(With thanks to betas Suzanne Lyte and Terri Derr)
“He’s an arsehole!”
Jack scowled at the dirt at his feet, determined not to look up. The horses in the neighbouring stalls moved restlessly.
“You don’t even know him, Jack. Give him a chance.”
Jack imagined his father staring daggers into the top of his head through the gloom. He still refused to look up. Hunched down, back against the wall, he shredded the straw in his hand. “I didn’t want to come here in the first place, and now you’re forcing me to spend time with some daddy’s boy with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
“I admit Garry laid it on a bit thick, but he’s proud of his son. I used to be able to say the same. I don’t know what’s got into you lately.”
Jack did look up then. “Well, you’d have to be home occasionally to know that, wouldn’t you?”
There was a dangerous silence. When it came to a war of words his dad could normally wipe the floor with him, but maybe Jack had hit a nerve. Maybe—those blue eyes were unreadable as usual, but the fists clenched tight by his side—yeah, he’d hit something.
“My not being home enough is no excuse for you losing the plot just now. Walking out was uncalled for. We suggested you spend some time with your cousin. Is that so awful? You’re the same age. You must have interests in common.”
Jack bit his lip and said nothing.
Hands on hips his dad turned his back and kicked at the ground. Then he swung around and slammed his hand hard into the end of the stall. “Damn it, Jack, you’re being a little shit! Your marks are down the toilet. You’re rude to everyone…. Don’t you care how much you’re upsetting your mother?”
“It wasn’t me who had to sleep a week on a mate’s fucking couch!” Jack jumped up and pushed passed his father. His stupid cousin wasn’t the only arsehole.
A crew of drovers were riding through the yard, moving heifers and their calves to fresh pasture, as Jack barged through the stable door. He waited impatiently to let them pass, and a cowboy came up beside him. “Never as bad as it seems.”
Jack glowered sideways, taking in the man’s pinkish-red shirt and Mexican style. “Mind your own business.” That’s all he needed, another adult telling him what to do—probably another fucking cousin. They were everywhere and the reunion celebrations weren’t for weeks yet. Being a dick must run in the family like blue eyes and black hair.
Jack looked down at his boots. Now who was being a dick?
“Look mate, I’m…” Jack stopped short. What was the guy wearing on his hip? Was that real?
“Cuidado!” A vaquero rode towards them. A heifer had broken wide of the herd. Jack stepped forward with his arms outstretched and drove the animal back towards the others. The vaquero raised his hand as he reined in and swerved away. “Gracias, joven.”
When Jack turned around again the cowboy was gone—nowhere to be seen. Crap. He’d have to say sorry another time.
He crossed the yard to the hacienda through the cloud of dust kicked up by the horses and cattle. His mother intercepted him in the hall. “Jack—is your father…”
“He’s in the stables. And I’m going—all right?” Jack took the stairs two at a time up to his bedroom. He knew there would be no peace if he didn’t make some effort to be friendly to his douchebag cousin. May as well get it over with.
Scott Lancer was unpacking when Jack entered their room. A pile of neatly folded shirts sat on the end of the bed while he put underwear away in a drawer.
Jack dragged his own bag up from the floor and started stuffing what was left inside into another chest of drawers. He had hung up his T-shirts and his one and only tailored shirt the day before; he was no slob, but for real that Boston pretty boy looked like he’d even ironed his underpants. “You been here before?”
“A few times when I was a kid. You?” Scott threw his spongebag onto the bed, but he didn’t turn round. Maybe he was a little pissed off by Jack walking out earlier.
“I used to come every two or three years until Dad—” Jack wrenched the zip closed on his bag, and tossed his good shoes towards the bottom of the open wardrobe. “Last time I was twelve.”
Crap! The shoes had bounced off the oak panelling of the wardrobe and hit a pile of school books neatly stacked on its floor. The top books went flying. Jack picked them up, straightening bent pages and closing covers. “What are these for? I thought American schools were on holiday now?”
Scott glanced over, but he didn’t seem very interested in Jack or the condition of his books. “Preparation for next year.”
Was he serious? Jack put the books back on the stack. Bringing textbooks on holiday when you didn’t have to? Never in a million years would Jack do that. He was stuck with doing some school work while he was at the ranch, but that was because most of their stay was term time in New Zealand where he lived, and because his mother had his books in her luggage. “I noticed you had ‘forgotten’ them.” Well, it was easy done. If he could get away with it, he still wasn’t planning to do much study. He would take the flak when he got back. No way was he going to research the causes of World War One when everyone else was on holiday. But this guy? God help him—six weeks sharing space with Mr Diligent Spit and Polish—six weeks of hell unless… “Do you ride?”
“A little bit.” His cousin shoved the drawer shut and turned around with a smile that Jack didn’t quite trust. “I can finish this later. Do you want to explore?”
Scott only took a couple of minutes to change out of his all-American schoolboy gear and into jeans and a blue t-shirt. He looked almost normal. Still a bit Stepford by Jack’s standards—polo was not a style Jack would be seen dead in—but it was a definite improvement.
The cousins threw their empty bags under their beds and went in search of some saddle horses. The foreman let them take their choice. Jack nabbed the palomino before Scott even had a chance to check out the animals on offer. Jack had spotted the colt the day before when he had first arrived with his parents and younger sister, Ellie. They had been chatting by the corral rail to his aunt, Terri, who managed the ranch for the family trust. The colt had come right up and nuzzled his shoulder. He was a beautiful animal: gold coat and a creamy white mane and tail. Jack had wanted to saddle up then and there, but he couldn’t admit it when he’d been complaining and bad-tempered the whole way across the Pacific. He had his pride.
Scott chose a chestnut gelding. Right off he started calling him Ulysses. “According to the family history, my forebear and namesake called the first horse he had here ‘Ulysses’.”
Jack stared at his cousin’s back as he mounted. He’s read the fucking family history. Christ!
Within twenty minutes Jack knew he had been right to mistrust his cousin. He was gobsmacked how well Scott jumped on an unfamiliar horse. “Yeah, I see you have ridden ‘a little bit’.”
“You’re not bad yourself.” Scott grinned back, reining in a sweating Ulysses after soaring over three fences in a row.
“Let’s see what you’re like on the hills.” Jack spurred the palomino forward, and for the rest of the afternoon they had fun racing and daring each other to make jumps or tackle some of the steeper slopes. The palomino invariably won any competition on the hills. He was as sure footed as a mountain goat. All Jack had to do was hang on.
