If there was one universally accepted truth in the newspaper business, it was that Henry M. Alden (and heaven help you if you ever forgot that 'M') wouldn't know a good joke if it bit him on the posterior.
Not that the said joke would get much of a mouthful, mind you. Alden was thin and ascetic and didn't have much of a posterior to bite, his sparse frame mirroring that sparser jocularity. And Großer Gott! but the man's good humour was so meagre as to be lacking entirely. More than once when Charles had been particularly cheerful and out of sheer benevolence was spreading the bonhomie around the office, Alden had peered at him over half moon spectacles, eyes round with astonishment and affront. It was usually enough to dampen Charles's good spirits.
No, there was no mistaking Alden had no sense of humour at all. It was doubtful the man ever laughed.
So Alden striding up and down his tiny office, windmilling with his arms and sweeping everything before him, had to be sincere in offering Charles the trip of a lifetime. The moon would fall out of the sky before the man found the wit and ingenuity to play a prank of this magnitude.
But a three-month long assignment to explore California? All expenses paid? It had to be a joke.
“Are you serious, Henry?”
Charles dived to rescue a set of proofs that took flight in the wake of Alden's passing. The flimsy galleys fluttered under his fingers as he smoothed out the wrinkles. He stacked the papers neatly on the corner of Alden's desk.
Alden made an abrupt turn at the fireplace and strode back. “I'm always serious.”—something Charles had worked out for himself, thank you—”You're going to California on the new Transcontinental Railroad. As I said, all expenses paid. That means first class travel, the best hotels, excursions and visits... everything that the discerning tourist would like to see and do, you will see and do it. And a reasonable living allowance, of course.”
“Of course,” agreed Charles.
Alden came to a halt in front of Charles and rocked on his heels, smiling. “We're looking for a series of lead articles that will be the main features of the magazine for several months.” He held up a hand and, with the air of a man conferring unprecedented favour, added, “With illustrations.”
Well, of course with illustrations. The main articles of Harper's Monthly Magazine were always illustrated; lavishly so, and often to the detriment of the prose. That wasn't much of an inducement. Still, Charles managed a hearty “Splendid!”
“Perhaps there's even a book in this, Charles.” Alden's smile broadened. The earnest innocence of the man fairly shone out of him, a sort of childlike naiveté. Some days he seemed too unworldly to cross the street in safety, much less edit New York's finest, most prestigious magazine.
And thinking of the magazine... maybe Alden was serious, but surely Harper's wouldn't pay for a trip like that? Of course, if anyone deserved a plum assignment, then Charles Frederick Nordhoff was the man. After all, he was the best journalist on staff. But Charles had looked into the costs of travelling to San Francisco when the Transcontinental railroad had first opened for business the previous year. Unless a man wanted to travel in the emigrant cars—which Charles most decidedly did not—the total had him gaping and reaching for a nip of brandy. Purely restorative, of course, as he'd told Mrs Nordhoff at the time. Mrs Nordhoff had merely sniffed.
“The railroad's very new, of course, but it's already the chief way that we're opening up the West.” And Alden was off again, arms waving to add emphasis. “Emigrants leave on the trains every day. But we want to encourage a better class of traveller to use the railroad for pleasure. A series of articles extolling the journey and the delights of California will help entice the more genteel travelling public to use the route to explore our own great nation instead of frivolling away their time and dollars in Europe. The United States broke with Albion a century ago—why should good Americans continue to pay homage with their hard-earned dollars?”
The proofs were swept off the desk again. Charles missed the catch this time and the papers showered over the floor. Not that it mattered. It wasn't anything he'd written. He picked up the pages he could easily reach and dropped them back onto the desk any-old-how, wedging them into place under couple of books. “Who are 'we'?”
“The editorial board has reached an accommodation with the railroad companies. It's a very generous arrangement. Your expenses for the journey will be met in full, and not only to San Francisco and back. They've also granted you the time and funds to explore some of the attractions of California.”
Well that accounted for a lot. If this was being subsidised by the railroad companies desperate to drum up business, then maybe it wasn't an elaborate practical joke but a real and (it had to be admitted) exciting opportunity. But California? What was there in California other than old missions and played-out gold mines? “There are some attractions then, for me to extol?”
Alden gave him the sort of pitying smile that men bestowed on precocious, but errant, grandsons. “Many. Six months would perhaps not be too long to see everything, but we have our limits. For all that, you'll have time to see a wide range of places. San Francisco, for example, is a bustling and thriving city and the countryside around it is unparalleled. Sacramento and Stockton are growing rapidly and have their own attractions. Farther south, you have—” Alden's hands twitched and he frowned. “Well, I'm sure you have something. I'm told that the Big Trees at Tulare and Yosemite are not to be missed.”
Charles could almost hear those capital letters. “Trees.”
Alden's arms waved again. “Big Trees, Charles.”
Charles looked down quickly as he fought back the image of Big Trees swaying and ruffling in the wind, every branch wearing sleeves identical to Alden's, complete to the ink stains on the cuffs. There was no point in laughing and explaining. Charles allowed himself a smile, directed at the toes of his shoes for safety's sake, and a “So, California first class, eh? Well, doubtless that makes the Trees all the Bigger, and being American, all the Better.”
No, Henry M. Alden had no sense of humour whatsoever. The man just did not understand irony, and sarcasm went right by him without so much as winking and tipping its hat as it passed.
“Quite,” said Alden, and beamed.
No one expected to work regular office hours in a newspaper room. Getting off early 'in search of a story' was one of the few perks of the job. Well, perhaps the clerks and compositors had to be there at fixed times and ungodly hours, but such trammels were not for the genius who produced the copy. No one noticed, or cared, when Charles left early to share the news at home. Alden, scowling down at a jumbled pile of proofs, didn't even glance up as Charles called a jaunty farewell and hightailed it out of the door.
A cold wind sliced into him as he stepped into the street, blowing inland up the East River and laden with rain. It took him by surprise after the close heat from the stoves indoors. Wasn't California reputed to be warm? That was an added attraction to extol to readers still shivering as the tag end of a glacial northern winter gave way to a raw spring. It certainly attracted Charles.
He huddled into his overcoat, turning up the collar against the trickles of chilly water dripping from his hat brim. His usual stroll home to the Upper West Side became a brisk walk, but he took the time to stop off at a bookstore in Herald Square to buy himself a guidebook for California, if such a thing existed. He was lucky. The Nelson publishing house had just produced one, complete with several rather charming illustrations. He was delighted with it.
His delight wore off a little when he reached home. The expenses didn't run to Mrs Nordhoff and the little Nordhoffs going with him, and Elizabeth, bless her, was eloquent in expressing her opinion of what she called his desertion. Eloquent? She was positively operatic. Charles had been married for more than twelve years, but it was only when he broke the news of his imminent departure that he discovered that she had an impressive upper voice register that hitherto he'd thought restricted to the Queen of the Night. Moreover, she seemed to have an instinctive dislike for trees, no matter what their size and nationality.
“And you an American, born and bred,” remonstrated Charles. He glanced at the ceiling and the unmistakable sound of someone using a broom handle to encourage them to reduce the volume. Apartment living might be cheap, but it had its drawbacks. “Perhaps, dear, you could show your lack of interest in arboriculture in a less strident manner?”
Ah, that was unwise. Elizabeth reached new vocal heights, Charles had burnt dinners for a week and his upstairs neighbour cut him dead whenever they met in the lobby of an evening. He had to console himself with reading his guidebook and anything else he could find on California to a constant refrain of Elizabeth's complaints. He was rather glad, in the end, to take his valises and his notebooks, and cross the river to Jersey City to take the Chicago Express, the first stage in a journey that would take him a week. In the cold rain of a raw March dawn, the Transcontinental Railroad awaited him with all its romance and potential and glory.
Elizabeth consented to kiss his cheek when he left, but it was a close run thing.
Jersey City station was damp, chilly and crowded. Charles was spared the full experience there, luckily. As the railroad's favoured traveller, he was wafted past the milling passengers as if by sorcery. Not for him the mad, panicked scramble from the ticket and baggage offices in New York to the ferry and thence to the train. He reached the train comfortably ahead of his fellow travellers, took a tour with the head conductor and was escorted to his seat in the parlour car as the rest of the passengers poured into the station.
A closed stove in one corner made the car pleasantly warm. Charles shed his overcoat and settled into a seat beside the wide window, using a handkerchief to wipe the glass clear of condensation. He put his notebook on the table in front of him, his pen ready. Outside on the open platform huddled the masses, waiting for the signal to board. He looked from group to group, eager to capture them, to sketch their portraits in prose. He couldn't draw a straight line without a ruler and the most precise measurements, but give him a pen and a blank page and words, and then see what he could do!
Ships carrying immigrants arrived in New York almost every day. Most of the new Americans on board were swallowed up by the city's endless hunger for workers, but some escaped the lure and set their eyes on the West. The station was full of immigrants from dozens of countries; families mostly, surrounded by bundles and baggage. Everything they owned appeared to be parcelled up into old valises and trunks or swathed in blankets tied with string and ropes.
It was still raining, a cold drizzle blowing in from the northeast. Most of the passengers endured the wait with shoulders hunched against the cold. A group of men pushed and jostled each other, each defending a little space around his worldly goods and trying to keep his family near. One reached out to snag the arm of a child running past and pulled her into the shelter of his coat. The child laughed, throwing back her head in joy, untouched by the strained anxiety of her elders. Beyond them several men in dark coats and hats stood in a loose circle, their women quiet behind them, heads covered and bowed as they prayed. Brothers, perhaps. They looked very alike. Over to the right, a group of stout, dark women, tucked into shawls and heavy coats and red-faced with cold, shouted shrilly at their offspring. Not that the children cared. They ran and shrieked and laughed, playing amongst the piles of baggage, dodging in and out between the wagons drawn up at the back of the station, and getting too close to the tracks. They fell and tumbled like so many little jesters, bouncing back up again as if they were made from vulcanised rubber and were just as indestructible.
Charles had been fifteen when his father had brought him to America to find a new life. He'd been too old to play like that. The young Karl Friedrich had arrived at the disembarkation wharf so bewildered and excited that he could barely remember enough of his new language to answer to his name when the immigration officials called him. His father's painfully correct English had had to do duty for both of them. He walked out into New York's teeming streets with a new, Americanised version of his name and a head spinning with this new world, his life a whirl of faces and voices, strange accents and languages.
He'd felt like the immigrants must now: apprehensive, uneasy and hopeful, all at once. Like him, they'd be almost too excited to take it all in. They were going on such a great adventure but his own... well, his own had ended in more prosaic places. Not for Charles the wild romance of the West. After a stint at sea, he'd lived in the cities of the Northeast coast, scratching a living with an article here and an article there until he had made his name and reputation as a journalist. He was a man of letters, not action. Sometimes he regretted that.
Maybe he could share a small piece of their adventure now. Of course it wasn't quite the same. He would be travelling in a comfort that rivalled his parlour; they would sit upright for the next seven days while the train – several trains, it would be – rattled west. He'd arrange with the conductor to spend some time in one of the emigrant cars, all the better to describe it for his article; get some local colour. An hour or two should do it. He didn't want to spend the night there. That would be too much colour.
He flipped to the back of his notebook and the notes he'd already made for the opening paragraph for the projected article. A literary allusion or two to start with always went down well. Readers liked to be flattered with the author's assumption that they were cultured and well-read. Hadn't Swift mentioned California somewhere, and with hilarious imprecision about where it was and what it was like? Charles pencilled the name in quickly, with a note to check the reference later.
THOUGH California has been celebrated in books, newspapers, and magazines for more than twenty years, it is really almost as little known to the tourist — a creature who ought to know it thoroughly, to his own delight — as it was to Swift...
Charles chuckled. Good lord, but that was pretentious rubbish! Just as well he'd learned to ignore it. Anyhow, if it came to it, he quite liked bombastic grandiloquence. It amused him.
At ten thirty precisely in the morning of Wednesday, March 23rd 1870, the Chicago Special Express blasted one harsh, triumphant note on its steam whistle and moved slowly away from the platform, heading west.
If it weren't for the people, travel would be a tedious business.
Scenery was all very well, but see one farm and you've seen them all. There was only so much enthusiasm Charles could force for the sight of another herd of cows chewing the cud. But the people now... they were fascinating. Such interesting company to work into his article and maybe for the book he'd write one day, so many odd personalities to weave a tale around. He never could look at a group of people and keep his inner storyteller at bay. Well, if he were honest, he didn't even try. His fellow men were all grist to the authorial mill.
So with an occasional glance out at the rolling New England scenery, he was happy jotting down fragments of description and eavesdropping on murmured conversations, capturing his travelling companions between the notebook's leather covers.
Take the two men in adjoining seats, sitting a little apart from the rest of the passengers. Father and son probably. The elder, hair long and lank, kept his eyes downcast and watched his hands writhe about in his lap. He had scrupulously clean hands, every fingernail beautifully pared and shaped, the fingers long and narrow. An artist's hands or a musician's. Perhaps he—
The murmur of voices near him, fractured by indignation, startled him into looking away from the old man.
“George's behaviour has always been unnatural, and if you had an ounce of maidenly modesty, you'd blush to mention his name. You always had a soft spot for a handsome, sweet-talking fool.” The elderly woman seated opposite Charles nodded so briskly that the black lace cap perched on her white hair looked liable to fly off. A widow, then, if her clothes and the exquisite jet collar around her thin neck were any indication. Her companion, a little dab of a woman in a brown velvet hat decorated with a punch of artificial pansies, made some soft protest, fluttering with impotence. “Don't you speak to me, Mattie Spencer, unless it's to apologise! I don't know how you dare have the brass-faced impudence!”
From the look of her, the companion didn't know either. She made a noise like a hen clucking, and her hands lifted and fell again.
Chuckling, Charles pencilled in George's name and a query. Now, what could George have done to deserve such scorn? Embezzled the widow's funds, perhaps. Or forged her name on a bank draft. Or kissed the companion when he thought no-one was looking...
When Charles looked up again, the widow, having vanquished her companion into red-faced incoherence, had lifted her lorgnette to her eye to examine the rest of the car's occupants. She looked grimly pleased with herself, her eyes bright. Her companion gulped and dabbed at her face with a linen handkerchief. The linen was spider-web fine and edged with thread lace. He hadn't expected the drab little companion to have anything so pretty. Above the flounce of lace, Mattie Spencer's faded blue eyes met his and he looked away hastily. He was no good with crying women; Elizabeth could tell them that. Best not get drawn in. The onlooker saw most of the game, after all and the other passengers were the perfect diversion.
The old man's hands still writhed. The younger put one hand, shorter-fingered and squarer, over the old man's to still them, never looking up from the Bible he held in the other. The old man drew a shaky breath, shaking his head. A bereavement, perhaps? Those writhing hands shouted a mute desperation.
