never meant it the way you’re meanin’ it, Lou,” Laura interrupted her. “She never meant sharin’ the same man, the same filthy pig of a man.”

   “You was willin’!”

   “Jesus!” For the first time, Scott saw the girl’s despair made apparent in her tone. “Where d’you get that idea, Lou!? Jus’ because I let ‘im do me when you was bad sick that time, an’ I was scared as hell you was goin’ to die!?”

   “Men need satisfyin’.” Louisa stood up and laid the baby in its cradle. She brushed the infant’s face, her voice dropping to a whisper. “There ain’t nothin’ more to it.” She looked at Scott. He detested the way it seemed clear that he would agree with her. “Is there, Mr Lancer?”

   “You lied to me, Mrs Jackson,” he said. “You let me believe that Jed Albright’s men had harmed Laura. Was there any truth in your story at all?”

   “Only that we left the farm,” Laura said, her gaze on her older sister as Louisa laid a blanket over the baby. “Jackson don’t want to work for his livin’, never did. Mr Albright caught ‘im stealin’ horses. Told ‘im that if he ever saw ‘im again, he’d lynch ‘im from the nearest cottonwood tree, so he came home, mood as black as a crow’s, got between my legs ‘til I was bleedin’ an’ told us next day he was goin’ to earn us a livin’ winnin’ shootin’ contests, the stupid sonuvabitch jackass.”

   “You won’t survive, Laura,” Louisa said. During her sister’s account, apparently less fragile without the infant in her arms, she had busied herself folding little garments and resting them in a neat pile. “You got nothin’”

   Scott saw that Laura was not about to dispute the truth of her sister’s final words. He returned the faint smile she offered him.

   “Good place to start then, I reckon.” She touched the baby’s brow. “Try’n do right by her, Lou. Might make up for somethin’ bad.”

   As the girl left the cabin, Scott saw Louisa lay her head on the pile of clothing and heard her groan long and low, before he followed Laura out into the hot day. Johnny was sitting on the bench against the cabin wall, while Jackson still knelt in the dust, his hands tied behind his back and the Yellowboy directed at his head. He looked at Laura contemptuously and spat in the dust at her feet.

   “Fuckin’ bitches. Y’ain’t worth the food I put in your mouths.”

   “Wish I’d bit off what you put in my mouth, Will, the first time you did it,” Laura said. “Then maybe me an’ Lou’d still be together.”

   “Johnny.” Scott picked up his rifle and looked impassively at his brother. “Take Laura and choose a horse for her, will you? A good, strong one.”

   Johnny nodded once. He stood up and resettled his hat before looking again at Scott.

   “Where’re you goin’, brother?”

   “To find a tree,” Scott said. He met Johnny’s silent gaze, aware that his brother had betrayed his reaction with only the merest narrowing of his eyes. Only moments later, Johnny nodded and, putting his hand on Laura’s neck, led her away to the paddock where Murdoch kept two appaloosas, a recent gift from Senora Carrenza, the only spare riding horses left on the ranch since the drive had set off on its long journey.

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

   Scott was smiling at something their father had said. Drink in one hand, he seemed his usual self, even more so than he had been lately, Johnny thought – confident, relaxed, no clue that he might be a troubled man. Slumped in Murdoch’s old armchair, his fingers lightly tapping the boot laid across his knee, Johnny watched the two older men examine a creased and yellowing map, irritated by their interest in the thing.

   Jelly had brought it in earlier, announced that he’d found it under the floor boards of his tool shed, claimed loudly that it was sure to hold the secret of gold on the Lancer acres, ‘bein’ so old an’ all’. Now his father and brother were smiling over it, pointing out its faults in their know-it-all, bookish way, when all he wanted to do was shake the day’s truth out of his brother.

   Their father had returned to the ranch early in the evening, sour as a crab-apple - and tight-lipped, too, until he’d discovered the loss of one of his appaloosas;  it had been enough to loosen his tongue and send it racing his younger son’s way, shot through with all the frustration of a day badly spent. With his brother still not returned from wherever he had gone with Jackson, Johnny had attempted some explanation – just enough to persuade Murdoch that his horse was lost to a good cause, that he couldn’t have given the girl anything less, but it had come out all wrong. He’d failed to convince his father that allowing a fifteen year old girl to ride off alone into the distance had been anywhere near a good decision. He’d decided not to tell him that he’d also taught the girl the basics of handling a six-shooter.

   Then Scott had returned, leading the horse upon which he’d set Jackson a few hours before. If Murdoch had wondered at the shovel and rope attached to the saddle, Johnny had seen no sign of it. In the study, his father had listened grimly to Scott’s account of the afternoon, nodding approvingly at his son’s decision to send Jackson, via Sheriff Adams in Green River, to the State Marshal in Stockton to await Jed Albright’s evidence that the man was a horse-thief.

   Johnny had known the story wasn’t true, seen the way his brother’s fingers had tightened around the whisky glass as he’d spoken the lie. Jesus. Had his brother, as upright and honourable a man as he’d ever met, strung a man up from a tree, slapped the horse out from under him and watched him turn blue in his lost battle to breathe? Had he buried him deep in the dirt in some lonesome place and ridden back home to smile over some old map? If he had, what was he to think of it? He chased the unthinkable thought away with a harsh, angry question.

   “What’s so damn funny about that map?”

   Both older men looked up, Scott’s expression, a bland smile, his father’s, a reproving frown.

   “If you come over here, John, we’ll show you.”

   Johnny shrugged irritably, his fingers still tapping on his boot, but harder now. He wanted to ask Scott to step outside, talk to him, persuade him that what he had done was right, but he wasn’t certain he could be persuaded, wasn’t sure that he could take the truth of it. He glanced only briefly at his father as Murdoch made the surprising move of pulling up one of the dining chairs to sit next to him; his gaze was on Scott who was pouring another whisky, as slow and deliberate as a priest measuring out communion wine.

   “I’m sorry I yelled about the appaloosa, Johnny. I know you did it for the right reasons.”

   His father apologising for something he’d already forgotten; nowadays – mostly - Murdoch’s anger was no more to him than rain sliding down a slicker, even when it seemed unjust. He drew his gaze from Scott, who had crossed the room to greet Mary as she entered, and threw another glance at his father – reckoned he would do best to accept what was so rarely offered.

   “That’s ok,” he said. “If you’d given away any horse of mine, I’d have done more’n yell at you, that’s for sure.”

   Murdoch laughed out loud. It eased his troubled mind some to hear it, to feel his father’s hand grab his neck and shake him a little as if he hoped to loosen and drive away his son’s dark mood. Johnny offered a brief smile, the best he could do at that moment. It was not enough. Murdoch’s hand had moved to his head and rested there. He swallowed hard. His father’s touch was still strange to him, still rocked the centre of him.

   “Something’s bothering you,” Murdoch said, dropping his hand to his son’s shoulder. “Is it Lindy?”

   Johnny breathed in through his nose and shook his head. At the table, Maria was laying cutlery as carefully as if she were in a church.

   “D’you want to talk about it?”

   He raised his head. What was this now? The family was in chaos, as scattered and broken as Rob’s fossils in their tomb of rock. Yet, here was his father, so long a shadow in his life, offering him the safest, most solid thing he’d ever known. Jesus, it almost made him want to laugh, and blub like a damn baby at the same time. He settled for a smile.

   “No, I’m ok.” He hesitated. “Thanks.” He stood up suddenly. “Starved, though.”

 

   Disappointed, Murdoch watched him help Maria put the finishing touches to the dinner table. His moves were graceful, as if he had been laying tables all his life. They spoke quietly in Spanish, his boy gently teasing the old woman, she smiling, as coquettish as a girl, melting butter in the warmth of his charm. At times, his father caught a glimpse of the aristocratic del Mazos in his son – something altogether more refined than his own home-spun bones and blood. God, but the boy looked like his mother. Was that the reason he so often found it hard to be calm around Johnny?

   He stayed on the dining chair, his hands clasped in front of him, listening to Scott and Mary play a duet on the piano. He’d arrived home, furious at the world. Wanting to lash out, the subject of the missing horse had been the easiest target. Now he was glad he had chosen no worse. All the way home, he had been determined to reproach Johnny for his part in Henry’s odyssey from his old life. To find another, simpler, reason to be angry had been almost a relief and it had been enough to bring him to his senses; he had refrained from chastising his son for the lesser crime of indulging an old man’s urge to break free. Smiling as the housekeeper slapped Johnny’s backside for a cheeky remark, his gaze sought the pianists.

   The piece they were playing was a simple, familiar one, a Chopin Nocturne, the sort of music that appealed to his nature. He disliked the grand musical gesture, the works that claimed to hold the meaning of human existence. Though he feared sentimentality, he could not help but care for music that touched his heart, brought back a memory, made him feel less alone in the world. Staring across at Scott and Mary, he wondered who had chosen this piece. No matter – he loved them both with all his heart anyway. It seemed no surprise that either of them would choose something that felt so right in his home, so apt for his present state of mind. The music confirmed what he had realised the moment Scott had lied to him about Jackson. He had been a blind fool, and not for the first time.

   “Is Mr Springer ok?”

   He shook himself out of his contemplation of the pianists and looked up at Johnny. He’d killed for this boy and would do so again, without hesitation, yet, once more, in his frustration at life’s mysteries, it seemed he’d been guilty of misjudging his younger son. Henry had often chastised him for placing so little value on Johnny’s stock of premature wisdom – but then Henry wasn’t the boy’s father. Henry wasn’t tormented by thoughts of what Johnny’s life had been. Still, he could see, even now, in his son’s unblinking gaze, a man always one step ahead of him on the road.

   “He’s going on a journey,” Murdoch replied. “He wants to paint.”

   Johnny nodded, smiling faintly.

   “Guess you don’t approve, huh?”

   “No, but I think I’m starting to see that just because we can’t understand – or approve of - another man’s decisions, it doesn’t necessarily make him wrong.”

   Johnny’s smile widened.

   “That mean next time I decide to jump the corral on Barranca, you ain’t goin’ to yell at me?”

   “You really do push it sometimes, don’t you, boy,” Murdoch said, amused. He stood up and took the dining chair back to the table. Maria was bringing in his favourite beef stew with fat, fluffy dumplings. As he sat down, he tried not to notice that his belly had edged a little further over his belt lately. Smiling, he put his hand on Johnny’s arm as his son reached for the potatoes.

   “We need to say grace, Son.”

   He held Johnny’s brief, questioning look until, turning to smile at his aunt, the young man grasped her hand and bowed his head. Placing one hand over Johnny’s, squeezing it a little, and the other over Robbie’s, Murdoch smiled at Mary’s grateful look and spoke the words, surprised that it felt good to say them, that it didn’t feel strange or hypocritical to be thanking God for food and family.

   Breathing in the scent of the stew that Maria ladled onto his plate, he made a decision. When dinner was over he planned to inform his family that on Sunday he would be attending church alone to hear his brother’s sermon. What he would not tell them was his intention to drag Iain out of town to some quiet place and stay there until they had either cured or killed each other. He had had enough of travelling with a broken wheel.

 

 Chapter Twenty-Nine

   Was he doing it deliberately? The slow creak, squeak, creak of the hammock outside on the porch beneath his bedroom had begun again - only moments after he’d heard his father stride out of the Great Room to growl at his brother to ‘quit making that noise or I’ll make a bonfire of that thing tomorrow.’