Jack was knackered by the time they returned to the hacienda, but he definitely felt friendlier towards Scott and the world at large. The two families joined Terri for dinner in the great room. They talked so much they didn’t leave the table for nearly two hours. Jack’s dad and Scott’s dad reminiscing mostly, but Scott’s mum told some pretty cool stories as well. Karen worked as an events manager of some kind. It was her job to reel in and look after the celebrities, and it didn’t always go to plan. Jack liked the story about the diva with nits. When he wasn’t skiting about Scott, even Garry was pretty interesting. He was some kind of doctor in Boston now, but he had been in the army. Scott had been an army brat until he was ten. Guess that could explain a few things.
When they finally did leave the table, the adults moved out to the patio to continue their conversation over a few drinks. Ellie disappeared to watch TV with the foreman’s daughter and again Jack was left alone with Scott. Not really knowing what to do, they started poking around on the bookcase looking for ideas, and Scott uncovered an old chess set from beneath a pile of magazines. “Do you play?”
“A little bit.” Jack shrugged. Scott looked at him a moment longer than necessary, but Jack knew his face gave nothing away. It was one of the more useful traits he had inherited from his father.
“That’s one of the few things from the original bookcase that survived the fire.” Coming in from outside to get another bottle of wine, Garry Lancer took the set from Scott and pointed out the metal plate on the bottom of the slightly-charred wooden case—date of manufacture 1882. “This whole end of the great room went up in smoke in 1906, the day of the earthquake. San Francisco was worst hit of course, but it fairly shook here as well. An oil lamp was thrown off the table. The papers and books on the bookcase went up like tinder. By the time the fire was brought under control every single photograph was gone.”
“So there aren’t any photos of the original Lancers?” Jack was not particularly interested in genealogy, but he had been curious to see what the members of the first family had looked like.
“There are a few when they were much older like that one of Murdoch Lancer with his great grandchildren, but almost none from before 1906. Except for the Ambrotype of this Murdoch’s maternal grandfather on the wall near the desk, the albums and photographs were all on the bookcase. The photos taken on Murdoch Lancer’s ninetieth birthday, just before he died, are all we have of him.” Scott’s father looked sad. Jack knew he was a keen genealogist; photographs must mean a lot to him.
Garry returned outside with three bottles of wine from a local vineyard, and the two boys spread out on the floor in front of the fireplace in the comparative privacy of the great room. The chessboard lay flat on the carpet between them. By concentrating hard during the first game, Jack managed to beat his cousin, but only just. Chess, like riding, was something his dad had taught him. It had been put on the back burner for a while so he was a tad rusty. From what Scott said, he had learned in a similar way, but he and his dad still played on and off. He clearly wasn’t used to someone his own age beating him. “I’d say you’ve played more than just ‘a little bit’, cousin. Touché.”
Jack grinned. “No hard feelings?”
Scott shook his head with a laugh, but took a lot more time over his moves thereafter. The next game ended in a stalemate.
Half way through the third game, Jack pushed a pawn forward. “Your dad sure is proud of you.”
“Hmpf.” Scott’s eyes stayed fixed on the board. A burst of laughter came through the French doors. The adults out on the patio were settling in for a late night, it seemed.
Reclining on one elbow, Jack studied his cousin. Scott determinedly did not look up. What’s he hiding? “That’s not very articulate for ‘the winner of the Boston Latin School’s highest award in English’ and ‘a future Ivy League man’.”
Scott grimaced as his hand hovered over the board, weighing up different moves. “Dad’s embarrassing. Do me a favour and don’t listen to him when he starts.”
“Yeah, but you did win that award, and what about all the other things he was saying? You’re superman, Boston.”
“Fuck you!” Scott glared at Jack, withdrawing his hand. He started to get up from the game.
“Hey, keep your shirt on. I was only pulling your leg.”
“Well, you’re not very funny.” Scott stood over Jack, his grey-blue eyes like ice. He glanced towards the French doors, and Jack guessed he was weighing up what would happen if he walked out. “You have no idea.”
“You think? I hate almost every class I take. I’d kill to like even one subject enough to win an award for it.” Jack sat up and waved Scott down again. “Finish this game at least. I’m winning.”
“In your dreams.” The corner of Scott’s mouth twitched and he got back down on the floor. He sat hugging his knees and pulling at tufts of carpet. “I don’t enjoy most of the subjects I take. I feel like I’m in quicksand half the time, but my parents want me to go to Harvard. Nowhere else will do. I have to study every day, even in my so-called holidays.” Scott looked over at the chessboard and took another of Jack’s pawns, depositing his bishop down in its place. “Check.”
“What?” Frowning, Jack hastily moved his king out of harm’s way.
“You want to know why the reunion is during the summer holidays? It’s not the anniversary of anything. That would be closer to Easter. We’re having it now because six weeks is a long time and my parents didn’t want me missing actual school. Your folks weren’t so bothered.”
Wow, was that true? Not only was he not alone in feeling like his life was an inescapable black hole, but in Scott’s eyes his parents were liberal?
“Medicine or law—that’s my choice. Seven years or four and end up in a career I’d hate. Mom and Dad are both so wrapped up in the idea of me going to Harvard. It would kill them if I said I didn’t want to go. You think Dad was bad when we first arrived, spouting all that bullshit about winning this and that. You should hear him when he really gets going. It’s like every time I’m introduced to someone these days I have to suffer him telling them I’m a ‘shoe-in for Harvard’ or what a great sportsman I am.”
Jack’s parents wanted him to go to uni and study law like his mother or business like his dad, but they weren’t as hard core about grades as Scott’s folks sounded, and the choice of university would be up to him. They weren’t pushovers though. Actually, Jack wouldn’t mind business, as long as it wasn’t the corporate stuff his dad was into. Maybe adventure tourism or something like it. He was not sure if that was even possible now though. He had taken all the wrong subjects; stuffed his whole future up by spitting the dummy over fuck all. He’d left his parents and teachers to choose his subjects for the following three years and ended up in an academic nightmare. Unlike Scott, he didn’t have the will-power to stick to the books when he was bored senseless. “Just don’t try so hard. That’s what I do. If you don’t come top, he might lay off.”
“Tried it. Even got drunk once. The lectures and Mum in tears were worse than the study. Does it work for you then?”
Jack shrugged. “No, not really. It wasn’t bad at first; the letters from the dean at least got Dad’s attention. Probably wouldn’t have seen him at all last year otherwise. But failing and wagging school just seem to make me angry all the time. There’s this kid in my class.” Jack smashed his fist into his hand and looked up at Scott with a wry smile. “Shouldn’t have let him get to me. There was hell to pay, but they still didn’t disown me if that’s what you’re worried about. Tell your parents to stick Harvard.”
“You don’t know my father. Why did you hit the guy?”
