This is an AR story. Pardee never happened. Johnny is 21, Scott 26. Jelly has been at Lancer for only five months, the brothers for six. There is a warning for very strong language and for some sexual content. The series is a very distant memory for me and so I have taken many liberties. Enjoy if it lights your fire!!
He woke up sweating, just as the turning world was breaking the black of night. It had been the same nightmare for weeks now: his younger son was standing before him, his blue eyes cold and pitiless under strands of hair the colour of coal, his gun directed at his father’s heart. The young man pulled the trigger and as the rancher lay dying in a growing pool of hot blood, he could hear the thunder of galloping hooves: Johnny leaving him, lost to him again, heading back into the vast unknown.
Rubbing a hand over his face, he levered himself wearily from his bed and went to the window. He pulled back the drapes, surprised to see there had been a storm in the night and that the yard below was marked by the presence of large orange-coloured puddles. Wondering that he had slept deeply enough to remain undisturbed by a possible threat to the ranch, he moved to turn from the window. Then he became aware of two figures crossing the yard in the half-light, his older son, Scott, and Jelly, the elderly handyman who was carrying a battered tin pail and a rope. They were both too absorbed in their conversation to notice another figure, his younger son, Johnny, creeping up like a cat behind them.
Murdoch watched, amused, as the young man waited until the two older men had passed a large puddle, before leaping into its middle and sending an arc of dirty water to drench their backs. Convulsed with laughter at their yells of protest, he sought to dodge both men until Scott caught him and held him in a fierce grip while Jelly began a finger-wagging lecture close to the young man’s face. Their father could see that Johnny was still giggling even while he struggled to free himself. Then he began to tickle his older brother until Scott, breathless with laughter, released him and the young man began a dance of victory in the puddles of the yard. ‘I don’t know you.’ The thought went through the father’s mind, as it often had in the last six months.
Murdoch opened his windows, though he was still dressed in his nightshirt.
Instantly, the young man stopped his dance. He looked up with a scowl at his father leaning out of the upstairs window. By now, other ranch hands had emerged, yawning and stretching, from the adobe bunkhouse to smile at his antics. Murdoch tried to keep the habitual tone of command out of his voice.
“Go back in the house now and get yourself dried off.”
“I’m goin’ to see to Barranca, Murdoch,” Johnny’s response was cool and determined. “You said that was ok last night.”
“That was before you decided to take a bath on the way to the barn. Go and get dry and we’ll talk about Barranca after breakfast.”
“You damn well ain’t keepin’ me from ‘im any longer, Old Man!”
Murdoch’s expression hardened. Only Scott was still in the yard with Johnny. Jelly and the other hands had silently drifted off to begin their chores.
“No more discussion,” the rancher said firmly. “Come back in the house, both of you.” He slammed the windows shut and disappeared from their view.
Breakfast began silently, interrupted only by the sonorous ticking of the grandfather clock, the housekeeper’s quick footsteps on the wooden floor and the scrape of cutlery on plates. Johnny, dressed in dry clothes, pushed his food sullenly around the plate, his head lowered while his father and brother ate with the energy of men about to embark on a full day’s work. Scott attempted to jostle a response from Johnny by kicking him gently under the table, but the younger man glared at him darkly before dropping his head again.
“I wonder, Sir,” Scott said suddenly, patting his mouth with a napkin. “Would I have your permission to ride over to the Simmons’ place this morning? I promised them I’d fix their roof and I’m worried about how they coped in the storm last night.”
“Yes, that’s fine,” Murdoch replied, without looking up from the letter he was reading. “Take what you need from the stores, and take Daniel that copy of ‘Oliver Twist’ I’ve been promising him. D’you want another man?”
“I thought I’d take Jelly along if that’s acceptable. It might take his mind off that wretched duck.”
At this, Murdoch raised his head and smiled at the younger man. On the other side of him, he could feel Johnny’s smouldering resentment and strove to remain composed.
“What’s wrong with her this time?”
“He thinks she’s grieving.” Scott poured himself another cup of coffee.
“Grieving for what?”
“That rooster Maria killed yesterday for supper. According to Jelly, he was the duck’s best friend.”
Murdoch, still smiling, shook his head and carefully folded the letter before placing it back in the envelope. He passed it to Scott.
“Here, you might want to read this. It’s from your Uncle Ian in Argyll. He’s just bought some very fine Highland cattle. He thinks they’d do well in our Californian climate.”
“Highland cattle? Aren’t they rather hairy?”
Johnny suddenly threw his fork with such force that it skidded across the plate and flipped over into the remains of his brother’s breakfast splattering Scott’s clean shirt with bean sauce and egg yolk. He stood up and looked furiously at the two older men.
“You two done!?” he demanded. “You finished your yap about ducks an’ hairy cattle!?”
“Sit down, John,” Murdoch said, his temper rising.
“No, you can’t tell me what to fuckin’ do, Old Man!”
“Johnny …” Scott warned.
“NO, Boston.” The young man glared at his older brother. “It’s the same as it’s been for six fuckin’ months. You say what you wanna do an’ he don’t even think about it. I can’t even cross the fuckin’ yard to see my horse…”
“You’ve been seriously ill, boy,” Murdoch said sternly. “You’re still recovering from pneumonia. If you can’t be trusted to take care of yourself …”
“Yeh, yeh,” Johnny interrupted bitterly. “Here we go again. Johnny can’t be trusted. Why the fuck didn’t you just leave me in front of that firin’ squad, Old Man!? Sure would’ve saved ya blood pressure.”
“Johnny, quit that now!” Scott ordered fiercely.
Murdoch flinched inwardly at the ferocity of the younger man’s attack, but determinedly pushed away the thought of his son, blindfolded and kneeling in the Mexican dirt, waiting for a hail of bullets.
“You listen to me, boy,” he growled. “You’re a third part owner of this ranch. Scott and I expect you back on your feet as soon as possible so you can pull your weight around here!”
“Oh, y’think I wanna be lyin’ around like one of Jelly’s hogs?” Johnny retorted.
“Well, you certainly aren’t helping yourself to get well, are you?”
“Don’t you worry yourself none, Old Man. Your workhorse’ll be back on his hooves ‘fore you can light your pipe, if you’ll just loosen up on the damn reins.”
Murdoch hesitated. He glanced at his older son who saw both exasperation and pain in his father’s expression.
“I just want you well, John,” he insisted. “Whatever I do, it’s because …”
“I don’t need you lookin’ out for me, Murdoch,” Johnny interrupted scornfully. “I got by without you for twenty years of my fuckin’ life!”
“Did you?” Murdoch, his expression dark with anger, stood up in taller, heavier contrast to his younger son. The action caused Johnny to hesitate for a moment. In the gap, Scott saw the child in his brother, a flicker of fear and distress in his eyes.
“Yeh, I did, so butt out.”
“So you think becoming a gunfighter, a killer, is an effective way of ‘getting by’!?”
“Murdoch, no,” Scott said furiously, grabbing hold of his father’s arm.
Murdoch shrugged him powerfully away. There it was again. He glimpsed it just before Johnny lowered his head and bolted from the room; the same mixture of hurt and longing he had witnessed on his son’s face six months before in his study. It had taken his angry breath away. Even then he had understood what the twitchy, furious boy wanted from him, but he had shut it out, consumed with the fate of his ranch, and determined that these strangers, his two grown sons, would help him keep it safe from the ruthless land pirates, at that time swarming at his perimeters like locusts.
Now, the older one, a calm and serious young man, educated and raised in the sumptuous home of his first wife’s father in Boston, regarded him as gravely as a displeased parent.
“That wasn’t fair, Murdoch,” Scott said evenly. “He didn’t need that.”
“Then you tell me what he damn well does need, Scott,” his father sighed, sitting back down heavily on the chair. “Apart from a session in the barn with my belt.”
“Certainly not that either, Sir. You’ve seen the scars on his body. We don’t know what Johnny’s suffered in the past.”
“Because he won’t tell us.”
“And he’s not likely to while he knows you can’t accept that he was a gunfighter.”
“And you do accept it?” Murdoch demanded fiercely, throwing a scrap of thick bacon to his elderly black Labrador.
“Yes. If he can accept that I killed innocent people in the war, then I accept what he had to do to survive.”
“That was war, for God’s sake,” Murdoch growled dismissively. “You were a lieutenant in the Union army, and a damn brave one. There’s no comparison.”
“I was a cosseted, spoiled member of a wealthy Boston family. I may have been without my parents, but Grandfather loved and cared for me. We don’t know what Godforsaken border town Maria took Johnny to, but I’m pretty certain that if he started earning a living as a gunfighter at the age of fourteen, then it wasn’t a good place.”
Murdoch, whose face had visibly paled at the mention of his Mexican second wife, shrugged irritably.
“It’s all in the past, Scott. He’s here now with us. All he has to do is settle down to routine and become part of this ranch just as you’ve done.”
“And you think it’s that simple for Johnny?”
“I want it to be that simple,” Murdoch said bluntly. He stood up, flinching at the stiffness in his back. He placed his hand there and rubbed it slowly.
“Are you in pain?” Scott asked gently.
“No more than usual.” His father’s tone was abrupt, inviting no sympathy for the bullet wound that had brought daily pain into his life. “Haven’t you got work to do?”
“Yes, but I’m going to find Johnny first.”
“He’ll be alright, Son.” Murdoch fondled the old Labrador’s head as the dog leapt up eagerly against his tall, solid frame. “Once he’s cooled down and spent some time with his horse. Then I’ll need to talk to him about his language.”
“Can’t that wait?”
“No, it can’t, Scott,” Murdoch said firmly. “No-one uses that language around the ranch or in the house. I’m not making an exception for your brother. He needs to learn how things work at Lancer. His wildness has to be tamed if he’s going to be any use to us as a partner in this ranch.”
Scott was about to retaliate, but his resolution failed before the sight of his father suddenly absorbed in studying the map of Lancer’s seventy thousand acres that hung above the fireplace. As so often, the older man had made it clear that further discussion was of no interest to him.
Something in Scott hated the map. Six months before, he and Johnny, previously unaware of one another’s existence, had met their father for the first time in twenty years; the same map in the study had dominated the entire awkward, angry meeting. Many of his father’s gestures had been directed towards it. It had seemed to symbolise the truth of what Scott had most feared; the older man sought only to save the ranch he had spent half his life building, that he wanted his sons merely as extra weapons in his war and that feelings were not part of the deal. Then Scott, self-assured and independently wealthy, had mentally shrugged his shoulders and accepted the insult. What had interested him far more was the insolent, dark-haired half-brother he had suddenly acquired, a grubby youth with dangerous eyes and a gun belt slung low on his hips. Watching the resentful exchange between the young man and their father, Scott had felt in Johnny what he had lacked, a murderous anger yoked with a passionate need. He had wondered at it and stayed for it.
Then had come the long chess games with his father in evenings by the fire, the shared love of history and literature, the little jokes, and the animated discussions of the ranch’s future. Before he was even aware of it, he found he had a relationship with this tetchy Scotsman, one he treasured and could not relinquish. He received frequent letters from his grandfather, demanding his return to Boston. Dutifully, he replied to each one, stressing his old life in the city was finished and he was now a man of the West.
The sun was fully up over the corrals as Scott walked across the yard to the barn. He yelled to Jelly to hitch a team to a wagon. Despite the conflict between his father and brother, he felt cheerful, glad to be up and busy in a vast Western landscape while friends in Boston snored away the beauty of the sunrise.
Inside the barn, he found Johnny, quietly grooming his palomino, Barranca, crooning softly to the animal in Spanish and another language his brother could not identify. All the men were close to their horses, Scott included, but his brother had tamed the untameable. Everyone had said so, from the oldest broncobuster to the most skilled young wranglers – that horse, for all his beauty, was no good, wild beyond the reach of human touch.
Then Johnny had come. The Pátron’s half-Mexican, unpredictable, wild boy with a lawless past, had tamed the animal within hours, without the often brutal tactics used to break horses. Barranca had become Johnny’s with strange songs, looks and touch. ‘Un mustañero,’ Cipriano, the foreman, had said softly, awestruck. ‘A man who can talk to horses’, he had explained to Scott. If he not seen it for himself, Scott would never have believed it. He had only known his new brother a few days, wasn’t even certain he liked the cocky, angry boy very much, and then had witnessed a display of such skill, power and tenderness he had been left lost in admiration and wonder. The hands had clapped as Johnny led the gentled horse to the corral gate. He had nodded briefly at the men, his face expressionless, and then offered, for the first time since their meeting, a slow smile to his brother. To Scott, it was as if in one moment this young stranger had seen and understood everything of his twenty-five years on Earth. It had destroyed his uncertainty forever; he would love this man for the rest of his days.
“I thought I’d find you in here,” Scott said quietly. Johnny sighed and continued to brush the horse’s golden coat.
“Glad to know that fancy education weren’t wasted on ya, Boston.”
“Should you be grooming him? What about the dust? Sam said …”
“Yeh, Scott,” Johnny interrupted angrily. “I know what the doc said. I ain’t breathin’ it in, ok?”
Johnny averted his eyes from his brother and glared fiercely at the brush as he pulled out excess hair and let it drift to the floor of the barn.
“You’re pouting again.” Scott teased.
“I ain’t poutin’!”
“Brother, you’re a master of pouting!! You could take a degree in it; give lectures all over the country!”
“Shut the fuck up, Boston. I ain’t in the mood for your eastern sense of humour, ok?”
Scott flinched at the oath, still unused to the coarser language of the West. He’d heard everything in the army, from men and officers, but, mindful of his grandfather’s refined sensibilities, he had resisted the temptation to use such words himself. His younger brother’s easy way with profanities both shocked and excited him.
“You’ll find yourself eating soap for supper if Murdoch hears you using language like that again. He’s already out for your blood after what you said at breakfast.” He regretted his words immediately when his young brother smirked at him.
“I ain’t shocked ya, have I, Boston? Sorry, forgot ya was such a hothouse flower.”
Scott’s face flushed with sudden anger and embarrassment.
“No,” he snapped. “I’m just trying to keep you out of trouble, that’s all.”
“Well, you ain’t doin’ too good a job, are ya? Can’t breathe for the shit I’m in.”
“Look, Scott.” Johnny stopped brushing and leaned his head against the horse’s warm, solid flesh. He turned his deep blue eyes on his brother. “It ain’t your job to keep me outta trouble. Ain’t your fault Murdoch ain’t taken to me like he’s taken to you.”
“What d’you mean?”
“C’mon, Scott … You know what I mean. You an’ him playin’ chess, talkin’ ranch business an’ books an’ stuff, makin’ little jokes, laughin’. Don’t get me wrong, Boston. I ain’t resentful of ya or nothin’, only … Jesus, I can’t even sit at a table right for ‘im. He can’t even look …”
The young man shrugged and began pulling a comb through Barranca’s long, pale mane.
“There’s no difference in his feelings for us, Johnny,” Scott said quietly, stroking Barranca’s forehead. “I’m actually not very sure he’s got feelings at times apart from his passion for Lancer.”
Johnny smiled faintly.
“You don’t look too hard in a man’s eyes, do you, Big Brother. Must be all that book readin’ ya do. He’s got plenty of feelin’s runnin’ around in that big ol’ frame.” The young man hesitated. “An’ those he’s got for you ain’t the same’s he’s got for me.”
“I don’t believe that,” Scott insisted.
Johnny shrugged again. He grasped Barranca’s forelock and combed it tenderly.
“You’re not leaving, are you?” The younger brother heard the anxiety in the older man’s voice and wondered at it while grabbing at it like a drowning man.
“Thought about it. I’m always thinkin’ about it …but then I think about Maria’s chocolate cake an’ I jus’ can’t do it.”
Scott frowned and then, laughing, cuffed his younger brother’s head before pulling him into his arms. Johnny smiled and accepted Scott’s fierce embrace, surprised by its intensity.
“Hey, Boston. This ain’t helpin’ my breathin’, y’know,” he protested. Scott pulled away and ruffled the younger man’s unruly black hair.
“Behave, and I might read you the next part of Macbeth tonight.”
Johnny nodded and watched his brother leave the barn, contemplating the light tan jacket that Scott had worn every day since buying it in Green River before the fall round-up. It had a small tear in the left sleeve where it had caught on wire. He had been fencing with his new brother in the hot sun, still unsure about this Eastern dandy with the fancy manners and the pale skin. At first, Scott’s reaction to the torn jacket had confirmed his worst fears; the older man had fretted angrily over it for nearly an hour. Then Johnny had lost his temper, told his brother to think it of it as history beginning, that only damage made a thing interesting. Scott had stared at him in silent disbelief, before nodding his understanding and shaking his younger brother’s hand. It had been enough for Johnny, enough to keep him in this foreign land.
He stayed in control. He closed his mind as the shaman had taught him while he endured the familiar lecture on commitment, responsibility and the unacceptability of his language. Then he smiled, because all he could see was a stern face, its mouth opening and closing like a fish. The smile was a mistake. His father’s red-faced fury battered him like a breaking wave; it broke the spell, compelling him to hang his head to hide his despair.
From his seat on the bench under the apple tree, he heard his father laughing. He stopped sketching and positioned himself so that he was able to observe the three men on the porch. They had seated themselves on chairs around a small table laden with glasses and a pitcher of lemonade. The sun glinted on the pitcher and when Maria poured the lemonade it seemed to him she was pouring liquid sunlight.
He recognised the two other men, one older and one younger than his father, both cattlemen in the San Joaquin valley. They held themselves with the ease of rich, powerful men, the way one crossed his legs and clasped his hands over his round stomach, the way the other rested his chin lightly on the tips of the fingers of his right hand, and his father finished the tableau, leaning back, his pipe in his mouth, his left hand caressing his dog’s black, broad head.
Quickly, he began to draw the men. For weeks he had attempted a portrait of his father. His sketchbook was full of half-finished heads, rubbed out and reworked until their final abandonment for the promise in a blank page. While he sketched, he strained to hear their conversation above the rustling leaves of the apple tree, but all he could catch were the comments made before and after laughter: “……..while you were sober!”, “…my damn horse...!”, “Good Lord!”. Their tones, both jovial and wistful, told him they were talking about events of their youth. Loving the memories of older men, he ached to hear more.
At one point, he turned his head to look towards the main corral where Barranca had begun a snorting, restless gallop around the perimeter. Johnny watched silently as the horse kicked up dust and, whinnying loudly, stretched his neck to sniff the air.
“Somethin’ spooked that horse, Murdoch?”
Murdoch stood up, pipe in hand and looked beyond his son in the orchard to where Barranca had settled to an agitated trot, resolutely ignoring a ranch-hand’s attempts to feed him an apple. He hoped Johnny would go to him. It seemed like hours ago he had become aware that he and his friends were being observed by the young man, that Johnny was writing or drawing something in a book. He was unnerved. Sometimes, he would turn around or look up to find his younger son’s gaze upon him, as intense and serious as a cougar regarding its prey.
“No, I don’t think so,” he answered. “He just needs riding.”
He sat back in the chair, making no comment when his old dog pulled himself up and headed slowly down the path to the orchard. Henry Springer, the older rancher, sucked on his pipe and regarded the animal contemplatively. It reached Johnny who leaned down to stroke it before leaving the bench and sitting under the apple tree, the dog curled up by his side.
“That’s where I first met you, under that old tree,” Henry said quietly. “D’you remember that, Murdoch?”
“No, Henry. I can’t say I do.” Murdoch tapped out his pipe on the veranda rail. Old ash floated and was caught in the blue and yellow petals of flowers below.
“You made quite a picture,” Henry smiled. “I guess that’s why it’s stuck in my memory.”
“How is that, Henry?” Pete Crawford, the youngest of the men asked, chuckling. “Was he hanging butt-naked from the apple tree?”
Murdoch smiled briefly but his gaze remained averted from his two friends as he pushed fresh tobacco in his pipe.
“No,” Henry replied. “He was cradling a tiny baby in those great, rough rancher’s hands of his. I had to call three or four times before he’d take his eyes off him, and the baby was staring right back at him with the bluest eyes I ever saw.” Henry sighed and gazed at his pipe. “I’d just lost my own child. Three days old. I was surprised that seeing another man with his new-born made it feel better, but that’s the truth of it; it did.”
Murdoch drew in his breath and glanced silently at Henry who was regarding him with a slight frown. Averting his eyes, he lit his pipe and sucked on it until the tobacco glowed in the bowl.
“So that was Johnny, huh?” Pete said, looking towards the orchard. Murdoch hesitated then nodded briefly before standing up.
“Shall we go in, gentlemen?” he said abruptly. “I think there might be another storm coming.”
Without waiting for an answer from his friends, Murdoch walked into the cooler, darker interior of the house. From under the tree, Johnny watched his father disappear from his view. Sighing, he gazed down at his picture of three men framed by a wooden veranda. He had sketched in the distant details of the visitors’ features but the face of his father was blank.
Most of his curiosity was directed towards the new young minister, as thin and as pale as a plucked chicken, and his sour, older wife. They diverted his attention from the collar and tie that chafed at his neck, from a formality of table still so alien to him that he felt barely able to breathe, let alone make the polite conversation he knew was expected of him. Sitting next to Scott, he had sought for clues in his older brother’s animated discussion on chuck wagon design with Henry Springer, and admired the way he could bring a much older and more experienced man leaning towards him, chin on clasped hands, listening intently. Such ease and friendliness with virtual strangers was a mystery to him, as ungraspable as sunlight on a polished floor. At the end of the table, his father appeared to be listening gravely to the breathless, excited chatter of the young minister, Joseph Jones, though Johnny had observed the older man enough to know that his mind was somewhere else. Murdoch’s expression, inscrutability concealing a profound boredom, made his son want to howl with laughter.
Opposite Johnny, Pete Crawford had earlier made several attempts to draw him into a conversation on any topic related to horses. Knowing his father was frowning in his direction, he had failed to offer more than a few brief, embarrassed monosyllables. Discouraged, Crawford had turned to the minister’s wife. Eagerly, she had begun a fervent litany of complaints concerning their journey West from Missouri.
“Oh, I certainly do miss the plains, Mr Crawford.”
Johnny, his appetite destroyed by discomfort, watched Mrs Jones place a fork hung with a shred of beef, down on the plate.
“I come from an ocean of green, you know. You can go for miles and not see a single tree to disrupt the view. It’s not to everyone’s taste, I know, but in my mind it is God’s own landscape. I have suffered continuously since I first caught sight of mountains …”
“What you got against trees an’ mountains, Ma’am?”
The question had leapt from his mouth with no more thought than his next breath. It had emerged loud and challenging; enough to stop the other conversations and turn heads. Mrs Jones, her mouth so accustomed to finding fault in others that its corners dropped down to lines already creased in her chin, stared at the young man with distaste.
“John.” His father’s tone was severe and heavy with disapproval. “That is not the way we speak to guests.”
He was about to retaliate when he felt Scott’s warning kick under the table.
“No, Mr Lancer,” Mrs Jones said tightly. “I am immune to the insolence of young men. My husband and I have curbed many such untamed spirits with the word of the Lord to guide us. They can all be saved, cured with the healing balm of faith. Young men are my special mission, you know.”
The corners of her mouth lifted into a complacent smile and Johnny broke the surprised silence with a snort of laughter that he quickly disguised with a fit of coughing.
“D’you need to leave the table, John?” His father’s tone startled him with its mildness. He drank the glass of water that Scott put in his hand and shook his head.
“Good. Now try and eat something or you’ll upset Maria for a week and we’ll all suffer for it.”
Frowning with confusion at the older man’s softened manner, Johnny nodded abruptly and picked up his fork. Henry Springer splashed red wine into his glass from the crystal decanter. Mrs Jones glared at the red spots on the white tablecloth next to her plate and continued eating tiny mouthfuls with the intensity of a hungry bird.
“Say, boys,” he said cheerfully. “Has your Old Man told you of his nomination for Chairman of the Cattlemen’s Association?”
“No, he certainly hasn’t,” Scott replied, turning his head to look enquiringly at his father who shrugged and tore open a warm biscuit.
“Modesty’s a misplaced virtue with your own boys, Murdoch,” Henry smiled. “They should know how greatly their father is respected by everyone in this community. Gives a young man something to aspire to …”
“They’ll make their own journeys, Henry,” Murdoch interrupted firmly. “I don’t expect them to follow mine.”
“Well, yes, certainly, certainly,” Henry said, nodding. “I don’t have sons myself, of course, so …”
Johnny’s head came up abruptly at the flustered tone. He saw the pain in the older man’s eyes.
“You been ranchin’ long, Mr Springer?” he asked quietly. Surprised, Henry regarded the young man silently for a few moments before answering.
“Not as long as your father,” he replied, holding Johnny’s intense gaze. “I was a lawman in Stockton when I first met Murdoch.”
“What was he like, sir?” Scott asked, smiling. “He doesn’t give much away about his past, I’m afraid.”
“He was already something of a legend,” Henry replied, giving Johnny one more brief, curious glance before turning his face to Scott. “I’d been told that he came here with barely more than the leather on his boots. Built up this place from a mark on the ground by sheer hard work, grit and determination …”
“Hard-headed stubbornness and the orneriest nature this side of the Rocky Mountains is how I heard it,” Crawford interrupted with a chuckle. “Only had to look at a spear thistle and it’d jump outta the ground and die.”
“I made my share of mistakes, Gentlemen,” Murdoch said gruffly, leaning back to allow Consuela to remove his plate.
“Well, whatever they are, Murdoch, you’ve balanced the books.” Henry gazed into his glass of wine. “You look out for the rest of us, keep us ranchers thinking along the same lines, and that’s no easy task. You even take care of the little folks on their farms and the old folks who can’t manage too well on their own anymore. You’re as solid and honourable a man and citizen as they come, Murdoch and we’d be proud to call you Chairman.”
“I’ll second that!” Crawford said, raising his glass.
“I’m grateful for your confidence in me, Henry … Pete,” Murdoch said quietly. “But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.”
Murdoch turned his attention adeptly to Mrs Jones, who began her own aggrieved version of their Western journey on the new transcontinental railroad. Neither the excitable minister, intent on the detail of timetables, nor his fretful wife allowed him to slake his curiosity for the new train. He had read that it was bringing thousands more travellers over the mountains into California with the ease of a condor gliding on thermals. Their lack of romance dulled his imagination and made him feel like a restless, but obedient schoolboy. When he stole a glance at Johnny, he saw the younger man looking at him with something close to a smile. Disconcerted, he looked away.
“I hear you’ve been out at the Simmons’ place today, Scott,” Crawford said, pouring custard on his plum and apple pie. The scent of the pie, rich with the fruit he had picked from the orchard for Maria, eased Johnny’s discomfort. He watched the custard roll over the pastry and spread into the pale red juice of the fruit.
“Yes, Sir,” Scott replied. “Their roof needed a few repairs.” He dribbled custard on his pie and gave the pitcher to Johnny, watching in amusement as the younger man poured enough to cover the pie entirely. “Daniel and Ellie asked after you, Johnny. I told them you’d be riding over to see them in the next week or so.”
Johnny nodded, before plunging his spoon into the lake of custard and juice.
“They also asked me to tell you that they haven’t lost a single chicken to coyotes since you built them that coop.”
Johnny nodded again. “That mare still lame?”
“No. That liniment you gave me to use on her worked like magic. She’s as good as new.”
“I see these young men take after you, Murdoch,” Henry said admiringly. Looks like their journeys may be a sight closer to yours than you think. That’s darn fine work, boys. Don’t you agree, Reverend? It’s darn fine work these young men are doing.”
“God’s work can be performed in a myriad of ways, Mr Springer,” the minister said complacently.
“Murias muriados,” Scott smiled. “One of my favourite Greek phrases.”
“You know Greek, Mr Lancer?” Reverend Jones lowered his spoon, looking in wide-eyed surprise at the young man.
“A little.” Scott’s reply was low and hasty. “I studied it as an option at university.”
“And you majored in?”
“Classical literature.” Scott could feel the tension radiating from his younger brother’s body.
“A curious preparation for life as a rancher …”
“Yeh,” Johnny cut in swiftly. “Shoulda been a clergyman. Don’t need no brains for ranchin’”
“Johnny!” Murdoch snapped, his face flushed red with anger. “Leave the table, now!”
“I was goin’ anyhow,” Johnny scowled, pushing the chair back and pulling irritably at his tie. Before he had left the room, it was undone and scrunched in the tight fist of his right hand.
“Whence is that knocking? How is’t with me, when every noise appals me? What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes. Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”
“What’s that mean?” Johnny asked, lifting his hand against the light of the lamp. “Incarnadine.”
Scott, sitting at the other end of the bed, regarded his younger brother’s actions thoughtfully.
“It means to turn something blood-red. It means that rather than the ocean washing the blood off Macbeth’s hand, it will become blood itself, overwhelmed by his crimes.”
“You believe that, Scott?”
“That some things a man does can’t ever be paid for, no matter how hard he tries?”
Scott met Johnny’s intense gaze, wondering that he had moved so blindly through the world before meeting his brother. There were moments in his presence when the heart of life seemed to pulse rawly under the thinnest of skins. In the drawing rooms of Boston, he knew he had been only playing.
“It depends on the man,” he replied firmly. “It depends on his motives for what he did. Macbeth wanted power, nothing more.”
“I wanted power.” Johnny stared at the back of his hand, and then returned his gaze to his brother.
Scott swallowed and dropped his head briefly, before lifting it again to look coolly at the younger man.
“Not for the same reasons Macbeth wanted it.”
Johnny smiled faintly and brought his hand down on the bedcovers.
“How d’you think I wanted it, Boston?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, that’s an honest answer, anyhow.” His smile strengthened; then faded in the face of his brother’s serious expression.
“How did you want it, Johnny?”
The younger man sighed deeply.
“If I told you that, Scott, I’d have to tell you everythin’.”
“You were a child, Johnny,” his brother said sternly. “That’s all I need to know. You can’t compare yourself to a ruthless adult who killed for personal gain.”
“Still killin’,” Johnny shrugged. “Still no ocean gonna wash the blood clean off my hand either.”
Johnny watched with apprehensive eyes as his father walked over to the chest of drawers. Wordlessly, Murdoch picked up the medicine bottle left by Sam and approached the bed.
“Have you taken your medicine, John?”
“If I said, yes, would y’believe me?”
“No, I probably wouldn’t.”
“Then, no, I ain’t taken it.”
Ignoring Johnny’s resentful tone, Murdoch poured out a spoonful and held it to the young man’s mouth.
“Open up, boy,” he said gently. Disconcerted by the older man’s unexpected tenderness, Johnny obeyed and allowed the bitter liquid to slide down his throat.
“One more,” Murdoch said. Once again, Johnny swallowed the detested medicine without protest. He took a glass from his father to wash away the foul taste, and watched warily as Murdoch replaced the cork in the bottle. His trepidation grew when the older man sat on the bed and placed a large hand on his forehead.
“You’re a little hot.”
“I’m ridin’ Barranca tomorrow. End of the week, you said.”
“We’ll see.” Before Johnny could protest, Murdoch spoke again. “What were you doing in the orchard today?”
His stomach churning, the young man drew in a deep breath and threw his gaze at the sliver of moonlight resting on the bedspread between the two men.
“Oh. What were you drawing?”
Johnny let out a ragged breath and swallowed, his fingers pulling fiercely at a loose thread on the sleeve of his vest.
“Things,” he shrugged. “Stuff around me.”
“What kind of things?”
“Trees, animals …” Johnny breathed deeply again, trying to control a growing panic.
“Have you always drawn?”
“No.” The young man snapped his gaze up to his father. “You always been a big man?” he demanded.
“Well, you sure are a big man round here, accordin’ to your friends. If you was any more upright you’d be fit for choppin’ to make fence posts, an’ Scott ain’t far off your tail. How does a man make it to a place like that?”
“A place like what?” Murdoch frowned.
“Everyone lookin’ up to you, respectin’ your word.”
“I suppose you need to live a good life amongst decent people,” Murdoch said effortlessly. He was pleased with his answer, certain he was beginning to connect with his younger son.
“Sounds ‘bout as easy as breathin’” Johnny said impassively. He turned over, away from his father and closed his eyes. Murdoch stared at the young man’s unmoving form, struck by the suddenness of his failure. His throat ached to repair the damage, but, as usual, it was if he had landed on a strange shore with no knowledge of the language.
“Yeh?” He kept his back to his father, but opened his eyes, alerted by the older man’s softer tone.
“In future, at least try to behave when we have guests, please.”
“Even when they ain’t worth a spit?”
Murdoch felt his face relax into an amused smile.
“Especially then, John.”
Johnny, hearing the warmth in his father’s voice, turned to look at him, but Murdoch had risen from the bed and his face had reverted to a stern mask.
“Get some sleep and in the morning maybe we can talk about you riding Barranca for an hour or so.”
“Thanks,” Johnny said softly, turning his head back into the pillow. “I’d like that.”
Squeezing his eyes shut to stop incipient tears, he heard the heavy footsteps of his father cross the room and then the door close firmly behind him.
She had stepped into a puddle on a wide, storm soaked main street and he had reached to stop her falling. The moment he had looked into her eyes he had wanted her.
‘You’ll be mine,’ he had thought with a confidence that would amaze his later self. She was eighteen and he nearly ten years older. Her dark eyes had held a challenge, no gratitude, almost defiance, daring him not to let go, to push this sudden coming together further. God, he had wanted to rip that dress off her and have her right there in the street, wanted to subdue that challenge into passivity. She was wild, the spoilt daughter of a rich Mexican rancher, and his first thought had been to tame her, to pin her down and quench her fire, and she had known it, pulling him, a bear lusting for honey, inexorably towards her.
He had not waited for marriage. For nearly a year, he had courted his first wife, steadily and dutifully, contenting himself with kisses until their clumsy, blissful wedding night. Not with Maria. After barely a week, he had made love to her with a fierce, raging passion he had never before felt, and she had responded with a fervour close to violence, filling his ears with forbidden language and tearing at his flesh with her teeth. Their son had been conceived in the frenetic lust of their early love, a time Murdoch could only remember as one long yearning to be inside her, to feel her body writhing beneath him, to see those defiant eyes lost in desire for him.
When she entered his dream that night, it was if the two years he had spent searching for her and their baby had never been, that she had never filled his son’s head with the lie that he had thrown them both away like unwanted leavings. She was back in his arms, flesh on flesh, licking the salt from his skin, grinding herself down on him until he was no longer aware of what parts of their bodies were his. Waking suddenly, he felt the strange discomfort of his erection and lay there, ashamed that his hatred for her had not been enough to kill his desire.
He heard the sound of hooves on dirt, a steady trot that turned into a slow canter and then reverted to trot. Drawing one hand through his sleep-wild hair, he pulled himself out of bed and went to the window. Down in the main corral, in the faint first light of dawn, Johnny was schooling Barranca, perfecting his transitions until it seemed to Murdoch that the horse was obeying merely the young man’s thoughts, so gracefully did the animal flow from one movement to the next. He had never seen riding like it, though he had hired men he had believed to be the best wranglers in California. He knew now that they had been entirely ordinary, and that somewhere from out of his flesh he had produced a horseman rare and exceptional. ‘Does he remember me at all?’ was his thought as he gazed down at the figure. They had barely spoken of the past. On the first day, Johnny had repeated Maria’s lie, and he had quickly, violently refuted it, cauterised for a moment by the damage done by it. Now it seemed an unspoken pact between them; the past was a sealed door, especially his younger son’s mother.
Maria - she was all he had seen that day, her silky black hair, her smouldering temper, her eyes, despite Johnny’s vivid blue. Passionate recognition had been his first sensation, followed quickly by a grim determination not to be moved. He had been certain of success. Not only was he practised at resisting all forms of suffering – indeed, he had spent a lifetime transforming them into strengths – but his younger son had seemed a cold and insolent stranger, more interested in money and land than a father. He had been relieved then. Nothing was wanted from him other than material entitlements; hard to give, but not as impossible as love.
So how had it come to this? One boy closer to him than a best friend, and the other … He sighed deeply. He had known from the beginning that he would not be allowed to keep his distance, that more, much more, was required of him than a partnership agreement and a place of safety. Resting his arm against the window, and then his forehead on his arm, he saw Johnny dismount and embrace the horse, the side of his face pressed to the animal’s neck.
‘Gunfighter – killer – outlaw.’ One thought led to the next as Murdoch waited for the young man to part from the horse, but he stayed there, holding on as if the animal were flotsam on an angry sea. ‘Lonely boy – lost boy – my boy.’ Murdoch closed his eyes and fought back the confusion of images. Turning quickly away from the window, he washed, shaved and dressed, forcing his mind into compliance with his need for certainties – good timber for the new barn, a hand to be paid off for mistreating a horse, supplies, including a new shipment of whisky from Scotland, to be fetched from town, and, above all, the satisfaction of keeping the books, adding up totals, weighing up profit and loss, seeing the numbers fall exactly into the place he had intended for them. There would no surprises in his ledgers; they were simply the confirmation of the figures he nurtured like tender seedlings in his head each day of his life.
He walked into the dining room, spurs jingling, still wearing his hat and gun belt. Grabbing a biscuit from the breakfast table, he took a large bite from it and reached for another one, ignoring his father’s look of disbelief from the other end of the table. Then he turned to go, the food in his hands. Flanked by his two friends, both smiling uncertainly, Murdoch was about to speak when he saw Scott shake his head in his direction.
“Johnny, are you going to sit down?” Scott asked quietly. “I might not get another chance to talk to you today.”
The younger man stopped and looked at his brother doubtfully, before shrugging and sitting down next to him. He cut open his second biscuit and spread it with butter.
“Do you think you’re possibly a little overdressed for breakfast?”
“No more’n the words comin’ outta your mouth, big brother,” Johnny smiled, flipping the hat off his head to rest on his back. He unbuckled the gun belt and hung it on the chair behind him.
“Watch that lip of yours, boy,” Scott teased cautiously, still unsure of his brother’s mood. “Or I might have to teach you some manners.”
“I got manners. They just ain’t got no fancy Boston frills on ‘em, that’s all.”
“Boys,” Murdoch warned, frowning. “We have guests.”
“Ease up ‘em, Murdoch,” Henry laughed, pouring fresh coffee in his cup. “It’s good to hear their sass. All I’ve got to look forward to in the mornings is a gaggle of clucking womenfolk. I love ‘em more than my life, but Good Lord, I’d get more sense out of a coop full of chickens sometimes.”
His friends laughed, easing the tension. As Pete fell into conversation with Murdoch about railroads, Henry looked down the table at Johnny who, after piling his plate with eggs and bacon, was beginning to eat with the fervour of a famished man. Murdoch, ready to comment, saw Scott nudge his brother and whisper something. Scowling, Johnny slowed down, stabbing at the bacon vengefully.
“Been riding your horse this morning, John?” Henry asked cheerfully.
Johnny stopped eating abruptly and chased the food down his throat with a mouthful of buttermilk. Avoiding his father’s eyes, he nodded.
“Yes, sir. He needed schoolin’. Don’t wanna let ‘im get too ragged round the edges.”
“Certainly,” Henry agreed enthusiastically. “Well, he looked darn fine to me, John, I have to say, and you looked like you were having a fine time too.”
“Yes, sir, I was,” Johnny replied softly, looking intently at the older man’s kind, attentive expression.
“It’s a long time since I saw a man handle a horse in a manner so entirely free of human arrogance.”
Johnny breathed in quickly, whispering “Thank you, sir,” before dropping his gaze to his plate.
“I believe you’ve got a rare gift there, son,” Henry continued gently. “What d’you reckon, Murdoch?”
Murdoch hesitated in the act of pouring coffee and nodded curtly.
“He’s certainly skilful with horses. It’s a pity he’s less adept at following instructions.”
Disappointed, Henry sighed heavily. Johnny threw himself back against the chair, his arms folded, his features working between rage and distress.
“Which instruction’s that, Old Man?” he demanded. “The one where I got to quit breathin’?”
“No,” Murdoch replied, his tone stiff with repressed irritation. “The one where you don’t break four house-rules in the space of a minute and the one where I clearly stated that you were not to ride Barranca until we’d discussed it.”
“This isn’t the time, Murdoch,” Scott said, exasperated.
“Oh, you’re wrong, Boston.” Johnny stood up and grabbed his gun belt. “He’s always got time for a little Johnny baitin’.”
As the door slammed behind his brother, Scott threw down his napkin and rose to his feet, glaring at his father.
“Congratulations, sir,” he said angrily. “That’s three consecutive meals he’s not been allowed to finish. That must be some kind of record.”
“He’s only got himself to blame, Scott,” Murdoch replied dismissively. “He has to learn to follow the rules the rest of us live by.”
Scott shook his head.
“Excuse me, Gentlemen,” he said, his voice icily polite. “I’ll go and gather the men for their orders.” Striding out of the room, he shut the door firmly behind him.
“Murdoch?” Henry said, frowning at his friend, his hand stroking the head of the labrador who had approached the table by stealth for scraps. “Do you honestly believe you’re going to live long enough to see that boy become like the rest of us?”
“I’m sorry, Henry.” Murdoch looked resentfully at the older man. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Murdoch, you’re one of my oldest friends,” Henry sighed. “We go back longer than I care to think of; before this state came under the Stars and Stripes, before millions of buffalo turned into a few thousand, before the railroad came thundering across this land like some fire-breathing dragon, and there’s no man I respect more as a rancher or as a friend, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I tell you that you’re making a mistake with John.”
Murdoch wiped his mouth on his napkin and leaned back in the chair, his legs crossed, his hands linked over his stomach.
“I’m his father, Henry,” he said severely. “I know how to handle my own boy.”
“Murdoch, you know how to handle a horse, a steer, a whole darned ranch; those things come easy to a man like you – strong, practical, inventive, adaptable – an ideal man of the West, but you, my friend, need to go back to school on the subject of that boy. You’re going to have to look his past in the face, whether ….”
“The past is done with,” the younger man interrupted grimly. “I don’t deal in the past.”
“It’s not done with John, so it’s not yet done with you. I never saw a boy so in need of a father. He’s darned angry with you, Murdoch, and I don’t blame him, but it’s clear to me that he also worships the ground you walk on …”
Murdoch, his heart pounding and unable to look at his friend, stood up suddenly and turned his back on the older man, his eyes on the map above the fireplace. He placed his hands on the mantelpiece and kicked stray coals back into the ashes of the previous night’s fire.
“Johnny’s wild, Henry. I intend to tame him for his sake as well as ours. He’s spent too much of his life without any boundaries. For God’s sake, he was the most notorious gunfighter in the South-West! The best thing I can do for him as his father is to teach him the value of a good, strong fence.”
“So wild things know nothing worth knowing?” Henry’s tone was scornful.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well, it’s clear to me that a gunfighter is by no means all he was. You believe John’s merely a blank page you can write on with no regard for the twenty years he spent learning how to live without you. Good Lord, man, that’s arrogance enough to fill an ocean!”
“With all due respect, Henry,” Murdoch turned and glared angrily at the older man. “I don’t need your advice about John.”
“You mean you don’t want it,” Henry sighed, looking absently at the outstretched fingers of his left hand, recognising in that moment that they were not as straight as they used to be.
“Want … need. What’s the difference?” Murdoch said dismissively. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to issue the men with their orders.”
His footsteps striding across the polished wooden floor sounded loud to him as he left the room. Standing before the door of the Great Room, he stopped suddenly and lowered his head, taking deep, shuddering breaths, furious at his loss of control and fighting to regain his strength. Convinced that this weakness would be as exposed as a raw wound to his men, he waited until he was certain he was back in familiar skin, before pushing open the door to where they were waiting.
He rode until he was certain he was far enough away from the ranch not to be heard. Down in a gully, by a fast running creek, where cottonwood trees grew in shady clumps, he set up a row of six tin cans on a flat topped rock. For some minutes, he simply drew his gun repeatedly from its holster, alarmed at the trace of heaviness in his draw. When he was satisfied he had regained the fractions of lost speed and feel, he shot the cans from the rock in rapid succession. As he reloaded the Colt, he smiled at his brother’s attempts to remain hidden behind a large rock above him near the edge of the gully.
“Better come on down, brother!” he yelled. “Or I might just go mistakin’ you for some ol’ grizzly bear!”
Scott emerged from behind the rock, shaking his head in amused resignation, and, leading his horse behind him, made his careful way down to the bottom of the gully.
“How do you always know?” he asked plaintively, tethering Charlie to a large cottonwood branch close to Barranca.
“I got ears, Boston,” Johnny smiled. “And for a skinny fella, you sure do go clatterin’ round the place.”
“I wasn’t making any noise!” the older man protested. “In the army, I was regularly chosen for reconnaissance duties because of my ability to move silently in the field.”
“Well, excuse me for sayin’ so, Lieutenant Lancer,” Johnny smirked. “But you’re ‘bout as silent as a pen full of turkeys bein’ chased by a coyote. Heard you comin’ before I even got here myself.”
Scott regarded his brother suspiciously before sitting down on a rock and pulling off a boot. He tipped it up, satisfied to see a small stone fall out onto the ground.
“The Old Man send you?” Johnny asked quietly, scuffing the toe of his boot in the dust.
“No, I left before morning orders, so we’re both in trouble now.”
“Don’t do me any favours, Boston.”
Scott pulled the boot back on over his foot with a grunt.
“Somebody has to, little brother,” he said severely. “You certainly aren’t doing yourself any. Murdoch’s handling things badly, but you seem hell bent on riling him.” He looked up at Johnny’s sullen expression. “Are you going to tell me why?”
The younger man shrugged and walked over to the distant rock where the tin cans lay scattered in the dirt. Scott watched him place them in their positions with the care of a man who expected them to stay there a thousand years.
“It’s no fun for the rest of us, Johnny, you know,” Scott insisted, as his brother made his way back to his shooting position. “Do you think I enjoy watching you two bite chunks out of each other every day?”
He watched in disbelief as the younger man drew the gun with a speed impossible to track with ordinary eyes, and shot each can so that they fell from their allotted place simultaneously. Taking six bullets from his belt, Johnny sat down on the ground to reload the Colt. Discomforted by his brother’s silence, he squinted up at him from under his hat.
“Sorry, Scott,” he said softly. “Don’t know why I’m bein’ the way I am.” He shrugged and lowered his gaze to his gun. “Got this stuff in my head, an’ I can’t shake it. I want to. I want to be what he wants. I want to fit in like you have, but I’m havin’ a real hard time doin’ it, brother.”
Scott leaned towards the younger man, his elbows on his knees.
“Johnny, the men respect you far more than they do me. When you give them orders they listen with the same faces they use for listening to Murdoch, not with those damned ‘Who the hell does this Easterner think he is?’ expressions I have to endure. You know more about horses and ranching than I’ll ever know, and Jelly and Maria would give their last breath for you. Dammit, brother, I would give my last breath for you.”
Johnny gazed silently at the older man for some moments, before shaking his head.
“I don’t fit, Scott, an’ you know it.”
“He’ll come round, Johnny.”
“Nope, brother. Don’t reckon he will. He ain’t never gonna get Maria or Johnny Madrid out of his head an’ he hates ‘em both, an’ he can’t see me without seeing them. That’s how it is.”
He picked up a few smooth stones from the dust and began to hurl them one by one into the fast running waters of the creek. Scott, ensuring the ground was reasonably clean beneath him, sat down beside his brother.