   Excusing himself after dinner, Scott had retired to his room, not ready to face Johnny, barely ready to face himself. Earlier in the evening, he had gladly played the piano with his aunt, drawing on his reserves of gallantry and charm to win her forgiveness for the night before. Bruised as she was by his uncle’s continuing absence, it had been an easy conquest, their duet sealing the peace. Their fingers still on the keys after the last note had been played, he had kissed her cheek tenderly, moved by her joy in the music, imagining for an instant a mother in her.

   Dinner, however, had been an ordeal. He had drunk too much wine, talked too much and too loudly with Robbie about giant reptiles. By design or blessed accident, his father had occupied Johnny by telling him a convoluted story of a time when he and Henry Springer had lain in wait for rustlers. Addicted to Murdoch’s stories, his brother had paid little attention to him until dessert; Johnny had passed the cream jug to him in an unmistakably remote manner, before asking him if he wanted to run with a calf after dinner, just to ‘measure and feel the drop’. Only then had he realised that his desire to dog a steer had entirely vanished, although he had not been ready to confess it.

   Creak, squeak, creak – shorter and more cautious now, but still defiant, still insistent, meant for him – he went to the window and called his brother’s name. A moment later, the creaking stopped and Johnny appeared in the yard under the window, his hands on his hips.

   “You done hidin’ yet, brother?”

   “I wasn’t aware I was hiding.” His reply was cool, offered with a touch of a smile, a mistake, he knew, with a man like Johnny. His brother’s gaze darkened.

   “You goin’ to talk to me, Scott, or are you goin’ to fuck me around like you’re doin’ with the Old Man?”

   Scott hesitated; then, realising that he was only delaying what was inevitable, he left the room and went downstairs to the porch. Johnny was sitting on the steps, tussling with the three-legged Tequila for a stick. The dog was furiously excited at the attention, bracing its small frame against Johnny’s pull, small squeals and low growls signalling its deep and simple joy. Scott envied the creature. Laughing, his brother suddenly tugged the stick hard so that the dog released it and fell in the dust. Scrambling to its three legs, it waited, rigid with expectation, as Johnny waved the stick twice before hurling it across the yard. Scott sat down beside his brother and watched Tequila tear after the stick, grab it as cleanly as a relay runner and dash back to them. The dog stood before them, stick in mouth, its tail wagging furiously.

   “Drop it!” Johnny ordered. “Tequila, drop the stick.”

   It moved forward with the slightest of moves, but kept the stick firmly clamped in its mouth, thrusting its head up a little as if inviting the young man to the duel. Johnny shook his head slowly, his tone low and steely.

   “You drop that stick, ya mangy sonuvabitch. You drop it now.”

   Scott saw the dog hesitate, amused when its gaze darted briefly to him, before it dropped the stick in the dust at Johnny’s feet. Johnny smiled and rested a hand on the animal’s head.

   “Buen perro.” Stroking the dog’s head and ears, Johnny turned his gaze on his brother, a trace of his smile remaining. “You have dogs when you were a kid, Scott?”

   “Three Irish wolfhounds,” Scott replied, pleased with the question. “As big as small ponies. I used to ride them around the house when I was very young.”

   “You rode dogs?” Johnny’s smile widened. “You put a saddle an’ bridle on ‘em, too?”

   Scott laughed.

   “No, brother. Where d’you think I acquired my bareback riding skills?”

   Johnny grinned and shook his head.

   “You’re fulla shit, big brother.”

   “Yes,” Scott said. “I believe you’ve already told me that today.”

   He allowed the silence to rest between them. It still amazed him, the absolute silence of the West at night, as if time had stopped and all the absurd vanities of man were stripped bare and laid out beneath the merciless moon. When something broke that silence – the shriek of an owl or the banging of a door – he was always surprised at the audacity of it.

   “I gave the kid a gun,” Johnny said suddenly. “Taught her a few basics. Told her to shoot any sonuvabitch who came near enough for her to see the colour of their eyes.” He turned his gaze from the dog to his brother. “Is she gonna have to worry about Jackson, Scott?”

   Scott held the younger man’s gaze.

   “No, she isn’t.”

   He saw his brother’s jaw harden, the quiet swallowing of emotion, before Johnny turned his attention back to the dog, his fingers buried deep in Tequila’s wiry caramel hair.

   “You bury ‘im deep?”

   “Deep enough.”

   Johnny nodded. Scott, his heart beating painfully, saw the effort it took his brother to raise his head again, to look him squarely in the eye.

   “Thought I knew you, brother.”

   Scott swallowed back the dry lump in his throat, entirely caught out by his own emotions. Since the moment he had banged the earth flat over Jackson’s body with the shovel, he had been certain the world would now be a better place. He had seen men hang before, deserters and renegade confederates - most of them better men than Jackson - observed them turning blue and gobbling for their last breath on a Saturday afternoon, while officers drank tea in the shade. His brother’s reaction shook the core of him. What had he expected? That his gunfighter brother would automatically approve of this one act of summary justice? Jackson was dead. The man had not begged for his life, had sworn, even with the rope around his neck, that he would hunt the girl down and kill her. Part of Scott had even enjoyed the simplicity of it, retribution under the blazing sun for a heinous crime, but Johnny was unhappy with him. He placed a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.

   “Thought I knew you, too,” he said. “It looks like we both still have a few things to learn.”

   Johnny nodded.

   “Scott?”

   They both turned to look at their father standing on the porch, one hand in his pocket, the other holding his pipe. Johnny stood up immediately, his back to Murdoch, his hands clasped behind his neck.

   “Sir?”

   “Your aunt would appreciate it very much if you’d play another duet with her before she retires for the night.”

   “Of course.” Scott walked quickly up the steps and made to pass Murdoch who stopped him by pressing a firm hand on his shoulder. His father glanced at Johnny’s unmoving figure before speaking.

   “Will this bulldogging business be done with by this time tomorrow, Scott?”

   Scott looked back at his brother quickly.

   “It’s already done with, sir,” he replied. “I’ve changed my mind.”

   Murdoch frowned. It was clear to Scott that his father had not missed the sight of Johnny’s hands clenching more tightly behind his neck in response to his words.

   “Might I ask why?”

   “Just as I failed in helping you understand my original desire, sir, I believe I would also fail in making clear my reasons for letting it go.”

   Certain that his father was about to become very angry, Scott made to move away from his grasp, but Murdoch gripped his shoulder harder, giving it a rough shake to keep him there.

   “I don’t like your tone, boy,” he said, his voice low and furious. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t liked your whole damn attitude since you came home from round-up.” He glanced at Johnny and lowered his tone to a harsh whisper. “Next time, I suggest you think long and hard before you play your undergraduate guessing games with me.”

   “A game?” Scott grabbed his father’s arm and wrenched it away. “You think I’ve been playing a game!?”

   “That’s what it damn well feels like, yes.”

   Defiantly, Scott met his father’s angry glare, trembling with his own fury.

   “You don’t know me very well, do you, Murdoch?”

   The darkness left the older man’s face, as if an antidote had worked on poison. Still holding his son’s gaze, Murdoch put his hand to Scott’s neck and squeezed it.

   “No,” he said. “We’re going to have to work on that, aren’t we?”

   Feeling his anger drain away as quickly as it had arrived, Scott nodded.

   “Yes, sir. We are.” He took a deep breath. “My aunt will be waiting.” He smiled. “Do you have any preferences? A Scottish ballad? A little Chopin?”

   His gaze on Johnny’s back, Murdoch shook his head and patted his son’s shoulder.

   “As long as it’s calming.” He smiled at Scott. “Something to send me to sleep.” He knocked his pipe on the post. “I haven’t been doing too much of that lately.”

 

   Murdoch waited until he heard the first soft notes from the piano before he spoke down into the moonlit darkness where Johnny still stood, unmoving.

   “Feel like talking about it?”

   Receiving no response, Murdoch put his pipe in his pocket and walked down the steps. As always with Johnny, he felt fear enough to dry his mouth and to set his heart racing, yet it seemed nowadays he could overcome it every time. He stopped slightly behind the young man, his gaze on the hands clenched almost to white against his son’s black hair.

   “Johnny …”

   “You know what he did?” His son’s harsh interruption stilled Murdoch’s intended words.

   “Probably.”

   Johnny dropped his hands and turned his head to look with wary suspicion at his father.

   “That all you got to say?”

   “To you, yes. What I’ll say to Scott is my business, and you’re grown up enough to decide for yourself what you feel.”

   Turning to face his father fully, Johnny shook his head, a faint smile in his eyes.

   “Something funny?” Murdoch asked cautiously.

   “You just keep surprisin’ me, Old Man, that’s all.”

   Smiling, Murdoch grabbed Johnny’s neck and pressed him hard to his chest.

   “In Scotland, my son, we say that’s the pot calling the kettle black.”

   He was surprised when the young man made no attempt to pull away from his grasp, but spoke quietly against his shoulder.

   “I’m havin’ a real hard time with all of this, Murdoch, the whole damn thing.”

   “Yes, I know.” Murdoch sighed deeply, rubbing the back of Johnny’s head. “And I haven’t made any of it easier, but I’m going to change that …”

   Johnny pulled away suddenly. His hands on his hips and his head bowed, he scuffed the ground with his boot heel.

   “You goin’ to change the way you feel about my aunt?”

   Murdoch stared at the bowed head and then into the challenging gaze with churning astonishment, wondering that he could so quickly turn from yearning to comfort this boy to wanting to knock him into next week. Swallowing back an initial desire to deny everything, he shook his head.

   “No, that won’t change,” he replied. “For all the good it will ever do me.”

   He had released more bitterness than he intended, and he saw that his son had detected it.

   “She’s stayin’ with your brother, huh?”

   “Yes.”

   Johnny nodded slowly, digging more sharply into the dirt with his heel.

   “Does he know your feelin’s for her?”

   Murdoch glanced uncomfortably back towards the house. They were far enough away not to be overheard, but still he could hardly believe how he had slipped into this discussion. This was private, his business, yet Johnny was wheedling out his secrets with the ease of a spider luring a fly. Helplessly, he replied,

   “Mary and I were …” He hesitated. “… sweethearts once, when we were young, before I came to America.”

   “I figured that much, Pa.” The young man’s sudden, brief smile in the moonlight surprised him into returning it. “How come you didn’t stay for her?”

   His nerves now on a fine edge, Murdoch moved still further away from the house in a bid to calm them. He rubbed his hands together, searching for his answer, aware of Johnny’s scrutiny, wondering why he didn’t just end this, tell the boy he was out of line and escape on the strength of his parental authority. It usually worked, didn’t it? Hadn’t he come out with the intention of helping Johnny? His stomach was churning, his heart racing …

   “I guess I wanted adventure more,” he ground out finally. “I was always a selfish sonuvabitch.”

   “No,” Johnny said. “You were just in a place that couldn’t hold you.” Surprised again, Murdoch held his breath. “I’ve seen what bein’ in a place like that can do to a man, what it’s done to your brother and my cousin.” Johnny shook his head, his foot now filling in the depression he made in the dust. “Boy, I like Rob, but he ain’t the man he should be, not the man you are.”

   Murdoch felt the tension drain from his limbs. He wanted to laugh and weep at the same time, knowing that this was what Henry had meant about his son, and he was powerless against such a force. His throat dry, he changed the subject.

   “Robbie knows that you were a gunfighter. He’s having a hard time with it.”

