May 29, 1870
On my first day here, Teresa informed me that if I were going to stay, I would need some new clothes. That simple task proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated, but I got it done. The problem I face now is that if I am going to remain here, particularly if I plan to stay as a part owner of this vast enterprise, I am going to need not only new clothes, but also a new set of skills. I'm afraid those may be harder to acquire.
My only previous experience with cattle has been limited to the dinner table, and the only thing I really know about them is that I prefer them rare. That is hardly a solid basis on which to build a business venture. Therefore, I have gone back to school. I have spent this week taking instruction in how to be a rancher, or more precisely, how to be a cowboy.
Just as an aside, I cannot help but wonder what effect that last sentence would have on some of the finer folk in Boston society. I can see the raised eyebrows and fallen jaws from here. What would amaze them even more is that I'm finding that I enjoy the work.
There is a sense of satisfaction to be gained when a man can stop his toil, look back over what he has done, and see the actual physical manifestation of his labor. There is a certain pride in the feel of tired muscles and the sight of order where there had been chaos. After a day of hard work in my grandfather's office in Boston, a great deal of money might have changed hands, but it was a paper gain. There was nothing to touch. Nothing but ledgers and numbers, nothing substantial and lasting except paper and more paper. Here the work I do leaves a mark upon the land and I find the simple dirt that stains my hands at the close of day somehow cleaner and easier to wash away than the ink of my grandfather's counting house.
My father has put my further education into the capable hands of Senor Cipriano, who is the segundo here, the second in command. It is his job to introduce me to the everyday tasks that make up the daily life of a cattle ranch. He is overseeing my schooling and, though he hasn't said so, I would imagine that he has also been charged with keeping me – the greenhorn – safe from the perils of the western range. I suppose that should offend me but to tell the truth I find it rather amusing. However, I do find myself indebted to Cipriano. He has given me the most important tool so far in my cowboy arsenal - a good pair of gloves.
He presented them to me my first day out on the range, immediately after I cut my hand rather badly trying to free one of our precious cows from a section of the ubiquitous barbed wire. A cowboy may need a gun and a rope and a horse, but as far as I'm concerned, without gloves, he's lost. In Boston society, gloves were an integral part of my everyday costume. The same is true here except that now they are worn for self defense, not fashion, as everything out here seems to bite, scratch, or raise huge blisters. And that includes the foliage.
In addition to acquiring a pair of gloves, I have been introduced to my horse, a sleek and spirited animal. Unfortunately, I have discovered that many of the things I've learned from years of riding lessons, time spent in the hunt field, and a stint in the cavalry will need to be amended. It seems that western horses not only wear different tack but they speak a different language than their eastern counterparts. The aids and cues I've used to communicate even the subtlest commands to my equine partners seem mostly to confuse my western mount.
I have always ridden with a light contact on my horse's mouth but western horses neck rein. Instead of responding to direct pressure on the bit, they are trained to move away from a rein laid against their necks. They will answer to pressure on the bit but not the way they answer to the rein. And I, who have been drilled until the cues are performed without thought, now have to unlearn one system and learn another.
I pity my poor horse.
My first reaction was, of course, to look down on this western form of riding. After all, my own techniques hark back to a tradition that traces its roots to the great riding academies of Europe and beyond that all the way to Xenophon and the beginnings of classical dressage. However, after watching some of the top hands work cattle with their mounts, I have to admit that these are among the best-trained and most athletic horses that I have ever encountered.
Cipriano tells me that the finest of them are vaquero trained. I'm not certain what that entails yet but, from what I understand, it is a very precise and time consuming training regimen and only the very best and most talented horses and trainers are able to master it.
The western saddle is vastly different from the English saddle that I am used to. But it seems well designed for its purpose. My balance was off the first time I rode one. The stirrups are longer and the rider is less forward than in an English saddle but it didn't take me long to adjust and I find it to be a very comfortable seat for hours and hours on horseback.
They haven't trusted me with the rope or lasso yet. I must confess that I've spent most of my time digging postholes, stringing wire, and clearing out streams. What I've mostly learned is that even the lowliest jobs have their own tricks and rhythms and until one has mastered those, the simplest tasks are much more difficult to accomplish than they should be. I suppose that that is a valuable lesson in itself.
I am also having to learn a whole new vocabulary to describe this western life, many of the words derived from the Spanish language, words like riata, hondo, soogan, waddie, bosal, and latigo.
Unfortunately there is another new word that has insinuated its way into my life. It too has come to me though association with the ranch hands, the vaqueros. The word is gunfighter. And a second word travels with it. That word is a name.
It seems I have stumbled onto the source of conflict between my father and my brother. According to the vaqueros, he is not just my brother, but my brother the gunfighter. And he is not just any gunfighter, but one of the most infamous, the most dangerous and feared.
I am at a loss as to what to think of this, or how to feel about it.
I knew when I came here that things were different. I expected it to be different, lawless, wild, but… And we have just dealt with Day Pardee. Pardee, who was also a gunfighter.
My God. Is my brother that sort of man? Is he cut from the same cloth as Pardee?
The scene at Gaspar's home is burned into my mind. It was barbaric and it haunts me. What sort of man could do that? Is that how Johnny conducts his so-called business? Logic would say yes, and yet somehow I cannot accept it. If that were truly his nature I would have known it. Surely I am not so poor a judge of character. Or is that just wishful thinking on my part?
I know he can be hard and remote. I have seen that. And I know he is capable of bitter fury. His anger at our father when he first arrived here was practically volcanic, ready to erupt into violence at any moment. And yet, he held himself in check. God knows I have seen him kill. He did so when the land pirates assailed the hacienda. And he did it efficiently and dispassionately. But I have also seen him act with gentleness and compassion. He trusts no one, and claims to want nothing from us but I have seen a fleeting expression in his eyes that I would swear belies all that. And when he smiles it's difficult not to smile back.
But still there is that word. Gunfighter. What kind of a man kills for a living? And how can I, in good conscience, live in the same house and make a life with someone whose morals are so opposed to my own? How can I consider him a brother? What am I to make of all this? I cannot reconcile it.
It is all conjecture at this point. I need facts. But where to get them?
"Hey, Boston." He looked up as I walked up to his door. He was sitting by the window, braiding a rawhide rope. He still appeared thin and drawn and also very young. He turned his attention back to his work as he continued. "Come on in and tell me that there really is still a world out there. I swear I don't think there's anything left but what I can see from this window and I'm starting to wonder whether that's real." He laughed a little at his own humor. "So, what did they do to you today?" He looked back at me with a teasing grin on his face and between one heartbeat and another, the grin faded. He glanced past me to the hallway and back to my face. "What's the matter?"
"What makes you think that something is wrong?" Even to my own ears my voice sounded cool and distant.
His eyes narrowed and hardened. He stared at me for a moment before he turned and gazed back out the window.
"So." He said finally. "Who you been talking to? Betcha they had some real pretty stories for you, didn't they?"
"Is it true?"
"Is what true?"
I felt my temper rise at that and I snapped back. "Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, drifter, desperado." I paused. "Killer for hire?" I thought I saw him flinch at that last bit but then he snorted.
"Yeah, I'm Madrid." He tossed the unfinished rope aside and stood to face me. "It's not something I try to hide."
"Maybe if you'd explain it to me. . ."
His head came up and he glared at me. "Explain it to you? Why the hell should I?"
"Johnny." I reached for his arm. "I think that I…"
"No." He shoved my hand away. "What makes you think that you have the right to an explanation?" He started to turn away, and then turned back. "Fuck you."
"You heard me. What do you know about it anyway?"
"I don't know anything but I'm trying to understand…"
"Don't bother." He stalked over to the window and leaned against the sash for a minute. "Nobody asked you to understand," he whispered. Then he turned around and his voice gathered volume. "Nobody asked you. It was my life, Scott. You weren't there and neither was that old man so neither one of you has any right to second guess me."
"I don't understand how you could make the kind of decisions that could lead to…that sort of life."