“Them clouds got a name?” Johnny asked, throwing the last stone and tipping his face up to gaze at a few large white clouds drifting across the brilliant blue sky.
“Yes,” Scott replied, shading his eyes. “Cumulus. They’re one of the low level clouds, heaped up like candyfloss. By themselves, they’re harmless enough, but cumulonimbus, the dark grey one, is the most dangerous type of cloud.”
“That right?” Johnny smiled. “They the ones that creep in your room at night an’ tickle your toes?”
“No, boy,” Scott retorted, swiping at his brother’s stomach. “They’re the ones that threaten the most extreme weather.”
Johnny returned to gazing up at the sky.
“When I was a kid, I used to dream of just hoppin’ up on one of them clouds an’ travellin’ across the sky, king of my white castles, an’ life ‘ud be just blue an’ white an’ real, real bright.” He threw another stone in the creek. “Still dream it sometimes.” Hesitating then, he rubbed his thumb on the next stone and studied its pale pink and brown striations.
“I love Lancer, you know, Scott.”
“Yes, Johnny.” Scott placed his hand on the back of his brother’s neck and rubbed it gently, pleased that Johnny allowed the contact. “So do I.”
“The Old Man sure had an eye for a good piece of land, didn’t he?”
“An’ he’s so fuckin’ tall!”
“I’m not sure I see the connection,” Scott laughed, knocking Johnny’s hat off his head and ruffling his unkempt black hair. Johnny grabbed his hat and brushed off the dust.
“Big man, big country,” he shrugged. “Ain’t nothin’ gonna bring him down in a hurry. He’s like one of them trees over there; roots so deep in the earth they don’t hardly need rain anymore.”
“Is that how you’d like to be?” Scott asked gently. Immediately, he felt the younger man tense. Johnny jammed his hat on his head and stood up.
“Jus’ makin’ conversation, Boston,” he said coolly. “Race you back to the ranch.”
“You’ll win,” Scott smiled, masking his disappointment. “You always do.” He rose to his feet and vigorously brushed the dust off his pants.
“Yeh,” Johnny said gleefully, mounting Barranca. “An’ I’m always gonna, while you’re so all fire intent on cleanin’ your pretty Boston butt.”
Responding to the younger man’s taunt, Scott leapt on his horse and chased after the palomino. Already it was far ahead, raising clouds of dust with its fiercely galloping hooves.
He closed the ledger. Frowning with discontent, he stood up and stared out of the window at the sunlit yard. A morning spent with columns of obedient figures usually gave him the most profound satisfaction, calmed the nerves agitated by thoughts and feelings that now resisted all his attempts at suppression. He gazed down at the thick leather-bound book, engraved with his initials; a lifetime of profit and loss, vicissitudes endured through iron control. Tracing his fingers over the initials, he pushed the book away with sudden irritation and walked out of the room.
Outside, he blinked at the harshness of the sudden light. He stood at the entrance to the house, absorbing the ordered beauty of his ranch. In the vegetable garden, Ramon dug up the last potatoes of the season, shaking the dirt from them before tossing them into a wicker basket. To the far right of him, behind the adobe bunkhouse, his foreman, Cipriano, directed the digging of the foundations for the new barn. From the forge, next to the existing barn, came the sound of hammer on anvil as the blacksmith fashioned hinges and latches for new doors, and close by, his oldest hand, Charlie Hewson, whistled tunelessly as he greased the axle of one of the chuck wagons, damaged in the fall trail drive.
People seemed happy. As he crossed the yard to the bunkhouse where Jelly was slapping whitewash on the walls with a smile on his face, he wondered with a sudden jolt where happiness was. He had aimed for it this morning and missed; he was certain of that, if nothing else.
“Afternoon, Boss,” Jelly said cheerfully, dipping the old brush into the pail and sweeping it down the adobe wall in a gesture that seemed to Murdoch inherently satisfying. “You finished beaverin’ away at them books?”
“Takin’ a walk?”
Jelly plunged the brush in the pail and wiped his hands on his dungarees before picking up his canteen and tipping water down his throat. Thumping the stopper back in the neck, he regarded the younger man curiously.
“Sumthin’ on ya mind, Boss?”
“Not especially,” Murdoch replied. He eased himself down on the wooden bench against a dry section of the bunkhouse. Disconcerted, Jelly hesitated before continuing his task. Murdoch took his knife from his pocket and began to chisel a stone from the sole of his boot.
“Are you happy here, Jelly?” he asked quietly, surprised at his own question. Jelly looked at him in confusion and cleared his throat, before spitting into the dust.
“A sight happier’an when Johnny found me liquored up to ma eyeballs in that ol’ line shack,” he replied. “When he brung me here, reckoned I’d died an’ fetched up in some kinda heaven. Still can’t figure what that boy saw in a stinkin’ ol’ drunk who’d pissed his pants an’ cussed ‘im worse’n no-account varmint.” He sighed and swirled the brush needlessly in the whitewash. “Guess I’ll never figure it.”
“He saw the man you really are,” Murdoch said, his gaze fixed on the sole of his boot and his breath quickening slightly.
“Yeh, well, I guess who the men we really are must depend on who’s lookin’, Boss, ‘cos I reckoned I knew jus’ the fella I was, an’ it weren’t what ya seein’ now.”
Murdoch nodded. He sat against the wall enjoying the sun, aware of the musky scent of fading geraniums, planted in wooden barrels by Charlie in the Spring. There was silence between the two men for some minutes before Jelly spoke again.
“You sure surprised Johnny, Boss, allowin’ ‘im t’go into town with Scott.”
“I surprised myself,” Murdoch said thoughtfully, brushing a smear of dried mud from the blade of his knife. “If he was a few years younger, I’d have warmed his backside for riding off like that.”
“Then why d’ya let ‘im go?” Jelly stopped painting and looked at the younger man suspiciously. “Ain’t like ya t’allow that boy t’ take a breath without gettin’ all puckered.”
“Yes, Jelly, thank you.” Murdoch’s tone became irritable as he snapped his knife shut and returned it to his waistcoat pocket. “I’m entirely aware of your opinion of my shortcomings as a parent.”
“Aw, now, Boss.” Jelly protested, turning to face the younger man, the brush dripping whitewash in the dirt. “I ain’t aimin’ ta criticise ya none. You coulda turned me away when Johnny brung me here, but ya took me in, an’ put me back on m’feet, an’ that’s more’n anyone done fer me in m’whole blamed life.” He looked at the brush with sudden disgust and threw it in the pail. “It’s jus’ that I love that boy like he’s ma own. Only he ain’t mine. He’s yours, an’ you’re the one he wants, an’ that’s a fact.”
Murdoch frowned, his mouth set into a thin, straight line as he contemplated a beetle with a damaged leg making its crooked way from the water pump towards him.
“I’m giving Johnny what he needs, Jelly; a stable home, a secure future …”
“Everythin’ but y’self.”
“He’s a grown man.”
“He’s a man, but he ain’t all growed yet.” Jelly stooped to pick up the beetle and gazed at the creature as it turned in confused and broken circles in the confines of his cupped palm. “Not whiles ‘e’s waitin’ on ‘is pa t’ show ‘imself.”
“He knows the man I am, Jelly,” Murdoch said stiffly.
“Ya got that right.” The old man placed the beetle in the barrelful of flowers and looked up when he heard the sound of wagon wheels coming under the archway into the ranch.
“Looks like the boys is home with them supplies,” he said, grasping the brush and determinedly returning to his task.
“One boy is,” Murdoch growled. He stood up and went to confront the wagon, laden with boxes, barrels and coils of wire, as it rumbled loudly to a halt in front of the house. Scott saw his father approaching him with long, heavy strides and swallowed down a tremor of panic. He sat there with the reins in his hand and looked bleakly at the older man. Murdoch stopped and glanced cursorily over the laden wagon.
“Where’s your brother?” he demanded.
“In town,” Scott replied tersely, tying the reins to the seat rail and jumping down. He began to untie the ropes holding the supplies. “Val’s holding him in jail. He won’t release Johnny to anyone but you, so you’d better go.”
“What’s happened? I told you to keep an eye on him. What the hell’s happened?”
When Scott continued to work at the knots in fierce silence, his father grabbed his arm and pulled him round to face him.
“What’s he done, Scott?”
“Do the details make any difference, Murdoch?” Scott asked angrily, his face pale with distress. “Are you going to judge him any differently if I tell you that he was called out by a fifteen year old kid and that he shot off the boy’s trigger finger to stop him doing it again?”
Murdoch released his son’s arm and looked at the young man in disbelief.
“Val’s kept him in jail for his own safety.” Scott turned back to the ropes. “The boy’s father, Dave Walker, gathered a mob together and they’re ready to lynch Johnny from the nearest tree, so I suggest you go now.”
“He shot Dave Walker’s boy?”
“Jed Walker was ready to shoot your boy, Murdoch!” Scott snapped, turning round to face his father. “Jed’s lost a finger, but you’ve still got Johnny. Is that good enough for you?”
“Jed’s a child,” Murdoch whispered, shaking his head.
“Old enough to take his father’s gun and challenge Johnny in the street.” Scott suddenly leaned back against the wagon, his arms folded. Relieved of some of the cauterising strain, he softened his tone. “I was there, Murdoch. He did the best thing possible under the circumstances. Please believe that.”
Offering no reply, Murdoch turned away abruptly and headed towards the barn, his hands in his pockets. Minutes later, Scott watched him lead his saddled horse out into the yard followed by a vaquero leading Barranca. He mounted the animal, gathered Barranca’s reins and rode quickly off with no farewell gesture towards his older son, his face betraying no discernible emotion.
Outside the jail, Dave Walker, scrawny and unshaven, stood with a small group of other men, most of whom Murdoch recognised, Walker’s younger brother, Sam, two homesteaders – one, Tom Higgins, had been found by Cipriano branding Lancer cattle the previous year – and a stranger in a black waistcoat and Spanish Colonial spurs on his over-polished boots. The other men were nervy, muttering and touching their rifles as Murdoch approached; the stranger leaned against the hitch rail smoking a cheroot and regarded them with a faint, mocking smile.
Murdoch ignored the group, his expression set into indifference as he dismounted and tied the two horses to the rail, close to the stranger’s unmoving arm. Val Crawford, the sheriff, emerged from his office, and watched the rancher climb the four steps towards him.
“You ain’t taking him out of there, Murdoch,” Walker blurted out, unnerved by the rigid defiance of the older man’s broad back.
“No-one calls the tune in this town but me and the fiddler, Dave,” Val said severely. “You should go on home now, like I suggested real nice ‘bout an hour since.”
“I ain’t goin’ ‘til I see justice done,” Walker replied, glaring at Murdoch’s motionless back.
“Go take a good look at your boy’s hand, Dave and there you’ll see it.”
“Sidin’ with the Lancers, Crawford.” Sam Walker spat in the dust. “Money sure talks don’t it. If that weren’t Murdoch Lancer’s brat in there, you’d’ve called out the state marshal by now, an’ you know it.”
“Gonna make like I didn’t hear that, Sam,” Val said. He opened the door of his office and allowed Murdoch past before entering and closing the door beside them.
Murdoch, already steeled against feeling, regarded his son with mute stoicism. Johnny was sitting on the rough bench in the corner of the cell, his knees drawn up to his chest, blood congealing over a graze on his forehead. Murdoch looked directly at Val for the first time.
“I hope you’ve got a sound explanation for locking my son in a cell, Val,” he said grimly. “Scott told me what happened. If what he tells me is true, then Jed Walker should be in here, not John.”
“Johnny put himself in there, Murdoch.” Val’s tone was irritable as he pulled open the unlocked cell door. “I brought him in here for his own protection and he’s been sitting like that since Scott left – won’t talk, won’t let anyone tend that cut. Outpaces his pa for stubbornness …”
Murdoch glared at the other man and walked a little way into the cell.
“Let’s go, John,” he ordered tersely. Johnny felt his stomach clench at the command, as it had several times since his father had entered the room. The smell of coffee brewing over Val’s stove, normally so welcome, made him want to be sick.
“John, I haven’t time for this.” Murdoch felt anger rising, though he was aware of other emotions churning against the rock of him as he observed a barely perceptible tremor agitate his son’s body. It made Johnny press his hands harder on his neck and sink his head further down between his knees. Frowning with exasperation, the older man hesitated before sitting down on the bench. Val sipped coffee and watched, his mouth playing down a smile, as Murdoch pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, spat on it and wiped the congealed blood from Johnny’s temple. He could feel the heat of fever and the sound of congestion in his son’s ragged breaths.
“How did this happen?” he asked, his tone slightly less harsh as the blood stained the white of his handkerchief.
“You gonna tell him, Johnny, or shall I?” Val asked, pouring himself another coffee. His face pressed to his knees, the young man made no reply, though he felt the tenderness of his father’s nursing, and treasured it. Val sighed heavily. “He did it to himself, Murdoch, bashed the side of his head with his gun just after he shot Jed.”
Swallowing hard, Murdoch forced back his emotions and stood up.
“John,” he said firmly. “Come home with me now.”
“I’ll go when I’m ready, Old Man,” Johnny replied, his voice low and muffled. “I didn’t ask ya to come.”
“You’re coming home with me now and that’s an end to it. Get up before I embarrass you in front of the whole town and carry you out.”
Johnny’s head came up quickly. Gazing at his father steadily, he suddenly grabbed his hat from the bench, jammed it on his head and stood up. Grimly, he watched Val hand Murdoch his gun belt.
“You gonna let me go out there without my gun?” he demanded coldly.
“They won’t do anything while I’m there,” Murdoch said abruptly. Before Val could prevent him, he walked quickly to the door and opened it to be faced by the group of men in the street below, the barrels of their rifles pointing up at him.
“You boys best put those damn guns down, NOW!” Val ordered, his rifle held steadily in the direction of Dave Walker’s head. “Put them down now before your boy loses his pa as well as his finger. You too, mister.”
The stranger shrugged; then, smiling at Johnny, he pulled his revolver out of its holster and threw it on the ground with the rifles. The younger man stared at him impassively and followed his father down the steps. Murdoch untied his horse’s reins, aware that his son was caressing and greeting Barranca with intense words of softly spoken Spanish.
“Jed’s maimed, Murdoch.” Walker had left the group and stood by the hitch rail close to the older man. “My boy’s maimed for life thanks to that damn half breed brat of yours.”
Breathing in his fury at Walker’s language, Murdoch mounted his horse and looked down at the wild-eyed smaller man.
“Jed brought it on himself, Dave,” he said firmly. “You know that.”
Walker looked round fiercely at the other men, before grabbing the reins of Murdoch’s horse.
“Well, what d’you expect our boys to do when you bring a gun hawk into the community?”
“Yeh,” Sam Walker agreed, nodding. “I always respected you, Mr Lancer, but since you started hirin’ gunfighters I ain’t so certain you deserve this town’s trust.”
“To answer your question, Dave,” Murdoch said calmly, ignoring the older brother. “I expect their parents to teach them how to behave and how to keep out of trouble by not stealing their father’s gun and using it to pick fights with older men.”
“Like you taught your son, huh, Murdoch?” Walker said quietly. He nodded his head in Johnny’s direction. “Your boy’s trouble. A past like his ain’t never gonna lay down and die. The brat needs a rope round his neck. You know it, Murdoch, an’ it won’t be long comin’. No, sir, it won’t.”
Murdoch glanced at Johnny, now mounted on Barranca, his emotionless gaze fixed on the stranger, his fingers drumming restlessly on the saddle horn.
“I’ll deal with John as I see fit, Dave,” Murdoch said, turning his horse’s head away from the younger man. “But you hear me straight. If you ever threaten my boy again, I’ll put a bullet in you. Now go home to Jed where you belong.”
Murdoch turned and spurred his horse into a canter, eager to be away from the town, his heart pounding with anger and a maelstrom of emotions so powerful that for some time he felt overwhelmed. When he finally slowed to a walk along a part of the trail lined on both sides with pine trees, he had regained enough of his composure to be able to look at Johnny who, to his surprise, reined Barranca in to walk beside him.
“Murdoch?” The young man’s voice was tentative, almost child-like.
“Am I gonna get my gun back?”
The older man looked down at the gun belt hooked over his saddle horn. Silently, he lifted it off and handed it to his son who grabbed it with a muttered ‘thanks’ and buckled it around his waist. Murdoch watched him take the gun from its holster and check the hammer and cylinder. He then removed a bullet from his belt and inserted it in the only empty chamber before sliding the Colt back into the holster. Visibly relaxing, he pulled the stopper from his canteen and drank with obvious need.
“How’s your head?” Murdoch asked, watching him replace the canteen on the saddle. Johnny wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then touched the graze with his fingers.
“Achin’ some,” he replied quietly.
“Why would you hurt yourself like that?”
Shrugging, Johnny avoided looking at the older man. Now, reunited with his gun and his thirst slaked, he was tempted to gallop off and find a place to contemplate the unexpected ferocity of his father’s threat to kill Dave Walker. Hearing it, he had allowed no show of emotion to cross his features, but his heart had leapt in his chest and his breath had caught in his dry throat.
“I’d like an answer, young man,” his father insisted finally.
“Well, I ain’t got one, Murdoch.”
Exasperated, the older man spurred on his horse so that for some time Johnny could see only his father’s tall, broad back. Furious with the impenetrable silence, which continued through the next canyon, Johnny brought Barranca back alongside Murdoch’s horse.
“Ain’t ya been waitin’ for somethin’ like this to happen?” he demanded, hearing his voice echo faintly between the high walls of the canyon. “Expectin’ it?”
“Something like what, John?” Murdoch replied with a composure that further angered the younger man.
“My past bitin’ your butt.”
“We can deal with this, John. Scott told me that the boy pulled a gun on you, that you acted in self-defence …”
“Well, ain’t it a mercy my big brother was there,” Johnny said scornfully. “Else you’d’ve had to take my two-bit word for it … Old Man, that kid couldn’t pull his own pecker. That’s why I shot his finger off for ‘im, ‘fore he’d even got his hand to the grip.”
“You sound proud of it,” Murdoch said tightly.
“Ain’t ashamed. Reckon I’ll leave that to you.”
“I’m not ashamed of you, John.”
“Well, you ain’t proud are ya, Old Man?” Johnny accused, his voice taut with an anxiety that sickened him with its childishness. When his father failed to reply, he realised with horror that he was close to tears; he could feel Barranca grow restless beneath his anguish. Murdoch, his eyes fixed on the part of the trail ahead that disappeared thinly into more pine forest, found that he was grinding his teeth together, that he was nagging his horse’s sides with his heels to propel the animal forward out of the bright afternoon sun and into the shade of the immense trees. Johnny stopped and watched his father enter the forest.
“Know who that was outside the sheriff’s, Murdoch!?” he yelled suddenly. “Another of them fuckin’ gunfighters! An’ they ain’t ever in a town to get their boots shined!! You hear me, Old Man!?”
Murdoch kept to a steady trot as he heard the rapid approach of galloping hooves behind him. The horse and rider passed him with such speed that he could feel the breeze of them brush his skin, and the dust rose in the beams of sunlight slanting through the pines. In the ensuing silence, he was struck with wonder at such dreamlike swiftness along a narrow, twisting forest trail, before he bowed his head and cursed at the immensity of his failure.
In his nightmare he was a tree, the only one on a flat, grassless plain. Above him the sky raged in violent shades of red and purple. The wind tore through his branches, wrenching unceasingly at his roots as he fought with every last shred of his strength to stay in the earth. Then a horseman came, galloping past him so fast that man and horse seemed no more than a shadow passing over the land. When he sought to discern the rider’s face turning back to look at him, he saw first the gunfighter of the day before, and then his father, his thin, disapproving face as grey as granite.
Waking in the darkness, he could feel the physical pain and exhaustion of his struggle not to succumb. Convinced that outside a storm must be tearing the night apart, he rose anxiously and went to his window. Down in the yard, a full moon cast an ethereal light over the corrals and outbuildings, so that for all their familiarity they seemed strange and forbidding.
Rubbing his hand over his face, he turned and gazed at the crumpled covers on his bed, testament to the violence of his nightmare. For years, he had slept the sleep of the dead, undreaming, and had woken to the new morning with no dark images to haunt his day. Now, it seemed to him, he was walking in a nameless land, uncertain of the line that divided his dreams from the realities of his life.
He heard the sound of a closing door and, still disorientated, left his room to peer up the dimly lit landing. Scott, about to enter his own room, stopped and looked at his father in surprise. Rarely had he witnessed the older man up in the middle of the night, and never in wild-haired disarray. To both brothers, it seemed as if their father’s bedroom was a forbidden place into which he disappeared each night with a solid clunk of his door, and emerged, immaculately dressed and shaved, the next morning, in possession of himself and the day. This departure from the rules almost unnerved the young man; though his father was gazing straight at him, he seemed unaware of his presence.
“Sir, are you alright?”
His son’s voice shook Murdoch from his sense of dislocation. He blinked and pushed a hand through his hair, suddenly feeling foolish and vulnerable.
“Yes,” he replied abruptly. “Yes, I thought I heard noises.”
Scott sighed and lowered his head briefly, his eyes on the handle of his bedroom door. Hesitating, he suddenly looked directly at his father.
“Johnny had a nightmare,” he said resolutely. Murdoch looked blankly at the younger man who felt his anger rise at his father’s apparent indifference.
“He often has them.” Scott’s tone was defiant now. In the fleeting moment between sensing his son’s anger and understanding it, Murdoch made a decision. Both its arrival and his habitual certainty that it could not be unmade, alarmed him, although at the same time, he felt relieved, as if a hand had closed gently over some wild, fluttering part of him.
“Is he alright?” he asked, his voice betraying no marked emotion. “Does he need anything?”
“No,” Scott sighed heavily. “I’ve taken care of it.” He opened his door and looked back briefly at his father. “Goodnight, Murdoch.”
Murdoch watched his older son disappear into his room with the remaining trace of his earlier bewilderment. Though he felt a powerful urge to call the young man back to him, he retreated to his own room and closed the door.
His arms were resting on the pale, smooth wood of the windowsill, his chin pillowed on the flesh of his left arm, eyes scanning the yard below. It was still dark, but very faintly, behind the distant mountains, he could see the glow begin, like a stealthy day creature spying on the enemy of night before daring to attack. He knew it would come, that moment, a split second, when the sun would burst into the world like an avenging god, laying waste to the darkness. Scott had told him that it was the Earth moving, not the sun, a fact he still found hard to believe. He did not want to believe it, and since he had always trusted only what he could see with his own eyes, he continued to allow the sun to be master of the world, pouring its golden light generously over the land he loved.
Johnny always listened dutifully and with some admiration when his brother attempted to enlighten his informally educated view of the world. Scott labelled the stars for him, explained the new theory of evolution, identified layers of rock in the deep canyons, and classified the birds using strange names in a dead language. Johnny listened and then allowed the labels and explanations to fade away like the sun in the evening. He wanted the world whole, painted before his eyes in colours and shapes, vivid movement and sounds so various it almost hurt if he listened too hard.
He watched, enchanted, as the first rays of the sun spiked over the mountains. The clatter of a tin pail and a tuneless whistle told him that Jelly was readying himself to milk his cow. Cipriano walked across the yard stiffly in the gathering light, an old rope halter in one hand, the other rubbing his stubbled face. The new sun struck off his spurs like an exuberant child playing with fire. ‘A proud old man on fire,’ Johnny thought. ‘An’ he don’t know it.’ The vaquero’s shoulders were still broad and powerful, but bowed a little now, the stride shorter and less confident.
Watching Johnny leap off a horse one day and then swing himself over a fence to land as softly as a cat on the other side, Cipriano had smiled.
“You live lightly, Juanito, outside your body. You do not even know it is there.”
Johnny had smiled in return, intrigued as he always was by the sayings of older men, but too busy at the time to do more than file it away for later contemplation. Watching Cipriano now, heavy with the burden of a protesting body, he understood, and made up his mind to sketch the old vaquero soon.
He listened as the two old men greeted each other in loud and in what Johnny always felt were over cheerful voices. Their conversation was not easy for him to hear, but he knew it concerned the weather, chickens and the aching of Jelly’s bones. Johnny strained to catch his own name, and saw the shaking of grey heads; two more older men he admired to be disappointed in him, to condemn his behaviour. He sank back in the chair away from the window. He had slept badly, wracked with nightmares: Jed Walker walking towards him in a blood-red sunset, eyes wild with madness, and he had lifted his gun and Jed had become his father, huge but speaking softly in a strange tongue, and he had put a hole in him, so big he could see through to the mountains beyond, and Murdoch had crashed into the dust with the force of a felled sequoia, his blood making a river down the street.
Worse had come, as it often did: his mother’s lover hurling him into a corner, whipping him bloody with a studded belt before turning to slaughter the woman screaming in his ear. He shook his head to rid himself of the images, his chest suddenly tight and painful, his breathing laboured. Fighting for control, he pushed the palms of his hands in his eyes to stop tears. He remembered then that someone had come to him at the height of his nightmares, soothed him with gentle words and held his hand until he slept again.
He heard Scott’s voice and returned to the open window. His older brother was pulling on thin leather gloves and talking cheerfully to their father, chickens picking around his feet. The chickens scattered as Murdoch laughed suddenly and loudly. Johnny witnessed the easy, playful squeeze his father gave to Scott’s shoulders, heard him call him ‘Son’, before the younger man mounted his horse and rode away under the white arch to the huge openness of the land beyond.
Then the men gathered in the yard to receive Murdoch’s orders for the day. These he delivered in a sonorous tone that invited no discussion or argument, a tone entirely different from the gentle humour he had moments before used with his elder son. Johnny sat back in the chair again, his mind reeling with confusion and uncertainty.
By the time his father came in, the sun was fully up over the mountains and his room was flooded with yellow light. Expecting censure for being out of bed, he averted his eyes with a sigh. Murdoch smiled tentatively.
“How are you feeling?”
“I ain’t dead,” Johnny replied reluctantly.
“Good. Would you like to put on some pants and a shirt and join me for breakfast?”
Johnny’s head snapped up distrustfully at the unfamiliar tone and the unexpected request.
“You ain’t had breakfast?”
“No, I was waiting for you,” Murdoch said firmly. “Of course, if you’d prefer to stay up here …”
“I didn’t say that.”
Murdoch smiled as Johnny grabbed his jeans.
He hung his head while Maria bustled around him, pouring coffee and placing food on his plate, speaking to him in busy, gentle Spanish. “Tú necesita comer, niño. Tú es fino. Adelantado, cómalo todo para arriba o tú perderá lejos.” He stared at the eggs, biscuits and bacon laid down before him, his appetite ruined by apprehension. Intent on a new edition of ‘The San Francisco Chronicle’, Murdoch ate his breakfast and drank his coffee while his son picked miserably at a piece of bacon. Ranch hands entered several times reporting an incident or seeking advice. One, Billy Donner, a cousin of the family which had fallen victim to snow, starvation and cannibalism on their long journey West in 1846, who loved, in quiet evenings in the bunkhouse, to embellish the already gruesome details of their fate, entered the kitchen, smoothing his thick brown hair back with a grimy hand.
“Found ‘nother beef dead down by Red Devil, Boss,” he said breathlessly. “Thought you’d wanna know.”
Murdoch removed his glasses and looked dourly at the young man.
“Same marks as last time?”
“Yes, Boss. Cat, fer sure.”
“ Should’ve let me go an’ take care of it two weeks back, like I wanted," Johnny said quietly, gazing at his untouched breakfast.
“You were sick,” Murdoch replied dismissively, folding his newspaper neatly.
“Ain’t so sick now. Let me go get that cat ‘fore it dances on any more of our cows.”
“Take a couple of men off the barn job, Billy – Miguel and Jesse,” Murdoch ordered, ignoring Johnny. “See if you can kill the damn thing.”
Johnny threw his fork down on his plate and looked furiously at his father.
“Miguel an’ Jesse couldn’t shoot a dead buffalo at ten paces, Murdoch! I can get that cat ‘fore them an’ Billy’ve even finished digestin’ their breakfast.”
“I think your gun’s seen enough light for one week, boy.” Murdoch frowned up at Billy who was staring, open-mouthed, at Johnny, unnerved by the rancour between the two men. “Get going, Billy,” he growled. “I don’t pay you to catch flies.”
Billy closed his mouth and nodded hastily, before leaving the room.
“When ya gonna quit showin’ me up in front of the hands, Old Man?” Johnny demanded angrily. “That no-account Billy Donner’s gonna be hootin’ all the way to Red Devil.”
“When you stop defying me and arguing with me in front of them,” Murdoch replied calmly. He wiped his mouth on a napkin and stood up. “Come with me, John.”
Johnny, already defensive, bristled at the command, but followed his father to the study.
He hated the room. Never was his sense of alienation greater than when he was surrounded by its heavy, serious furniture and the walls lined with his father’s books, mysteriously titled. The thick blood-red drapes at the narrow windows filled him with a nameless anxiety. It was here that he had stood with his newly discovered brother facing their hostile father for the first time in nearly twenty years, here that his resolve had failed and a longing he could not control had been born, here where he had been confined to labour over columns of taunting numbers in punishment for his transgressions. He watched intently as his father stowed away papers in his desk before picking up an open book on the English Civil War that Scott had been reading the previous night. A smile emerged on Murdoch’s face as he read the pencilled annotations in the margins.
“Your brother,” he laughed. “He could anatomise his way out of an entire library.”
“What’s that mean?” Johnny demanded irritably. Murdoch frowned at his son’s belligerent tone.
“It means to examine something,” he replied. “In the hope of understanding it.”
Johnny gazed at his father silently. Murdoch closed the book and sat down in his desk chair.
“You reckon if you’d raised me, I’d’ve been like you an’ Scott? Good at learnin’ from books?”
Murdoch studied his clasped hands.
“I don’t know, John. I think perhaps your skills would always have been natural, practical ones.”
Johnny hissed in exasperation and turned away from his father, resisting the urge to rip the books from the shelves and trample them under his feet.
“Sit down, John,” Murdoch said quietly, alarmed to feel that he was already losing control of the situation.
“I wanna stand,” Johnny replied fiercely, his head bowed, his arms wrapped tightly around his body in his habitual sign of distress.
“You’re not in here for punishment, John. I want you to sit down, now.”
Johnny hesitated before obeying the terse command. He sat down, his hands and eyes occupied with a blue glass paperweight from his father’s desk.
“I don’t want you to be like Scott, you know,” Murdoch said finally. “You’re two very different people with different personalities, different skills. The ranch needs both of you.”
Drawing in his breath, Johnny continued to play with the paperweight, his foot tapping the thick, patterned carpet in agitation.
“Be easier if I was more like Scott,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Easier? What do you mean, easier?”
“You could talk to me about that stuff, the stuff in them books like you do with Scott. We could have some real long talks then.”
“You’ve no reason to be jealous of your brother, John,” Murdoch said quietly. Johnny’s head shot up with a fierce glare.
“I ain’t jealous, Murdoch, not of his learnin’. I get by without it. I like my big brother knowin’ all that stuff. I’m proud of ‘im. I get a kick out of it when it ain’t pis …when he ain’t bein’ a pain in the butt with it.”
Johnny’s head went down again, the paperweight passing from hand to hand with increasing velocity. Murdoch contemplated the volatile young man with a rising sense of panic.
“You gonna get it over with, Murdoch?” Johnny said, breaking into his father’s thoughts.
“Get what over with?”
“The lecture you’re gonna give me about yesterday. I figure that’s why I’m here.”
“Partly,” Murdoch admitted, picking up his pipe and then, remembering his son’s health, putting it down neatly on his desk.
“You want me to leave, don’t you?” Johnny said suddenly, accusingly, his deep blue eyes searching the older man’s face for any sign of confirmation.
“If I leave, then Dave Walker an’ his hired gun can take their vengeance someplace else other than Lancer. Ain’t that what you’re comin’ to, Old Man, now you slept on it some.”
“It’s an interesting plan, John.” Murdoch stood up and, hands in his pockets, gazed at the painting of the clipper above his desk. “Only it’s very far from what I have in mind.”
Johnny glared at his father who now seemed more absorbed in studying the details of the painting. The paperweight became warm in the young man’s agitated hands.
“I came here on this ship,” Murdoch said. Johnny’s eyes widened slightly and he listened intently. “Her name was ‘The Mary Piper’. She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” He glanced at Johnny, aware that his son had stopped his habitual fidgeting. “I wasn’t much older than you, so full of myself, so full …” He breathed in sharply, raising his broad shoulders. “God, where does that feeling go?” he exhaled. “Like I was ready to burst out of myself with just being alive and an entire ocean laid out before me.” He touched the cracked oil paint of the grey Atlantic with his finger. “I could have walked on it then,” he said softly. “I’m certain of it.”
“Didn’t ya get lonely?” Johnny asked, his heart beating faster now. Murdoch frowned at the younger man.
“God, no, boy. I had myself, my plans and my money sewn in the linings of my jacket and that was enough. I’d never travelled further than the next village my whole life, never done anything but go to school and help Father in the business.”
He saw his son’s eyes spark with interest and realised with a sudden jolt that he was talking to Angus Lancer’s grandson, that this young man carried his father’s Highland blood, that in his childish hours spent idly dreaming of America amongst the bee-loud heather of the Scottish hills, he must also have dreamed of this boy. He lowered his head and closed his eyes. “I didn’t need or want anyone else then,” he said quietly. “I wanted to stand on my own two feet, rely on myself alone. That’s what made my blood sing then.”
“Why’re you tellin’ me this stuff?” Johnny asked. Gazing down at the paperweight, he again began to roll it between his hands.
“I don’t know.” Murdoch quelled a flash of anger at the young man’s casually worded question. “Perhaps I thought a son might be interested in learning how his father came to be where he is.”
Johnny dropped his head while Murdoch silently observed the shapes of strong sunlight that brought out the carpet’s bright colours. He was deciding on the best way to broach his next subject, fearing the young man’s response.
“John, I have something to discuss with you,” he said finally. It saddened him to see the sudden tension afflict his son like a malevolent virus. Johnny dropped the paperweight and watched it roll to the centre of the carpet. His restless fingers began twisting the bracelet of turquoise beads around his wrist. “I’m going to risk incurring Sam’s wrath and certain disapproval by taking you away with me tomorrow.”
Johnny stopped twisting the bracelet.
“Where to?” he asked guardedly, his eyes still averted from his father.
“Bittercreek. There’s a horse auction coming up. I thought we could take a look.”
“You an’ me? No-one else?” He looked suspiciously at the older man.
“Nobody else, no. Scott can run things here for a week or so.”
“Why’re we going?”
“Because you know horses, and I’m thinking of reviving the Lancer horse breeding business.”
Murdoch waited for the young man to lift his head, annoyed that this habit of his son’s was denying him knowledge of his feelings.
“Well, how do you feel about it?”
Johnny shrugged wordlessly.
‘Impossible boy,’ his father thought irritably. ‘I try to reach out to him and he slams the gate.’
“Well,” he said, out loud. “You can think about it, John. I’m not forcing you to go.”
Johnny nodded briefly, his eyes still averted from the older man.
“Can I go now?” he asked. “Said I’d help Jelly stakin’ his new chicken coop.”
“Yes … John?”
“If you do decide to come with me tomorrow, you might want to consider taking it fairly easy today. Alright?”
Johnny lifted his head at the milder tone, although his expression remained distrustful. He nodded silently and left the study.
Watching him leave, Murdoch was convinced he was further than ever from reaching his son, that his attempt to communicate had been clumsy and wrong-headed. The week before him, usually predictable enough for him to feel a measure of safety, now appeared as random and volatile as lightning in a prairie storm. Glancing once more at the painting above his desk, he opened his ledgers and took some comfort from their constancy.
Meanwhile, Johnny found a corner in the deserted, sunny morning room to sketch his memory of Cipriano and to contemplate the wonder of his father’s suggestion. Not even the painful tension between them could dampen the secret joy he felt at this new evidence of something other than aversion and disappointment. Although he wondered what had prompted the older man’s actions, and part of him feared the consequences, he knew he would stand on a thousand streets facing down death to have one chance to know his father.
He had never watched his father. He had preferred not to look. From his earliest years, he had found little to interest him in the tall, thin man who had spent long hours crafting shotguns for wealthy gentlemen. While he and his two brothers had crept like watchful cats around the house, their father had eaten his late and frugal meals in silent solitude. On Sundays, when they came together as a family, Angus Lancer had presided over the Spartan table with Presbyterian solemnity, exhorting his sons to lengthy prayer before a meal of thin soup and a single gravely spoken question for each boy. ‘And what sin have ye found to lay before the Lord’s feet this Sabbath?’ Out of their mouths had tumbled the least of their childish misdemeanours before the inevitable ritual of the rod in the cold, bare parlour.
Murdoch had known from the beginning that only a determined resourcefulness would save him, so he had quietly acquired books and articles on the gradually emerging American West and studied the principles of stock-breeding. At a local farm, he had learned to ride and drive wagons; he had listened intently to the conversations of farmers in the markets and auctions. When he was fourteen, his father had informed him that he would teach him how to keep the books and that his future was settled in the business of making and selling guns. The memory still had the power to disturb him – sitting in terrible proximity to the dour stranger who was his father, scratching out columns of figures with a quill pen, terrified of a blot, of feeling the stinging rap of a ruler across his knuckles.
Puffing contemplatively on his pipe, he looked up from his newspaper to observe his younger son. Though Johnny, sitting cross-legged in front of the fire, his father’s dog curled up against his thigh, seemed absorbed in his task of braiding an elaborate brow band for his brother’s horse, Murdoch knew the young man was on high alert to every sound and movement in the room. Often it seemed to him that he was living with some kind of wild animal, permanently restless, ready to flee at any moment and staying only until the grass was gone and the waterhole exhausted. Trying to imagine this untamed boy in the company of Angus Lancer, Murdoch realised that he had not loved his father.
When Johnny looked up as abruptly as a deer in long grass, at first wary, and then catching his eye with a faint smile, he understood with a sudden vivid clarity that the man had failed him, had left him with nothing but dust to feed upon. He wondered then when Angus had disengaged. Had he looked down upon his squirming, bawling infant son and recoiled at first sight or had it been a slow deadening of the heart?
‘My coming into the world made him afraid. Yes, he was afraid of what I meant.’
Johnny saw his father rise suddenly, moments after he had risked a smile. Sensing the older man’s agitation, he watched him thrust the poker angrily in the fire and then add another pine log.
“You alright, Murdoch?”
“Yes, John. I’m fine.” He had not meant to be so abrupt. Hesitating, he softened his tone. “My back’s a bit sore, that’s all.”
Pressing his hand to his lower back, he walked over to the sideboard and brought himself back to self-control by gazing at the label of one of the bottles of Talisker malt whisky newly delivered from Scotland. When he opened it, he felt the tension leave his body like water draining into sand. He poured himself a measure and then gestured a glass at his older son who was sitting at the small desk writing a letter.
The young man raised his head and nodded, placing his pen neatly on the unfinished letter.
“Are you writing to Harlan?” Murdoch asked, handing his son the whisky. Scott accepted it with a relaxed smile.
“Yes,” he replied, sniffing at the liquor before taking a sip and nodding his appreciation. “I feel I should at least sweeten the disappointment with a lengthy epistle of my new life as a rancher. Grandfather might even find some interest in it if I can make him understand Lancer as a business and not, as he likes to imagine it, some wild, disorganised venture at which I’ll most certainly fail.”
Murdoch smiled and patted the younger man’s shoulder.
“He doesn’t know you very well does he.”
Scott frowned briefly and glanced at Johnny who had his back to the two older men and his head lowered to his task.
“No, sir,” he admitted. “I have to say that I don’t think he does anymore.”
“I’m sorry you’ve had to change your plans, Son,” Murdoch said with a softness that brought Johnny’s head up slightly. “I didn’t give you much notice.”
“Don’t worry, Sir.” Scott smiled in his brother’s direction. “I’m looking forward to the challenge. I might finally be able to convince the men that I’m Johnny’s equal on the ranch if he’s out of the way for a few days.”
“In your dreams, Boston,” Johnny said softly, pulling too hard at the braid as his father again gently patted his brother’s back before returning to his chair by the fire. Johnny frowned at the braid in frustration; it felt irretrievably spoiled.
“It’s eighty miles to Bittercreek.” Scott sat down opposite his father, the glass of whisky in his hand. Near his feet, Johnny began a new braid. “Are you planning to ride there?”
Murdoch pressed fresh tobacco in his pipe and shook his head.
“No, we’re taking the stage from Green River.”
“I ain’t ridin’ in the stage.” Johnny glared fiercely at his father. “I’ll take Barranca – meet you in Bittercreek.”
“No, you won’t, young man.” Murdoch began to set out the chessboard, placing the pieces precisely on the squares. “You’re coming in the stage with me and there’s an end to it.”
Johnny looked resentfully at the chessboard. He wanted to scatter its perfection, so unlike, in his eagerness to play, his own haphazard arrangements, intolerable to both his father and brother.
“I can ride, Murdoch,” he insisted.
“I know you can ride, John.” Scott was surprised to hear the sudden mildness in his father’s voice. “But I can’t, not that far, not with my back, so we’re travelling by stage. End of discussion.”
“Wasn’t no discussion,” Johnny muttered.
“I didn’t quite catch that, John.” Murdoch said sternly. “What did you say?”
Scott, intrigued that his father had used his own health as an excuse for using the stage and not Johnny’s pneumonia, watched his brother’s reaction. Clearly, the young man was fighting the desire to rebel and argue. Glaring ferociously at the brow band, his nimble fingers worked the colourful braids with passionate speed. As Murdoch made his first nonchalant move on the chessboard, Scott waited for the inevitable explosion of feeling from his brother. Instead, Johnny raised his head and gazed intently at the board, the shadows of the pieces flickering in the light of the fire. For some time he watched the play of the two men in silence, until Scott moved his knight.
“Should’ve moved your bishop, Boston,” he said, shaking his head.
“Thank you, little brother!” Scott replied irritably, scanning the board for the consequences of his mistake. “Remember it was I who taught you how to play chess.”
“Yeh, an’ I can whup both of you.”
“Why do you think we’re playing each other, boy?” Murdoch said gruffly, his eyes searching for what Johnny had seen. “Now get yourself up to bed and leave us in peace. You still need plenty of sleep and I want to get an early start in the morning.”
Scott saw rebellion form briefly on his brother’s features before the young man stood up, muttered ‘G’night’ and left the room, his father’s dog padding at his heels. Scott looked curiously at his father, but Murdoch’s expression was unreadable as he studied the chessboard, chin resting on his clasped hands.
“That was very easy,” Scott said quietly. “It looks like he wants this trip very much.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Murdoch shrugged. “He never tells me anything.”
Scott sighed at his father’s implacability and returned his attention to the game.
“So you’re going to buy horses in Bittercreek?” he said after minutes spent in silent contemplation of his next move.
Murdoch raised his eyebrows fractionally though his gaze remained fixed on the board.
“That’s the intention, yes.”
“And you’re going to let Johnny choose them?”
“He knows horses.”
Murdoch moved his knight and sat back in his chair to smoke his pipe. Amused, he watched his son fret over the damage of his last move and stroke his thumbnail over his teeth in agitation.
“The boy was right, Son,” he smiled. “You should’ve moved your bishop.”
“He’s always right,” the younger man frowned. “I was champion of my league three years running at university and my little brother seems able to read my entire game before I’ve even made my first move. Six months ago, he didn’t even play chess!”
Murdoch nodded silently. Scott hesitated and looked directly at his father. He picked up his glass of whisky and took a large sip before setting it down carefully on the table.
“Can I ask you something, Sir?”
“Ask.” Murdoch’s tone was abrupt as, with a small grunt of satisfaction, he leant forward to take his son’s bishop.
“What exactly is your purpose in taking Johnny on this trip? I mean there are other auctions nearer home …”
“Not with that quality of stock there isn’t,” Murdoch interrupted curtly.
“Alright, but, let’s be honest, Murdoch, you two can barely make it through an hour in one another’s company without fighting.” Scott saw his father’s eyes darken with anger, but he was determined to make his point. “To be perfectly frank, I’m very concerned about the consequences for you both, especially my brother. He’s not as tough as he’d like us to believe.”
“I’m entirely aware of that, Scott,” Murdoch said firmly, his expression warning the younger man that he was stepping onto dangerous ground.
“I don’t want him hurt anymore, Murdoch.” Scott looked determinedly into his father’s pale blue eyes. “Johnny’s got as many scars inside as he’s got outside. He doesn’t need anymore, especially from you.”
Surprised and then angered by the fierce, accusing tone, Murdoch glared at his elder son.
“You’re overstepping your mark, young man,” he said angrily. “I’m the boy’s father and how I choose to handle John is my business. Your job is to run things here while we’re gone, and that’s an end to it.”
Scott sat back in the armchair, breathing deeply and fighting to maintain control of his feelings.
“I apologise, Sir, if you think I’ve gone too far, but I really don’t think you have the least idea what you mean to my brother. If you did …” He fell silent, his gaze upon the fire. When his father spoke, the gentleness of his frequently aggressive voice astonished the younger man.
“Well, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to trust that I do have the least idea, Scott.” Murdoch relit his pipe before throwing the match into the fire. His normally quiet, respectful son’s passion had shaken the core of him and the image of scars would not leave him. “I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do about it, but I’m going to do something. Now, shall we finish this game?”
Scott gazed at the older man, the game forgotten.
“I do trust it, Sir,” he said firmly. Leaning in a little closer to Murdoch, he made his next move, as restful in his father’s company as he had ever hoped to be.
Certain that his younger son would be asleep, Murdoch opened the door gently. For the rest of the evening, while he had played chess and discussed Shakespeare with Scott, he had struggled to push away thoughts of Johnny’s scars. He knew they were there, marking the young man’s skin, a map of abuse and violence, but for six months he had chosen to swallow down his horror and allow the past to rest, averting his gaze the few times Johnny had removed his shirt in front of him. Now, with the same instinct that had compelled him to suggest the trip, he had made up his mind to gather his courage and look, though every nerve screamed at him to run for safety.
Johnny blinked in the light of his father’s lamp and rubbed his eyes.
“It’s late, John,” Murdoch said, a trace of irritation in his tone that he quickly identified and quelled. “Can’t you sleep?”
Silently, Johnny shook his head and watched while his father arranged his hastily discarded boots neatly by his bed before placing his hand over his son’s forehead. Relishing the rare physical contact, but fearful of its consequences, Johnny pulled himself away.
“I ain’t sick, Murdoch,” he said defensively. “I can make the trip.”
His father could not suppress a small, surprised smile.
“Even on the stage with a group of complete strangers?”
“If you’d let me ride Barranca …”
“No,” Murdoch said sharply. “We’ve already discussed this. You’re not ready …”
“Dios, Murdoch! I once rode fifty miles with a bullet in my back, an’ I sure didn’t notice you around to stop me.”
“Maybe more,” Johnny shrugged. “Wasn’t exactly takin’ count.”
“For God’s sake!” Murdoch turned away, his hand clawing the back of his head in agitation. “For God’s sake.” He drew in his breath and released it slowly before turning back to face his son. “Who shot you? How old were you?”
Alarmed by his father’s extreme response, Johnny shrugged away the angry questions.
“Answer me, John!”