   “I know it,” Johnny said, so softly that Murdoch strained to hear his next words. “Nothin’ I can do about it. I guess you accept that someone killed men for a livin’ or y’don’t.”

   Murdoch waited for Johnny to raise his head and meet his gaze. When he did, the father in him drove his earlier uncertain self from his mind. The fear in his son’s eyes was, as always, freshly painful to him. Would he ever be able to convince Johnny that every last trace of doubt had vanished from the earth? Probably not, but he would keep trying to his last breath.

   “That’s right,” he said. Taking swift advantage of the silence that followed, Murdoch put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and shook it gently. “Think you’re up to your Old Man whupping you at chess?”

   “I can take it,” Johnny said, with a smile. “Just wonderin’ if you’re up to losin’ to your own kid?”

   Murdoch laughed and cuffed his head lightly. When he entered the Great Room with Johnny, to the sound of a tender Scottish ballad played under the fingers of Mary and his older son, he could almost convince himself, just for a moment, that there was nothing left to fear.

  

   I cannot sleep for the fear in me. If I write it down, perhaps I can banish it to the page. My mind is in turmoil. I cannot go home. There it is in black and white. I cannot stay here, but I cannot go home. Uncle has promised he will bring my father back on Sunday ‘come hell or high water’, but it makes no difference to me now. I am done with the past. I must look to my future now. Tomorrow I plan to visit Mr Springer again and ask him if I might accompany him to the coast. The manner in which he drew and painted that ammonite showed me that he is a man of vision and sensibility with whom I could find some peace for awhile.

    It’s a cold night. This blanket around my shoulders is barely warming me. In the next room, my mother is sleeping as innocent as a lamb. All she desires now is that we take my father home, so that we can care for him in his impending blindness. Words cannot convey how deeply shocked I was by the news that soon my father will lose his sight, but it makes no difference.

   Am I the sinner of sinners to think such a thing? Fool that I am, I still believe that somehow I’m being watched, my thoughts known, my words read by some greater being, however hard I’ve tried to banish His ghost from my mind and heart. I want Him gone. I want to stride across the world, my own man, not my father’s, not God’s. It should be easy, as easy as it was for my uncle thirty years ago. Why does it feel then like I am about to climb some great mountain that will rip my feet to pieces?

   I wish I could confide in someone. My dear girl will be grieved beyond measure and I must wait until the last moment to tell her of my plans. Scott seems pre-occupied with a burden of his own, despite his cheerful demeanour this evening. Johnny? What do I make of him? I have not yet found the courage to ask him more about his past, yet until I do, I can discuss nothing else with him. Tonight, I saw my uncle outside with Johnny. I could not hear what they were saying, but at one point Uncle Murdoch took my cousin into his arms, to comfort him, it seemed. What comfort does a gunfighter need, a man so hardened to life that he can take the lives of other men for money? Yet, that does not fit the picture of the man I have come to know, and my uncle has made it clear it is of no consequence to him.

   Such tenderness between father and son. It is a source of wonder to me, when my own father cannot forgive his son the simple crime of a different way of looking at the world. He cannot love me then; that’s the simple truth of it.

   Does it matter that a father cannot love a son, or that a son cannot love a father? It seems that my grandfather showed little enough love towards his sons. Would my father have been very different if Angus Lancer had demonstrated more interest in him as a human being rather than as a mere vessel for God’s divine working? I suspect everything would have been different. Perhaps my uncle would have stayed in Scotland. Perhaps the brothers would have stayed true to each other. Perhaps we might have been a happy family.

   I have just had a visit from my uncle. He was concerned that I might be cold, but he did not question my choice to sit up late into the night writing in my journal. Despite my protests, he very kindly made up a fire for me which is now blazing away cheerfully. He seems a happier man now than he was this afternoon, as if the decision to confront my father has lifted a burden from his shoulders. Playing chess with Johnny this evening, he was almost light-hearted and my cousin was clearly basking in the warmth of his father’s mood. Truly, I esteem and admire my uncle more than any man I have ever met, despite the streak of ruthlessness I know he possesses. Perhaps that is what a man needs to survive, especially out here. Perhaps that is what I will need to acquire.

   I must try for some sleep. I hope Mr Springer will be sympathetic to my quest. If not, then I will travel alone, however much I might fear what lies ahead.

 

   It was unusual for him to be awake at this time of night. Normally, he was dead to the world the moment his head hit the pillow, especially since his return home. He reached up and touched the dressing that covered the cut under his eye. Irritated with the one the doctor had given him earlier, he’d removed it, only to be grabbed by his father and hauled off to the kitchen to have another one stuck on his face. Had Murdoch, he wondered, deliberately used a dressing the size of a horse blanket?

   He sighed and stared at the moon, just visible in the left hand corner of his bedroom window. Still, the Old Man had been the best part of this day, hadn’t he? He’d gone from practically tearing his head off outside the jail in the morning to candidate for Best Father in the World by the evening. Johnny nearly laughed out loud at the thought of it. All he needed now was for Iain and his family to leave. He liked his aunt and cousin well enough, but Jesus – they’d brought a heap of trouble he could’ve done without at this stage in his life.

   He heard a door close somewhere. Was Scott asleep? Had his brother closed his eyes to the world with a clear conscience? God knows, he loved the man, but surely he hadn’t judged this one right. Jackson had been a rapist and a horse-thief, the worst of men by anyone’s standards, and he would have been glad to see him swing from the law’s gallows, but his brother had bypassed all that, gone straight out in cold fury and taken the law into his own hands.

   Johnny sat up suddenly and stared into the moonlit darkness of his room. He had killed better men than Jackson, been paid well to do it and asked no questions. He had watched them bleed to death in the dust; each time had seemed a little easier than the last, until one day he had woken up and not wanted to live anymore. He’d been scared in that Mexican cell, waiting to be shot, but he’d also felt a kind of relief. He didn’t want that for his brother. He didn’t want Scott to wake up one day haunted by Jackson’s strangled body. He knew about these things, how it could ruin a man’s life. He wished to hell now he’d shot Jackson, fair and square, in front of the cabin when he’d had the chance with the Yellowboy pointed at their guts, instead of letting Scott call the tune. Jesus, that had been hard, staying out of it, when his every nerve had buzzed to step in.

   Rubbing his good eye, he got out of bed and went to the window. Leaning out, he was glad of the cold night air on his skin; the cut seemed to throb less now. He leaned out further and saw that the light was still glowing in his father’s window. Reading, probably. Just like his brother, always reading. Another death came to his mind and he pulled himself back into the room with the shock of the hated memory.

   He hadn’t wanted Murdoch to kill Raul either. It had almost been the worst moment of his life, watching the father he had just begun to love, kill a man in cold blood. He still preferred to push the thought into a place where he kept things he pretty much refused to think about. A man had to get by somehow or he’d walk around crazy, his head so messed up he could hardly walk straight. He’d seen men like that, come close to it himself, some roostered to the eyeballs with liquor. For a couple of months after Raul’s death, his father had drunk more heavily, often alone, late at night. Johnny had fretted enough about it to consider breaking every liquor bottle in the house. Then Murdoch had seemed to right himself – until his brother’s arrival. Johnny had noticed lately how often his father had needed to open another bottle of whisky. In his imagination, he saw himself wrenching the bottle from Murdoch’s hands, but knew he would never find the gall to do it.

   Johnny rubbed his bare arms to warm them. Well, he’d have to watch Scott now, that’s all. What was done was done; no point in dwelling on the rights and wrongs of it. His brother had acted in a way he believed was right. Who the hell was he to judge anyway? He’d just have to watch for the signs. Protect his brother from the demons. Damn, but he should’ve shot that sonuvabitch Jackson when he had the chance, fair and square. He sure wouldn’t be losing any sleep over that, and he wouldn’t be worrying over his brother.

   He went back to his bed, pulled the covers up to his neck to warm himself. Determined to drive the thought of his brother and Jackson from his mind, he allowed himself to think of Lindy, the curves and dips of her, her smile, her little bags of silly things. Intense jealousy flooded his veins at the idea of Ricky Hanson knowing her in the ways he’d known her. He wished he’d punched that fat face harder, messed the sonuvabitch up a little more, maybe enough to make Lindy think twice about marrying him. He reached to the end of his bed and pulled another blanket over himself. The shooting contest was on Saturday. Maybe he’d enter after all, show her what she was missing. He laughed at himself, that a little sharp-shooting and swagger could persuade the girl away from her dreams of pretty curtains and babies. Still, he might enter anyway. Do what he was best at. He flexed his gun hand under the blankets. It was still a little tight, but he could nonetheless out-shoot anyone likely to enter the Green River Deadshot Derby. Murdoch wouldn’t like it though. As he drifted into sleep, his final thought was that it wouldn’t be right if he and the Old Man always got along.

 

Chapter Thirty

   He screwed up his nose at the stench, made more intense by the hot sun. Pigs. He was enough of his father’s son to hate the damn things. Tick insisted on them though. Said there was nothing like your own bacon and ham on the table. The old man sure wasn’t wrong about that. Still, Johnny regarded the snuffling, snorting beasts with disgust. Leaning on the wall, he smirked as his brother emerged from the dark sty pushing the last reluctant hog out into the sun and into the holding pen. Scott was dirty, no doubt about it, and angry. With his boot on the hog’s rear, he gave the animal a vengeful shove towards the pen’s opening. Grinning toothlessly, Tick slapped it through and shut the gate.

   “That’s got ‘em, Boss,” he said with satisfaction. “Reckon we can set about fixin’ that wall now.”

   Scott glowered at the hogs as he removed his gloves.

   “You go and mix the mortar, Tick,” he said. “I need to talk to my brother.”

   “Sure thing, Boss.”

   Johnny shifted himself a little to allow Scott to leap the low wall and come to lean beside him, his arms folded.

   “Murdoch let you off the leash?”

   Smiling, Johnny turned and mimicked his brother’s stance against the wall. He pulled out his watch, opening the lid with a thumb’s flick.

   “Got five minutes.”

   “Is our father keeping you busy?”

   “You know the Old Man, brother,” Johnny drawled. “Likes to get the full worth of his dinero. He flexed his fingers. “Done so much writin’ my hand’s hurtin’. Still …” Johnny smiled slightly at his brother. “… he ain’t broodin’ like he was. Ain’t had a drink all mornin’.”

   Relieved to see the look of understanding on Scott’s face as his brother nodded in response, Johnny released a held breath. This was hard, as hard as waiting all morning since breakfast for his father to take a drink. It hadn’t happened. Murdoch hadn’t exactly been talkative, it was true, no stories to relieve the hellish boredom of writing names and titles, but when his father had spoken, he’d seemed peaceable enough, even praised his copperplate and mussed his hair. Now, his brother, too, seemed locked like a nut in his own shell of untouchable calm.

   “You ok, Scott?” he asked. His brother smiled; his gaze seemed fixed on his soiled work boots.

   “You mean apart from the fact that I’ve spent an hour of my life chasing a dozen block-headed hogs around a very small space?”

   “You know what I mean.”

   Scott nodded. “I’m alright, Johnny. I’ve trodden this road before. I had no innocence to lose.”

   Johnny heard his own breathing in the silence between them. Who was this man? Was this the consequence of not growing up together – this crazy path through a strange forest where every turn hid a new truth? Was there worse to come from his soldier brother? He’d heard stories as a kid, had thought himself lucky to be too young and to feel himself too Mexican to fight in that filthy gringo war.