Two men in one corner seat carried on a low conversation. Businessmen, going as far as Chicago, Charles gathered. He'd talk to them later, perhaps. The family at the other end of the car had each raised a book to his or her face, not interested in either the scenery or, apparently, each other. All the children wore spectacles and not one of them looked like they knew how to play. The smallest of the two boys raised a hand to shade his eyes from the weak sun slanting in through the windows.
They were all his to use—father and son, businessmen, bookish family, this demanding old woman and the dowdy middle-aged spinster who was at her beck and call. In his head, he could give them names and histories. He could let his imagination paint their stories in the brightest colours, limning each one out as if with the new vivid aniline dyes, the way he'd have to shape them on the page. Like all writers, he was shameless in taking something from each of them. Oh, it was nothing they'd ever miss or even know about, but essential to help him fashion the characters that he hoped would one day make his literary fortune.
Charles jumped, startled for the second time in as many minutes as the widow claimed his attention, this time with an imperious poke from the long handle of her silver lorgnette. She gave him another of those decisive nods when he faced her. Her eyes, still a clear bright hazel, had an amused glint to them. Beside her little Mattie Spencer looked washed out and worn down, as if all the mirth in her employer (mother? wondered Charles. Aunt?) came at her expense. The widow smiled at him, an improbable dimple at the corner of her mouth. He didn't know if she had been a beautiful woman in her youth, but in old age she had a vivacity that charmed. Well, it charmed him, but it was quite possible that the companion didn't share his appreciation. She looked too downtrodden for that.
He bowed slightly, smiled back, and made a sort of flourish with his free hand. “Can I be of service, Madam?”
All she wanted him to do was get her wrap from the overhead locker where this fool Mattie Spencer put it. She should have known I'd need it but she's bird-witted. Always was and always will be! A small service, and one that he performed willingly, and with the ice broken, he and the widow were cosily confidential before the train had puffed its way along more than a couple of miles of track. Charles spent the morning listening, fascinated, to a life story that put most novels to shame while poor Mattie Spencer fluttered and fussed beside them.
Sadly, he never did find out what George did.
He changed trains in Chicago. When he stumbled down the car steps onto the platform and turned to offer the widow the support of his arm, all Charles could see were the dark shapes of buildings set against a slightly lighter sky. Chicago was a damnably gloomy place with the evening fog rolling in from the lake.
He handed the widow and Mattie over to the middle-aged son awaiting them, bowing over her hand in a way that had that dimple showing and Mattie Spencer fluttering, before taking his leave and collecting his valises. He didn't bother exploring the city, although he had the evening before him. He was too tired to think of anything but dinner and bed. He headed for the Sherman hotel—he'd been promised the best and the best he would have!—longing for a bed that didn't shake with every lurch of the train. He wasn't disappointed there. The Sherman didn't shake and the bed was comfortable, and if he missed Elizabeth beside him, he comforted himself with a hearty breakfast the next morning before setting off for the station belonging to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The streets were as crowded and dirty as Manhattan and his cab made slow progress. It was a relief to reach the train. He spent the day alternately speculating about his fellow travellers and watching the landscape change as they ran southwest to Omaha to pick up the true Transcontinental railroad.
The dining car was crowded that evening. The head waiter greeted Charles with a ceremonial bow, but was quite unceremonious in pushing him into a seat at one of the smaller tables. Charles barely had time to unfold his copy of Harper's latest edition to glower at a preposterous article on Bolivar by that fool, Eugene Lawrence, before the waiter was back, herding an elegant young man before him.
“There's a space here, sir.” And the waiter had deposited the young man into a seat opposite Charles before either could draw breath. Charles didn't quite see the waiter trip the man and hook his feet out from under him, but it wouldn't have surprised him.
The young man's thin-lipped mouth twitched into a smile. “My apologies, sir. It seems they're a little over-run this evening.”
Charles folded away the magazine—why did Alden keep that hack, Lawrence, on staff? The man's prose was positively banal—and took off his spectacles. “It's of no account, sir. Please don't apologise. We may have had worse dining companions thrust upon us, after all.”
Pale blue eyes glanced sideways at the very large family that was taking up far more tables than it could possibly be due. The expression in them was more horrified than impressed. The young man's smile broadened. “Very true, sir. Very true.”
Charles laughed. He'd seen this young man in the breakfast parlour at the Sherman and in the railroad car throughout the day, although they'd done no more than exchange polite nods. Charles introduced himself with a hearty handshake and the observation that “At Chicago, the journey to California really begins.”
“Do you think so?” The young man accepted the proffered hand and smiled. “Scott Lancer, sir, of Boston.”
Life on the railroad was like being in a hothouse where plants were thrust into swift growth; a place where the normal careful nurturing with water and minerals, the slow cycle of light and dark, and sun and rain, were abandoned for the pressures of a constant heat and a certain humidity; a place for forcing an early start to tender plants started from seed. Charles wasn't much of a gardener, but he understood the value of the hothouse in propagating and experimenting with new plants and varieties.
In the case of the train, it was acquaintanceships that seeded themselves quickly and were pushed into an early flowering. The trick would be knowing which to cultivate and which to allow to wither on the vine.
Lancer's manners were those of a gentleman. He couldn't be more than twenty-five, but he had all the assurance of someone who'd been 'out' in society all his life. Without doubt, a scion of some Boston Brahmin family—a side-shoot maybe since Charles didn’t recognise the name—Lancer was rich, leisured and languid, affable and sociable. But more to the point, he was well educated and well read. They discussed art and music and by the time that they had roamed over the theatre, poetry (Lancer had read Goethe while at Harvard, a definite point in his favour) and the modern novel, they found that they had a lot in common despite the difference in age. Young Mr Lancer would make an amusing and sympathetic travelling companion. He was certainly an intelligent one.
They had dissected the modern novelists, with some pithy observations on the best and worst of them, when Lancer asked the pertinent question. “Are you a writer, sir?”
Charles admitted to his career having taken a journalistic turn, and admitted also to the journalist's usual aspiration to write his novel one day. He even confessed, wryly, that in the interim his job was to extol the virtues of the new Great Transcontinental route and promote the idea of travelling it for pleasure on family vacations.
Lancer cast a speaking glance at the tribe of young heathens squabbling over their dessert, and they both laughed. It had been a pleasant dinner with good conversation. Charles could have done a lot worse when it came to someone to share it with. Still, he would have to see how well Lancer's company wore over the next few days. Those were beautiful manners and Lancer wasn't standoffish, precisely, but something did distance the young Bostonian from the people around him.
Time for a little probing of his own. Charles refilled Lancer's glass before his own. “Do you travel for business, pleasure or family, sir?”
Lancer admitted to all three. “But perhaps principally the latter.”
“Excellent! They'll be delighted to be reunited with you, of course. And this wonderful new railroad will get you there all the sooner. Their own journey west must have been a most uncomfortable experience by comparison, whether by land or sea. The railroads will, I'm sure, be a remarkable tool for bringing together loved ones once separated by the great breadth of our mighty continent—”
Charles let the platitudes he'd penned earlier flow, his gaze flickering around the carriage to see why a lady two tables away laughed, or to watch the low-voiced waiter conferring with the fussy, elderly gentleman at the corner table, or whatever other little scene caught his eye. Good lord, that was a handsome woman, the one with the pleasant laugh. Her companion would have to be a clod not to appreciate the light in her eyes and the way her pretty shoulders were emphasised by her well-cut travelling dress. Charles nodded with approval when the lady's companion raised his wine glass to her in silent homage. Despite looking like a contented married couple, it seemed they were still lovers. Charles envied him. She was a very handsome woman. On the other hand, the elderly gentleman talking to the waiter looked dyspeptic and cross and alone. Snuff powdered on his cuffs and across his coat front. Charles could weave a dozen stories about the old man's life and disappointments in love and business.
And then, young Lancer. Why would he travel all the way across the continent alone? For action and adventure, or for love or for business—
Charles' mouth continued the flow of words while his hand drifted to the breast pocket of his jacket and the comforting bulk of his notebook. Damn the proprieties that prevented him from openly jotting these people down to use later.
And as if to prove that the truth about people was even more interesting than speculation, the little twist to Lancer's mouth became bitter as he listened to Charles rhapsodising. And wasn't that intriguing!
“Oh, I'm not visiting close family, sir,” said Lancer. The bitter curve of the mouth tightened. “We meet somewhere in the family Bible, if there is such a thing, but we have not met anywhere else.”
Well, well, well. There was a story behind this lone journey and that cool bitterness, that was certain. Charles smiled. He liked a good mystery. They were all the more fun to unravel.
The train's hothouse effect came from thirty people sharing the close confinement of the parlour car. That a man was never more than three or four feet from his neighbour, said Charles to Scott Lancer, meant either the blooming of friendship or deep mutual aversion. At all times, the occupants of the car pressed hard upon each other, always conscious of the others' occupations from dawn until dusk, trapped together as close as damned souls in Hades. Charles rose the next day under the bland gazes of a dozen sets of eyes. He took his turn to wash and trim his beard in too-close proximity to three gentlemen with whom he was only imperfectly acquainted but whose bodily peculiarities were obtruding too closely on his notice to be ignored. He would spend his day in the presence of thirty fellow human beings: he would eat with them, read his books with them, talk with them, try to nap with them, even (out of a sense of self-preservation) help entertain their bored children. And at night he would be forced to share quarters with the aforesaid three gentleman, with nothing but a curtain between them and the rest of the car's occupants, lying all night serenaded by rustling, sighs and snoring.
He had to find a way to endure, he told Lancer at breakfast, to admit these people as more than mere strangers, or the very sound of a train would be likely to bring on homicidal tendencies for the rest of his life. As it was, he was fast developing a sense of social claustrophobia.
“Why do you think I decided to take one of the staterooms?” asked Lancer, smiling as the waiter arrived with fresh coffee and a plate of fried eggs. The waiter, having brought them together at dinner the previous evening, apparently now considered them joined at the hip. Lancer had been ushered to Charles's table and had a menu put into his hands before the two had had time to do more than nod a greeting to each other.
“All the way through to California?” Charles forked crisp bacon onto his plate and set to with relish.
“Every train en route and every last inch of track.”
Charles sighed. “I am deeply envious. The staterooms are small, of course, but they looked delightfully comfortable.”
“Oh, they are. Delightfully.” There was no mistaking Lancer's amusement, or the wicked glint in his eye.
Charles sighed again. “I may have to revise my impression that you are a gentleman, sir. It's unseemly to gloat.”
Lancer laughed aloud and, as some sort of compensation, offered Charles the coffee.
They arrived at Council Bluffs at around 8.30, just as breakfast finished, and transferred across the Missouri to Omaha. Lancer strolled along with Charles as their valises were whisked away into a large shed to be reweighed.
“They'll be trying to charge us extra poundage, I suppose.” Charles glanced around the shed and the dozens of people crowded into it, spotting several that he recognised from the platform at Jersey City.
“I should tell them that I'm a shareholder,” murmured Lancer. “My grandfather has extensive interests in the railroads.”
Charles laughed at the wry tone, and watched the crowds as they waited their turn at the ticket booth, listening with half an ear to almost as many languages as there were people. The slow poetic speech of Goethe and the distant Fatherland made him turn; that the speaker was merely ordering her brood to be still and silent was of no moment. It was still a joy to hear her.
“They all have such a lot of hope and energy.” Lancer was so quiet that Charles had to strain to hear him.
He was envious, Charles realised, a little surprised. A healthy man of Lancer's age should be brimming with energy and ambition, but he was leaning against the counter as if it were all that were holding him up. The very picture of the languid young Brahmin, in fact. But no man that young should look so weary. There was a history there, a dark history: there was something shadowing Scott Lancer's eyes. It would be interesting to find out what.
He opted for a little platitude. “They're on their way to a new life.”
Lancer frowned. “Yes.”
“My father brought me here from Prussia when I was fifteen. My mother had died the year before and he wanted to get away, to make his fortune here. It was exciting, landing in New York and seeing everything so different to little Erwitte, where I was born . I don't think he regretted it. I know that I don't. This land has been very good to us.”
Lancer offered a crumb of information. “My father came here from Scotland. Possibly he too thought he could make his fortune.”
“You never asked him?” Charles kept his tone bright and light, as if it were a casual enquiry of no importance.
“Never met the gentleman.” Lancer's mouth twisted into that bitter little line again.
Charles gave him a sharp look, but Lancer stared back coolly, giving nothing away. Lancer was a private man, even more reserved than Charles would have guessed from the easy society manners that the younger man used as armour. So Charles forbore to enquire further. Instead he caught the ticket agent's attention and, on behalf of Lancer and himself, used his credentials from the railroad companies to get it established that they were through travellers of some importance and therefore entitled to be amongst the first to be assigned their berths.
“I think, though,” said Lancer as they boarded the train, still speaking in that same quiet voice, “that I'd rather like to know what brought him here.”
“And if he found what he was looking for, if he achieved his dream of... what? Independence? Riches? Freedom?” Charles nodded. “In your place, I'd like know what he gained from coming to America.”
“Yes.” Lancer spoke slowly, thoughtfully. He glanced down the length of train, looking west, and swung himself abruptly up onto the car platform. “And what may have been lost upon the way.”
The railroad ran out of Omaha across prairies so flat that the world seemed nothing but yellow-green grass and a sky vast enough to weigh down on the land. The track sliced across the boundless land like a knife blade.
Charles's three sleeping companions were through travellers too, and were playing cards at another seat. Charles had taken the opportunity to stretch out and get comfortable. He closed his eyes for a moment to rest them.
Lancer woke him when he joined him before lunch. He seemed fascinated by the wide vista outside the train and they spent some time gazing out and discussing their progress.
Lancer's hands—he had narrow, patrician hands, Charles noted—played idly with the cord of the window blind. “We're travelling so swiftly over land that only a generation or so ago was traversed with so much pain and travail. I don't think that we appreciate it enough.”
Well, now. Every now and again the Brahmin exterior cracked a little and another interesting facet of the man was revealed. This yearning for a past that Lancer saw as what? Nobler? Simpler? More romantic? Well, perhaps there was more to the man than the rich Bostonian gentleman.
“It reminds me of the sea. There's something as relentless about it, as measureless and as hungry.” It had been many years since Charles had spent any time at sea, but for a moment he seemed to feel the heave of the deck under his feet. “Watch how the wind bends the grasses, like the swell of waves.”
“Are you a sailing man, sir?”
Charles laughed. “I may not look it now, but I spent almost ten years at sea, on a merchantman. I've sailed all over the world.”