“An’ what the hell would you do, Old Man, if I did tell you ev’ry last, shitty, crappy, mis’rable detail? What the hell would you do!? Go out an’ shoot ev’ry man who beat on me or put a bullet in my worthless hide!?” Realising he was close to tears, Johnny turned his back on his father and pulled the blanket over his head. “Reckon all you’d do, Old Man, is hear a thousand more reasons to keep the spade bit in my mouth.”
“That isn’t true, John,” Murdoch sighed. “I know that I haven’t spent enough time …” He hesitated. “I haven’t made enough effort to …” He rested his hand gently on the blanket covering Johnny’s shoulder. “I know I have to do more.”
Johnny felt the pressure of his father’s hand, tensing as he heard the older man struggle to express his feelings.
“My big brother been lecturin’ you again?” he said, quietly bitter.
“Among others, yes,” his father admitted.
“A man’s gotta follow his own road, Murdoch, or it ain’t worth two bits.”
“Is that what you’re doing?” Murdoch removed his hand and gazed down at his son’s shrouded figure. “Is that where you’re going?”
“Ain’t followin’ nothin’ right now, Old Man. I’m just layin’ down on my ol’ road, ‘cos lately I been feelin’ real tired; real tired.”
To Murdoch, the silence in the room sounded as loud as thunder echoing in a canyon. Hands in pockets, he kept his gaze on his son’s back, feeling as hopelessly lost as when Maria had fled in the night taking his precious baby into the shadows of another land.
The stage was old, the paint peeling off in yellow flakes, the blinds frayed and the shafts and traces worn to a shine by a dozen teams. To Johnny, already in fear of its imprisoning walls, it resembled a hearse attempting a deception, sinister in the unsuspecting sunlight. Waiting for his father to collect the tickets from the booking office across the street, he leaned on the post rail and silently surveyed the other passengers. Two elderly sisters in identical red check dresses fussed over their luggage, berating the driver for his carelessness. Resolutely ignoring them, the sweating man continued to tie up the parcels and cases on top of the coach, shoving them into positions with resentful vehemence. A middle-aged couple stood rigidly on the boardwalk arm-in-arm; both sets of eyes were fixed nervously on the stage. A quick appraisal of the woman, her dependent bearing and her pale, fretful face, offered Johnny nothing of interest. The man had stared blankly at him, seen the gun slung unusually low on his hip and looked away in distaste, his thin lips twitching below a brown moustache.
The only other person he could see was a young man of around his age, dressed like a cowboy, but wearing a gun, conspicuously new. Swinging an old saddle on top of the coach, he then sat down on the dusty boardwalk to smoke a cheroot, his boots pushing at stones in the dirt. Johnny’s emotions were stirred. Here was a man such as he had once been, as self-contained as a lone wolf, his saddle his only luggage and coolly appearing to disregard everything but his own boots.
“You boys wanna sling them pieces up here?”
Both young men looked intently at the driver who was up in his box, hand outstretched, ready to take the gun belts for storage.
“No, sir,” the cowboy replied first. “Wasn’t fixin’ to.”
Johnny remained silent, aware that his father was approaching from across the street.
“Company policy, boy,” the driver said stoutly. “No guns inside the stage. Hand it over … You too, son.”
The driver, recognising he would have to deal with further resistance from the cowboy, looked expectantly at Johnny. It seemed to the young man that he was suddenly the centre of everyone’s attention. The muttering sisters had fallen watchfully silent, and the middle-aged man was looking at him with cold distrust. The thought of giving up his gun among strangers filled him with dread and anger. As he struggled with his response, his father came to stand beside him, a newspaper in his hand, his Eastern aftershave a potent signal of his presence. Johnny wanted to move away from him. He knew that the cowboy, though looking up at the cloudless sky, was alert to his every word and movement.
“Is there a problem?” Murdoch enquired, looking at the driver.
“No, Mister Lancer.” The other man, thin and wiry, his shoulders stooped from years of leaning into the wind behind a team of horses, leapt down from his position. “I was just makin’ it clear to these two boys that it’s company policy to keep guns exterior to the coach.”
“And I was telling you, old timer,” the cowboy drawled from his seat on the boardwalk. “I’m not inclined to give up my gun.”
“Then you don’t travel in my stage, boy!” the driver said adamantly. He looked fiercely at Johnny. “What about you, son? I ain’t about to mess up ten years of punctual departures for a couple of smart-aleck critters like you.”
When Johnny stiffened with anger, Murdoch placed his hand on his shoulder.
“This is my son, Seth,” he said quietly. “Has he refused to give up his gun?”
“Well, no, he ain’t,” Seth replied hastily, flustered by the revelation. “But he ain’t exactly been forthcomin’ with it neither.”
Johnny waited for the inevitable order from his father to relinquish his gun. Readying himself to resist and argue, he found it hard not to smile in astonishment at the older man’s next words.
“You have a boy, Seth,” Murdoch said calmly. “I imagine that the reason John’s having a hard time making his decision is because of me and the other older passengers. How can he protect us if he doesn’t have his gun?”
The driver’s expression changed instantly from a wary hostility to an indulgent smile.
“Oh, you got no worries on that score, son,” he said eagerly. “My stage is the safest on the line – even gotta medal fer it last fall. Believe me, your daddy’ll be safer than a nut in its shell.”
Seeing that Johnny was still wavering, the driver pointed excitedly at his seat at the front of the old coach.
“Tell you what I’ll do. I’m supposed to stow all firearms in a box under my seat, but I’ll keep your belt looped on my rail, so you can get to it quick – not that you’ll need to, o’ course.”
“For God’s sake,” the middle-aged man said in sudden exasperation. “Can we get going, Driver? I think these young men have been indulged long enough. Leave them behind if they can’t do as they’re told.”
“Quite right,” one of the sisters agreed, nodding vigorously. “Young men and guns are a godless combination.”
“Now, you all just hush now!” the driver said irritably. “This boy is just lookin’ out for his daddy. Don’t make him some danged gunfighter. How ‘bout it, son?”
Johnny knew he was defeated by the strange collusion of these two older men, the driver’s sentimentality and his father’s cunning. Nodding slightly, he reluctantly unbuckled his belt and handed it to Seth who accepted it like a hard-won trophy. Immediately, he carried out his promise and fastened it over the seat rail.
“Nuts are fine ‘til you crack ‘em open,” Johnny said darkly, glowering at the smug smile on the face of the middle-aged man. Hearing the savage whisper of ‘Daddy’s boy’ from the cowboy on the boardwalk, he knew he was expected to retaliate, but the brief flash of anger he felt gave way to a smile at the irony of the insult. He stepped contemptuously over the young man’s saddle cast down by the driver and followed Murdoch into the swallowing confines of the coach where the other passengers were already fussing and settling. Taking a seat by the window nearest the driver’s box, it gave him comfort to see his gun belt hanging close enough for him to grab it, though he still felt a terrible sense of powerlessness without its familiar weight against his thigh.
To distract himself, he watched, smiling slightly, as his tall, big-boned father attempted to make himself comfortable in the seat opposite, next to the stone-faced couple. Murdoch’s cross expression, which seemed aimed directly at his own large knees, made his son stifle a snort of laughter. His father looked at him so severely Johnny lowered his head, hiding his amusement under the brim of his hat.
Moments later, the cowboy entered the coach, glaring furiously at anyone who might dare to notice he was now without his gun belt. Throwing himself down next to Johnny, he scowled at the other man’s lowered head. Johnny struggled not to howl with laughter at the mood of suppressed antagonism and rigidity in the confined space of the coach. ‘Big ol’ anger pie,’ he thought gleefully. ‘Should set a match to it.’ He felt unaccountably happy as he stretched out his legs so that his ankles rested against Murdoch’s boots.
As the stage rumbled and bounced its way out of Green River, Murdoch found himself regretting his capitulation to Sam. Already, his back was protesting at the old coach’s worn seats, and his son had retreated into silence under the shadow of his hat. He noticed for the first time with painful emotion that Johnny was wearing one of Scott’s jackets. It was made of light brown leather, and slightly too big for his younger son’s smaller frame. A sudden and strong desire to cuddle the boy possessed him in the icy atmosphere of the coach. Pushing the unfamiliar thought away, he wondered at the smile that seemed to be playing on Johnny’s partly concealed mouth. Murdoch longed to know what could be so amusing in such an atmosphere.
Diagonally opposite him, the elderly sisters were whispering as they unwrapped little parcels of food, darting glances at the other passengers like furtive squirrels. They invited no intimacy with others, their closeness as forbidding as a house without windows. Next to him, the rigid stares and fiercely clasped hands of the middle-aged couple expressed their hidden fears as eloquently as any words. Murdoch entertained himself for awhile speculating on the reasons for their fear. Were they running from her furious husband or his abandoned wife? Had they robbed a bank or cheated at cards? Or was it the sight of his blue-eyed, half-breed boy with the well-worn gun belt that had so unnerved them?
This last thought so irritated him that he took out his reading glasses and opened his newspaper, soon losing himself in the continuing debate over the reconstruction of the southern states after the war.
“He really your pa?”
At first, Johnny’s only response to the softly spoken question was a slightly raised head, and then he nodded once, briefly.
“You don’t favour ‘im much, do ya?”
“Don’t talk too much either, do ya?”
“Figured you were doin’ enough talkin’ for the both of us back there.” Johnny smiled a little. He had known this man was no threat to him the moment he had seen the stiff, shiny leather of his gun belt.
“Yeh, well,” the cowboy scowled. “I don’t take too kindly to old men’s orders.”
Johnny looked at the other man with sudden interest, though he kept his hat brim low over his forehead. The cowboy’s complexion was so pale that his sandy brows and eyelashes were barely visible; the grey-green of his large eyes reminded Johnny of his brother.
“What’s your name?” he asked, his innate sense of curiosity aroused.
“Jeff Sherman, and no, I ain’t no relation to the General. What’s yours?”
“Johnny Lancer. Where you from?”
“My pa’s got a spread ‘bout fifty miles east of Stockton.” The young man paused, his eyes narrowing. “You any relation to Murdoch Lancer – owns most of the land from here to Modesto?”
“Yeh, that’s ‘im,” Johnny replied, amused, nodding his head towards the man who sat opposite them, absorbed in the newspaper.
The other man let out a low whistle. To Johnny, used to revealing himself with the speed of a slow thaw, young Sherman’s willingness to open up his character so hastily exposed him as an innocent. They were of about the same age, but he felt infinitely older.
“How long you been travellin’, Jeff?” he asked softly.
“’Bout a week,” the young man sighed, rubbing his dirty fingernails along the rim of his hat. “Truth to tell, it ain’t what I’d thought it’d be.”
“Well, had to sell the horse for one thing. It was either that or eat ‘im.”
Johnny smiled sympathetically. A week on his own and the boy had already lost his way. Such a lack of self-reliance chilled him.
“Why you runnin’, Jeff?”
Jeff shot him a black look. Johnny could feel the heat rise from the other man’s skin like a defensive shield.
“Who says I’m runnin’?”
“Just a hunch. Don’t matter none to me if you don’t wanna talk about it.”
Knowing that soon the other man would tell him everything, Johnny occupied himself with trying to catch the eye of the pale-faced woman. He knew she had been stealing anxious glances his way since her partner had fallen into restless, noisy sleep. He pushed his hat back far enough to reveal bright blue eyes under long, dark eyelashes, waited until the next time she looked and then threw her a slow smile. When she blushed deeply and averted her eyes, he laughed and pulled down the brim of his hat again.
“My pa thinks I’m a kid or somethin’,” Jeff said sullenly. Johnny stifled a sigh. “Just had enough, that’s all. Took a belt to me once too often, and I lit out fer good, yeh, I lit out fer good this time. I ain’t goin’ back.”
“He took a belt to you?” Though Johnny had frequently felt the savage brutality of other older men, he had never believed his own father would resort to such violence. Jeff smiled bleakly.
“He’s a god-fearin’ man, Johnny. Said he had to whup the sin outta me. No drinkin’, no women, no gamblin’, no cussin’, nothin’ ‘cept fourteen hours of work, two hours prayin’ an’ the rest sleepin’.”
Johnny stole a look at his own father whose face was hidden behind the large screen of the Boston newspaper. He risked jostling the older man’s ankle with his foot. Murdoch lowered the paper and regarded his son with an enquiring frown.
“Did you want something, John?”
“Nope,” Johnny replied, smiling warily. “Just checkin’ you’re still alive.”
“Well, I am, thank you,” Murdoch growled. “Now allow me to read in peace. It’s the only thing keeping my mind off this damned awful seat.”
“Back hurtin’ ya?” Johnny asked anxiously. Murdoch, hearing the edgy unease in the young man’s voice, sought to placate him.
“No more than usual,” he replied firmly. He shook the newspaper to a new page. “Now, will you settle down and let me finish my paper.”
“What ya readin’?”
“Oh, something about a man who went crazy on a stage and killed another passenger who wouldn’t let him concentrate on his reading.”
Johnny frowned uneasily before letting out a scornful snort.
“You’re a real funny man, Murdoch.”
The older man returned to his paper, unable to restrain a small smile. Jeff had watched the exchange in silence while he picked at a loose thread on his embroidered boots.
“Your pa a god-fearin’ man?” he whispered.
“Not so’s you’d notice,” Johnny yawned, readying himself to sleep by slumping further down in the seat and pulling his hat right down over his eyes. “An’ I’m drownin’ in a big ol’ bucket of sin and whatever else, he ain’t about to whup it outta me.”
“What kinda sin?” Jeff asked cautiously.
“The kind whole oceans can’t wash away,” Johnny sighed. “Now, I’m kinda tired, Jeff, if you don’t mind …”
“I saw your gun,” the cowboy persisted. Johnny tensed. “You any good?”
Johnny closed his eyes, at first feigning sleep to avoid the other man’s questions and then, lulled by the rocking motion of the coach along a relatively level track, he fell quickly into slumber.
“Excuse me; I can’t help noticing that you have a Boston newspaper.”
Murdoch turned in surprise to the middle-aged man next to him. The paper now lay on his lap while he read a pocket edition of ‘David Copperfield’, a favourite book that was now causing him some pain as he read of Murdstone’s callous treatment of his stepson.
“Yes, “he replied politely. “Would you care to read it?”
“Thank you, Mister …?”
“Miles Carson,” the other man said quietly, with a glance at the pleading eyes of the woman next to him. He passed the paper over to her and Murdoch watched amazed as she immediately began to scan the columns of close print with the intensity of a mosquito seeking blood.
“Was there a particular item you were looking for?” Murdoch enquired.
“Yes,” Carson admitted, gazing with something like pity at the woman at his side, then he abruptly turned to look directly at the other man. Murdoch noticed the dark circles under his eyes and the fine sheen of sweat that covered his balding head.
“That boy opposite you,” he whispered nervously, with an edge of panic. “Is he really your son?”
Murdoch glanced at Johnny who was still apparently asleep, though he knew the young man had a crocodile-like ability to feign sleep in places where he felt unsafe.
“Yes, he is,” he replied curtly, irritated by Carson’s bewildering manner. “Is there any reason why that should interest you?”
“Well, if you’ll forgive me …” Carson hesitated. “We thought he might be a hired gun.”
“Well, he damn well isn’t!” Murdoch glared furiously at the other man. “Why in God’s name would you think it?”
Carson, alarmed by the rancher’s reaction, chewed his lower lip before answering in a subdued voice.
“I’m very sorry to have offended you, Mister Lancer. It’s all these weeks on the road. It turns a man so fearful he runs from his own shadow.”
Murdoch had barely calmed down, deeply unsettled by the dark brush of truth sweeping so closely to his consciousness. He continued to regard the other man with distrust and anger.
“Perhaps you could tell me what you’re so afraid of?” he said coldly. “I think you owe me some sort of explanation.”
Carson turned to the woman who, looking fervently at him, handed him the paper.
“Nothing,” she whispered. “There’s nothing, Miles, nothing.”
He rested one hand on her arm and squeezed gently, then returned the paper to Murdoch.
“I guess it’s safe enough here, Mister Lancer,” Carson said, glancing again towards Johnny and keeping his voice low. “Beth and I are from Boston. We’re ….” He hesitated. “We’re on the run.”
“Who from?” Murdoch asked doubtfully.
“Beth’s father,” Carson looked at the woman as if seeking her permission to continue. She nodded, and it seemed to Murdoch that the other man sighed with relief. Leaning closer to the rancher, he spoke in a fierce whisper. “He kept her prisoner in that house of his for forty years, and I’m not going to let him take her back. He’d have to kill me first!”
“A prisoner?” Murdoch frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“What else would you call it? After Beth’s mother died when she was ten, the old man kept her in the house to cook and clean for him. Up until six months ago she never went out, never had friends, barely spoke to a soul from one year to the next. She wasn’t even allowed a little dog or cat to keep her company.”
Murdoch stifled a smile at the tender empathy of a man he had previously thought cold and hostile and looked with concern towards the woman. She lowered her head.
“That seems a terrible fate,” he said quietly. “May I ask how you came to know Miss …?”
“Smith,” Carson said hastily. “Of course, these aren’t our real names. We change them every time we move. We have no choice, do we? This is the life we’ve chosen. It’s our fate.”
He grasped the woman’s hand firmly and gazed into her unquestioning eyes. They seemed locked in a pact as tight as their clasped hands.
“We met the one time Beth managed to escape from the house,” Carson said softly. “She went straight to the library across the street. It had been her life’s yearning to borrow a book from there, and I felt it, Mister Lancer. I can’t explain it, but I felt it as powerfully as if someone had put her passion in a cup and told me to drink it. She came in like an elemental force, shook my pointless life to pieces and made me whole. And here I am now, in a stage coach in California telling our tale to a stranger, hoping that you’re an honourable man.”
“I hope that I am,” Murdoch replied, his emotions stirred by the couple’s story and by their manifest devotion. He had known what it was to be in the grasp of a passion so intense he had felt like a hallucinating captive in an unknown land. Shrugging the unwelcome memory from his mind, he returned to ‘David Copperfield’, intensely aware of the couple murmuring like birds in the high roof of a church and of the touch of his son’s boot against his own.
The staging post was small and isolated, set before a stand of tall, ancient redwoods like a guardhouse to a mysterious, trackless land. Strong winds rocked the unseen crowns of the trees as the passengers disembarked for the night, the twittering sisters and the runaway couple disappearing immediately into the smoky fug of the adobe building, eager to escape the rain slanting down from the mountains.
The moment the coach had stopped, Murdoch had been unable to prevent his son jumping out into the storm and grabbing his gun belt off the driver’s rail. Now, while the wind whipped the vehicle’s fraying blinds and the rain made the leather straps securing the luggage to the roof slippery and hard to handle, Johnny resisted his father’s shouted order to go inside. Instead, he stood in the driven rain with Jeff, water dripping from the brim of his hat, collecting the luggage from the driver and stowing it in the roadhouse’s wide porch. Anxiety and anger fuelling his energy, Murdoch helped finish the task while Johnny released the lead pair of horses from their traces and led them into the stalls adjoining the building.
Obeying the driver’s gentle instruction to ‘Go inside now, son,’ Johnny left the stalls, but stood, oblivious to the rain, gazing up at the swaying trees moving like huge, feathery dancers at some ancient rite. Nodding on the roof of the old building were a few flowers, seeming as fragile as paper, but moving as naturally to the violent tune of the storm as the trees. ‘Is that in Murdoch’s books,’ he thought. ‘If I could draw that … Would I find out somethin’ he an’ Scott don’t know? Would I know everythin’?’
“Johnny!” Jeff yelled above the swirling wind, tugging at his new friend’s sleeve. “Your pa’s about to bust ‘is gut!”
Inside the small, sparsely furnished room he had to share with his father, Johnny pulled his sketchbook from his bag and, sitting cross-legged on the bed, began to draw quickly on a blank page.
“Will you at least take that jacket off, John,” Murdoch said irritably, put out of temper by his aching back and his son’s self-contained behaviour. Johnny looked up briefly at the interruption.
“Soy bien,” he replied vaguely, his mind intent on capturing the sense of the trees in the storm and the flowers below.
“It’s wet!” Murdoch snapped. “Take it off now!”
His father’s sharp command broke his concentration. He looked up again, frowning at the older man who was folding a shirt meticulously. The detailed movements reminded Johnny of a mime artist he had once seen in Mexico; the man had frightened him with his deliberate silence. Later, he had used it himself to goad men to their deaths.
“Why’re you so mad?” he asked simply.
Murdoch laid the shirt on the patchwork bedspread with the same exaggerated care Johnny had seen Scott use. Such solicitude over clothes mystified him.
“Why did you have to stay out in the rain when everyone else had the sense to go in?” his father demanded.
“The old man needed help.”
“He’s not so old,” Murdoch said testily. “And he was doing what he’s paid to do.”
“An’ that means I don’t help a man who’s unloadin’ a coach by himself in a storm. Ain’t sure I like what you’re teachin’ me, Old Man.”
Murdoch drew in his breath at the insolence, ready to unleash a furious lecture upon his son. He thought better of it and let the breath out in a heavy sigh. His words were slow and measured.
“You’ve been very ill. You’re still recovering. Sam told us the pneumonia could come back at any time. Why do you insist on hurtling towards what most men fear above all else?”
“Maybe I don’t fear it,” Johnny answered calmly. “But I’ll take the jacket off if it’ll make you happy.” He removed the jacket, noticing for the first time how wet it was, how heavy. His brother’s favourite work jacket – torn on the right sleeve by wire in its first summer. He found a hanger and hung it up to dry over the wardrobe door. Watching silently, Murdoch felt failure creep over him like a fog. For all the power he commanded over land and men in the San Joaquin Valley, here he was a negative force, bruising this unsolved mystery, as carelessly as a bear breaking open a honeycomb. His gaze found the closed sketchbook on the other bed. He had seen it before, but had not allowed its existence to register in a busy, doubting mind. Now, it seemed astonishing in its singularity, lying there on a strange bed, grubby and dog-eared. He longed to pick it up, but Johnny stuffed it back in the bag before walking out of the room, head down.
This roadhouse had a main room with a rough bar from which the Mexican owner and his wife glumly dispensed indifferent food and drink while conversing with each other in low, irritated speech. Silently eating their suppers in this dismal atmosphere, the other passengers sparked with interest when Johnny walked up to the bar and leaned his elbows on it, whistling tunelessly. The owner, short and overweight, regarded the young man with wary curiosity, sensing danger, but not the kind he feared.
“¿Tequila?” Johnny asked. Raising his eyebrows, the owner nodded.
“Si, Señor. ¿Usted piensa que esta gente fina desea alguno tambien?” (“You think these fine people want some too?”)
Johnny smiled and looked back over his shoulder at the passengers. They hastily averted their eyes, except for Jeff who sat back in his chair attempting a version of his friend’s detachment.
“Pudo liven los encima de un poco, amigo!” (“Might liven them up a little!”)
The owner laughed in delight, casting a glance at his wife so she could share the joke. In the act of serving a beer to Jeff, she had smiled to see Johnny’s exaggerated lean on the bar, the way he pushed out his hips.
“Solamente un scorpion en sus cama hará eso,” her husband smirked, pouring Johnny a drink. (“Only a scorpion in their beds would do that!”)
“¿Usted tiene scorpions?” (D’you have any scorpions?”) the young man asked, downing one tequila before pouring himself another. The owner’s roar of laughter turned into an annoyed frown when Miles Carson lifted a hand to beckon him over.
“Speaks the language like a native, doesn’t he, Myra,” one of the sisters said scornfully, as Johnny passed them to sit next to Jeff. “His father seems like such a gentleman, too. It really is a wonder.”
She recoiled as Johnny leaned down close to her face and whispered fiercely, “No piense que la vieja edad le protegerá, Señora.” (“Don’t think that old age will protect you, lady.”)
Though she failed to understand his words, she trembled and fell silent under his contempt.
“Boy, that sure told her,” Jeff laughed. Johnny scowled at his naivety, feeling a sudden, intense desire to go and sleep with the horses. He saw his father walk across to the bar and order a beer, and felt as far from him as he had ever been. When the owner’s wife set down a plate of chilli and rice before him like a votive offering he fought back a desire to cry.
“Hice esto para usted, muchacho hermoso,” (“I made this for you, handsome boy.”) she whispered tenderly. He smiled, felt the usual stirrings at the attentions of an attractive woman, especially one whose husband was only a few yards away serving his father with beer, and then filed her away for later contemplation.
He began to eat with a sudden, fierce hunger that shut her out as effectively as closing a door. Jeff observed him with wide-eyed admiration.
“What she say to you?” he asked, leaning forward over his beer.
“That she wants to fuck me,” Johnny answered neutrally, swallowing a mouthful of beer.
“Jesus, are ya gonna?”
“Nope, you can have her, boy,” Johnny said, feeling the full depressing weight of the difference between their two young lives. He finished his meal quickly and then went to bed to avoid having to talk to his father again that day.
When the nightmare came it began with trees bending over him like enraged gods, trapping him so completely that he was beating against their branches like a bird desperate to escape a tiny cage. Suffocating, he spat feathers from his mouth until they formed a bloodied bed under him. His mother wiped his face while the roadhouse owner’s wife stuffed chilli into his mouth and his brother lay as cold and still under his neck like a marble pillow. Then Raul came, as he always did, in one form or another – this time as a bat-winged creature that raised the belt as high as the howling trees and who murdered
Maria with the casual ease of pushing a cat off the bed. And always the same words that no distortion of a dream could ever disturb, ‘Tú no es ningún bueno, tú pequeño palo de golf de mierda. Tú seria mejor demuertos!’ (You’re no good, you fucking little brat. You’d be better off dead!)
Murdoch, lying awake in the other bed, heard the mutterings first, the barely intelligible Spanish that became clearer as the nightmare gripped deeper. He wanted to stop his son’s torment, yet felt compelled, against all previous instincts, to understand the cause of it. Scott had told him of these frequent dreams, sometimes so violent that his brother ripped the sheets. Listening hard, Murdoch began to discern words that filled him with torment.
“No le mate. No mate a mi madre. Mama, Mama, Mama. Ella es muerta, dios del oh, ella es muerta. ¡Mama!”
Unable to bear it any longer, Murdoch left his bed and attempted to awaken the young man. By now he could hear only one phrase repeated many times. “¿Dónde estás tú?, ¿Dónde estás tú?, ¿Dónde estás tú?, sobbed in a voice of such yearning that Murdoch felt his heart would break.
“Wake up, John,” he said firmly, shaking the young man’s shoulders. “Wake up. You’re having a nightmare. Come on, wake up for me.”
Johnny heard his father’s voice as if from down a long, echoing tunnel. It grew louder the closer he came to consciousness until it seemed a roar that made him cover his ears and turn away with a groan. Fighting for breath, he lay with his back to Murdoch. When he opened his eyes to the dimly lit room, a large crack in the whitewashed wall by the bed appeared to be inviting him to another oblivion.
It was then he felt warm, strong fingers on his head, pushing through his hair to his scalp, rubbing with a fierce insistence that caused him something like pain. Though it felt like assault, he knew it was love. It pinned him there on the strange bed with an odd clumsiness – he wanted both to push the fingers away and to take them into himself and teach them stillness.
Here was communion, the kind he had been exhorted to feel by irritated priests in the orphanage, the kind he knew was different from the bond he felt with land, horse and gun, his lifelong protectors from loneliness. What was this that could feel so suffocating yet bring him so close to ecstasy? Where did that voice come from, so familiar yet so unknown?
“Vaya a dormir. Miraré sobre tú. Vaya a dormir.” (Go to sleep. I’ll watch over you. Go to sleep.)
Murdoch concealed his surprise when Johnny chose to sit next to him in the coach, away from his gun belt that was again in place on the driver’s rail.
“Do you want to sit by the window, John?” he asked. Johnny shook his head silently, narrowing his eyes when the sisters entered the coach and hurried to take the seats furthest from him, muttering about people who changed seats in mid-journey. It was a cool, grey morning and he felt aggrieved at the lack of the sun. It felt like a punishment. Though he knew it was jammed somewhere behind the louring clouds, to him it did not exist. He grunted at Jeff who cheerfully sat down next to him.
“Didn’t see ya at breakfast, Johnny,” he said, nodding a greeting at the two sisters who, for some reason Johnny could not fathom, both smiled back at Jeff.
“Boy, them pancakes were better than my ma’s! An’ that’s sayin’ somethin’. My ma’s …”
“Jeff,” Johnny interrupted irritably. “Why don’t you just go on home?”
“What you talkin’ about?” the other man said defensively.
“For a man who’s runnin’ from home, you talk like you wanna just run right back there. If you’re gonna run, just run an’ don’t turn around. Be a man about it or just shut the f … just shut up an’ go on home.”
“Boy, who rattled your chain?” Jeff laughed, exasperating Johnny further still as the driver hollered to the team and the coach began its journey. He glanced up at Miles Carson, directly opposite him now. When Carson attempted a brief smile, he lowered his head, distrustful of these overnight changes. His father had opened a book and seemed instantly absorbed in the dense type. They had barely spoken since waking, Murdoch packing his bag with quiet concentration, Johnny drinking coffee brought to them by the roadhouse owner’s wife, the turmoil of the night gone like smoke. Three times he had tried to speak, but his courage had failed before his father’s dogged silence. Now, he wanted to drag the book from the older man’s hands and throw it out of the window.
Murdoch, reading the same sentence for the fifteenth time, ‘He beat me then, as if he would have beaten me to death,’ could think only of his son’s words in the night. They crammed his mind like sharp stones. The vague tale they told had driven his innocent son to killing other men. Had Johnny witnessed his mother’s murder? It seemed impossible to conceive that the boy could keep such horror to himself, and yet Murdoch quailed before the knowledge of such a terrible truth. Feeling the pressure of Johnny’s shoulder against his arm, he looked at him and received a wary smile from the young man. He smiled back and saw a little of the tension leave his son, but he felt as if he was chained to a cold, jagged rock fighting off eagles who wanted to tear out his liver. Appalled, he realised that part of him longed to push this horror clean out of his life, that he resented the burden of it, railed against the unfairness of a lost contentment. For a burning moment, he hated Johnny for finding his heart and himself for allowing it to be found. As he sat among dozing strangers, he wanted to scream out loud from the pain.
Believing his father lost to ‘David Copperfield’, Johnny took out his sketchbook from the inside pocket of his brother’s jacket and began to sketch Miles Carson. He liked the sheen of his bald head, the three small vertical lines between his eyebrows, his small, wide nose and the candyfloss pinkness of his skin. As he drew him with rapid strokes of his pencil, he noticed the hat resting on his lap. Grey, with a narrow, turned-up brim, it was the kind he had seen only in his one visit to San Francisco. The darker grey ribbon decorating the brim’s edge was faded and frayed. The cuffs and turn-ups of his well-tailored suit were also frayed and the sole of one of his shoes had worn as thin as paper. Johnny felt his previous contempt dissolve into compassion as his pencil gradually revealed the shabby Boston librarian who had given everything for love.
“Why d’ya do that?”
His concentration broken, Johnny glanced at the boy next to him. Jeff was staring distrustfully at the sketch of the dozing Carson.
Johnny shrugged. “To catch a feelin’,” he replied quietly.
“What kinda feelin’?”
“The bit between what you can see an’ what you can’t.”
“Well, that don’t make no sense!” Jeff said scornfully. Johnny made no reply and continued to shade in the contours of Carson’s hat.
“I had me my picture taken last fall by one of them travellin’ fellers,” Jeff announced loudly after a short time. “He said it was the future. Said there’d be no need for folks to be paintin’ an’ drawin’ now we got photography.”
“Is that right?” Johnny smiled a little. “Sure would like to have met such a knowin’ man.”
“Well, he’s right, ain’t he?” Jeff frowned. “He had folks queuing halfway down the street.”
“The Sioux believe that photographs steal your shadow so you don’t get to live so long,” Johnny said, studying the intertwined hands of Carson and his lover. He began a separate sketch, feeling a tremor of fear and excitement at attempting something so new and difficult.
“What would a fuckin’ redskin know?” Jeff whispered contemptuously.
“About that bit in between,” Johnny replied evenly. “I lived with ‘em for awhile. They got no books, no money, no routines. All they got is the day an’ they live in it as if there ain’t no other days.”
“You lived with them savages?”
Johnny knew his father, apparently absorbed in his reading, must be listening. Before last night, he had known only that his son had become a gunfighter at fourteen, four years after his mother’s death. It had seemed enough for them both.
He was uncertain how much he had revealed in his sleep, but Johnny felt the change in his father towards him. If all was lost anyway, he thought, he might as well throw the rest at the older man’s departing back.
“Yeh,” he said, answering Jeff. “I needed to be lost for awhile.”
“Like me, ya mean?”
“Yeh, Jeff,” Johnny said softly. “Just like you.”
“Still can’t see why ya didn’t just head on up to the mountains, ‘stead of riskin’ your neck with a bunch o’ savages.”
“You can learn from other people if you listen an’ look hard enough. What can you learn from a mountain ‘cept how to be alone? I knew enough ‘bout that already.”
“So what did ya learn?” Jeff asked doubtfully, watching Johnny’s pencil stroke life into Carson’s left thumb.
“How to track, how to find my way by the stars, how to survive in a desert, how to respect what I don’t know, but I can feel.”
“How old were ya?” Jeff was frowning at Murdoch who made no indication that he was listening.
“Sixteen, I guess,” Johnny replied. “Young braves go out into the wild at ‘bout that age to seek their vision – it tells ‘em what path their life’ll take. They wanted me to try it.”
“Nope, told ‘em I was already set on my path.”
“Herdin’ cows,” Jeff’s tone held a trace of contempt.
“No,” Johnny smiled faintly. “Didn’t see that one comin’. There was a whole lot I didn’t see comin’. Guess I should’ve looked for my vision.”
Ignoring any further attempts by Jeff to interrogate him about his past, he gave his mind to the couple’s entwined fingers.
Murdoch, dazed by the boy’s latest revelation, cast surreptitious glances at the emerging art. He knew that hands had defeated many men. He had seen fine paintings brought down by an inability to capture the contours of fingers, to bring life to the bones inside the skin. What he saw appear slowly under his son’s pencil was human life, the union of the couple expressed in a clasp so intense it seemed their flesh had become one. ‘Who is this person?’ was the thought that gripped him. ‘I don’t know him. Where has he come from?’ Another thought came moments later, ‘Why has he been gifted to me? I’m not worthy. I will fail him.”
“May I have the picture?”
Johnny looked up at the woman in the corner of the carriage. She was staring directly at him, the longing in her brown eyes giving sudden life to her pale skin.
“I’ll pay you for it, of course,” she said, glancing at her still sleeping lover. “I have nothing of us, you see, nothing that will make this real.”
Murdoch’s instinct was to ask what she meant, but he kept quiet as Johnny nodded silently and handed her the finished drawing of their clasped hands. She took it with the reverence of a supplicant taking communion, gazing at it with barely suppressed emotion before reaching for her purse. Johnny shook his head, his blue eyes intent on her form.
“No, I don’t want payin’,” he said quietly. Beth looked at him with what, to Murdoch, seemed close to grief, before she put her hand in her small carpet bag and produced a hunk of bread and an apple.
“You didn’t eat breakfast,” she whispered. “I noticed.”
Johnny took the food and ate it before her unflinching gaze. Later, he drifted to sleep against his father’s shoulder. Jeff watched pensively as Murdoch, after chewing his lower lip for some minutes, put down his book and pulled the young man under his arm, allowing the dark head to rest in his lap. The rancher gazed out at the western landscape that seemed to him now more like a vast and restless ocean, and he, alone with his child, was drifting to some unknown land.
The hotel was new, large for a small town and built to accommodate the increasing numbers who attended the horse auctions. While the Boston couple and Jeff went off to seek cheaper lodgings, the elderly sisters accompanied Murdoch and Johnny through the ‘The Pioneer’s’ heavy wooden doors into a lobby of deep red carpets and walls covered with polished mirrors in golden frames.
“Bit fancy for me, ain’t it, Old Man,” Johnny said loudly. “Reckon I’ll go look for a barn to lay in.”
Murdoch grabbed his son’s collar as he made pretence of turning to leave.
“No, you don’t, boy,” he said, amused. “We have to start civilising you sometime.” He pulled Johnny next to him at the reception desk. “Now behave yourself and try not to embarrass me.”
The desk clerk lifted his head from his register and smiled fulsomely at the tall, respectably dressed rancher before looking coldly at Johnny who was leaning on the polished desk flipping the date cards on a brass calendar. He moved the object away from the young man.
“What can I do for you, sir?” he asked
“Well, guess I’m lookin’ for a room,” Johnny replied calmly, adjusting his hat so that it went further down over his eyes. “Unless this ain’t a hotel.”
The clerk smiled thinly with his lips, his eyes frigid with aversion.
“I don’t think this establishment will suit you. I can recommend one further down the street …”
“My name is Murdoch Lancer,” Murdoch interrupted angrily. “And this is my son. Now, I’ve booked two rooms for three nights and I would be extremely grateful if we could sign in.”
Johnny smirked at the clerk’s flustered expression and his haste in obeying his father’s command. Behind the desk was a large and lurid portrait of settlers at a wagon repelling a band of unidentifiable but vividly painted Indians. The young man studied the painting intently, before following Murdoch and the porter upstairs. He allowed the old man to place his bag in the room adjoining his father’s, tipped him, and then picked it up and carried it into where Murdoch was already unbuckling the straps on his case. He threw the bag on the other bed in the large room and lay down to watch his father’s meticulous actions. Murdoch turned to look at him, surprised.
“Something wrong with your room, John?” he asked, straightening up, his shaving utensils in his hands.
“Oh …” Murdoch frowned and carried the shaving things over to the dresser, arranging them fastidiously before returning to his case. Carefully removing items of clothing, he transferred them to draws, uncomfortably aware that he was being watched closely by his son. When he had finished unpacking he again faced the young man who regarded him with the implacability of a blue-eyed cat, his dark fringe meeting his long dark eyelashes.
“John, I know that what happened down there was unspeakable …,” he began.
Johnny shrugged, looking away for the first time.
“Used to it,” he said neutrally. “Happens all the time. Gringos don’t like Mexicans, but they really hate mestizos.”
“My God,” Murdoch said disbelievingly. “You mean it was because you’re half Mexican? I thought it was because of your age or the state of your clothes!”
Johnny stared at his outraged father and then burst out laughing.
“Jesus, Murdoch, if you ain’t about as green as that kid, Jeff,” he gasped, breaking into further helpless laughter.
“This isn’t funny, John,” Murdoch scowled, pacing the floor, his arms folded. “We should check out. We can’t stay here.”
Johnny recovered himself and smiled slowly. “What, an’ let ‘em win, Old Man?”
“But judging you like that,” his father said passionately. “You of all people!”
Johnny frowned warily at the older man, his amusement defeated by sudden fear. He sat up straight, his legs over the edge of the bed, his head lowered. Murdoch, recognising that his son was struggling to make sense of his words, knelt down in front of him, his heart racing with panic. This act, so unfamiliar to Johnny, made him look sharply at his father, distrust and anxiety marking his features. He tensed and drew in his breath when Murdoch grasped his hands and held them tightly.
“John … Johnny,” he said, terrified that he might choose the wrong words. “What I meant to say was – oh God, I’m no good at this.” He squeezed his son’s hands harder, rubbing the skin between thumb and forefinger with his broad thumbs. “What I meant to say was …” He lowered his head, and then quickly lifted it again. “What I want to say is you’re worth ten thousand of that jackass down there. How dare he judge you?” Murdoch felt himself begin to shred at the edges. He took a deep breath, barely able to speak and repeated, “How dare he?”
Johnny searched his father’s pale blue eyes, his breathing rapid with acute emotion. Suddenly, he pulled away and stood up.
“Told Jeff I’d meet him for a beer,” he said hastily. “Kid needs takin’ care of. Green as new grass.” He jammed on his hat and picked up his gun belt. “Ain’t gonna be late.”
Murdoch nodded and waited until Johnny had left the room before standing up. He felt wrung out like a squeezed sponge and crushed by a sense of failure. Ordering whisky and supper to be brought to his room, he sat down to write a letter to his brother, Iain, in Scotland telling him of how the family’s artistic gift had re-emerged in his wild half-Mexican boy.
Johnny met Jeff outside the young man’s lodgings. He felt calmer now; the cool night air and the long walk had helped him recover his senses. His father’s behaviour and language, so uncharacteristic as to be almost miraculous, was put in the box where he kept extraordinary things that could not yet be faced.
“Reckon on meetin’ any trouble?” Jeff asked, stepping out onto the street, one hand on the polished grip of his new gun. His voice held the reckless anticipation that Johnny had heard before a dozen times in boys on the canyon edge of death. He had never heard it without a sense of futility invading his heart.
“Not if we don’t go lookin’ for it,” he replied quietly, glad to be the other man’s protector, to feel solidly useful.
Outside the nearest saloon, a group of men surrounded a pair of fighting dogs. As the animals tore at each other, snapping and snarling with blood-stained teeth, the men goaded them on with curse-ridden howls. A man in a battered bowler hat and striped pants handed Jeff a bill advertising a miraculous calf with two heads. They entered the saloon, its atmosphere alive with smoke and loud voices. Groups of men were playing cards at round tables, and an old man wearily punched out songs on a tuneless piano. Johnny was instantly alert to every sound and movement, though to Jeff, excited and swaggering, he appeared bored and impassive.
“I’ll get us some beers,” Jeff offered cheerfully. Johnny nodded and sat down with his back to the wall, ensuring he had an unobstructed view of the entrance. Silently, he watched the young cowboy buy the drinks, noting any possible threats along the bar. He saw the backs of two men and dismissed them when he saw the lazy fit of their gun belts. Two tables away, leaning against a wooden post, was a man in a green waistcoat who had fixed his eyes on him the moment he had entered the saloon. Appraising him with the briefest of glances, he found he had no memory of the man, though his low-slung belt and relentless gaze alerted him to danger. He accepted a beer from Jeff and sipped it gladly.
“Sure is lively in here,” Jeff smiled, sitting down at the table, looking eagerly around at the unfamiliar faces. From outside, an agonised howl and a loud cheer signalled that the dogfight was over.
“Yeh,” Johnny replied, shaking his head at a girl with black hair and a bright red dress who was approaching their table. Seeing his cold, remote expression, she immediately made a detour to a drunken pair of cowboys who greeted her with incoherent gurgles and open arms.
“Hey, coulda bin my lucky night,” Jeff objected.
“Wasn’t your pants she was lookin’ to get into, boy,” Johnny smiled, feeling more than ever the need to protect the young man. Jeff frowned with annoyance and then returned the smile.
“Reckon not,” he admitted. “Ain’t much schooled in that kinda thing. Pa don’t hold with chasin’ after women.
“You mean you ain’t never …?”
Jeff shook his head and blushed a little before grinning at Johnny.
“Reckon if I stick with you though, my luck could change.”
“I ain’t the kinda luck a man needs,” Johnny said quietly, aware that the man in the green waistcoat had moved to the bar.
“Reckon that ain’t true, Johnny,” Jeff replied, gazing into the foam of his beer with sudden timidity. “Best man I met since I left home, the only honest one, and your pa seems real nice, holdin’ you while you was sleepin’ an’ all – like he really cares.”
Johnny remained silent, unwilling to discuss his father. He had been startled to wake and find his head in a sleeping Murdoch’s lap, the older man’s arm draped protectively over him. Shaking himself awake, he had found the eyes of the other passengers upon him, all of them, including those of the unfriendly old sisters and Miles Carson, softened into unmistakable tenderness. His own eyes had darted to his gun belt hanging from the rail outside, so deep had been his sense of danger and vulnerability. Two hours he had slept among essential strangers as deeply as a shattered child. Even now, he wondered how he could have allowed himself such exposure after years of sleeping lightly enough to wake at the slightest noise or movement. It had seemed like the most profound weakness of his life.
“Reckon you got space for another man at your spread?” Jeff asked suddenly.
Johnny looked at him thoughtfully and nodded. “Sure, I been thinkin’ about it anyway.”
“Really?” The young man’s happy disbelief made Johnny smile. “Your pa won’t mind?”
“Nope, as long as you pull your weight an’ don’t cuss around ‘im, he’ll be the best boss you’ll ever find.”
“I can work the legs off a mule, an’ I ain’t been brought up to cuss,” Jeff said, standing up, already slightly drunk. “I’m gonna get us some more beers to celebrate my new job!”
Glad that he had made the lonely boy happy, Johnny watched intently as he went confidently up to the bar and ordered two more beers.
Then he recognised in profile the man in the green waistcoat, a gambler and a gunfighter named Will Ferris he had met once on the Mexican border; Johnny Madrid had been just seventeen and already a feared legend. Slowly, he got to his feet and walked through the smoke and noise to join Jeff at the bar. His acute hearing sensed a sudden reduction in the volume of chatter around him, and his intensely focused mind was aware of other men’s fear swirling around his indifferent frame like a biting mist. Leaning on the rough wooden bar, he threw a dollar piece at the barman in payment for the beers. The barman grabbed it hurriedly and retreated down to the other end of the bar as Ferris stood to block Jeff’s way. Johnny remained loose-limbed and still, leaning back against the bar, his head lowered and tumbling a dollar piece in and out of his long fingers.
“Fancy rig, kid,” Ferris said softly, bringing his green eyes up from Jeff’s gun belt to the young man’s pale face. “Can you use it?”
“Some,” Jeff replied. Johnny sighed inwardly at this attempt to emulate him; it would be the boy’s death knell. Another man, younger, taller and scruffier than Ferris, sniggered over his shoulder.
“Looks kinda new, don’t it, Will,” he said, regarding Jeff with amused scorn.
“Looks like it needs an airing.” Ferris smiled with his small mouth, though his eyes were dead and cold. “I always feel an itch comin’ on when I see a smart rig like that in a quiet town. Always wanna give it some air.”
“You callin’ me out, Mister?” Jeff demanded. Ferris laughed, looking round at the now virtually silent saloon – the piano player had fled along with most of the girls – then he flicked his forefinger in the young cowboy’s face.
“No, boy. Just playin’. I’m not in the mood for killin’ greenhorns tonight.”
“I ain’t no greenhorn,” Jeff said fiercely. The instant Johnny saw his friend move to put down the beers, he spoke very quietly, his gaze still on the dollar piece.
“Go back to the table, Jeff,”
The young man turned and glared at him.
“I ain’t gonna let it go, Johnny. I can take him.”
“No, you can’t.” Johnny raised his head and looked at him steadily. “Now do what I fuckin’ say.”
Jeff hesitated at the terse command from this man he barely knew and then obeyed with a scowl, pushing his way past Ferris’ smirking companion. Ferris, whose attention had never wavered from the man leaning back against the bar, now addressed him directly.
“Heard you were dead, kid.” His tone and gaze were different now, cautious and alert. “Some older gun took you out down Stockton way.”
“’Bout right,” Johnny replied, wanting to smile at the irony of it. His eyes were once again on the dollar piece.
“You still dance?”
“Nope, I quit.”
“That old rig’s telling me you’re still undecided.”
Johnny detected the trace of a challenge in the older man’s tone. He could hear the collective intake of breath of the onlookers in the room, the excited murmurings, and pitied their ignorance. He was almost bored.
“Then you ain’t hearin’ right,” he said coolly.