"Decisions?" He snorted. "The only decision I made was to stay alive. And if you don't care for where I ended up, well that's just too bad. I may not have lived in your kind of neighborhood, brother, but I'll tell you one thing, and I'm speaking from experience, the view from the top of the shit pile is one hell of a lot better than it is from the bottom."
He glared at me for a minute and then he dropped his head and put his hands on his hips. I started to say something else but he shook his head.
"No. Get out. If you want to know anything else, you go talk to the old man. He knows all about it. Maybe he'll even let you read through those Pinkerton reports of his."
"Damn it, Johnny, I don't want to ask Murdoch. I don't want the bunkhouse version. I want to hear it from you." I stared at him for a moment.
"No! Just go." He grabbed my arm and swung me around to face the door. I jerked my arm away and shoved back, and I heard him hiss as his bad shoulder collided with the dresser.
"Get out!" He stood with his back to me, his right arm wrapped across his chest holding his left shoulder.
I started to say something else but instead turned and walked to the door. I looked back and he was silhouetted against the window, a black and featureless shadow against the fading light.
I closed the door and leaned back against the wall. Now I had another image burned into my mind. That lonely figure outlined against the window. Lonely? Where in the name of heaven did I get that word? It was certainly not a word that I could imagine Johnny ever applying to himself. Doubtless my brother would have laughed at me or perhaps threatened to shoot me if he had heard me say it.
I stood in the hall, unsure as to what my next course of action should be. I looked toward the stairway and made up my mind. Even as I turned and strode down the hall, and despite my earlier reservations, I felt a growing sense of loss. I found myself feeling as though something precious had died.
Murdoch was sitting at his desk. He glanced up as I entered the room. "Hello, Scott. How was your day?"
"It was abysmal, sir." I walked over and stood in front of the desk. "Why didn't you tell me?"
He looked up at me, and then he scowled and swung his chair around to face the window. Finally he stood, went over to the bar and poured a drink. What he didn't do was ask me what I meant.
He took a quick gulp of his drink and refilled it. Then he filled another glass. "Here," he said. "I have a feeling you're going to need this."
I walked over to stand in front of him again. "I'd rather have a few facts, sir." But I took the drink anyway.
"Maybe you should talk to your brother."
"It didn't go well. He informed me that since neither of us were present for the events, we had no right to an explanation from him." I saw my father wince at that statement and he took another pull on his drink.
"He told me that I should talk to you. He said that perhaps you would share the Pinkerton report with me."
He looked up sharply at that. "How did he know about that?"
"Whatever else he is, sir, Johnny is not stupid. When you put the Pinkertons on someone's trail, they produce a report. He knows that. As do I. I would imagine that you also have a report on me."
He had the grace to color a little at that.
He walked back over to his desk and sat down. "Where did you hear about. . .," He hesitated. ". . .Madrid?"
I looked up sharply at his tone of voice. "From the hands, of course. Did you think you could actually keep it a secret?"
"Of course not," he said and scowled at me. He paused for a minute, studying his drink. "What did they tell you?" he finally asked.
I walked over and sat down across from him. "Enough, and not nearly enough. Cipriano broke it up. He suggests that I shouldn't believe everything I hear."
My father glanced up and then looked back down at his drink. He took another hefty swallow before speaking. "There are a lot of stories out there about your brother. Some of them paint a very dark picture. Some of them, particularly from the Mexican community depict him as a hero. They all agree on one thing. He is deadly."
"So which version is correct?"
"How would I know?"
"You have the reports."
"Yes, the damned reports." He reached down and yanked open the bottom drawer of his desk and slammed a thick folder down on the desktop. "They either offer bits and pieces with nothing to tie them together or reams of cold facts that explain nothing. Go ahead, read them if you want."
I drew back from the folder as if it were something deadly. Somehow it didn't seem right to read it, as if I would be invading my brother's life.
I put my hands on the desktop. "I don't want words on paper, I don't want some cold report. I want to know what you know. I want to know what caused my only brother to choose that life. I want to know why!"
"And that's exactly what I can't tell you. I don't know why she left. I don't know why she took him." He drew in a deep breath through his nose and lowered his head. "That question," he said softly, "has torn me apart for the last seventeen years."
"Murdoch, I didn't mean…"
He shook his head. "I tried to find him. I looked, the Pinkertons looked. There was nothing, not a trace. Nothing." He sighed and sat down heavily. His massive hand ghosted across the cover of the report. "It wasn't until a year and a half ago that I found out that he was going by Johnny Madrid."
I sat back in the chair and stared at him. "What?"
He looked up at me and suddenly realized what he'd said. "What was I supposed to do? He was a gunfighter."
"He was, what, seventeen?"
"He already had a reputation as a killer. I didn't know what to do. I needed some time to think about it."
"A year and a half?"
He sighed and swung his chair toward the window. "You are my firstborn, Scott, my son. But I never got the chance to know you. Johnny was different. I held him in my arms the night he was born. I watched him take his first steps, say his first word. But I hadn't seen him in almost fifteen years. I didn't know him any more. I didn't know who he was, I only knew what he was."
He turned back around to say something else but lifted his gaze. He looked back past my shoulder and he paled.
"Well, gents." Johnny stood in the doorway. "The two of you havin' a nice little chat?" He stepped down into the room. "I kind of had a hankering for a drink. Looks like you already started."
"How long have you been standing there?" Murdoch asked.
"Why? Something you didn't want me to hear?"
Murdoch's lips tightened but he said nothing.
Johnny walked casually across the room toward the liquor cabinet but stopped in front of our father's desk and stared down at the folder that lay conspicuously in the center. Murdoch made a move as if to snatch it back but then sat back and watched.
Johnny reached out one long finger and ran it along the edge of the file and then he tapped it gently a couple of times on the thickest part before looking up into Murdoch's eyes. "Well, old man," he drawled, "looks like you got your money's worth, didn't you?" A cold little smile flickered across his face and he continued on to the liquor cabinet where he rummaged around for a minute.
"Hell, no tequila? That's not very hospitable." He grabbed a bottle of good whiskey and poured a hefty shot. "Guess this will have to do." He turned around and rested a hip against the cabinet. "So," he said, "what should we drink to? I know." He raised his glass. "Here's to family." We just sat there, frozen in place. He watched us for a moment. "No? Well, maybe that wasn't such a good idea." He took a hard pull on his own drink and his eyes were cold. "I think I'll head back upstairs and leave you two to. . . whatever it was you were doing."
He started to move away but smiled and reached back to snag the whiskey bottle. "Guess I'll take this with me. Wouldn't want to disturb you again."
"Well, that was enjoyable."
Murdoch gave me a look and then ran his hand through his hair. "Everything always goes wrong with that boy. He always takes everything the wrong way."
"If you'll pardon my saying so, Sir, it would have been hard for him to have taken that part of our conversation any other way."
He sighed and got up to refill his glass.
"Have you given up on him, sir?"
Murdoch turned and stared into the gathering darkness outside the window. "I don't know," he murmured. "Have you?"
"No." I hesitated. "I don't know." I looked down at the Pinkerton report that sat on the desk in front of me. "I don't know what to think of him. I just need something that will help me understand…"
"I think maybe the only chance we have to understand is to take the time to get to know the man behind the legend."
Legend? I looked up in surprise at the word. "That's a rather dangerous course of action, isn't it?"
The look he gave me was filled with so much uncertainty, fear, and longing that my heart thumped heavily in my chest.
"Yes," he said. "It is." He sat his glass down on the desk, walked heavily over to the French doors and went outside, leaving me with my own questions and uncertainties. Leaving me with everything but answers.
I threw back the remainder of my drink and stood to go. After a few steps I stopped and turned back to the desk. I stood for a moment looking down at the Pinkerton report. Information was information, and since neither my father nor my brother seemed to be forthcoming, I supposed I'd have to take what I could get. I swept it up and headed back to my room.