Lancer's eyes widened, and he looked astonished in a way that Charles considered a touch unflattering. It was true that Charles was a little older and, well, sturdier these days, and he knew that his was now a sedentary life, but surely it wasn't completely beyond the realms of possibility that he'd once been young and active? He was barely in his prime as it was.
Lancer had been to Europe. Before the War, he said, on a trip with his grandparents. He'd been a boy then, but he'd enjoyed London despite its dirt, and Paris despite its hauteur.
“My grandfather offered to go with me again, now. Now that I'm of an age to appreciate it better, I mean. He'd have preferred that to—” Lancer's mouth did that little twist again. “Well. Perhaps some other time.”
“London and Paris will still be there,” said Charles. “Did you travel far on the continent? I'd like to return to Germany one day, I think. Only to visit, though. New York is home now and I can't see Mrs Nordhoff taking kindly to being a Hausfrau. German society is a little too paternalistic for her tastes, I think.”
They spent a happy half hour trading stories of their travels. But throughout it all, Lancer's gaze strayed to the window and the wide lands beyond. Charles let the conversation lapse for a moment, watching and waiting until Lancer remembered he was there.
Lancer reddened when he realised, and waved a hand at the glass. “Seeing this, I could believe that the world is flat. Couldn't you?”
Science, opined Charles, took all the romance and adventure from life, insisting on telling us that the world was a globe. “It looks flat enough out there, but it's illusory and the track's starting the long climb to the mountains. That should be a splendid sight. Even if science likes to pretend it knows how the earth and rocks were bent and folded to make them, it can't rob mountains of their grandeur.”
Lancer's flush became one of eagerness, Charles thought. He leaned forward. “Science is a topic we haven't yet touched upon, sir. I assume that you have read Darwin? I'll admit that when the book was first published I was rather more interested in baseball than either biology or religious philosophy, but when I was old enough to read it, my grandfather told me of the stir it caused. And then, when I got to Harvard, one of the more radical professors allowed us to study it, although that caused a little controversy and our studies weren't prolonged or, to my mind, very deep. I'd be interested in your views on his theory.”
And they were off.... By the time they repaired to the dining car for luncheon, they had reviewed the remarkable advances humanity had made in knowledge in the last fifty years and were hotly debating whether or not that had gone hand in hand with a spiritual decline. They reached the informality of using each others' surnames over coffee and a dessert of peaches and cream.
Dessert was excellent. The company even more so.
Shortly before three-o'clock, while it was still light, the train juddered to a halt. Lancer glanced up from Nelson's guidebook—he'd brought the more detailed Crofutt's guide and they'd swapped for a while. Charles was enjoying Crofutt. It was the better guide of the two.
“A stop for coal, I expect,” said Charles. When this was confirmed by the conductor he marked his place in Crofutt and suggested going to see what was going on. Several gentlemen and several men who didn't quite meet that definition were already out on the prairie, stretching their legs after the confinement of the cars. Lancer agreed readily, although when it came to it he didn't want to walk as far as the front of the train, where the train crew were doing something arcane and fascinating. Charles left him watching the play of the wind on the grasses, walking up the length of the train to the depot while trying to get his notebook out of his pocket.
The coaling depot wasn't very large. A couple of cabins, a huge pile of coal and a water tower, with the foundations for a proper coaling tower being laid beside the track. It would be ready in a few months, the depot agent said. Six at the most, when the labour of getting the coal into the tender wouldn't be as intense. What's more, the railroad was selling all the land round about to farmers. Cheap, too. A bargain. Indeed, a couple of the farming families had disembarked from the train and were standing in the lee of one of the cabins, looking small and bewildered in the midst of all their baggage.
“There'll be a town here, soon,” said the agent. “And then we'll make it a proper stopping place.” He turned his head and spat out a wad of brown tobacco.
Charles nodded, smiled and moved upwind. He was no scientist, but he calculated that spittle would find it harder to reach him against the prevailing breeze. He had no objection to a good cigar but chewing tobacco... He suppressed a shudder of disgust and turned away to watch the refuelling. He took copious notes, watching as the train's stoker oversaw the transfer of tons of shiny coal nuggets from the wagons relaying it to the track from the depot.
A soft shriek from one of the farming families warned him. He turned quickly. His heart thumped once, hard. He hadn't expected this. He really hadn't expected this.
Five of them, riding thin, ill-kempt ponies through the long grass. Bare chested, with strings of beads worn like breastplates; leggings and moccasins of some sort of soft looking suede; black hair in long braids framing dark faces that showed no expression. They rode in single file, passing within a few yards of train cars where dozens of pale faces pressed against the glass to see them go. They rode as if the train weren't even there, for all the notice they gave it.
“Hold your ground.” The railroad agent spoke softly, from the corner of his mouth, not shifting his gaze from the Indians as they approached. “There won't be any trouble.”
Großer Gott! Charles hoped the man was right. At the edge of his vision he saw one of the railroad men go swiftly to join the farming families, heard a quiet voice talking to them, calming them. One of the women had fallen to her knees. She made a soft keening noise.
The Indians rode at a steady pace. They'd pass within a few feet of Charles and the agent, but the agent didn't move.
“Stay still,” warned the agent. He straightened up, shoulders tense. His hands went to his belt. He had a gun in a holster on his left hip, the butt pointing forward. His hand was near, yet not so near as to be threatening. “Don't move.”
Not that Charles could move. He could barely breathe. He thought perhaps that he'd been struck down with a paralysis, as some sort of biblical punishment for the journalistic sin of curiosity. He wouldn't be the first.
Not one of the Indians looked at Charles, but the one riding last, the one that rode a horse a little better than the others and had maybe more clay and turquoise beads looped around him—that one glanced at the agent. The agent nodded back.
That was all.
A moment later and the Indians had ridden past the cabins and disappeared. It was astonishing how quickly the grasslands swallowed them up, but the agent pivoted and watched them out of sight.
“Crow,” he said to Charles. “They were Crow.”
Charles had to swallow a couple of times. It was also astonishing how dry these arid lands made a man. “Are they much trouble?”
The agent smiled, an odd, tight smile. He shrugged one shoulder and spat out another morsel of wet, chewed tobacco before turning away and striding through the grass to where the refuelling operation had restarted as though nothing had happened.
“Ah,” said Charles. He looked west, the way the Indians had gone, but he couldn't see anything. The farmer's wife was crying quietly, her husband at her side talking to her... Bohemian, it sounded like. Charles settled his shoulders back, found that he could move again and walked, briskly, back to the car where he'd left Lancer.
“Did you see them?” he demanded, as soon as he got within speaking distance. Lancer stood with his back against one of the car wheels. “Did you ever see anything like those wild savages, Lancer? They passed within a yard or two of me, up there at the depot, and it's lucky that I'm not a nervous man! Did you ever see anything so wild? What an encounter! Something to write about, I fancy!”
Lancer started. He had been staring the way the Indians had gone, and now he seemed to come back to himself. “Encounter, Nordhoff? They went past us as if we weren't here, as if we were below their notice. I don't think that was much of an encounter. And yet...” His voice trailed away.
“That's not much of a story, though,” protested Charles. “I need something a little more exciting than five Indians taking an afternoon ride.”
“I was thinking. I was thinking how much they looked as if they belonged to the land here, a part of it.” Lancer slapped the side of the car with one hand. “Not like this. This scars the land it runs across; the Indians haven't left a trace of their passing.”
Oh ho. Then there was a romantic then, beneath that cool Brahmin exterior. “It's our way, to want to put our stamp on the world, to change it.”
“They belong here in a way we don't.”
“It's a different way. We don't change the way we live to suit the land; we change the land to suit the way we live. The farmers will do that here, claim this place for us.”
“Yes. But don't you think that that though we might gain the land, we lose as much as the Indians do? In a different way, of course. I know they can't win, not against this.” Lancer shrugged, indicating the train and all it stood for. “But we lose something, too, if they pass away and are gone from the world. There's a story there.”
Charles shook his head. “Not one that anyone would read or I could convince my editor was a good one to tell. The people who want the land won't read it. They don't think that Rousseau was right, you know, that there's more morality in natural Man than in you or I. They see the Indian as something that gets in the way of progress, of a bigger and brighter future.”
“And that isn't a story.”
“No,” said Charles. “Not one I could use. We change or die, Lancer. They're of the past, you know, and they don't change.”
“Well, then, don't make the mistake they do. Don't cling to the past at the expense of the present, and certainly not by sacrificing the future.”
Lancer gave him an odd look, a thoughtful look. “No,” he said. “I won't do that.”
They finished the day over brandy in Lancer's stateroom, mellowed and tired and, Charles believed, pleased with each other's company.
Charles liked Lancer, very much. He'd found the younger man to be intelligent and sociable, easy-mannered and good-humoured. There was a core of something underneath that Charles had seen glimpses of but hadn't yet been able to tease out into the open; but the social animal, the young gentleman of means and education, was a very pleasant companion indeed.
Pleasant, but a man with a strong sense of privacy. Lancer must have paid a considerable premium to have to himself one of the two private cabins at the end of the carriage, but it was a charming little room. There was space enough for a pair of armchairs set before the large windows, and even after the chamberman had converted the long couch into a comfortable-looking bed, it was spacious enough for Lancer and Charles to sit and enjoy their brandies.
Charles's own accommodation was comfortable, if a little cramped. “It's a little like sleeping in a small closet. Everyone snores and rustles all night, with only a curtain between my modesty and the other twenty-nine occupants of the car and as I said this morning, I'm forced into an unholy intimacy with strangers.” Charles rubbed at his nose, pushing his spectacles back up into their proper place.
“I don't envy you that. I've shared close quarters in the past, and I've no desire to repeat it.”
Charles suggested that the accommodations were perfectly adequate if one weren't an out and out sybarite.
There it was again, the thing that Charles couldn't quite define; the whatever-it-was that shadowed Scott Lancer's eyes. But all Lancer did was smile and incline his head. “Guilty as charged, Nordhoff; guilty as charged. Have another brandy.”
They breakfasted at the Cheyenne stop the next morning, where according to the guidebooks, a bustling little city was growing fast around the spot where the railroad crossed Crow Creek, high up on the edges of the Rocky Mountains. Charles had been right about the long, subtle climb up out of the plains. They were very high up now, the line they'd travelled switchbacking up the foothills like a metal snake.
“And by bustling little city, the guidebooks mean a row of mean shacks with the most peculiar false fronts on them.” Charles prodded the front of the Union Pacific Railroad Store as he spoke. “This is a mendacious building, Lancer. There's nothing behind this but a barn, and yet this frontage shows real glass windows.”
“Probably shipped here at huge expense, too. It doesn't auger well for those of us used to the eastern cities.”
“It most certainly does not.” Charles sighed. “This is going to be rather hard to extol to the great travelling American public. 'Come to the West and eat in a barn.' Not a message I can see will go down well.”
All the same, he had to pry Lancer out of the small store later. Breakfast had been indifferent, served at a communal (although spotlessly clean) table and insanely expensive at a dollar-fifty, but Lancer's complaint had died on his lips when he saw the shelf of books for sale. He'd been rummaging amongst them for quite ten minutes by the time that Charles lost patience, but he was good-humoured about being prodded into making a selection. Lancer pushed the books, thin and cheap-looking things, into the pocket of his suit, and followed Charles back to the train as the conductor rang his bell and shouted exhortations to the passengers to “Hurry along now!”
When they were back in their seats, Lancer offered him a choice of books. The train lurched forward as Charles picked through them, gathering speed as it headed towards Laramie.
“Good grief.” Charles blinked at the lurid covers. “Dime novels!”
Lancer laughed. “Aren't they ridiculous? I thought you might find some lively copy in there, Nordhoff. A few anecdotes about these more colourful characters, perhaps.” He flourished a book at Charles. “This one, for example. It recounts the trouble that someone called Wes Hardin is finding on something called the Pecos.” He frowned. “I believe I've heard of Hardin. I assume he's real.”
Charles admired the cover of the book he held, illustrated with a skilful drawing of a moustachioed villain in a sombrero, shooting an Indian at close quarters while a scantily dressed saloon girl cowered behind him, her hand upraised as if to ward off a blow. “I'm charged with attracting the visitors to the West in droves, Lancer, not frightening them into running home to hide under their beds. I hardly think that someone who calls himself the Border Hawk is quite the ambassador the railroad companies are looking for.” He opened the book to take a closer look at it. Purely as research, of course. “It looks as though everyone in the West finds trouble, and that is not the sort of message we want our readers to take away from the articles.”
“I suspect the only trouble I'll have will be tearing myself away from the delights of San Francisco to go south.”
“I hope so, Lancer.” Although it had to be said that if San Francisco was like the other western towns Charles had seen so far, then there may not be many delights and his article for Harper's would be short indeed. “The last thing any man needs is to meet one of these shootists. Good grief! This one is a murderous scoundrel by the sound of it.” Charles looked at the illustrations with disfavour and remarked that swarthy men with moustaches were obviously born to be villains.
But Lancer, already deep in the adventures of Mr Hardin, waved a negligent hand. The books would while away the time until Laramie, at least, where the conductor had promised to take Charles along to the emigrant car for an hour or two. Lancer had begged to come along. Charles, magnanimous as ever, agreed and young Lancer, the cultured and elegant Brahmin, had brightened at the prospect of such a treat. What a sheltered life these Society types led!
Charles smiled and turned back to the first page, and lost himself in that timeless classic, Johnny Madrid, the Border Hawk; Trouble Along The Cimarron.
“This is rather more like it!” said Charles as the cab came to halt outside their hotel.
He'd had his head half out of the window all the way from the Oakland ferry, giving a running commentary on everything en route, from the dizzy steepness of the hills (“What idiot thought it would be a good idea to build a city where every pavement is soaring up or plunging down a precipice? Großer Gott! We'll founder on this hill!”) to the buildings (“Italianate and Classic in style, mostly, with a hint of Early Grandiosity influenced by Pretentious Perpendicular.”) to the weather that was depressingly similar to what they'd left behind (“The guidebooks lied again. A soft and gentle climate indeed! Pneumonia. I foresee pneumonia.”)
But their hotel, in one of San Francisco's finest streets, was a welcome surprise. “Civilisation, at last!”
Scott Lancer laughed, as he'd laughed at all of Charles's comments, and agreed. “More than I was expecting, I admit.”
“I'm relieved. At least here in San Francisco I might find something worthwhile to write about.” Charles admired the impressive Italianate façade that took up almost the entire eastern side of Montgomery Street. It was quite a building, and not even the largest hotel in the city.