“Just take the half-breed brat, Will,” Ferris’ companion said impatiently, picking up a bottle of whisky from the table. “We got an appointment to keep upstairs, remember?”
In Johnny’s sudden small, cold smile Ferris saw that his friend was already dead, if not now, then at some point soon.
“This is no brat, Clyde,” he said evenly. “And I’d advise you to keep your mouth polite around him if you wanna live long enough to please those ladies tonight.”
“I ain’t lickin’ the butt of no half-breed whelp.”
The instant the man thought of going for his gun, he was howling with pain and grasping his bleeding arm. Ferris, who had stepped neatly aside the moment he had known his friend intended to draw, looked at the stricken younger man with contempt.
“I’d have aimed more central,” he said impassively. “Guess the kid’s feeling generous tonight.”
Ferris stooped to pick up Johnny’s dollar piece from the grimy wooden floor and held it up in front of his companion’s face. It had been shot cleanly through the centre.
“Just in case you thought you were lucky, you jackass,” he said, tossing the coin into the air where it was caught by one of the eager spectators. Ferris turned and looked at Johnny who had returned to his position at the bar, a new dollar piece playing in his fingers.
“Good to see you’re still in business, Madrid,” he said before pushing the injured Clyde roughly towards the stairs. Johnny flipped the dollar high, caught it and put it in his jacket pocket. He quickly drank the shot of tequila offered him by the grateful bartender and left the saloon, his boots sounding loud on the wooden floor, fury propelling him across the darkened street to a line of horses tethered to a hitching rail. Sensing the one who would provide him with the most comfort, he pressed his face against the neck of a large, sleek bay, his hand grasping the animal’s long mane.
He ignored the thrilled tone of the young cowboy, closing his eyes and focusing only on the pulsing heat and familiar smell of the horse. Jeff reached him, breathless with excitement.
“Boy, you’re fast!” he exulted. “You’re the fastest I’ve ever seen. Boy, I’ve never seen anythin’ like that in all my born days.”
“You ain’t had too many of those yet,” Johnny said, depressed by his friend’s exuberance, his hands rubbing fiercely at the horse’s withers. Passively, the animal accepted the stranger’s intense caresses.
“How d’ya get to be that good?” Jeff demanded, too full of veneration to notice the other man’s grief.
“Go home, Jeff,” Johnny sighed. “Go home an’ find a nice girl an’ make lotsa nice babies. You’ll be good at that.”
“I wanna be that fast,” Jeff said fiercely, ignoring the condescension.
“You’ll never be that fast.”
Johnny kissed the horse’s neck, pulled away and began walking in the direction of the hotel.
“I can be that fast if you teach me,” Jeff insisted, walking beside him, stepping to one side when a drunken man tumbled out of one of the other saloons and fell sprawling in the dust under the cold, clear moon.
“Want me to teach you how to die, too?” Johnny snapped. “Want me to teach you how it feels to end your rotten, crappy life in the dirt of some fuckin’ shit-hole of a town when you ain’t even fucked a girl yet, when you don’t even know the road you’re on or why a man might draw a picture? Jesus, Jeff, just fuckin’ go home an’ grow up!”
Jeff grabbed the other man’s arm and glared at him furiously. “I ain’t too much younger than you, Johnny!”
Johnny stopped and gazed at the boy, trying to instil in him by silence the gravity of his message.
“You’re a thousand years younger than me, Jeff,” he said finally, shrugging the boy off and walking quickly away. “Go to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Once inside the hotel, Johnny went straight up to the new, highly polished desk and banged hard and repeatedly on the brass bell, resisting the temptation to put a hole in the large, deceitful painting on the wall in front of him. The clerk emerged, brushing crumbs of food fussily off the front of his waistcoat. He looked distastefully at Johnny and then assumed an icy politeness.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Yeh,” Johnny said boldly, leaning far enough forward to frighten the other man. “I wanna bath.”
“At this time of night? I’m afraid that’s impossible,” the clerk said dismissively, turning in the direction of the door marked ‘Private’. Idly, Johnny began to flick the date cards on the desk calendar.
“You sure you wanna get my daddy riled up,” he said nonchalantly, feeling a thrill of excitement course through him at this unfamiliar game. “I mean, I may be a half-breed, but I’m just a little ol’ lion cub compared to him.”
The clerk hesitated, his lips twitching angrily.
“I’ll see to it,” he said finally, pulling a key from out of his pocket and disappearing vengefully behind the private door. Johnny laughed, imagining that if he followed the little clerk he would find a plate of crumbs on a grubby table and a dime novel lying about the exploits of gunfighters.
Later, feeling cleansed of the dirt of the night, he crept into his father’s room and got under the covers of the other bed, his gun wrapped in one of the older man’s shirts. He lay there for a long time, afraid to sleep, taking comfort from the warm smell of Murdoch’s pipe tobacco on the shirt and listening to the sounds of men letting go of themselves under the indifferent night sky.
“He had this dream, you see, about a wild golden horse, and we thought it was like some sort of sign, so we decided to look for such an animal to comfort him in his final days.”
Murdoch nodded, though he thought the elderly woman slightly mad. She had joined him at the breakfast table, leaving her more timid sister to watch apprehensively from a distance. Her name, never revealed to him on the two day journey to Bittercreek, was Marie Prescott, and his tenderness with his son on the stage had unfrozen her defences and made her desperate for connections, though she lacked the self-knowledge to recognize it; she believed she was talking to the rancher because she felt he was lonely.
“Well, you should find a suitable animal here,” Murdoch said with a tone close to indifference. He had left Johnny asleep, the shirt he had been searching for wrapped around the young man’s gun and hugged to his chest. The image made little allowance for other thoughts in his mind. As he poured more coffee, he heard a crash, the yelping of a small dog and a woman’s scream. Moments later, Johnny walked into the dining room, clearly only just containing his laughter. He sat down at the table and grabbed the coffee pot.
“Whoops what?” Murdoch said, looking towards the closed double doors, behind which could be heard the sound of crying and raised voices.
“Guess I didn’t make allowance for anyone bein’ at the bottom.”
“The bottom of what?
“The stairs.” Johnny glanced at Marie and returned her diffident smile. “Mornin’, ma’am.”
“Good morning, young man.”
“You slid down the banister?” Murdoch looked at him with disbelief.
“Well, I do it at home,” Johnny replied, spreading a biscuit thickly with butter and jam. “Never had a problem there.”
“No, except with the rest of us constantly telling you not to. Is anyone hurt?”
“No, just this lady’s little dog was spooked, that’s all. Can I get some milk, Murdoch, need to wash the taste of that medicine outta my mouth.”
“You took your medicine?” Murdoch said, beckoning the waiter who rushed over to him with an alacrity that, to his bewilderment, had characterised the attitude of all the staff the moment he had walked down the stairs. “Can we have some milk, please?”
“Certainly, Mister Lancer, right away.”
“Figured the alternative was you holdin’ my nose and stuffin’ it down my throat,” Johnny explained through a mouthful of biscuit.
“You figured right.” Murdoch allowed himself to smile for the first time. His son’s irrepressibility in the dining room’s close, earnest atmosphere enchanted him; he felt almost giddy with it.
“I was telling your father, Johnny – might I call you that?”
“It’s my name,” Johnny replied quietly, suddenly calm. He accepted the milk from the waiter with a nod and drank half the glass. Murdoch watched in astonishment as his son gave his full attention to the elderly woman and listened intently to her story of buying a palomino for her dying brother. He realised by the young man’s sympathetic questions that he himself had failed to listen at all.
“Would you like me to help you choose a horse, ma’am?” Johnny asked. “I know a bit about palominos. I got one at home – Barranca – there ain’t another horse like him on earth. He’s as beautiful as the sun in the mornin’. I’d be glad to find a horse like that for your brother.”
“Well.” The old woman blushed with the memory of her previous treatment of the young man. “That would be so kind, so kind. Will he be a little wild? Thomas dreamt specifically of a wild horse, not a tame one. We want to fulfil his dream.”
Johnny looked at her steadily, the glass of milk in his hand.
“Leave it with me, Marie,” he said softly. “I’ll find the right horse.”
Murdoch watched her hurry back to join her sister and shook his head.
“Everyone judges you at face-value, yet you never do that,” he said quietly. “Most boys of your age would run a mile from an old woman’s strange fancy.”
“You reckon it’s strange?” Johnny smiled.
“Yes, I do,” his father admitted. “It’s strange for two old women to come all this way to buy an unbroken horse for a bed-ridden man who might well be dead by the time they get back.”
“Ain’t it possible to look at it another way?” Johnny said. Murdoch regarded him silently, feeling as he had felt yesterday, outwitted by fate in sending him for a younger child this unfathomable boy. There were so many questions he had to ask, yet each one, whether it was about Johnny’s tormented nightmares or about the gun wrapped in one of his own shirts or about the book of beautiful drawings, seemed like an invitation for the father in him to fail.
“Murdoch, can I ask you somethin’?”
The older man mentally shook himself and nodded. “Of course.”
“D’you ever worry ‘bout getting’ old?”
“Well, according to you, I’m already old,” Murdoch replied, smiling.
“No, I mean really old,” Johnny said seriously. “Like Marie an’ her sister. Like Cip an’ Jelly”
Murdoch struggled to respond to the question, caught off guard by its intensity. For a moment, he wished Scott was there to rescue him with a discussion about literature.
“Well, I suppose I worry about infirmity,” he answered finally. “Not being able to do the things I love. When I was young I felt capable of anything, anything. Things creep up on you, an ache there, a twinge here and suddenly you realise you’re not invincible – it bothers me a great deal that riding hurts now. I could spend all day in the saddle when I was your age.”
“You’ve never told me that before,” Johnny said quietly.
“Told you what?”
“That not bein’ able to ride bothers you, that anythin’ bothers you.”
“Lots of things bother me, Johnny,” Murdoch said, gazing at him closely. “I’m just not very good at talking about them, and I suppose part of me thinks it won’t do any good.”
Johnny nodded. He tensed suddenly and let out a sigh.
“I was in a fight last night,” he said, lowering his head.
“What kind of fight?” Murdoch asked, struggling to subdue his unease.
The young man bit the inside of his lip, and looked round as more guests entered the dining room, guests with boisterous voices who laughed, and joked patronisingly with the waiter.
“The Madrid kind,” he answered, glancing at his father apprehensively. “I’m only tellin’ you ‘cos it might not’ve ended.”
“Are you hurt?”
Johnny frowned in surprise. “No, I’m fine, an’ the other guy took my bullet in his arm. I had to keep ‘em off Jeff, Murdoch. He’s got no more sense’n a jackrabbit in a chicken coop. Dumb kid was ready to draw on a gunfighter who’s almost as good as me.”
Taken aback by the young man’s rare admission of his legendary ability with a gun, Murdoch looked down at his half-eaten breakfast, searching for a response. Had he heard pride in Johnny’s voice? His son watched him with a growing sense of panic.
“Say it, Old Man,” he whispered fiercely. “You’re disappointed in me. I’ve let you down. Go on, say it. Get it over with. It’s what you think.”
Murdoch raised his head and looked unflinchingly into his son’s eyes.
“Get this straight, boy,” he said firmly. “I’m not disappointed in you and you haven’t let me down. Is that clear?” Seeing Johnny’s struggle to believe him, he repeated his question more insistently. “Johnny, is that clear?”
“Yes, sir.” The young man rubbed his eyes with his sleeve, and folded his arms, his gaze fixed on the flower arrangement in the middle of the table. Murdoch’s sense of doing something absolutely right with his son filled him with wonder; he felt as if he had just stumbled by accident onto a path he had been seeking since Johnny’s return home.
“Do I know of this gunfighter?” he asked calmly.
“His name’s Will Ferris,” Johnny replied, stretching out his arm to a salt cellar on the table. He tipped it once and traced his finger in circles in the salt. “One of his compadres called me out in a town on the Mex border an’ I killed ‘im. Ferris saw enough to know he’d be next in the dust if he called me out, so he left town, but he’s good. Got a reputation from here to Kansas.”
“And you expect more trouble?”
“Only if Jeff gets it in his head to start anythin’” Johnny sighed. “Reckons it’d make a man of ‘im to get blown away on a street fulla horseshit. Jesus, Murdoch, if he was any greener he’d be chow for the cattle.”
Murdoch smiled thinly.
“And what about the man you shot?”
Johnny shrugged. “I can handle that, but I’m guessin’ he’ll stay low.”
He surprised his father by suddenly grabbing another biscuit, piling it with butter and jam and cramming it into his mouth, before picking up another.
“John, will you slow down,” Murdoch said gently. “It’s not going to run away.”
“You an’ Scott keep tellin’ me that,” Johnny said. “Maybe I’ll believe it some day.”
He piled eggs and bacon on his plate and worked hard not to wolf down the food, aware of the fastidious way his father was cutting his meat into small pieces and then carefully placing mouthfuls of egg and bacon onto the back of his fork.
“Your ma teach you to eat like that?” he said mischievously.
“Like what?” Murdoch frowned.
“Like a nice girl at a Sunday prayer meetin’.”
“No, she taught me to respect my elders or have my mouth washed out with soap.”
Johnny narrowed his eyes at his father. “You’ve ate soap?”
“Yes, and I wouldn’t recommend it,” Murdoch said firmly, amused by the discomfort on his son’s face. He wondered how on earth the playful youth, who slid down banisters and squirmed at the threat of a mouthful of soap, could exist so closely with the self-assured, unsentimental gunfighter in one human frame.
“Murdoch,” Johnny said, after finishing his breakfast. “You reckon Jeff can come back to Lancer with us?”
“Are you asking me?” Murdoch smiled. “Or telling me you’ve already offered him a job?”
“Well, I guess I’m askin’,” the younger man said, returning the smile tentatively. “Though, yeh, I have already said he can come, but now I’m askin’”
Johnny leaned towards his father when he saw uncertainty in the older man’s eyes.
“He’s lost, Murdoch,” he said passionately. “That world out there’ll swallow ‘im up an’ spit ‘im out before he hits twenty-one. He don’t know what he’s doin’ out there.”
“You can’t save everyone, Son,” Murdoch replied gently. “We’ve already got four of your strays at Lancer, without counting Jelly, three dogs and a goose.”
Johnny sat back in his chair, discouraged by his father’s lack of enthusiasm.
“I’m not saying ‘no’, John,” Murdoch insisted. “But we’re running a business, not a home for the lost and dispossessed.”
“I know that,” Johnny scowled; then his expression changed instantly into eagerness. “But he’s an expert at ropin’ cattle an’ he can play the guitar. Cip’s always sayin’ they need a music man in the bunkhouse. Keep the boys sweet durin’ the winter months.”
Murdoch’s token resistance fell in the face of the young man’s passionate determination, and of his own new and fervent desire to give pleasure to his son. He nodded.
“Alright, we’ll take him home, but if it doesn’t work out, then I send him back to his father. Is that understood?”
“Yep,” Johnny smiled, wiping his sticky hands on the tablecloth and standing up. “But it’ll work out.” He looked at his father warily. “You ain’t ever called me ‘son’ before, you know that?”
“I haven’t?” Trying to react calmly to the young man’s words, Murdoch felt the sudden dryness in his throat and swallowed hard. “I thought I did.”
“Kinda like it,” Johnny said, picking up another biscuit from the table and putting it in his jacket pocket. “Sure beats ‘boy’ anyhow. See ya later, Old Man.”
He turned to leave, raising his hat at the Prescott sisters.
“Johnny.” He looked back at his father surprised at how much younger the other man seemed with a smile on his face. “Perhaps we could come up with an alternative to ‘Old Man’ sometime.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeh, maybe. See ya down by the corrals. Gonna look for that little mare for Marie’s brother.”
“She doesn’t deserve you,” his father said quietly. “She treated you badly in the stage. I saw how she looked at you.”
“She’s changed her mind, Murdoch,” Johnny shrugged. “Sometimes you gotta make allowances for that.”
Murdoch watched his son walk across the room, bewildered, and then astonished, by a sense that he had just been put in his place by the younger man.
The mustang kicked the fence so hard the rail broke. Women let out little screams and two men hurtled across the corral yelling at boys to get off the top rail. Others surged forward to get a closer look at an animal whose behaviour was already the talk of the auction. A man, who had been slightly injured by a flying splinter from the smashed rail, yelled, “Shoot the sonuvabitch!” Young boys returned quickly to the top rail like flies to meat and made swaggering bets about being able to tame the colt while two old men on hay bales, each smoking pipes, regarded the animal with silent concentration.
In the dusty air of the crowded walkways between the corrals, Johnny wandered, gazing at horses, noting down mentally any that attracted his attention. Looking for qualities that few others knew how to detect, he would stop and look at a chosen animal for some minutes, drawing its form in his head, seeking to match it with the detailed vision that lived permanently in his imagination. The animals he chose would already be known to him, were ready to be found.
In this trance of deep contemplation, he was aware only of the essential, pared-down elements of others, as shadows, as fleeting sounds, smells and actions – a booming laugh, the scent of tobacco and sweat, and a slap on an old friend’s back. To the location of key people, however, he was intensely alert: his father chatting to a fellow rancher down by the saddlers, Will Ferris watching him from an upstairs room above the largest saloon, Jeff leaning against a dead tree, smoking a cigarette, and the two sisters buying cold lemonade at a makeshift stall. When his attention was caught by the snorting, half-tamed mustang, he was aware at the same instant of Jeff leaving the tree to join him. He leaned on a rail and watched the horse canter angrily around the small corral’s perimeter. A thin, freckled boy with red hair was climbing into the corral, waiting for the animal to come thundering round, and then scrambling back out to his jeering friends. On his third attempt, Johnny grabbed him by his belt and pulled him away from the fence, sending the boy sprawling in the dust.
“Hey, whatcha do that for!?” the boy demanded furiously.
“’Cos he’s getting’ a little closer each time,” Johnny said coolly. “An’ you’re maybe two stunts away from bein’ mashed.” He tossed a dollar piece to the boy. “Now, get yourself some candy, kid, an’ go huntin’ rats in the barn instead.”
Jeff laughed as the boy grabbed the money and ran off to his waiting friends.
“Easier’n seein’ off a gunhawk, ain’t it?” he said confidently, patting Johnny’s shoulder as he joined him at the fence. Johnny made no reply, his eyes fixed on the horse. The animal had stopped in the middle of the corral, the halter rope trailing in the dust after three men had failed to restrain it.
“This animal is plain dangerous,” a man’s voice said close by. “I’m sorry, Mister, you’ll have to withdraw it from the auction, and I’m telling you now, if you don’t make arrangements for its removal from these corrals then I’ll have no choice but to have it shot. It’s a danger to the public.”
Johnny turned to see a man in an ill-fitting suit and another man dressed poorly, his jacket the torn and faded remains of a Confederate uniform. Before the smooth, imperious expression of the auction manager, his unshaven face was contorted in useless supplication.
“He’s all I got,” he said desperately. “That’s the simple truth of it. I got nothin’ else. Everythin’s gone. He’s the last thing on Earth there is.”
The other man sighed impatiently, his eyes already travelling to his next destination, another corral where there were complaints of overcrowding of stock.
“That’s really no concern of mine,” he stated dismissively. “My job is to keep things in this auction straight, safe and lawful. That way, I sleep peaceful in my bed tonight. Now, excuse me.”
As the auction manager strode away, Johnny saw the man press his hands against his dirty head, whispering, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” and making little desperate movements with his feet, oblivious to the people milling around him. Calmly, Johnny turned back to observing the horse. It was scarred on the left side of its neck, but the rest of the animal slid into his imagination in a fit as perfect as his vision. As he climbed into the corral, he knew his father was approaching from the right walkway and that Ferris had disappeared from his post at the upper storey window of the saloon. Some time ago, he had spotted another man watching him from across the other side of the corral, a youngish, handsome Mexican, dressed elegantly in an embroidered bolero jacket and wearing silver spurs. There was something disturbingly familiar in the face, but he knew he had never met the man.
As he slowly approached the horse, he spoke gently in Spanish, looking intensely into the animal’s dark brown eyes. He had never seen such pain and terror in a horse; it troubled him so deeply that he stopped, reconsidering how he was going to proceed. The colt made small, squealing sounds, gripped by a panic so extreme it seemed, for the moment, rooted to its position.
“Johnny!” He heard his father’s anxious voice from behind the fence. “Come out of there, for God’s sake. It’s too damn dangerous.”
“I’m ok, Murdoch,” he replied gently. “Don’t worry.”
He was aware of a great silence that had suddenly settled like a protective barrier around the perimeter of the corral as he and the stricken horse gazed at each other contemplating their next moves.
“That your boy, mister?”
Murdoch, wretched with anxiety, looked vaguely at the thin, sinewy man in the Confederate jacket.
“Yes,” he said sharply. “Who the hell are you?”
“Tom Sykes,” Jeff noticed how the man’s hands shook as he gripped the fence rail, his eyes fixed on the young man in the corral who had now begun to approach the horse again, speaking continuously in gentle Spanish. “That’s my horse.”
“Well, you had no damn business bringing an animal like that here!” Murdoch whispered furiously. “If that boy is hurt in any way, I’ll damn well kill you.”
“Johnny looks like he knows what ‘e’s doin’, Mister Lancer,” Jeff said, alarmed that his friend’s father, who had seemed so in control of his emotions on the stage, was now resorting to threats against a pathetic man, broken by misfortune.
“Of course he does,” Murdoch replied grimly, looking back into the corral. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. It doesn’t mean he’s safe.”
Then came a single gunshot from another corral, ending the suffering of a filly with a broken leg; the horse snorted and reared high in front of Johnny, spun round back onto his hooves to miss the young man and began a fierce, kicking gallop around the corral. Johnny stood still and waited. He understood now. This was not the panic of a wild being, enclosed and surrounded. This animal had seen terrible things; it carried the burden of horror around in its very bones.
Murdoch closed his eyes and let out a long, shuddering breath as fought the desire to enter the corral and drag his son to safety. The feeling that had come to possess him since he had begun to allow himself to love the adult Johnny, that he would not be permitted to keep this boy, overwhelmed him now. The shadows that had claimed the child seemed always near, taking many forms, seeking out his grown son as if unwilling to relinquish their hold. Watching Johnny stand, unmoving, in the centre of the corral, clouds of dust kicked around him by the frantic horse, appeared to Murdoch like an ending, and his connection to the boy as fragile as an autumn leaf on a tree.
Then the horse stopped. Standing still again, it shook its head and scuffed the ground with its hoof. Johnny turned and walked away from the animal towards the fence where his father stood. Gasps went up from the watching crowd as the colt began tentatively to follow the young man, its ears twitching, nostrils dilating with curious, fearful exploration. Johnny smiled faintly at Murdoch, sensing a desperation that was close to fury, before turning carefully back to the horse. He took the halter in one hand and with the other began to scratch and fondle the animal’s head, murmuring tenderly liquid words his father could not decipher. Closing its eyes, the colt nuzzled against the young man, pushing so hard it seemed like aggression, but the rest of its body was still, the terror repelled like a howling demon forced back into its cage. Finally, Johnny turned to face the men behind the fence, his hand still rubbing the colt’s head and neck.
“How much, Mister?” he asked, looking penetratingly at Sykes.
“No, Johnny,” Murdoch said with angry determination. “We’re not buying that horse. The damn thing needs a bullet in the head.”
“He’s good, Murdoch,” he said steadily, staring fearlessly at his father, before turning back to Sykes and repeating, “How much, Mister?”
Sykes looked nervously at the tall, glowering rancher, sensing the other man’s desire to sweep him away with one blow from his powerful arm.
“You sure, son?” he asked finally. “I mean, he spooks real easy. Won ‘im in a card game offen some half-breed Cheyenne. Reckon ‘e was treated bad somewhere along the line.”
Johnny nodded, feeling the skull of the horse beneath the warm, living skin, tracing the dips and hollows with his long fingers.
“How much?” he repeated patiently.
“Fifty bucks,” Sykes answered quickly, darting a furtive glance at Murdoch, whose expression was now as inscrutable as a statue.
“I’ll give you a hundred for ‘im,” Johnny replied. “Then you can maybe pick your life up off the floor for awhile, for ya gamble it back down again.”
“That’s generous of you, son.” Sykes licked his cracked lips. “That’s mighty generous. Gonna make a new start. I swear to you, I’ll be a new man!”
“No, Mister,” Johnny smiled grimly. “You gotta want it real bad, an’ you don’t.”
The older man’s gaze fell away from Johnny’s sharp gaze in discomfort, though he took the promissory note eagerly from the young man’s hand, before shuffling away through the chattering crowd, his bony hands raised slightly in gleeful fists.
“I’m gonna get ‘im in a barn,” Johnny said impassively, his gaze averted from his father. “Open the gate for me, Jeff.”
Jeff quickly obeyed, unlatching the wooden gate, and watching in awe as his friend and the now gentled horse left the corral.
After finding a stall in a barn owned by a Mexican family at the end of town, and ensuring the horse had hay and water, Johnny returned to the still bustling auction’s corrals. Finding Murdoch leaning on a fence looking over some placid palomino mares, Johnny rested his elbows on the same rail, his upper arm touching his father’s. Murdoch glanced at him and looked silently away. Wounded by this evidence of displeasure, the young man laid his head on his arms and surveyed the mares. He could smell the sharply familiar lime tang of his father’s aftershave even above the powerful odours of horse and unwashed people. Across the corral’s expanse he saw the handsome Mexican, the silver threads on his bolero jacket flashing in the sun. He wondered if he was a gunfighter. Earlier, he had seen Ferris again, outside the saloon, sitting in a rocking-chair; his booted feet up on the porch rail and a cigarette between his thin lips. Now, gazing at the horses waiting so innocently to be transferred from one feckless human hand to another, Johnny felt a sudden urge to buy them all, rescue them from the possibility of damage.
“Reckon that one with the star blaze will do for Marie,” he said quietly, praying that his father would speak and release him from pain. When Murdoch made no reply, he felt a surge of anger and kicked at the dust with the toe of his boot. Suddenly, the noise of the corrals seemed overwhelming, a chaos of babbling people, ebbing and flowing like a great ocean, pressing around him, out of control, drifters and losers, runaway lovers and lost boys, and always the gunfighters, seeking one another out like God’s dark avengers, doomed to pursue death for eternity. Many times he had wanted to cry out for the pity of it all – to be born human had often seemed to him, even as a child, like some kind of crazy tragedy.
“I thought they wanted a wild horse,” Murdoch said unexpectedly, as if waking from a trance. Johnny’s heart pounded, though he remained still.
“No, that’s what they think they want,” he replied softly. “What can a dyin’ man do with an untamed colt, ‘cept look at ‘im, pawin’ the air, goin’ mad, in some little field? What Marie’s brother needs is some gentle little mare like her, ready to foal, so ‘e can maybe fuss ‘er a little, an’ when he dies, Marie an’ her sister can still have somethin’ to look at when ‘e’s gone.”
Murdoch hung his head, gripping the fence rail hard and breathing so heavily that Johnny thought he was going to explode in fury at him.
“God Almighty, Johnny,” he said passionately. “You care so damn much for others. Why in the hell do you care so little for yourself!?”
“Murdoch, I …”
He stopped when his father turned and grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him so hard he felt the breath knocked out of him.
“Why do you do it!?” Murdoch yelled, so close to him he could smell the pipe smoke on his breath. “Why risk yourself, time and again? You didn’t give a damn how I felt back there. I’m your father, damn it! Will you, just once consider how I feel!?” Murdoch saw Johnny begin to lower his head and again shook him roughly. “Don’t you dare look away from me, boy!!” he said furiously. “You damn well look at me for once!!”. When Johnny failed to respond, his father slapped his face with a violence that forced his head to one side.
Johnny stared at the suddenly speechless older man in silent disbelief, before pulling away fiercely from Murdoch’s powerful grip. Ignoring his father’s distracted command to stay, he stumbled forward in shocked fury, tears stinging his eyes and his face smarting from the force of the blow. He could taste blood in his mouth as he pushed his way through the frowning crowds. For months, he had expected his frequent insolence towards his father to unleash more than the older man’s notorious temper. Now, it had come, but from a direction so unexpected he was dazed and bewildered. Finally reaching the saloon, he saw Ferris still sitting on the porch, his cigarette between his stained fingers, his dark eyes alert to signs of frailty. Johnny composed himself enough to give the gunfighter a cool gaze and a curt nod; he saw the narrowed eyes relax and retreat behind their mask of boredom before he pushed open the saloon doors.
“Tequila,” he snapped at the barman who was idly wiping glasses behind the bar. The barman hastily took a bottle and a glass from the shelf, offering them in wordless alarm to the young man. Johnny grabbed them and went to sit at the table he had occupied the night before. He sat with his back to the wall and poured out a shot, drinking it back quickly and grimacing with sharp pain as the liquor hit the cut inside his mouth. Pouring another shot, he glared ferociously at the Mexican who had suddenly appeared in the doorway, his tall, elegant figure framed by the bright afternoon sun. For a moment, he believed one of the dark avengers had come to claim him, and he welcomed it, felt ready to meet the death he had waited for all his short life. The sense of the inevitability of his fate made him reckless.
“Unless you got somethin’ to say, Mister, get the hell outta my sunlight.”
The Mexican raised his thin, dark eyebrows in response. He moved over to the bar and asked for a glass. Frowning suspiciously, but too afraid to resist the air of danger emanating from the stranger, the barman handed him the glass. Johnny watched silently as the Mexican walked over to him, silver spurs jingling, and sat down opposite him at the table, his back to the doorway. He picked up the bottle and poured out a large shot, his dark eyes fixed on Johnny, searching his face intently.
The young man waited. Although the Mexican wore a gun belt, and the holster showed evidence of many quick draws, he knew he was not facing a gunfighter. The man was not a hunter, not a seeker of power over one man, but, like his father, someone who held command over many. He was a handsome man, tall and slim, his hair and moustache neatly trimmed, and with an overwhelming adult male presence. Still recovering from the shock of being hit by his father, Johnny felt a rare fear that whatever was coming could not be settled by his supremacy with a gun.
“Tú eres un cabrito apuesto,” (“You’re a good looking kid,”) the Mexican said softly. “Tú toma después de su madre.” (“You take after your mother.”)
Johnny’s stomach lurched with alarm. Struggling to remain safe in a zone of impassivity, he stared coldly at the stranger.
“Who are you, Mister?”
The older man smiled and leaned back on the rickety wooden chair, one leg folded up over the other with a teasing negligence.
“My name is Emilio Martinez del Mazo,” he replied evenly. “Your mother was my older sister.”
Johnny returned the other man’s gaze coolly, though his mind was in desperate flight from this unwanted information. He stood up suddenly and threw a dollar on the table.
“¡Vaya al infierno!” (Go to hell!) he snarled, before walking out of the saloon into the chaos of the streets, now thick with the smells and noise of people and horses that had been too long in the sun. Afternoon drunks wandered along the boardwalks, and a band of fiddlers had started up in the town square under a stand of oak trees. Three well-dressed ranchers, at ease with themselves and with their place in the world, stood in a contented group, comparing notes on their bids for the next day. Head down, his mind in turmoil, Johnny returned to the colt in the barn at the quiet end of town.
He found the horse peacefully eating hay from a manger. Closing the door of the barn so that only the rays of the late afternoon sun could penetrate the close dimness of the interior, Johnny went to the horse and put his forehead to the animal’s neck. It shuddered briefly and then relaxed back into pulling at the hay, indifferent to the human seeking comfort from its warm skin. Moments later, the sound of the barn door being pulled open with a creak caused Johnny’s right hand to go to his gun.
“Johnny.” His father’s voice. His hand relaxed, but his stomach clenched with anger and misery.
“Leave me the fuck alone!” he said savagely. The door closed, again reducing the power of the sun to shapes on the dusty barn floor. Heavy footsteps approached the stall and stopped; the grinding of the colt’s teeth was the only discernible sound in the barn.
“Johnny, will you let me talk to you,” Murdoch said firmly. Though anguished by his own behaviour, the older man refused to allow his voice to betray his feelings. Rigidly, he regarded his distraught son who still clung onto the horse with a despair that Murdoch knew would break his heart if he allowed it in.
“You talked already, you bastard,” Johnny’s voice was muffled by the horse’s long pale mane, but his fury was so deep the colt’s ears went back in alarm, and its hooves stamped nervously in the dirt floor. Murdoch waited for the horse to settle before speaking again.
“I had no right to hit you,” he said tightly. “Something snapped inside me. You made me so afraid I lost control.” Murdoch hesitated, and swallowed to regain his slipping emotions. “It will never happen again.”
“Afraid of what?” Johnny asked aggressively, his hands tightening on the horse’s mane.
“That damn horse killing you!”
“That wasn’t gonna happen.”
“That’s not how it felt to me, Johnny. You seem so damn careless with your life and …” Murdoch fought for control, but the words emerged like broken glass. “I can’t bear it.”
The young man heard the alien distress in his father’s voice and wondered at it as if at some strange creature he had discovered in the desert. He again felt, as he had after his nightmare, close to a kind of rapture so new to him that he feared and mistrusted it as deeply as he wanted to claim it.
“The last man that hit me got my bullet in his gut,” he said quietly. Immediately, in his mind, the words seemed wrong and cruel.
“Is that what you want to do to me?” Murdoch asked, repossessing his emotions at the harshness of the statement. Johnny drew in his breath at the image that flashed before him. So often had he envisaged slaughtering his absent father and pulling out his offal with his bare hands that now he felt his mind was forever tainted with the vision’s poison.
“No,” he whispered. “But I didn’t need you to hit me, Murdoch. It isn’t what I need.”
“Tell me what you do need, John,” Murdoch said gently. Shrugging his shoulders, Johnny turned his head silently back into the horse’s warm and powerful neck.
“Oh, Mr Lancer, we’re so happy with her. She’s the most darling creature in the world, so gentle and sweet. I just know my dear brother will love her. I can’t think why we ever considered something as absurd as an untamed stallion. As soon as I saw Belle, I knew your son was so wise and so right, and the dear creature’s going to have a foal too. Goodness, I wish I had half that young man’s sense of things.”
Murdoch, though distracted by other thoughts as he stood outside the dining room, was struck by Marie’s final words. ‘Sense of things,’ he repeated silently, rolling the phrase around in his mind like an unblemished stone.
“I’m very glad you’re happy, Miss Prescott,” he said politely. The old woman looked at him warily, ill at ease now with the aloofness of the tall rancher. She found herself wishing for the gentle regard of his son who had listened to her with such sympathy, and a knowingness she found hard to forget.
Watching her disappear into the dining room to join her sister, Murdoch suddenly wanted to say something to her, to rewind their conversation and start again. He stood there, staring at the door, wondering at all such fleeting opportunities in his life, how he let them leap from his grasp like tiny frogs he had caught as a boy, squeezing through the tiniest gaps in his clenched hands.
“You waitin’ for me?”
He turned to see Johnny standing behind him. To his father’s amazement, he was dressed in a dark suit similar to his own, though the tie was in haphazard contrast to his precisely executed knot. The bruise on the young man’s cheek was clearly visible.
“Yes,” he answered.
“S’posin’ I hadn’t come?”
“Then I’d have had a long wait,” Murdoch smiled. He risked reaching for his son’s tie, silently incredulous that, while other guests passed with amused smiles, Johnny allowed him to adjust it with only a token squirm and a scowl. He had expected anything but this vision of his wild, restless son in a suit bought sternly for him in Boston by his older brother, and which he had frequently professed to hate. Since leaving the barn earlier in the day, Murdoch had believed all was lost, that he had ruined any prospect of a strong relationship with Johnny. The most he had hoped for was the boy’s sullen, drunken return to the hotel at midnight and days, perhaps months, even years of resentful coldness.
In the busy dining room, Johnny ate slowly in silence, listening to the conversations of others, snatches of talk about new railroads and marauding Indians in the Midwest, about Civil War drifters, freed slaves and the price of feed. It fed his sense of a world in disarray like fat thrown on a fire.
“Is your mouth sore?” Murdoch asked suddenly, bringing him back from the brink of the terrible cliff.
“Some,” he answered. “Stops me boltin’ my food, I guess.”
“I gotta ask you somethin’ that you might not like.”
Murdoch put down his fork and wiped his mouth on a napkin.
Johnny glanced at him once, looked down briefly and then looked up again determinedly.
“Did my mother have a brother?”
The older man drew in his breath, and let it out in a heavy sigh as he poured himself a glass of water.
“Yes,” he answered tightly. “Why d’you ask?”
“What was his name?” Johnny’s voice remained dispassionate.
“Emilio. Johnny, what is this?”
Johnny detected the note of exasperation and panic in his father’s voice. He had long since given up hoping that his father would discuss the subject of his mother. He knew she was like a snagging thorn in the older man’s memory, and the secret of her violent death he had accepted as his burden alone, fit for no-one else to share.
“I think I met him today,” he said quietly.
“In the saloon ‘cross the street from the corrals, after …” Johnny shifted in his chair uncomfortably and pulled fiercely at the stitching on a napkin.
“I hit you,” Murdoch finished for him. He clasped his hands together and looked directly at his fidgeting son. “How do you know it was Emilio, Johnny?”
“He told me. Said that I took after my mother.”
“And what did you tell him?” Murdoch asked tentatively, aware that his own temperature had risen in agitated response.
“Told him to go to hell.”
“And that’s it?”
“Went to the barn after that,” Johnny shrugged. “Ain’t seen ‘im since.” He looked uncertainly at his father. “Did you know ‘im?”
“Yes, I did,” Murdoch answered reluctantly. “He was only a boy of seventeen when I met … your mother.”
“What was he like?”
Murdoch sighed, his face reddening in discomfort and anxiety. Johnny watched his father, fascinated and disturbed by the older man’s reaction. It seemed very like his own when Scott tried to persuade him to talk of his violent past.
“It was a long time ago, Johnny,” Murdoch said dismissively. Johnny bit his lip and sighed.
“If he ain’t lyin’, Murdoch, he’s my uncle,” he said cautiously. “Don’t mean he’s like Maria. You can’t expect me not to be interested.”
“He was a young boy. I didn’t take much notice.”
“Was he good at anythin’?”
“Yes, asking questions. Now, can we drop this, please?”
Johnny fell silent while his father got into conversation with a passing rancher. The ease with which the older man assumed a jovial, business-like manner with the other man troubled and intrigued him. He had seen his brother adjust his persona to suit various social occasions, at times, with such a change of behaviour that Johnny had barely recognised him. Later, Scott often denounced the person with whom he had spent an hour, laughing and talking. Criticised by both older men for his inability to find a middle way between sullen rigidity and restless fidgeting, Johnny had frequently wondered where the real men were – in these meetings with near strangers or in their dealings with him? He knew he had his own mask, but he defended that as necessary to his survival, a tool of his trade, not this play-acting to keep life sweet. Finally, the other rancher moved away, laughing at some remark of his father’s, and Murdoch turned back, smiling, to his glass of wine.
“D’you like ‘im?” Johnny asked.
“That man you were talkin’ to.”
“I barely know him,” Murdoch frowned. “He’s just someone I met this afternoon.”
“You were actin’ as if you liked ‘im.”
“Well, if you must know,” Murdoch said impatiently. “I think he’s a know-it-all braggart. So, yes, I was just acting, but that’s what we have to do sometimes, John, to get by in this world.”
“Don’t like this world much,” Johnny said quietly, tipping up the salt cellar and pouring a white mound onto the tablecloth. At home, his father would have confiscated the cellar irritably, but for the second time in one day Murdoch found himself staring at the young man’s finger tracing a ring around the mound.
“It seems to like you.”
“You make it better,” Murdoch said softly, surprised at the words that came out of his mouth. Johnny looked at him, his lips slightly parted, his eyes searching his father’s.
“How?” he whispered. “How do I make it better?”
“You touch everyone you meet, Johnny,” Murdoch yearned to take the young man’s restless hand in the noisy, busy room. “Look at what you’ve done in two short days – made a friend of a lost boy, given a priceless gift to a runaway couple, rescued a damaged horse and made two old women very happy. What have I achieved? A bruise on my son’s face the size of my hand.”
Johnny swallowed and lowered his head, recognising the praise, but unable to accept it. His sins crowded his mind like thorns. Reparation was impossible.
“Johnny,” Murdoch said gently. He reached out and placed a finger under the young man’s chin. “Don’t do that, Son. Don’t hang your head like that. Look at me.”
“Can’t,” he whispered. “Gotta go.” He stood up quickly. “See ya later.”
His gaze on the richly patterned carpet in front of him, Johnny left the room, leaving his father with a leaden and familiar sense of failure. Minutes later, he accepted an invitation to join the group of ranchers at their table and tried to lose himself in their easy banter and love of good whisky.
Johnny called for Jeff at his lodgings and took his friend to a place where he could lose his innocence in the arms of a woman with large breasts and a reputation for schooling virgin boys. He chose for himself a dark haired girl in a red silk dress who told him not to remove his gun. She fucked him on a bed arrayed with rag dolls, smiles painted on their faces with daubs of lipstick. Later, at the hotel, he demanded another late night bath and scrubbed away the smell of cheap perfume and unwashed sheets, unstoppable tears crowding his eyes. In the darkened bedroom, his father asleep and snoring gently, Johnny again wrapped his gun carefully in Murdoch’s green-checked shirt and fell asleep to the scent of lime and pipe smoke.
Murdoch surveyed the awakening day from the hotel balcony: the restless horses in the stockades, tired looking men sweeping the dust from the boardwalks and stallholders setting out their wares under makeshift awnings. Hung-over from the previous night, he was struggling to remember how he had conducted himself. He remembered heated discussions about the extension of the railroad, the problem of Indians on the plains and a freed slave’s right to vote. He remembered that his liberal views on equal rights for minorities had been badly received, that someone had made a remark along the lines of what else could be expected from a man who had sired a half-breed boy? He looked down at his sore knuckles. He had definitely hit one of the men, the braggart he had laughed with earlier in the hotel dining room. He could see him now, barrelling across the saloon like a surprised rag doll and colliding with a card table; cards, chips, money and whisky glasses tumbling to the wooden floor while the players fought to keep their seats. A more general fight had started, that he thought he could remember trying to quell, and the sheriff had got involved, lecturing the ranchers on their irresponsibility and demanding heavy reparation or a night in jail. It was like the memory of a terrible nightmare.
He looked grimly at his son, who leaned on the balcony rail next to him, his dark hair, still tousled from sleep, falling across his eyes.
“You need a haircut,” he growled.
“Whoa, good mornin’ to you, too,” Johnny smiled, raising his eyebrows. “Nice bruise you got there, Old Man.” He touched the purple wound under his father’s left eye. Murdoch winced and pushed his hand away. “Kinda matches mine, don’t it.”
“I’m not in the mood, young man,” he said sourly. “Now get dressed and we’ll go buy some horses.”
“I heard on my way back here last night that some big shot ranchers tore up the Liberty saloon,” Johnny said innocently. “That couldn’t’ve bin where ya got that bruise, could it?”
“Yes! Dammit,” Murdoch replied fiercely. “Are you satisfied now?”
“*You* were in a fight?” Johnny looked at the older man in disbelief. “Murdoch Lancer, fine, upstanding citizen, vice-president of the Cattlemen’s Association, was in a *fight!?*”
“Yes, and, as you’re bound to find out, I started it. Now, can we drop the subject!?”
“*You* started it?” Johnny echoed, his body restless with excitement as he followed his father back into the bedroom. Murdoch pulled on his coat, wincing again when his head protested at the sudden movement. He regarded his son balefully.
“I *can* fight, boy,” he grunted. “I haven’t always been ‘old’, you know.”
“You ain’t?” Johnny grinned, delighted with this newly revealed side of his father. It banished his unhappy memories of the night, and made him feel joyfully stupid and childish.
“No,” Murdoch said irritably. “Now, get dressed or we’ll miss the first lots.”
“So, what happened?” Johnny shrugged on his jeans and sat on the bed to pull on his boots. “Did ya cheat at cards or somethin’?”
“No, I damn well didn’t!” Murdoch watched the young man unwrap the gun belt from his shirt and buckle it on, before folding the shirt carefully and tucking it under the pillow. This unspoken claim on the garment moved the older man to quell his temper and attempt to endure the boy’s teasing. “I just didn’t like the man’s politics.”
“Must’ve bin liquored up some to get into a fight over a man’s point of view,” Johnny said cheerfully. He stopped in the act of putting on his brother’s brown suede coat and looked at his father with sudden unease. “It wasn’t about me, was it?”
“About you?” Murdoch tried to hide his discomfort by opening his wallet and counting the contents.
“Some folks don’t appreciate white men fatherin’ half-breeds,” Johnny said bitterly. “Threatens white supremacy, don’t it. They won’t be happy ‘til every Indian, negro, Mex and mestizo is herded into one big ole corral an’ shot.”
Murdoch looked silently at his angry son, before placing his wallet back inside his jacket.
“As I said, John, I didn’t like the man’s politics.”
He placed his hand behind Johnny’s head and rubbed it briefly. “Now, are you ready to go and buy horses?”
The young man nodded, jamming his hat over his unruly black hair. His father brushed a speck of dirt off the shoulder of his older son’s favourite working jacket.
“Does Scott know you’ve got his jacket?” he asked gently.
“Yeh, well, no, not exactly,” Johnny replied, blushing. “It’s kinda borrowed. Makes me look more like a rancher, I figured. He don’t mind me borrowin’ his clothes, Murdoch.”
“It’s a little big,” his father smiled, pulling at the lapels to improve the fit. His earlier tetchiness had vanished, replaced by other feelings that both disturbed and invigorated him. “And if I know your brother, he won’t appreciate it if you take it back with any new tears in it.”
“I’m takin’ care of it,” Johnny said quietly. His eyes suddenly lit up at the sight of his father’s bruised knuckles. “Jesus, Old Man, you musta hit that sonuvabitch real hard.”
“I’m not proud of myself, Johnny,” Murdoch sighed, resigned to enduring a barrage of questions and teasing remarks for the rest of the day. Watching his son slide down easily down the banister ahead of him and land as softly as a cat at the bottom, he wondered where his youth had gone; he was older now than his father had been at his early death. He listened to himself clumping heavily down the stairs while Johnny waited, full of an electric vitality that showed itself in his drumming fingers on the stair post and his fidgeting feet.
He followed the young man out of the hotel, realising with a sudden jolt that there had been unmistakable pride in Johnny’s last remark. Looking down at his swollen knuckles, he was then quietly amazed that his determination to be appalled by what he had done had actually concealed a deeper truth – he had *enjoyed* it, revelled in punching another man so hard he had sent him clean across a room, and afterwards felt an exhilaration rise in his chest like a breath of mountain air. It was then that he recalled clearly that he hadn’t tried to stop the ensuing fight, that he had waded in like a bear, long imprisoned in a cage, and had only stopped hitting other men when the sheriff had fired a single shot above their heads. ‘I don’t know myself,’ he thought, with a tremor of panic that he quashed by turning his attention to Johnny.
The young man was already at the gate of the main stockade watching a twitchy part-Arab palomino stallion being led around its perimeter.
“So what did you get up to last night?” Murdoch asked, pulling out his glasses and examining a list of the horses to be auctioned throughout the day.
“Nothin’ much,” Johnny replied uncomfortably, pulling splinters of wood off the rail in front of him.