“Long story.” And one Jack wasn’t going to share just yet. He’d said too much already. He’d almost told Scott about the cops escorting him home; they’d caught him doing 140k on the motorway on his restricted license. He’d only escaped with a warning thanks to being sober at the time and his mum bursting into tears and spilling her guts about her problems with his dad. That was way too much information for her or him to share in Jack’s opinion. He wanted to be absolutely sure his cousin wasn’t the dick he had first thought before telling him anything that personal.
Talking with Scott didn’t change his situation, but Jack went to bed a lot happier than he’d been for some time, and he got up early to do his assigned chores. As the two families were going to be at the ranch for six weeks all up, the adults had decided the young people should be given a few jobs to do to help out. Terri gave him and Scott the task of mucking out the stables every morning. That was a big area. The stables had twenty stalls divided into two sections and if full, cleaning them out and replenishing the water and hay for each horse could easily keep the boys occupied until breakfast.
Jack and Scott tossed a coin to decide who would tackle which end before they went in. As it turned out there were only six horses inside, the rest were out in the fields or corral. Jack struck lucky because there were only two in his part so he decided to go and bring his palomino and Ulysses in from the corral. He could saddle up while Scott finished off. They’d decided to ride out to Cedar Canyon after breakfast. There used to be a good swimming hole there, and Terri said the stream had trout.
As he neared the corral where the two horses were waiting, he saw the cowboy from the day before. He was sitting astride the top rail, his back against the barn wall, feeding Jack’s palomino a carrot.
“You’re out of luck, mate. I’m riding that one while I’m here.” Jack smiled to let the man know he came in peace and reached over to pat the colt’s neck. The horse whickered contentedly and moved his head so Jack could scratch behind his ears.
“Just making friends. He reminds me of a horse I once had. What do you call him?”
“Good question. The foreman didn’t have a name for him and I haven’t decided what fits.” Jack climbed up onto the rail too. The colt nuzzled at his jeans pocket. “Nothing wrong with your sense of smell.” Jack pulled out the lump of sugar he pinched from the coffee table before coming out. Holding his hand flat, he enjoyed the rough feel of the animal’s tongue on his palm as it licked up the white cube. “What did you call yours?”
“Sure-footed on the slopes, huh?” Jack pushed the colt’s head away. He was looking for more sugar, but there was no more to be had. “This ones the same. Maybe I’ll borrow the name—if you don’t mind? P’raps yours was this one’s sire.”
“Nope. Barranca was a gelding. Cousin maybe.”
“Cousin is good—I’m getting to like them more at any rate.”
The cowboy lifted his leg over the rail and slipped to the ground. He smiled crookedly up at Jack, still on his perch. “Seeing life a little different this morning?”
“Yeah, and look, I’m sorry I bit your head off yesterday. I had an argument with Dad. I was angry.”
“I noticed.” The stranger pushed his hat back on his head. “All right now?”
“Not really. Just keep out of his way mostly.”
“I used to have problems with my old man. Talking helps—and doing things together.”
“Yeah, well, it’s hard to talk and I don’t want to do stuff with him.”
“I know it, but you’ll feel different when you do.” The cowboy slapped Jack on the knee and raised his hand to say goodbye as he disappeared around the corner of the barn, spurs clicking on his heels. Jack watched him go, his eye caught again by the firearm at the man’s hip. Forgot to ask his name—never mind, Jack had a feeling he’d see the cowboy again.
The next couple of weeks were spent with Scott, just riding about and helping the ranch hands or studying; Jack hit the books a bit more than he intended just to keep Scott company. Both of them took to the ranch work like ducks to water, even though it was hard yakka. They discovered muscles they never knew existed, but they loved every minute of it and learned heaps. The vaqueros showed them how to use a lasso, brand cattle and shoe a horse. After some instruction, they even took responsibility for replacing a section of fence in the South Gully. It must have been one of the first barbed wire fences erected on the ranch, because it didn’t look anything like the modern wire. Some of it was so rusty it fell apart in their hands.
They hitched a ride into Green River with the foreman that day. Funny, they’d been itching to get into town, but once they got there the malls and movie houses weren’t that interesting. When he dropped them off Tom Ramirez offered to drive in again in the evening. “Text your parents and get permission if you want to stay in town. Let me know when I see you back here at eleven.” But after an hour wandering about they decided they would rather go back to the ranch and help with the fencing.
Seth, a Lancer ranch hand from way back, dropped the wire and posts off for them by horse-drawn wagon after lunch. Terri justified the continued use of the old wagons by claiming they were more environmentally friendly, but Jack thought she just preferred horses to trucks. He and Scott arrived at the gully on horseback in time to help unload. Seth made sure they knew what they were doing and then left them to it. By the time they finished, every muscle was crying out for a long soak in the hot tub.
But it was worth it. When he came for the leftover materials and tools, Seth checked the fence out thoroughly and was clearly impressed. “I couldn’t have done better myself.”
Feeling stoked, the boys rode back to the hacienda alongside the wagon. They were halfway there when Jack discovered he had left his phone behind. “You go on. It will be under the tree where we dumped our shirts.”
The day had been sweltering and they’d both stripped to the waist for a while. Jack was surprised he wasn’t more burned. He could never have left his shirt off in the sun that long in Auckland—no holes in the ozone layer in the northern hemisphere. It made a difference. Even so, he should have put his shirt back on a little sooner. He could feel the uncomfortable tingle of sunburn across the top of his shoulders.
The man with the gun was sitting under the tree examining the phone when Jack got back to where he and Scott had been working. “This yours?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Jack dismounted and reached down for the mobile just as a text came in. It made the cowboy jump, and he dropped the smartphone on the grass.
“Sorry.” Picking it up again the cowboy stared at the alert on screen until the backlighting faded. Only then did he pass the phone to Jack.
“No worries. It’s just Scott wanting to know if I found my phone.” Slightly puzzled by the cowboy’s behaviour, Jack hunkered down and text a reply. The cowboy watched him closely. If Jack didn’t know better he’d have thought the guy had never seen a cellphone before.
The cowboy nodded towards their afternoon’s work. “Nice job. You’ve been pushing hard.”
“Thanks, and yeah we wanted to prove to Terri and Tom we could be some use around the place. Maybe they’ll let us help with the droving next week.”
“Made peace with your pa yet?”
“No, but he wants us to ride up to the black mesa together tomorrow.” Jack stretched his aching muscles and wondered if he could bribe Ellie into giving him a neck massage.
A rabbit stood up on its hind legs, capturing their attention, and then turned tail and disappeared down a nearby hole.
The cowboy smiled and returned his gaze to Jack. “You going?”