Even so, the Occidental Hotel was one of the grandest that San Francisco had to offer; and from what Charles had managed to see from the cab on their way into the city, there was no shortage of large and grand, with the streets around their hotel as well built and as well lit as any that he'd seen back East. San Francisco was no grubbing little settlement hiding barns behind the illusion of false fronts and pretending they were hotels or restaurants. This was a real city, as rich and sophisticated as Boston or New York, with real buildings, elegantly designed and stone-built, set along paved streets lit by flaring gas lamps.
Make that wet paved streets, slippery with rain and mud. San Francisco on a dark, wet March evening was as chilly as New York. Thankfully a bellboy rushed out with an umbrella to get them into the lobby as dry as he could manage it, given the persistent drizzle. Lancer, of course, stood for a moment to look around him, heedless of the raindrops dripping from the brim of his hat. Rain hissed and spat on the hot glass of the gas lamp above his head.
“Not as old as Boston, of course,” he murmured. “But it's an interesting coincidence that they were both founded by religiously minded colonists, don't you think? I'd like to take a look at the original mission, while I'm here.”
Religion, opined Charles, could be an uncomfortable commodity, although it doubtless had its uses. He preferred his own life to be a little more rational. Too rational to stand around in the dark getting wet while contemplating historical influences, thank you very much, and would Scott care to get a move on?
“Religion's very useful. So many pretty girls attend church,” said Scott, and grinned. He nodded his thanks to the bellboy and footed it for the lobby, hooking his arm in Charles's in passing and carting him along into the welcome warmth and light.
“Well now! Very welcoming.” Charles took a moment to look around him.
The lobby was vast, opening up onto an even larger, and just as stylish, parlour. Fires in the hearths made the rooms warm and merry, and lamplight deepened the sheen of polished mahogany and glittered from more crystal than Charles had seen in any one place before. Very nice! Everything from the latest in wall coverings and velvet furniture to the most ornate and dazzling of chandeliers, to people in elegant and fashionable dress... yes. This would do.
“Something to write home about, at least! As fine as anything in New York. I'll admit I'm surprised. Whoever recommended this hotel to you, Scott, is to be congratulated on his taste.”
Scott tipped the man bringing their luggage from the cab and joined Charles. “It was the gentleman I met in Boston who brought me my invitation to visit m... to come to California. He made most of the arrangements for my journey, actually. A useful sort of man. Good at finding things, he told me.”
“Good at finding hotels, at any rate.” But Charles was speaking to Scott's back: he was already on his way to the desk to claim his room. Charles hurried along behind him, wishing his legs were as long as Scott's. It wasn't dignified to be always bustling along behind the man trying to catch up. The Bostonian was so very long and lean.
“Lancer? Mr Lancer...?” The desk clerk frowned for an instant, a questioning note to his voice. His expression cleared. He hunted in the roll-top desk behind him and retrieved a letter. “Oh yes, of course. Mr Lancer. We were expecting you, sir. Mr Lancer—Mr Murdoch Lancer, I mean to say, sir—left instructions for your stay. He was quite particular about the details.”
Scott stiffened. “I beg your pardon? He left instructions? But he's not a resident of San Francisco...”
“Mr Murdoch Lancer usually stays here when he visits the city, sir. He sent word that we were to expect you and, as I say, was most particular about his requirements. As you doubtless know, he can be exacting in what he expects—”
“I've never met the gentleman. He stays here, you say?”
“He's been a regular guest of ours since we first opened almost ten years ago, sir.”
For the first time, Charles saw those polished social manners falter. Scott stood silent, the back of his neck and his ears reddening, though his face was pale. Charles frowned at the tightening of that thin-lipped mouth, seeing how the chin was set, that even Scott's nostrils had whitened and thinned down. Scott's hands curled into loose fists. He rubbed at his face with one, before cupping it with the other and pressing them together.
What in heaven's name had that cool Brahmin exterior showing the cracks?
“Scott?” Charles waited a moment. “Scott?”
It took that moment for Scott to see him and for his jaw to unclench. He raised a hand to his mouth to wipe it. “Tell me, Charles, would you say that this was an expensive hotel?”
“Oh yes.” Would he be here if it weren't for the 'all expenses paid' part of this assignment? Hardly!
“We're one of the best in the city, sir,” said the clerk.
“So not lack of money.” Scott glanced at the letter, still clutched in the clerk's hand, and looked down at his boots. He shook his head, and when he looked up again, he seemed to be back to normal, to have regained control, but for the fact his hands were still clenched. “I'm sorry, Charles. A family matter. I was taken by surprise, that was all.”
A family matter? The family that may meet somewhere in the Bible, if Charles remembered those bitter words aright and the family that Scott was going to meet for the first time. Charles said nothing. Indeed, even he couldn't think of anything to say since he wasn't certain what had set Scott off. After all, why get agitated at the thought that the unknown relative you were visiting was better heeled than you expected? Better than having them hanging on your pocket book all the time and if Scott doubted that, Charles would lend him Mrs Nordhoff's brother for a month. That would teach him.
A story there, for certain. But although he and Scott were, he thought, friends now that they'd reached all the intimacy of using first names, they were not such good friends that Charles could, or would, ask. And perhaps too good friends for Charles to be so unmannerly as to dig out answers. A journalistic dilemma, that.
The clerk was well trained. If he'd seen Scott's reaction—and really he couldn't have missed it—he pretended he hadn't. “I have a room reserved for you, sir. Seven nights, I believe.”
“I'm supposed to be leaving a week today.” Scott sounded a touch uncertain.
The clerk checked the register. “Yes, sir. That's what I have here. The account has been paid until the morning of April fifth.”
“I see.” Scott's mouth tightened again. “Yes. That's very considerate of Mr Murdoch Lancer. Very considerate indeed.”
By the time they reconvened outside the hotel dining room for dinner, Scott was back to his equable, good-mannered self. He had changed into evening dress: dark trousers, a well-cut coat with tails over a silk shirt with stand-up collar and neat narrow-banded bow tie.
“Very elegant! Did you travel with a valet hidden in your valise?”
“The hotel provided one, Charles. All I had to do was ask.”
Charles looked down at his own rather less well-cut coat and smoothed out a few wrinkles. He really should have thought of that. These hotels had all the amenities.
“I'd rather like a drink and cigarillo in the Gentleman's Saloon before dinner. Would you mind? I reserved us a table in the dining room for half-an-hour from now.”
Charles hid his surprise at this slight departure from the norm—drinks and cigars usually came after dinner—and rubbed his hands together. “Excellent idea.”
They crossed the parlour, bowing to the people they passed; all fashionably dressed, the ladies resplendent in rich silks, priceless old lace and jewels. One woman glittered in so many diamonds that Charles put his hand to his eyes when they were past, affecting blindness.
“I wanted to try the Gentleman's Saloon in any event. I was delighted when I realised that this was to be our hotel.” He looked around in approval. It was altogether a dimmer, cosier place than the parlour outside. No ladies here, of course, so instead of all the light fripperies they liked so much, it was all mahogany and dark green leather, and comfort rather than fashion. A haze of cigar smoke hung on the air. Altogether a welcoming sort of haven for a man of taste. “I had dinner with Manton Marble last week... do you know him?”
Scott headed for the capacious bar. “Not at all. Is he real? It's a very improbable name!”
“Oh, he's real all right. There's rather too much of Marble to be a non-corporeal vision. He's the editor of the New York World. He has some sort of political anti-corruption coup in the works and he's enjoying himself hugely running about in the shadows around Tammany Hall.” Charles shrugged. “Waste of time and energy, I expect, but he's in his element. He’d hoped to enlist my help, I believe and he was quite put out when I said I was to be away for a few months, but he did give me one tip about this hotel. Trust me on the drinks?”
Scott looked puzzled. But bless the boy, he was unfailingly polite, as always. “Of course.”
Charles found himself rubbing his hands together again. He'd have to watch that little bad habit. “Excellent.” And that little bad habit, too: he was starting to repeat himself. There were five bartenders working behind the long, polished wooden bar. Charles beckoned to the closest. “Trained by Jerry Thomas, I hope?”
The man grinned. “We all were, sir, and we use his recipes still. The Professor is very fondly remembered here. What can I get you?”
“Which of your mixed drinks do you recommend?”
“Well, our most popular mixtures are the Brandy Daisy, the Fizz, the Flip and the Sour, sir, but personally I think the Professor's best drink is the Blue Blazer. It's said he created it last year for the President himself.”
“Well, if it's good enough for Grant...” Charles looked the question at Scott, who laughed and nodded. “We'll have one each of those, please. And bring the cigar box. Have you had a mixed drink before, Scott?”
“Hot toddies, of course. And punch.”
“These are special. They were invented by the head bartender here, one Jerry Thomas. He's so celebrated that he was reputed to be earning more here in San Francisco than the President earned running the country. Thomas is in New York now. He's one of Marble's cronies. I've never met him, but Marble said to be sure to try out one of his drinks in the hotel where they were created. It seemed fitting.”
Scott selected a thin cigarillo from the case proffered by the bartender. “What you're saying is that this will be an experience.”
“Oh yes.” Charles lit his cigar and together they watched the preparations. It apparently took two bartenders, this one. A bigger tip would be required, he supposed. Still, the expenses would cover it, although he may have to hide this one in the 'Sundries' column.
“It looks like a hot toddy,” said Scott, indicating the preparations.
Whiskey, water, sugar and lemons... Mmmn. It did. Still, given the chill spring night, it would be welcome. If only to ward off incipient pneumonia...
But no hot toddy Charles had ever had—and he'd had a few—were made in quite the same way as this one. It was a performance. The bartender held out his hands like a pianist and flexed and exercised his fingers while Scott and Charles hid their smiles and the assistant heated the whiskey and the water in two separate vessels over small spirit lamps.
The assistant folded powdered sugar and the lemon peel into the whiskey, stirred it three times clockwise and three anti-clockwise. “Ready, Mr Williams.”
The bartender took two silver cups and held them out. The assistant filled one with whiskey, and the other with hot water, waited for the bartender's nod and struck a match over the cup of whiskey. He jumped back when the fumes caught in a whoosh of blue flame. Someone exclaimed at the other end of the bar and there was a shout of laughter and one or two of the other patrons pressed closer.
“The trick's in the mixing them, you see, sirs.” The bartender raised the flaming glass and from at least a yard away, he poured the whiskey into the hot water, and then poured the mixture back again between the cups, somehow without quenching the flames. He did it again, his expression intent and focused; and again, and again and again, pouring faster and faster between the two cups, until he had an arc of sapphire flame running between them, lighting up the entire saloon with its fire. The saloon was loud with clapping, Charles and Scott laughing and cheering with the rest.
Scott clamped the cigarillo between his teeth to free up his hands to applaud the bartender's skill. He was laughing, the shadow gone from his eyes. Charles nodded with satisfaction. It was as good a way as any to distract the younger man from whatever had troubled him earlier.
The bartender finally allowed the flames to die and poured the drinks into warmed glasses. He smiled, but the line of perspiration on his hairline showed just how difficult the task had been.
Charles sighed internally. Well, it was an experience and it had cheered up Scott, but the bartender had just earned the sort of tip that would take a very large Sundry to hide it. A very large Sundry indeed.
Perhaps he could itemise it as 'research'.
They dined, as Charles remarked, “Rather better, and with quite as much form and a more elegant and perfect service than in New York. I daresay the company is the best sauce.” He toasted Scott with a very fine champagne, a Krug that Scott had insisted on to celebrate their arrival, and if his mouth had twisted over the words then Charles pretended he hadn't seen it.
The joy and cheer of the Blue Blazer had died away with its flames. Scott was quiet and reserved again, but still the ease of his company manners bore him through it. Charles could envy him that, the social polish that Scott probably barely realised he had. All his kind were social chameleons: Scott had brought up from birth to conform with his surroundings, to blend in, not to make himself conspicuous because a gentleman just did not do that. It would carry him through many a difficult situation with grace.
“I'll take that as a compliment, since you're no longer compelled to keep my company now we're free of the train at last.” Scott returned the salute and downed his glass in one.
“It was less like a journey, and more like taking up one's residence there, wasn't it? Still, my dear Brahmin, take it as the compliment I intended. You've been the best of travelling companions, and I hope we can spend a few days exploring the city before you go south.”
“I'd like that. I have tomorrow completely free, then on Thursday I must meet an acquaintance of my grandfather's. I have some business to conduct with him that should take a few hours and I'm already committed to spending the weekend with him and his family, I'm afraid, Charles. That was arranged before I left Boston. But outside of those commitments, consider me at your disposal.”
“Thank you, I will! There's a lot we can see in the city before you go. We can breakfast at the Cliff House, and dine in the Chinese quarter before visiting the theatre there and looking our fill at the oriental beauties. How's that for a cultural contrast?”
Scott laughed and his mood seemed to lift as they planned their sight-seeing for the next week.
“How are you travelling south, Scott? They're just starting to build the north-south connecting railroads, I know, so are you condemned to the stage?”
“Sadly, yes. I'm taking an early eastbound train as far as Stockton and leaving the next day by stage to Morro Coyo. It takes a day and a half, they tell me. Something to be endured, I think.”
Charles laughed and nodded. “I fear it won't be as comfortable as the railroad.”
“No,” said Scott. He looked gloomy.
“Well, my schedule is very unstructured. I may go back with you as far as Stockton, and then go on to the Yosemite valley. I intend to spend a couple of weeks exploring the wilderness there.” Charles caught the little grin on Scott's face. “Now, now! I may not have the figure of the man of action, but”—and here he grinned himself—”I'm told that you can get to everything the discerning tourist may wish to see by horseback or wagon. I'm very prepared to see the wilderness from the upholstered seat of a surrey. I only wish you were coming with me.”
“I wish I were, too, Charles, but I'm committed to Morro Coyo. Not that I think it will anywhere near as entertaining as exploring the Yosemite Valley. To be honest, I don't think much will come of my journey south. I don't think that there's anything for me there. Nothing I... “ Scott blew out a soft breath. “I never had much in the way of expectation, but now I'm almost there, I have less.”
“Must you go?” Charles caught himself up. “No, that was stupid. You wouldn't come all this way and turn back at the last moment.”
“No. No, I won't do that. I gave my word, when I accepted the invitation. I can't renege on it.”
“And I wouldn't ask it of you. But you can put off going for a few weeks, can't you? Come to Yosemite instead. I'm told there's good hunting there.”
“My itinerary's fixed, I'm afraid, and the tickets already purchased. I won't put m... the gentleman who invited me to more expense. It doesn't really matter. It won't make any difference, not that I can see, except to delay my visit to Yosemite. I don't know how long I'll be in Morro Coyo—my invitation was open-ended—but perhaps we can join forces later. And in the meantime I'll be very glad of your company to Stockton, next week.” Scott's smile was thin. “Very glad indeed.”