“Would that ‘nothing much’ involve a female by any chance?”
Johnny shrugged, his expression hidden from Murdoch by the lowered brim of his hat.
“I hope you’re being careful …”
“Jesus, Murdoch!” Johnny felt himself grow hot with embarrassment, and he ripped more fiercely at the splinters.
“Just checking,” Murdoch smiled.
“Well, you don’t need to go there,” Johnny said quietly. “I done my learnin’ a while back. It was Jeff that needed …” He stopped, his mouth dry, unable to believe he was having such a conversation with his father.
“Oh, I see,” Murdoch laughed. “Now that’s what I call being a good friend.” Murdoch waved at Jeff who was hovering nearby, smoking a cigarette. The young man waved back hesitantly. “It looks like he’s waiting to tell you all about it.”
Johnny glanced in Jeff’s direction. “He did already,” he muttered.
“Well, it seems he’s too scared to come over here.”
“Yeh, reckon your reputation’s got ahead of you, Old Man,” Johnny smiled. “I was wonderin’ why everyone was keepin’ their distance this mornin’. D’you mind if I go walk around with ‘im for a bit? He’s got no-one else.”
“No, our first bid’s not for another half-hour, that group of mares.” Murdoch paused and drew in his breath. “*Try* to stay out of trouble, John, please.”
“Nope,” Johnny grinned. “Reckon I’m gonna follow in my daddy’s footsteps an’ go lookin’ for it.” He ducked a swipe from Murdoch’s large hand and went off laughing. The older man watched him cross the street. For weeks after the boy’s return to Lancer, he had felt nothing but relief when Johnny had left the room, had preferred him out on the range, out of his sight so he would not have to endure either his hostile insolence or his need for a father. Now he wanted to reach across the milling crowds and pull his son back into his arms, pour into the boy’s body the rage of love that had slowly been boiling inside him. It was no longer an effort. It had come of its own accord as unstoppably and as all-consuming as a forest fire in a long dry summer.
As Johnny finally disappeared from Murdoch’s view, suddenly, he seemed beyond his father’s range, as impossible to catch as a ghost. Murdoch felt at that moment he would never shake the shadow of the other father, darker, deadlier; sniggering at his futile efforts to connect and pulling Johnny further from him into the shade. He knew that out there, also, were gunfighters, watching for opportunities to prove themselves; and now, there was Emilio, emerging from the past like a dark winged moth from a forgotten chrysalis. He waited for him, knowing he would come and that, this time, fists would not be enough.
“Your pa’s the talk o’ the town,” Jeff said eagerly, pulling his hat brim down further over his eyes in imitation of Johnny. “Slugged six men, they’re sayin’. Madder’n a grizzly bear with a thorn in ‘is paw.”
“Don’t wanna believe all ya hear,” Johnny replied, pulling a strand of hay out of large stack of bales by the entrance to the stockade and sticking it in his mouth.
“D’ya know what begun it?”
They walked in the direction of the town square. Under the stand of oak trees lay Sykes, snoring in the shade, an almost empty bottle of whisky cradled against his chest. The young men stood and stared at him silently, taking in the heavily stained Confederate uniform with its ragged sergeant’s stripe on the upper arm, the black stubble on his chin caked with what looked like vomit and the large damp patch staining the crotch of his grey trousers. The cadaverous face, gravity pulling the skin down tight over his cheekbones and eye sockets, seemed that of a corpse, the only evidence of life the vibrating snore.
“You reckon that’s ‘is jacket?” Jeff asked, mesmerised by the human ruin before him.
Johnny shrugged, chewing on the hay while his eyes searched the edges of the dirty, crumpled form. People walked by full of breakfast and a sense of holiday, taking a shortcut through the trees and barely glancing at the drunk.
“We goin’?” Jeff asked hopefully, tired of standing still. Johnny ignored him and continued to etch the man on his consciousness, memorising every broken feature for his sketchbook. At first sight, he had thought about rescuing Sykes, dragging him to a bathhouse, shaving him, cutting his hair, dressing him in clean clothes and stuffing food down his throat. He wanted to see if it was possible to resurrect a creature so lost to his own life, scrub him clean of his old ways and chisel him into a new shape, full of joy and promise. Then, in his mind, he had seen the road on which the man was travelling, and known he was already too far gone into a nebulous distance. He shivered when Jeff touched his arm.
“Yeh.” Johnny nodded and turned abruptly away. He headed up the street in the direction of the barn where he was keeping the colt.
“Can’t stop thinkin’ ‘bout last night,” Jeff said suddenly. “Boy, I’m still floatin’! She said I was real good. Yeh, I gave her a *real* good time, the best she’d ever had, she said.”
Johnny smiled as he kicked a stone down the dusty street. A black boy in a white apron with a number burned into his arm swept the debris from the coach station platform out onto the road. For a moment, he leaned on his broom and studied the two young men expressionlessly.
“Whatcha lookin’ at, *boy!?*” Jeff yelled contemptuously. “Git your nigger hide back to work.”
The youth stared for a moment longer and then dropped his gaze, his hands clutching the broom a little more fiercely. Johnny grabbed his friend’s arm and roughly pulled him round. He glared coldly at the young man.
“I like you, Jeff,” he said intensely. “But if you ever say anythin’ like that again I’m gonna whup your sorry hide an’ leave you under them trees to rot with Sykes.”
Jeff gaped at him, shocked into silence by Johnny’s violent reaction. He watched the other man approach the boy and speak to him quietly. He saw the boy’s expression change from deep, angry suspicion to a wary pleasure before he hesitantly took Johnny’s proffered hand and shook it. Jeff frowned at his friend as he returned, still confused by an attitude as alien to him as the depths of an ocean. He walked alongside Johnny, painfully aware that the older man was angry with him.
“What did ya say to ‘im?” he asked tentatively.
“Gave ‘im a job at Lancer,” Johnny replied coolly, raising his hat and smiling at two young women passing in identical pink dresses and hats, both carrying parasols. They returned his blue-eyed smile shyly and fell into delighted giggles. He wondered if Marie and her sister had once been so fresh and crisp-cut.
“What’s your pa gonna say?” Jeff asked, unable to conceal his disbelief.
“Well, he didn’t put up any objection to you, Jeff, so I reckon he’ll go with it.”
“But, I ain’t …” He hesitated, feeling the tension surrounding Johnny like a weapon. “Johnny, they ain’t like us,” he continued desperately. “They just ain’t. Pa says their brains is smaller than white men’s, like the injuns. They can’t learn nothin’ new once they’re grown. Everyone knows it. What’s he gonna know ‘bout punchin’ cows, an’ ridin’ a horse?”
“’bout as much as you know ‘bout bein’ stolen from your own country an’ bein made to work for less than nuthin’ on some white man’s tobacco plantation.”
“Well, that proves it, don’t it?”
“What does?” Johnny sighed, pulling open the door to the barn to where the colt was stabled.
“They ain’t got sense,”
“Jeff,” Johnny said patiently. “Back home I got a big brother. He’s real smart, educated at one of them fancy colleges in the east. He fought for the Union an’ he reckons slavery is worse’n murder. Murdoch got into a lotta trouble talkin’ up the anti-slavery cause in the war, an’ he’s already got two Negroes on the payroll, so I reckon if you wanna work at Lancer, you’d better change your way of seein’ things.”
Jeff set his mouth stubbornly and watched Johnny enter the stall murmuring softly to the wary horse. The colt’s ears were flicking back and forth nervously, its brown eyes rolling in fear and distrust. It whinnied suddenly and stamped its feet. Johnny stopped, and lowered his head but continued the chant of Spanish and Sioux. Slowly, he raised his head again, and looked the colt in its desperate eyes, sensing, as he had before in the corral, the mark of a trauma so close it seemed just under the animal’s skin. Yesterday, he had been certain he could pull this horse back from the shadows. Now, he felt the first stirrings of doubt. He retreated from the stall and closed the door softly, his eyes never leaving those of the colt.
“Reckon ‘e was in the war?” Jeff asked cautiously.
“Maybe,” Johnny replied. “Wherever he’s bin, it wasn’t no place good.”
They sat down on the floor outside the stall and shared a bottle of lemonade Jeff had bought from a stall earlier in the morning.
“So, how was yours?”
“The girl you had last night.”
Johnny smiled, thinking of the girl who had seemed as old and tired as the dolls that crowded her bed.
“Oh, she was a reg’lar buckin’ bronco, Jeff. I really whooped it up on that ol’ bed alright.”
Johnny detected a note of envy in the young man’s voice and frowned. He had quickly forgiven Jeff his hopeless ignorance and naivety, knowing that he and Lancer could shape him into a decent man.
“Yeh,” Jeff answered too hastily. “Yeh, well, ‘cept that I squirted a bit too quick first time, an’ she laughed.” He blushed, his eyes averted from Johnny’s amused expression. “Almost ran outta there straight there’n then without my drawers. Felt like a real jackass.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout it, Jeff,” Johnny smiled, patting the young man’s shoulder. “She’s used to it. Thinks we’re all jackasses anyhow, whether we’re in her for ten seconds or ten minutes.”
Jeff nodded, his expression brightening under the return of Johnny’s easy manner.
“We goin’ back tonight?”
“Hadn’t planned to.” Johnny stood up and put on his hat. “Reckon I’ll spend some time with my pa. Keep ‘im outta trouble.”
Taking a last look at the colt, now pulling at hay in the corner of the stall, a ray of sunshine squeezing through a tiny hole in the plank wall to rest on its scarred neck, Johnny left the barn to return to the auction. He played with the unfamiliar phrase, ‘my pa’ in his mind, realising that today was the very first time in his life he had uttered those words aloud.
Murdoch watched him walk through the narrow walkways between the corrals, taller than most of the people he passed, broad-shouldered, handsome in an immaculate bolero jacket and embroidered pants, and with a vague, permanent smile that reminded the older man immediately and painfully of his second wife. In the adult Emilio he saw the cold and cocky teenage boy he had known transformed into a man of icy arrogance, moving through the crowds as if afraid to catch the disease of their ordinariness. As he approached Murdoch, his eyes narrowed slightly and he slowed imperceptibly before breaking into a smile and stretching out his hand.
“Murdoch, it has been many years,” he said loudly, arousing the attention of other ranchers waiting for their favoured lots to be led around the auction corral. Murdoch, taken by surprise, shook his hand briefly, alarmed to see a fleeting impression of his younger son gazing back at him.
“Emilio,” he replied curtly. “Why are you here?”
“For the same reason as you, I would imagine, to buy horses.” Emilio’s smile was unwavering, his brown eyes fixed on Murdoch. “I see the years have treated you well.”
“The richest rancher in the San Joaquin valley,” Emilio laughed. “I would say more than well enough, old friend.”
Murdoch turned his attention back to the corral. “We were never friends, Emilio.”
The younger man put a hand on Murdoch’s shoulder. If he sensed his brother-in-law’s violent desire to push it away he made no sign of it.
“I was a boy,” he said softly. “A little in awe of the big, gringo rancher. I admired you.”
Murdoch ground his teeth in discomfort and then turned to face Emilio, his expression hostile, his muscles tense with suppressed emotion.
“Cut the bull,” he growled. “I’m not in the mood.” He paused, aware that the auctioneer was calling for bids on the mares he wanted. Wondering, with a wave of nausea, where his son was, he began with precise nods to bid for the animals. As the price rose above the level that he felt reasonable he prepared to stop, and then nodded once more when he remembered how much Johnny had desired these mares. Grim-faced, he saw them fall to him on the next call and ticked them off in his notebook.
“They are fine animals,” Emilio said admiringly. “You are an excellent judge of horses.”
“Not me,” Murdoch replied gruffly. “I’m a cattleman to my bones. Excuse me.”
He went to receive the sale slip from the auctioneer and returned to find Emilio waiting calmly for him.
“Look, I don’t know what you want,” he said coldly. “But I’d like to know what the hell you intended by approaching my boy like that?”
“Ah, yes,” Emilio smiled languidly. “Juanito, my sister’s child. The resemblance is remarkable, is it not?”
“His name’s Johnny.” Murdoch felt his heart thudding with anxiety. He found the proximity of this man intolerable, the memories he was evoking too disturbing to be borne on a bright working day. For years he had been able to close his feelings down in the face of threats to his emotions, but now he struggled not to tremble.
“Yes,” Emilio nodded. “Well, it seemed an appropriate time to meet the boy, moments after he was struck by his papa. He was upset.”
“That’s none of your damn business!” Murdoch said furiously. “And I believe he made his feelings towards you perfectly clear.”
“There is much passion in him, as there was in his mother, and much danger. He is a dangerous man, but he has a weakness; he can be hurt by those he loves.”
“You know nothing about him.” Murdoch’s voice held a trace of despair at the younger man’s perceptiveness.
“I knew my sister,” Emilio stated decisively. He looked up, his eyes squinting against the sun, to see Johnny approaching them. The young man’s hand was clenching and unclenching the air above the handle of his gun and his blue eyes held Emilio’s gaze unflinchingly until he reached the men. Then he looked enquiringly at his father.
“You ok, Murdoch?” he asked, masking his unease with a small smile.
“Fine.” Murdoch wanted to hug the boy to his chest and drag him home to Lancer, out of the teeth of the menace that he knew was lurking in the shadows of the day. “Where’ve you been? You missed the mares.”
“¡Dios!” Johnny cursed, thumping the rail in front of him and staring into the corral. “Them mares were the best animals in the whole auction. Nothin’ came near’em, ‘cept Amo”
“That’s the colt’s name,” Johnny explained, determinedly ignoring Emilio and giving his full attention to his father. “I gave it to ‘im, ‘cus he might just be the one I can’t get the better of.” He sighed. “Sure wish we hadn’t lost them mares though.”
“We didn’t,” his father smiled, despite Emilio’s presence. “I bought them.”
“You did?” Johnny started to smile and then he frowned at the older man. “You mighta told me straight off, Old Man, lettin’ me get riled up like that.”
His smile quickly returned. “Thanks for buyin’ ‘em.”
‘Anything for you,’ Murdoch wanted to say, but he merely shrugged, feeling the happiness course through his system like a fiery liquid.
“So you are the horse expert?” Emilio broke into their communion like a sudden squall over a calm sea. His voice was quiet and admiring. Johnny turned to face him squarely. Though his uncle was taller than him by five or six inches, broad and powerful looking, he regarded the older man with such icy composure that Emilio’s easy smile fell away into a remote severity.
“Tú eres demasiado joven mirarme como ese, muchacho,” (You are too young to look at me like that) he said gravely.
“Es la única mirada que usted está consiguiendo, señor,” (It’s the only look you’re getting) Johnny replied dismissively.
“Soy su tio, Juanito.” Emilio’s tone became harsher at the young man’s insolence. “Me dan derecho a su respecto.” (I am entitled to your respect)
Johnny smiled faintly. He looked down at the dust and then raised his head again. “Un hombre consiguió ganar mi respecto, quienquiera que él es.” (A man has to earn my respect, whoever he is)
“Dios,” Emilio said irritably. “Ninguna maravilla su padre le dio una palmada. Si tú fuera el mio, llevaria mi correa tú.” (No wonder your father hit you. If you were mine I’d take a belt to you)
“Be the last thing you ever do if you try it.”
Emilio stared at the younger man for a moment before bursting into a disbelieving laugh.
“Look what a man I have for a nephew,” he said. “Beyond my most fervent dreams! I have waited for you all my life, Juanito.”
Johnny felt his curiosity awaken and a tendril of liking move in his uncle’s direction. He could feel his father’s antagonism behind him like a scorching fire, but his own expression softened fractionally when Emilio smiled with a genuine tenderness that transformed his proud features.
“Will you come to my ranch, Johnny?” he asked. “It’s only a few miles from here, and you are welcome too, Murdoch, of course. I have many fine horses, the finest appaloosas in California. They are my passion. I would love you to see them.”
“That’s impossible,” Murdoch snapped. “We’re going home tomorrow.”
“It’s a quiet time of year, Murdoch,” Emilio said mildly, his eyes directly on Johnny who had lowered his head and was scuffing the dust with his boot. “I’m sure you and the boy can be spared a few more days. What do you say, Juanito?”
The young man shook his head, disturbed by the draining away of his resistance to his uncle, yet eager to accept the invitation. Emilio shrugged impassively, sensing Johnny’s indecision.
“I will be in town until tomorrow morning if you change your minds,” he said, turning away. “I hope you do. Adiós, para ahora.”
Johnny watched his uncle leave, intrigued by the older man’s sudden lapse from coldness into a warmth he instinctively recognised and which made him hunger to know more.
“I hope that’s the last we’ve seen of him,” Murdoch said decisively.
“Yeh.” Johnny kept his head lowered, his back to his father.
“Do I have your agreement on this?”
Johnny heard the familiar tone in the older man’s voice, an expectation of compliance with his wishes. For months he had chafed against this imperious voice, although he realised that at least Murdoch was asking for his agreement and not simply demanding it. Not wanting to antagonise his father, he nodded, though in doing so, he felt powerfully he had abandoned all hope of understanding something essential to his existence.
Murdoch sensed his son’s agitation and knowing there was a battle yet to come, sought to postpone it by concentrating on the narrow business of the auction. Employing his life-long ability to lose himself in mundane things, he did not hesitate in chopping the thought of Emilio clean out of his mind while he bid for and bought horses.
“Not hitting the town tonight?” Murdoch enquired, hoping he had kept his tone relaxed. He had enjoyed dinner, and Johnny had entertained him with his exuberance over the new horses and his exaggerated politeness with the waiters. He had almost started to believe that the boy would not revive the subject of his uncle. Now, he knew he had been fooling himself. Johnny turned his head and gazed at his father from his position lying face up on the bed.
“Nope. I thought we could talk.”
Murdoch sat down on the chair by his bed, his pipe in his hands. His stomach churned at the challenge before him. He had once, when still a child, seen a man on a tightrope above a gorge. For months, he had suffered nightmares of walking over a bottomless chasm with only a thread to support him. Later, as a grown man, he had admired his own resilience in the face of adversity as he had fought to establish a thriving business in an untamed land. He had defeated the void. His growing power had turned the ground firm under his striding feet, and the vast acres, his beyond even the distant horizon, at times, even now, made him feel invincible. Looking at the young man on the bed, he sighed. He was back on the tightrope, and nothing that he already knew would help him across the void.
“I hired another man this mornin’,” Johnny said, his eyes on his father’s restless hands.
“What!?” Murdoch’s head came up in surprise and exasperation.
“A negro boy, bit younger’n me.” Johnny’s words came quickly, firmly, in an effort to forestall his father’s anger. “Sweepin’ up other men’s dirt. Comes from Alabama. Looks strong, real strong. Gotta number tattooed on ‘is arm.” Johnny paused, seeing Murdoch’s anger retreating. “His name’s Elijah, well, that’s the name his owners gave ‘im, anyhow. His folks weren’t even able to name their own kid …”
“Johnny,” Murdoch interrupted him sternly. “It’s almost Winter. We don’t need anymore hands until Spring. You’ve already hired Jeff …”
“I can train ‘im up ready.”
“You mean he’s got no experience of cattle work?”
“No, but he knows how to pick tobacco leaves an’ work eighteen hours a day for nuthin’”
Murdoch looked at the defiant, resolute expression on his son’s face and knew he was defeated from every angle.
“Alright,” he sighed. “Alright, but this has to be the last one for now, Son. Lancer isn’t a charitable institution. It’s a working ranch, and we have to make a living. God knows how this railroad business is going to affect us in the future. We have to be careful.”
Johnny sat up on the bed, crossed his legs, and gazed at his father.
“You know, Old Man,” he smiled. “Scott’s wrong. You ain’t all that hard to sweet-talk.”
“Oh, I am, John,” Murdoch replied, amused. “It’s just that you’re an expert at it.”
“Never sold much to you before though.” Johnny’s head went down and he focused his gaze on the blue beads around his wrist.
Waiting for the inevitable, Murdoch lit his pipe to calm himself. Outside in the street, a bible-puncher had set himself up outside one of the saloons and had begun a loud harangue on the evils of drink and the godlessness of the modern world. “BROTHERS, WE HAVE RAISED OURSELVES ABOVE THE SAVAGES ONLY TO BE CAST DOWN AGAIN INTO THE PIT BY WHISKY, GAMBLING AND WOMEN!!”
Johnny smiled briefly, before getting off the bed and walking across the room to close the window.
“An’ he ain’t getting’ enough of any of ‘em,” he said quietly, causing his father to chuckle, and then cough on his pipe smoke. Johnny returned to his position on the bed and rubbed his hands together.
“Murdoch, I gotta visit my uncle,” he stated firmly. He waited and then raised his head to see the effect of the words on his father. The older man was studying the bowl of his pipe.
“And if I say no?” he ventured finally.
“Then I’ll go anyway.”
Murdoch drew in his breath loudly and stood up. He walked over to the window and gazed down upon the open mouth of the preacher. A small audience had gathered, and the sound of the man’s hand repeatedly banging a bible sounded like the dull hammering of a nail.
“He’ll hurt you,” Murdoch said quietly. “And I won’t be able to stop it.”
“I can take care of myself, Murdoch.” Johnny gazed at his father’s broad back. “Anyway, he’s my uncle. Why would he hurt me?”
“Because of the things he’ll want to know, things you won’t even tell me or Scott.”
Murdoch turned to face his son, challenging the young man to deny the truth of his words. Johnny stared at him and then looked away.
“I don’t say nothin’ I don’t wanna say,” he asserted coldly.
“He’ll want to know about Maria, Johnny.” Murdoch turned from the window to glare at the boy. His tone was harsh and determined. “She was his older sister, and he worshipped her. He doesn’t know what happened to her, how she died. Are you prepared to face that? Emilio’s not a man you’ll be able to twist around your little finger like you do with the rest of us. He’ll want answers.”
Johnny felt his bruised face throbbing with the nearness of so much pain. He put his hands to the side of his head and rubbed his scalp with his fingers.
“I just wanna know ‘im a little, that’s all,” he insisted fiercely. “I can handle that stuff.”
“And what about Madrid?” Murdoch demanded. “How will you handle that particular bit of stuff?”
Johnny scowled at his father furiously.
“It’ll always come back down to that with you, won’t it, Old Man. Whatever I do, whatever I say, you’ll always hate that side of me. Well, I got news for you. You can’t love one part of me and hate the other, ‘cos they’re both me, an’ if you can’t handle that then I wish you’d let me die in front of that fuckin’ firin’ squad, ‘cos I can’t change the past, an’ you can’t hate Madrid more’n than I hate him myself.”
As Johnny grabbed his gun belt and went to leave the room, Murdoch placed himself in front of the door.
“You’re right,” he said passionately. “I do hate Madrid, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
“I told you before,” Johnny yelled. “That ain’t possible. Now, get out of my fuckin’ way, Murdoch!”
His father moved back so that his body was pressed more firmly against the door. He made a deliberate effort to calm himself.
“Alright,” he said carefully. “If that’s my choice, then I’ll love them both. I can learn to love them both.”
For a moment, Johnny hesitated in his anger, and then shook his head.
“No, you can’t do that,” he said fiercely. “You won’t ever do that.”
“Let me try, John.”
Johnny felt his breath quicken in panic, and shook his head again.
“No, I told you, no,” he said furiously. Desperate to leave the room, he tried to push his father to one side. “Get outta my fuckin’ way, Old Man!”
Murdoch tensed his muscles to resist Johnny’s efforts to move him from the doorway. He was almost surprised to hear the coolness in his own voice.
“Johnny, I’m telling you now, I’m not moving, and if you swear at me again, I’m going to take you to the basin over there and wash your mouth out.”
Johnny glared at his father, a mixture of disbelief and anger on his face.
“I’d like to see you fuckin’ try!” he said scornfully.
He grabbed the older man’s shoulder, but almost immediately found himself twisted around and head-locked under his father’s powerful arm. Cursing and yelling, he struggled fiercely as Murdoch dragged him across to the hand basin, grabbed a handful of his shaving soap and held it to his son’s mouth.
“Are you going to quit cussing me, Johnny Lancer?” he demanded, repressing a desire to smile. An element of him was inclined to release the young man, but the greater part of him felt committed to the challenge. Johnny hesitated, aware of the absurdity of the situation, angry, but almost wanting to laugh, and curious to see what his father would do.
“You can go fuck yourself, Old Man!” he said defiantly.
“Not before I’ve cleaned this mouth out, I won’t.”
Murdoch crammed the handful of soap in his son’s mouth. Pummelling his father’s back with his fist, Johnny gagged and spluttered as the soap slid down his throat.
“Sonuvabitch!” He spat wildly to rid his mouth of the foul taste and still fought to release himself from his father’s hold. “Let me go!”
Murdoch increased his grip a little, and allowed his tone to remain mild.
“Are you going to simmer down, so we can talk like civilised men, Johnny, or are we going to stay like this for the rest of the evening?”
Exhausted from struggling and pacified by the older man’s unusual self-possession, Johnny fell still, gasping for breath. Then his father let go and waited while the young man coughed and spat the remains of the soap from his mouth, swilling it with water from the jug on the side. Murdoch fully expected him to storm out of the room and slam the door, but Johnny, still breathing heavily, sat down on the carpet, a towel over his head.
“Reckon you were as mad as your ma was when she did that to you?” he said finally, his expression still hidden by the towel. Murdoch was so surprised at the lack of hostility in his son’s voice that he struggled to compose himself before answering.
“Maybe,” he replied.
“Well, you sure wasn’t wrong about the taste.” Johnny spat more soap into the towel. “Guess I won’t be cussin’ again in a hurry.” He spat again. “Leastways not in your hearin’”
Murdoch wanted to laugh with amazement and delight, but he contented himself with a smile.
Johnny pulled the towel away and looked up at his father standing over him, his arms folded, a trace of a smile still on his weathered features.
“I ain’t changed my mind about visitin’ Emilio.”
“I figured not,” Murdoch replied, sitting down on his bed. “And although I would do anything humanly possible to stop you if I could, I know I can’t.” He sighed heavily. “But there’s no way on Earth I’m letting you go alone, Johnny.”
“You reckonin’ on protectin’ me, Old Man?” the young man smiled.
“Yes, I am,” Murdoch answered tersely. Johnny watched wonderingly from his position on the carpet as his father took out a handgun from the bottom of his case and snapped it open. He studied the empty chambers before inserting a bullet carefully in each one.
“When d’you last use that?”
Murdoch shrugged. “About three years ago. I had to kill a cow struck by lightning. I’m a rifle man, but I can use one of these if I have to.”
“You won’t have to,” Johnny said softly. “I just wanna take a look, that’s all. He’s all I got on my mama’s side, my Mexican side. I need to make some kinda connection. I felt it real strong this mornin’ an’ I can’t let it go. It’s somethin’ I have to do.”
Murdoch nodded. He replaced the gun in his luggage and looked apprehensively at Johnny who was still coughing and shaking his head.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeh, my throat stings, that’s all. Reckon a beer might cure it.”
“Well, I promised Miles Carson I’d visit him and Miss Smith for an hour or so this evening before we leave tomorrow. They’ve found some decent lodgings with a doctor’s family. We could go for a beer when I get back if you want.”
“Reckon I could come along to see them folks?”
“Of course,” Murdoch replied, frowning a little. “Won’t you be bored though? It’ll just be small talk. You’ll be fidgeting after five minutes if past experience is anything to go by.”
“People can talk without speakin’, Murdoch,” Johnny said, putting on his hat. “Miss Smith’s real good at that kinda language. Got my sketchbook in my pocket.
Any forebodings Murdoch had concerning the next day were forgotten for the evening in the company of his son and the runaway lovers. In a tiny, well furnished room, the couple happily served their guests with tea from Boston, Johnny, to their evident satisfaction, drinking several cups to ease his stinging throat. On the wall, above the fireplace, was the framed picture of their entwined hands. They made no objection when Johnny sat back in an old armchair and began a new drawing while they and Murdoch talked of Boston and how they hoped the open arms of the West, widening each year, would receive them kindly too. Johnny listened intently as his father told them of his perilous ocean journey from Scotland in 1843, of his fierce determination to learn about ranching, and his struggle to establish himself in the new California after the Mexican War. It saddened him to realise that their relationship so far had left little room for such stories to be told. It seemed to him an honourable story, an honest adventure of a courageous youth who had let no adversity or opposition stand in his way to achieve his dream. As he listened, enthralled, his life appeared such a tattered thing beside it that he almost felt sick. Fiercely, he concentrated on his drawing of Beth, catching the smile he had never seen on the coach, but which now floated in and out of view like a rare butterfly on a day full of hard shadows.
When the young man fell asleep much later, in the warmth of the armchair by the fire, he dreamed of fighting to stay afloat on a horse in a black sea under a thunderous sky. His uncle was reaching out to him from a ship with huge white sails, embroidered with silver that glittered in the rain, but it was his father he called for, a distant figure, rowing hard away from him in a small boat, soon lost in the black waves.
Everywhere he looked Johnny was reminded of Mexico. The hands were pure native vaqueros with wide-brimmed sombreros and severe, proud expressions. On their horses were draped bright, richly coloured saddle cloths and the leather of their saddles was elaborately tooled in complex designs. The long narrow bunkhouse was built of adobe, painted white with a sod roof. Beside the entrance, he read a long list of rules of behaviour in Spanish, including one that dictated the desired length of a horse’s tail. The punishment for allowing a tail to grow past the limit was five dollars and a week’s loss of ‘any form of entertainment’.
He leapt up onto the top rail of the largest of the several corrals which, along with the other numerous ranch buildings, including barns, stables and his uncle’s brilliantly white hacienda, were surrounded not by a roughly built perimeter fence, but by a vastly long, high wall. Beyond it on one side could be seen the peaks of blue mountains, their lower slopes covered in dense forest; and on the approach to the ranch, he had been captivated by the strange sight of huge fenced in fields containing many of Emilio’s thoroughbred appaloosas, grazing or lying, eyes closed, in the shade of trees.
From his position on the fence, Johnny watched his father, his head lowered and his arms folded, tracing a pattern in the dust with his boot. He knew the older man was suffering acutely, and he was doing it for his sake. Earlier in the day, they had sent Jeff and Elijah off with the men hired to take the new horses back to Lancer, and his father had watched the group until they were long out of sight, his teeth grinding behind his clamped mouth. Now, he was brooding and silent.
Seeing his uncle approaching from the house, Johnny jumped down from the fence and went to stand by Murdoch. Emilio strode towards them smiling, his arms outspread.
“¡Hola!” he shouted. “Welcome!”
On reaching them, he offered a hand to Murdoch who shook it reluctantly, his mouth set in a grim line. Emilio, still smiling, then turned to Johnny and grasped his shoulder before briefly caressing the young man’s cheek with a hand heavy with rings. Johnny felt the hardness of the gold on his skin.
“Juanito,” he murmured gently. “I cannot tell you what it means to me to have you here. Did Carlos give you a pleasant journey in the buggy?”
“Very pleasant,” Murdoch said brusquely, before Johnny was able to answer. “He’s an excellent driver.”
“Good.” Emilio smiled at the older man, though his eyes were dark with irritation. “And your horse, Juanito? Has he arrived yet?”
“No.” Again, Murdoch answered sharply for his son. “Your hands are highly competent horsemen. They’re taking care to bring Amo here safely.”
“I am gratified to hear it,” Emilio said with cold civility. “I would expect nothing less from my men.” He looked at Johnny who had dropped his head, confused by his father’s harsh interruptions. “Come, we’ll go into the house for some refreshments.”
Before the house was a large, walled courtyard, loud with the songs of birds, where old vines grew in sinewy profusion and bright orange nasturtiums tumbled over the edges of stone troughs. In the middle of the paved courtyard was a fountain sculpted in the shape of a rearing horse, the water spouting from its mouth and spilling down over its chest. When Emilio saw Johnny stop to look at the statue, he smiled.
“It’s from Boston,” he announced proudly, noting his nephew’s sudden wary expression. “I had it specially commissioned to celebrate fifteen years of success with my horses. It’s beautiful, is it not?”
“Yeh,” Johnny nodded. “Prefer ‘em alive, though.”
He followed his uncle into the house where he found himself in a vast white room decorated with colourful Mexican wall hangings, vintage guns and large paintings of horses. He wandered around, gazing at the pictures while his father accepted stiffly the offer of a chair and a glass of whisky.
“Is your father still alive?” Murdoch asked gruffly. He had seen the familiar face of Ramon Martinez del Mazo staring down at him from its position above the mantelpiece. He could still feel the old man’s angry contempt for him, the gringo rancher who had dared to impregnate his beautiful young daughter, though she had long been out of his control.
“No,” Emilio answered, taking his gaze from Johnny to his father’s portrait. “He died ten years ago, a broken man.”
“As only a father can be,” Emilio said deliberately. Murdoch frowned and swallowed a large mouthful of the whisky. Johnny stopped before a small painting of a young girl. She looked sullen and defiant in a white dress decorated with pink roses, one hand resting against her curls of black hair.
“She hated that dress,” Emilio informed him quietly. “She was a girl who wanted to be a boy, always. Had she had her wish, her life would have been very different. It is hard to be a woman and yearn for the freedom of men.”
Johnny turned to look at his uncle, his expression a mixture of surprise and distress.
“What happened to the dress?” he asked, returning his gaze to the picture.
“She tore it into little pieces and stamped on it after the portrait was completed. Your grandpapa locked her in her room, but she climbed out of the window and rode off on her pony. She did not return until nightfall, and then she was forgiven because everyone had feared her dead.”
Murdoch finished his whisky and stood up.
“If you don’t mind, Emilio,” he said tightly. “I would like to go to my room and freshen up a little.”
“Of course,” the younger man replied politely. “Then we will eat. Perhaps Juanito would like to go for a ride with me before supper.”
Johnny turned to face his uncle and looked at him impassively.
“Maybe later, Señor,” he said respectfully. “I’ll go with my father now.”
“As you wish,” Emilio said, barely disguising his disappointment. “But please do not call me Señor. I am your uncle, not a stranger.”
Johnny smiled faintly. He was unnerved by the abrupt exposure to the memory of his mother, and the visit seemed suddenly as dangerous as standing in the path of a stampede.
“If you don’t call me Juanito, then I’ll call you Tío.”
Emilio laughed and shook his head.
“¡Madre del Dios! To be challenged is a novel experience for me, muchacho, but I will do as you ask.”
Johnny followed his father and Emilio’s housekeeper up a wide and ornate staircase. On the walls were more portraits, of vaqueros riding to bring down a steer with a lariat, of men posing with guns and large belts of ammunition slung over their shoulders, and a map of California before 1848 with its Spanish place names and its long land mass reaching all the way down to Mexico.
The rooms were spacious and so coldly elegant that Johnny felt threatened and unsettled. He threw his bag on the wooden four poster bed, frightening in its heavy, dark immensity and went immediately into his father’s room. Murdoch, about to begin the comforting routines of unpacking, looked at him enquiringly.
“Nope,” Johnny replied, sitting crossways on the chair by the window so that his legs were draped over one of the arms. He gazed out to where the vaqueros were bringing Amo under his uncle’s flamboyant archway. They had placed blinkers over its eyes, but the colt still snorted and attempted to rear himself out of the men’s hands. Johnny could sense their relief as they released the animal into a large, high corral and watched it gallop furiously in the dust. He smiled when he saw their shaking heads.
Behind him, his father silently unpacked. Johnny turned his head to look at him.
“You ok, Murdoch?”
“Fine,” his father replied abruptly.
“You gonna be able to sleep in that big ol’ bed?”
Murdoch gazed at the four poster without interest.
“As well as I’d sleep anywhere in this house,” he said, his tone matching the tense movements of his body.
“You mad at me?”
“Why would I be mad at you?”
Johnny turned round in the chair so that he was facing into the room.
“’Cos I made you come here, an’ I can tell you’d sooner be dragged five miles over rocks by a herd of wild broncos than have to spend any more time with Emilio.”
“Well, that’s true enough.” Johnny was relieved to see his father smile for the first time that day, though the smile caused him unexpected pain. He watched silently as the older man placed a pile of freshly laundered shirts in the cavernous space of an empty wardrobe. He suddenly remembered his father’s favourite green checked shirt stuffed at the bottom of his own bag and wondered if Murdoch had missed it. The thought of letting it go filled him with unease and he chased the idea away with words.
“So you ain’t mad at me?”
“No,” Murdoch replied firmly.
“Feels like you are.”
The older man sighed and looked directly at his son. It astonished him that only weeks before this boy had often seemed like a stranger to him, a puzzle that, in its too painful complexity, he had not much cared to solve. When had he started to see, not a hateful reminder of Maria, but just Johnny, as much a part of him as the thoughts in his head and the beating of his heart? When had even the power of his aversion to the younger man’s violent past begun to weaken? Looking straight into his son’s blue eyes, he knew with utter wild certainty that his only desire and duty now was to protect him from suffering. To that end he believed he would kill.
“I’m not angry with you, Son,” he said quietly. “I just don’t trust Emilio.”
“You gotta reason for that?”
“Does there have to be a reason?”
“So, it’s just a feelin’?”
“Based on what I know from the past, yes.” Murdoch walked over to the window and watched Amo trot around the corral, head held high, sniffing the alien air. “Ramon del Mazo, your grandfather, was a ruthless man. He believed in the old, feudal way of doing things. Before the Mexican War, he owned the largest rancho in California, and most of his hands were Indians, virtually slaves, bonded to the del Mazo rancho for life.”
“And you reckon my uncle might be still of the same mind?”
“As far as I can remember, Emilio shared his father’s approach, yes.”
“So, that’s why you cut in on me earlier,” Johnny said softly, relieved. “Case I said somethin’ bad about his vaqueros.”
“Yes,” Murdoch nodded. “I witnessed Ramon’s ideas of punishment, and they weren’t …” He paused. “Well, they were unacceptable to me.”
“A man can change a lot in twenty years, Murdoch,” Johnny suggested cautiously. “Emilio scares me a little, but I’m willin’ to give ‘im a chance to prove me wrong.”
Murdoch looked straight at his son. He was almost smiling.
“I didn’t think anything scared you.”
“Gettin’ more scared every day, Old Man,” Johnny said softly. Murdoch dropped his gaze from the intensity of his son’s expression.
“There’s another reason for distrusting Emilio,” he confessed. “He and Ramon both blamed me for Maria’s disappearance and her death. Ramon swore he would kill me if we ever met again.”
Johnny stared at the older man in disbelief. It was the first time his father had spoken calmly of his mother in the six months since his return. Used to having her name flung at him like a deadly weapon, he was shocked into silence.
“Those things weren’t your fault,” he said finally, with a coldness that made his father turn from the window, a worried frown on his face.
“In their eyes, John, it was my fault from the moment I met her.”
“Well, they’re wrong,” Johnny said angrily. He stood up. Suddenly, he had lost his usual ability to control his conscious thoughts of his mother. Even downstairs, when confronted with her portrait, he had managed to focus on the rebellious child, not the adult she had become. He had been proud of his own resilience.
“What happened to her, John?” Murdoch asked softly. “How did she die?”
“I told you,” Johnny answered, his back to his father, his head down. “She got sick.” He took a deep breath. “I’m gonna get changed for dinner. He seems like a man who’d expect it.”
“Yes,” Murdoch agreed gently.
“You gonna ease up on ‘im, Murdoch?” Johnny turned to look hopefully at the older man. “I can handle ‘im, y’know. I know when a man’s got killin’ on ‘is mind, and Emilio ain’t got it, not for us, anyhow.” He paused, taking another deep breath. “An’ he’s not to blame for Maria.”
Johnny saw his father’s weather-worn skin pale with the impact of his words. Finally, Murdoch nodded.
“I’ll do my best, John, but he isn’t a man I would choose as a friend.”
“C’mon, Murdoch.” Johnny’s tone was scornful. “I seen you bein’ polite an’ friendly to plenty of men you’d sooner throw in a creek to drown.” He smiled then, his voice lower and more cajoling. “How am I ever goin’ to learn to act social if my own pa don’t set me an example?”
“Hmmm.” Murdoch looked at him doubtfully. “When did you suddenly get so concerned about your social skills?”
“Dunno,” Johnny shrugged. He gave his father half a smile. “Just came over me sudden.”
Johnny found a steaming bath drawn for him in his room. Soaking in it up to his neck, he found himself staring at another portrait of his mother on the opposite wall. She was older, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, sitting on a wooden chair in the centre of a pastel blue room. Wearing a traditional Mexican dress of pale orange, she no longer seemed angry, but remote. To her son, it appeared as if, like a cat, she were holding herself back from the artist, giving nothing away, her perfect features as inexpressive as a doll’s. On a finger of her folded hands, was a gold ring set with a large green stone. At the sight of this, Johnny plunged his head under the steaming water and re-emerged, eyes wide open and blinking rapidly at the bright yellowness of the wall behind the painting.
Pulling his gaze away from his mother’s coolly composed hands, he stared at his own. Strong, broad hands; calluses under his right forefinger in remembrance of his old life and new ones created by hours of fencing, digging, roping and branding. He raised his right hand so that it appeared to touch Maria’s distant face. Her dark eyes peered disinterestedly between his long fingers.
He found, unexpectedly, that they comforted him, these pictures of his mother before his coming. No one could blame him for the child who had torn up and stamped on her dress, or for the young girl, cold-eyed and distant in a blue room. He was not responsible. He was free to observe and study her as he would a tree in the wind or the clasped hands of a runaway couple.
They were standing before the full length mirror in his room. His father, taller and broader, but dressed in a near identical dark suit, was behind him, patiently demonstrating the art of tying a string tie. Johnny gazed at their images, mesmerized by Murdoch’s height and his large, capable hands moving so effortlessly under his chin.
“There, now you do it,” Murdoch ordered, pulling the tie undone with a swift tug and placing his hands gently on the younger man’s shoulders. He too was struck by what he witnessed in the mirror; it stirred fresh waves of thought and emotion in his heart and mind, when he had believed nothing extra was there to be found.
“What?” Johnny regarded the undone tie with dismay.
“Scott and I can’t always be doing your tie for you, Son,” Murdoch said gently. “You have to learn to tie it yourself sometime. Might as well be now.”
“But I can’t do it like you do it,” Johnny protested. “I ain’t like you two, practic’ly born in a suit an’ tie. It ain’t somethin’ I ever learned to do an’ it’s too late now. I ain’t goin’ down there in front of my uncle in a tie that ain’t right, so I’d be obliged if you’d just tie it up again.”
Murdoch wanted to burst out laughing at the young man’s fractious expression he saw reflected in the mirror. Instead, he smiled and gently squeezed Johnny’s shoulders.
“It’s not too late to learn anything, John. Just try.”
Offering advice and encouragement, he watched his son’s repeated struggles to fasten the tie. Each time, Johnny irritably pulled it apart until he turned to face his father, his blue eyes flashing with anger.
“I can’t do it right,” he insisted. “I won’t ever do it right, so why’re you ridin’ me to do it?”
“It’s just a tie, John,” Murdoch frowned, alarmed at the young man’s distress and his sudden change of mood. He wondered at this fragility in a man he knew had coolly shot a gambler two nights before – Jeff had told him of the draw, so fast it had been impossible to see and the shot-through dollar -, who had faced down a crazed horse, and had told his powerful uncle to go to hell. This boy, upset over a tie, knew the signs of other men’s readiness to kill.
“It ain’t just a tie,” Johnny scowled. “It’s somewhere I can’t go. You gonna do it or not?”
“Of course,” Murdoch replied, surprised at his own lack of annoyance in the face of Johnny’s belligerent tone. Deftly, he knotted the tie, watching in silent wonder as the anger and tension disappeared from his son’s face. Though he could see little difference between his effort and Johnny’s last attempt, he was rewarded with a diffident smile.
Stirred again into odd, unfamiliar feelings that stung his eyes and made his throat uncomfortable, Murdoch accompanied his son down the staircase.
“This banister looks made for sliding,” he commented with a smile. Johnny nodded silently, alert to every sound in the strange house. He could hear other voices now, a woman’s and an older man’s. Swallowing back his anxiety, he followed his father into the dining room.
In front of a roaring fire, three huge Irish wolfhounds lazed on a buffalo skin. With Emilio, now dressed in an immaculately tailored Mexican suit, were a short, elderly man with a beard, a slim, middle-aged woman with dark hair and eyes and a sulky young girl of no more than seventeen. Alarmed by the presence of these unfamiliar people, Johnny stayed behind his father, who walked confidently across the room, glad to see new faces.
“Ah,” Emilio smiled. “My guests of honour! Murdoch, Johnny, allow me to introduce my uncle to you, Juan Hernandes del Mazo.”
Murdoch shook hands with del Mazo, struck by the older man’s pleasant expression.
“Do you remember me, Murdoch?” he asked, smiling. Johnny saw the dim, unfocused look in the old man’s eyes and thought he might be drunk.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” Murdoch confessed, wondering if was about to meet another hostile face from the past.
“I remember you very well. I attended your wedding to my niece. Such a wild creature she was, Maria. I remember thinking you would have your hands full with her, and I was right! Wasn’t I right, Emilio!?”
“That is enough said, Uncle,” Emilio chided him gently. He smiled supportively at his brother-in-law and turned to the woman beside him.
“My cousin, Señora Hermila Carranza, owner of the Montaña Alto Rancho, and ruler of my heart!”
“Take no notice, Señor Lancer,” the woman said gently, looking directly into Murdoch’s pale blue eyes as she took his hand in an unusually firm handshake. “No one can rule such a heart.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Señora,” Murdoch said courteously. “I knew your husband. Two of my finest horses were bred by him. I was sorry to hear of his death.”
“Life goes on, Señor,” the woman replied, her eyelids closing fractionally. “We must eat.”
Murdoch released her hand. He thought her beautiful, with her large brown eyes and high cheekbones, accentuated by black hair pulled strictly back from her face. Her mouth was wide and her lips seemed slightly apart as if ready to smile.
“Shall we introduce our children?” she said pleasantly, regarding Johnny intently before placing her hands on the shoulders of the young girl. “This is my daughter, Alicia. She is rather shy, though it is a mystery to me why that should be so. Shyness is not a family trait.” Señora Carranza’s tone sharpened. “Levante a su cabeza, muchacha.” (Lift your head, girl!)
The girl obeyed her mother reluctantly. As striking as her mother, but with long glossy hair that fell down her back, she glowered at Murdoch with green eyes, her left hand pulling down the darker green silk sleeve of her dress. Unnerved by her hostility, Murdoch grasped Johnny’s arm and pulled the young man to his side.
“This is my son, John,” he said quietly. Silently, Johnny took Señora Carranza’s hand, his gaze cool and distrustful while she contemplated him with a faint, appraising smile.
“Emilio is overjoyed to have found you, John,” she said finally. “I have never seen him so happy, and he is a hard man to make happy. You are a very handsome boy. Are you married yet?”
“No, ma’am.” Johnny’s reply was terse. He averted his eyes from her examination and looked at Alicia.
“Señorita, you look ‘bout as sore in that dress as I am in this suit an’ tie.”
“Johnny!” Murdoch hissed angrily. Alicia stopped pulling at the sleeve and looked at him in wary surprise, before giggling delightedly into her hands. Her mother recovered her composure after her initial expression of anger and deliberately turned her attention to Murdoch.
“It seems we have something in common, Señor,” she said evenly. “Our children have yet to learn manners.”