It turned out to be a long night, a very long night. Before I’d even made a good start on my reading I found myself retracing my steps to the great room. Following Johnny’s example, I picked up a bottle of liquid courage and carried it back upstairs with me. If by some miracle, I thought, we all managed to stay together, Murdoch was going to have to substantially increase his liquor budget.
I settled into my chair, poured a stiff drink and began to read. The report was divided into sections and I pulled out the thickest folder. The one labeled Johnny Madrid.
As had been pointed out, our father seemed to have gotten his money’s worth. Or at least he did once the name Madrid entered the equation. There was a wealth of information detailing the exploits of the gunfighter. Some of it read like a bad novel, so spectacular and lurid that it sounded like it was gleaned directly from the pages of those dime novels that were so plentiful in the bunkhouse. I could only hope that was the case.
One hard fact stated that Madrid was nineteen years of age. Not much time to have built such a fearsome reputation. It seemed to me that one man would have been hard pressed to have done all the things that those reports attribute to him. In at least one instance he would have needed to be in two widely separated locations at the exact same time.
But even allowing for literary exaggeration, the catalog of violence was appalling and extensive. There were pages of facts and supposition, lists of times, places, and names. Names that meant nothing to me, and many of whom, thanks to a meeting with Madrid would never grow to mean anything more than fading shadows on eroding stones.
The report told of gunfights and range wars, intimidation and threats. It chronicled a wild and lawless life filled with gun smoke and flames. And there were rumors. Rumors of things even darker, things that had gone unproven, but lingered like the smell of old death.
This was the life of my brother? The man whose existence had surprised me and roused my curiosity? Was this the story of the man who shared my blood, who was my business partner and whom I had hoped would one day be my friend?
The facts were all there, set down before me in black and white. They described a cold-blooded mercenary who had no qualms about his profession. A man who put little value on life and whose moral compass was almost totally opposed to my own.
They branded my brother a killer.
Not the type of person that I would trust to share a business association with, not the sort of man I would choose as a friend, and certainly not anyone that I could ever envision embracing as a brother. Had we met under other circumstances, he was someone that I would have avoided like the plague.
I stood and paced to the window the glass cool against my forehead while thoughts blacker than the night’s deepest shadows ran circles in my mind.
But still, there was something. There was something about him that didn’t seem to fit the picture that the dispassionate reports were painting. There was something that reached out to me. Something was missing.
O maybe that was only hope, refusing to accept the verdict of fact. How the hell was I supposed to know? I returned to my chair and poured myself another drink. I picked up another page and resumed my search.
Dawn found me once again leaning against the window sash, watching the sky lighten in the east. I still had no answers but now I was also missing a good night’s sleep. The only thing my midnight vigil had gained me was a persistent pounding behind my eyes and a sour taste in my mouth. My immediate impulse was to throw my glass though the window and silence my frustration along with the too cheerful song of a happy thrush.
I glanced over at the desk where a half empty bottle of Scotch stood guard over the strewn pages of Murdoch’s Pinkerton report. The level of whisky in the bottle had dropped considerably but my uncertainties seemed only to have grown.
I had wasted an entire night and only gotten through part of the file. I was tired and irritable and no closer to an answer that pleased me than I had been yesterday afternoon. I frowned. Any moment now Murdoch would be bellowing, demanding my presence in the kitchen.
I changed my shirt, and decided against shaving. I gathered up the reports and placed them in their folder. With one longing look at my unused bed, I opened the door, and stepped into the hall and straight into our family gunfighter.
He glanced up into my eyes and looked past me to where the Pinkerton folder was visible on the desk. Crossing his arms, he leaned back against his bedroom door, a sardonic smile on his face. “Sleep well, brother?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
I glared at him and yanked the door shut behind me. “I always sleep well.” I shouldered my way past him and proceeded down the back stairway to the kitchen. I could hear no footsteps behind me and was glad of it. In my present mood, I wanted nothing to do with Johnny Madrid.
Murdoch was staring into his coffee cup when I sat down at the kitchen table. He glanced up with a rather blurry look in his eyes. “Did you sleep well?”
I took my first cup of coffee from Maria and glared across at him. “What’s this fixation that everyone seems to have with my sleep habits?”
Murdoch looked startled and opened his mouth to respond when another voice spoke from close behind my left shoulder.
“The man says he always sleeps well.”
I hadn’t heard so much as a whisper of footsteps. I jerked in surprise and swung around.
Johnny slipped silently into the chair beside me and smiled at Maria when she sat a big mug of coffee in front of him. He glanced across at Murdoch. “He may sleep well, but it don’t seem like he always gets up on the right side of the bed, does it?”
I sat my own mug down with a bit more force than was perhaps necessary. “Must you always creep around like a sneak thief?”
He snorted and downed most of the contents of his cup in a single gulp. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and raised a brow. “Sneak thief? Well now. But walkin’ soft, that’s a real useful skill for a man in my line of work. You never know what you’ll hear when the other guy doesn’t know you’re around.”
“Murdoch,” I said, turning away abruptly from the source of my irritation. “Do you still want that bridge inspected today?”
“Yes.” He frowned at me. “I also want you to go into Green River and pick up those papers.”
“Fine.” I stood, shoving my chair away from the table. Leaving my breakfast untouched, I strode toward the door.
“What’s the matter, Boston?” A soft voice caught me with my hand on the knob. “Something spoil your appetite?”
“Yes,” I said and slammed the door behind me.
The dusty, warm peace of the barn did little to soothe my nerves and I dropped my saddle with a bang that had Charlie skittering to the darkest corner of his stall, where he stood with his head up and the whites of his eyes flashing out of the gloom. Not a good way to start the day. I rested my hands against the stall door and took a deep breath.
“Is there something I can help you with, Senor?”
I spun around, taken by surprise for the second time in less than an hour. “Cipriano.” I felt my temper raise another notch and I ran a hand through my hair. “Does everyone here creep around silent as an Indian?”
“I do not know about everyone, Senor, but it can be a good thing to learn to move quietly.”
I sighed and shook my head. “Yes, so I’ve been told.”
I shook my head. “Never mind.” I opened the stall door and hesitated before pushing it closed again and turning back to Cipriano. “But there is something you can help me with.”
“You have only to ask.”
“Tell me about Madrid.”
The segundo frowned and stared at me. And then he shrugged. “What do I know, Senor? I had never met Madrid before he came here.”
He picked up a brush and walked into Charlie’s stall.
I thought about that for a moment and then followed him, my own brush in hand.
“You seemed to know enough about him yesterday.” I worked on one side of the horse while he brushed the other.
Cipriano shrugged. “Stories, tales, words told around a campfire; some brand him a demon, some call him a saint.” His brushstrokes were long and steady and relaxed. “Who knows how much truth there is in such things. Stories like that, they change with every telling.”
I stopped brushing and rested my arms across the horse’s back. “You say you can’t help me. Whatever my father knows, he’s keeping to himself. The precious Pinkerton reports are full of holes and tell me nothing but who and when, but never why. How am I supposed to make a decision?” I spun around and slammed my hand against the wall and Charlie snorted in distress. I reached out to sooth him, whispering to him and stroking his face, until he lowered his head and blew out a deep breath. “How,” I said, looking across at Cipriano, “am I supposed to know who he is?”
“How do you know any man, Senor?” He gazed at me for a moment, this man of immense dignity and presence, and then he bent over and began to pick out the horse’s feet. “I have never met anyone who really knew Madrid,” he said.
I snorted. “You make him sound like a phantom. I can assure you that he is not.”
Cipriano glanced up and then continued with his work. “Your brother, he is a pistolero. He is very good with that gun he carries. Maybe he is the best. But there are many kinds of weapons, Senor.”
I looked across at him, puzzled.
“When a thing is known,” he continued, “after a time, it becomes familiar, perhaps even predictable. A man becomes comfortable with it and it becomes something not to be feared. But the unknown, ah, that is a different thing.” He put down the right front hoof and moved to work on the back. “If a man is wise he regards the unknown with suspicion. He approaches it with caution, maybe even a little fear. Yes? Is this not so?”