“Yeah. I was thinking about what you said.” Jack reddened. He glanced over as he doodled with a stick in the dirt. “My cousin Scott and his dad Garry are heading out to some favourite old haunt too.”
“Your fathers know the ranch then?”
“Uh huh, my grandfather ran it before Terri, and Scott’s grandparents have a business in Spanish Wells. Dad and Garry spent a lot of time together as kids. They were best mates. I suppose you grew up around here too?”
“No. I was born here, but my mother took me south when I was two. I came back later for a time. When did your aunt take over as manager?”
“About four years ago. Gets advice from Granddad occasionally, and Dad’s been helping with the reunion. Terri and Garry are the history buffs, but Dad’s done a lot of the organising.”
The reunion was just the excuse for a get-together that his dad and Garry had been looking for. They hadn’t stopped yacking since they’d arrived. You wouldn’t think two men could have so much to talk about, but they’d sit out on the patio knocking back the whiskies for hours. They’d been out there the night before when Jack had come downstairs for a glass of water. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but he’d heard his name and then a lot more besides. “I accidentally overheard Dad and Scott’s dad talking about ‘mending bridges’. Garry reckoned they were both workaholics, but Dad would leave Garry for dead. In his old job Dad flew all over Australasia for work. We hardly ever saw him last year. And there’s other stuff too. Believe me my dad has a lot more bridge-mending to do than Scott’s—a lot more.”
Jack decapitated a dandelion and rose to his feet. The cowboy picked up the yellow flower and twiddled it in his fingers. He didn’t speak, but Jack could see the question in a sideways glance. Jack didn’t respond. He’d said too much again—got to stop doing that. He mounted Barranca and nodded. “See you.”
Riding back to the hacienda alone, the question nagged at him. As he rode through the Lancer arch he finally muttered an answer for Barranca’s ears only. “Yes, I want Dad to try. Of course I do.”
Jack and Mick Lancer rode towards the black mesa just after breakfast the following day. They saddled up and walked the horses clear of the yard in silence, but then they made good speed up the valley, cantering most of the way until they reached the foothills. They pulled up and let the horses drink from the creek before starting the climb. Mick leaned over and tapped Jack on the shoulder. A young deer was drinking further upstream. The doe raised its head and looked straight at them, then flicked her ears and clambered up the bank, disappearing into bushes.
Sweat trickled down Jack’s neck as he followed his father uphill, the trail winding between boulders and woodland. The air hummed with cicadas and hung heavy with the scent of pine. They paused to watch an eagle circling overhead until it vanished behind some redwoods. Then two squirrels chasing each other through nearby branches made them both laugh. When they crested the hill, a vast grassy plateau spread out before them. A small herd of wild horses grazed on the far side. Jack’s jaw just dropped. This would be his idea of heaven.
“Want to put that lariat to use?” Mick nodded towards the rope coiled and tied to Jack’s saddle.
“That’s why I brought you up here. Thought if we could catch a wild one I’d teach you how to break it to the saddle.” Mick leaned forward and untied his own rope. “But if you’d rather not we can always….”
“Are you kidding? “ Grinning from ear to ear, Jack transferred his lariat to the horn ready for the chase. On his father’s signal they spurred their horses towards the herd, going wide in opposite directions to maintain the element of surprise as long as possible and so they could work together to prevent the horses escaping.
They only just got into position before the stallion spotted them. He reared up, turned and galloped away, leading the other horses across the mesa. Their unshod hooves thundered through the long, dry grass. Jack leaned forward in the saddle and spurred Barranca to full speed. The herd ran almost straight for a while, but then suddenly veered towards the foothills. Shit, they were going to lose them. No, maybe not; his father really had grown up on the ranch. “Go, Dad!”
Mick cut a roan out from the rear of the bunch and drove it towards Jack. Twirling the rope above his head, Jack rode one handed. He and Barranca edged closer and closer. Finally level with the mare’s hindquarters, he released the lasso forward. “Whooee!”
The noose dropped over the wild horse’s head as if guided by the hands of his guardian angel. Jack hauled back, wrapping the slack around the horn. The mare jerked to a halt, and began to twist and turn and rear in a desperate attempt to get free.
“Textbook—well done, Jack!” His dad reined up next to him, panting and laughing. He threw another rope around the mare’s neck and helped Jack settle the animal down before leading the way to a grove of cottonwoods on the edge of the mesa.
Jack fetched water from the brook nearby while Mick built a fire to brew the coffee. Then they settled down to eat the sandwiches they’d brought with them, reliving the chase between every mouthful.
Jack was absolutely knackered, but he couldn’t stop smiling. He sat back in the shade and watched the horses nicker and nudge at each other. Barranca had been brilliant. He’d run like the wind.
“It’s not what you think, you know.” Mick crouched by the fire as he poured a second mug of coffee. “I just wasn’t home enough. Took me time to admit it, but that’s why I’ve changed jobs. It’s better now—right?”
His old man had to fucking spoil it, didn’t he? Jack looked up into the branches above his head, trying to get rid of the feeling of being sucker-punched. “What about that female? The one you went to Hong Kong and Melbourne with.”
“Work, Jack. Just work.”
Jack made a growling sound in his throat, but said nothing.
Putting his hat down on the ground, Mick wiped sweat from his neck with his bandana and for a few minutes studied his boots. Then he took a deep breath, brought a hand across his face and met Jack’s eyes. “You don’t believe me? You’re growing up too fast, you know that? Okay, the truth. What you’re suggesting—what your mother thought when she kicked me out for the week—it was on offer. And yes, maybe I was to blame for that. I didn’t mean to, but apparently I gave the wrong idea. But I told her no, Jack.”
“Weren’t even tempted—the faithful, virtuous husband.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you.” Mick gulped at his coffee and put the enamel mug down next to his hat. Getting up, he paced backwards and forwards a couple of times, running his hand through his hair. Then he sat back down. “I thought about it, all right? I was flattered. But whether you choose to believe me or not, I love your mother. I am a faithful husband and I intend to stay that way. Mum knows that now. The only thing upsetting us at the moment is you. You’re not happy, and I know that’s partly my fault, but I want to help. Talk to me, Jack. Please.”
Jack focused on an ant carrying a leaf twice its size across the ground in front of him. Even if what his father said was true, where did he get off thinking it made up for everything else? He had missed every rugby match Jack had played for two years straight and most of Ellie’s hockey as well. Did he even know Jack played guitar in a rock band? Big on lectures when old Rutherford was on his case over one little scrap and then off again to Sydney before the week was over.
Jack snuck a sideways glance. Mick was drinking coffee again and gazing into his cup. He didn’t look happy.