Murdoch frowned uneasily and accompanied Señora Carranza to the elaborately laid table. Johnny watched as his father, in a graceful action, pulled out a heavy dining chair for her and ensured she was seated comfortably before sitting down himself.
“Johnny, sit by me,” Emilio offered from the head of the table, still smiling from witnessing his cousin’s discomfort. “We have much to learn of each other.”
The young man, in imitation of his father, pulled out a chair for Alicia who regarded him scornfully and sat down on another chair. Her scowl turned to another giggle when he bowed ostentatiously and took his place near his uncle, opposite the elderly del Mazo, who had already poured himself a glass of wine. Alicia then moved to the seat next to Johnny opposite Murdoch.
“¡Para el motivo del dios!” her mother said impatiently. “Sit still, Alicia.”
“I am perfectly still, Mama,” the girl replied demurely, taking her napkin and spreading it carefully upon her lap. She glanced at Johnny who copied her action with the napkin. Though intimidated by the luxury of the table and by the atmosphere, heavy with correctness, he was also amused by the girl’s rebellious behaviour; he enjoyed seeing the fear in the mother’s eyes as she clearly waited for the next inappropriate act. He was curious, too, to witness how relaxed his father seemed in Señora Carranza’s company, how his body was already turned slightly towards her as if closing a door to others. Johnny saw how she half-closed her eyes when listening to Murdoch, opening them wide to register surprise or pleasure. When she glanced once in his own direction, he gazed back at her with an expression of cynical boredom.
As the dinner progressed over several elegant courses, Alicia goaded her mother in various ways: using the wrong spoon for her soup, tearing her fajitas into minute pieces, and licking her guacamole-covered fingers with noisy relish. Johnny earned more than one warning frown or throat-clearing from his father when he was unable to contain his laughter at the bad-tempered exchanges between the two women. Finally, during the dessert course, Alicia bit into a strawberry. Giggling quietly, she allowed the pink juice to run down her chin and drip onto her silk dress. Emilio, already exasperated by his nephew’s brief, monosyllabic answers to his polite questions about Lancer, lost patience with the girl.
“Alicia,” he said in a voice cold with anger. “Leave the table now, if you cannot learn to respect your elders and behave in a manner becoming the daughter of a great ranchero.”
The girl lowered her head, her scowl hidden by her long, dark hair. She sat immobile for a few moments, her hands folded modestly in her lap, before plucking another strawberry from the fruit tower. Johnny watched, fascinated and amused, as she sliced it fastidiously with a knife. She speared a slice with her fork and placed it decorously in her mouth. Around her, the older adults radiated silent censure like frowning rocks at the bottom of the sea, watching the fish play.
“Your skin, it favours us,” Señor del Mazo said suddenly, pointing a spoon at Johnny. “But your eyes are very blue.”
The young man felt his heart race in panic. Throughout the meal, he had suffered; only Alicia’s misconduct had kept him in his seat. Everything had risen up against him, unpredictable enemies in foreign territory: the vast array of cutlery with mysterious functions, the pale Madeira wine, the way his uncle had gently corrected his handling of a knife and fork, the exotic fruits he had never before seen, the murmurings of his father and Alicia’s mother, and the effortless gliding of his uncle’s servants, moving and twisting between the stiff chairs like curls of vapour. He longed for the easy sophistication of his older brother, who would have rescued him long before now.
“The world can be unkind to such anomalies,” del Mazo sighed, his arthritic fingers fumbling over the peeling of an orange. Johnny, confused by the unfamiliar word, remained silent. Then, fearful of another painful observation from the old man, he remembered Scott’s tactic of asking a question that might set the enemy on a different tack.
“Were you in the Mexican War, Señor?”
The old man stopped peeling the orange and looked at the young man with a sudden vivid interest that transformed his tired features.
“Was I in the war, muchacho!?” he exclaimed, his eyes bright with the intensity of his passion. “I held the blood-stained flag in these hands! I was the war!”
“Tío was a colonel, Johnny,” Emilio explained languidly. He wiped his mouth on his napkin and beckoned his dogs to him. They heaved themselves up from the fireside and lumbered, huge and sleepy, over to the table where they caught their master’s scraps in their snapping jaws. “He was already too old to fight, but he could not be held back. War makes old men feel young again.”
“They were the greatest days of my life!” del Mazo announced, pouring himself more wine. “There are no other days. This …” He flapped his hand dismissively around the large, ornate room. “This is all nothing. I wake up. I read my histories. I study my maps. I eat. I ride a little. I sleep. It is all nothing. I wish I had died on the battlefield with my brothers.” He hesitated briefly. “Then, or when, as a child, I gathered acorns with my sister.”
“Tío …” Emilio reprimanded his uncle gently. Johnny, transfixed by the old man’s fervour, as alluring to him as a gentle landscape turned ominous under a turbulent sky, saw del Mazo’s eyes harden in resistance.
“No, Muchacho,” he said fiercely. “Better death than this! I have always said it. Since our great loss, all is lost!”
Emilio glanced at Johnny’s wary but rapt expression and sighed heavily, one hand playing with the ears of his wolfhound.
“We have a good life, all of us,” he said patiently. “We are rich in land and possessions. We want for nothing.”
“Except for the freedom to be ourselves in our own land!” del Mazo glared furiously at his nephew. “You were always one for ‘pale as milk’ compromises, Emilio. You were born a Californio. You, alongside your father and me, swore eternal hatred against the invaders. You bled for our independence, our union with Mexico, yet you embraced that filthy treaty, that lost us half our country, like a new religion!”
“Tío, por favor,” Senora Carranza pleaded. “Calma tú mismo.”
Emilio waved away her concern and regarded his uncle severely.
“I am not in love with the past, if that’s what you mean,” he said coldly. He looked intensely at Murdoch. “I am not ruled by hatred for things I cannot change.”
Shaking with anger, del Mazo rose unsteadily to his feet and beckoned Johnny to him with a fleshy hand.
“You, niño,” he ordered. “Come here with me now! Let us see where your loyalties lie.”
Johnny was about to ask where they were going when his uncle placed his hand firmly on his arm, his dark eyes fixed gravely on the old man.
“Deje el muchacho solo, Tío” (Leave the boy alone, Uncle) he said. “Tú ha bebido demasiado vino.” (You’ve had too much wine.)
“Mejore que demasiada leche, Sobrino,” (Better than too much milk, Nephew.) del Mazo replied scornfully. He waved again at Johnny. “Venido aqui, niño. Deseo demostrarle un cuadro.” (Come with me, child. I want to show you a picture.)
“Un cuadro?” Johnny repeated, mystified.
“Si, si, un cuadro. Venido.”
Johnny looked at his father who shrugged unconcernedly. He went with the old man to the first floor landing and stood with him before a large painting of a proud man in military uniform, draped with belts of ammunition and cradling a rifle. Beside him was a palomino in silver livery, a brightly striped blanket over its hindquarters, and behind them a battle, men with long lances repelling a bayonet charge in a green field overlooked by mountains.
“That is me, niño!” the old man announced proudly. “The Battle of San Pascual. December the Sixth, 1846. I was there. We made the Americans chase us until they fell apart and then we turned on them with our long lances. What chance did they have with their little bayonets? We killed many.” He sighed through his watering eyes. “I would have been happy to die that day.”
He looked apprehensively at the young man, who continued to gaze at the picture.
“¿Tú entiende?” (Do you understand?) he asked.
“Entiendo,” (I understand)Johnny replied softly, imagining himself on that field, charging towards the enemy with a long lance, the morning sun in his face, the lust for his country’s freedom in his heart. Another noble life against which the light of his own miserably failed.
“Sabía que tú,” (I knew you would) the old man whispered. “Detecto su fuerza.” (I felt it in you.)
Señora Carranza accepted the glass of whisky from Murdoch with a smile, allowing the tips of her fingers to touch his briefly. Enjoying the sensation, he returned her smile and sat down next to her on a large leather couch draped with colourful Mexican throws.
Near the fire, on the other side of the room, Emilio was playing a Spanish guitar and singing a Mexican trail song for the entertainment of Johnny and Alicia. Johnny, feeling safe to ignore his father’s disapproving frown, had chosen to sit cross-legged on the thick buffalo hide, close to the slumbering dogs. Alicia sat in a chair behind him, leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, in cool defiance of her mother’s command to sit up straight. While she listened to the song, her long fingers made tiny stroking movements in the air, and her gaze was upon Johnny’s dark head.
The young man was enthralled by his uncle’s skill. In all his travels in small Mexican towns, he had never seen fingers move across the strings of a guitar with such fluidity, never heard a voice so perfectly matched to his own feelings towards life. As he listened, he allowed images he loved to form in his mind: long drifts of burning sand in the merciless desert, mountain paths descending into cool forests and rushing rivers, wild horses moving like ghosts in a panic of dust, and the tops of immense sequoias swaying in high winds.
In the centre of the room, leaning over a large, round oak table, del Mazo studied a yellowing 18th century map with a magnifying glass. As he hovered over the document, he hummed tunelessly along to Emilio’s music, interrupting himself at times to mutter place-names with the intensity of a prayer.
“It must be difficult without Luis,” Murdoch said, contemplating his drink. He was enjoying himself in the company of this tough but decorous woman; the contrast intrigued him, and it had been too long, he felt, since he had allowed himself the pleasure of flirtation.
“It was, at first.” Señora Carranza’s gaze dropped to one side, away from the rancher, so that she appeared to him to be looking for some lost thing. “But is it not remarkable how quickly one recovers oneself in order to survive?”
She lifted her head then, to regard Murdoch with a look almost defiant, and so self-assured that he frowned slightly even while his blood quickened.
“If your nature is that way inclined,” he replied. “Yes, I agree.” He paused. “Some people drown.”
“Some must, I suppose,” Señora Carranza said indifferently. “But you and I did not.”
Murdoch felt something in him stir, a surge of power, an old sense of invincibility. He sipped his drink and swallowed hard.
“It’s harder for a woman.” His voice held the confidence of the thirty years he had spent building his empire from wooden cabin to vast, sprawling ranch in a wild new land.
Señora Carranza raised her dark, curving eyebrows.
“Why is it harder for a woman?”
Idly expecting her agreement, he was unsettled by her challenging tone, and smiled in his embarrassment.
“I meant …”
“You meant that a creature in petticoats and stays, weak and fragile as she must be …”
“I certainly don’t think that …,” Murdoch objected.
“No?” Señora Carranza relented with a smile. “Alright, but you certainly do not imagine us capable of what you believe you are capable of.”
“What’s that?” Murdoch asked, ever more attracted to the place where a pearlescent black earring quivered close to the olive skin of her neck.
“Lions on rocks.” Her tone was suddenly light, teasing. “Masters of all you survey.”
“I’ve earned that feeling,” Murdoch said gruffly, disliking what he felt to be mockery.
“And I have not?”
“It’s in the nature of men to build, to expand, to strengthen their hold on what they’ve built by all means possible.” He paused and his voice hardened. “I know what I’ve had to overcome to bring Lancer out of the common earth.”
“Including the loss of your wives and sons,” Señora Carranza said softly.
“Yes,” Murdoch replied, his breath catching in his throat. “I was able to overcome even that. At the time, I believed those losses made me stronger.”
“You no longer think that?”
Murdoch glanced across at Johnny, disturbed by the young man’s absorption in Emilio’s music, and shrugged uncomfortably. Señora Carranza placed a hand on his arm and leaned in a little closer to him.
“Yes,” she said gently. “It was a kind of strength, Murdoch, while it lasted, but now it lies in ruins all about you.”
Annoyed as he was by her words, at that moment Murdoch wanted to kiss her wildly, to suck that place on her neck into his mouth until he had satisfied the mystery of the way the earring moved against her skin. Instead, he looked away, into his whisky, his mouth set against expression. The woman removed her hand.
“When Luis died.” Her tone was cold, as if to repel an advancing menace. “I was lost. I had no idea what to do. I was a woman alone with a child. My habits were of a person long used to being provided for, cared for. I rode side-saddle and was afraid of guns. The vaqueros were, to me, sullen strangers that only my husband, with a lost, secret power, was able to control.” She leaned back into the couch, her fingers rubbing the raised warp of the throw on the couch’s arm. “My daughter was my strength,” she continued. The sadness in her voice made Murdoch turn to look at her again. “Though she hates me for it, she was all I needed to be strong. I learned to ride, to shoot, to command men, to run a business, for her sake. I would have killed for her, died to protect her and that was enough to put fear in the hearts of those who would oppose me.”
“Why is the girl so angry?” Murdoch asked, pouring himself another whisky from the decanter. He was calmer now and determined to keep his emotions under control.
“Because I do not want for her what I have found for myself.”
“What have you found for yourself?”
“A love of power for its own sake. A desire to live outside the shadow of men. I want her to be happy in the ordinary way.”
“You’re not happy?” Murdoch felt himself roused again, his gaze drawn this time to the raised curves of her upper lip, and then to her almost sleepy, half-closed eyes.
“Not in an ordinary way, no,” she replied. “But then I am not an ordinary woman.”
“No,” Murdoch agreed. “But then I’m wondering what one of those is.”
Señora Carranza laughed suddenly, a natural, happy sound that inspired his own need to break his mood. Their laughter was loud enough to alert Alicia who turned her head and glared in their direction. Her mother fell silent and poured herself another drink.
“Johnny is a handsome boy,” she stated decisively.
“Yes.” Murdoch hesitated, amazed to hear himself say, “He takes after his mother.”
“The wild Maria,” Señora Carranza murmured. “We were like sisters once, but she was always uncontrollable, untameable. She refused to ride side-saddle.”
Murdoch heard these details in silence, his gaze upon his clasped hands.
“And what of his future?”
“When will he be married?”
He looked at her, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
“I really have no idea, Señora.”
“Is he not courting?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” Murdoch frowned in sudden understanding. He picked up his glass, took a large sip of whisky and put the glass back down on the table. “Johnny still has some growing to do, Señora, and if you’ll forgive me for saying it, so has your daughter.”
“But he is a young man now…”
“Yes, but he didn’t grow up in the usual way. There are gaps …”
“Gaps? I don’t understand.”
Murdoch sighed heavily and rubbed his large hands together. From across the other side of the room, he became aware of a man speaking to Emilio in rapid Spanish, and Emilio lighting a cigar. “Until he came home, Johnny had been alone since the age of ten, since Maria’s death, with no adults to guide him, and I’m not entirely sure he was raised properly before that.” He drew in his breath and released it again slowly as if to regain balance on a tightrope. “He needs time and space to learn … well, to be happy in an ordinary way, as you call it.”
“And you intend to protect him while he finishes his growing?” Señora Carranza smiled. “Especially from predatory mothers with marriageable daughters.”
“I intend to protect him, yes,” Murdoch replied emphatically. “As far as I’m able to.”
Expecting her to move coldly away, he was surprised when she slid her hand close to his and grasped it tenderly. He turned his head and smiled into her dark eyes, captivated by the feel of her warm flesh, by the promise of surrender in her expression. Then, alarmed by his body’s sudden response to a squeeze of her hand, he coughed and stood up.
“Excuse me, Señora,” he said hastily. “I believe I promised Señor del Mazo that I would show him the location of the new railroad.”
“Ah, yes, maps,” she sighed, folding her hands into her lap. “How they trick us into believing we have understood and tamed the landscape.”
Frowning at the curious words, and unable to decipher their meaning, Murdoch washed his mind of desire and went to absorb himself in the task of guiding the old man through the West’s rapidly changing geography.
“My father taught me to play. This was his guitar,” Emilio said with quiet pride, watching his nephew stroke his fingers along the intricate patterns inlaid on the body of the guitar.
“How did you learn the songs?” Johnny asked, bewitched by the deep grained beauty of the wood in the firelight.
“My mother. They are the songs of the Californios, songs of life before the Americans came, songs of the vaqueros, the true masters of horses and cattle, songs of the great rancheros, noble in blood, spirit and deed.”
“Mama says you and Tío are too romantic about the past,” Alicia said, smiling mockingly at him from her chair by the fire. Emilio glared briefly at his young cousin before assuming a cold severity.
“Your mama is a hard-headed woman, Alicia. She cares little for our traditions. I try not to live in the past, but I have the greatest respect for the honour and ways of our ancestors. Hermila does not understand.”
“Perhaps that is because they are all male traditions,” the girl said sweetly, leaning down to stroke the long, bony head of the nearest wolfhound.
Johnny turned his head in surprise. Catching his curious gaze, Alicia looked away and stroked the dog more insistently.
“You go too far, Cousin,” Emilio said angrily. “You forget that you are still a child.”
“And will you punish me, Cousin Emilio?” Avoiding Johnny’s eyes, Alicia lifted her head to look directly at her relative.
Before Emilio could respond, a man entered the room, short and middle-aged, his sombrero held in front of him and agitation etched clearly in the folds of his thin face. Droplets of sweat glistened on his high forehead and on his large, grey moustache.
“Se hay una lucha, Pátron,” (There’s been a fight.) he said rapidly.
“¿Entre quién?” (Between whom?) Emilio demanded irritably. The man looked uncomfortably at Johnny and Alicia, hesitating to reply.
“¡Dígame!” (Tell me!)
Alarmed by his employer’s order, the Segundo answered in a flurry of nervous detail. “Mañuel y Carlos, Pátron. Está sobra una mujer. Carlos utilizó un cuchillo. Hay mucha sangre. Mañuel pudo morir.” (Manuel and Carlos. Over a woman. Carlos used a knife. There’s much blood. Manuel’s dying.)
Emilio stood up, his face expressionless.
“Vendré,” he said, waving the man away. He picked up a cigar from a wooden box, sniffed it and lit it with reverent care before following the vaquero out of the room. Alicia sighed and fell to her knees near Johnny on the rug, her right hand continuing to fondle the wolfhound’s ears.
“How ridiculous,” she said scornfully. “Fighting over a woman.”
“Maybe she’s worth fightin’ over,” Johnny said quietly. His back was to the girl as he skimmed his fingers over the guitar strings. Alicia hesitated, her eyes on the area of Johnny’s neck, revealed as he bent his head over the guitar.
“Have you fought over a girl then?” she asked, her tone a mixture of timidity and excitement. Johnny smiled to himself at her sudden retreat into coyness.
“Nope,” he answered. “Ain’t found one worth fightin’ over. Don’t mean that I won’t though.”
In response to her silence, he put down the guitar and moved round to face her, his legs still crossed, his hands clasped in front of him. Across the dimly lit room, he saw Murdoch deep in conversation with Señora Carranza, saw her suddenly lean in closer and take his father’s hand. Disturbed, he looked away and rested his gaze on Alicia who, he observed, was pretending indifference in a body tense with expectation.
“How come you don’t get along with your Mama?” he asked.
“Is there some sort of rule that says that I must?” Alicia replied indifferently.
“No,” Johnny admitted. “I sure don’t get along with my pa all the time, but you seem real angry with your mama.” He smiled. “Is it ‘cos of the dress?”
“I *hate* this dress,” she whispered fiercely, her green eyes shining in the firelight. At the same moment, Johnny saw his father stand up, talk briefly to Señora Carranza and then walk away from her towards Señor del Mazo who was still bent over the map in the centre of the room. He could not decipher the expression on Murdoch’s face, but the walk was determined and the concentration on the map, intense.
“Seems kind of a pretty dress to me.” Johnny smiled cautiously. He wondered again, as he had on first meeting her, what it would be like to kiss her. In the firelight, the girl’s well-defined features, her long black eyelashes and her pouting mouth seemed touched with the sultriness of an older woman. She appeared to take no pleasure in his compliment, and looked at him angrily.
“My mama is over there hatching plots, you know.”
“What kinda plots?” Johnny asked, glancing over to where Alicia’s mother still sat. The older woman appeared relaxed, one hand holding a small, open book, but her eyes were intent on the movements of his father.
“She’s trying to marry me off,” Alicia replied vengefully. “When Emilio told her you were coming, she stuffed me in this dress and told me that my future could depend on my behaviour tonight.”
Johnny laughed softly. “Well, you don’t need to fret none, Señorita. I ain’t lookin’ for a wife yet.”
Alicia stared at the young man doubtfully, before risking a small smile.
“And *I’m* not in search of a husband, Señor.” The shy manner of her speech then, and the way in which she dipped her head so that he could see only her dark lashes, made him want to lift her chin and press his lips to hers. He was sure she would taste sweet, an antidote to the sour mouths of saloon girls.
“Guess we understand each other then, don’t we?” he said gently. He felt suddenly protective and much too old in the ways of the world to deserve even the thought of kissing such a girl. Alicia nodded in answer to his statement. She turned her head to observe Murdoch who was tracing a finger over del Mazo’s map, his deep voice responding with slow patience to the old man’s excited questions.
“My mother might persuade your papa that it would be advantageous to unite our two families,” she whispered. “That is her creed, all she lives for, bringing two powerful ranchos together through me. What if your papa agrees?”
“He won’t.” Johnny smiled at the thought.
“How can you be so certain?” Alicia frowned. “This is how these things are done in our family.”
“‘Cos he don’t have that kinda control over me. Don’t reckon he’d want it.”
“But he seems so strict and fierce.”
“He is, sometimes,” Johnny said softly, smiling at the girl’s misconception of his father. “Not all the time.”
“Do you ever disobey him?” Alicia’s tone had become excited. She leaned in towards Johnny eagerly.
“Yeh, sometimes,” he admitted.
“And he allows you to do it?”
“No, he gets real mad and yells a lot,” Johnny whispered. “Goes as red as a big ol’ turkey-cock. Sometimes, I reckon he’ll turn into one if he ain’t careful.”
Alicia gasped and covered her mouth, before breaking into a fit of giggles. Delighted that the sombreness of the room was broken, Johnny joined in until they had both lost control and were rolling around on the buffalo skin, laughing hysterically. Startled, the wolfhounds staggered to their feet and began barking loudly. Johnny heard his father ordering him to stand up, but at the sight of the older man’s reddening face looming over them, he and the girl burst into fresh laughter. Señora Carranza’s rapid, scolding Spanish had no effect on her daughter and Alicia sat, her face in her hands, sobbing with unstoppable hysteria.
“¡Ahora pare esto!!” (Stop this now!) Emilio’s voice, harder and sharper than that of either of the parents, cut through the air with such violence, the dogs lay down instantly at his feet, whining. “Vosotros no comporturá de tal manera en mi casa. ¡Esté parado para arriba, ambos vosotros!” (You will not behave in such a manner in my house. Stand up, both of you!)
Johnny, instantly resentful of his uncle’s harsh tone, fell silent and stood up. Emilio waited until Alicia had risen to her feet, still giggling behind her hand, before glaring at them both.
“A man has *died* tonight,” he said furiously. “*Died,* and I walk in to find members of my family behaving like *simpletons!* Where is your respect for my house? For your parents? For your*selves?*”
“We were laughin’, Tío,” Johnny said defensively, glancing at his father who stared back at him impassively, his arms folded. “Just havin’ some fun. We didn’t know anyone had died.”
“And what could possibly be so amusing that you act like lunatics in my house!?” Emilio demanded. For the first time, Johnny noticed blood on the cuffs of his uncle’s dress shirt. Still he felt rebellious, and irritated with the older man.
“Every damn thing,” he replied defiantly. He wanted to say it was amusing that one man should kill another over a woman, that Senora Carranza wanted to fuck his father and marry her daughter off to a gun fighter, that by now Jeff and Elijah had probably killed each other on the trip home to Lancer, and that he would probably die before he was twenty-five, but he merely stared at his uncle, feeding the older man’s fury with his silent insolence. He knew Emilio wanted to strike him.
“Señora,” Emilio said coldly, his gaze holding his nephew’s. “Take your daughter upstairs to her room. I think she is over-tired.”
Señora Carranza grasped the still giggling girl’s arm and pulled her out of the room, scolding her in furious whispers and slamming the heavy door behind her.
“Johnny.” Murdoch’s voice surprised him with its unexpected composure. “Are you going to apologise to your uncle, so that we can enjoy the rest of the evening in peace?”
“An apology will *not* be enough!” Emilio said harshly, holding Johnny’s coolly dispassionate gaze with icy determination.
“It will have to be!” Murdoch retaliated swiftly. “Johnny, how about it?” The young man pulled his attention away from his uncle and looked at his father, to see yet another unreadable expression on Murdoch’s face. It flustered him to realise that his ability to read the faces of men failed him when he was confronted by his father.
“Laughin’ ain’t a crime, Murdoch,” he said quietly.
“No, but you were insolent and disrespectful to your uncle in his own house.” His father’s next words emerged in a tone of steely decisiveness that he had only ever heard used in Murdoch’s business dealings. “I think you owe him an apology, Son.”
Still he hesitated, unwilling to concede to his uncle, but anxious not to displease his father, always painful, but intolerable in a house full of strangers. Finally, he sighed and dropped his head before lifting it again to look directly at Emilio.
“I’m sorry, Tío,” he said, his voice edged with resentment. “I was out of line.”
“For the sake of your father, I accept your apology,” Emilio replied, turning abruptly from Johnny to pour himself a drink.
“You’ve lost a man, Emilio?” Murdoch said, his tone quietly sympathetic. Relieved and surprised that his son had listened to him rather than storm out of the room raging with furious despair, he felt a rush of power and superiority over his brother-in-law that inspired his compassion.
“Yes,” Emilio replied curtly. It was a blood feud. Carlos’ sister and mother, his only family, were raped and murdered by Mañuel’s brother last year. My Segundo hired Carlos last week as a cook. He did not know Carlos had vowed to kill Mañuel’s entire family to avenge his sister and mother. Now everyone is dead. Mañuel was the last.”
Emilio sighed and swallowed the whisky in his glass in one gulp before setting down the glass with a bang on the table. “Mañuel was one of my best hands. No-one could work horses with such grace and compassion.” He shrugged. “I tried to save him, but the bleeding, it would not stop. It came from his chest like a river.”
“Where’s Carlos?” Murdoch asked, aware that his son had visibly paled at the terrible story.
“Out there, somewhere,” Emilio said, nodding towards the French windows. “With the coyotes and a gun. He did not even take a horse. Se termina. That is what my men heard him say. Se termina.”
Though he had spoken with some emotion, when Emilio turned to face Murdoch and Johnny, his features were impassive, almost bored. The smile he offered his nephew was like ice cracking on a frozen lake. Johnny, his breathing quickened by memories, was imagining the killer’s terrible loneliness.
“Does my tale shock you, Sobrino?”
“No, Tío,” he replied softly.
Emilio grunted and turned to pour himself another drink. Then he walked over to join his elderly uncle who had not stirred from his map during the conflict.
On the balcony of the house, Johnny shivered with the cold. A large, pale moon glimmered, unobscured by cloud, over the purple mountains beyond his uncle’s lands, and the forests covering the lower reaches looked like dark armies tramping down to conquer the valley below. Coyotes yapped and howled in the clear, cold air, and when he breathed and saw his breath rise up in clouds before him, he imagined the coyotes doing the same, sending out signals in the moonlit night. He thought of the fugitive Carlos, emptied of his quest and turning, like the desperate Sykes, in restless, hopeless circles upon the unyielding earth. Listening for the sound of gunshot or a change in the coyotes’ calls, he remembered the many nights he had spent on the run, sometimes with no more than his gun and a blanket to protect him, his eyes wide open to the star-crammed sky. Often, he had felt, as young and fit as he had been, as if he were keeping watch over his final night on Earth. Often, he had woken to the whistling of birds in a grey dawn, the sun not yet over the hills, and wished himself gone with the darkness.
He became aware of the smell of cigar smoke, and his fingers had gone to the handle of his gun, minutes before his uncle appeared beside him. Unsettled by the events of the evening, he had fetched his gun belt, relieved when his father had chosen not to challenge his decision. Making no acknowledgement of Emilio’s presence, he continued to stare at the horizon.
“The coyotes,” Emilio said quietly. “They make much music tonight.”
Receiving no response from his nephew, he smoked his cigar in silence for a short while before speaking again. “Out there, it is still wild. Men still barricade themselves from its terrors as they have for thousands of years, but the end is coming, Johnny.” Johnny swallowed at the clear sound of his own name. “Soon it will be gone. The railroad is stealing across the wilderness. The flesh of the buffalo is being left to putrefy on the plains by the gringo hunters, and the Indians are being pushed like troublesome ghosts into the margins of history. Soon our towns will be cities and our ranchos fenced. There will no more coyotes, no more places where the wild men ride, nothing left to fear in the night except the sound of our own breathing. We will all be civilised. Our blood will go cold.”
Emilio paused to smoke his cigar, and then continued. “My uncle believes my blood has already gone cold because of my failure to oppose the 1848 treaty, but to me, still so young, that cause was lost. I am rich. I have power enough. I adapt to the changes around me. Only one cause still lives burning in my blood, Johnny.” The older man leaned on the rail close to his nephew. He spoke gently. “Tell me, what did you think of Carlos’ actions?”
Johnny frowned and turned his head to look at his uncle.
“What’s to think?” he said steadily. “The man had a journey to make.”
“It involved the death of innocents. Mañuel had committed no outrage. Yet he paid the price for his brother’s evil. Do you not feel that is wrong?”
“What’re you expectin’ me to say, Tío,” Johnny asked quietly. “That if a man is hurt an’ angry enough then anythin’ he does is ok?”
Emilio gazed calmly at the younger man while he smoked his cigar. Johnny turned his head away and clasped his hands in front of him over the balcony rail.
“I know who you are, Johnny,” Emilio said suddenly. “I know what became of you after your Mama died. I know who is standing next to me now.”
Johnny lowered his head briefly and then looked at his uncle again, a glimmer of a smile on his lips.
“Figured as much, Tío.”
Emilio lost his composure for a moment, and when he spoke his tone was sharp-edged and animated.
“I saw you that night in the saloon. You swept those men aside like dust, even a man such as Ferris whom everyone fears. I saw you in the corral with that horse. You did not even flinch when it reared in front of you. I respect you. I respect you more than I respected my own father. I have never seen such self-possession in any man.” He paused and looked down at the cigar smouldering between his fingers. “That is why your behaviour earlier tonight filled me with rage. One night, I see a man so completely in control that I am lost in admiration; the next, I see an undisciplined, unruly boy who needs his papa’s correction. Which are you, Johnny?”
“Whatever you see at the time, Tío,” Johnny replied softly. He straightened himself and turned to leave.
“What happened to Maria?” The younger man stopped at the bluntness of the question, his heart racing, when until now he had felt as calm as the water in the gentle fountain under the moonlight.
“She got sick an’ died when I was ten,” he answered, his back to his uncle. “You know that.”
“I do not believe it,” Emilio said decisively. “When word came to us of her death, I went to San Christo to bring her body home. I found no trace of it. No-one would tell me anything of how she died or what had happened to her child. I knew the people there had been terrorised, but by whom I could not discover, though I tried for many months.” Emilio placed himself in front of his nephew and looked down severely upon Johnny’s lowered head. “My sister was wild, Johnny, as unmanageable as that colt that even now is kicking at the walls of his stable. Maria sent my honoured parents to early graves, but I loved her. If she had lived, I would be a different person now, but …” He stopped and shook his head. “That is all past now.” He grasped Johnny’s arms. The younger man struggled to free himself, but Emilio gripped tighter with powerful hands. He spoke fiercely. “Tomorrow, I bury Mañuel, and we can mourn for him. When can I bury my sister and mourn for her?”
“You’re lookin’ in the wrong place for your answers, Tío,” Johnny said savagely. “She got sick an’ died, an’ I left San Christo when they tried to put me in an orphanage. You know the rest.”
“Si, Sobrino,” Emilio nodded, releasing his nephew’s arms with a sudden sigh of what seemed, to Johnny, like surrender. “Sé el resto.”
For a moment, Johnny felt compassion for the older man, in spite of the wretched turmoil in his own mind provoked by Emilio’s words. He walked back into the house, at last hearing the single gun shot in the distance, cleaving the silence as cleanly as a sharp knife in an apple. Briefly, a kind of peace descended upon him.
Near midnight, Murdoch entered Johnny’s room to find him sitting cross-legged on the bed eating a large slice of cake and drawing in his sketchbook. His gun was beside him on the bed resting on his father’s green-checked shirt, and Scott’s jacket was draped carefully across the pillows. The young man seemed entirely absorbed, but Murdoch knew he was fully alert to his presence.
Johnny raised his head and looked at his father with a wary smile.
“Thought you’d hit the sack, Old Man.”
“I’ve been reading,” Murdoch replied, moving further into the room.
“That Dickens story?”
“No, about the Fetterman massacre in Nebraska a few years back.”
“Yeh, I heard of it,” Johnny said, placing the half-eaten cake next to his gun. “Some fool soldier reckoned he could whup Crazy Horse’s ass in the snow with a few horses an’ most of his men walkin’. I heard it was so cold the blood froze spurtin’ outta them soldier boys’ bodies.”
“Yes, well,” Murdoch said uncomfortably. “I think the army learned a few lessons from that encounter.”
“Sure have,” Johnny’s tone was deceptively casual. “They learned to use bigger guns an’ even bigger lies in getting’ those pesky injuns outta the way of their railroads and gold diggers.”
Murdoch sat down on the end of the bed.
“You know, Johnny,” he said cautiously. “I’m…*we’re* part of that process of displacing others to establish ourselves. Every blade of grass, every tree, every creek, every rock on Lancer was gained by my ability to force a water rights or a boundary claim and stick with it against all opposition. One day, it all might crumble into dust when something or someone bigger comes along with a more powerful punch.”
“From what I seen no-one’s gonna whup you anytime soon,” Johnny smiled, quickly reverting to seriousness. “I understand ‘bout how things change, Murdoch, an’ I know, like ol’ Crazy Horse knows, how he ain’t gotta chance in hell of standin’ up to the army an’ the government an’ the settlers, but you can’t blame ‘im for fightin’. Can’t blame ‘im for not wantin’ to live off white man’s handouts on some flea bit reservation.”
“No, I don’t,” Murdoch replied softly, watching Johnny pick up the piece of cake and take a large bite. He smiled. “Didn’t you get enough supper, Son?”
Johnny swallowed the mouthful of cake and wiped the crumbs off his lips with the back of his hand.
“You mean I was s’posed to *eat* as well as behave myself? Boy, I wish I’d known!”
“Well, if you don’t mind me saying so,” Murdoch said carefully. “You didn’t actually entirely succeed in behaving yourself.”
“No, I guess I didn’t,” Johnny replied, smiling guardedly. “You mad about it?”
“Do I look as if I am?”
“Nope. I guess the Señora kinda softened you up, huh?”
“It has nothing to do with Señora Carranza, young man,” Murdoch objected, his face reddening.
“Mmm, well it looked like you two were getting’ real cosy on that couch,” Johnny said innocently. He licked his fingers of the last crumbs and rubbed his hand on his trousers. Murdoch, surprised at his own embarrassment, sought to change the subject.
“What are you drawing?”
“Two ol’ lovebirds.”
“John,” Murdoch warned sternly, glaring at his son. Johnny, realising that he had gone too far, silently offered the book to his father, something, both men realised, he had never before done. Murdoch took it and gazed at the sketch of Sykes lying, wrecked and stained, under the oak tree in Bittercreek.
“Who’s this?” Murdoch frowned, shocked by the graphic portrayal of what appeared to be a dead man.
“The man who sold me Amo,” Johnny answered quietly. “Me an’ Jeff came across ‘im next mornin’ flat out drunk an’ stinkin’ of his own piss. Pretty, ain’t he?”
“Why would you draw this, Johnny?”
“Why not?” The younger man’s voice became defensive. “The world ain’t all holdin’ hands an’ sunlight through the peach trees, ya know.”
“No, I know,” Murdoch faltered uncomfortably. “But shouldn’t art be pleasing? This is horrible.”
“Are those books you’n Scott read always pleasin’? Don’t they make ya think sometimes, make ya scared, put ants in your pants, change the way you see the world?”
“Yes, I suppose they do,” Murdoch confessed, astonished at the turn of the conversation. He was beginning to feel out of his depth in the face of his son’s intense self-assurance. “But pictures …”
“Pictures,” Johnny interrupted. “Are there to give you another set of eyes, Old Man.”
His father nodded, moved beyond his own understanding, and returned the sketch book to the young man. Johnny took it, worried that he had displeased him. His confidence shaken, he lowered his head so that Murdoch could see only his black hair.
“Emilio knows about Madrid,” he said quietly. His father drew in his breath and released it again slowly.
“We should leave tomorrow.”
“I want to go home, Murdoch,” Johnny insisted, lifting his head. “But I can’t, not yet.”
Johnny gazed at his father, willing him to comprehend something whose meaning was still unclear to himself.
“I ain’t leavin’ Amo, an’ I gotta gentle ‘im first.” He took a deep breath. “Give me two days an’ I’ll be ready.”
“But what about Emilio? How does he feel about … your past?”
“Oh, he thinks I’m some kinda hero,” Johnny smiled. “Don’t need to worry ‘bout that, Old Man.”
Murdoch sighed and rose wearily to his feet.
“Alright, two days,” he agreed. “But, after that, I’m going to tie your legs together and carry you back home over my shoulder. Is that understood?”
“Sure is,” Johnny replied cheerfully. “Anyway, it’ll give you time to steal a kiss from the Señora, won’t it?”
Murdoch raised a hand in pretence of cuffing the young man’s head, but then allowed it to drop gently. He ruffled Johnny’s dark, silky hair.
“Get some sleep, Son,” he said gently. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Johnny, agitated by the unexpected tenderness, watched his father walk away from him towards the door.
“Murdoch,” he said hesitantly. “Did you understand what I was sayin’ ‘bout the pictures?”
Murdoch stopped, his hand on the handle of the door. He swallowed back what he knew to be approaching tears. Irritated with himself, he answered his son’s question with what he knew was too much edge.
He left the room, leaving Johnny convinced that he had somehow disappointed the older man with his passionate views on art. Struggling to sleep later in the night, he wondered how it was possible to feel, at once, that he was about to step onto a sunlit plain with his father, and then that they were lost in the waves of a dark ocean, unable to find each other.
Sitting on the top rail of the main corral, he watched his uncle cut a perfect figure-of-eight with the young appaloosa. The older man changed rein and made transitions with a delicacy and precision so assured that Johnny could hardly detect his movements. He found himself watching the shadow of horse and rider move over the dirt surface of the corral and wondered if his own shadow glided with such fluidity across the land.
Earlier, accompanied by his father, he had watched the burial of Mañuel. The murdered man had been laid to rest in a small plot attached to the tiny Catholic chapel Emilio’s grandfather had built years before. As Emilio had read the service over Mañuel’s rough coffin, a warm breeze had played with the hair on the bowed heads of the mourners. A lizard, woken by the rising heat of the sun, had scuttled across a neglected grave, marked only by a rough cross etched with a single word, ‘Unknown’. Johnny had gazed at the cross, lost to his own thoughts, as the words were read and the coffin lowered. When his father had placed a hand on his neck and let it linger there, he had been certain that Murdoch had read his troubled mind. Men had ridden out after the funeral in search of Carlos’ body and had returned with some blood-stained clothing and his gun, claiming they had found no other trace of the killer. Emilio had gazed impassively at the bloodied rags and had looked at his nephew before saying, “We do not need this proof of midnight’s sufferings. We knew it in our souls. Burn them.”
Now, the smell of the bonfire on which the clothes had been thrown drifted across the corral from behind the bunkhouse.
He looked down from the rail to see Alicia squinting up at him, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand. She was dressed in a white shirt and jeans, and her long hair was stuffed under a sombrero. Johnny removed the piece of hay from his mouth.
“Mornin’” he said casually, masking his surprise at her transformation.
“Can I sit up there with you?” she asked boldly.
The girl climbed up eagerly and sat beside him so that her arm was touching his. For some time she watched Emilio school the appaloosa. Johnny, stealing a glance at her, liked the way the sun made its way through the loose weave of her sombrero and freckled her face with spots of light.
“Cousin Emilio is very good with horses, isn’t he,” Alicia said eventually.
“Sure is,” Johnny replied. “Best I’ve seen, exceptin’ me, of course.”
Alicia looked at the young man and smiled. Her gaze fell to the gun holster tied firmly to his thigh.
“Are you good with that too?” she asked cautiously.
“Yeh,” Johnny smiled. “Real good. Ain’t bad with the gun neither.”
The girl frowned in confusion and then, understanding, slapped his arm so hard he nearly toppled, laughing, off the fence. Emilio’s horse shied and side-stepped at the sudden disturbance.
“¡Madre del Dios!” Emilio shouted. “Si vosotros los niños no puede comportarse … (If you children cannot behave …)” He nudged the horse over to them. “Alicia, does your mother know you are here?” he demanded. His tone hardened into contempt. “And dressed like a … campesino común?” (common peasant)
“No,” Alicia answered defiantly. “But that’s her worry, Cousin, not yours.”
Glaring, Emilio steered the horse away and returned to his work.
“You don’t respect ‘im too much, do ya?” Johnny remarked, pulling his hat further down over his eyes.
“He thinks he can replace my father,” Alicia said impatiently. “No-one can.”
“An’ that’s all there is to it?”
“What else could there be?”
Johnny shrugged. The girl moved in closer again, so that her upper leg was resting against his holster.
“Did you get into much trouble after I left last night?” she asked quietly. “I‘ve never seen my cousin so angry.”
“Nothin’ I couldn’t handle,” Johnny replied uneasily, remembering his father’s stern intervention. “How ‘bout you? Your Mama looked ‘bout ready to light a fire on you.”
“We fight all the time lately.” Though the girl spoke dismissively, Johnny saw a fleeting sadness cross her face. “If I’d been born a boy everything would’ve been easy. As it is, I’m forced to live this impossible life, waiting for the right man to come so that I can be kept in my glittering cage, have babies, grow old and die!”
Disturbed by her anger, Johnny shifted his leg away slightly. She immediately reclaimed contact.
“You could help me,” Alicia whispered. Johnny looked at her, though all he could see were her full lips dappled by the sunlight through her hat. He was both unnerved and excited by her anger.
“How?” he asked coolly. He placed a finger under the brim of her hat and tipped it up so that he was able to see her eyes. “By marryin’ you, an’ lettin’ you do what you want?”
Alicia smiled. She allowed her gaze into his vivid blue eyes to linger challengingly. When he failed to look away, she abruptly lowered her head.
“That would irritate Mama, at least,” she laughed. “She thinks you’re an ill-mannered, undisciplined brat.”
“Likes me that much, huh?” Johnny smiled, watching his uncle coax the appaloosa into a line so straight it was as if man and beast were imagining depthless precipices on either side. “Maybe my pa’ll have better luck.”
“Yes, she likes Senor Lancer.” Alicia’s tone was light, almost indifferent. “They are in the conservatory now, among the apricots and vines. That’s why I felt safe in coming out like this. Mama has other things on her mind.”
“You reckon she’s fixin’ on ropin’ my pa?” Johnny said, both amused and unsettled by the idea.
“Would that be such a bad thing?”
“No, I guess not …” He paused. “If she don’t mind a few rope burns. He ain’t exactly mild.”
“Neither is my mother. Anyway, are you going to teach me to shoot or not?”
“What?” Johnny looked at the girl in amazement.
“You can teach me to shoot,” Alicia insisted. “My mother’s vaqueros have taught me to ride like a man. I can rope a calf and I can brand a hide. I can even eat snake, but I can’t shoot. No-one was brave enough to let me handle a gun. They are all afraid of my mother.”
“How in the hell did you persuade ‘em to teach you to rope an’ brand a calf, girl?”
“I have my ways.” Alicia’s smile was direct and teasing, her green eyes holding his gaze until, this time, he looked away to consider the piece of hay between his fingers. “Will you teach me to shoot, Johnny?” she coaxed.
“Why would I do that?” he asked reluctantly.
“Because I won’t survive on my own out there without being able to shoot, and I intend to survive.”
Johnny looked at her again and met the full force of her resolve in her expression, more powerful than that of any man he had faced in the street. He wondered if his mother had been the same, a young girl determined to escape her allotted fate on Earth. He wanted to help her and, at the same time, wanted to drive his tongue into her mouth. Perhaps his mother had asked the same of Murdoch, his support in her quest for independence. Perhaps his father too had hesitated between friendship and desire, before finally pinning her down to an unwanted life of marriage and motherhood. So many times had he listened to her fucking grunting strangers in the night, and then, in the morning cursing all men, mostly his father, for ruining her life.
“Ok,” he said finally. “I’ll teach you to shoot, but we’ll have to ride out. Don’t know if your mama’s gonna like it too much, an’ my pa’ll kill me if he finds out.”
“Then we go now,” Alicia insisted, jumping down from the fence into the dust. “While they’re more interested in each other than in us. Come on, we’ll get some horses.”
Although he had planned to begin work on Amo, Johnny, surprised at himself, leapt lightly down from the fence and followed the girl to his uncle’s well-ordered and immaculate stables out of sight of the main corral. It was five days since he had ridden and his blood quickened as a boy, hastily obeying Alicia’s haughty instructions, saddled two horses. Mounting quickly, he was amused to see Alicia scowl away the boy’s offer of cupped hands to help her onto the horse.
Smiling at Johnny, she spurred the animal on into an instant canter and then a gallop that took her past her cousin in the main corral and finally under the main archway out beyond the walled confines of the ranch. Johnny felt his heart beat with overwhelming excitement and joy in the glory of the chase as he galloped to catch her, raising clouds of dust in the morning air and deaf to his uncle’s furious yelling from the corral.
She tasted of cherries. That was his persistent thought as he kissed her in the seclusion of the fruit-laden atmosphere of the conservatory. Close by the pair sitting on the bench, apricots, lemons and cherries were ripening in the sun. He moved from her mouth to what he had craved the previous evening, the place beneath her earlobe. He nuzzled it gently, hearing her moan and feeling his own desire, so long poured into unrelenting work, rise in him like a lion’s roar into the vast night. He was drowning in the scent of cherries, each inhalation to keep breathing, taking him further from a known world. She was the first to ease them apart, her dark eyes almost glaring into his as she held his face in her strong hands.
Alarmed by his yearning to pull her hands away and place his own on the skin beneath her dress, he turned from her suddenly, fighting to control his response, embarrassed by the physical evidence of his desire. Once more, as in the saloon, when he had punched another man into unconsciousness, he felt a stranger to the self he had known for the last twenty years – a dour man of business, loveless, childless, without any desire save that of protecting his ranch, without any impulse except the one to build, expand, make money. How long had he sat behind his desk allowing other men to make foolish mistakes, to act randomly, to be led astray by a word or the scent of cherries, to treasure a child more than their own life, to lose faith in the iron core of themselves?
“Murdoch?” Señora Carranza placed a hand on his shoulder and spoke softly against his ear. “Are you angry with me?”
He reached up and placed a hand over her hand. He shook his head.
“No, Hermila,” he sighed. “Not with you. I’m angry with myself. I lost control. I had no business kissing you.”
“But I wanted you to kiss me,” she said firmly. “I encouraged it. You have nothing to be sorry for.”
Murdoch turned round to face her and gently took her hand in his. It felt surprisingly broad and strong, not like the limp hand of the minister’s wife in Morro Coyo or those of the pampered wives of his fellow ranchers at the Cattlemen’s Club.
“It’s my duty and responsibility to restrain myself,” he insisted.