Charles bowed and would have said more, but at that moment the waiter appeared with two servings of Beef Richelieu with Madeira sauce, served with Chateau potatoes and Flamiche aux Poireaux, and Charles was rather too occupied with that for some little time to bother with conversation. Indeed, it was several minutes before he had attention to spare for anything other than the refreshment of his inner man.
Scott picked at the food. He didn't appear to be hungry, yet the beef was wonderfully succulent.
“Locally procured, I believe, sir, from one of the larger ranches in the south,” said the waiter when Charles complimented him. “I'll tell the chef it pleased you. As for dessert—”
“Just some fruit, please,” said Scott.
“Of course, sir. We have fresh peaches, strawberries, pomegranates—”
“At this time of year?” Charles stared. Good lord. Fresh fruit in March? He'd been expecting tinned peaches again.
“Yes, sir. I'll bring a selection. We always have fresh fruit here.” The waiter smiled and bowed. “You're in California now, sir.”
It appeared that they most certainly were.
Scott was cheerful at an annoyingly early hour the next morning.
“Well, you did say that you wanted to breakfast at the Cliff House, Charles.” And he bundled Charles into a cab with no respect for Charles's more advanced age and the unexpected (although thankfully, mild) bilious attack that an unsympathetic Scott put down to the champagne and the three Brandy Daisies that followed.
Charles, his eyes a little sensitive to the bright clear light of the Pacific coast, tipped his hat over his eyes and enjoyed the Cliff House as well as he could while feeling a trifle under par. He ignored Scott's imputation about the brandies; everyone knew of the hard heads of the Teutonic race. It was obviously something he'd eaten. For all that, they made a hearty breakfast and walked it off with a brisk tramp around the coastal paths before heading back into the city.
By daylight, the city was impressive. The newer buildings were every bit as grand as they'd seemed by lamplight the previous evening, but the streets still had something that set them apart from the cities of the east. Here and there stood the thick-walled adobe buildings that showed the city's Spanish-Mexican Heritage, mostly in the form of white-walled missions and churches that stood in massive testament to the power of religion or a great house surrounded by high walls.
“My grandfather said that when he was here twenty five years ago, this was a city of mud huts.” Scott shook his head, smiling. “I should have remembered that he has a prejudice against California. His mud hut is obviously another man's adobe palace.” His smile became a frown.
“He wasn't impressed, I take it?”
“Not at all. He said it lacked the refinement and culture of Boston or even”—and here Scott's smile looked a trifle forced—”New York.”
“I have to make my own mind up,” said Scott.
“Very wise. The older generation isn't as right as it thinks it is.”
“No, but he has his reasons. And I can imagine that all those years ago, it may not have looked as it does now. Most of the building appears to be recent.”
“Gold,” said Charles. “It's been the making of the state.” He clutched Scott's arm and nodded down the street. “Mind you, I have some sympathy for your grandfather. That is not at all refined and cultured.”
The young man in clothes of the kind they'd seen in Laramie and the other small towns slouched past, his eyes on the buildings and not where he was going. He walked as if he expected everyone to make way from him. Hardly a surprise, given the young man's armament. They dodged around him, Scott grinning as he pointed out that all the pedestrians were giving the visitor in country garb a wide berth.
“And by country garb, you mean a plaid shirt and a revolver,” murmured Charles. “Good Lord! I'd rather like to give him a wider berth, if you don't mind.”
Scott made no objection. “I may not mention that to my grandfather. I wouldn't want to increase his prejudice, if that's possible. I'll tell him how cultured San Francisco has grown, instead.”
“Although,” observed Charles, several hours later, when they found themselves in a box at the Chinese Theatre, watching acrobats tumbling and listening to discordant Oriental music, “this is not a culture that I'm used to. I was right about the cultural contrasts to be had here!”
“I don't think grandfather would appreciate it either. Nor the fact we had to get a policeman to escort us here.”
“It seemed a wise precaution. Scott, do you have any idea at all what's going on, on stage? I can't follow the plot at all.”
“I'd rather watch her than that. Look, Charles. What a beauty!” Scott nodded towards the area across the theatre from their box, where all the Chinese women sat, segregated from the menfolk in the pit beneath.
Scott had a good eye. The girl he indicated was indeed lovely, dressed in rich embroidered brocades, a gold and kingfisher-blue headdress spiked into thick hair so glossy it gleamed even in the muted theatre lights. She leant forward, watching the stage intently, presenting a perfect little profile to their admiring gaze.
“Ah, that's the sort of culture that interests you!”
“And again, not one I can mention to my grandfather.”
“You're lucky dogs, you single men. I can't afford to be dazzled by the exotic. Mrs Nordhoff has a good eye and an accurate aim with the frying pan.”
Scott laughed. The pretty Chinese girl leaned back until she was screened by an obvious duenna.
“Besides,” said Charles, gently. He indicated the crowds of Chinese in the pit. “She's too risky. They may not carry revolvers down there, but I'm told that many go armed with knives and have an acute sense of honour. You're better off with one of the ladies in that box over on this side instead.” He jerked a thumb towards a box full of the sort of lady that would give Elizabeth an apoplexy. A pretty blonde had been giving Scott the glad eye for several minutes. She had a very come-hitherish sort of smile, too, when Scott turned his attention to her. Probably rather an expensive article, that young lady, but Scott wasn't a poor man and could probably afford her.
Scott and the blonde traded glances that Charles could only describe as significant. It looked like he'd have to forgo the usual brandy and cigars before retiring for the night. It was entirely possible that Scott would have other, shapelier, companionship.
Well, he'd have to get used to exploring the city alone, since Scott was to desert him for the weekend and then for the delights of the country in the south. “I have to start some serious sightseeing if I'm to go with you to Stockton on Tuesday, to take my trip up to Yosemite to see the Big Trees. Unlike you social butterflies, I can't afford to slack off. This is work for me, don't forget.”
“It's a hard life.” The sympathy was entirely false. Scott's attention was on the blonde, one raised eyebrow and a nod sealing whatever silent negotiations they were carrying on.
Charles took the nobler road and forbore to box Scott's ears. He had learned to be good at resisting temptation. Life with Elizabeth had taught him the value of self-restraint.
The Big Trees at Yosemite were very... big.
And in all directions. He had never seen trees so vast around the trunk or so very tall.
Charles tipped his head back so far to try and see to the top of them that his hat was in danger of falling off. He clamped it on with one hand and stared upwards. Gott im Himmel. That trees should grow so tall and yet still not touch the sky... he should perhaps apologise to Alden.
Then again. Perhaps not.
Charles turned to face the guide he'd hired from the hotel at Calaveras Grove and who'd been his companion for the last week. “Pardon?”
Bill Franks waved a hand at the trees. “The trees. Big.”
It was pointless allowing himself to get agitated. Franks had the most infuriating habit of stating the obvious. “You'll find that mud a little sticky, Mr Nordhoff,” after Charles had fallen in it. “That grass is wet, Mr Nordhoff,” after Charles had sat down for a picnic lunch and regretted it the instant he felt the chill seeping into his nether regions. “Your hat's blown off, Mr Nordhoff,” after the wind snatched Charles's headgear and blew it merrily over the Nevada Falls. Charles suspected the man of wilful, subtle insolence, but every time Charles looked sharply at him, Franks looked back with such guileless innocence that he couldn't be certain.
It was infuriating, all the same, to listen to Franks' soft drawled absurdities instead of some pithy, intelligent conversion in the clipped tones of the East. Scott Lancer wouldn't have said “Big, eh?” He'd have looked at Charles sidelong and murmured, provocatively, “Now tall Agrippa lived close by—so tall, he almost touched the sky,” and wait for Charles to splutter out a furious denunciation of the barbarities that translators perpetuated on the beautiful language of the Fatherland and their destruction of one of his happiest childhood memories. And Scott would have laughed and patted him on the shoulder in consolation, and they could have enjoyed an invigorating discussion of literature or morality poems or arboriculture or even the Harvard curriculum. One of the delights of a conversation with an intelligent man was not being able to predict where it would end up. Lancer's absence was hard to bear in the face of the inanity of “Big, eh?”
He nodded to Franks and settled more comfortably into the wagon seat, pulling his copy of Whitney's “Guide to Yosemite” from his pocket. Franks had learned not to disturb him when the guide book appeared; instead he lay down under one of those Big Trees, tipped his hat over his eyes and went to sleep. Peace, at last. Charles took out his notebook.
In the ten days since he and Scott had parted company at Stockton, he'd seen a great deal more wilderness than any rational man could envisage existed. The Yosemite valley was dramatic and beautiful, more wild and untamed than anything the East had to offer. He had, despite Bill Franks' best efforts, enjoyed himself. The scenery was spectacular and the weather had brightened as spring settled in. If there were moments of stunned disbelief at some of the joys on offer to the tourist (he still couldn't quite credit the children outside Murphy's Inn trying to sell him a tarantula nest as a souvenir– what on earth did one do with a tarantula nest? And what if it still had an occupant in there, sitting on its eggs or whatever it was that spiders did in their nests?), they were balanced with those of quiet joy when he sat for hours watching the waters tumble down the Nevada Falls or fished one of the dozens of clear-watered lakes. He couldn't quite see himself as the fearless hunter looking for trophy kills in Yosemite, although Franks had offered it, but each day's excursion to a new lake or fall or outlook had been a very pleasant diversion.
But he'd had enough of it. He had more than enough notes to write an article that would rival Whitney for completeness. He didn't need any more. Time to go back to the hotel, buy a souvenir or two to take home to Elizabeth—she'd love a pincushion carved from sequoia bark, he was sure—and pack his bags.
Time to go back to San Francisco. The wilderness was all very well, but Charles was a city man, through and through – urban man, personified. Not urbane perhaps, but most definitely urban. There was only so much green that he could take before being overcome with schwermut, and an intense longing for paved streets, stone buildings and the company of people who could manage more than “Big, eh?” as a conversational ploy.
He just wasn't bucolic enough to appreciate the country. And he didn't regret that for a moment.
He got to San Francisco in time to join the crowds on Telegraph Hill on what turned out to be a pleasantly exciting day. He sent a short account to the Morro Coyo address that Scott had given him, along with a description of the delights of Yosemite that Scott had ...sacrificed on the altar of familial duty, being the stern Puritan you are. But more to the point, my dear Scott, you missed a true spectacle yesterday when a Mr Von Schmidt, an engineer (and a fellow Prussian whose acquaintance I have now made), dynamited a large rock out of the Bay here in San Francisco. He told me that Blossom Rock was so called because a ship of that name discovered the rock by scraping its keel over it, and it is considered a serious impediment to navigation. I dare say the captain of the Blossom would not argue with that conclusion. Von Schmidt's engineers have worked for six months to excavate the interior of the rock and fill it with explosive and yesterday afternoon was the denouement, the grand moment when all his work would be successful or for naught... At three thirty, they used wires and batteries, and with whatever legerdemain it takes for these affairs, effected an explosion that sent a column of rock and water more than two hundred feet into the air! Such a noise, like the clap of thunder on Judgement Day. I don't know if I was deafened more by the explosion or by the cheers of the crowds around me—the citizens made it a holiday and came in their thousands to enjoy the sight of water and rocks hurling themselves towards heaven only to fall again within seconds, as even a passing acquaintance with Newton might have warned them would be the outcome had any of them been of scientific bent. Still they made a carnival of it and were very convivial. I've never had so much hospitality pressed on me by so many strangers... I find myself a trifle under the weather this morning...
He was travelling after that and it was a few weeks before he got a reply, and that was guarded and said very little. Scott had had some adventure or other, it appeared, although details were not forthcoming, and was staying with his relatives for the foreseeable future. I don't know when I'll return to Boston. Not for some time, I think. And he was very wry about the adjustments to be made: I'd prepared myself for meeting family that I knew about and had never seen, but let me assure you, Charles, that's a sinecure compared to meeting, unprepared, family I'd not only never met but didn't know about either. I'm still reeling from that little surprise. Still he was well and settling in to country life down in the San Joaquin learning to be a rancher and cattleman, and hoped Charles was enjoying his tour.
Charles was enjoying himself, on the whole. It would have been pleasanter to have had a travelling companion to share it with, of course; sightseeing alone wasn't as satisfying. And heavens, to a devoted family man it seemed far too long since he'd seen Elizabeth and the boys. The occasional letter and the increasing pile of presents—the boys would love the Indian arrowheads—weren't enough to fill a gap that he hadn't expected to feel so keenly. Scott was luckier than he knew, visiting family, however unexpected they were. Charles pushed the letter into the side pocket of his valise. In the meantime there were new acquaintances to make and if he didn't get a move on, he'd be late for dinner with Von Schmidt, who had a private supply of proper beer imported from Bavaria. In the absence of family and friendly travelling companions, courting another of those odd bilious attacks by spending time with a convivial fellow countryman would have to be some sort of compensation.
For the next month, Charles divided his time between exploring every last corner of the city, and the countryside round about. He wandered north into the Napa valley to admire the farms and vineyards there, spending more than a week at the spa at Calistoga, watching the geysers and taking a daily soda bath in the hot springs. In his twice-weekly letter to Elizabeth, he made a great story (he hoped) to amuse her and the children, recounting his trials and tribulations in being wrapped in healthful mud and hosed down later with hot spring water. It did nothing for his health, so far as he could see, except to provide him with some amusement and pickle him like a walnut in brine.
At the end of May he went to Sacramento. Alden wrote to say that he had pulled some strings and Charles was to interview none other than C P Huntingdon, one of the four businessmen behind the Central Pacific Railroad, and get the story of the Transcontinental direct from this important and influential equine's mouth. And that meant, of course, that Alden had been reminded who was paying for this little jaunt and what, exactly, was required in return. A large part of Charles's article would have to be given over to extolling the greatness of the man and Charles wasn't naive enough to think he could do anything about it. Except make the story stirring and interesting, of course. He was just the man for that.
Still, he treated himself to a new notebook. He rather thought that he'd need all the help he could get.
He bought the notebook in a shop on J street. It was a dark and curious place, where he had to almost wriggle his way in past a porcelain Chinaman with a nodding head, almost as tall as he was—and the Nordhoff physique, sturdy and as upright as the moral rectitude embodied therein, was not one that lent itself to wriggling. Charles, performing the manoeuvre with as much grace as he could muster, spent a happy hour in a shop full of curios imported from the Far East, from China or Nippon. He bought himself a notebook bound in padded boards over which a dark green Shantung silk had been stretched, the silk ornamented with Chinese alphabet characters embroidered in a dull gold thread picked out with scarlet. A motto, translated the clerk, that ensured that he who wrote within the notebook would pen words of burning gold that would speak to the hearts of men for a thousand generations.