“To be regarded with fear and caution could well be a good thing for a gunman. Yes? It could be an advantage. Particularly for a young man who might find himself underestimated otherwise. A man who has lived this way, always wary of familiarity, always hiding behind his reputation, such a man might find it difficult to allow himself to be known, even when to do so might be to his advantage.”
I shook my head and reached for the bridle. “That doesn’t help. Even if I get to know him, that won’t explain how he can do the things that he has done, make the choices that he has made. It won’t help me to make my decision.”
“A decision?” He shook his head. “And an explanation? Tell me, Senor, do you not have to know what a thing really is before you can begin to explain it?
“To know a man — to know what is in his heart — this requires time,” he said. “Even a man who is not so cautious, who has no reason to avoid familiarity. And you cannot know a man by listening to someone else. The truth that a man might show to me may be very different from the truth that he would show to you.”
He led Charlie out of the stall, threw the big stock saddle on his back, and cinched it tight before he reached up to tug on the horn and check that it sat correctly.
“If you do not decide to take the time to know the man who is your brother, it could be that no other decisions are possible.” He handed me the reins. “I am sorry, Senor, that is all that I can offer you.”
I nodded to him, and mounted. I rode Charlie out into the bright light of morning. We headed north toward the bridge over the left fork of Agua Verde creek.
Cipriano’s advice had been to take the time to get to know Madrid before making any decision. Strangely enough, my father had said much the same thing.
I spent the morning inspecting Murdoch’s bridge. Or more precisely, I spent most of the morning trying to find Murdoch’s bridge. I had ridden out that way with Cipriano a few days previously and was fairly certain that I could find it again, but it seems that 100,000 acres is a lot of territory and the bridge occupied a very small piece of it. Apparently it was going to take more than a couple of weeks for me to become familiar with even my third of the ranch.
But find it I did. Eventually. Not only that, but the gods of greenhorns were smiling on me. The bridge seemed to be in excellent shape and I would be able to deliver some good news to our resident Tune Caller. Perhaps that would distract him from the length of time that it took me to accomplish that simple task.
Now I was headed into Green River to pick up the papers at the bank. Thankfully I managed to find the town without too much trouble. Now my next chief hope was to find some lunch. Storming out of the kitchen in a fit of anger may be satisfying at the moment, but a day on the range without any breakfast is not to be recommended.
I pulled Charlie up at the hitching post across from Ellie’s Kitchen. I’d eaten there the last time I was in town and the food was acceptable, if a little rustic. But right now, all I cared about was that there had been a lot of it on the plate.
I was just taking a moment to loosen Charlie’s girth when a group of young boys blew past us like a flock of noisy, low-flying birds. The boy in the lead ducked through right under Charlie’s belly and another of them ran into me, bounced off the hitching post and kept on going.
They swirled around us briefly in a flurry of shouts and then disappeared down a nearby alley, leaving me to try to calm my startled horse. He was snorting and dancing, and it took me several minutes to convince him that the noisy whirlwind that had attacked him wasn’t about to return.
Once Charlie was pacified, I turned and started toward the bank. As I passed the alley where the boys had disappeared, angry voices and the sound of wood falling and breaking caught my attention. Something was going on down there and it didn’t sound friendly.
Another crescendo of shouts drew me down the alley. Once past a pile of boxes that had blocked the view I could see the small drama playing out in the narrow passage. Four larger boys had the smallest one on the ground and were administering a tremendous beating. He was putting up a fight but it was clear that they were too much for him.
I shouted and they froze, one with his fist raised to deliver a blow, and then, in the next heartbeat, they split and ran. I made a grab for one of them but he twisted past me and was gone in an instant. When I turned back, the littlest of them was picking himself up off the ground.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
His head jerked up and he stared at me with dark enormous eyes. His nose was bleeding, there was a smear of blood on his temple, and he held one arm protectively over his ribs.
I took a step forward and he scuttled back into the corner. Those dark eyes regarded me, filled with suspicion and fear. He glanced left and then right, but finding no way out, he pushed back farther against the building.
“It’s all right.” I said. “I’m not going to hurt you.” I took another step forward and he drew in a breath and then reached out and snatched up a length of board. The fear in his eyes had changed to defiance.
I was trying to determine my next move when a voice called out behind me.
“Scott? Scott Lancer.”
I turned to identify the speaker. It was Mr. Petrie, a small rancher and one of Murdoch’s business associates.
“What’re you lookin’ at down there, Scott?”
I turned back but the boy was gone, silently and completely, as though I’d just imagined him.
I sighed and walked back toward the street. “Nothing much, Mr. Petrie. It’s nice to see you again. ” I extended my hand.
He took it, smiling up at me, all the while exerting more pressure than was polite or necessary. I smiled back at him but filed away the action for future reference.
“So,” he said, “what are you doing in town in the middle of the week?”
“Murdoch sent me in to do some business.” I smiled back at him and refrained from shaking the feeling back into my mangled fingers. “Then I thought I’d get some lunch at Ellie’s Kitchen.”
“Ah, smart of you, boy.” He grinned and slapped my shoulder. “Today is chicken and dumplings. I was about to go over there myself. Would you care to join me?”
My stomach chose that moment to grumble rather loudly, which brought a smile to Petrie’s face.
“I’m sorry, sir, I really should take care of my business at the bank first.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “The bank will wait but Ellie sells out of her chicken and dumplings nearly every week.” He put a hand on my arm and tugged. “Come on, we’ll sit and talk.”
And so we went.
We gave our order to the waitress, a rather plain but pleasant woman. She brought us coffee and left us to our conversation.
Petrie stirred some sugar into his cup. “You never did say what was so interesting in that alley.”
“Nothing very big or unusual, I’m afraid. Just one of those things you hate to see.”
He raised an inquiring eyebrow at me.
“A group of four boys had ganged up on another child and were giving him quite a beating. They were all older and bigger than their victim, but he was putting up quite a fight. I broke it up. I think the littler boy may have been an Indian.”
Petrie grimaced at that. “Oh, in that case, you should have left them to it.”
“They might have killed him.” I said in surprise.
He shrugged and took hearty swallow of his coffee. “Nits make lice.”
“You can’t be serious!”
He turned a measuring look on me. “I forget you haven’t been out here long. But never mind.”
I took a sip of my coffee. It was bitter and dark and I wondered with dismay if Petrie was typical of Murdoch’s neighbors.
“So, Scott, how are you finding California?”
I considered the question for a moment. “Well, sir, finding things in California seems to be one of my chief challenges. Lancer is so large that I find myself wandering around totally lost most of the time. Sometimes I think I might have an easier time if Lancer were smaller, something more like your spread for instance, instead of the largest ranch in the state.”
I saw a look of irritation flicker across his face but he quickly replaced it with a smile.
“Yes, I imagine that things are different here than they are back East.”
I nodded and smiled peacefully back at him.
There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence between us before Petrie changed the subject.
“So how is everything out at your place?”
“We’re just fine, thank you.”
“How’s that gunfighter doing?”
“That gunfighter? Do you mean my brother?” There was a definite chill in my voice and he looked up at it.
“I mean Johnny Madrid, Murdoch’s homegrown gunhawk. How’s he doing? Is he about ready to hit the road?”
“As far as I know, he isn’t planning on going anywhere.”
The waitress put our plates down in front of us, and the steam rose, rich and aromatic, to my nose.
“Well, he’d better be planning on it.” Petrie dug into his lunch, an expression of bliss appearing on his face with the first bite. “Dig in,” he said, gesturing with his fork. “I told you this was great stuff.” He shoveled in another bite. “I have to tell you, Scott, the rest of the valley won’t look kindly on your father keeping that gunman on the payroll.”
“Mr. Petrie,” I said, laying my napkin down by my plate, “Johnny Lancer is not a hired hand. He is a member of our family. And what he chooses to do once he is fully recovered is his business, and ours, and does not concern the rest of the valley in the least. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I had better finish my business and head back to the hacienda.”