   “You hanged a man before?”

   “Two. In the war. Neither one was my decision, but I didn’t object; they deserved it.”

   Johnny heard the sudden hardness in his brother’s voice and knew at last that this was not a man to be messed with. This was no Eastern dandy, whiter than white, who had spent a life wrapped up in the blanket of his money. Like him, Scott had stepped off the path of righteousness and he damn well wasn’t apologising for it. He heard his father’s voice calling him and he yelled back to ‘give me a damn minute, will ya?’, knowing that such a response was as likely as any to bring Murdoch striding out of the house to haul him back to that jail cell of books. Right now, he didn’t give a fuck, because at this moment he hated his father. Right now, he wanted to hurt the old bastard as badly as he had ever done in the worst times of his life.

   “I did more for Jackson,” Scott said. Johnny let go of a little of his silent rage. “I gave him a chance to repent, to show some remorse.” Johnny drew in a breath, his skin prickling with fear. He had no anchor to hold him fast against such brutal truth, not since he had heeded his father’s call a year ago. “I might have spared him then …” His brother’s voice had hardened again. “… but he said he would hunt Laura down and kill her if I let him go, so I did what I had to do.”

   “The law …” Johnny stopped and kicked the ground with his boot heel. Scott kept his arms folded tight.

   “Strangely enough, brother, I think you have more respect for the law than I do. When you’ve been in a place where every law you’ve ever known is broken and trampled on by almost everyone, you lose faith. From the little you’ve told me, you had some sort of code to live by. I was an over-protected, over-indulged brat looking for glory, with no-one to tell me that there’s no such thing in war – even if I’d been ready to listen.”

   Johnny nodded. This brother of his had learned hard lessons. He could take care of himself, a condition Johnny had always claimed for his own, one that, even now, could compel him to walk away from this home and this family and walk the world alone. But how quickly, a year ago, had he thrown in his lot with his father and brother. Only now did he see how much he must have wanted them, how, like an animal driven mad with hunger, he had grabbed what was on offer, without questions, without knowing a damn thing about what he was eating. Would he go now? There was nothing to stop him. He could saddle up this minute and ride away from this gut-ache without a look back, but even as he heard his father’s heavy footsteps behind them, he knew there was no escape. That was the truth he hadn’t yet understood when he’d first arrived – that shared blood was what shackled a man to the Earth, like it or not, and, mostly he liked it. Yeh, even when your polite, city-boy brother had proved himself a hard and dangerous man, even when he was about to get yelled at by a father he knew he had not quite forgiven yet, might never forgive, not completely. Murdoch stood before him now, big and angry.

   “When I call for you, Johnny, I expect you to come, not back-talk me so the entire damn ranch can hear.”

   Now, the thought that stayed with him always, ‘You should’ve been there. You should’ve been there for us,’ overlaid his spoken words, so that his tone emerged heavy with his present anger.

   “I was comin’. Just needed a minute with Scott.”

   Jolted more by Johnny’s dark look than by his tone, Murdoch bit back the angry retort he’d been about to deliver.

   “Are you alright, Scott?” he asked, determinedly ignoring his younger son’s glare. “You look pale.”

   “Must be the stench of these hogs,” Scott said, with an easy smile. “Remind me never to turn Lancer into a pig ranch.”

   “Over my dead body.” Murdoch glanced at Johnny who had reverted to staring at his boots. “Let’s brew up some coffee, boys,” he said, turning towards the house, his hands in his pockets.

   “I’m not finished here, sir.”

   “And we still got ten thousand books to write up.”

   His back to his sons, Murdoch smiled at Johnny’s exaggeration, which, he noticed, hadn’t masked the pleased surprise in the young man’s tone.

   “It’s our ranch, isn’t it?” he said. “We can take a break if we’ve a mind to.”

   He smiled again at the sound of their footsteps behind him. Would he ever cease to be amazed that these grown sons of his more often than not did as he bid them? Sometimes, it seemed they even wanted to be with him. In the kitchen, he waved Maria’s protests away and made the coffee himself, ignoring her muttered Spanish from the pantry as he ground the beans and heated the pot. From the porch, he could hear the creaking of the hammock and his sons’ low, conspiratorial voices. He would never have thought to have his guts wrenched out of him by such a pair; in his quiet moments, he knew his fond belief that he had control, that he called the tune, was an illusion.

   In front of the open window, a few bright, scanty flowers from the garden in an old vase trembled in a draught of warm air. He blinked at the sudden colour and movement and the breath he released was the letting go of his madness in believing he could reclaim Mary from his brother. This morning, she had been cheerful, asking him if she could visit some of his neighbours before she returned home, and he had agreed, reluctantly allowing her her wish that Jelly should drive her. All morning he had brooded over it, despite his determination to forget her. God, how he’d wanted a drink while he’d buried himself in his book collection. It was only Johnny’s watchful gaze that had stopped him. The boy was onto him, he was certain of it. He knew he’d been drinking too much again lately, even keeping a bottle in his room to stave off his darkest thoughts. He’d never done that, not even when Catherine had died or when Maria had left. No, it was only since he’d killed another man in cold blood that he had sought liquor’s comfort beyond his usual evening glass or two. He’d reined himself in after a few weeks. It hadn’t been hard then, not with spring coming and his improving relationship with his sons.

   This time had been harder. Was he getting old or had Iain’s unforgiving presence and his feelings for Mary really so unsettled him that for a time he had lost his reason? He placed coffee in the pot and waited, arms folded, his gaze on the flowers in the window. The sun was on them, making the reds and yellows brighter. Unfailingly, his mother had placed such a simple vase in the kitchen, filling it with whatever she could find in the garden or lanes. Once he had come in upon her kissing one of the flowers and she had moved quickly away, her face flushed. Aila Lancer. It was her blood in him, he knew, that had made him restless and passionate, determined not to be cheated, as he was sure she had been, of the chance to grab life and shake the bones of it. He lowered his gaze to the stone-flagged floor of the kitchen, laid with his own bare hands; he was still that restless boy, for all his fifty years, still heedless of those less brave, those less adventurous, still wanted to have it all. Well, he’d really been burned for it this time, just as Maria had burned him, just as the flames of his failure to keep his children burned him every day.

   He carried the coffee out onto the porch. He saw Scott first, sitting against one of the main posts of the porch, dappled by the shadows of apple leaves, a serious young man grubby with pig shit. He had seen another side of the boy now and it would take some thinking about. He had taken him for granted, his overt maturity, his calm and rational demeanour. How could he have believed it was ever going to be that easy? Scott returned his pensive look with a small smile.

   Before he had placed the tray on the table, he saw that Johnny, at first glance asleep in the hammock, was holding a baby against his chest. The unexpected sight made him drop the tray more loudly than he’d intended. His son’s eyes opened and in the second before Johnny spoke, he had gathered his wits, but his heart was still pumping the blood hard along his veins. Louisa’s Jackson’s baby, of course. Of course it was.

   “Just as soon ya didn’t wake her, Murdoch,” Johnny said. “She’s real easy right now, but if she wakes up, I’m handin’ her over to you.”

   “What makes you think I’d be any better with her?” Murdoch replied, his tone gruff with discomfort. He busied himself pouring out coffee.

   “Must remember somethin’”

   He met Johnny’s cool gaze and looked at Scott only to find his older son’s eyes curious and intent upon him. Feeling cornered, he handed Scott a cup of coffee.

   “I remember it all,” he said. He went over to the hammock and regarded the sleeping infant for a few moments, before stroking her cheek with his finger, so work worn against her soft skin. Involuntarily, he smiled. “How is it that I leave you alone for five minutes, Johnny, and you manage to get yourself a baby?”

   His son smiled slowly.

   “I’m a quick worker.”

   Murdoch raised his eyebrows.

   “Very amusing. Where is Mrs Jackson?”

   “Sick since yesterday.” Johnny looked down as the baby stirred. Expecting him to panic, Murdoch watched in quiet astonishment as his son rocked and shushed her back to sleep. “Grievin’ for her sister, Maria says.” Murdoch saw Johnny glance at his brother. “Maria’s takin’ care of Sarah. Said it would do me good to hold a baby for awhile.”

   Calmer now, Murdoch sat down with his coffee. He found that the sight of Johnny cradling a baby pleased him after all.

   “How did she figure that?”

   “Word got to Maria about Lindy,” Scott said, smiling as he stirred sugar into his coffee. “She’s trying to teach Johnny the consequences of hasty decisions about marriage.” His smile went to his brother. “I expect she’s hoping Sarah will wake and scream the place down.”

   “Have you learned anything so far?” Murdoch asked. Why did he feel suddenly so ridiculously contented? He knew it would be brief, but for the moment it had settled into him like a curled up cat.

   Johnny nodded. “Yeh, that I kinda like the feel of her.”

   Murdoch smiled and swallowed a mouthful of coffee, his features settling into seriousness before he spoke.

   “What are we going to do about Mrs Jackson?”

   He saw Johnny look swiftly at Scott who placed his coffee mug deliberately on the floor between his legs. His voice seemed devoid of emotion.

   “We’re going to take care of both of them, as we promised Laura we would do. If Louisa wants to stay, then we’ll help her raise Sarah. If she wants to go, then we’ll see that she has enough money to settle somewhere.”

   “Does she know she won’t be seeing her husband again?”

   Murdoch met his older son’s unreadable gaze. What weapons did he, an absent father for too long, have against such adult self-possession?

   “She knows he’s not coming back, yes,” Scott said in the same neutral tone. “I assume you have no objection to her staying?”

   Murdoch shook his head, although he truly would have liked to take Louisa Jackson somewhere far away and bury the thought of her, along with what she and Jackson had done to an innocent girl. The baby, though? He looked across and saw that Johnny had closed his eyes again while he pushed the hammock into a gentle swinging with his foot. No, he would have no objection to her.

   “Y’know, Murdoch,” Johnny said, his eyes still closed. “It’s the Deadshot Derby tomorrow.”

   “What of it?”

   He knew his harsh reply was the cause of Johnny opening his eyes and searching his face.

   “Sheriff never said anythin’ about days bein’ off-limits.”

   Murdoch poured out more coffee.

   “There’s the sheriff and then there’s me, Johnny.”

   “You sayin’ we can’t go?” His younger son’s tone was heated.

   Glancing at Scott, who was staring into the coffee cup in his hands, Murdoch felt his brief spell of contentment make a swift exit.

   “I’m saying I’ll think about it.”

   “Jesus!”

   Murdoch looked severely at his younger son. Although he knew, ultimately, he would lose this fight, he enjoyed watching Johnny wrestle with the notion that he might not win.

   “Or I could just say no right now and find you plenty of chores to keep you occupied tomorrow.”

  With the utmost care, Johnny handed the sleeping baby to Maria, who had just emerged from the kitchen, before pushing himself out of the hammock. He went to the table and poured a cup of coffee.

   “I wasn’t plannin’ on enterin’, if that’s what you’re thinkin’,” he said. “You think I’m goin’ to risk what I got here just to win some two-bit shootin’ contest?”

   Murdoch almost smiled.

   “The thought had crossed my mind, yes.”

   “You were planning on winning, were you, brother?” Scott said, before Johnny had time to react to his father.

   “Well, I never plan on losin’, Scott,” Johnny said, a touch of scorn in his tone. “A man can think himself dead that way.”

   Scott nodded. He smiled at Murdoch.

