Twenty Bucks on the Greenhorn
June 21, 1870
Hazing seems to be a part of society everywhere, especially when groups of men come together. It’s a way to test the boundaries and establish the pecking order. I experienced it back east, first at school and then in the army. Now I’m experiencing it here at Lancer.
It doesn’t matter that I’m the boss’s son; that just makes it a bit more subtle. The questions remain the same; are you good enough, are you tough enough, do you know what you’re doing? My life would be much easier if I could answer an unequivocal yes to all these questions but, unfortunately, I cannot. Good enough? I don’t suppose they’d settle for me telling them to wait, I will be. Tough enough? Oh, I think so, my mettle has been tested in a hotter fire than most of them would ever imagine. Do I know what I’m doing? There’s the crux of it, because I have to admit I don’t have a clue about ranching or cattle or cowboys. I’m a greenhorn (that seems to be the western term), and they know it.
They’ve already had more than one good laugh at my expense. If that were really all it was I’d laugh right along with them, but it’s more important than that. The laughter gilds the surface but deep down it’s about respect and dignity and the right to lead. And because of that, surviving the hazing and “passing the test” may be one of the most important things that I do in these early days at Lancer.
My brother, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be the victim of this type of incident. Perhaps because he grew up out here and they see him as one of them, or perhaps, and I think this more likely, because his rather fearsome reputation sits out there like the cautionary buzz of a rattlesnake. It warns off all comers and states that whatever else my brother may be, he is above all, a dangerous man and not to be approached without caution.
They respect and probably fear who he is and what he is capable of and they are uncertain of his reactions. Therefore they hesitate. They watch him from the corners of their eyes and shy clear of him.
He is aware of this, I know. And he responds by putting on a cold and vaguely menacing front. I can’t really explain it; he’s not a big man but it seems sometimes as if he grows by inches and dominates the crowd. And his attitude, ha! It’s as if he owns the very air and only allows the rest of us to breathe on sufferance. Once I get to know him better, I’m looking forward to disabusing him of that notion. But seriously, I think he’s shoring up his image as a defense against their superior numbers. I find that distressing because it means he carries around with him a circle of solitude that for some reason I don’t believe is his natural inclination.
This morning Murdoch threw Johnny and I together again. He handed me a list of errands. “Go into town,” he said. “Take care of these and pick up an order of supplies from the general store.” I believe he thinks that putting us together for work assignments whenever possible will force us to get to know and like one another. He’s rather transparent about it. I find myself hoping he’s right.
At any rate, we had a pleasant drive into town. When we arrived Johnny went to load the supplies and I set off to the bank, the post office and the feed store. We agreed to meet at the saloon in two hours and have a quick beer before heading back to the ranch.
I was about ten minutes early when I walked through the batwing doors, strolled over to the bar and ordered a beer. Western beer, by the way, can be a rough and raw brew compared to what I knew back East, but there seems to be something about miles and miles of dust and heat that improves the flavor. The first swallow slid happily down my throat, and I turned to survey the room. I was surprised not to find Johnny there before me. I wouldn’t have thought it would take him this long to load the supplies.
I was just lifting my beer for a second long pull when I was jostled by a rather large individual who had walked over next to me. I ended up wearing most of my drink.
“Aw,” he said, turning to face me with a sneer on his face. “Look what I done, boys, I messed up this pretty dude.” His big hands swiped over the front of my shirt until I pushed him away.
“Now that ain’t very friendly,” he growled. Then he smiled. “But I really wasn’t making it any better, was I?” He stepped back and kicked a chair out of his way, a feral look in his eye.
“Mr. McKittrick,” I said, recognizing him from an earlier encounter. “You are going to push this, aren’t you?”
I sighed, put my glass down and began to remove my jacket. The best I could hope for was that this was going to remain one on one because five or six of the noisy patrons seemed to be friends of Bud McKittrick, cowhand, loudmouth and general troublemaker. “You know, McKittrick,” I said as I laid my coat on the bar, “you do have nice teeth.”
He frowned in confusion.
“I hope I’m not going to have to mess them up for you.”
His face got red, “Why you stuffed shirt Eastern jackass. You think you’re big doings just cause Murdoch Lancer claims you’re his long lost son. . .”
“Nah, Bud.” A soft drawl cut across the rising buzz of excitement, “I’m the long lost son, ol’ Boston, here, wasn’t never lost. He just had better things to do than grow up around a beef-brained, ham-fisted tub a lard like you.” My missing brother sauntered across the room and motioned for a beer.
“Well, if it ain’t the local gun-for-hire. You gonna come in here and shoot us all dead, Madrid?”
Johnny blew the foam off his beer and took a sip. “Hell, Bud, as good as that idea sounds, I usually get paid for killin’ and as far as I know, ain’t nobody cares enough about you to pay to see you dead.” He turned a lazy smile on McKittrick and leaned back against the bar, his beer held casually and conspicuously in his left hand.
McKittrick lost a bit of steam but he glanced at his friends and puffed up again. “Just don’t think you can walk in here, Madrid, and pull this greenhorn out of the mess he’s gotten himself into.”
Johnny shook his head. “Now, Bud, why would I want to butt in on your private little set-to?” Johnny gave me an appraising look and turned back to McKittrick. “Hell,” he said, jerking a thumb in my direction. “He ain’t gonna have any trouble with you anyway.” He took a long slow pull on his beer and then shot a hard look at McKittrick’s friends. “Of course, any of you other boys decide you want a piece of the action, well, that might be a different story.” He smiled at me and hiked himself up on the bar to await results.