In all probability it really translated to something closer to “Laundry List”, but Charles allowed himself to be charmed and bought Elizabeth a pretty Chinese Goddess, all white porcelain and gold leaf, in gratitude for the compliment. The clerk, obviously a heretic at heart, wrapped the Goddess in newspaper.
It was two days later that, having found a pretty silk scarf to protect the Goddess better for her journey to New York and coincidentally provide another present to propitiate his own domestic goddess on his return home, Charles unwrapped the little statuette and in an idle moment, smoothed out the old wrapping and read the front page of the Sacramento Daily Record Union for 19 April. The newspaper was more than six weeks old. He didn't expect to find anything to interest him beyond some idle speculation about the advertisements and the stories behind them. Some were just sad, but some were fascinating. Whyever would anyone want to exchange a sewing machine for a horse? The two weren't even slightly comparable!
His eye was drawn to the second news article.
He wasn't normally given to leaping to his feet with a shout of dismay loud enough to bring the landlady of his boarding house running, or rushing around his room pushing his belongings into valises and giving poor Mrs Dane a dozen conflicting instructions for her harried staff—one superannuated Mexican and a cook-maid—or yelling for someone to take a telegram down and run to the nearest telegraph office with it and be quick about it, or shouting for Mrs Dane to find him a map of the San Joaquin valley, or loudly demanding the stage timetable, or scattering tips in all directions and running, literally running, to the stagecoach stop with his coat-tails flying and his hat gone.
But he did all these things, ending by hurling himself onto the afternoon stage for Merced-Fresno-Green River just before the driver slammed shut the door and started the horses for the south.
The Sacramento Daily Record Union, April 19 edition
The morning after his arrival in Green River, Charles had just settled into a corner of the hotel dining parlour for a civilised late breakfast when Scott Lancer walked in. At least, the man looked a little like Scott Lancer. Charles stared, taken aback.
Scott started toward him, beaming. “Charles! You're the last person I expected to see here, so far south of the fleshpots of San Francisco. I'm delighted to see you.”
Charles frowned. “Who are you?”
“You have a faint resemblance to a gentleman of my acquaintance, but he is a Boston Brahmin of the finest stamp. A gentleman, as I said, and he dresses like one.” Charles poked an accusatory finger into the sleeve of Scott's jacket. “This never came from Brooks Brothers.”
Scott laughed and used his hat, a very new-looking broad-brimmed affair, to whack dust out of his brown work trousers, ignoring Charles's observation that all that did was settle the dust all over his, Charles's, breakfast (“Although it may be a condiment that actually improves the flavour.”). Scott wore a plain beige calico shirt under a darker beige jacket, with a blue handkerchief knotted around his neck. He looked tanned and healthy and his eyes were bright.
He was wearing a gun.
Charles forbore to comment on the gun directly but he made sure Scott saw him looking at it. He grasped the hand that Scott thrust out at him, holding it in both of his for a moment. “My dear Scott! How very rustic of you!”
“It's protective colouration.” Scott grinned and dropped into an empty chair when Charles released him. “Do you remember the young man we saw in San Francisco and how out of place he looked? Here it's exactly reversed. I blend in—if not quite seamlessly—whereas you, Charles, are a touch conspicuous.”
“Clothes, if not manners, make the man, you mean. You're a rancher now, I take it?”
“My... “ Scott stopped, shook his head and started again. “I was told, when I rigged myself out western style, that I was all hat and no cattle—”
“Not a compliment, I take it?”
“You may indeed take it, Charles. And since Johnny later let his horse walk all over my hat at the end of the roundup and then made me buy this one, I don't suppose he was too impressed by the hat either.” Scott shook his head again, but now he was laughing. “Still, these days he allows that I have the hat and maybe the odd little dogie to my credit. In other words, Charles, I most certainly wasn't a rancher when I got here, and I'm not one yet, not by a country mile. But I'm learning to be one. I'm learning fast and I'm learning well.”
“I hope this Johnny person is helping?”
Scott hesitated. “He isn't a rancher, either. I guess you could say we're learning together. He knows a little more about ranching than I do, from living out here. As for the clothes—and again he gave that snort of laughter—”he didn't think much of those, either. They aren't the style in these parts, he said. He's right, too. You can't dress in a bespoke suit to rope and hold down calves to be branded. Well, you can, but if I had, and my tailor saw the results, he'd have refused to allow me through his hallowed portals ever again. He doesn't make suits, you understand, so much as create art. He'd have the vapours over what a roundup does to a man's clothes.”
Charles grinned. He had never seen Scott so animated. What had happened to the languid young man of the train journey? “Branding calves? Good lord, how... how physical! This is what's keeping you from returning to Boston?”
Scott hesitated, but only for an instant. “Yes. Yes. It's part of it.”
“And your critic, Johnny?”
“He's a part of it, too.” Scott picked up the coffee pot and shook it. “But what are you doing here? I was astonished when your telegram arrived yesterday evening.”
“Yesterday evening? I was here in Green River by then. I sent that telegram when I left Sacramento two days ago.”
“This is the country, Charles. Things take a little longer.”
Hmmph. And that was just an excuse for inefficiency. “I'm delighted that they treated it with all due urgency.”
Scott grinned. He twisted in his chair and raised the coffee pot to attract attention. The hotel manager was busying himself at one end of the room, fussing over a table setting. Scott appeared to know him. “Good morning, Mr Phipitt. Could you arrange for more coffee, please? I don't want to steal all Mr Nordhoff's and it's hours since I breakfasted.”
The manager bobbed up and down. “Someone'll be right on it, Mr Lancer.”
“Hours since? Stiff necked Puritan,” mocked Charles.
Scott turned back, settling himself in comfortably. “I'm told the Puritans had a very strong work ethic.”
“Hearsay knowledge only, of course.”
Charles gave another snort. Louder.
“Don't mock! I'm learning to get up early these days and I've usually done half a day's work by the time I used to roll out of bed in Boston. It's part and parcel of ranching, I'm told.”
“No doubt by Johnny.”
Scott's turn to snort. “He's far less of a Puritan than I am! Now, delighted as I am to see you, Charles, I had no idea you planned to come this far south.”
“I thought I might go to the area around Los Angeles and perhaps even San Diego,” said Charles, a touch mendaciously since he hadn't had any thoughts of the kind.
“We're a long way north of both, and one would usually go by sea from San Francisco.”
Charles grimaced. Bluff called. “You aren't far from Tulare Lake.” He waved a hand in the vague direction of a window and swept it around in a circle, all the better to indicate his weak grasp of geography. “There are Trees there, I'm told. Somewhere over there, anyway.”
“And you didn't get your fill of trees at Yosemite?”
And double bluffed. “Well, there's no denying that one tree looks very like another.” Charles let his hands make tall tree shapes in the air, watching Scott's mouth twitch as the younger man tried not to laugh.
“I say the same about cattle.” Scott looked up with a smile to thank the waiter who brought the coffee. He waited until it had been served and the waiter gone again before he prodded a little more. “Charles?”
Charles drew out his notebook. It attracted a raised eyebrow and a Filled up the other one, have you?—a deliberate provocation that he ignored. He unfolded the newspaper page tucked inside the cover and pushed it across the table to Scott. He had used his blackest pencil to ring the article about an attack on a ranch in the San Joaquin valley, in which the name of Mr Scott Lancer, lately of Boston, featured in the recorded heroics.
Scott smoothed it open. He looked absurdly guilty, like a school boy caught near a broken window, bat in hand. “Ah.”
“You said in your letter that you'd an exciting time, but this surprised me.”
“It surprised me too, at the time.” Scott laughed. He shook his head. “And you're looking for a story.”
That stung. “I was concerned for someone I had come to think of as a friend,” said Charles, sharp as glass.
Scott was the one to grimace this time. The tips of his ears went pink. “I'm sorry, Charles. But.. yes, it was exciting. I wasn't expecting to find the ranch under attack. One expects an invitation to a reunion... well, one gets one, anyway, however unexpected. And there's nothing unusual about being invited to a ball or dinner or”—and here he laughed—”a shooting party, but I hadn't expect to be invited to a shooting party of quite this kind! There was no time to think about it. I was thrust right into the middle of it all, without warning, without the chance to prepare. I had to act, to do something to stop what was going on. It all came to a head within a couple of days and then... and then it was over.” He shrugged. “Pardee was dead, his men scattered, and the ranch just picked up almost as if Pardee didn't matter. A few weeks later, the spring roundup started and that just took so much work it pushed Pardee and what he was, and what he did, right out of the picture.”
“The newspaper talks about a land battle.” Charles tapped the newspaper sheet. “Dawn, April ninth. Land war in the San Joaquin.”
“I doubt it lasted fifteen minutes, Charles. It wasn't much of a battle. I knew what I was doing, you know. I was in the War. Those were real battles; battles that make what happened here seem less than a skirmish, the sort of thing that back then I wouldn’t have even remembered the next day.” Scott swallowed visibly and he raised the coffee cup to his lips, but if he intended to hide the sudden tremble, it didn't work. “I've seen a lot worse. I've been in a lot worse.”
Ah. Thought so. Thought that something like the War was at the back of whatever troubled Scott Lancer. Charles had seen all too many young men march cheerfully off to fight a cause they thought right and just, faces shining with an innocence that was painful in its naiveté. The innocence hadn't lasted long and none came back unchanged: sorrier, older, wiser and with the eyes of men who'd looked on death and horror. No. None came back as innocent as when they left, those that came back at all.
And he knew why.
His mouth was dry, all of a sudden. It must be this half-built little western town with only dirt roads and wooden sidewalks: the dust got everywhere. He coughed, and sipped at his coffee to wet his lips. “I wasn't a soldier but I was there, for a little while towards the very end. I did some reporting on the campaigns for the newspapers back home in New York. I saw the aftermath of the Waynesboro battle, and Five Forks.”
Scott's mouth twisted and he looked away. “I was otherwise engaged by then. A non-combatant.”
“The point I'm trying to make is that I have some idea what it's like. Just a little idea, mind you, but enough. I…” Charles hesitated. “I dream about it sometimes.”
Scott nodded. Charles remembered the semi-darkness of a stateroom on the express, and a soft, educated voice explaining that its owner preferred his privacy. Charles could well imagine why,
“I was concerned to be sure that all was well with you,” he added.
Scott smiled. “Thank you, Charles.”
Charles grinned back. “And to get the story, of course.”
Scott stared. Then he threw back his head and let out a crack of laughter so loud that the hotel manager poked his head through the doorway to see what was going on.
Charles waved the man away, still grinning. “So it was a light skirmish, but you're still feted as a hero after shooting the man responsible for so much trouble.”
Scott shook his head. “I'll be content to be a rancher, thank you! Heroics don't last, but a man can build something out here. Something worthwhile.”
“Are you being modest or was this completely exaggerated?” Charles tapped the page again. “I do wonder, sometimes, about the journalistic standards in the far-flung reaches of our wonderful, but vast, country. Did these people never learn to check their sources?”
“They tell stories, Charles.” Scott gave him a sly look. “You understand that, I'd have thought.”
“Behave, or I'll make a story out of it that will make sure you don't ever dare to go back to Boston.” Charles refilled his coffee cup. “So. The gentleman you never met. Your father.”
And there it was: the doubt that a journalist's friends all felt at some time or other, that they were no more than amusing or dramatic copy. For some reason, his was not a profession deemed to be honourable or sincere.
After a moment, Charles said, “My article is going about as well as I could expect. It's all about giving the railroads a puff of course, and most of it will be extolling the virtues of the railroad companies and the businessmen behind it. They aren't interested in anything else and I'm not so innocent that I believe the piper doesn't call the tune.”
Scott's mouth twitched into a brief smile, but his gaze was watchful.
“That's my bread and butter job, and that's why I'm here. But I'll be honest: I do hope to write my novel one day. I said to you once that I take things from the strangers I see, those I watch—a look here, a word there, anything from their accent to the fact that their lapels are dusty with snuff. A writer's task is to craft those little things, to merge and meld them, into something bright and new.” Charles leaned forward to look Scott in the eye. “Do you fear that anything you tell me or I learn, I'll put down plain and unvarnished on the page? No. Never that. But it sinking into here and here”—he tapped his temple and then his heart—”and becoming a part of that great well of things that I draw upon... then yes, that is possible. But if it ever emerges again, I'd defy you to recognise it as just you and you alone, if ever you read it. The most you'd feel is a moment of familiarity, like a fleeting memory of something you saw once. I'm not a biographer, Scott. I hope to do more than that.”
Scott sat back, watching him doubtfully.
“You aren't a stranger, you see, from whom I can take those little things with impunity and they never know it. I wasn't exaggerating when I said that I'd come to consider you a friend.”
Scott looked away, towards the window. A man went past, a silhouette against the glass. The heels of his boots could just be heard against the boards of the sidewalk, it was so quiet. Charles let it lie, allowing the silence to stretch until Scott was prepared to break it. There was nothing more he could say.
Scott took a long sip at his coffee cup, although it had to be cold by then and pretty unappetising. “I came to town in the buggy, today.”
What? Charles blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Lancer is more than a hour and half from here by buggy since we'll have to stick to the road. I think that you'll like the ranch, Charles.”
Charles was far too old to blush, but gratification had him imagining that the tips of his ears were growing warm. “My dear Scott.”
“When I told Murdoch you were here, he insisted on me coming in to invite you to stay with us. It's a good time for you to visit. We've finished the spring roundup and the pace of work has slowed. In a couple of days, we're hosting a wedding for one of our vaqueros and there'll be a fiesta to celebrate, starting tomorrow. There'll be a lot for you to put into that notebook of yours. I'm told a Californio wedding is something to behold.”
A snort was in order there. “Richard Dana already beheld it, I believe.” And when Scott turned his head, grinning, Charles added, hurriedly, “But you can never trust those rich Bostonians to get anything right. I'd better check his account for accuracy.”
“Good. We'll be delighted if you do.” Scott tossed down the last of his coffee. He took a thin letter from his breast pocket. “Listen, I have to get this into the Eastbound mail and pick up the ranch's mail. If I come back in fifteen minutes, can you be ready?”
“I can.” It would be the work of a moment to shove all his belongings back into his valise and pay his bill.
“Good.” Scott got up, stretching his already long frame. “Fifteen minutes.”
“I'll be ready. But Scott—”
“I'll be delighted to come and see how you're faring as a rancher but first, satisfy my curiosity about one thing.”
Scott stiffened, the doubtful look back.
Charles spoke in the most earnest tone he could manage. “What in heaven's name is a dogie?”
It was a quiet trip.