   “Then if our father is kind enough to allow us into town tomorrow, perhaps he’ll have no objection to the three of us entering the rifle competition. Robbie said you told him, Father, you couldn’t hit a barn door at fifty paces, but that’s not what I’ve heard.”

   “And what might you have heard?” Murdoch said, aware that Johnny, who had sat down beside him on the porch seat, had become very still.

   “Sven Bergson said you were one of the best rifle shots in the county, that you once shot a turkey vulture off a ledge fifty feet above your head in a raging storm.”

   “Sven exaggerates,” Murdoch said, brushing a fly away from his face. “It was more like forty feet and the storm wasn’t raging.”

   “Why d’you shoot it?” Johnny asked. The question was casually spoken, but Murdoch knew enough of his son not to be fooled. He turned his head to meet the young man’s impassive gaze.

   “Because I could.”

   Johnny raised his eyebrows and smiled.

   “So, how about it, Murdoch?” Scott said. “I don’t believe Johnny Madrid was famed for his rifle-shooting. I’m army-trained and wouldn’t you just relish the chance of bringing this boy down a peg or two?”

   “C’mon, Scott,” Johnny said. “He ain’t got the grit nowadays to take us on and I don’t plan on losin’ to either of ya, whatever gun I got in my hand.”

   Oh, he had to give it to his sons – they were masters of roping and hog-tying him. His arms crossed and his legs stretched out before him, he sat back on the seat and contemplated his boots. He’d been good once, it was true, enough to have some pride in his sharp eye and steady hand. He’d rarely missed in those days – wolves, birds, snakes, even men, cattle rustlers and horse thieves, although he had no inclination to share such memories with his sons. Until Raul, he’d never killed a man, but he’d come close in those wild days, very close.

   “Well, Scott,” he said finally. “I must say it’s a tempting proposition. What’s the prize?”

   “A new Winchester.”

   Murdoch raised his eyebrows appreciatively and nodded.

   “A Winchester, huh? I’d certainly like to be the owner of one of those fine rifles.”

   “Don’t worry, Pa.” Johnny’s tone was teasing as he nudged his father’s arm. “Y’might not get to own it, but I’ll let ya stroke it now and again.”

   Murdoch laughed quietly, a sound he hadn’t heard himself make too often lately.

   “Very generous of you, Johnny. That’s more than I’ll allow you to do after I’ve won it.”

   His sons’ laughter was the best thing he’d heard in a long time. Relieved, he sat in the shade, away from the glaring sun, one son leaning against his shoulder, the other contemplating him with what he could only guess was something close to approval. ‘What feels right must be right.’ Who had once said that? Henry? Yes, when, of all things, they had, many years before, allowed a teenage horse thief to go free instead of stringing him up from the nearest oak. Watching the boy ride off into the heat haze on one of his horses, he had thought of Johnny and hoped that someone somewhere was giving him the chance to grow. It was then he’d made yet another doomed attempt to locate the boy, relying on men from agencies who for all he knew had taken his money and spent their days with their feet up on a desk.

   He felt Johnny shift more heavily against him and wondered if the boy had fallen asleep. Still sitting against the porch post, his legs outstretched and crossed, Scott had resorted to reading the latest edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, the chewing of his inside lower lip being Murdoch’s clue that his older son was entirely absorbed. From over by the barns and corrals came the sounds of work and voices, and here they were, the bosses, not one of them inclined to do more than sip coffee, turn a page or sigh in his sleep. It was unheard of and he didn’t know how he’d react if one of his hands discovered them there, although he laughed inside at the thought of it anyway.

   Smiling at Maria as she quietly replenished the coffee, he allowed his mind to imagine what it would – he would win the rifle-shooting contest, he would make his peace with his brother, he would cross oceans to find his daughter to atone for the deserts and plains he had failed to cross in pursuit of his sons. None of them seemed impossible in these few moments of his fifty years on the Earth.

 

 Chapter Thirty-One

    At first he thought he was in a dream. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, aware that his sons had gone and that he had a crick in his neck. Opposite him, sitting upright on a small wooden chair, was his brother.

   “Iain?”

   “Aye.”

   Murdoch put his hand to his painful neck and stared at the younger man, searching for animosity, anger, accusation, waiting for bitter words. Behind Iain, the apple tree shook in the hot, strong breeze and the shadows across the porch floor were sharp and fast-moving. Murdoch breathed in and the scents he rarely noticed now, the lavender and honeysuckle, hit him like a pinch of strong snuff.

   “Why are you here?”

   “To talk to ma brother.”

   Murdoch frowned in his confusion and uncertainty. Although he had sworn to confront his brother, it had been planned on his terms. He liked it that way. This was too unexpected; he was not prepared.

   “Mary came ta see me,” Iain continued, his tone milder than Murdoch had yet heard it. What the hell was his game? Still barely out of sleep, the mention of Mary gave him a painful jolt. Leaning forward, he rubbed his face hard, before looking up at his brother.

   “Is that right?”

   Iain dropped his gaze. Murdoch felt he’d spoken harshly, that he had just bruised a delicate thing.

   “I have loved her all ma life, Murry,” Iain said fervently. “Did ye know that?”

   Swallowing hard, Murdoch felt his heart drive his blood through his veins with such force that he came close to feeling sick. Iain filled his hesitation.

   “Even when it seemed she loved you …” Iain took a deep breath. “… more so when it seemed she loved you, I loved her wi’ all ma heart.” He looked up suddenly. “Ye know why I came to America, Murry?”

   “I’ve wondered,” Murdoch said, almost coldly. Christ, he was certain he didn’t want this hellish conversation, and where were his boys? Had they contrived to leave him there at the mercy of his past?

   “Because I needed ta know her heart,” Iain said. “For thirty years, I have lived wi’ the knowledge that I was not her first choice …” Murdoch ground his teeth as he met his brother’s sudden pained frown and heard the words that seemed dragged wailing and protesting out of a dark place. “Not the father of her first child.”

   Standing up more swiftly than he’d believed himself capable, Murdoch glowered down at his brother.

   “Drink?”

   Iain nodded, clasped his hands more firmly on his knees.

   “Aye.”

   Murdoch fetched a bottle and two glasses from the Great Room and strode back to the porch. Pouring a large whisky for them both, he handed a glass to his brother who sniffed it before sipping it cautiously. Murdoch drank his swiftly and poured himself another, scowling at Iain’s prudence.

   “I don’t recall I taught you to take your whisky like a woman, Iain,” he said irritably. “Drink it, man.”

   Iain looked warily at the older man; then, his gaze still hard upon his brother, he threw the liquor back in one quick movement and thrust the glass at Murdoch. With a grim smile, Murdoch refilled it and sat back down on the porch seat.

   “Why did you make Mary give up the baby, Iain?”

   “Because it was yours.”

   Murdoch breathed hard, his fingers tight around the glass, his gaze on the shadows shifting across the wooden floor.

   “Did you hate me that much?”

   “Aye, Murry.” His brother’s voice was severe. “I hated ye for everything, for loving Mary, for being loved by her, for leaving her with child …” Iain hesitated and sipped his whisky. “… for leaving me.”

   Raising his head, Murdoch met his brother’s gaze. Where was the furious and bitter man of the past weeks? Iain was angry, his words like hard stones, but he was here, pulling the past out into the pitiless light of day. For a moment, he was certain this was a ghost sent to haunt him. Scrooge and Marley crossed his mind before he breathed away the thought of that gloomy pair arguing the guilt of the world.

   “I would have stayed,” he said tersely. “If I’d known about the child.”

   “Aye, maybe ye wud’ve stayed, Murry and I wud’ve forgotten my dreams of Mary, found maself another lass.” Murdoch watched him swallow hard and take another mouthful of whisky. Unused to such fortifying amounts it seemed, Iain grimaced at the fire in his throat. “We might’ve been brothers, as we had always been …” Iain paused. “… the best of brothers, instead of the strangers we became.”

   Grinding his teeth to stop a reaction, Murdoch knew he had no choice now but to sit there and take this - the payback for that moment he had set his foot upon the road to America without a glance behind.

   “Was Father hard upon you, Iain?”

   “No harder than he’d been before, only I had no brother ta sustain me.” Iain’s tone became harsher, bolder. “The heart went out of him when ye left, Murry. For all his faults, he wanted us ta be God’s children and he knew ye had set the seal on your heresy.” Murdoch scowled at the familiar condemnation and dropped his gaze. “Mother defended ye, as all mothers do.” Murdoch tensed. Had he mistaken the sudden bitterness in his brother’s tone. “How she loved ye, Murry. Did ye ever know how much our mother loved ye?”

   Struggling to stop his body betraying him into tears, Murdoch pressed his lips hard together and nodded.

   “Her last words ta me were that I should forgive ye. She knew ma heart as she knew yours.”

   Murdoch nodded again, before swallowing the last of his second whisky and pouring another. His mute gaze followed Iain when his brother suddenly got up and grabbed the porch rail, his back to Murdoch.

   “When I saw ye at the stage depot, I wanted so much ta forgive ye, my brother, ma beloved brother, but the moment ye …” Murdoch saw the younger man’s shoulders rise with the effort to compose himself. “The moment ye took Mary’s elbow and I saw her face … no man is able to bear that the woman he loves, loves another.” Iain turned back to face him. “I crossed an ocean ta know if it was you or me, Murry. Aye, I wanted to see where you’d made your home before I lose ma sight, but, most of all, I came ta know Mary’s heart.”

   “And d’you know it now?” Murdoch asked grimly.

   “Aye, brother, I do.”

   Murdoch would gladly have taken the whisky bottle at that moment and drowned his sorrows alone under some distant oak tree. Instead, he got to his feet and looked at Iain.

   “Take a ride with me, brother?” he said brusquely. Iain hesitated, then nodded. As Murdoch strode across the yard towards the barns, he was aware that his brother was struggling to match his pace, just as had done when they were boys. To their right, Murdoch caught sight of Johnny on the pig pen roof, a hammer in his hands and nails in his mouth while Scott smoothed a layer of mortar for the next bricks in the new wall, both ignoring Tick’s blustery suggestions and warnings. Turning on his heel, Murdoch walked over to them, Iain behind him.

   “How’re you boys doing?” he asked. Johnny removed the nails from his mouth, although Scott spoke first, his shirt and arms splattered with mortar.

   “Good, sir. This is my first wall and I must say, I’m pretty pleased with it.”

   Murdoch nodded. He glanced up at Johnny, who as he had expected, was observing the older set of brothers intently.

   “I see your brother’s decided to lend you a hand.”

   Scott smiled up at Johnny.

   “Well, I think there might be an ulterior motive there, Murdoch. He’s hoping there’ll be a better chance of us going into town tomorrow if we get this finished.”

   “Snitch.” Kneeling on the roof, Johnny looked at his father with a slow grin. “Don’t listen to him, Pa. I’m helpin’ Scott outta the goodness of my heart, I swear.”

   Murdoch laughed out loud and shook his head, suddenly lifted from his earlier depression.

   “Tell you what, boys,” he said, smiling. “If you finish the pen and Tick here is satisfied, then we’ll go into Green River tomorrow.” He glanced back at his brother who was observing the ground, his hands clasped behind him. “All of us, I hope.”

   Iain’s curt, affirmative nod was enough. Murdoch looked at Tick who had been observing the family while chewing a wad of tobacco with slow deliberation.