With a regretful look at my lunch, I dropped several coins on the table and left Petrie, with an expression of surprise on his face, and two plates of chicken and dumplings on the table. I must say I regretted leaving the chicken more than I did leaving Mr. Petrie.
It only took a few minutes to finish up at the bank, and Charlie and I were on our way. It was a good two-hour ride to the hacienda. The weather was perfect, the sun was shining, and the passing scenery was varied and interesting. Normally I would have enjoyed the experience. But not this day.
The encounter with Petrie had been distasteful and had brought back to my mind the issue that I had been ignoring all day. Now I had two hours to mull it over – and I still hadn’t eaten. It was going to be a lovely ride.
I arrived back at Lancer just before five, grouchy and hungry and tired. With an apology and a promise of better treatment later, I handed Charlie off to one of the hands. The house was quiet when I entered but the smell of roast chicken wafted over me from the direction of the kitchen and I thanked heaven that it wasn’t chili or one of the other spicy Mexican dishes that so often graced our table.
Murdoch was alone in the great room, working on his books. He glanced up when I entered. “How was your day?”
“Fine, sir.” I walked over to the liquor cabinet and poured myself a drink. Then I walked back and dropped a packet of papers on his desk. “I picked these up at the bank and I’m happy to report that the bridge seems to be in good repair.”
He nodded and went back to his numbers. “That’s good news. We should be able to move those heifers without any trouble.”
I poured myself a drink and sat down. The grandfather clock was loud in the silence.
“Where is he?” I asked.
Murdoch glanced up. “Your brother?”
“He’s upstairs in his room.” His pen scratched as he made another entry. “Asleep, I hope.”
“Isn’t it a little early for that?”
Murdoch snorted. “He won’t ever listen. He did too much today and he spiked a fever.”
“What? Is he all right?”
Murdoch looked up from his paperwork, and studied my face. “I think so.”
“Did you send for Sam?”
He cleared his throat. “He’s due to visit tomorrow. I don’t think we need to get him out here tonight. It’s not much of a fever.”
“Are you sure? He’s just starting to get his strength back.”
He rested his chin on his hand and tapped his finger against his lower lip. “I thought you were mad at him.”
“I am,” I said, “but that’s totally irrelevant to this discussion.” I set down my glass and stalked off toward the kitchen. I could have sworn that I heard Murdoch snort as I walked out of the great room.
It had been a hard day and well over 24 hours since I’d slept, so I wasn’t particularly good company at dinner. I made my apologies and went upstairs shortly thereafter.
The hallway seemed twice as long as usual and I shuffled down it thinking only of my bed, which lay calling to me only a few feet away. But I paused with my hand on the knob and looked back over my shoulder at the room that stood opposite my own. With a sigh I took two careful steps across the hall and eased open the door.
All I could see was an untidy sprawl of blankets and misplaced pillows and one bare foot protruding from the pile of bedding. The light from the hallway washed in a bright band, across the room, a floorboard creaked, and he jerked awake.
His hair stuck up in all directions, there were two spots of color high on his cheeks, and his eyes were wide and startled and much too bright. He looked like a kid and the bore of the pistol that he held, aimed at my head, looked like a cannon.
We stood in that frozen tableau for a long moment until Johnny blinked. The metallic click of the hammer being eased down against the cylinder echoed in the gloom before the gun disappeared back under his pillow. He ran his hand through his hair and blew out a breath. “Damn it, Boston.” He glared up at me. “That was a real dumb move.”
I sagged back against the doorjamb and glared back. “My apologies. I seem to have forgotten who it was I was dealing with.”
He yanked one of the blankets up and wrapped it around his bare shoulders. “Something you wanted?”
“Strangely enough, I wanted to check and see if you were all right.”
He stared for a moment. “Why?”
I sighed. “I really have no idea.” I turned and walked out, the snick of the latch following me across the hall.
I gratefully closed the door to my own room, shutting out the world. Just a few more weary steps brought me to my bed and I slumped down on it, tempted to just lay back and fade away. But no, I pulled off my boots and proceeded to ready myself for bed.
The remainder of the Pinkerton report, sitting on my desk, whispered to me but I shook my head. It could wait for another day. For tonight I wanted only to sleep. I blew out the lamp and eased into my bed.
But sleep didn’t come. I found myself once more seeing Johnny’s face as I had startled him awake. Something about the look in his eyes seemed familiar, seemed important, but I couldn’t say what it was. I was so tired that my mind was sluggish and all I wanted was the sanctuary of sleep. I rolled over and yanked the blankets up over my head, determined to shut my brother out of my mind as easily as I had shut the doors between our rooms.
Eventually I slept, but not peacefully. I had vague memories of swimming up from the depths of sleep several times, dragging with me the tattered remnants of various dreams. None of which I could remember on waking, but all of which left behind their calling cards in the form of a feeling of general unease.
When I arrived at the breakfast table it was to find that Murdoch and I were the only ones present.
Maria, bless her, put a cup of coffee in front of me before I even sat down and I drained it in one long swallow before grabbing the pot and refilling it. Murdoch raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment.
A platter of eggs and bacon and a basket of biscuits appeared in front of us. Murdoch served himself and tucked in. “Did you check on your brother this morning?”
I glanced up. “No. We, ah - spoke last night.”
“Did you check on him?” I asked.
“Well, shouldn’t somebody. . . ”
“I sent Teresa up just before you came in.”
I started to protest and then stopped to listen. Everything seemed quiet so I went back to my breakfast.
“What time is Sam coming?”
Murdoch grabbed another biscuit and shrugged. “He’ll be here when he gets here. Now finish up. I want you to go with Cipriano this morning. Remember a week ago we had about fifty head wander through that break in the fence that borders on Drake’s place? We’ve got the fence fixed and today they’re going to cut the herd and separate our stock from theirs. I’d like you and Cipriano to take a couple of hands and take care of our part of the job.”
“All right, I’ll leave as soon as Sam is finished.”
He looked up at me. “Why?”
The word echoed in my mind….
He shook his head. “No, there’s no need for you to wait around for Sam.”
I started to say something but he raised his hand.
“No. The two of you are at each other’s throats anyway, it’s not as if you being here will help anything.”
I winced at that but Murdoch never looked up.
“Besides,” he said, “I don’t want to keep Drake’s crew waiting. If there’s something you need to know, I’ll tell you tonight. Meanwhile, Cipriano is probably ready to go.”
And so I found myself on my horse and on my way in the company of Cipriano and three of the Lancer hands. It was a two-hour ride to the meeting point on the Drake range and Cipriano seemed to feel that the time should be spent informing me about the etiquette of events such as this. I listened and commented but somewhere inside the uneasy feeling that I’d awakened with this morning settled in and grew.
We arrived at Drake’s on schedule and after the usual handshakes and introductions we picked up Drake’s foreman and some of his hands and were on our way.
I was riding along, lost in thought, when one of the Drake vaqueros rode up next to me.
“Excuseme, Senor. Buenos dias. I do not mean to intrude,” he said, “but con su permiso, I wish to ask you a question.”
“Certainly, Mr. – I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
He laughed. “But of course. Ah, my mama always said I had no manners. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Hernan Alonzo Ruiz del Reyas.” He swept off his sombrero and bowed deeply from the back of his horse.
“Senor.” I inclined my head, as much to hide my smile as for any other reason and returned his gesture. Although I’m afraid mine was a more restrained, Boston sort of a bow. “I am Scott Garrett Lancer, and I am happy to make your acquaintance.”
His eyes danced, and I had the impression that the formality of the thing pleased him.
“The honor is mine, Senor.”
“And what was your question, Senor del Reyas?”
The man gave me a strange look but continued. “Por favor, for the man who shot Day Pardee, I am simply Hernan. And I wished to ask about your hermano. Is he recovering well?”