To be fair, he had come home at a decent hour every evening for the last few weeks. He’d got time off for this holiday too. Today was good, and he’d admitted being in the wrong. Maybe going away so much really had caused all the problems between him and Jack’s mum. Maybe it wasn’t what Jack had thought. They did seem okay again. Jack picked up a stick and started breaking it into pieces. “I’m bored shitless at school, Dad. I’m not interested in calculus or history. I know you want me to go to uni and get a ‘proper’ job, but… I’m not like you. Working all day in an office is my idea of hell.”
“A ‘proper’ job doesn’t have to be in an office, Jack, but you need qualifications these days for most jobs. I can’t see you being happy digging ditches for a living. We can talk about subjects.”
“Old Rutherford would never let me change at this stage.”
“You leave Mr Rutherford to me and your mother. You just think about what you want to do and what subjects you need to make that possible.”
Jack felt like he was going to cry. He nodded as he got up and went over to the horses. He pretended to look for his phone in his saddle bags. “I forgot. I promised Mum I’d text when we got up here.”
When he returned, he sat down next to his father. Mick handed him a fresh mug of coffee.
“My whole life feels like a mess, Dad, and I don’t know why.” Jack felt embarrassed— bottling up his feelings and thoughts had become a habit—but talking did seem to help. His dad was listening and trying to be on his side. Maybe in time it would get easier. The cowboy in the red shirt knew a thing or two after all, and Jack looked forward to telling him so.
But the guy must have gone away or been busy elsewhere. After a week or two, Jack started to wonder if he’d ever see him again.
Jack’s mum warned him not to be back late. Saddling up, he rode toward the lookout on the top road to Morro Coyo. He always found it a good place to think. He had intended to ride up there with Scott so they could talk over their mutual dilemma in private, but he looked everywhere and Scott had vanished. Jack texted again—still no response. “Maybe he’s gone on ahead.”
Barranca didn’t disagree, but when they reached the lookout there was still no sign of his cousin. After spending a few minutes identifying landmarks with the help of the copper plaque set into the wall, Jack led the palomino a short way down the slope. He tied Barranca to a tree, and then settled down on the grass. “You’ll have someone else riding you soon. I hope you like that better than I’ll like going back to school….Fingers crossed I can change subjects, eh….That speed camera fine will have come through by now. Dad’s going to go ballistic when he finds out I’ve been driving his baby—so much for our new, improved relationship.”
Barranca shook his head and stared at Jack with sympathetic eyes. Who would have thought a horse could be such a good listener? The colt had proven to be a lot better sounding-board than his school counsellor. Not as good as the stranger, but he hadn’t seen him for ages, not since that day in the South Gully. Jack missed their chats.
Jack tossed a stone out into the emptiness. It flew high and then dropped to the hillside, hitting a rock and bouncing its way towards the ranch below. Things were much better with his father now, and there was at least hope on the school front. Despite all that though, Jack was still unhappy. In another few days he was supposed to be boarding a plane. “I don’t want to go home.”
Jack nearly jumped out of his skin. “F—! Where did you come from?”
“Around.” The cowboy, dressed in the same calzoneras and embroidered shirt, stood gazing out over the valley with a broad smile, the Colt still prominent on his hip. The guy looked like something out of a TV Western with the sun in the background, gun belt tight and tied low to his thigh. And it was real. Jack was sure of that. From where he was sitting he could see the spare bullets stored along the back of the belt and the gun itself looked well-maintained and ready for use. Jack was still staring at the Colt when the stranger spoke again. “It’s somethin’, ain’t it? The most beautiful place in the whole wide world.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing.” Jack dragged his eyes away from the firearm and looked up at the cowboy’s face. “I do like it here—and not just for the scenery.”
The cowboy hunkered down. Plucking a blade of grass, he started chewing on it and went all dreamy eyed, like Jack’s dad when he was recalling his childhood. “Do the horses still run wild on the black mesa?”
“Yeah, they do. And there are heaps up in the hills. Dad and I caught one. I lassoed it myself and broke it.” Jack grinned over at the stranger. Stupid, he didn’t even know the guy’s name, and it didn’t seem right to ask now after so long, but Jack felt really alive on the ranch, and he just knew this man would understand. “There’s other wildlife here too. It definitely isn’t all cattle.”
The cowboy glanced towards Jack. “You like that?”
“The ranch is awesome. I’ve learnt how to rope steers and brand calves. After we caught the wild horse, Dad and I went hunting together too. There’s room to breathe here. Shit, I even get a kick out of doing chores. I must be nuts.” Jack shook his head, laughing. His blood was racing. He hadn’t felt this stoked about anything or anywhere ever. “I don’t know what’s changed. Last time we visited, I liked being here, but I was happy enough to go home. This time—leaving—the thought does my head in.” Jack pulled at the grass at his feet. “I wish I could stay.”
The cowboy pushed his hat back on his head and raised his face to the sun. “Still haven’t fixed things with your pa, huh?”
Jack lifted his face to the sky too. There was hardly a cloud. Summer was hotter here than at home. The heat seemed to make the sky bluer somehow. The grass and the trees smelled different too. Everything was more intense. Jack liked that; he didn’t know why. Better make the most of it. He would be going home to a wet winter according to his best mate’s latest post on Facebook. “No, we’re good now. Well, better at any rate. Thanks partly to you. But I still don’t want to go back. It’s crazy. I’m from New Zealand, right. I told you that? Godzone. Lots of people here say I’m lucky. Maybe I am, but these days I feel out of place. Nothing there seems to interest me anymore. School is a nightmare. Talking with Mum and Dad has helped, but I still don’t feel like I belong.”
“New Zealand, huh? I heard it’s a nice place. Long way off though.” Shading his eyes with his hand the stranger watched a hawk glide on the air currents above. “If you stay, you’d still have to go to school.”
“Yeah, but I could handle the studying if I had the horses and the space to come home to each day. I hate living in the city.”
“Ranchin’ is hard work. Lots of routine and responsibility. It’s not an easy life.”
“I know, but I really enjoy it. The last few weeks here have been sweet as. I don’t know how Dad ever brought himself to leave.” Jack leaned forward resting his arms on his knees. He threw another stone into the air. They watched until it disappeared out of sight.
“Why did he?”
“Met Mum and followed her back to NZ. All right for him, I suppose. He’s a weekend cowboy at heart, not a real one.” Jack snuck a look at the real cowboy, now lying back on the ground, hands behind his head, pushing his hat down over his eyes. Odd bloke—never said much, but Jack always found him easy to talk to. “Dad’s a businessman and you can do that anywhere—all pen pushing and suits giving orders to other suits.”