“What out-dated nonsense, Murdoch! We are attracted to each other. We kissed. Where is the shame in that?”
“You’re a respectable woman, Señora …”
“A fig for respectability, Murdoch!” she interrupted fiercely. “What? Do you think I have wasted my time with such irrelevant nonsense in the three years since my husband died? I have been discreet certainly, for my daughter’s sake, but I have had lovers. If your definition of respectability is chastity, then, no, I am not respectable. I am a whore.”
He stared at her silently, shocked by the harshness of her words. She glared back at him, challenging him to respond.
“I’m not used to …” he began.
“What? Not used to giving in to your feelings?” Her voice remained critical. “From what Maria told me, you were more than willing to forgo the usual polite and chaste civilities of courtship …”
“That was over twenty years ago!” Murdoch said angrily, pulling his hand away and standing up. He glared down at her, his face reddening with emotion. “Maria is an irrelevance.”
“Except, I suppose, for that child you put inside her almost as soon as you met her …”
“I loved her,” Murdoch insisted. Struggling to master his anger that was still mixed with desire, he moved further from her, away from the overhanging branches of the cherry trees.
“She was eighteen.” Señora Carranza said steadily, placing both hands in her lap. “All her life she had dreamed of escape, of freeing herself from the ties and bonds of her family. I was surprised when she chose you as her route to freedom, a gringo rancher, but then she had never intended to become a mother. It changes things.”
“She loved Johnny.”
“For God’s sake, yes!” Murdoch felt desire flee and an overwhelming protectiveness towards his son consume him. “Of course she did!”
“There’s no ‘of course’, Murdoch,” she said quietly. “Not all mothers love their children as they should. For Maria, the desire to be free was always greater than her love for the boy.”
“Then why did she take him?” Murdoch whispered, half to himself. “She could have left him with me.”
“Revenge, my friend.” Señora Carranza shrugged. “She wrote me many letters, you know. She felt so trapped, and she blamed you and your male desire for sex and sons. She could foresee nothing but a life of child-bearing and polite social engagements, sewing circles and dinner parties with people who would despise her for being Mexican. She told me she was going to leave and take Johnny with her because you loved him so much.”
Murdoch sat back down on the bench, his head in his hands, tears of angry despair filling his eyes.
“He grew up hating me,” he said brokenly. “Did you know that?”
“No, I did not,” she replied, taking one of his hands from his face and carefully intertwining her slim fingers with his thick, callused ones.
“Maria had filled his head with filthy lies.” His tone became firmer as his fury, so long suppressed by fear of exploding into a madness from which he would never recover, swelled in his veins. “She told him that I’d kicked them out when he was two, that I hadn’t wanted a half-breed son. Oh, God, and I loved him so much. He was a beautiful child, funny, loving and he never stopped laughing. He followed me everywhere.” He rubbed his hand down over his face, and inhaled deeply. “I will never forgive her for robbing me of my son. I’d wish her alive again only so that I could strangle her with my bare hands for the damage she did.” He paused, breathing deeply, and gathering the tatters of his self-control. “I know his only thought was to kill me when he came back six months ago. I could see it in his eyes.”
“Then why didn’t he?” Señora Carranza asked softly, clasping his hand more tightly.
“I don’t know,” Murdoch said, shaking his head. “He’s faster and more deadly with a gun than anyone I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why I’m still sitting here now. I should be where Mañuel is. I tried to find them. I tried for over a year, brought myself to the edge of madness with it all.” He sighed heavily. “But I should’ve tried harder, longer … I deserve anything that boy throws at me.”
The woman brought her hand to the side of his face and stroked his cheek tenderly with the back of her fingers.
“Clearly,” she whispered. “Johnny is more forgiving of you than you are of yourself. I have never seen such devotion for a parent in a child’s eyes. It is partly the reason I feel so attracted to you, Murdoch. A man in receipt of such great love must be deserving of more.”
“No.” Murdoch shook his head. “No, that isn’t true.”
“It is true for me.” She released his hand and placed her hands on either side of his face. He offered no resistance when she pressed her lips to his. He savoured her sweetness more deeply than before, knowing there was consolation mixed with her passion, an acknowledgement of the pain he had carried alone for what now seemed a lifetime.
“It’s hard to explain. You just gotta feel it. It’s like a blanket comes down and everythin’ else around is frozen. The only thing that matters is the spot you wanna hit. The Colt ain’t all that accurate a gun, so that’s why you gotta be real calm or it won’t happen, that moment when you squeeze an’ you know that bullet’s flyin’ like an angel to its home.”
Alicia ran her finger along the blue-grey barrel of the Colt. They had found a small canyon, some distance from Emilio’s ranch and tethered the snorting, sweating horses to some bushes near a long deserted two-roomed shack. Johnny had discovered some bottles in one of the rooms and had set up a row of six on a large rock.
“Like an angel,” Alicia murmured. She gave the gun to Johnny. “Show me.”
He smiled at her imperious command. On this warm, clear day, she seemed to him much less like the petulant, giggling child of the night before and more like a young woman who knew what she wanted from life and she would have it, regardless of the consequences. Her beauty, enhanced for him by her fierce independence, jangled his nerves and he was forced to distract himself by concentrating on the task of teaching her to shoot. Replacing the gun in its holster, he stood up from the rock on which he had been sitting, drew and hit all six bottles with such rapidity they all seemed to explode at once, sending shards of green glass flying against the blue of the sky.
“Six angels have gone home,” Alicia said tranquilly, shaking her hair out from under her sombrero and placing the hat on the rock behind her. Her green eyes regarded him impassively. “Cowboys don’t shoot like that. They have no need. Most of our vaqueros don’t even carry a gun. They say that those who carry them bring only trouble upon themselves. D’you like trouble, Johnny?”
“D’you wanna learn to shoot or not?” Johnny asked with equal coolness.
“Have I hit a nerve?” Alicia smiled.
“You ain’t hit nuthin’ yet.” Johnny handed her the gun. “Here, take it. Get used to the weight of it. I’ll set up some more bottles.”
He walked, head bowed, over to the rock and placed a new row of bottles carefully on its warm surface. Returning, he placed six new bullets in the Colt’s chamber and gave it back to Alicia.
“Ok,” he said purposefully. “You gotta take it slow at first. Stand a bit to one side. Lift the gun and sight it just below the bottle you’re aimin’ to hit. Keep your arm level but real relaxed. If you tighten up, you’ll miss for sure. Close your left eye if it helps. Now, lift the gun until you’re pointin’ it just below the spot you wanna hit. Your arm’s too tensed up, girl. It’s like ridin’ a horse. If you ain’t easy with yourself, it’ll do the opposite of what you want it to do.”
“It’s too heavy,” Alicia frowned, allowing her arm to drop to her side.
“It’s gonna be heavy until you get used to it. Now, you gonna try or am I just gonna strip off an’ take a swim in that nice, cool river over there instead?”
“You’re certainly no gentleman, Johnny Lancer,” the girl said scornfully.
“No, ma’am,” he smiled. “I leave all that stuff to my pa an’ my big brother. They’re gentlemen enough to please all the ladies in California.”
“Why are you different from them?”
Johnny shrugged and ended the conversation by standing behind her and gently lifting her arm. His chin on her shoulder, he helped her sight the first green bottle on the rock.
“Ok, you see the spot you’re aimin’ for?” he said softly. He could smell the scent of oranges in her dark hair. Alicia nodded carefully.
“Now just let everythin’ else leave your mind. The only thing on Earth you can see an’ feel an’ know is that spot. It’s all you want, all you need. Now squeeze the trigger real slow. Real ….”
Alicia fired with a small scream. The bullet hit the rock, sending a small spit of pale dust into the air before ricocheting off into the trees. She stood there, arm outstretched and mouth open, gazing at the unbroken bottles.
“Now, what you ain’t gotta do is squeal like some big ol’ mouse,” Johnny laughed. “That’s the first rule.”
Alicia turned her head, as if awaking from a trance, and looked at the young man angrily.
“And what’s the second? Don’t take lessons from boys with their brains between their legs?”
“Nope,” Johnny smiled thinly. “It’s ‘Don’t get riled’.”
Alicia tossed her head from him and aimed the gun again at the first bottle. She fired and missed. Remaining calm, she aimed again. This time, the bottle exploded, its splinters bouncing down the rock and onto the ground. The girl turned to Johnny with a look of open, happy delight that he quelled with a brief, unsmiling nod.
“Good shot,” he said coolly. “Can you do it again?”
He saw her hurt expression harden quickly into a fierce determination as she turned back to the bottles. When, after twenty minutes more instruction and shooting, all but six of the bullets had been spent, he took the gun from her hand.
“You did good,” he said quietly, loading it with the remaining bullets. “Better’n some men I’ve seen.”
Watching him re-holster the gun from her seat on the flat, low rock by the river, Alicia smiled slowly.
“Gracias. I enjoyed it very much.” She paused and looked up at the blue sky. “I liked the sense of power.” She returned her gaze to Johnny. “I liked being in control.”
Johnny sat down beside her, and re-positioned his hat to keep out the sun.
“It’s one kinda control, I guess,” he agreed quietly.
“Isn’t it the ultimate control?” Alicia said. “The power to kill another man?”
“Anyone can have that, Alicia,” he replied, looking across at her. “The worst kinda man can have that kinda control. It don’t mean nuthin’ ‘cept maybe you’ll live a year or two longer than the men you’ve killed.”
“Have you killed many men, Johnny?”
The question was asked softly, with no trace of the fear and contempt he had expected from his family if they had asked it. No-one had in the six months he had been back at home, although there were times when he longed to recite the roll-call of their names before his father and brother, lay the list down at their feet and defy them not to be horrified, to continue to endure his tainted presence. He nodded in answer to Alicia.
“So you are a pistolero?”
He looked at her young, curious face. She seemed once more a child, but her gaze was bold and direct, her voice sympathetic. Though his heart was racing with the familiar panic of being judged and condemned, worst of all by his father, in this fiery girl’s company he felt an equal.
“I was once,” he answered plainly.
“Is that possible?” Alicia said. “Emilio says that pistoleros live only until someone faster comes.”
“Guess he’s right.”
Alicia fell silent at the young man’s simple, quiet reply. Johnny gazed at the rock on which he was seated, allowing the sound of the river and the orange scent of the girl to ease his senses.
“Mama says your father owns one of the largest ranches in California, Johnny,” Alicia said finally. “Why would you choose to be a gun fighter?”
“I wasn’t raised by my father,” he replied, picking up a handful of stones and throwing them one by one into the fast flowing river.
“I don’t understand …”
“Maria took me away from him when I was two. We lived in Mexico until she died when I was ten.” He hurled a larger stone into the middle of the river. “Took off on my own then for awhile.”
“‘Til Murdoch tracked me down in New Mexico ‘bout six months ago an’ got me to come home. It was either him or a firin’ squad.”
“A firing squad?” Alicia echoed doubtfully. “Now I think you’re teasing me.”
“Nope. They practic’ly had the gun at my head when the agents Murdoch hired to find me came an’ said my father wanted to see me.”
“But why were they going to kill you?”
“Usual stuff. On the wrong side of a war between small farmers an’ big ranchers.” He picked up another handful of stones. “Had enough anyway. I was ‘bout ready for that bullet. Sometimes …”
“Sometimes, what?” Alicia demanded. She had listened intently to the young man, her face registering only concern and dismay at his words. Johnny shrugged and continued to throw stones.
“You’re glad your father saved you?”
Johnny flinched and snorted softly. Standing up, he brushed dust off his jeans and walked over to the riverside to fill his canteen. He returned and offered the canteen to the girl.
“Your mama’s right,” he said quietly. “I ain’t exactly husband material.”
Alicia drank some water and, handing the canteen back, looked at him fearlessly.
“D’you want to kiss me, Johnny?”
He returned her powerful gaze for a few moments and then dropped his head, scuffing the dusty ground with his boot.
“Yeh,” he replied softly. “I wanna kiss you real bad, but I ain’t goin’ to.”
“Why not?” Her tone held no surprise or offence, merely curiosity. “You wouldn’t be the first, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Ain’t that.” Johnny smiled at her awkwardly. “Ain’t used to just kissin’ a girl. The kinda girl I go with ain’t much interested in that part”
Alicia blushed and then smiled slowly. She stood up and, facing the young man, grasped both his hands. He drew in his breath, his heart beating fiercely, aware of the rushing of the river behind him, suddenly loud and threatening. As she drew her face closer to his, he felt panic flood his veins but also a wild yearning to feel the press of her lips on his mouth. When, finally, she gently kissed him, he drew back, breathing heavily and turned away from her, shaking his head. Alicia frowned in confusion.
“Can’t,” he said, placing his hands on top of his bowed head.
“It’s only a kiss.”
“Can’t, Alicia. You’re a real nice girl, but …”
She hesitated before walking round to face him and folding her arms.
“It’s not the end of my world, Johnny,” she said firmly. He looked at her doubtfully and smiled when he saw the friendly humour in her green eyes.
“No!” She held out her hand. “Come on. There’s a plunge pool further up in the canyon. Let’s go swimming.”
Hearing the sounds of splashing and laughter, Murdoch stopped his horse on the path down into the canyon. His hand went to his rifle and then was stilled when he looked towards the waterfall below him and saw his son and the girl swimming and playing in the deep pool, most of their clothes piled on the rocks nearby. His first instinct was anger as his hand retreated from his rifle, and he was about to bellow down at them when Johnny leapt high from the silver water like a fish, shaking his hair free of a thousand droplets in the sun before plunging back head first down to the bottom so that for a moment he was lost to his father’s sight. He re-emerged seconds later to grab Alicia’s legs. Screaming and laughing, she began to lash out wildly while Johnny swam around her, spurting fountains of water at her face. Murdoch allowed himself the luxury of watching his son, scarred by years of violence and neglect, play as happily as a child, and his anger drained from his body like old, tired blood making way for new. Wondering how long Johnny would continue to surprise and agitate his senses, he spurred the horse down the track, knowing that he had been spotted. By the time he was level with the pool, Johnny had pulled himself from the water and was standing, dripping, in his drawers, while Alicia, only her head visible, stayed in the pool treading water, silent and watchful. Murdoch remained mounted, his wrists crossed over the saddle horn, as he silently observed his son and forced himself not to be wounded afresh by the numerous scars on his body. Johnny, convinced he was about to be blasted with ire, stared straight ahead. Then he looked up at his father warily.
“You out for a ride, Murdoch?” he asked, smiling faintly.
“Not exactly,” the older man replied. “It was either me or Emilio, and I figured I was the better option.”
“You figured right.” Johnny turned to Alicia, now shivering in the water. “You gonna stay in there all day?”
“You go back down to the horses with Señor Lancer,” she ordered. “I would like some privacy.” She paused, her gaze on the rippling water. “Please.”
Away from the pool and close by the tethered horses, Johnny dressed while his father sat on a rock, his large hands toying with his unlit pipe.
“Nuthin’s happened, you know,” Johnny said with sudden defensiveness, pulling on his socks vehemently. He was still waiting for some form of retribution, and was confused by the older man’s silence. “We were havin’ some fun, that’s all.”
“I know,” Murdoch replied quietly. “I saw you. I watched you for awhile.”
“Yeh, I know you did.” Johnny tugged his boots on over his damp socks. “Reckoned you were plannin’ on stormin’ down an’ chewin’ me out real good.”
“I was, at first.” Murdoch noticed the shattered green glass on the ground nearby. “Have you been shooting?”
“Yeh, just a little target practice, that’s all.”
“Did Alicia use your gun?”
Johnny paused briefly in the act of pulling on his other boot, and then continued in silence.
“Johnny,” Murdoch said severely. “I asked you a question. Did you allow Alicia to use your gun?”
The young man drew in his breath and stood up in agitation, rubbing his hands fiercely through his damp hair.
“Yeh,” he answered abruptly. “Yeh, I let her use my gun, ok? She wanted to know how to shoot a little, so I taught her a few basics.”
“And you can’t see anything wrong in teaching a seventeen year old girl how to use a six shooter?” Murdoch demanded, struggling to control his temper and his disappointment.
“No, not if it helps give her the edge when she needs it some day.”
Murdoch stood up from the rock to confront his son. The younger man folded his arms and looked at the ground.
“Why in God’s name would a girl from a decent family need that kind of knowledge, Johnny?”
Johnny felt the familiar dread attack his system. His heart raced and his breath quickened. He wanted to run but, at the same time, felt compelled to remain still as the threat against which he had no weapons edged closer.
“I came from a decent family,” he said quietly. “I needed it.”
“That’s entirely different,” Murdoch insisted. “You were …”
“I was what?” Johnny lifted his head and glared at his father. “You don’t what I was, Murdoch!”
“Only because you won’t damn well tell me!”
“It wouldn’t help you to know.”
“You’re so wrong, Johnny. I need to know.”
“What? So you can understand me? So you can forgive me? Is that it?”
“No, there’s nothing to forgive …”
“Well, that’s where you’re damn well wrong, Murdoch!” Johnny said angrily. “That’s where you got it all wrong. There’s a thousand things to forgive, only they can’t be forgiven, an’ you just proved it again.”
“How, for God’s sake!?”
“The only reason you’re angry ‘bout me teachin’ Alicia to use a gun is ‘cos it reminds you that your kid was a gun fighter, an’ you ain’t never gonna accept that.”
“That isn’t true,” Murdoch said with sudden calmness. “I do accept it.”
“I don’t believe you, Old Man, ‘cos I wouldn’t accept it. I wouldn’t accept the stuff I’ve done, the man that I am. I’d kill the brat an’ make my life a whole lot easier.”
“I accept it all, however bad,” Murdoch said, his voice as steady and as composed as the still, warm air. Behind him, the river ran wildly foaming at its banks, eroding and changing its own course in the very act of being.
“No.” Johnny shook his head. “I won’t let you.”
Murdoch shrugged. Feeling defeated, he turned to face Alicia who had approached too quietly for his notice. She looked at him, defiance in her green eyes.
“I hope you’re not angry with Johnny, Señor Lancer,” she said coolly. “I don’t think you understand the situation. He’s done nothing wrong.
“Well, young lady,” Murdoch replied firmly, returning her confident gaze. “With all due respect, I’m not very concerned with what you think. I am angry with his behaviour today, and I’m afraid I don’t agree; he was wrong to let you use his gun.”
“I asked him to teach me to shoot.”
“He should have refused.” Murdoch turned his attention to Johnny who had moved over to the horses and was tightening their girths. “He knows that.”
“I’m not a child, Señor,” Alicia scowled. “Using a gun is something I’ve long wished to learn. If it had not been Johnny, then I would have chosen someone else.”
“According to California’s laws, you’re still a child, Señorita.” Murdoch allowed a measure of harshness to mark his tone. “And I’d appreciate it if next time you’d find someone other than my son to help you in your childish quest to defy your mother’s wishes.”
“I’m sure you know all about my mother’s wishes, Señor,” Alicia sneered, looking at Johnny for approval. The young man mounted his horse and offered her the reins of her own horse.
“Reckon you’d better mount up quick, girl, ‘fore he takes a switch to ya for talkin’ to him like that, an’ don’t count on me stoppin’ ‘im.”
Alicia frowned in confusion at the lack of expected support, before glaring furiously at Johnny. She snatched the reins from his hand, mounted the horse and spurred the animal into a fast gallop back to Emilio’s ranch. Without looking again at his father, Johnny followed her at a steadier pace leaving Murdoch alone, and once more feeling as if he had been left stranded on a sharp-edged rock in the centre of an unforgiving ocean.
Despite the fact that Johnny made no acknowledgement of his presence, Murdoch was determined to watch his son gentle the stallion, Amo. By the time he had returned to the ranch, Johnny was already in the main corral, caressing and talking to the animal. Some of Emilio’s vaqueros, scornful of gringo broncobusters, had heard rumours of the young man’s possession of their own gift of breaking horses without the use of coercion and violence. Emilio had told them that the boy was a mustañero, and, privately, they had laughed that someone so young could claim a skill that surpassed the sum of their own.
Murmuring softly, they had witnessed him take only a short time to persuade the horse, by words and gestures, that he was to be trusted. They had seen Amo quickly give up his initial fear and resistance and had smiled at one another when Johnny had finally turned his back in readiness for the animal’s submission. Sighs and soft chuckles of satisfaction had accompanied Amo’s crossing of the corral to nudge Johnny’s shoulder, and he had turned to embrace the horse with a gentleness that had inspired their innate sentimentality and made them smile. When Murdoch had appeared and leant, stony-faced, on the fence, his hands tightly clasped, they had pitied the gringo’s inability to be moved at such a sight.
Intent only on his task, Johnny picked up the jaquima from the centre of the corral and offered it to Amo, allowing him to sniff it, and then passing it over the animal’s neck and head, murmuring continuously. When Johnny at last slipped the jaquima over the horse’s nose and ears, Amo snorted and stepped back once, but made no further protest. Murdoch watched his son bring down the stallion’s head and speak softly into his left ear, stroking his quivering skin and paying particular attention to the raised scar on his neck. The father knew then that a bond was being formed that only death would break, that his own protests were useless against such certainties. He envied the animal. It was learning the secret of his son, and both would receive healing from knowing the other, while he stood behind the fence, a spectator mystified by alien ritual. When he looked across at the rapt expressions of the vaqueros, he felt like an intruder at a religious ceremony; he knew neither the prayers nor the songs.
Johnny passed the saddle blanket over Amo’s body until he was sure the stallion would accept it. Locked in entirely with the animal now, his mind registered only what he needed to know from his surroundings, the taut presence of his father, the minute movements of the vaqueros. After placing the blanket, he picked up the heavy saddle, alert to Murdoch’s sudden anxiety and the vaqueros’ raised whispers. He let Amo sniff the saddle before lifting it onto the horse’s back, heard his father clear his throat softly as the animal tensed and began to toss its head. Johnny spoke and touched until Amo was still again. Then he carefully tightened the cinch. He knew the animal wanted to run now. He could feel every nerve straining to be freed from their contract, but Amo remained in the centre of the corral as if mesmerized. The collective breath of the vaqueros was released and Murdoch bowed his head, clasping his hands more tightly.
Johnny took the reins and led the horse in a circle once. He stopped and spent some minutes stroking and talking to Amo before placing a foot in the stirrup and pressing down with his weight. Shuddering with apprehension, the animal snorted and stamped, changing its position slightly while Johnny kept up a continuous flow of chanting and talking. The moment he pulled himself up into the saddle with a single swift, agile movement, was the moment his father dared to look up and the moment that the stallion exploded into a frenzy of twisting, bucking and rearing that sent clouds of dust in the still air and encouraged the vaqueros to shed their reverence and begin praying. Murdoch had seen his son ‘break’ other horses, but none had matched the fury of this one. He watched in terrified admiration as Johnny fought to bring the horse down, his stomach clenching with each furious ascent or brutal lunge to the side, certain that no man could overcome such a force. The supplication for the animal to stop began in his mind, and then emerged in a desperate undertone, ‘Stop, damn you. Please stop.’
The horse stopped so abruptly that, for a moment, Murdoch allowed his habitually rational mind to believe he had been the cause. As he watched his son, exhausted and sweating, bring Amo to a slow walk, he heard the soft clapping of the four vaqueros, so soft that it sounded like the falling of leaves. Johnny gave a hint of a leisurely smile as he passed by his father, though, to Murdoch, his eyes seemed to hold a dark defiance. ‘You cannot know me. You cannot protect me. You cannot save me.’ Murdoch wondered where he had read those words and why, in all their horrible prescience, they had come to him now.
He dropped his gaze to the shadow of the horse and rider moving over the ground, everything ungraspable and fleeting, passing out of his sphere as easily as blown ashes. A sudden violent twinge in his back made him stand to ease it and he welcomed the physical pain, pressing his hand there, reminding himself that he was hardy like his grandfather. He had survived a bullet; crashing like a great tree to the ground, but standing even while he bled into the land he was defending.
He had made up his mind to insist Johnny accompany him back to the town before evening to wait for a stagecoach home when a noise from the house distracted him. Raised voices, one high and protesting, the other deep and angry, emerged from within the dense greenery of the courtyard. Murdoch turned to reassure himself that Amo was not reacting to the sudden disturbance when a door slammed heavily. Horrified, he saw the horse rear violently, flinging Johnny against the corral fence so hard one of the rails broke. Then it seemed to him that a terrible chaos had blotted out the world as the vaqueros clambered over the fence, crying out in dismay and the horse thundered around the corral, raising dust and kicking wildly to rid itself of the saddle and the swinging stirrups. By the broken rail, Johnny lay sprawled and unmoving, face down in the sand. Murdoch almost fell beside him, pushing away the careful hands of other men, his heart pounding with terror.
“Get the damn horse!” he yelled. The other men stared at him in confusion. “¡El caballo!” he said desperately, pointing at the bucking stallion.
Two of the vaqueros scrambled to fetch the horse while the others watched silently as Murdoch turned Johnny over onto his back. Blood, bright in the sunshine, trickled down from a cut on his forehead. His father, long accustomed to feeling for the broken bones of men and cattle, felt his way over Johnny’s unconscious body, shaking his head in response to the vaqueros’ anxious questions. A rip in his son’s jeans revealed a torn and bloody knee, but he found nothing to make worse the scrabbling sickness in his own stomach.
“Traeremos un ensanchador, Senor,” the older vaquero said quietly. Murdoch nodded and cradled his son’s head in his lap as the two men hurried away to fetch the stretcher. Numb with distress, he watched the other vaqueros’ vain attempts to catch the horse.
“Déjelo,” he said abruptly. The sweating men stopped and turned their heads towards the rancher. “Él no va le déjo cogerlo. Déjelo.”
Nodding their agreement, the vaqueros began to walk towards him. Murdoch looked quickly down as he felt Johnny stir. Groaning, the young man opened his eyes. Immediately, he thrust his head to one side, blinking fiercely at the pain and the brightness of the sun.
“Johnny,” Murdoch said gently, stroking his son’s hair with a tenderness he knew was strange to his character. “Are you with me, son?”
Johnny heard his father’s deep voice in the echoing distance. Pain seared through his head when he tried to look up and focus on the face leaning over him. Believing it could not be Murdoch, he panicked and began to struggle against the arms that held him.
“You have to lay still, John.” His father’s tone was suddenly stern. “I still don’t know what you’ve done here.”
“Murdoch?” Dazzled by the sun, Johnny attempted to twist himself round to get a clear view of the older man who gripped harder in response.
“I’m here, Johnny. I’ve got you, but keep still, for God’s sake, until we know what you’ve done.”
“Jesus, it fuckin’ hurts!” The young man’s breath came in staccato gasps. “That’s all I fuckin’ know. Jesus! Think I might need a priest here, Murdoch!”
Ignoring the curses, and smiling a little at the joke, Murdoch again stroked the young man’s hair in an effort to calm him. He watched the vaqueros settle the stretcher down beside his son, their presence stimulating the return of his habitual self-control.
“Can you feel everything, Johnny?” he asked firmly, shaking his head at the two vaqueros as they motioned to take the young man. “Your legs and your arms?”
His father’s voice was clearer and closer now. He was able to focus on the horse, now at a trembling stand-still, sweat marking dark streaks across his pale golden coat, at the other side of the corral. Amo’s body was side-on to the group of men, but his head was turned towards them, gazing with a fearful curiosity.
“Is Amo ok?”
“Yes,” Murdoch replied gruffly. “You don’t need to worry about the horse. It was you that hit the fence. Tell me what you can feel before we move you.”
“Head hurts some,” Johnny sighed.
“How about your knee?”
“Hurts, but I reckon I’m still all of a piece. Can still feel everythin’.”
Murdoch nodded at the vaqueros who gently lifted his son onto the stretcher and carried him out of the corral towards the house. Johnny, though his head was pounding, fought to keep his eyes on the tall, solid form of his father walking beside him. He was wounded among strangers in an uncertain environment, too weak and disorientated to defend himself, and the fear was worse than the pain.
“Yes?” His father’s voice seemed stripped of feeling.
“Had that horse where I wanted him, y’know.”
“Yes, Johnny,” Murdoch replied quietly. “I know you did.”
He glared at Emilio who had appeared suddenly from the courtyard, with the vaquero who had given him the news.
“What happened?” he demanded, looking anxiously at his injured nephew.
“He was on the stallion,” Murdoch replied, his face flushed with anger. “Your conversation with your cousin spooked the animal and threw him into the fence. You’re damn lucky it’s not worse, Emilio or I’d damn well tear you apart.”
Emilio looked grimly at the older man and seemed about to fire back a heated reply when he suddenly placed a hand on his nephew’s bloodied forehead.
“¿Cómo tú se siente, cabrito?” he asked gently.
“Bien, Tío,” Johnny answered, attempting to shake his head away from his uncle’s touch. “Hope you ain’t mad at Alicia. She’s done nothin’ wrong.”
Emilio looked sharply at Murdoch, before turning to his Segundo. “Triaga a médico,” he ordered. “¡Ahora vaya. Pronto!”
Murdoch had no choice but to tolerate Emilio accompanying them into the house, though in his mind he punched the younger man senseless, bundled his son in his arms and rode away at full speed from the ranch, never to return.
He woke to the sound of a piglet squealing. Before he was fully conscious the piercing noises had stopped, and someone, a woman, was laughing. For some time he lay there in the darkened room, absorbing what he needed to know. His left knee throbbed painfully, and when he raised his hand to touch his head he could feel a large bump on his scalp. Sniffing his yellowed fingers, he recoiled from the strong, sharp scent of iodine. Drapes had been drawn over his windows to close off the sunlight, though a sliver pierced the gap between the wine-red heavy drapes and pointed up the rearing appaloosa embroidered onto the bedspread. With sudden panic, he looked around for his gun, and found it, placed next to him in the bed, wrapped in the green-checked shirt. Sighing deeply, he unwrapped the Colt slowly, checking it was clean and fully loaded, before returning it to the shirt beside him. Then he lifted the covers to gaze balefully upon his bandaged knee, furious at his own stupidity. He could remember allowing pride to dominate his actions from the moment he had brought Amo to a walk. Cocky was the term his brother used in reprimand on the rare occasions he succumbed to showing off his skills with guns and horses. But then, he reflected, bringing Amo down had been the greatest accomplishment of his life. At the moment the stallion had seemed to make the utmost effort to throw him off, filling him with a blazing sense of failure, it had capitulated, bringing them both down to the Earth, like shattered travellers from another planet. He could remember smiling at his father as they passed him by and feeling brief anger and hurt that the older man’s face was as expressionless as granite while the features of the four vaqueros were animated with admiration and delight.
Allowing images of his mastery of Amo to play in his mind, and trying to remember exactly how he had lost control, he lay a few minutes on the pillows, indifferent to the physical pain. Then, instinctively, in response to the opening of the bedroom door, his hand went down to his gun. Seeing Alicia peer around the door, he relaxed and smiled warily; her response was to close the door and walk quickly over to his bed. Still dressed in a shirt and jeans, she stopped a few feet away and looked down at him, her hands in her pockets, her expression seeming, to him, both angry and yearning. Her eyes were damp and red-rimmed.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” she said, her voice tight with suppressed feeling. “My cousin has insisted that I keep away from you, but Mama and I are leaving soon. I had to see you.” She swallowed, fighting to maintain control. “Are you alright?”
Johnny nodded silently.
“I slammed the door that frightened your horse,” Alicia confessed, her voice breaking with misery. She bowed her head and breathed deeply. “I didn’t know you were on the stallion.”
“I know that,” Johnny said decisively. What were you and Emilio fightin’ about?”
Alicia hesitated, before looking up to face the young man, strengthened by his boldness. Johnny admired the way her inherent defiance had returned to her face.
“My cousin is in love with me, Johnny,” she stated coolly, her mouth attempting a smile. “Haven’t you noticed?”
Johnny shook his head, unsurprised by her confession. He had seen and heard too much of the vagaries of human desire in his outlaw years to feel more than a vague unease at his uncle’s fate.
“You in love with him?” he asked evenly.
“No,” Alicia replied simply. She looked towards the door and then surprised him by sitting on the bed and taking his hand.
“Emilio is a dangerous man, Johnny,” she whispered. “If he wants something, he takes it. He wants something from you, I know it.”
“I got nothin’ he wants,” Johnny said, squeezing her smaller, lighter hand. He enjoyed the feel of her soft skin under his rough calluses.
“You’re wrong,” she insisted. “He has a plan for you.”
“What kinda plan?”
“I think he’s brought you here to kill another man. I don’t know who he is or why my cousin wants him dead, but …”
“Is that why you been getting’ friendly with me?” Johnny interrupted coldly. “Emilio’s little spy-girl.”
“He thought you might talk to me about the past, yes,” Alicia admitted. “He wanted to know about Maria, and how you became a gun fighter. He said there was unfinished business for you in the world, but he wasn’t certain of all the details he needs.”
Johnny gazed at her in cold silence. Her beauty seemed to him now like that of a marble statue, perfect but impossibly distant. He pulled his hands out of hers and folded his arms tightly across his bare chest. Alicia drew in a breath at the manifest hostility in his handsome face and looked down at her hands twisting fretfully in her lap.
“I’ve told him nothing, Johnny,” she whispered. “That’s why we fought.” She shrugged and almost laughed. “Well, that was one of the reasons. I wasn’t supposed to ride out with you. That wasn’t part of his grand plan.” She looked up again into his cynical blue eyes. “Neither was I supposed to feel anything for you but cousinly friendship.” Alicia smiled faintly. “What could a girl like me from one of Mexico’s oldest, most revered families, see in a half-wild mestizo such as you?”
Johnny remained silent, though he knew with complete certainty that the girl’s loyalties were now with him.
“I couldn’t tell him anything, because I couldn’t bear to betray you,” Alicia said fervently, her eyes challenging his to disbelieve her. “That seemed worse than anything my cousin could do to me, Johnny. Please believe me.”
“I believe you, Alicia,” he replied softly.
She looked at him apprehensively, as if afraid to accept his words. He unfolded his arms and held out a hand to her. She took it and allowed herself to be pulled forward, putting her arms around his neck as they kissed long and deeply. For Johnny, it was if he were entering a new world. He had begun to know this girl; he liked her and wanted to know more of her. Feeling her mouth and tongue on his filled him with a joy and desire that had no resemblance to the simple urges that propelled him into the tired, grubby beds of saloon girls and unhappy wives. For a moment, he forgot everything but the girl in his arms, aware only of her orange scent and touch. When she pulled slightly away to gaze into his eyes, he saw that she was close to tears.
“Why you cryin’?” he whispered, lifting a hand to brush her face.
“Because I must leave,” she replied, pulling further away. “Because there are things beyond our power to control.”
“Come back to Lancer,” Johnny said eagerly, grabbing her hand. “We’d take care of you. You could do what you want. I told you ‘bout my big brother, Scott – best man I ever knew in my whole life. You gotta meet ‘im, an’ Jelly – he’s an ol’ goose, but you’ll love ‘im, an’ there’s Barranca, my horse. Dios, you ain’t seen any horse like ‘im.”
Alicia shook her head, her face flushed with emotion.
“If you’re worried ‘bout my father …” Johnny began urgently.
“No, it isn’t the right time, Johnny,” she said firmly.
“Because I meant what I said last night.” Her determination compelled him to calm himself and listen, though all he wanted to do was kiss her again. “I’m young,” she continued. “But I know what I want, and it isn’t to marry you and have three babies before I’m twenty.”
“That ain’t what I’m offerin’,” Johnny insisted. “I ain’t ready for that either. I only just found my father an’ brother.”
“Then what are you offering, Johnny?” Alicia asked quietly, looking intently at the young man. He gazed at her, realising that whatever possible answer formed in his mind would not touch her question. Sighing, he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. She hugged him and stood up.
“I must go,” she said, turning her head when she heard footsteps in the corridor. “Please be careful. Don’t trust Emilio. I don’t believe he cares for your life, only for your gun.”
Johnny nodded. “Ain’t the first man who’s taken that view on me. Don’t worry, muchacha. I can handle my uncle.”
The girl smiled, her eyes full of longing, and seemed about to speak again, before she turned away quickly and opened the door.
He watched her leave the room, amazed to feel for the first time in his life that part of himself was disappearing with her. He made up his mind that he would find a way to see her again when he was back home. Already, he could visualise himself asking his older brother’s advice about Alicia. Suddenly, he ached to hear Scott’s voice, longed for his gentle teasing and quiet wisdom; he would have tolerated even one of his brother’s finger-wagging lectures for a single glimpse of his face.
Murdoch stood by the bed for some minutes, gazing down at his sleeping son, too exhausted to do more than feel grateful that Johnny was still alive. Reassured by the young man’s quiet, even breathing, he took the burning oil lamp from the table and made himself as comfortable as possible in the armchair by the window, ‘David Copperfield’ open on his lap. Moonlight cast a thin silver beam through the gap in the drapes onto the buffalo skin under his feet.
Earlier in the evening, he had watched Señora Carranza and her daughter leave the ranch in a gold-trimmed carriage drawn by four black horses. Emilio, surrounded by his wolfhounds, had bid them farewell with cold civility.
Neither woman had smiled or warmed the frigid air with a friendly remark as he kissed their hands. Alicia, despite her habitual bravado, had seemed to Murdoch weighed down by something greater than mere childish resentment and bad humour. For the first time, she had given him more than a brief, embarrassed scowl; her green-eyed gaze had lingered upon his face with what had felt like entreaty.
Her mother had, for a few moments, stared impassively upon his hand, proffered to help her up into the carriage. Then, with her face turned from her cousin’s view, she had accepted it with a small, secret smile. Settling back in the vehicle’s luxurious red leather seat, her expression had become as inscrutable and as distant as a cat’s, and, at that moment, Murdoch had envied his son’s reckless flight with the daughter. All evening, the image of Johnny, leaping from the water with the fierce energy of some mysterious creature long trapped in the centre of the Earth, had played in his mind. Suddenly, to have kissed the woman passionately among the fruit trees had not seemed enough. It had not matched the driven power of his fists in the saloon; the joy of forgetting his grown self and playing heedlessly at the edge of the precipice.
Sharply, Señora Carranza had ordered the driver to depart and he had watched the heavy, painted wheels creak and turn in the dust while his blood yearned to pull the woman from her throne and drive the life of him between her shuddering thighs. Now, the letter she had given him in the courtyard after dinner lay like fire, still unread, in his shirt pocket, a lodestar for his lost, young self.
He had been reading for some time, disturbed only by Johnny stirring and crying out softly in his sleep, and the single word uttered from the darkness beyond the lamp, startled him like a call from the depths of a cave. Closing his book, he removed his glasses, picked up the lamp and walked over from the window to sit down on the bed. Johnny stared at his father silently as Murdoch brushed the hair from his forehead and pressed his large, warm hand there.
“Who gave me the laudanum?”
Murdoch flinched at the young man’s hostile tone. He removed his hand and looked sternly at his son.
“I did,” he replied. “The doctor wanted to knock you out for twenty-four hours, so I gave you a few drops to ease his professional conscience and to give you a chance to recover.”
Johnny surprised him by nodding in silent compliance.
“How are you feeling?” he asked cautiously.
“Like I been thrown from a wild horse,” Johnny smiled. His gaze darkened. “You mad about it, ‘cos if you are then get the yellin’ over with before ya bust a vein holdin’ it in.”
“No, I’m not mad,” Murdoch replied quietly. He drew in his breath, determined not to look away from his son’s intense gaze. “But it was one of the most terrible moments of my life. That’s what I’d like you to understand, John.”
Johnny felt unable to answer his father and lowered his head. Murdoch reached across and placed his fingers under his son’s chin, lifting it gently so that he was looking directly at the young man.
“I also want you to know that, although my heart was in my mouth most of the time, I have never seen anyone gentle a horse with so much skill and compassion. It made me damn proud to be your father.”
Johnny felt his breath quicken with something close to panic, hardly daring to believe he had heard these words from this man whose approval he had craved since the moment he had ceased wanting to slaughter him. In the emphasis, he had felt a shattered corner of his soul fold in its torn edges and begin to heal. He was unsure if it would last or if it was enough, but he held it now with the resolve of a starving child with a scrap of food.
“Johnny …” Murdoch, alarmed at his son’s agitated reaction, removed his hand and waited as Johnny thrust his head to one side away from him and fought to regain his self-control. He wanted to turn over completely, but his father’s weight on the bed and his throbbing knee prevented his escape. He spoke to distract himself.
“I was thinkin’ ‘bout Scott earlier,” he said quietly into the pillow. “Missin’ ‘im.”
“Yes, I’m missing him, too,” Murdoch said calmly, wondering if the words that had seemed as perfect as any he had uttered in his life had missed their mark and fallen into nothing. He could not bring himself to regret them. “I’m going into town tomorrow to wire him.” He sighed heavily. “I was hoping you and I could leave for home tomorrow.”
In his anger, Johnny recovered himself enough to turn his gaze back to his father.
“We can leave,” he said firmly.
“No,” Murdoch replied, shaking his head. “You’re not ready. You were badly concussed. I’m not taking the risk.”
“Then I’ll take it.”
Murdoch sighed. “I’m not arguing about this, John. I don’t like it any more than you do, and God knows, I would give a great deal not to have to spend another minute with your uncle, but we have no choice.”
“We could stay in the hotel for a coupla days, couldn’t we,” Johnny insisted. “Then head back to Lancer…?”
“No, Johnny. It’s too far to Bittercreek in your condition.” His father’s tone had hardened into an implacability the young man knew was useless to oppose. He struggled with the idea of telling Murdoch of Alicia’s warning and then decided that even if it were true, he would be of little use to his uncle as his enemy’s slayer. Still reeling from the painful glory of his father’s praise, he had no wish to bring the gunfighter between them.
Then there were the words: ‘I accept it all, however bad.’ At the time, only a few hours before, he had refused to allow them any claim on his spirit, brushed them away like overhanging branches from his path. Now, they appeared before him in stark relief, hovering there in all their beauty, but still beyond his grasp. In his heart, he was certain that he and Emilio had been fated to meet, that there was still business, unfinished and deadly, between them. Gazing at his father, now pouring water into a glass for him, he was aware of a growing fear spreading through his veins like a virulent disease, weakening every cell in his body.
Murdoch gave him the glass and watched him drink the water, taking the glass back from him when he had finished.
“Have Alicia an’ her mama gone?” Johnny asked, as his father lifted the covers and checked the dressings on his knee.
“Yes,” Murdoch replied curtly.
“D’you know why?”
“I believe Señora Carranza had business to attend to.” Murdoch’s tone was abrupt and reluctant. Johnny winced as the older man felt around the swelling on his head. “Are you hungry?”
Murdoch fetched bread and a bowl of broth from the kitchen, gruffly refusing all offers of nursing care from his brother-in-law’s voluble housekeeper, and answering Emilio’s probing questions in terse monosyllables. By the time he made his way upstairs to his son’s room, he was feeling under siege and defensive. Arms tightly folded across his chest, he was silent as he watched Johnny eat, wondering at the anger pounding in his head.
“Kinda liked ‘er, didn’t you,” Johnny ventured, unnerved by his father’s mood.
“You kinda liked the girl, if I’m not mistaken,” Murdoch said gruffly.
“Yeh, I did,” Johnny admitted, wiping a piece of bread around the inside of the bowl. “I liked her a lot.” He hesitated. “Asked her to come back to Lancer with me.”
“Another one of your strays.” Murdoch could not suppress a faint smile. “What did she say?”
Johnny swallowed the mouthful of bread. “Didn’t wanna be rescued …yet,” he replied nonchalantly, handing the empty bowl to his father who smiled again and felt some of his anger evaporate.
“I can just imagine her mother’s reaction if she’d accepted your offer.”
“Yeh, reckon I ain’t quite gentleman enough to suit the Señora,” Johnny smirked. “Maybe Scott’ll ring ‘er high-falutin’ bell.”
“I should wait to ask your brother before you start introducing him to future in-laws.”
“Yeh.” Johnny’s easy manner vanished. “Well, I wish I could ask ‘im. I’d give my last cent to see ‘im right now.”
“He’ll be there when we get back,” Murdoch said, his tone reverting to something close to defensiveness. He stood up, pressing his hand to his aching back. “Get some sleep now, John.”
“You goin’?” Johnny frowned up at his father, his tone resentful.
“It’s late,” Murdoch replied tentatively, uncertain of his son’s intentions. “You need plenty of sleep. Head injuries need as much rest as possible.”
“You reckon you know what I need, Old Man?” Johnny’s eyes challenged his father’s with a fierce intensity that caused Murdoch to look away in discomfort. Close to anger at the apparent return of his son’s hostility towards him, he turned to leave. Johnny felt the anger and understood what he had to do to bring the older man to him.
“Scott reads to me sometimes,” he said quietly. “Did ya know that? I mean, I can read an’ stuff, but I like ‘im readin’ to me. It’s like I go someplace else, away from the crap in my head for awhile.”
Murdoch’s stomach clenched with anxiety at the unexpected revelation. Feeling as if he had one foot on solid ground and one on his quivering tightrope above the chasm, he took a deep breath.
“Would you like me to read to you, Johnny?” he asked, struggling to keep his voice under control. Johnny nodded silently, his gaze unwavering. He watched his father fetch ‘David Copperfield’ from the chair by the window and then the older man’s hesitancy in deciding where to place himself.
“Where does Sc…?”
“Different places,” Johnny interrupted. “End of the bed, sittin’ on a chair, sittin’ by me. Depends how ‘e’s feelin’.” Johnny smiled suddenly. “That, or how many pictures the book’s got.”
“This book’s got a few pictures,” Murdoch said, flicking needlessly through the well-read novel. “Famous ones by HK Browne - although he’s known as Phiz. He draws many of Dickens’ illustrations, though I prefer …”
“I like pictures,” Johnny interrupted him again. He shifted across the bed to make room for his father. Murdoch sat down carefully beside the younger man and stretched out his long legs on the embroidered spread. Johnny watched intently as the older man put on his glasses, the way he hooked them reluctantly over his ears and then placed them near the tip of his nose so that he could peer over them when he was not reading. The sharp lime scent of his father’s cologne and the close proximity of his clean, solid presence in the dim light captivated his senses. He felt his heart beat more quickly at the sudden electric contact.
“Why d’you hate your glasses?” he asked seriously. “I reckon they make you look kinda wise an’ powerful, like a judge or somethin’”
“They make me feel old,” Murdoch grunted, turning to the first chapter of the book.”
“So you ain’t always worn ‘em?”
“John, believe it or not, I was your age once, and the only things I needed were a set of tools, a rifle, a horse and a belief in my own invincibility.” Murdoch dared to look directly into the younger man’s eyes. “Needs change, son. Like I told you in the study, there was a time when I didn’t need anyone. I was young, strong and alone in the world, entirely dependent on my own will to succeed.”
“That when you were happiest?”
“In a way, yes,” Murdoch admitted, almost in a whisper. “Nothing seemed complicated then. It was all so beautifully simple. Overcome or die in the attempt.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeh,” he said softly. “I’ve bin there, only there weren’t too much of ‘happy’ around.” He drew in his breath suddenly and nudged his father. “You gonna read to me or not, Old Man?”