I frowned and reached out to run my fingers along Charlie’s mane. I had no desire to talk about my brother with this stranger. But a thought occurred to me and I looked at him. “You know my brother?”
“Ah, Senor, my family owes Johnny Madrid a great debt. The women light candles for him at mass and the men, they sit around the fire and tell stories a of his prowess.”
I raised an eyebrow at that last statement. “What do you mean you owe him a debt? What kind of debt?”
He was silent for a moment and then he sighed. “It is a sad story, Senor. It concerns the daughter of my brother’s wife’s cousin. Her name was Felicia and she was a lovely nina, a beautiful child on the edge of womanhood. Her family, the family of my brother’s wife’s cousin, lives in what is now Texas, not far from the Rio Grande.
“It is a difficult place to live, Senor. The land itself is rugged and dry and gives no quarter to the unwary. There is no law for a man to shelter behind and it is filled with hard and dangerous men. It is a bad place to raise a child.”
I looked over at him, suddenly more alert. “They lived on the border?”
“Si,” he continued,” they have lived there since it was part of Mexico. It is their home.”
“One day while everyone was out in the fields, everyone but the nina and her abuelo, a man came by, a gringo on a tall horse. He was an animal, that one. He beat the old man and he will rot in Hell for what he did to the girl.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but what does this have to do with Johnny? You’re not saying that he had something to do with this?”
“Senor! You ask this about your own hermano?”
“No, I suppose not.” I felt my face turning red. “It’s just that we don’t know one another very well yet. We only met three weeks ago. So where does Johnny fit into this?”
He looked at me for a moment and then shrugged.
“The family returned and found what happened. They were heartbroken, and they were enfurecido, they were angry. But what could they do? As I said, there was no law and this pig of a gringo was a cruel and brutal man.”
“You must understand that these are farmers, they are gentle people. They do not know how to deal with such violence. They are not like us, Senor. Not strong men who are skilled with weapons and can oppose such pigs as that gringo. But alas, I was not there and they were alone, so there would be no justice for Felicia.”
“The girl, is she all right?”
“Ah, the pobrescita.” He shook his head. “Something broke in her mind that day and she faded away. Ella es muerta”
“I’m sorry to hear that. So, they hired Johnny Madrid to even the score for them?”
“Oh no, Senor, you misunderstand me. They did not hire Madrid. They could not afford to hire him. He is a very expensive gun to hire. No, Senor, no one of my familia has ever even spoken to Madrid. He was not aware of the fate of the child of my brother’s wife’s cousin.
“No, the cabron, that pig of a gringo, who hurt the child, he was one of those who hated us for not being as he was. He had no respect for my people. Not for an innocent young girl, not for an old man and not even for a blue-eyed pistolero. A week after Felicia was. . . a week after, this gringo pig was in the cantina not far from the home of my brother’s wife’s cousin. He thought to impress his friends by calling out Johnny Madrid.
“He was a fool.” He turned to spit on the ground. “They buried him the next day. Felicia’s father went and pissed on his grave.” He beamed at me. “And so there was justice. Thanks to your hermano. Is it not a wonderful thing? A man never knows where help will come from.”
I could only nod in agreement.
“So,” he said, “I wondered, your hermano, is he doing well?”
“Yes, he’s recovering nicely.”
“Bueno!” He slapped the pommel of his saddle in satisfaction. “I will have to go to the priest and have him write a letter to my family. They will be pleased to know that Madrid has finally found a place of his own, and even happier to know that he now has familia.” He shot me a piercing look. “Family, it is very important in Mexico. The most important thing.”
I nodded and we rode along in silence for a few moments while I thought about what he had said.
“Is it not a strange thing?” He spoke again. “I was just visiting my family, down on the border, and while I was there, there was much discussion of Johnny Madrid. And then, I come back here and here he is, the very man.”
“They were talking about Johnny in Mexico?”
“Oh, si! Everyone down there was talking about how Madrid had been just a moment from death in front of a firing squad when he was rescued by an angel of God, disguised as a gringo in a fancy suit.”
My head came up and I could feel my stomach clench. I stared at him. “What?”
“Yes,” he said with a nod. “It is true.” He grinned. “ At least that is what the peons are saying. I myself, of course, do not believe that. It is the sort of thing that the country folk believe. Ai-yi-yi, they will make a legend of it before they are through. But me, Senor, I am like you.” He raised his chin and regarded me with pride, and then he gestured grandly from himself to me. “We are, you and I, men of the world. Si? Such men as us, we do not put much store in angels do we?” He shook his head and looked to me for confirmation.
I shook my head, as much to keep him talking as for any other reason.
“Oh, I believe the story.” He said, leaning toward me. “It is true. Your hermano was indeed just seconds from death.”
I looked at him, and the surprise and horror I felt must have shown on my face.
“What? You do not know of this? You have not heard the story?”
I could only shake my head.
He looked puzzled for a moment before his teeth flashed in the afternoon light. He nudged his horse closer. “Ah, Senor! It was truly a marvel, a wonderful thing. The rurales had already shot two of the other revolutionaries, their blood stained the ground where. . .”
“Si. Oh yes. It was a noble cause, but hopeless. The local patron, he was a cruel and heartless man and he pushed his peons beyond what they could stand. They decided that they had nothing left to lose and they determined to overthrow him.”
“And my brother was involved in this?” Did Murdoch know about this? And if he did, why hadn’t he shared that information?
“Si.” He nodded again. “ Ai, it was very sad. The revolucion, it was doomed from the start. Everyone knew this, but having Madrid with them, it gave the people heart.”
“How could they afford to hire him?”
“They could not, Senor. But did I not say it, this was not a thing of money. You understand? This was a matter of honor!”
His hand went to his chest, over his heart, and his eyes flashed with passion.
I gazed at him in silent amazement and wondered again about this “expensive gun”.
It seemed to satisfy him and he went on with his story. “As I said, they had already shot two other prisoners and El Capitan, he had pulled your hermano to his feet to take his place in front of the guns. When suddenly,” he extended his hand in a sweeping gesture, “a team and wagon galloped over the hill and a gringo in a town suit paid El Capitan to spare the life of Madrid.”
He looked at me again to make sure that I was listening.
“It was that close, Senor.”
I swallowed, hard.
“Of course,” he waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, “El Capitan did not intend to keep the bargain. He meant to have the money and still execute his prisoners. It fell to Madrid to shoot the evil Capitan and all his men and rescue the gringo and the other prisoners.”
He said this as if it were a foregone conclusion and anyone with any sense would know it.
I could only nod.
“In any case, as I have said, a man such as myself does not believe in angels. No, I think perhaps your papa had something to do with this. It was, after all, a great deal of money that was paid to El Capitan.” He moved his horse closer again. “Do you not think that this is so?”
“I don’t know.” But I intended to ask Murdoch about that at the first opportunity. “I suppose it’s possible.”
He shrugged. “Well, it is what I believe.”
There was a shout from the other side of the herd and my companion lifted his hat and waved it over his head. He replaced it and turned to me. “Ah, Senor, they call to me. I must go. It has been a great pleasure to speak to you, mucho gusto, Senor.” He spun his horse and started away and then stopped and turned back toward me. “Tell your hermano that Hernan Alonzo Ruiz del Reyas sends his regards.” That smile flashed out at me, and then he was gone. Leaving me to myself again but with a great deal more to think about.
The rest of the afternoon went by in a sort of mechanical daze. That uneasy feeling that I had awakened with had settled into a deep chill. Visions of blood, smeared across a whitewashed wall, like the work of some mad painter, kept intruding on my mind.
I’d witnessed a firing squad once. We were behind the lines at headquarters for a staff meeting. They had found a spy and were scheduled to execute him. I remember watching them march him out to the appointed spot. I was very young and I’m afraid my first thought was to wonder how I would behave if I were in his circumstances. He was trying hard to put up a good front but he was pale as whey and I could see him tremble. I think that, had they not tied him to a post, his knees would have betrayed him and they would have had to pick him out of the dirt.