The cowboy lifted his hat slightly and squinted in Jack’s direction. “Suits? Clerks and office workers, you mean?” He lay back down and chuckled. “Good name for them…. I’d rather dress comfortable and run a ranch.”
“Me too, but I’m still supposed to go back to Auckland—never-ending suburbia—and finish high school, maybe with a change of subjects but maybe not. Then uni. Best I can hope for back home in the next few years is going bush on weekends. Terri’s so lucky to live here.”
“Tough job running a ranch, especially for a woman. She’d probably welcome some help.”
“What century do you belong to? Don’t let her hear you say the ‘especially for a woman’ bit. She’ll clobber you.” Jack watched the cowboy roll over onto his side. Propped up on one arm, he laughed and plucked another blade of grass to chew on. He seemed in no hurry to reply and his lopsided grin was hard to read. He was wearing Mexican beads around his wrist. Jack noticed them before. Some of the vaqueros at the ranch wore them too—must be a Californian thing. You wouldn’t catch a guy back home wearing that sort of jewellery. No one would make fun of this bloke over it though. He looked a bit handy with his fists—and with that gun. Funny, none of the ranch hands wore gun belts. “Actually she’d probably employ you. She said the other day she’d like an assistant.”
The cowboy’s smile was kind of wistful. He picked up a stick and turned it over and over, tapping top-end and tail on the ground. “Nice thought, but no. I’ve been away too long. Come and go unexpectedly—I won’t be able to stay, but I don’t see why you can’t. Why don’t you ask your parents?”
“You think they’d consider it?” Once or twice the idea had crossed Jack’s mind, but it was a pipe dream. Or was it? He knew Terri would prefer any trainee manager or assistant to be a member of the family, someone with a personal connection to Lancer. “Terri once tried to persuade Dad to come back to help with the ranch. It’s a business in itself, but ranching isn’t exciting or sophisticated enough for him. He likes being CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation with all the lesser suits grovelling to him. Besides Mum would never leave New Zealand and Dad would never leave Mum.” It felt good to say that, even better to know now that it was true.
“I’m pleased to hear it. Is that what he does—run some big corporation? Impressive. Tell him his forebears would be proud.”
Odd thing to say, but from the beginning Jack had assumed the man was some distant cousin. He was probably here now for the reunion weekend like everyone else. Ancestors were the main topic of conversation, though Jack hadn’t really taken much notice of all the history and photos that were being oohed and aahed over back at the hacienda. “Yeah, but I’d hate that kind of life, paper-pushing and meetings. I’d rather be here. So would Scott—my cousin. He’s even worse off than me. At least I can get into the country easily enough from Auckland now I’ve got my driver’s licence. His dad is a big shot surgeon in Boston. It would take Scott hours to get anywhere like this from where they live. Scott loves Lancer as much as I do.”
The stranger sat up and hugged his knees, looking out over the ranch again with just a hint of a smile on his lips. Jack would love to know what he was thinking, but the guy seemed to have inherited the family trait of making his face unreadable. “You two get along now then?”
“Yeah, funny that. When we first met, I thought what an arsehole! Guess Mum’s right, you can’t judge a book by its cover. After a few days we really hit it off.”
“It was like that with my half-brother. Maybe you should both stay. Lancer has a tradition of giving second chances and it wouldn’t be the first time two men have run it together.”
“Really? When was … Look, there’s Scott now. Hey, Scott!” Jack leaped up and waved both arms in the air to get his cousin’s attention.
From a little further along the hillside, Scott raised his hand to show he’d seen him. Then pulling at his reins, he steered Ulysses in Jack’s direction. “Where have you been? I gave up looking for you and came up here on my own.”
“Me too. I’ve been talking to this guy. Hey, where’d he go?”
“A lot of that going around. I’ve been talking to a cowboy over there. Met him soon after we got to the ranch actually, but not seen him for a while. I spotted him sitting behind that clump of trees as I rode up the hill so I went over to say hi. Chatting away, friendly as anything; then I see you, look away for two seconds and he’s gone. He’s done it to me before. God knows how, but it’s damn disconcerting.” Raising his hat, Scott scratched his head and gazed around with a puzzled expression. “He reckoned we should ask our parents if we can stay on here.”
“No kidding? Sounds like the bloke I was talking to. But how could that be? I never got his name. Black hair and blue eyes like mine—must be a relative of some sort— spoke kind of soft and slow. He wears a fucking gun, tied real low on his leg like a gunslinger from the OK corral.”
Scott shook his head. “No. My guy did have a gun, but he wore it higher than that and he was blond same as me, tall. Looked like a cowboy but sounded like a Harvard graduate.”
“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to become?” Jack grinned and Scott made a face.
“Something like that. I’ve been following my stranger’s advice though, and I think Mom and Dad might be weakening. Dad’s stopped telling everyone that I’m going there anyway. Haven’t you noticed?” Scott’s horse nickered and he patted his neck to calm him. “Ulysses here is as enthusiastic about the prospect of Harvard as I am. Whoever those men were, they had the right idea, don’t you think? We’ve got nothing to lose by asking.”
Mounting up, Jack followed Scott back to the lookout. Discussing tactics and what they would do if they were by some miracle allowed to stay, they walked their horses down the gravel road to the hacienda. Cars were coming thick and fast now, and the boys had to move the horses off to the side several times to let them pass. Most came in on the sealed road from Green River, but there were still plenty who preferred the top road from Morro Coyo so they could look out over the ranch. Jack and Scott paused to let a four wheel drive go through the arch. The public parking area was full to bursting. When they rode into the yard they saw ranch hands directing vehicles to parking spots that wouldn’t interfere with the daily routine. The extended family was gathering from far and wide for the weekend.
“Where’ve you two been?” Terri came striding across the yard leading her dapple grey mare. Crap, was that the time? Checking on the work crews was never done very long before noon. “Your folks want to introduce you to more relatives and we need you to help set up the tables for lunch.”
“Yeah. No worries, Terri. But could we talk to you first?” Jack slid down from his horse.
“Five minutes. I’ve got a lot to do before I can socialise.”
Jack took a deep breath. “We’d like to come and live at the ranch. Help you manage it.”
“You said yourself you need someone and that you’d prefer an assistant manager, who felt a connection to the place. This way you’d have two of us.” Scott patted Ulysses to quieten him, giving Terri a moment to get over her surprise. “We’d work really hard.”
“Dad’s still an American citizen and it’s the beginning of a school year so I shouldn’t have any problems being accepted at the local high school. Scott can just transfer and not miss anything at all. I was going to be changing subjects anyway. Now I can take ones that would help with running the ranch.”