   “Don’t give these two any quarter, Tick, just because they’re my boys. If you aren’t happy with the job, I want to know about it, alright?”

   “Sure thing, Boss.”

   “And don’t take any sass from them …” Murdoch cast an amused glance at Johnny. “Particularly from that one up there, if he knows what’s good for him.”

   Tick’s delight in his scrap of power was evident even as Murdoch turned back towards the barns with his brother. He only had to imagine his younger son’s face as the old man instructed him loudly and lengthily on hitting a nail in square.

   Murdoch took his brother’s elbow to help him down from the horse. Before them, below the escarpment, the land’s contours quivered their baked colours under the sun. Seeking shade, Murdoch led Iain to the broad canopy of a lone turkey oak, his saddlebags over his left shoulder. During the ride, he had prepared his mind for what was to come.

   Mary loved him, loved him as he believed a woman should love a man, sighing out his name in her passion and submission to his body. Even now his blood glowed at the remembrance of it, the thought of her cries in this grass; were all men alike in delighting in that female abandonment, that feeling of power over a weaker creature? He’d never discussed such things with other men. Oh, he’d heard the coarse banter in shipyards and rough towns, even taken part on occasion, just to keep face, although he’d felt ill at ease with such primitive lust. From his first encounter with a farm girl in a hay loft, he had believed himself a lover, the Tom Jones of Scotland; he might not promise eternal love, but he would love her, respect her for the hour spent in his arms.

   He watched his brother sink down to rest against the oak’s deeply scored trunk. He had taken Iain at fourteen to lie with that same farm girl, but the boy had fled the barn in furious disgust and run home to pray. Perhaps it had started then, his slow realisation that Iain was their father’s son, that he had failed in his fraternal duty to protect him from a life of  relentless self-scrutiny, where each thought and action must be laid at God’s feet and found wanting.

   Murdoch sat two tin cups in the grass and poured out whisky into each. Mary would stay with Iain, but her body craved another’s. Was it enough consolation? Most weekends, he knew, his sons slept with saloon girls, paid for their pleasures with youthful recklessness; they joked about their various attributes when they thought he was out of earshot. Scott’s more refined language couldn’t hide his essential business-like attitude to the girls, although behind Johnny’s colourful ‘tits and butts’ talk lay, his father knew, a romantic heart which sought more than a quick … He handed Iain the cup. Poke? Fuck? Roll in the hay? Tumble? Young men used such words. He’d made love to Mary, hadn’t he? Then and now …

   “It’s a fine day,” Iain said, after taking his first swallow of whisky.

   “Yes.” Murdoch gulped his whisky down and poured another. His brother seemed calm, almost serene, the heavy darkness of the past weeks gone from his brow, while his own churning guts clutched at anything the liquor could offer. Suddenly, he realised he was angry, that all his inner justifications and arguments had failed him. He’d lost Mary. He’d lost her the moment he’d taken her on that hill - fucked her on that hill, his dreams of America triumphant in his head.

   “I enjoyed the ride on the horse. I’ve no love for the creatures, as ye know, but he seems a good animal.”

   Surprised, Murdoch shot his brother a look and even managed a small smile.

   “He is.”

   “Ye’re a fine horseman.”

   “Thank you, but my sons are better horsemen than me in every respect.”

   Iain took the bread offered by his brother and broke it in half.

   “A father should feel pride in his sons.”

   Murdoch tensed and cut two slices of beef off a larger piece with his knife. He gave one to Iain. All was done quietly, easily, so that he felt, despite everything, a sense of enjoyment creep over the hard edge of his anger.

   “Yes, but I can’t take the credit for those boys, Iain, and you know it.” He stirred packed dust with the tip of his knife. “Maybe Johnny, a little. Maybe I loved him enough at the start to carry him through the worst. I don’t know.”

   “Is it not something that ye love them so well now?”

   Murdoch frowned at his brother, certain that behind the curtain of mildly spoken words Iain must be holding a very sharp knife.

   “I don’t always do so well,” he said gruffly. “Not with either of them, especially not with Johnny.”

   “Och, man, any fool can see the lad is devoted to ye.” Iain took the whisky bottle from by his brother’s knee and splashed a good measure in his tin cup. He held the bottle towards Murdoch who nodded, although, even now, he could not help a small resentment at Iain’s clumsy doling out of his best scotch. Iain took a hard swallow of the whisky. “When Robbie was born, I didna know what ta do with him. I wanted ta love him, but all I felt was fear, terrible fear.”

   “Fear?”

   Iain swallowed more whisky, before holding the cup between his hands and staring into its depths.

   “Is there anything more terrifying than bringing a new soul inta the world, Murry? He was full o’ sin, as we all are, and it was ma duty ta bring him ta God. I owed him no less than ta help ma son walk the straight and narrow path ta salvation.”

   Murdoch chewed his sandwich and waited, repelled by the words. If he closed his eyes, he might see Angus Lancer when he opened them again, grave and grey-bearded, disappointed again in his elder son, grieved that another fine thread to heaven had been irretrievably broken.

   “He has turned from God and he walks a damned road …”

   “Iain …” Murdoch felt the sandwich’s flavours sour in his throat.

   “But he is ma son and I canna forsake him.”

   “No,” Murdoch said emphatically. Unscrewing his canteen, he drank water thirstily and handed it to his brother who shook his head.

   “I regret my harsh words about John, Murry. They have troubled me deeply. I allowed my distress over ma son’s misguided ways to cloud ma judgement and I have prayed many hours for God’s forgiveness.”

   His gaze on his half-eaten sandwich, Murdoch nodded silently. What weapons did he have against his brother’s tussle with God? It had been the same in his childhood; how could he trust the emotions of men who so feared a damned soul that their remorse could not be disentangled from selfishness?

  “The truth is I like the lad. It is apparent to me that I cannot condemn a boy who has lifted himself from a sinful life, much of which he cannot be blamed for. Mrs Jones, a fine, godly woman, has helped me clear ma thoughts about many things.”

  Murdoch allowed himself a brief smile. What had it taken for his brother to admit affection for Johnny? And that it should be the sanctimonious Mrs Jones who should be his younger son’s defender! No matter. It was infinitely better than regret for harsh words. Still, the implied criticism of himself brought Scrooge’s harrowed face back into his thoughts. That cheerless room, that meagre fire, the thin, hopeless gruel – he had a whole sunlit land before him, his sunlit land, and was no better off than that old sinner.

  “No, he can’t be blamed.”

  “He has his sister’s eyes.”

  So startled that, for a moment, he could only stare mutely at the younger man, Murdoch swallowed hard and forced out a response.

   “You’ve seen my daughter?”

   “Aye, many times. I’ve watched her grow.”

   “Mary said she’d seen her only once, when she was about twelve.”

   “Aye, that’s true, but then Mary hasna travelled the villages in God’s name as I have done. I made certain Tira was placed wi’ a God-fearing family, a saddler, an honest trade. Whenever I visited Duncree I took the trouble ta enquire after the girl until she came of age.”

   What was the emotion boiling inside his guts? Did he want to hit his brother in sheer fury or was it himself he wanted to tear to pieces? Leaning back against the tree, he closed his eyes and asked the only question that seemed to matter now, although he doubted he could trust his brother’s answer.

   “Was she happy?”

   Iain’s response emerged business-like, self-satisfied with a task well done.

   “She was well cared for, well fed and well clothed.”

   Opening his eyes, Murdoch glared at the younger man.

   “That’s not what I asked,” he said ruthlessly. “You know damn well that’s not what I’m asking!”

   If he wanted, by his aggression, to move Iain to anger, he knew he had failed when the younger man regarded him implacably with their family’s blue eyes, faded a little now, but still holding like Johnny’s, an annihilating intensity. Perhaps, once or twice, in those first few weeks almost a year ago, he had doubted that he had fathered Johnny, such had been his shock and confusion at what the boy had become. To see the gunfighter’s gaze in his own brother would have removed there and then every last trace of suspicion.

   “If ye’re asking if anyone showed the love to her that ye show your sons, then I canna answer ye, Murry. American ways are not our ways.”

   His brother’s inexorable composure against the wild havoc of his own heart was the worst of it. It wasn’t as if he was being forgiven here by a soul at peace. Iain seemed determined to spread out his sins before them and rub his nose in their stench under the blazing sun. Well, he would lash out now where he knew it would hurt.  

   “If I show more than you think is due from a father to his children, Iain, it has damn well nothing to do with where I am. Blame the fact that I wasn’t there for them when I should’ve been. Blame that old bastard we called ‘Father’ for teaching me how faith can cripple human feeling.”

   Almost hungrily, Murdoch watched for the inevitable pain in Iain’s eyes; that his older brother should once again attempt to breach the hallowed memory of their devout father.

   “He was God’s good servant, Murry,” Iain said calmly. “That he made errors is part of our Lord’s divine plan for us all, that we may atone for our sins through repentance.”

   “Your memory’s better than mine, brother.” Murdoch glared at the younger man. “If you can remember one time our father showed repentance.”

   “We canna know the prayers he sent up to our Lord, Murry.”

   “Well, that’s the damn difference between us, Iain.” Savagely, Murdoch threw his sandwich away into the scrub. Amo shied and looked towards the men. Murdoch raised his head slightly, his gaze on the horse and Amo calmed. “I want proof. I want proof that he regretted thrashing the heart out of me. I want proof that it grieved him that not once did he express any affection for me, for either of us.”

   He took little pleasure in Iain’s sudden lack of composure, as if he, the older, stronger brother, had broken an unspoken pact made when they were young and at the mercy of forces beyond their control. It seemed Iain was silent for a long time, the only sound being an irritated jay in branches above their heads and the jingle of Amo’s bit as he sought food. Murdoch listened intently when his brother’s voice finally broke into the air.

   “I was very angry wi’ John when he stood outside Reverend Jones’ house and dared ta shout at me about ma father, very angry, but I confess it caused me spend some hours in contemplation.” Iain hesitated and Murdoch looked at him, his jaw twitching. “It grieved me that I couldna recall a single time when I had pleased ma father, Murry, not one word of praise, not one time when I basked in the glow of his precious light. A son needs to know he has pleased his father.”

   Murdoch nodded again. His thoughts were on Johnny, yelling at his uncle in a way no-one else would dare. Had such a simple act broken his brother’s shell? If so, then Mary’s declaration of love had finished the task.

   “I worshipped ye, Murry.” Murdoch breathed hard and reverted to scraping shapes in the dirt with his knife. “Ye were ma protector, ma friend, ma saviour. I tried ta be manly when ye said ye were going. I wanted ta please ye, but in the morning when ye were gone, I knew I’d lost everything, except our Lord’s certain love.”

   He was on the rack, no doubt about it. His brother’s every word was another turn of the wheel, another spasm in his sinews. What words did he have against the raw truth?

   “I felt my only hope was ta marry, young though I was. Mary was deeply grieved at your going, but she agreed ta marry me, although I knew, I knew that she didna love me, not in the way she loved you … even after your desertion of her.”

   Murdoch looked up. He could feel the set of his mouth refusing to respond. He saw that his silence unnerved Iain, that something of the boy was back in him, seeking the father figure in his older brother, the affirmation of love. He would not give it, not while Iain was counting off the roll call of his misdeeds with no hint of human forgiveness.

   “I’d a mind to raise your daughter while Mary was with child, but when Tira was born, I couldna bear her near me. She was too much your bairn …”

   “So you threw her away?” He had found his voice, the one chance he had to accuse. “You wrenched her from her mother and never sought to tell me of her existence.”