He refused the blindfold and his eyes went to the wide blue sky while the sergeant counted down to the command. My most vivid memory is the blood on the wall behind him and the sergeant marching down to deliver the coup de grace. That single shot shattered the sunny afternoon as if it were a crystal bowl. It echoed louder than the volley that preceded it.
Did Johnny tremble in fear? Was it fear of death or fear of disgrace that rode him hardest? What did he feel when they came for him? To die in the heat of battle is one thing but it requires a different brand of courage to stand there, in cold blood, and wait for the fatal shot.
My head came up at that. But isn’t that what Johnny did? Isn’t that how he made his living? Standing in the street, tossing dice with death. Waiting for the inevitable, that moment he knows must come eventually.
Whatever else he is, Johnny is not a fool. He had to know that no matter how good he was, someday those dice would fall against him. So many things could go wrong to rob him of that fraction of a second’s edge, a momentary loss of concentration, a grain of sand in the mechanism of a gun, a bad night, some windborne dust, or simply a man, who on that day, in that place, was faster. Any one of those things or a hundred more, and death would win.
I felt a sudden rush of rage burn through me.
How could he? How dare he? Did he care that little for his life?
Why didn’t Murdoch tell me?
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I stormed into the house and straight to Murdoch’s desk.
He looked up, an expression of irritation on his face. “Scott, we went through all this the other day…”
“No!” I slammed my hands down on the desk and leaned forward. “Not that. Why didn’t you tell me about the firing squad?”
He looked at me blankly. “What are you talking about?
“The Mexican firing squad. The one that came within a heartbeat of slaughtering my brother.”
He stared at me blankly.
“You don’t know?”
He came to his feet and shouted. “Don’t know what?”
I refused to be intimidated. I straightened and stormed right back at him. “When you finally decided that you needed Johnny enough to call him home, when your Pinkerton agent finally found him, when your little plan finally came together, do you know where your son was?”
He stared at me and I glared into his eyes. “He was in front of a firing squad, waiting for the command to fire. You, sir, were within 60 seconds of being exactly too late!”
I watched the color drain out of his face and his knees seemed to give out as he sank back into his chair. “I didn’t know,” he whispered.
“Well you do now.”
I walked over to the bar, grabbed a bottle and two glasses and strode back to the desk. “Here.” I handed him a double shot of Scotch. “Drink this.”
He took the drink and I could see that his hand trembled. He drained the glass and set it down. “How do you know? Where did you hear this?”
I sighed, ran a hand over my face and sat down. He looked older than before and somehow defeated. I took a swallow of my Scotch and told him about my conversation with Hernan.
By the time I’d finished, he’d swung his chair around and was facing the window.
“My God,” he said finally, his voice hardly above a whisper. “My God.”
After a long and silent pause, he turned back to the room but his eyes didn’t meet mine.
I refilled his glass, but he didn’t touch it.
“The final report from the Pinkertons hasn’t arrived yet,” he murmured, “just a telegram saying they’d found him and he was coming. So close. . .” His brows furrowed and he shook his head. “This explains so much.”
I paused while pouring another shot. “Explains what?”
“Everything. How thin he is, the marks on his body, the fact that he seems to own nothing but the shirt on his back.”
I looked at him quizzically.
“He would have been held in a Mexican prison.” Murdoch took a deep, shaky breath. “My God, Scott, those places are hellholes. Beatings and floggings, sadistic guards, stagnant water, maggoty food. Conditions not fit for a dog.”
I could feel the color drain out of my face.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like in those places.” He looked up at me and I could see a question bloom in his eyes. “Or maybe you can.”
“Which reminds me,” I said quickly “Where is my brother? I thought Sam was supposed to come today.”
He studied me for a moment. “And he said the fever was almost gone. He told your brother that if he stayed down for the rest of today he could get up and around tomorrow. Provided that he used some sense about what he did.”
“Ha! As if that will happen.” I threw back the rest of my drink and stood. “I think I’m going to try to fit in a bath before dinner. It’s been a hot and miserable day.
“Scott.” He called after me.
“Not now, Murdoch.” I didn’t pause, just waved a hand at him. “I don’t have time if I’m going to get a bath before we eat.”
Dinner was a rather subdued affair. With Teresa present there was no more talk of firing squads or prisons, Mexican or otherwise. I excused myself shortly thereafter, pleading fatigue and the need to write some letters. I could feel the weight of Murdoch’s gaze on my back as I left the room.
It was too early to sleep but I had no desire to sit up staring at the walls so I tried anyway. Unfortunately, my mind refused to cooperate. Images flashed and wavered against my closed lids, iron bars against a sullen sky, emaciated hands scrabbling for maggoty gruel, streaks of blood drawing plumb lines down a white wall, a child’s eyes, my brother’s face.
It was too much and I gave up on sleep.
I was sitting in a chair by my open window, staring out at the night when I heard my father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. He paused in the hallway outside my room. I don’t know whether he was contemplating my door or my brother’s, but I let out a breath that I hadn’t been aware I was holding when he continued down the hall to his own room.
The half empty bottle of Scotch that sat on my desk caught my eye and I arose to pour myself a shot. Perhaps a drink would loosen the knotted muscles in my shoulders and neck. As I put the bottle down, my hand brushed against the file holding the unfinished Pinkerton report. On impulse I sat and opened it. Anything was preferable to the company of my own thoughts.
An hour or so later I closed the folder and put it back on the desk.
The thicker section of the report that I had read the other night detailed Johnny’s life as Madrid. It had contained too much information. This section, dealing with Johnny’s childhood, didn’t have enough. But what was there was appalling.
I stood and walked to the window, turned back to the room and ran my hand through my hair. How could any mother expose her child to – to that sort of life? Why didn’t she leave him here? He could have grown up here. My God, what kind of a monster would throw an eleven-year-old boy in jail for stealing bread?
I closed my eyes and saw again the eyes of that child in Green River. Is that what I would have seen in Johnny’s eyes if I’d known him then? That blend of fierce independence, defiance, and fear?
And he saw his mother die and would have joined her if he hadn’t picked up a gun. . .
There it is.
There’s the answer to my question, or at least part of it.
I’d wanted to know how a man could decide to make his living with a gun. The answer is, he wasn’t a man, and it wasn’t a decision. It was survival. Whatever came after, that moment was the first step.
And when you look at it from a child’s point of view, are his choices so surprising?
At ten or twelve, very few small boys dream of becoming accountants, or farmers, or store keepers, particularly poor boys with no prospects or advantages. No, boys dream of becoming soldiers or sheriffs, or, God help us, gunfighters.
These reports call into question my right to jump so blithely to judgment when my own circumstances in life were so much different than his. When I was eleven or twelve, I wanted to be a pirate. Fortunately, I was in a position where I didn’t have to put that plan into action. I could play at my childhood dreams. And they could remain just that, dreams and fantasies. At twelve, maybe earlier, Johnny was forced into making decisions that no small boy is prepared for. For the sake of survival, he turned his fantasies into reality. The remarkable thing is that he pulled it off. From what I’ve read, there wasn’t much play in Johnny’s young life. Everything, it seems, was deadly serious and remains so today.
Given what I’ve read this evening, the question moves from, how could he choose to live that sort of life to how did he manage to survive at all. And from how could he turn out so badly to how did he manage to turn out as well as he did? Thou shall not steal is a much easier precept to follow when following it doesn’t mean that you won’t eat…again. Thou shalt not kill? That one is harder and I wonder if it isn’t, in part, the source of some of the nightmares that plague my brother.
I think I have my answer. The problem now becomes, is it possible to fix the damage that has already been done?
Johnny was once again missing from breakfast the next morning. Murdoch informed me that he was already up and outside somewhere.
I didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved. I still hadn’t decided how to approach him and I’m embarrassed to say that I was happy for the reprieve.