Scott had another thin envelope in his hands when he and Charles met again, the twin of the one he'd said he was sending East. He pushed it into a pocket when Charles approached him in the hotel lobby, but his mouth was tight and his lips thinned down. The open contentment of an hour ago was gone, and it took some time, and they were several miles out into the country, before whatever troubled Scott was pushed back under the surface and he responded to Charles's remarks with more than mere courtesies. While they didn't quite reach the conversational heights of those evenings on the train or in San Francisco—and, mind you, they weren't helped along by brandy and cigars in the buggy—Scott managed a spirited account of the recent roundup in which the aforementioned Johnny figured more than once, along with some fish from the creek. Charles enjoyed the fish joke and Scott laughed so much at the recounting of it that he almost fell off the buggy seat.
Long after they crossed the ranch boundary, the Lancer house—the hacienda, as Charles must learn to call it—came into view. It sat on a rise at the head of a small valley, gleaming whitely in the sun. The road wound around the lower slopes of the San Benito mountains, cutting through meadows filled with yellow and orange poppies mingled with blue and white lupines. The stands of trees were much sparser than at Yosemite and a great deal less imposing.
“Oaks, of some kind,” said Scott, although he was vague on the species. “I haven't had much in the way of lessons on arboriculture, although I do know that every good blade of grass on the ranch has been cultivated with a great deal of anxious care.”
Uncertain what to make of that, Charles glanced around. “It's very lush,” he agreed. Indeed, it was very pleasant. Far less wild and untamed than Yosemite, and more human as a result.
One side of Scott's mouth curled up. “Very.” He waved a hand towards a bunch of cattle, all turning white faces to look at them pass. “For their benefit.”
“They look very... sturdy.”
Scott choked out a laugh. “They are that. Particularly when you're trying to wrestle one down to the ground. Murdoch tells me that they aren't pure Hereford, but crossbred with Californian longhorns. That makes them hardy, but still good beef cattle.”
“I see,” said Charles. Again, Scott had referred to his father by name. And yet Scott wasn't innately disrespectful. Interesting.
“What, not taking notes? You're getting into bad habits, Charles.”
“I suspect that Mr Lancer will tell me it all again when we meet. Gentlemen are apt to want to impress new acquaintances.”
“I'm sure he will.”
Mmmn. Charles glanced at Scott sidelong, but Scott seemed intent on his driving, flipping the reins and encouraging the nearside horse, which seemed inclined to shy at the dust blowing about its feet. “It's a big ranch, I understand.”
“Biggest one in this part of the San Joaquin certainly.” Scott waved a hand behind them. “The hacienda sits up here, where it's a little more protected, but most of the ranch spreads out into the San Joaquin valley proper. Over a hundred thousand acres of it.”
Charles had worked very hard in his professional life to cultivate an air of never being impressed by mere size and wealth, but how big? That was a very large tract of land indeed.
The road turned on itself, starting to switchback down the slope towards the house. Scott had a deft hand with the buggy horses, turning the little carriage neatly.
“You'll find that Murdoch's very proud of what he's built here.” And there it was again, that little touch of acid in Scott's tone. “As of course he should be. It's been his focus for many years.”
The road passed under a large adobe arch, with an ornate capital L incised into it.
“The Lancer brand.” Scott indicated it with a nod. “As I said, it's used on all our cattle as our mark of ownership and branding the new calves is the reason we do the roundup. The cattle roam freely for the most part, although we're fencing pastures nearer the hacienda. Without the brands, we'd forever be at war with our neighbours over who owns what. We'll be at the hacienda in a few minutes.”
The house was enormous. Adobe, Charles surmised, like so many houses of the area: the thick, dried mud walls ensuring it was cool in summer, warm in winter. Tall windows studded the ground floor with smaller ones in the story above, topped with a tower and a red-tiled roof. Despite its solidity, it wore a gracious look.
“It's about fifty years old, I understand; built by a Don Velásquez. He sold the land and the house, which was then only half-finished, to Murdoch and my mother before the Mexican War.” Scott glanced up at the tower as they drove along a narrow lane, bordered with lupines and other early summer flowers. Someone was up there; Charles saw a hat waved in the air. Scott relaxed. “We're still being careful,” he said, and drew up in front of the main door.
A giant came out to meet them, a young girl in his wake. Großer Gott! What a man! Six and a half feet, he must be, at the very least.
Charles flicked a glance at Scott. “And I thought you were more than tall enough,” he murmured, preparing to get down.
“The lesser son of a mighty sire, am I,” said Scott, grinning. Then, louder and cheerfully, no trace of any other emotion in his tone: “Murdoch, this is the friend I spoke of, Charles Nordhoff. We travelled west together. Charles, this is m... this is Murdoch Lancer.”
Charles's hand was engulfed and shaken. It hurt less than he feared. The tingling in his fingers went away quite quickly after he worked them, unobtrusively.
Lancer was affable enough, smiling and welcoming. “Good to meet you, Nordhoff. Welcome to Lancer.”
There was the merest hint of an accent to his voice and like Charles's own, it wasn't every word, just a slight tinge to show that he too had come to this country from across the world. Scotland, wasn't it, that Scott had said on the train? His father had come from Scotland, thirty or so years before. There wasn't much of the Scot left in there, but a faint ghost sounded in the Guid to meet you...
The girl came forward, smiling. She was dressed in the simple country clothes that Charles had come to expect in the West. It was the townsman's idea of a milkmaid, personified, but she was pretty and sweet-voiced as she made Charles welcome.
“My ward, Teresa.” Lancer laid his hand on the top of her head for a moment, and astonishingly she didn't crumple under the weight. Lancer turned towards the group of hands over by a near by fence. “Carlos! Come and take care of the horses and bring Señor Nordhoff's bags inside, por favor.”
“Si, Patrón.” A young Mexican slid past Charles, giving him a wide smile as he did so, and went for the horses' heads.
“Come on in, Nordhoff.” Lancer waved one of those big hands towards the door under the portico. “Come on in.”
“He'll likely offer you a drink,” came Scott's soft voice in his ear.
At this early hour? It was barely mid-morning. Charles followed Lancer into the cool, dim hallway of the house and into a very large room. It wasn't a fashionable room but it welcomed him with warm, dark colours that were easy on the eye after the brightness of the early summer day, and the thick rugs on the polished floors cushioned his feet. A dining table and chairs stood to one side, while a long sofa and two arm chairs were grouped for conversation before the large white fireplace. It was a work room too: bookcases lined one wall and a big desk had been set before the open French windows.
No flounces or furbelows, just subdued upholstery and plain curtains without
the lace panels and swags that Elizabeth considered so essential to her
happiness and wellbeing. Instead, good paintings hung on the panelled walls,
the wide mantelpiece held a couple of silver-framed photographs and a pipe
rack, and a large model ship stood on a side table. It was a man's room. It
reminded Charles of his club in New York: a little shabby around the edges,
like an old suit that had worn soft to fit every little vagary of the human
form, too threadbare to be fashionable but far too comfortable to throw out.
He liked the room. It said a lot about the man who lived in it.
It would be interesting to know if the man's son felt the same sense of welcome. The evidence so far was ambivalent and contradictory.
Charles allowed Murdoch Lancer to usher him towards the sofa set before the fireplace and accepted Miss Teresa's offer of refreshment before lunch.
Scott took one of the easy chairs and stretched out long legs. “You'll need refreshment before I take you on the Grand Tour this afternoon, Charles. Can you ride?”
“Indifferently. I suppose I might manage.”
“You can take a buggy up as far as the South Mesa road, Scott.” Murdoch Lancer reached for one of the pipes from the rack. “There's a lot of nice country over that way.”
There was a surprise intervention. “Or we can find him a nice, quiet horse. That nag you picked out for Boston the first day, Teresa. That might do if it ain't crow bait yet.”
Charles jumped. Scott and Murdoch jumped. Teresa let out a tiny squeak. Charles hadn't heard a thing to herald the arrival of the young man standing inside the French windows. It looked like no one else had heard anything either. The new arrival pushed his hat back, never taking his eyes from Charles.
Charles stared back. His first thought that here was someone not quite so tall as Scott and even more dwarfed by Murdoch Lancer; not quite so dark as the Mexican outside, though he was as dark as Scott was fair; not quite so familiarly dressed in his rose-pink shirt, covered in embroidery, that tucked into tight suede pants decorated down the sides with silver coins or buttons. But the thought didn't last past the instant in which it formed. There was suppressed energy in the way the man came into the room and something so chilled and watchful in his eyes, a startling blue in his tanned face, that Charles dropped his gaze, uncertain. There was nothing 'not-quite' about this young man. Nothing at all.
“Hey,” said a soft voice.
Charles looked up again just as the young man smiled.
It transformed him. The energy and watchfulness were there, still, but now he was as vivid and as unexpected as his bright clothing. He took off the hat and dropped it onto the desk top, sending a couple of loose papers fluttering in a tiny puff of dust.
“There you are! Giving everyone heart attacks as usual. You should wear your spurs.” Scott jumped to his feet to grasp the newcomer's arm, and tugged him further into the room. “Charles, this is the trampler of hats and the disparager of Eastern dandies aspiring to be ranchers—”
Johnny's voice was a soft country drawl. “You'll do to ride the range with, Boston.”
“I'm honoured! This is the Surprise, Charles. The unexpected relative I mentioned in my letter.” Scott smiled, and it was genuine, without restraint; unambivalent. “This is my brother. This is Johnny.”
Breakfast next morning was at an hour that even the Pilgrim Fathers would think puritanically early. Determined to be a good guest and get there at the unbelievable time that Murdoch Lancer had named, Charles stumbled into the kitchen to find the entire Lancer family watching his progress, each wearing a poorly hidden smile.
“We're having a late breakfast today,” remarked Scott, when Charles made it to the table. “It being a holiday.”
Charles cast him a look of acute dislike and observed to the company at large that since he'd seen Scott in his natural habitat, crawling out of bed at noon after a night celebrating the successful conclusion of some business for his grandfather, he couldn't believe that someone hadn't had to drag Scott down to breakfast by the heels. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Murdoch Lancer stiffen but when he glanced that way, Murdoch had raised his coffee cup and his face was hidden.
“The first week or two, I heard Murdoch encouraged him along with cold water from the jug.” Johnny pushed the coffee pot towards Charles with a slight smile and a nod.
“How would you know?” demanded Scott. “You were lying upstairs with Teresa and Maria running around to indulge your every wish. Besides, if there are worms about out there, they're safe from early birds with bright pink plumage. You got here exactly two minutes before Charles did this morning.”
“It ain't pink. It's faded red.” Johnny wore the same embroidered shirt from the day before.
“Pink,” repeated Scott, grinning.
“Of course.” Charles poured coffee that looked and smelled strong enough to fell an entire herd of oxen. “The report in the Record-Union mentioned you'd been injured, Johnny. I hope you're fully recovered.”
“Fine, thanks. It's been almost two months and finally they're letting me do some work.” Johnny gave Murdoch a hard look. “I ain't used to being coddled.”
“I wasn't going to let you work fully before Sam said you could, Johnny. That bullet came close to the bone.” Murdoch didn't appear to be unduly concerned, although Charles, in his shoes, would prefer not to have that cold stare turn his way. It was rather daunting.
“Johnny fretted over the restrictions that Sam, the local doctor, put on him,” explained Scott. “Although since he's been working a full load for at least the last three weeks, I'm not so sure why he's still gnawing on old bones like that.”
Johnny shrugged and grinned. “It's about keeping up with you, Boston.”
“There'll be plenty of time to catch up.” Murdoch twisted in his chair. “Maria, is there more coffee?”
Scott tutted with displeasure. “I keep telling you that it's Scott, not Boston. Boston is just where I'm from.”
Johnny gave him a lazy smile. “Sure thing, Boston. I'll remember.”
Maria, the housekeeper, put a fresh coffeepot onto the table and a full plate in front of Charles, offering him a soft greeting in Spanish before whisking herself off back to the stove. Charles looked from his plate to Scott for enlightenment.
“A traditional Mexican breakfast, Charles. Sincronizadas. Tortillas with cheese and ham.”
Johnny corrected Scott's pronunciation, with a You told me you want to learn, brother when Scott made a mild protest. He took a big bite of his own breakfast. “Try it. Scott's right about it being a holiday today so there's gorditas de harina with cajeta de membrillo and dulce du leche to come. Maria's a good cook.”
She was, if dinner the previous evening had been anything to judge by. It might not have reached the heights of the Beef Richelieu that he and Scott had enjoyed in San Francisco, but it had been a wonderful meal, better than the offerings from most of the hotels he'd stayed in. The sincron-whatevers were excellent, and went well with the spicy eggs that Maria spooned onto everyone's plates. He'd had the eggs several times since his arrival in California, but these were the among the best he'd tasted.
What's more, that was the longest speech Charles had heard from Johnny since his arrival. Johnny had been friendly enough over dinner, but, in retrospect, Charles could barely believe he'd ever thought that Scott was reserved, not in comparison with his close-mouthed younger brother. A family characteristic, then, that Johnny took to extremes. He'd responded politely when spoken to but he'd seemingly been content to let Scott and Charles run the conversation, with Murdoch, a surprisingly erudite and educated man out here in the wilderness, gamely keeping them company.
Well, such a step forward ought to be encouraged. This was such an intriguing situation—the only information that Scott had let drop was that Johnny was the son of Murdoch's second wife and hadn't grown up at Lancer either—and the only way that Charles would ever get to the bottom of the family mysteries would be to get the Lancers to talk, even about innocuous things. A man, especially one with an intelligent and enquiring mind, could learn so much from casual, inconsequential conversation.
A little encouragement was necessary. “What are the other dishes you mentioned, Johnny? I'm not familiar with them.”
“Little corndough cakes, sweetened with sugar or honey. You spread 'em with the cajeta de membrillo – that's quince paste – or dulce...” Johnny frowned. “I don't know how to translate that properly. Dulce du leche means sweet milk, but it's thick and you spread it with a knife.”
“Very sweet,” said Scott, shuddering. “Too sweet for me. It's like soft toffee, Charles, and used in desserts and sweets. You should try both. The quince paste Maria makes is wonderfully tart.”
Charles needed no urging. He was going to try everything.
Well, he amended later, he was going to try everything in the culinary department. The rest of the day's entertainment would be beyond him.
“It's beyond me, too,” conceded Scott. “The sort of skills you're going to see are the result of years of training.”
While he and Scott had toured the ranch the previous day, Johnny and the vaqueros had roped off a short racecourse, and a large ring with a rectangular section leading off it in a nearby meadow. A charreada arena, Johnny called it. Charles walked over to it with Scott and Johnny, while the latter explained how it would be used.
“It's a contest. The vaqueros will show off how well they can ride, and rope, tame a wild mustang and ride bulls—”
“Bulls?” Charles stared.