   “Aye,” Iain replied. “We agreed it was for the best.”

   “Who agreed!?”

   “The church, the family.”

   “Mother?”

   “Aye, although it broke her heart to do it.”

   “Damn it all to hell, Iain!” Murdoch got to his feet, his head spinning a little with the effects of the scotch. He walked over to the escarpment edge and gazed out across the valley, his arms folded and one hand rubbing so hard across his mouth that it caused pain in his gums. His breaths came so hard through his nose that he could feel the hot blasts of it on his fingers. When he felt a tentative hand on his shoulder, he shrugged it away violently. To hell with his brother’s brand of compassion; his blood’s future on Earth was consuming his every cell. 

   “When did you last see Tira?” he ground out from behind his hand.

   “Nine years ago, when she was John’s age.”

   “Married?”

   “No, not at that time. She was still working alongside her father, crafting saddles. The lass had a fine reputation for her work. She was sought, even by the lairds, for it.”

   Murdoch nodded. He held the image there of a proud girl with Johnny’s eyes and Scott’s seriousness working beautiful saddles. It would have to serve him now. He would have to carry that image through his days and hope it came something close to the truth. Aware that his brother had moved to stand beside him, he remained still, his gaze on the valley with its blue ribbon of river coursing through his land. Soon, in fifty years or so, that meander would be cut off into a lake and he would be gone.

   “I can see why ye love this land, Murry,” Iain said. “The Lord’s hand is mighty indeed. I am glad I have seen such a vision before He sees fit to take ma sight.”

   Turning his head, Murdoch wondered how much his brother could see of the land spread out before them. Could he make out the flock of white birds fringing the river’s edge, the herd of mustangs grazing, the shape and colour of the clouds that seemed to suggest an oncoming early summer storm? – even now his rancher’s mind made quick calculations as to its effects – or was it just a blur to his brother’s failing sight, its hard edges softened into mere fusions of colour. 

   “It can be a harsh and unforgiving place, brother,” he said bluntly. He knew Iain was looking into the side of his face, but Murdoch refused to meet his gaze.

  “Nevertheless, Murry, it was your choice.”

  Murdoch sighed. Well, those sternly spoken words couldn’t be argued with. For this he had sacrificed everything. He let go of what anger remained against his brother. The past could not be undone. The future he could take some hand in. He spoke quietly.

   “It’s a hard road God has set you upon, Iain, losing your sight.”

   “Aye, it is and I have mountains to climb, brother, but the Lord’s lantern will guide my steps and Mary will walk alongside me.”

   ‘Good God.’ Murdoch’s thought came swift and sure. ‘I need another damn drink.’

  

   “You reckon they’ve killed each other by now?”

   Wiping his brow, Scott grimaced at the afternoon sun and then smiled faintly at Johnny who, having finished the roof, was helping him build the wall. Tick had taken to sitting on a bale, a pipe stuck in his mouth. Occasionally he would remove it and issue orders or offer advice. More than once, both brothers had felt the urge to dunk the old man in the nearest horse trough.

   “I’d put money on it.”

   Johnny removed his gloves. He pulled his bandana from around his neck, soaked it in water from his canteen and scrubbed the dirt and sweat from his face. He glanced at Tick and lowered his voice.

   “The Old Man put a bottle of whisky in his saddlebag.”

   “Wouldn’t you?”

   Johnny smiled with his mouth.

   “Guess so, but I’m goin’ to be watchin’ Murdoch real close the next few weeks.”

   Seeing that Tick was making an effort to listen, Scott leaned closer to Johnny, his tone severe.

   “How much our father drinks is his business, Johnny.”

   Swallowing a mouthful of water from the canteen, Johnny narrowed his eyes at his brother.

   “Well, I’m makin’ it mine, Scott.”

   “Haven’t you learned yet?”

   “Haven’t I learned what?” Johnny demanded in a furious undertone.

   “That you can’t control the future. That you have to let men make their own decisions.”

   Johnny banged the stopper in the canteen and one hand on the new wall, he turned a cold glare on the older man.

   “If you think I’m goin’ to let my father drink himself to death, just ‘cos it’s his goddamn right to do it, then you can go to hell, Scott! I only got one parent an’ I’m keepin’ him.”

   Taking Johnny’s canteen from him, Scott pulled out the stopper and took a long drink. Wiping his mouth, he gazed silently at his angry brother before handing the canteen back with a nod.

   “Well, seeing as he’s my father too,” he said calmly. “We’ll both keep an eye on him. Agreed?”

  Johnny’s fury instantly relaxed into a relieved grin.

  “Yeh, and if he needs a talkin’ to, you can do it, right?”

   Laughing, Scott grabbed his brother’s neck and shook him playfully.

   “Such a dangerous mission on my part will definitely cost you, little brother.”

   “That wall ain’t straight.”

   Both brothers looked at Tick who had risen from the bale and was standing flush with the wall, narrowing one critical eye down its length, his pipe in one hand.

   “I beg your pardon, Tick?” Still smiling, Scott released Johnny and went to stand beside the old man. He put his hand to his chin and nodded. “Well, I agree there’s a slight misalignment in the second layer …”

   “Misa …what?” Tick looked at Johnny for reassurance, but the young man merely smirked at him.

   “A bulge,” Scott said authoritatively. “But that’s deliberate. It makes the wall stronger.” He looked seriously at his brother. “Isn’t that right, Johnny?”

   “Yeh, sure.” Johnny walked over to Tick and put his arm around his shoulders. “Every wall needs a bulge, Tick, like horses need hooves. Common knowledge.”

   Tick looked suspiciously from one brother to the other, before depositing a gob of yellow spit in the dust.

   “Iffen I find you two smart alecks’re stretchin’ a blanket on me, then your pa’s gonna hear about it, ‘cos I don’t hold with no bulges in walls, needful or not.”

   Despite watching their chances of going into town gallop into the hot distance, the brothers smiled at each other and put on their gloves to finish building the wall.

  

Chapter Thirty-Two

   At last I have time to myself, time to sit in silence and contemplate the day’s strange events. I have spent the evening in the company of my family, my complete and entire family! Father has returned from exile and it seems he and my uncle have reached some measure of accord, although I cannot say they are yet true friends and brothers. They were civil to each other at dinner, while my dear girl tried hard to coax their good humour by relating the tale of her visit to one of my uncle’s neighbours, a widow, Mrs O’Reilly, who is extremely hard of hearing, and has a passion for her pigs, even going so far as to tie scraps of ribbon to their tails. This led to Cousin Scott sharing his experiences of his day spent with Mr Arkwright’s hogs. In my relief at Father’s return to the fold, I believe I laughed immoderately at my cousin’s description of chasing them around the pen until he finally tripped over the smallest of them and landed in a substance less than desirable to his situation. Uncle and Mother seemed to share my pleasure in his story, but my father quickly began a discussion concerning the morals of adorning animals with ribbons. Mother defended any action that brought comfort to a lonely old woman, to which opinion Father acquiesced, and Johnny, smiling devilishly, asked Father to tell him the moral difference between putting a ribbon in a hog’s tail and a girl’s hair. This remark brought a mild reprimand from my uncle, but to my astonishment, Father replied in a serious tone that he would need some time to consider the question!

   After dinner, I had leisure to observe my mother and father while Scott and I played a fine game of chess. They appeared much at ease with each other, talking quietly while my dear girl sewed, Father even smiling a little and touching her hand. I have no clue to what has happened to effect this new concord in their relationship, but I am heartily glad of it. It will make what I must tell them easier to bear. My uncle, in contrast, seemed morose and taciturn, his face hidden behind a newspaper. It is not the first time I have observed him rely somewhat too heavily on liquor in the evening and it is apparent to me now that this tendency is deeply upsetting for Johnny. At one point he questioned my uncle’s action of pouring his fourth glass of whisky and received a sharp, angry rebuke. When Scott intervened and supported his brother, my uncle left the room, a bottle and glass in his hand. Johnny, agitated and distressed, seemed about to follow him, but Scott quietly left our game and said he would speak to their father. This seemed to settle my young cousin somewhat and, to my surprise, he took his brother’s place in the chess game.

   No-one could imagine how I have struggled with my feelings concerning Johnny. There is so much in him that I admire, but to kill other men for money! Although Mr Hoskins, a venerable old man I greatly esteem, expended much effort this afternoon in persuading me that Johnny has left that life behind, a life he could barely be held responsible for choosing from what I have learned, I still harbour fear of what might remain of the gunfighter. Yet, when he sat opposite me this evening, gazing down at the chessboard, his hands clasped so tightly over his neck in his anxiety, I saw only a boy in pain. I attempted to offer him some words of comfort, but he told me abruptly to leave it and make my move. He played an aggressive game, but so determined was I to defeat him that I held my ground on every move. Once he apprehended that I was going to present a challenge to his usual dominance of our games, he relaxed and we began to talk a little between our long contemplations of the board. Nothing of great import – a  fossil Mr Bergson found at the back of his shop (a remarkable tooth, possibly a megalodon shark!), the damage summer storms can do, General Custer’s death – but it helped to re-establish some fellow feeling between us.

   I am ignorant of the outcome of the discussion between Scott and my uncle. I have retired early to my room to gather my thoughts and to avoid the possibility of confronting my parents with my decision before I am prepared.

   My decision. Does my reluctance to write it down in black ink, suggest that I am not secure in my resolution to carry it out? This morning, I saddled a horse and found my way by compass to Mr Springer’s shack. He is almost ready to set off on his long journey to the sea and I did not prevaricate in my request to accompany him. At first, Mr Springer smiled and I believed he was about to laugh at me, but he suggested we sit down with a cup of tea. Very gently, with none of the patronising tone he might have employed towards me, he made it clear that my journey was not his journey, that I must seek my own point of departure, as he termed it. I was not unduly disturbed by his counsel; in fact, on reflection, I see there would be something cowardly and incomplete in me to harness myself to another’s wagon, as it were, so my intention is to return to Scotland, leave my employment and use what savings I have to attend the university in Edinburgh to study the sciences. It is an idea I have long cherished in my mind, but always my courage has failed me. The letter of application is written and tomorrow I intend to send it from Green River with the promise of testimonials from Donald Brown and my old college tutor in Aberdeen. They have long urged me to attempt such an enterprise.

   I feel pleasantly tired. The air is warmer than previous nights and there are a few rumbles of thunder in the distance. Uncle tells me that these summer storms can be a sight to behold! Well, I believe such an event would match my present disposition; a great deluge to wash away the dust of the world.

 

   Three hours earlier:

   Murdoch looked grimly at his older son as Scott closed the door carefully behind him and joined him on the veranda. In his lap was the bottle of whisky, and the glass, already filled, in his hand.

   “If you’ve come to lecture me, Scott,” he said curtly. “I don’t believe I’d welcome it.”

   Leaning against a pillar, his arms folded, Scott observed the older man silently for a few moments, wondering that he had not seen what Johnny had so clearly seen, that their father was in the grip of demons of which it seemed he was fast losing control. More automatic assumptions – that this man he had known for only ten months was indomitable, that whatever life threw at him, he would kick it out of his path and stride on. Yes, he might wobble on his foundations, now and then, but he would always right himself, the grit in him only hardened by the experience. It was a quality he had admired in the older man upon their first meeting, even while part of him had hated this father who actually had been no such damn thing. Still, the dark-haired young stranger beside him had spat out enough venom on that day to satisfy his own bitten back scorn.