Murdoch informed me that he was going to check on the condition of the market steers being held on South Mesa. From there he was headed to Aggie Conway’s to discuss some boundary line issues. My assignment was to ride out to check the fences along Cantua Creek. I only hoped that Maria and Teresa were up to the job of keeping an eye on my younger brother. Then again, better them than me.
Less than an hour later I rode out with Cipriano and a crew of men. I hadn’t seen Johnny at all.
The morning was hot and getting hotter. Halfway through, we came upon a serious break in the fencing and signs that some of our carefully contained cows had made a break for freedom. Cipriano took most of the hands and went to look for the missing stock. The rest of the men were assigned to clean up the broken posts and snarled wire. I was sent back to the hacienda to get supplies and a wagon so that repairs could be started.
I enjoyed the ride back to the ranch. And the thought that I would arrive just in time for a good hot lunch instead of the squashed sandwich in my saddlebags was even better.
There was also a good chance that I would see my brother. Unfortunately, I still hadn’t any idea what I was going to say to him.
I was walking across the yard toward the house, having just untacked Charlie and turned him out, when I heard the drum of approaching hoof beats.
Adjusting my hat to shade my eyes, I recognized Mr. Petrie, riding in with a couple of cowhands. I remember hoping sincerely that the man wasn’t about to ruin my lunch again.
I walked out to meet him. “Mr. Petrie, what a surprise to see you here.”
He sat his horse, looking down on me. “I come to talk to your daddy.” He looked around as if expecting Murdoch to materialize out of the air. “Where is he?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, with my best unwelcome company smile. “He’s out on the range. We’re not expecting him back until this evening.”
He looked around again, this time warily. “Where’s the gunhawk?”
“I beg your pardon?”
He swung down from his horse and stalked over to stand in front of me, too close in front of me for polite conversation. Instead of backing off, I straightened to my full height and forced him to look up.
“The gunfighter,” he said. Your home grown killer, Madrid. Where is he?”
I could feel my fists clench and a flush starting up the back of my neck. “If you’re referring to my brother, his name is Lancer, Johnny Lancer. And if you’re worried about meeting him, I can assure you that you needn’t be. From what I’ve seen, he has much better manners than you do.”
He gave me a long measuring look. “You know, boy, you ought to take the time to learn how things work out here before you start throwing your weight around. It might be safer.”
“Thank you for the advice, Mr. Petrie. I’ll be certain to give it all the consideration that it deserves. Now, if you’ve said your piece…”
“I haven’t even started. Now listen here, you greenhorn, and you tell it to your daddy when he gets back. It’s time Madrid packed his things and moved on. He’s not welcome here. We’ve been patient, seeing as how he was all shot up, but the valley don’t want his kind hanging around. He needs to go and he needs to go now.”
“I’ll be sure to pass that on. However, I doubt that Murdoch will appreciate your point of view. And as I told you the other day, what my brother, or any member of my family, chooses to do is not your concern. Nor does it concern ‘The Valley’”. I leaned forward, crowding him. “Not that I see any of the rest of the valley here, mind you, just you. I wonder why that is? And now, Mr. Petrie, I think you and your companions should leave.” I glanced at the two riders who had edged closer as we talked.
Petrie shook his head and continued in a more reasonable tone. “Come on, Lancer, you know what he is.”
“Do I? No I don’t think I do, but I intend to find out. However, Petrie, I’m fairly certain that I know exactly what you are.”
“Why you insolent pup!” He swung at me. I ducked but he took me off guard and the blow caught my shoulder with surprising force. He was an inch or two shorter and quite a bit older but apparently most of his extra bulk was muscle and he moved like he was comfortable in a rough and tumble fight. I would have to be careful of him.
He came at me again. I slipped underneath a roundhouse right and hit him in the brisket and then connected with a left to the side of his head. I think he would have gone down if he hadn’t staggered backward into his horse.
I had just shifted my weight to go after him when a loop of rope settled around my body and was jerked tight. Another jerk and I was down in the dirt of the yard and Petrie was coming at me while one of his hands maneuvered his horse to keep the rope taut.
“I’m gonna teach you some respect, boy.” The rancher pulled back his foot to deliver a kick to my unprotected midsection when the boom of a Colt echoed across the yard.
The built-up heel of Petrie’s boot exploded and his balance shifted abruptly. He staggered back into the fence.
“Call off your dogs.” The soft drawl came from behind me, in the direction of the barn.
Everyone froze for a moment until Johnny walked forward and stopped, facing Petrie.
“If that man of yours doesn’t drop that rope right now, things are going to get real unfriendly around here.”
The man holding the rope swallowed heavily and glanced toward Petrie, who had gone a little green. Despite that, he nodded and the rope fell to the dirt. I shrugged it off.
Petrie pulled himself up to his full height and faced Johnny. “Murdoch Lancer is going to hear about this, boy.”
The nervous pinto that the second of Petrie’s hands rode snorted and shifted to the left.
“Yeah,” Johnny smiled. “I’m sure he will. But you might want to consider that you and your goons were ganging up on Murdoch’s fair-haired boy here.” He nodded toward me. “Somehow I don’t think the old man will take too kindly to that.”
The pinto sidled a few more steps to the left.
Johnny’s eyes never shifted from Petrie but his voice grew colder. “Mister, you’re gonna have to be doin’ some hiring if that man of yours doesn’t move that horse back where it started from.”
Petrie glowered at him, and then at me, his face turning an interesting shade of red. “Get back over here, Brice, and keep your hands where they ought to be. You damn fool.”
Johnny nodded. “Now I think you boys better lose those guns. Just drop ‘em real easy.”
“You can’t do that!” Petrie made to take a step forward but wobbled on his mangled boot.
Johnny’s head came up a little and the corner of his mouth lifted in that irritating smile of his. “Oh, I think I can. The first wrong move from any of you, Petrie, and you’re the one I shoot.”
I thought for a moment the rancher was going to make a fight of it but the click of the hammer being drawn back on Johnny’s gun seemed to convince him.
“Drop ‘em, boys. And damn it, be careful when you do it.” His voice was brittle as old glass.
“But, Mr. Petrie. . .”
“Just shut up and do what I tell you,” he shouted.
The guns followed the rope and landed in the dirt.
“Yours too, Petrie.” Johnny nodded to the rancher’s gun.
Petrie drew in a breath as if to argue but instead his lips pressed tight together and his gun followed the others into the dust.
“Now git!” Johnny motioned to the cowhands. “And don’t let me catch you on Lancer again.” They spun their horses and took off at a gallop.
Petrie grabbed his hat off the ground and walked awkwardly over to his horse.
“Where are you going?” Johnny asked with a grin. “If you and Boston here want to finish up your little dance, I sure don’t mean to stop you.”
Petrie swung up on his gelding. It lifted its head and danced nervously in place. “One of these days, Madrid,” Petrie ground out, “one of these days you’ll pay for this.”
Johnny’s voice got even softer. “You might want to rethink that. You see, threatening me isn’t a real good idea. There are a whole lot of men who could tell you about that - except they’re not in any condition to tell anyone anything. Not any more.”
Petrie growled, spun his horse around and dug his spurs into its sides.
Johnny walked forward and stood over me.
We watched as Petrie and his men faded away into an angry cloud of dust. Johnny’s shadow stretched out across my body, his Colt held casually down by his leg. When they passed under the archway the readiness drained out of him. He looked down at me and shook his head.
“Why?” he asked.
Once again that question echoed in my mind. This time I had an answer. “You’re my brother.”
He looked at me for a second as if he were puzzled. Then he shook his head and reached out a hand to help pull me up off the ground. “Damn it, Boston, can’t you ever get into a fight where the odds are close to even?”
I grinned and dusted off the front of my shirt. “Well, at least this time you didn’t just sit and watch.”
He shook his head and turned toward the house. “Don’t remind me.” He said back over his shoulder. “I just might come to regret it.”
I grabbed my hat and started after him. “Now wait a minute, brother….”
To a casual observer I’m sure it didn’t sound like anything at all. But to me, it felt like a new beginning.