Terri was bound to say no at first. All the way down the hill, Jack and Scott had tried to think of answers to the adult arguments against the idea. If they could only get Terri on side, it would make tackling their parents so much easier.
“Hmm, that’s not actually too far-fetched.” Terri turned her back to consider a little.
“Really? I mean, of course not.” Jack mouthed ‘Thank you, God’ to the sky.
Terri walked a short distance away, muttering under her breath. Scott held up crossed fingers and the boys waited.
After a few minutes, Terri came back. “It would be no free ride, you understand. I would always call the tune. You’d have chores to do—more than you do now—and if later you decided to stay on, I’d still be boss—at least until I retired. You think you could handle that?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Both boys touched their forelocks and grinned.
“All right then, I’ll talk to your folks. In the mean time you’re needed to set up tables in the courtyard, and if you’re planning to stick around, you should try to learn something from the displays in the great room. Part of managing this ranch is being custodian of the local and family history.”
There was not much time to do more than carry and set up tables and chairs as directed though before the speeches began. Everyone gathered in the yard. The boys stood near the back of the crowd. Mick Lancer acted as host, welcoming everyone to the ranch. Whether they were in the hacienda, annexe or cottages or lived locally they were all encouraged to come to the main house to be fed. There would be a big fiesta that night and a relaxed barbeque on Sunday evening for those who didn’t have to leave early. “If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the ranch or family, there will be talks on Sunday afternoon—check the noticeboard to the right of the picture window for details. Memorabilia and photos are on display in the great room. For those of you who know how the 1906 earthquake affected this family there’s a little surprise for you on the first family stand.”
Jack took a swig from his water bottle. “What’s that about?”
“No idea, but Dad’s been pretty pleased with himself this past week.”
“I probably should go to the talks. Show willing.” Jack was less than enthusiastic. History had never been his thing.
“Me too. Hopefully not too boring.” Scott stepped back to let his Great Aunt Mabel reach one of the chairs set up in groups around the perimeter of the yard.
“Why do you need to turn up? You’ve read the family history. You told me that on your first day.”
“Only two pages of it. Dad wanted them proofread before he emailed them to Terri, and Mom wasn’t home. Christ, you thought I’d read the whole thing? You must have thought I was a real asshole!”
“Ah huh.” Jack grinned. Scott made a grab for him, but he ducked.
“There are walking tour maps on the desk for those who want to explore in and around the hacienda.” Jack’s dad was still talking. All eyes upon him, he was in his element. “Hayride tours of the more accessible parts of the ranch, including a visit to the ranch cemetery, will leave tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock. If anyone wants to ride free, see Tom Ramirez, the foreman. Just muck in and get to know each other. Have fun. And don’t forget, wear your name tags to show which branch of the family you’re descended from.”
“Scott, you’re descended from Scott.” Jack snorted; for some reason that struck him as funny.
“I don’t know what you’re laughing about, you’re descended from Johnny. Looks like we both got stuck with family names. Isn’t Jack a nickname for John?”
Before Jack could answer, Terri appeared and thrust another name tag into his hand. “Put that on too.”
“My parents—your grandparents—were cousins. We’re descended from both Johnny and Teresa.”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“No it is not. Though maybe if they were blood relatives. I’m not sure. I’d have to work it out. I take it you haven’t read any of the family history yet? No, I didn’t think so. Well, I’ll give you the basics so you don’t embarrass yourselves.”
She pushed the two boys onto a bench seat against the barn wall and began her lecture. “Murdoch Lancer came from Scotland and bought the ranch in the 1840s. He married twice. Each wife had a son, Scott and Johnny, but for reasons I won’t go into now, they both grew up away from the ranch and their father. They didn’t come back until 1870. By then they were young men. Scott had a wealthy up-bringing. He served in the Union army during the Civil War and was a Harvard graduate. Johnny had a rougher life and was making a living at the time as a gunfighter.”
Jack raised his eyebrows at that. What a coincidence. He and Scott were descended from two guys that sounded very like the two mystery cowboys. Maybe that explained the guns. Maybe there was some sort of re-enactment planned that he didn’t know about. He hadn’t exactly been paying a lot of attention to the reunion stuff up until now.
Terri cleared her throat. “Shortly before their return, after her father was killed, Murdoch became legal guardian of his goddaughter, Teresa O’Brien. Hence the original family being celebrated this weekend included Murdoch, Scott, Johnny and Teresa. Most of us are descended from the men, some of us are descended from Teresa, and a select few are descended from Murdoch, Johnny and Teresa.”
“So how come we all got lumbered with family names?” Jack grinned, knowing full well his aunt would object to the idea that a family name was something unpleasant.
“Don’t be so cheeky.” Terri tried to look stern, but a slight twitch at the corners of her mouth gave her away. Jack liked Terri. On the surface she could be grumpy, but underneath she was good value. “Yes, I was named after Teresa. You two are the eldest sons of eldest sons going all the way back to Scott and Johnny. The names alternate: Mick’s full name is Murdoch John Lancer—for some reason he didn’t like the name ‘Murdoch’ when he was your age and he insisted everyone start calling him ‘Mick’.”
“Wise man,” Jack whispered out of the corner of his mouth. Scott smiled, scratching his head and turning away so Terri didn’t notice.
Terri glared at Jack. “Pay attention. You’re John Murdoch. And Scott’s father Garry is actually Garrett Scott so….”
“So...” Scott threw out his arms. “Because my father is the world’s biggest traditionalist, I had to be Scott Garrett Lancer from the get-go?”
“Like the original—exactly. Are you telling me this has never been explained to you before?” Terri looked from Scott to Jack and back again.
“Might have been, but not nearly so well.” Jack winked at his cousin a fraction of second before Terri turned her head towards him.
Scott managed to keep a straight face and focused on Terri. “I suppose it makes a difference that we’re interested now. Thank you for explaining it to us again.”
Terri’s eyes narrowed, sizing up the two boys. Jack made his face unreadable. Scott looked back as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “If you think you can flatter me and get your own way, think again. I’m not sure I should speak to your folks about you coming here after all.”
Jack jumped to his feet and put his arm around his aunt’s shoulder. “Now you don’t really mean that.”
“No, you don’t.” Scott extracted Terri from Jack’s arm and gently turned her about. “Look they’re all going inside now. There’s no time like the present.”
Shoving Jack and Scott out of the way, Terri went to discuss the idea with their parents. The boys followed at a safe distance. They tried to sneak into the great room unnoticed, but Jack’s mother looked their way at the wrong moment. She made a move to come over, but his Dad held her back. Scott’s Dad was asking Terri questions like a machine gun; she no sooner replied than he shot out another. Between making polite chit chat with countless relatives, Jack and Scott stood to one side of the French doors and watched anxiously.