   Slowly though, another side to his father had been revealed, not soft, never that, but capable of being moved, capable of tenderness. Schooled diligently by his grandfather in masking the emotions at all costs, this trait in his father had been almost unwelcome until he had perceived his new brother’s blatant need of it and then his own, more private, longing. Now he saw clearly that to be human was to suffer, one way or another; there was no escaping it.

   “I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to provide a lecture, sir,” he said. “But I think you should know how upset Johnny is. You’re scaring him.”

   Murdoch drew in a deep breath, his struggle to quell his emotions clear in his darkened gaze and spasming jaw.

   “He’ll get over it,” he said finally, taking a mouthful of the whisky.

   “Not if you drink yourself to death, he won’t.”

   His father’s glare unsettled Scott’s determination to remain calm.

   “How much I drink is my business, boy, and I’m not about to be dictated to by you or your brother.” He looked away. “I can handle my damn liquor. Leave me that, if nothing else.”

   Scott wanted to walk away. He recognised the signs of a man entrenched in his own private hell and he doubted his ability to ease the agony. It had never done in Boston to enquire too deeply into a man’s inner life. Only in the army, tongues unfettered by alcohol, had men leaked out the messy, complex workings of their hearts and then you just listened, offered no advice, never referred to it again in the cold grey of dawn.

   Still, there was Johnny to think of now, a man fearless of his own desires, unafraid to speak them, and whether their father deserved it or not, he was the core of Johnny’s world; it was enough to tighten Scott’s resolve. 

   “I guess that if you’d chosen to sink into oblivion this time last year, then nobody would’ve given much of a damn, Murdoch, but things have changed.”

   He couldn’t deny it; it frightened him to see the colour change in his father’s skin, the onset of an ungovernable rage.

   “Now you damn well listen to me, boy!!!”

   Quickly moving away from the pillar, Scott placed his hands on the arms of his father’s chair and leaned close to the older man’s face.

   “No! You listen, Murdoch! You damn well listen for once in your life! You might think you’re calling the tune here, but I’ve seen men as proud as you, as stubborn as you, as fine as you brought to their pathetic knees by liquor, and it’s not an edifying sight, believe me.” Scott paused, relieved to see that despite his furious glare, his father was listening. “I don’t know what the hell’s gnawing at you, but I have no desire to see one of the few men I genuinely respect and admire on this Earth disintegrate into a pissing his pants, self-pitying wreck, and, God knows, it would destroy my brother. Do you honestly want that?”

   His knees had begun to tremble as he stood over his father. For a moment, he felt Murdoch was as likely to strike him as to speak.

   “No,” Murdoch said, his gaze still dark upon his son. “I don’t want that.”

   Scott sighed and eased back a little.

   “If you knew just how important you are in his life …”

   “I do.” His father stared grimly at the empty glass in his hand. “But I can’t live up to it. I can’t be the father he wants.”

   “Damn it, Murdoch! That’s the whole damn point! You’re already the father he wants whatever stupid mistakes you have made and will make. Don’t ask me to explain it if you don’t already know what that means.”

   Taking the bottle from Murdoch, he stood up and put it to his lips, drinking two good mouthfuls before handing it back to his father who took it with the faintest of smiles.

   “Was it that hard chewing your old man out?”

   Hearing the small dose of amusement in his father’s tone, Scott returned the smile cautiously.

   “No harder than facing a line of Confederate machine guns in the fog.”

   Murdoch breathed out an abrupt laugh, before putting the whisky bottle down on the floor. Glancing back at the house, he stood up and looked sternly at his son.

   “It’s not something I’d recommend you try too often, boy, but now you’ve done it, I want to tell you something.”

   Scott followed his father out into the night. A wind was blowing, bringing with it, Jelly had assured them all, a storm. In the corral, Amo was restless, pacing back and forth, snorting at the purple sky. When Murdoch approached the fence, the animal ceased its agitated steps and became still, seeking its owner’s outstretched hand.

   “You know, I’ve never had feeling for a horse before, not the kind of feeling I have for this one.” Murdoch said. One hand stroked the horse’s neck and the other scratched under its jaw. “Sometimes I feel he could carry me to the ends of the earth and I wouldn’t try to stop him.”

   Leaning against the rail, Scott was silent. He could hear his father’s breaths quicken even against the wind’s gusts.

   “Before I came to America, I fathered a child, your Aunt Mary’s child.”

   It was not what he had expected. He swallowed back the knot in his throat and sighed.

   “I see.” Scott hesitated. “I’m assuming you’ve only just found out about this.”

   Murdoch rubbed harder at Amo’s neck, unable to meet his son’s gaze.

   “Last week.”

   Scott listened then carefully to the sparsely told tale. Did Murdoch want his sympathy? It was, after all, a familiar story of abandonment and regret. So he had a sister in a faraway land. He was only mildly curious to know a young woman who seemed more a character in an overripe novel than his living, breathing flesh and blood.

   “And now I have to sit there.” His father’s tone had been bitter throughout and now took on a new edge of grievance. “And accept that I’ve lost Mary and that I’ll never see my daughter.”

   “Well, yes, I think you do, sir.”

   For the first time, his father looked straight at him.

   “Is that all you’ve got to say?”

   Scott met his angry glare with a sliver of a smile.

   “What d’you want me to say, Murdoch? Aren’t you carrying enough guilt and regret without taking this on too? Any more seems a little self-indulgent, doesn’t it?”

   The glare subsided into a perplexed frown, before Murdoch looked away.

   “You’re a hard man, Scott.”

   “No, I’m a realistic one. You have a ranch to run and two sons whom you didn’t know from Adam a year ago. If I were you, I’d leave your youthful foolishness behind and concentrate on the present.” Scott looked towards the lit windows of the Great Room. “From what I can see, my aunt and uncle have decided to do just that.”

   His father was silent now, both hands gripping the fence rail, his gaze on his boot working at a stone in the dirt. Had he been too hard on the man? He pitied his suffering, but he’d seen worse. He’d been there when the hopes of more than one man had all gone, not one splinter of light to pierce the darkness. He decided to let slip a little of his own history, although it pained him to do it - less than some things he could have told, but still …

   “When I was eighteen, I bedded one of my grandfather’s maids.” He gauged his father’s reaction to his candour – a mere intake of breath and a ceasing of worrying at the stone. “It wasn’t love, naturally.” At this, his father shot him a sharp look. “However, it was affection.” So he did care what his father thought of him; his not quite sincere amendment attested to that. “I was careless. She found she was with child. I was allowed my desire to join the army and she and her shame were bundled away out of sight, along with a considerable settlement from my grandfather.” He pursed his lips at his folded arms and breathed out at the memory, unexpectedly vivid, unexpectedly repugnant to him. “On my first leave, the footman told me the girl had refused an abortion and given birth to a daughter.” Scott cleared his throat. “It was more than I needed to hear.”

   His father’s gaze was hard upon him now. He had meant to bring him into the brotherhood of experience. Was that allowed between a father and son or had he gone too far? When Murdoch spoke, it was hard to tell his feeling.

   “I always figured it would be Johnny telling me about accidental babies, not you.”

   Scott looked across at the older man, needful now of his expression. It certainly wasn’t angry or disgusted. Curious? Perhaps. Mild? Certainly. Murdoch turned and leant against the rail next to him and began to fill his pipe, the tension gone from his muscles.

   “Johnny would have honoured his responsibilities, sir.”

   Frowning, Murdoch hesitated, his thumb on the soft tobacco in the pipe bowl.

   “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “He would, wouldn’t he.” He shook his head. “Sometimes, I feel I’m waiting for that boy to grow up, but maybe, where it matters, he’s a damn sight more responsible than me.” He struck a match on his boot and held it to the bowl. Scott found it comforting, that sudden glow in the night.

   “Do you think of her at all, son?” Murdoch asked, throwing the spent match on the ground.

   “Hardly at all,” Scott said uncomfortably. This was one genie he was beginning to wish he’d left in its bottle. “What am I to her? Not even a brief memory on a fifth birthday.”

   His father blew out smoke and gazed at his pipe.

   “You remember that?”

   “As clearly as if you and I were in that room now.” There were moments in life, he decided, that a man just came out with something he had never intended to say, had sworn to himself he would never say, because it served nothing and nobody. It came out raw from his throat. “Why didn’t you take me?” Shaking his head the moment the last syllable had been uttered, he walked quickly away in the direction of the house.

   “Scott!”

   He stopped and looked back at his father’s troubled face. So, like a weak fool, he’d loosened one tight bolt of grief only to replace it with another even tighter – perhaps.

   “No, Murdoch. Whatever answer you’ve got lined up for that question, I don’t want to hear it. Forget I ever asked it.”

 

   He couldn’t sleep. Gazing into the dark, at the familiar, colourless shapes of washstand, dresser, wardrobe, he could not stop the thoughts churning. ‘Why didn’t you take me?’ The obvious question, yet, until tonight, his son had never asked it. He’d wanted to answer it, however clumsily, however ineffectively; he’d even pursued Scott up to his room, knocked, waited until his son, pale but resolutely polite, had dismissed him with a smiling refusal to discuss the matter any further and quietly closed the door. There had been no arguing with the young man; Scott could close himself off more effectively than old Bear Claw, who sat outside Sven’s store every Saturday afternoon, saying nothing, meeting nobody’s gaze.

   He’d been tempted for an instant to return to the bottle, but instead had gone to the Great Room where he’d forced himself to initiate a conversation with his brother and sister-in-law about places and people they remembered from their youth. It hadn’t been intolerable. He didn’t think it was possible to rise above every one of life’s griefs, but he’d managed it with this particular grief on this single night. At one point, they’d all smiled together at the memory of an old crofter and his legendary miserliness, and, when his younger son had insisted on details, each of them had been eager to supply them, contradicting, reinforcing, confirming one another’s memories. Mary’s sudden laugh had been painful, the way she had looked happily into his eyes and then, as quickly, she had sobered herself into a smile, the sparkle extinguished.

   Sighing, he sat up in bed and lit the lamp; he needed solid shapes to look at, not these ghostly half-things that made him think he too had lost his own substance. His thoughts turning to Johnny, he wondered what the boy had made of his deception that evening. Murdoch doubted he’d convinced him of his equanimity, despite the apparently contented pipe-puffing and crossed legs in his favourite armchair. Still, he would need to sit the boy down and soon, remind him that he had looked after himself for over thirty years and was more than capable of handling his liquor, that no man, son or not, should tell another how much to drink. There were times when he wished that his sons were simple ranchers, not given to too much thought and feeling, none they cared to share anyway. But, he supposed, their peculiar journeys back to him and their inheritance of his own knotty nature had seen off that prospect. A certain amount of accountability was required of him now, however much he fought that particular bit in his mouth, and Johnny, more damned sensitive than he might have wished in a son, demanded the largest cut. How could he blame the boy, though, if his and Maria’s mistakes had thinned his skin? The alternative would have been worse, a hide so thick from bitter experience that no finer feeling could have penetrated and brought Johnny back to him. Still, he reasoned, gazing at the bottom draw of the dresser where he kept a bottle of his finest, no man worth his salt allowed his sons to tell him how to conduct himself.

   He became aware of the bed underneath him, its soft, solid mass, and then the empty space all around him, the finely stitched coverlet, the