The remains of Murdoch’s earlier anger melted like frost in the sun as he relaxed against the pillows and began to read, savouring the words that seemed to him now not mere signposts to meaning, but ciphers in an unexplored land. He read the story as if for the first time, feeling every shred of his son’s passionate absorption in the fatherless boy’s tormented childhood, intensely aware of the urgent press of Johnny’s shoulder against his arm as he came to David’s suffering at the hands of his stepfather.
“Then he was gone,” he read. “and the door was locked outside; and I was lying, fevered and hot, and torn, and sore, and raging in my puny way, upon the floor.”
“What’s ‘puny’ mean?” Johnny asked softly, his gaze intent on the dense type of the page; the older man could feel the tension radiating from his son’s skin to his own.
“Small and defenceless,” Murdoch answered carefully. “D’you want me to stop?”
Johnny shook his head silently. Murdoch watched him lift the tissue cover from the opposite page to reveal a drawing of David lying face down on a wooden floor his head pillowed on his arm. On the bed in the corner was an open book and through the tiny window a white moon hovered. Johnny traced a finger over the loving detail of the picture, absorbing its terrible air of loneliness, before replacing the tissue.
“How well I recollect,” Murdoch continued, suddenly feeling as raw and exposed as a fool up a cold mountain with no means of protection. “When I became quiet, what an unnatural stillness seemed to reign through the whole house! How well I remember, when my smart and passion began to cool, how wicked I began to feel!”
“Wicked,” Johnny repeated quietly. “Does he mean wicked as in ‘bad’?”
“Wanting to do bad things, I think, yes.”
“Yeh,” Johnny whispered, nodding. “Yeh, that’s how it felt. How would this Dickens feller know that stuff?”
“Perhaps it had happened to him,” Murdoch suggested gently. “Perhaps someone had treated him so terribly when he was a child that he was driven to terrible thoughts.”
“What kinda thoughts?”
“I don’t know. Writers don’t always spell everything out. They leave us to guess.”
“Maybe revenge,” Johnny said distantly. “Maybe killin’”
Johnny looked at Murdoch, his expression unfathomable to the older man.
“Does the kid kill his stepfather?”
“No,” Murdoch replied. “He doesn’t, but then it’s only a book. Real life is harder, truer.”
“In them dime novels in Sam Clancy’s store I killed fifty men,” Johnny said quietly. “I’m a sonuvabitch desperado with no heart an’ no conscience. Sure would be easier if that was true.”
“Well, it’s not,” Murdoch said angrily. “Nothing could be further from the truth than that.” He closed the book and removed his glasses, staring down the length of the bed to the white socks on his large feet.
“Johnny,” he said finally. “Tell me how Maria died.”
Instantly, Johnny felt the heat rise under his skin as his heart sent his blood pounding through his veins. His breathing quickened.
“She got sick,” he said, his head lowered and his hands clenched into tight fists on his lap.
“I think she was murdered,” Murdoch said steadily, though he felt as if were out in the centre of his tightrope over the deepest part of the chasm. “I think you saw it.”
“No.” Johnny heard his own voice shrink to a whisper. How he had longed to share this burden with another human being, but now it seemed as if a great door had finally closed. He could not force his mind and voice to release the terrifying memory. “She just died.”
“I think the first man you ever killed was Maria’s murderer.”
Aware of his son’s extreme distress, his laboured breathing and his pale skin, Murdoch reached for one of Johnny’s fiercely clenched hands. The young man allowed the contact, but did not unfold the fist.
“Let me in, Johnny,” his father said fiercely. “For God’s sake, let me in.”
“No.” Gasping for breath, his body as inflexible as wood and his gaze fixed straight ahead into nothing, Johnny shook his head. “Can’t.”
Unable any longer to bear the young man’s suffering, Murdoch silently took Johnny in his arms and pressed his lips to the dark head, rocking him gently and willing his rigid, breathless body to yield.
“Estoy aquí, hijo,” (I’m here, son) he whispered fervently. “Estoy aquí y no voy a dejarle.” (I’m here, and I’m not going to leave you)
From somewhere deep in his agony, Johnny heard the softly spoken Spanish. It invaded his mind like the echoing voices in dreams. The words’ tenderness, so unexpected, caused his breathing to slow and the extreme tension in his muscles to ease. When he had regained enough composure to understand that he was being held in his father’s arms, he struggled briefly to escape the intimacy, before allowing himself to lie there as exhausted as a shipwreck survivor on a strange beach.
When he woke, strong daylight had turned the dark red drapes a brighter colour and his father had gone. ‘David Copperfield’ and his father’s glasses were on the small table beside the bed. Twice, he had woken in the night to feel and hear the older man sleeping beside him, the second time, near dawn, with the birds beginning to sing; and he had dared to push himself closer to the warm solidity of Murdoch’s body, before drifting back to sleep.
Aware of the dull pain in his head and knee, he pulled himself up into a sitting position and took his gun, still resting beside him, out of its protective green-checked shirt. He rubbed his hand slowly over the wooden grip and the blue-grey barrel and let the Colt lie on the bedspread between his legs. Then he noticed a piece of paper on the pillow next to him. Rubbing his eyes, he unfolded it and read the brief message. ‘I’ve gone to town to wire Scott. I won’t stay any longer than I absolutely have to. Stay in bed. Pa.’ For a long time he stared at the single word, playing with it in his mind as if it were a strange new toy. Often, he had wondered how it would feel to use it and had quietly envied other young men who said it as naturally as drawing breath. Knowing that his father, somewhere in the hours of the night, had crossed the threshold, made him both agitated and thrilled. He folded the letter carefully and placed it in the pocket of the green-check shirt beside him.
Automatically, his hand went to his gun at a soft knock on the door. Expecting to see the housekeeper, he allowed his hand to relax on the grip as the door opened, before his fingers closed fractionally around the wood at the sight of his uncle. Emilio, who was carrying a bowl of hot water and cloths, gazed at his nephew neutrally, his dark eyes flicking briefly to Johnny’s hand resting on the Colt.
“Buenos días, Juanito,” he said, closing the door behind him. Johnny watched the older man approach, his fingers remaining in contact with the gun. Emilio placed the bowl on the table near the bed. “Carmen was preparing to change the dressing on your knee,” he said quietly. “I told her I would see to it.”
Johnny stared at his uncle steadily. “Es bien, Tío,” he replied. “Murdoch’ll do it when he gets back.”
“Oh, he will be gone most of the morning,” Emilio said dismissively, lifting the covers and folding them back so that the gun disappeared from view. Johnny was dismayed and fearful to see that fresh blood had seeped through the old dressings, but he grabbed his uncle’s wrist when the older man moved to untie the bandage.
“I want my father to do it,” he said firmly.
“I am here, Johnny, and he is not.” Emilio gazed at the hand clasped around his wrist. His tone was deliberately composed. “The wound is bleeding. If you wish to aim a gun at my head while I attend to it, then so be it, but I will not allow my only nephew to bleed to death.”
Johnny hesitated before releasing the older man’s wrist and placing both his hands on top of the covers. Breathing deeply through his nose, and willing himself not to cry out, he watched his uncle remove the dressings. Emilio brought the bowl of water to the bed and began to bathe the knee. His unhurried tenderness, so unlike the brisk, functional ministrations of busy men, including his father, surprised Johnny into silent submission.
“Have you ever heard the story of Atahuallpa, Johnny?” Emilio asked, dipping the bloodied cloth into the water and squeezing it so that the water swirled pink.
“He was the Inca king when the Spanish invaded Peru three hundred years ago.” Emilio noticed a small relaxation in his nephew’s expression and continued talking while he tended the wound. “There was a conquistador named Francisco Pizarro. He came seeking gold and power, and he found a god king. People say the Incas worshipped the sun. They say Atahuallpa believed he was the sun, god of the sun.”
“What did Pizarro do?” Johnny asked, already entirely absorbed by the story and seeing clearly in his imagination, a tall man, too dazzling for an ordinary mortal to gaze upon.
“He had no interest in the sun,” Emilio answered, drying the knee gently with a fresh cloth. “His world was the new world. The Incas were so innocent they believed the Spaniards’ horses were another type of human and offered their virgins to them.” He stopped and took a small clay pot from his shirt pocket. “This is aloe,” he said. “It will help the wound to heal.”
Johnny watched his uncle’s long fingers smooth the ointment over the stitches.
“Did he kill the king?” he asked accusingly. Surprised at his nephew’s hostile tone, Emilio hesitated before replying.
“Yes.” He began redressing the knee with a fresh bandage. “Although the Incas outnumbered the Spaniards by hundreds of thousands, they allowed their king to be imprisoned. Atahuallpa tried to buy his freedom with gold. It had no monetary value to him, but he knew the Spanish were so greedy for it that it was rumoured they dined on it for supper.” Emilio paused in the act of bandaging and looked directly into Johnny’s intense, blue eyes. The older man smiled thinly and shrugged. “But why keep a king alive when you can have his throne and his gold, especially one arrogant enough to claim he was god of the sun?”
“No worse than claimin’ you’re god of anythin’ else,” Johnny said quietly.
“No, I agree. You know, when they told the Incas to renounce their gods and listen to the word of their god, Atahuallpa took a bible from a Spanish priest’s hands, put it to his ear and demanded to know why it would not speak to him, before throwing it to the ground.”
Johnny enjoyed the thought of the sun throwing down books to Earth and smiled briefly. Emilio tied the bandage and pulled the covers back over his nephew’s legs.
“¿Cómo es que se siente?”
“¿Tiene tú hambre?”
“Sí, un poco.”
While his uncle fetched food from the kitchen, Johnny lay back on his pillows, his gaze upon the sunlit drapes and thought of the imprisoned king, scorning gold and lifting his eyes to the morning sun. He knew Emilio had not yet finished with him, that the story had been a prelude to a main event. Now that it was here, he wanted to face it. He could feel something beginning to give as if a thick, oak door long closed to him was at last yielding to his hand. He wanted peace, even if it was the peace of death.
‘Scott. Will be home in three or four days. Stop. Murdoch.’
He handed the telegraph operator five cents and watched him tap out the message. Feeling suddenly unburdened, the rancher stopped in the middle of the street to allow a stagecoach to rumble heavily by, its great wheels sending clouds of dust up into the still air. It was pulled to a rattling, heaving stop at the depot, its weary passengers almost stumbling over one another in their eagerness to disembark. Seeing Marie and her sister waiting anxiously on the wooden platform, surrounded by their luggage, Murdoch strode over to them. The sisters smiled as he raised his hat in greeting amid the bustle and grumblings of the arrivals.
“Good Morning, Ladies.”
“Good Morning, Mister Lancer.”
“You’re heading home?” he asked, barely aware that he was accepting luggage from the driver on top of the coach and placing it carefully on the platform.
“Oh, yes,” Marie replied fervently. “Our brother will be missing us. He always says that our cheerfulness is the sunshine in his darkness, and it’s almost winter, you know.”
“Yes, it is,” Murdoch nodded. Deftly, he swung their small, neat cases up to the driver. “I hope the arrangements my son made for Belle to be transported have worked out.”
“Everything is perfect,” Marie said, allowing Murdoch to help her more fragile sister into the carriage. “I believe Belle will be home before us!”
“Good, that’s fine,” Murdoch smiled. He held out his hand to assist her. She took it and then frowned.
“Aren’t you and Johnny going home?”
“Very soon, I hope. Johnny fell off a horse yesterday. He’s not well enough to travel yet.”
“Oh my goodness!” It was the other sister, Myra, who had spoken fervently from inside the coach. It was the first time Murdoch had ever heard her speak above a tremulous whisper. “Is Johnny hurt? Is he hurt, Marie?”
“We couldn’t bear it …” Marie’s tone sounded to him like anger.
“Not badly,” Murdoch said hastily, taken aback by the depth of their emotion. “Boys mend quickly, Miss Prescott.”
“We have no care for boys, Mister Lancer,” Marie said firmly. “Boys are ungodly creatures. We care only for Johnny. You have our address. We won’t rest until we hear from you that he is well.”
Mystified and humbled by the intensity of the sisters’ feelings, Murdoch closed the stagecoach door. Glancing at her sister, Marie suddenly removed the locket from around her neck and handed it to him.
“Give this to your son, Mister Lancer,” she said softly. “Tell him, yes.”
“I don’t understand,” Murdoch frowned.
“You don’t have to, dear man.” Marie looked at him with what to him seemed like pity, followed by an expression that seemed to wipe her features clean of old age’s damage. “You just have to keep him from harm.”
Holding the locket in his hand, Murdoch watched the coach roll clumsily away.
When he opened the delicate clasp with his large fingers, he found himself staring at two miniature portraits of young girls with large eyes and blond hair. Feeling no wiser, he closed the locket and placed it carefully in the pocket of his jacket before walking across the street towards his waiting horse. Earlier, he had read Hermila’s letter, surprised, disturbed and then thrilled by its fearless passion. Even as he walked in the dust, it seemed, tucked securely inside his jacket, to be burning a hole in his breast, and now, the locket, heavy with mysterious intent, conspired with the letter to dislocate his senses and drive him ever further from the man he had known all his life.
“Do you know of a man called Raul, Johnny?”
The question arrived softly, as if drifting in on the mild breeze blowing through the bedroom window, though it made the young man’s heart pound violently and sweat bead on his forehead. Emilio remained standing at the window, watching two of his men lunge a filly in the main corral. In the second corral, Amo stood, ears forward, gazing at the scene, squealing softly.
“No,” Johnny replied impassively.
“It is the name of a man who saved my life two years ago.” Emilio’s voice was cool and emotionless. “Every so often, to test my spirit and resilience, I ride out into the desert with a few days worth of food and water and I pare my life down to its barest essentials, scourging my body and soul of luxury and temptation. I go to God and return stronger.”
“You reckon there’s a God out there, Tío?” Johnny asked softly. “Out there where the coyotes howl?”
“God is everywhere.” Emilio turned from the window, a frown darkening his face. “Don’t you believe that?”
“Nope, he sure never came by my part of everywhere.”
Emilio drew in his breath. Down in the small corral, Amo suddenly snorted and cantered around the perimeter.
“You walk such a lonely road, Johnny,” the older man sighed. “Perhaps that is as it must be.” He paused. “I never doubted God was with me even when, out in that merciless desert, my horse stumbled and I fell awkwardly, breaking my leg. On the second day, when I believed that God was ready to take me up in his arms and I was praying continuously for my sins to be forgiven, Raul appeared. I was delirious. It seemed to me at the time that he emerged from the blazing sun. When he knelt to give me water, I remember thinking Jesus had come out of the wilderness to save me. He was a big man, as big as your papa. He held me in his arms and I thought I heard music. I thought I was going to die in the arms of a loving stranger. We could do worse.”
Johnny nodded briefly once, his eyes on the embroidered horse on the bedspread. His fingers stroked the golden thread on the horse’s mane.
“When I awoke from death, it was night and I found myself by a blazing fire, watching the man’s shadow kneel beside a cooking pot. He fed me with the tenderness of a mother with her child. The next day, when I had recovered a little, he told me his story.”
Emilio moved away from the window and sat down in the chair by his nephew’s bed. He picked up ‘David Copperfield’ from the table and opened it to the first page where Murdoch had carefully inscribed his name in black ink.
“I heard your papa reading to you last night,” Emilio said, his expression as unreadable as one of his sister’s portraits. “Though to me it is a mystery how you could love such a man, I can see that it is so ….”
Johnny shot his uncle a smouldering glare.
“Get it over with, Emilio,” he said coldly. “Tell me what it is you want.”
Emilio put down the book and sat back in the chair, regarding the younger man calmly. “Did you love your mother as deeply as you love your gringo father?”
Johnny’s face clouded with anger and distress. His fingers curled round the cold, reassuring solidity of his gun.
“You can go fuck yourself,” he whispered. His uncle’s face hardened briefly at the insolence, before appearing to master his disgust. He smiled thinly.
“As we travelled in the desert, Raul told me that many years ago he lived with a Mexican woman and her half-breed son in San Christo. When I met him, he was a trader in Indian trinkets, but in those days he was a gambler among the border towns.”
Emilio gazed intently at Johnny who, struggling to control his emotions, first pulled on his father’s crumpled green-checked shirt over his bare skin, and then held his gun in his hands, running his finger repeatedly back and forth along the indents of the cylinder.
“He said he had loved the woman although she was a whore with a white man’s brat who ran wild in the streets.”
Johnny’s breathing quickened and his eyes focused only on the blue-grey steel of the Colt’s barrel.
“He remembered the child’s deep blue eyes,” Emilio said quietly. “He told me they reminded him of the ocean he had once seen and feared as a boy and that he hated them with all his heart. He said that when he beat the child with his belt, he always hoped that the child’s tears would wash away that terrible blue and turn brown and perhaps not look at him with such pure and infinite hatred.”
Suddenly leaning back on the pillows with what seemed to his uncle something close to boredom, Johnny turned his eyes on Emilio and regarded him with such icy calm that, for a brief moment, the older man dropped his gaze. He saw the gun resting beneath his nephew’s hand, all tension gone from the fingers, replaced by a stillness that experience told him was comparable to the barely perceptible hovering of a snake’s body before it struck its victim. In the void to which he had retreated, Johnny recognized the fragment of fear lodged in the moment between the dropping and rising of his uncle’s head. He welcomed it with the composure of a man taking communion at the altar.
“Raul told me that this woman he loved had once been married to a gringo rancher,” Emilio continued finally. “She told him that she had felt trapped and stifled by his expectations. I remember he smiled when talking of her wildness, and how he had pitied the spirit of her, yearning for freedom but imprisoned by the need to eat. She seemed little more than a child, selling her body to anyone who would take it.”
Johnny heard these details in cool silence, though his mind reeled from the horror of things he had long put away from his conscious thoughts. The gun under his hand felt as warm and pulsing as a living creature. When his uncle stood up suddenly and returned to the window, he licked the dryness from his lips, intensely aware of his lungs swelling against his ribcage.
“He rescued the woman,” Emilio said, watching one of his vaqueros attempt to caress Amo’s golden head. “That is how it felt to him. She was fallen and he had wandered in from the wilderness to lift her up and protect her. To him, her child was simply another thorn in her crown. So when he could catch the boy he beat him without mercy, blamed him for the woman’s sufferings.”
Down in the corral, Amo, who had seemed about to respond to the touch of the patient vaquero, suddenly threw up his head and twisted away with a snort, kicking the fence rail hard before beginning a restless trot around the perimeter.
“It was noon and we were resting by the sweet coolness of a creek when Raul told me that one night he killed the woman in a drunken rage.” Emilio paused, as if listening for some reaction from the man behind him. “He said he had not intended her death; he had killed her out of love, unable to accept that she was still taking other men to her bed. Then he showed me a scar.”
Emilio turned round and stood squarely, arms folded, in front of the red-draped window. Johnny’s gaze, that had never left his uncle’s back, now rested on the older man’s neat moustache and his thin lips.
“The bullet had punctured a lung, but he had survived. He said that after he had killed the woman, her child, a boy of no more than ten, had shot him with his own gun and had run away, leaving him for dead.” Emilio sought to engage Johnny’s eyes. “Was it you, Johnny, who shot Raul?”
“No.” The practised response emerged from his mouth with the ease of his next breath.
“I believe it was you.”
“Believe what you like.”
“I know Raul killed my sister, Johnny. The man to whom I owe my life, who saved me with such tenderness and compassion, slaughtered my beautiful sister like a dog.”
“Did you kill him?” Johnny asked steadily. The gun was now hot under his hand, despite his closed off emotions.
“No,” Emilio replied. “How could I kill a man who saved my life? How could I kill a man who I had once mistaken for Jesus cradling my ebbing spirit in his arms? Such an act was – is – impossible for me. Raul must die, but not by my hand. That is your destiny, Johnny, not mine.”
Johnny closed his eyes then, drawing in a lungful of air and releasing it with a long sigh. They had come; the beautiful words he had been waiting to hear. They filled him with the relentless certainty of a tide coming into shore.
“Tomorrow, he comes here,” Emilio said softly; the harsh edge to his voice had vanished. “He is bringing me blankets from the Nez Percé in Idaho, items I have long desired, and you, my treasured nephew, can complete the revenge you began as a child. Believe me, Johnny, when I tell you Raul is a haunted man. Only you can bring us all, including yourself, to peace at last.”
Emilio turned and drew back the curtains, allowing yellow sunshine to flood the darkened space. Blinking, Johnny shaded his eyes and watched his uncle walk out of the room, leaving him to adjust his vision to the brighter, crueller light.
It had been fear at first, and slowly it had grown into steeled hatred. It was then, in the face of Raul’s sadism, he had learned to shut off his emotions at will, a skill that had served him efficiently as a gunfighter and had kept him alive for a brutal decade. He had seen other children, thin and poor like himself, beaten into submission by violent men, crawling into corners like broken-legged beetles. Every shred of his young energy and imagination had been pressed into resistance of that fate. Days he had spent stealing food to avoid returning home, and nights he had dreamed of ways of destroying his enemy while his mother had screamed out her passion in Raul’s arms.
In the chair by the open window, Johnny sat, clothed in the too large green-checked shirt, staring at the smooth, polished outlines of his gun. His father’s hipflask, previously three-quarters full of whiskey, lay emptied of its contents on the floor next to the chair. After Emilio’s penetrating words, as sharp and keen as bullets in flesh, his defences had collapsed and he could not suppress the memories; they invaded his thoughts with the ruthlessness of a half-starved army.
He lifted the Colt and placed the end of the barrel to the side of his head, tapping it there gently, his gaze fixed on the carefully wrapped bandage on his knee. Though he tried to order his thoughts, they scattered under his attempts like confetti thrown in the wind. ‘Worthless’, ‘useless’, ‘garbage’, ‘not wanted’, ‘nobody wants you’, ‘half-breed scum’, ‘cockroach’: the words returned with the memories of raised belts and blows from a huge fist, its fleshy, hairy fingers decorated with gold rings. ‘First, I will kill you, and then I will kill him.’ That had been his song in the night, his daily hymn to his own soul. ‘First, I will kill you, and then I will kill him.’ He had repeated the words so often they had entered his blood and become faith.
Against the rumblings of a sudden storm, he continued to tap the side of his head with his gun, and stroked the trigger, feeling its smooth curve, from the wider top to the tapering end. The sun disappeared and as if from a great distance, he heard the yells of men, desperate and incoherent. In his mind, came images of tiny devils pushing him towards the colossal flames of hell, and his eyes were closed against the flames while the heat began to melt his flesh, burning away his sin and removing him from the good of the world.
He turned his head, surprised to see his father, his clothes dripping with water, kneeling beside him. For a moment, his mind disorientated by whiskey and grief, he thought about removing the gun from his temple and shooting the older man. Instead, he smiled slowly at Murdoch.
“Why’ve ya come to me all wet?”
“I was caught in the storm,” Murdoch replied, regarding the empty hipflask and the position of the gun with horror and dismay. “What in the hell’s happened, Johnny?” Collecting himself suddenly, he held out his hand. “Give me the gun, son.”
“I need it.” The young man flashed his father a hostile glare, before looking away in misery from the pale blue eyes in a face he was certain he did not want to damage.
“I’m not taking it anywhere,” Murdoch said gently, his heart pounding. “It’ll be right here on the floor within reach. Here, next to mine.”
He removed his gun from the holster and placed it carefully on the rug. Johnny gazed at it, wondering at the raindrops beaded on the grip, feeling the hard metal of his own gun pressing against his head. Suddenly liking the idea of resting his Colt in the depths of the thick bearskin close to his father’s old gun, he pulled himself off the chair and sat on the floor, his injured knee outstretched. Sighing with relief, Murdoch watched him position the Colt carefully next to his; then the young man sat back against the chair and stared intently at the two weapons.
Murdoch sat opposite his son, his long legs crossed, his hands clasped before him, ignoring the physical discomfort of his wet clothing and his protesting back. Though he had no idea what to do, and the chasm gaped wide beneath his feet, he knew, in these silent moments spent with his son, gentled for awhile from the edge of self-slaughter, that he was a forever changed man. Barely tolerable emotions, made more extreme by the sight of his own favourite shirt clothing Johnny’s tormented frame, swirled and eddied furiously in his mind like white-water, threatening to fill his lungs and take his breath.
“You ever killed another man, Murdoch?” Johnny’s gaze had not left the two guns. He spoke with the hard-edged clarity of a mind searching for answers.
“No.” Murdoch kept his eyes down, intent on contemplating his son’s Colt, a weapon he knew had sent more than a dozen men to their graves. “But I’ve been close.”
“Ain’t hard to be good at killin’ other men, y’know.”
Murdoch heard the challenge in the tone and raised his head to meet the dark blue eyes, darker than his own. His son, the notorious gunfighter who had made hardened killers wet themselves at the sudden awareness of their doom, was calling him out.
“Tell me why it isn’t hard to be good at killing other men,” he said softly. Johnny hesitated for a moment, unsettled by his father’s unhurried tone and lack of resistance.
“You just have to become what they’re most scared of,” he said finally. “The men I killed saw death in me. If you ain’t scared to die, you become death an’ they see it in your eyes, an’ you know you can’t lose ‘cos you’re already lost an’ they can’t kill what’s already dead, an’ they know it. I was good ‘cos I wasn’t afraid. They were scared an’ that was enough.”
“And what about afterwards?” Murdoch asked calmly. “How does it feel when a man is dead at your feet?”
Johnny stared at the older man in silence, his mind startled out of any remaining fog. For some moments, he was unable to reply, oppressed by the unfamiliarity of the question from the lips of a man who had stringently avoided the subject of his past with the deftness of a quarter-horse cutting out cattle.
“Like you’re addin’ to a big hole inside you,” he replied finally. “Like you’re hollowin’ yourself out ‘til there ain’t nothin’ left.” He made himself hold his father’s gaze, though he was desperate to look away. “That’s how it feels.”
Murdoch nodded. For the very first time, he picked up Johnny’s gun and held it, feeling its weight in his broad hand. Johnny watched him silently, his heart pounding and then found the courage to speak.
The older man caught his breath and looked up from the gun.
“When ya said you accept everythin’ about me, everythin’ I’ve done, did ya mean it?”
“Yes, I meant it.”
“You don’t know it all though.”
Murdoch placed the gun back on the rug next to his.
“None of us can know everything about another person, John,” he said softly. “All you have to understand is that nothing you could tell me would make any difference to how I feel.”
“It has to,” Johnny whispered, “It’s gotta make a difference.”
“Listen, for Christ’s sake, I got an old man killed ‘cos he wouldn’t tell the gang lookin’ for me where I was. They strung ‘im up in his own barn …”
“Why wouldn’t he tell them, Johnny?”
Johnny swallowed, both frightened and amazed by Murdoch’s refusal to be turned, his relentless self-control.
“He was my friend,” he said, between gasps of panic. “He was kind to me. Gave me food when I was nearly starvin’. Taught me how to gentle horses.”
“He sounds like a good man.”
“He died ‘cos of me.”
“He loved you enough not to want to betray you, Johnny. How old were you?”
“Sixteen, maybe …”
“Dear Lord …” Johnny saw his father’s resolve falter. This weakness calmed his agitation and hardened his manner.
“Older than a kid who’d just come over to ask me ‘bout my pinto I’d got from the Indians an’ got ‘is brains blown out for even talkin’ to me.” Johnny attempted to remain in control, but giving voice to the memory unbalanced him; he leaned forward with a deep groan, his head cradled in his hands. “I tried to tell ‘im to fuck off, but he wasn’t listenin’. Reckon he was deaf or somethin’. He jus’ blinked at me, smilin’, for fuck’s sake, while I was cussin’ ‘im to get down. Jesus, Jesus.” Johnny rocked forward so that his head was almost touching his injured knee. “I had this white stuff on my shirt,” he whispered. “I wondered what the fuck it was, all mixed up with blood, an’ I looked up to see the kid’s head was bust … That bullet was meant for me. It was my day to die, not his.”
Murdoch placed his hand on Johnny’s dark head and held it there silently, hoping by some miracle to communicate his love without the cumbersome treachery of words intruding on the terrible memory. Johnny remained trembling under his father’s touch, his breath emerging in ragged gasps, waiting for something to happen. When the hand on his head began to stroke his hair, at first with a tender awkwardness, and then with an urgency he remembered from days before at the staging post, he lay down by the guns, his head by his father’s knee and allowed the silent caress to continue.
“I was gonna kill you that day I came home,” he said, breaking the long silence. He heard the older man sigh above his head.
“I know. I saw it in your eyes.” Murdoch’s fingers repeatedly stroked back the long, black fringe from Johnny’s forehead. “Why didn’t you?”
“Wanted this more, I guess.”
“Yes,” Murdoch nodded. “I saw that too.”
“An’ I couldn’t spare the bullets,” Johnny said neutrally. “Takes at least six to bring a big ol’ bear down, y’know.”
Murdoch opened his mouth to protest and then hearing his son’s stifled laughter, he chuckled and began to tickle the young man’s neck and stomach.
“And how many tickles does it take to bring a cub down?”
“Hey, that ain’t fair, Old Man” Johnny gasped, squirming to get away from his father’s hands, but unable to stop himself laughing. “I got a busted knee.”
They played then.
They tussled like young animals. Resisting Johnny’s fierce attempts to tickle his stomach, Murdoch heard himself laugh out loud and say things that sounded foreign but beautiful, the phrases of a time lost in the shadows of trees and fields. “You’re not going to get me.”, “Give up, I win.”, “You might as well surrender now.” He had never felt such liberation, not even in his childhood. Always, even in the fields away from the house, the spectre of his father’s disapproval of physical play had cast a shadow over their childish games. Now, he felt a complete happiness fill his being, more powerful than anything he had known in his life.
Johnny had no thoughts. Convulsed with laughter and immersed in his efforts to resist his father’s tickling, he was aware only of happy abandon, a sense of infinite freedom in a place where he was infinitely safe.
Finally, they lay side by side on their backs, sweating and breathless. Smiling, Murdoch swatted away a further attempt by his son to tickle his neck.
“I’m done, little cub. Let the old bear lie here and get his breath back.”
Johnny lay on his side and observed the rise and fall of his father’s broad chest, lost in wonder at what had happened between them. This was the same man who had treated him with such brusque ferocity six months ago, who had raged at his failings and grunted at his achievements, who had punished him with ever tighter restrictions on his freedom and refused to discuss the past. This was the man whose blood he had dreamed of spilling, whose grave he had imagined spitting on in triumph. Now, in his father’s living, breathing presence, he felt connected to the world, to his own life at last. Although he understood they were still in Emilio’s house, that the storm had renewed its assault on the landscape and that tomorrow would be blackened by the past, a part of him clung to the illusion that only he and his father were alive in the world, adrift on the skin of a buffalo. Murdoch’s voice, deep and tense with renewed fear, washed in reality like a tidal wave.
“Why did you drink the whisky, John? Why did you put the gun to your head?”
Johnny was silent as he gathered his thoughts, unable now to remember what had been going through his mind as he had sat there with the gun tapping against the hard bone of his skull.
“Is it Emilio, Johnny?” Murdoch persisted in the face of the young man’s silence. “Has Emilio said something?”
“There’s a man comin’ here tomorrow,” Johnny said finally, his voice stripped of emotion. “His name’s Raul. He killed my mother.”
“What!?” Murdoch turned his head to look at his son who suddenly pulled himself up into a sitting position, his back to the older man. He picked up his gun from the rug and checked the cylinder.
“An’ this time I’m gonna finish it an’ kill him.”
Murdoch made a deliberate effort to control his emotions. He sat up.
“Turn round and look at me, Johnny,” he said steadily. Johnny hesitated and then reassured by the feel of the buffalo skin under him, he pulled himself round to face his father. “Tell me everything.” The voice remained neutral, calm. “Tell me now.”
“I couldn’t save her.” The words came in a sudden, desperate rush, propelled by the release of years of suppression. They left him gasping. Murdoch moved closer so that he was sitting cross-legged directly in front of the young man. He placed his hand on the foot of Johnny’s outstretched leg.
“Tell me from the beginning,” he said quietly. “How old were you?”
Johnny lifted his head, calmed by the tone and by the gentle rubbing of his foot.
“Nine or ten. Ain’t sure.”
“Where were you living?”
“In a border town.” His gaze settled on the rhythmic stroking of his father’s hand on his skin. “Was the same as any other, I guess. Flea bit and dirt poor. Mama earned money washin’ an’ mendin’. Didn’t earn much ‘cos she weren’t too skilled at it – the mamacitas used to come by our room, screamin’ an’ cussin’ – so we got by with me stealin’ food from folks’ houses an’ the market an’ her takin’ men into her bed for money. Sold herself real cheap.” Johnny looked up into Murdoch’s eyes, expecting withdrawal; he strained to detect any change in the touch of his father’s hand or in the cast of his eyes. Flustered by the older man’s self-control, he took a deep breath before continuing. “At first, she didn’t let any of ‘em live with us, ‘cos of me, I guess. Yeh, maybe ‘cos of me.” He paused. “Before she started drinkin’ too much, she looked out for me. Maybe, she even loved me a little.” He felt the change then, a sudden grasp and squeeze of his foot before the stroking began again. “None of her men took too good to a blue-eyed mestizo runnin’ around, an’ I hated em’ anyway. You think I got a mouth on me now. Should’ve heard me then.”
Murdoch smiled thinly, though his stomach was churning and his heart was pounding painfully.
“Guess she kinda fell for Raul,” Johnny continued. “He was sharper’n the others, good-lookin’ an’ he had more money. She told me he wanted to do more than pay for a quick fuck. He wanted to take care of her, an’ no-one’d done that for a long spell, ‘cept me, an’ I wasn’t …”
“You were a child,” Murdoch whispered savagely. “A little boy!” He grasped Johnny’s foot firmly. “How did he treat you?” he demanded harshly. “Tell me how this man treated you.”
The extreme tension in his father’s voice made Johnny hesitate. He recognised the signs of loss of control and feared it more than his memories.
“Did he give you those scars?” The older man’s tone was barely recognisable to Johnny, almost cold.
“Not all of ‘em.” Johnny met his father’s gaze with something close to insolence; then he panicked at Murdoch’s darkening expression. “For Christ’s sake, Murdoch, you don’t wanna know that stuff,” he insisted fiercely. “It won’t do any good. All you need to know is that Raul got drunk one night an’ bashed my mother’s head against the wall, an’ I got ‘is gun from his belt an’ shot the bastard. I thought he was dead. Shot ‘im twice to make sure, an’ I ran. I kept runnin’ in the dark an’ when I stopped, I was somewhere else, someone else, an’ I stayed like that for a lotta years ‘til those agents you hired dragged me outta the way of a firin’ squad.” Johnny pulled away from his father and struggled to his feet, gun in hand. “But he ain’t dead,” he said, his voice hoarse with strain and distress. “The bastard ain’t dead, an’ he should be.”
Murdoch picked up his own gun and gazed at it for a few moments before speaking.
“And what’s Emilio got to do with this?”
Johnny told him his uncle’s story, of the rescue in the desert, the protection under the stars and the slow revelations of Raul’s murderous act.
“Emilio owes Raul his life,” Johnny said firmly. “All I owe Raul is a bullet, an’ that’s what I gotta do. I gotta finish what I started. There ain’t room enough in this world for the both of us.”
Murdoch got slowly to his feet, every muscle aching now. He walked over to the pitcher, poured water in the basin and splashed his face, rubbing his features slowly and thoroughly with his large hands. Johnny watched him, immobile with apprehension and indefinable longing. Finally, Murdoch straightened himself and turned to face his son while he dried his face with a towel.
“We should go home now,” he said quietly. “We should leave this place now.”
“You know I ain’t goin’,” Johnny replied, gazing at his father unflinchingly.
“Yes, I know.”
Murdoch threw the towel on the chair and walked over to his son. He placed his hands on Johnny’s shoulders and then lifted one hand to caress briefly the young man’s face, before pulling him quickly into his arms. Closing his eyes and resting his face against the older man’s broad chest, Johnny listened to the pounding roar of his father’s heart under his ear, more afraid than he had ever been in his life.
At first, he was aware of being filled with an elation that he believed was as close to perfect as he had ever come. He was watching young children play in the gentle waves of a vast blue ocean. Around them dolphins leapt, and great grey whales emerged from the depths as tenderly as flowers opening under the sun.
Then he saw that one of the children was his own, leaping from the blue waves as high as the dolphins and diving back into the water with the silvery grace of a fish. Full of delight, he was about to call out his child’s name when the sea turned black and the waves monstrous under an unforgiving sky. He could hear the children screaming as they were grabbed by the waves and thrown under, one by one, until only his child was left, laughing and playing, heedless of the danger.
He called to him, at first tentatively and then with a desperation that was close to physical pain, but his child ignored him and leapt high to meet the foaming crest of the greatest of the black waves.
He woke up weeping, as broken-hearted as if the dream had been reality. It was not yet dawn, and he lay there, his heart pumping the blood dutifully through his veins, but his body refusing to admit it had the power to move.
As the first glow of day signalled to him from the far mountains, he left the fence rail and dropped softly down into the dust of the corral. From the far side, near the barn, the mustang stopped pulling at hay and lifted its head. Squealing briefly once, ears forward, hooves stamping the ground, it watched his slow, limping approach. Then the man stopped in the middle of the corral, aware only, in the grey, unfriendly light, of his heart beating and the animal’s fear souring the air. The horse was lost to him again; he could feel its resistance spiking at him like a weapon. Moving closer to the animal, he began to speak, his voice low and liquid, though he felt his own fear in his words. When the mustang suddenly shied away from him, and began an agitated trot round the corral, its head striking the air repeatedly as if it wanted to shake off the feel of life itself, Johnny lowered his head and drew in his breath, searching his senses for a way forward.
Nothing came. As a small breeze puffed dust around his feet and brushed the skin on the back of his neck, he was aware only of emptiness, as if his life had been hollowed out and thrown to one side, leaving him with nothing but his bones and skin. He closed his eyes, oblivious now to the mustang’s fiercely tapping hooves and the first spikes of the sun piercing the grey air. Unresisting, he allowed the thought of Raul appearing in the desert like Jesus to save the dying Emilio; he saw his mother’s murderer coming in a blaze of light and kneeling down to hold a stranger in his arms, pour water down his throat and restore him to life. ‘We can be redeemed. We might change enough to redeem ourselves,’ was the thought that came unbidden to his mind. He held it there, turning it over and allowing in every possible feeling to confirm or refute its truth. When he was done, he was aware that the sun had risen over the mountains and that the horse was very close to him, its head down, eyes half-closed and its body trembling. Reaching out, he touched the raised scar on the animal’s neck and ran his fingers tenderly over its jaggedness, feeling every inch of the scar’s length and nature. Blowing gently and deeply through its nose, the mustang leaned its head into the young man while he continued to caress the damaged skin.
“Muchacho hermoso,” (Beautiful boy) he whispered. “Un muchacho tan hermoso.” (Such a beautiful boy)
He stayed there, even as he heard the distant sound of a wagon approaching his uncle’s ranch. When he looked up again he saw that the wagon, loaded with colourful blankets and drawn by a single appaloosa, had stopped before the entrance to the house - a man in a wide-brimmed black hat was sitting, waiting, on the wagon’s seat, reins held loosely in his hands. He saw the man glance his way, then lift his hand to shade his eyes against the low, sharp rays of the early morning sun, glowing behind the form of man and horse. From the house, Johnny watched Emilio emerge, arms outstretched in welcome, shouting a greeting, his face plastered with a wide smile. Johnny’s breathing quickened at the horror of his uncle’s betrayal. Sickened, he watched Emilio embrace the other man, saw that his uncle, his head resting on Raul’s shoulder, was looking in his direction, even as he pressed his hands firmly upon his friend’s back.
Johnny kissed the horse and, heart pounding, climbed out of the corral. Slowly, he approached the two men, his hands loosely at his sides, his eyes searching the contours of Raul’s narrow back, his mind set on what he had determined to do. He saw that the man was thinner, a little stooped, and the hair that curled from under his hat was grey. When Johnny detected that something Emilio had whispered in Raul’s ear had brought understanding to the older man, he stopped a few yards away, the sun casting a long shadow in the dust before him, and waited for Raul to turn round. When he did, Johnny gazed unflinchingly at the man who had murdered his mother, willing his emotions to remain under his control, though he could not suppress the deep breaths that forced their way out of his lungs. He seemed much older – in Johnny’s eyes, an old man, like Cipriano or Jelly, yet with the unmistakable dark eyes and thick, wide lips of the man who had tormented his dreams for over ten years. Bewildered and fearful, Raul frowned at Johnny; then looked at Emilio, who had stepped slightly away, his arms folded across his immaculate bolero jacket.
“¿Cuál es éste?” (What is this?) Raul asked, one hand going to the pile of bright blankets on the wagon.
“El ángel de la muerte, mi amigo,” (The Angel of Death, my friend) Emilio answered softly. “Éste es cómo debe ser, Raul. (This is how it must be, Raul) I suggest you pray for your soul.”
“¿Juanito?” Frantically, Raul’s eyes searched Johnny’s face, his throat swallowing rapidly. His right hand reached for the gun at his waist, though the younger man saw clearly the clumsiness of a man unpractised in using it.
Johnny’s eyes shot to where his father stood, rifle in hand. In the older man’s cold expression and calm hands, he saw his intentions as clearly as he felt his own.
“Stay where you are, Johnny.” In his father’s words, unhurried and deadly in their composure, Johnny heard the voice of a stranger.
“¿Quiénes son usted?” (Who are you?) Raul demanded, his eyes wide with angry confusion, his hand stilled on the grip of his gun. “No le conozco.” (I don’t know you)
“I’m the father of that boy, and you have no right to be still walking this earth after what you did.”
Murdoch raised the rifle and sighted it directly at the other man, who had turned his head back to Johnny, his face contorted with panic. In a moment, Johnny saw only a sun god kneeling in the desert to save a dying man.
“No,” he whispered, then he shouted, “No, Murdoch, don’t!!” Even before he had finished speaking, his father had fired the first shot into Raul’s body. Raul staggered briefly, his hand making a feeble grasp for the support of the blankets, before he fell, crying out, to the ground. Johnny watched helplessly, his eyes bright with disbelief, as his father strode over to the fallen, bleeding man and held the rifle to Raul’s heart, firing it once more without hesitation. At the moment of his death, Raul seemed surprised and about to speak.
“I wasn’t goin’ to kill ‘im, Murdoch,” Johnny said breathlessly, gazing at the dead man. He looked at his father who pushed Raul’s body roughly with his boot, so that it lay sprawled on the ground; face up to the brightening sky. “Men can change,” Johnny insisted, his throat dry with the effort to breathe normally. “He saved Emilio’s life. Men can change!”
For the first time, Murdoch, his eyes still devoid of any apparent emotion, turned to him.
“Yes, son, they can,” he replied steadily. Turning to Emilio, he looked at the younger man coldly, hesitating briefly before he spoke. “Put him in the ground, Emilio. You got what you damn well wanted. We’re going home.”
Johnny watched his father, rifle still in hand, turn and walk away back into the house. Pulling one of the bright blankets from the pile on the wagon, Emilio knelt down and covered the body of his friend.
“Does that bring you peace, Emilio?” Johnny demanded furiously, his body still trembling. “Does it!?”
Emilio pressed his hand over Raul’s heart until the blood seeped through the colours of the blanket. Lifting his hand, he gazed at it calmly.
“I was not looking for peace, Johnny,” he replied neutrally. “I was seeking retribution for the murder of my beloved sister.” He looked back down at the body. “I have it, so, yes, it is a kind of peace, if that is what you call letting go of the past.” He wiped the blood from his hand onto the blanket.
“Then you ain’t got peace, Emilio,” Johnny kept his voice low and cold. “’Cos if you ever cross my path again, I’ll kill you.”
Emilio raised his head and squinted up into the sun, Johnny’s form a dark shape before him.
“Si, Johnny,” he nodded. “Lo sé.”
Emilio’s best coach left his ranch, Amo tethered behind, and Murdoch and Johnny its sole occupants. The sun was fully up now, and the horses grazing the land were as clean-cut as images in a mirror against the blue horizon. Sitting opposite to Murdoch, Johnny’s eyes were on his father who was gazing out of the coach window, his large hands resting his lap, the long, broad fingers of each hand entwined, thumbs uppermost and stroking each other rhythmically like the tentative, enquiring noses of two strange horses.
“Yes, Johnny?” Murdoch’s tone was strange to him, as if the older man was in another place entirely, and indifferent to the reality of his son’s presence.
“That was my fight, y’know.”
Murdoch seemed suddenly jolted out of his absorption in the landscape. He turned his head and looked at the young man, his expression softening with the realisation that they were together in the clear light of the day.
“No, Johnny,” he said gently. “It was mine.”
Johnny stared at his father, his mind on the edge of a strange panic, feeling for the truth of Murdoch’s words. Finally, under the intense gaze of the older man’s pale blue eyes, his breath catching in his throat, he nodded, and felt something, age-old and malevolent, slip away from his consciousness like the slow fading of a terrible pain. When he breathed out, he knew he was not the same man he had been before.
“I wasn’t goin’ to shoot Raul, y’know,” he said quietly. “I’d made up my mind. I was goin’ to walk away, let God decide what to do with ‘im. I’ve had enough of killin’, an’ …” He paused. “I couldn’t get that one good thing he’d done outta my mind. It seemed to mean somethin’, I don’t know what. Enough to stop me.”
Murdoch nodded. “Then you’re a better man than me, Johnny. Actually, you’re the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met, and that’s the truth of it.”
Johnny held his father’s gaze until Murdoch dropped his head and concentrated on his fidgeting thumbs.
“I wanted him dead,” the older man continued. “I couldn’t see anything else, and when he was dead, I was glad. I see him now, the fear in his face, the weakness, but all I saw before I fired was you, your scars, how I wasn’t there to protect you from him, from any of them. I should have been there.” Murdoch drew in his breath, fighting a desire to cry out. “God, I should have been there…”
Johnny observed him in silence, struck by a sudden feeling that something was needed from him that he had never dreamed was his to give.
“It’ll get easier to live with, Murdoch,” he said softly. “Everythin’. After a long time, it’ll get easier to live with. You’re a strong man, a good man. You’ll make it.”
Murdoch lifted his head to find his son’s blue eyes still fearlessly upon him.
“Will you help me through it, Johnny?” He drew in his breath. “I think I might need some help to get through it.”
“Yeh,” Johnny replied. “Yeh, Pa. I can do that.”
After some time travelling in silence, Murdoch reached in his pocket, and handed his son the locket given to him at the stage depot by Marie Prescott.
“Marie asked me to give you this,” he said. “She said ‘yes’.”
Johnny nodded and took the locket. He snapped it open and gazed at the tiny painting of the two young sisters, smiling out at him.
“What was the question?” Murdoch asked. Johnny looked up at his father and searched the lines of the older man’s face; then he smiled.
“I asked ‘er if she’d ever swum naked in the moonlight,” he replied. Murdoch was about to speak, but instead, a ghost of a smile on his face, he lifted his long legs so that they were resting on the seat opposite, next to his son’s thigh. Silently, Johnny looked down at Murdoch’s legs before doing the same on the opposite seat. Pulling his sketchbook out of his jacket pocket, he began to draw his father’s face with quick, assured strokes of his pencil while the coach swayed beneath them like a small boat caught in the gentle swell of a peaceful sea.
The End (until ‘Fallen’!)