“Mum’s against it.” Jack kicked at the corner of the floor rug. Susan Lancer might fit neatly under her husband’s arm, but Jack knew who would have the last word on this subject. Catching the disapproving eye of an elderly Teresa-ite, he stopped troubling the rug and held in his frustration and impatience by wrapping his arms around his chest instead.
Scott was a little more hopeful. “Mine’s weighing up the pros and cons, considering the practicalities. Dad doesn’t look too sure, but he’s not bursting a blood vessel. That’s a good sign.”
“Do you think we should go over?”
“Nope.” They both said it together and laughed.
After what seemed like an age, Terri waved for the boys to come over to the fireplace.
Jack’s parents exchanged looks as he planted himself in front of them. Mick pushed his hair back with his fingers and cleared his throat. “So you really want this, Jack?”
“Yes Dad. I’ll do anything—promise anything—if you and Mum let me stay.” Jack tried to look his father in the eye. He knew his dad like that—sign of a man you can trust and all that. Then he gave his mother his best lopsided half smile and prayed.
“And what about you, Scott?” Garry looked doubtfully at his son. “Modern ranching is no easy street. If we agree to this we still expect you to go to college. Study something relevant to ranching if you must, but no son of mine is going to be just a cowboy in any sense.”
“Absolutely, Dad.” Scott stood up straight—couldn’t have looked more responsible. “We aim to learn everything we can so we can help Terri run the ranch and the associated businesses. Eventually, if we prove ourselves good enough, we’re hoping the family will let us take over as managers when she retires.” Oh, his cousin was good—humble and mature. Was that the difference a couple of months in age and a private education could make? Jack would have to take lessons. “We have some ideas of our own too, but we would always want to run Lancer mainly as a ranch.”
After about twenty minutes of intense negotiation, it was agreed in principle. There would be certain logistics to sort out during the week ahead, but barring major obstacle, the boys could stay on at the ranch on certain conditions. They had to maintain good grades and still go to university after they finished high school. Terri’s word would be law. Any misbehaving and she had orders to send them straight home. Their parents would visit the ranch more frequently henceforth, and they expected regular communication—weekly emails and phone calls, not just Facebook. And Skype at least once a fortnight. Man, they didn’t ‘talk’ that much with their parents when they were at home. But the adults did agree and that was all the boys cared about. They were coming to live at Lancer just like their so-many great grandfathers had done back in 1870. Awesome!
Jack and Scott escaped to the buffet to celebrate. Begging had given them an appetite. They piled their plates high and then wandered back through the French doors to look at the activities board and family history displays.
“Can you believe it? Those cowboys were right. I wish we could find them and thank them.” Jack’s last words were muffled as he ploughed into the mountain of food on his plate.
“My guy looked a bit like the old man on the wall, only a lot younger.” Scott pointed with his fork at the Ambrotype photograph of their Scottish ancestor, Murdoch MacKinnon, in its heavy gilt frame across from the desk. “Perhaps they’re somewhere amongst all these cousins.”
“Maybe. Let’s go and look at the first family memorabilia and then see if we can find them. Terri said that display was over by the bookcase. Shame there won’t be any photos from the 1870s. Watch out for ankle biters.”
Jack and Scott navigated their way across the room, stepping round the toddlers playing on a rug on the floor. Most of the displays were down that end. The dining table and chairs had been moved against the walls to make space or to support heirlooms. Squeezing past Ellie and her giggling friends, the boys eventually arrived to face the main exhibit just as a family of cousins from San Francisco moved away from it.
There were photos—old photos: wedding photos and portraits, their subjects clearly visible. The original tintypes were mounted on small stands and larger copies were positioned behind. There were other things on the table, but Jack barely noticed them.
A family portrait from 1870 took pride of place at the centre of the display. Murdoch Lancer and Teresa O’Brien sat beside each other. Scott and Johnny Lancer stood behind.
Jack couldn’t take his eyes off the photo. Scott Lancer—the original—stood on the left, slightly taller than his brother. When Jack finally managed to drag his eyes away from Johnny Lancer, he could see the resemblance between this Scott and his cousin. It was in the eyes and the shape of the nose. He dressed quite differently from Johnny. The Boston son was spruced up, Western but not in the rustic way of his father, more sophisticated. Jack’s ancestor was dressed in Mexican style with fancy stitching on his shirt and jacket. Johnny Lancer had thick uncontrollable black hair like Jack and Jack’s dad, and his other features were eerily familiar. Even though the photograph was in black and white, Jack knew beyond all reason that his four-times-great grandfather’s eyes were blue.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to thank that cowboy,” Jack said after a few minutes.
“Me neither.” Scott blinked.
“For real?” Jack stared wide-eyed at Scott. White as a sheet, his cousin stared back. Jesus! They couldn’t both be imagining things.
Jack looked back at the family portrait. Shit, what was he thinking? He’d never admit his thoughts to anyone but Scott. They’d lock him up and throw away the key. A few hours ago he’d have said things like this couldn’t happen. But…God help him, he just knew the shirt Johnny Lancer was wearing was an unusual red colour and those were butterflies embroidered on its front. He couldn’t see his ancestor’s wrists, but he was sure there was a Mexican bead bracelet on the right one.
They wouldn’t find the cowboy with the gun at the reunion. Jack was ninety-nine percent certain of that. But if some day he ever met him again—awesome!
Half-scared and half-laughing, Jack looked at Scott. As if on the count of three, they blurted out the impossible together.
1. Because Jack is a Kiwi teenager and the story is from his point of view, there is some slang in this story and some of it is peculiar to New Zealand. Hopefully most will be clear from the context, but if you are having trouble http://www.chemistry.co.nz/kiwi.htm or http://www.newzealandslang.com/a.php or http://nzguide.newzealand.co.nz/kiwispeak/index might help.
2. New Zealand pronunciation is more like UK English than American English so, for example, when you see 'NZ' read it as 'En Zed'. Then there are at least a couple of words where the spelling varies according to the nationality of the speaker, e.g. ‘Mom’ in American English is ‘Mum’ in NZ English.
3. This story loosely links to other stories I have written: Good Listener, From Highlands to Homecoming and The Face of a Father.
4. This story draws the occasional phrase from or refers to places mentioned in Lancer episodes, e.g. The Homecoming , Pilot movie, or The Highriders, Series 1, Episode 1; To Chase a Wild Horse, Series 1, Episode 3; and The Experiment, Series 2, Episode 18.