“Yup. Bulls. Well, in a real charreada they would. I don't think Murdoch would ever go for that, though, and we can't build a proper arena to hold one, so this won't be a full charreada. No bulls.” There was regret in Johnny's voice. “Still, you'll see a lot that won't ever happen back East. We'll have Cala de Caballo—that's controlling a horse just using the rein—and maybe Colas en el Lienzo. That's where the vaquero brings down a bull from horseback, only here it'll be calves. And El Paso de la Muerte—the pass of death. That's jumping from one horse onto an unbroken one, bareback, and riding the bronc until it stops bucking.” Johnny's eyes lit up and something in his tone had Scott protesting.
“No, Johnny. No way. Murdoch will kill you if you try that.”
“He can't stop me.”
Scott's eyebrow quirked up into a quizzical arch. “You want to put money on that, little brother? Toledano will be running the betting, as usual.”
“Oh well,” said Johnny, and laughed.
Scott glanced at Charles. “Breaking a wild horse is dangerous enough, Charles, without trying to do it bareback. I've not attempted horse breaking, yet.”
“I can't ever imagine myself attempting it,” said Charles, with perfect truth.
“Pfft.” Johnny waved a dismissive hand. “It's not ridin’ bareback that's the problem. It's missing the bronc on the jump, but havin' the three riders chasing it around the ring not miss you.”
These hearty young men of the soil seemed to be nerveless, because Johnny sounded almost eager at the idea of being trampled by wild horses and wilder riders. Charles stepped carefully over a large cowpat. “Have you tried it?”
“Are you loco? I can break a horse okay, but I'm not that good.” Johnny pushed his hat back on his head. “Reckon I'll try the horse races though. We set out a good quarter-mile course close in, and Cip said that other years they've done longer races out to the lake and back.”
Scott shook his head. “Every cowboy thinks he has a racehorse in his string. You willing to take a bet, Johnny?”
“I'll see anything you bet and double it. There's not a horse on the ranch can beat Barranca.”
“We shall just have to see about that. Quarter mile race? Crusoe's been spoiling for a run. Five dollars says he'll run Barranca into the ground.”
Charles found himself holding out his hand, to have each brother slap a five dollar bill into it. “I'll try not to lose it. I'm honoured by your trust.” He folded the bills carefully and put them away. “You know a great deal about this sort of thing, Johnny, and I notice you seem to speak Spanish very well. The Mexican influence in California must still be very strong.”
He thought that Johnny stiffened slightly, but maybe he imagined it. Johnny's fingers tap-tap-tapped on the silver plaques decorating the broad belt around his waist, but his smile was warm.
“I was brought up in Mexico, my mother's country, speaking Spanish. But yeah, California's only been gringo twenty-odd years. The old way of life still goes on, with people like our segundo, Cipriano, around to keep up the traditions. Today'll be a mix of Californio and Anglo things—races, the charreada, races and rope twirlin' for the kids and more food than a man can eat. Whatever we can do to make sure it's a holiday for the hands. Workin' a roundup's hard on a man.”
“Well, it's hard on a man if he isn't sitting back watching the day herd all the time,” said Scott, grinning.
Whatever that meant, it was a sore spot with Johnny. He said something in Spanish that sounded vituperative.
Charles listened with interest, intrigued by the notion that Johnny had grown up in Mexico. Had Murdoch Lancer raised neither of his sons? “German's very good for cursing in, too. I can say something inoffensive, and it make it sounds so very abusive.” He obligingly spat out a few words with as much venomous passion as he could muster. “Mein Onkel hat Mundgeruch und starke Blähungen!”
Scott frowned, his lips moving slightly as he repeated the words. He choked, his German seemingly good enough to get the gist of it.
Johnny tilted his head to one side, grinning. “What did that mean?”
“My uncle's breath stinks and he has severe intestinal gas.” Charles smiled reminiscently. “He did too, poor uncle Klaus. He was my father's brother, but I'm glad to say that his problems haven't descended to the next generation.”
Scott chuckled and Johnny laughed out loud, slapping one hand against his thigh. For the first time Charles thought that the watchful coldness had gone.
Johnny looked at Scott. “He's all right, this one. For another dandy Easterner.”
“Yes, but wait till you see him try to rope a calf.”
Charles choked, his laugh dying in his throat. “Wait! What?”
The brothers, side by side, watched him. Scott smiled. Johnny tilted his head to one side again, consideringly this time, and smiled. They looked so dissimilar, one so dark and the other fair, but at that moment Charles detected a most unholy likeness.
Oh yes, they were definitely related.
The neighbouring ranch owners started to arrive by eight-thirty, and within the hour every inhabitant of half a dozen ranches was milling around the ranch house and adjacent pastures. Abnormally early hours were kept in the country, it seemed. Charles could imagine his neighbours' faces if he turned up for a party at a time when they'd be breakfasting, and the mental image was not a pleasing one. Here, the day was already well underway.
The pattern was the same in each case. The women and children came in buggies and wagons, surrounded by their phalanx of menfolk and ranch-hands, many of the latter Mexican. The women greeted each other and bustled off to the big kitchen where, said Scott, Maria and Teresa and their helpers had been cooking for days. The men wandered around the barns and yards, talking about cattle and looking critically at the horses. The hands gathered at the charreada arena.
Charles was left with Scott. Johnny vanished when the first buggy rolled in.
“He doesn't like crowds much,” said Scott, unperturbed. “He'll come back when the races start. Come and meet the neighbours.”
Charles was introduced to more people than one man, even a man of his own astute intelligence and memory, could possibly remember. “How many people are you expecting, Scott?” he asked when Scott finally ran out of ranching families, and even a few townsfolk, to bring to his notice.
“Couple of hundred, I think.” Charles's face must have shown all too much of what he felt, because Scott laughed. “It'll be quieter tomorrow at the wedding. That'll just be our own hands and the bride's family and their workers. I didn't think to ask Jaime if he'd mind if we attended the ceremony in Morro Coyo but I can't imagine there'll be a problem.”
Charles watched teams of Lancer's vaqueros carry tables out into the meadow and set them up in long rows. A stream of women ran back and forth with tablecloths and dishes. “Except that I don't have a gift... oh wait. Do you think they'll like a porcelain Chinese goddess?”
Scott was really very bad at hiding when he was amused. “I'm sure they'd be delighted.”
“That's a weight off my mind. I can get another for Elizabeth. What's next on the programme for today?”
“The horse races to kick things off, some races for the children—Johnny said they'll use the same quarter mile course but not, one hopes, at the same time—then lunch, and then the charreada this afternoon, I believe.” Scott looked up as Murdoch yelled something. “And I think it's about to start.”
No one could ever accuse Murdoch of not being tall enough to be seen in a crowd, since he stood a half-head taller than any other man on the place, but he still clambered onto a pile of hay bales to make his welcome speech from an even more imposing elevation. A man with a sense of occasion then. His speech was short, jovial and surprisingly amusing, the slight burr a little more obvious now that he speaking to a large audience. He garnered more than a few cheers when he declared the fiesta open, and led the charge towards the meadow and the short race track, a handsome woman on his arm.
Scott had to collect his horse from the barn. “Cipriano said he'd have Crusoe saddled ready for me. I'm looking forward to teaching Johnny a lesson in humility.”
Charles laughed. “I hope you get the opportunity.”
“So do I.” Scott grimaced. “Oh, so do I! I'll never hear the end of it if he wins.”
The barn was almost empty. A couple of tardy cowboys were saddling their horses, running around with buckets and tack. One brushed past Scott as he hurried out, leading a rough-coated dun horse. He mumbled something as he went that might have been an apology. And it might not. The tone of voice was not conciliatory. The other cowboy followed him, only throwing a glance Scott's way.
Scott stared after them for an instant, his mouth turned down, before shaking his head. He stepped over an empty water bucket and led his own horse out of the stall, checking the saddle and tack were good and tight.
“Who was that?”
“Beedie Simpson and Wilf Travis. They aren't regular workers here, but hands hired for the roundup and summer work.”
“They didn't seem friendly.”
Scott stood stiff and still, his right hand on the saddle. He used his other to gather the reins, giving this simple task all his attention for a moment. “I think... I think they may have fought in the War. Johnny said he thought they were from East Texas, and they still have their grey greatcoats. I think they were Rebs. They aren't too friendly toward me, but I don't know if that's the War or if that's because I'm a greenhorn.”
“Someone who doesn't know anything about life out here, someone useless, someone who makes more work.”
“That's not true, though.”
“No.” Scott relaxed tense shoulders and led the horse towards the door. “I'm learning and I'm not totally useless. It isn't that I don't know anything, but the truth is that I don't know much.”
“As you said, you're learning a new life. I know for myself, that takes time. Coming to America... hah...” Charles huffed out a little laugh. “That was so different I felt I was dizzy with it, for months. And yet here I am, the perfect American. We all adjust.”
Scott paused and looked at him. Then he smiled. “I'm glad I took that train, Charles.”
Charles grinned back. So was he.
They met Johnny near the race course, where at least a couple of dozen potential riders were collecting together for the first race, the grandly-named Lancer Championship Stakes. He had a pretty golden horse with him of a kind that Charles had heard of, but never seen. “Palomino, and one of the best,” said Johnny, when Charles remarked on it and if he puffed out his chest a little, Charles supposed the pride could be forgiven him. If it went before a metaphorical fall, anyway. Charles would be cheering for Scott, of course.
The tall, rangy cowhand with Johnny cast a disparaging look over the horse. “He's too fancy, Johnny. A man shouldn't be ridin' somethin' that's as pretty as a whore's chemise. To my mind, anyways.”
“Wes, you don't have a mind worth a cent,” said Johnny, laughing. “Barranca's the best horse I've ever owned.” He glanced at Charles and introduced them. “This is Wes Rollins, Charles. We worked together a couple of years ago.”
“We sure did. A fracas in Sutton County, Texas, back in '68.”
“Texas?” Charles raised an eyebrow. That was a very great distance.
“Ol' Johnny here's worked all along the border. Damned if he don't know it from here to Brownsville—”
“Wes.” Johnny certainly didn't shout and he was still smiling, but Rollins reddened and shut up. He looked apologetic.
“You aren't racing, Mr Rollins?”
“The name's Wes. Call me Mr Rollins and I reckon you're signifyin' my pa, and he's one I'd rather not be reminded on. He was a mean old rip, was my pa, and even though the old skeezick's deader than a six-day-stunk-up skunk, if I have my druthers I'd never think on him again.”
Was the man even speaking English? A sidelong glance showed Charles that Scott had tilted his hat over his face to hide it, but his shoulders were shaking. The corner of Johnny's mouth quirked up, but otherwise the expression he turned on Charles was bland. Were they all having some sort of joke at his expense, making fun of him?
“But I ain't racin', no sir. I don't have no fancy pants horse like this'n”—and Wes jerked a contemptuous chin at Johnny's palomino—”so I'll save my powder for the shootin' games later on. That's if you're set on not joining in, Johnny? Wouldn't be no point shooting against you.”
Johnny's right hand settled over his gun butt. “This ain't a toy, Wes. I don't do shootin' exhibitions.”
Wes shifted his weight on his feet, shuffling his scuffed brown boots in the dust. “I know, Johnny,” he said, peaceably. “I know. I'll go see Toledano and put some dinero on you and fancypants here. A dollar should do it.” But for all his apparent scorn, he rubbed a gentle hand down the palomino's neck. “No offence, Scott, if I don't bet on you.”
Wes nodded to Charles and ambled off.
Charles watched him go, frowning. “What country is he from?”
Johnny snorted out a laugh. “Arkansas.”
Charles nodded. He could believe it.
The contestants walked their horses slowly to the starting point near the Lancer arch a quarter of a mile away, letting the horses warm up. It wasn't a sophisticated course, just a short, wide straight track laid out between two long lines of rope.
Charles joined Murdoch near the finish line and was presented to the handsome woman who was still hanging on his host's arm. Mrs Conway was a local landowner, it seemed, and a widow. Charles smiled and bowed and speculated, but hoped his face showed nothing but polite interest. The local doctor, Sam Jenkins, was nearby and introduced at the same time.
“It's a very short course,” said Charles, while his notebook scribbles resolved themselves into words like speed, endurance, grit, courage, great hearts, noble (if rustic) riders, gleaming horses with tossing heads, manes and tails streaming with wind of their speed...
“They're cow ponies.” Murdoch gave a little shrug. “And a lot of them are mustangs, anyway. Wild horses, Charles. They're strong and sturdy stock and they're perfect for working beeves, but they aren't race horses.”
“What's the prize?”
“Honour and glory, of course!” Mrs Conway had bright eyes, a smiling face and very impressive embonpoint. Charles could quite see why Murdoch Lancer was possessive.
Murdoch chuckled. “Ten dollars and a bottle of my best Scotch for the winner.”
“A man likes something to toast his honour and glory with, Aggie,” remarked Jenkins.
She rolled her eyes. “When it comes to the Conway Challenge Cup, they will not be getting a bottle of whiskey to drink from it.”
“The winner will appreciate the prize money more,” conceded the doctor in a tone which suggested he regretted Murdoch's generosity with the Scotch more than the ten dollars. “It's a big field, Murdoch. I hope I don't get any work out of this. Patching up broken bones is not my idea of a fiesta.”
Murdoch laughed. “Cipriano will do his best to spread them out, Sam.” And to Charles, “There will be more competitors in the other races, Charles. Most of the men prefer a little longer race than the quarter mile, where all that matters is speed. The other races need more tactics and endurance. Aggie's a keen judge of horseflesh—”
“Murdoch and I are rivals often enough, Mr Nordhoff.”
“—who has been known to go to any length to get to a likely horse before her friends and rivals—”
Mrs Conway had a pleasant laugh. “He who hesitates, Murdoch. He who hesitates.”
Murdoch inclined his head. “You're probably right. Still, Charles, Aggie Conway is not the woman to be beaten when it comes to horses. She's run to the finish line to buy the winner of the race before now.”
“Only once, and I got a good line of cow ponies out of him.”
How very agricultural. Charles suspected Elizabeth and Mrs Conway wouldn't have a lot in common. “How many races are there?”
“Just the three this year. We'll run the Morro Coyo Derby last and then let the children have a go with their ponies.” Murdoch nodded towards a large group of men clustered to one side, so intent on whatever was going on there that they barely had attention to spare for the actual race. “Many of them will have a month's pay riding on their favourites. They'll even bet on the children.”
Mrs Conway's fine eyes rolled again. “Toledano is incorrigible.” She tensed and stood up on tiptoe to peer up towards the starting line. “Cipriano's getting them all to the line.”
“I hope he's got plenty of help,” murmured Jenkins.
Murdoch Lancer laughed. “It's Cipriano. Not many men have the grit to stand against Cipriano.” He glanced at Charles. “My foreman, Charles, and the father of the groom at tomorrow's wedding. I'll introduce you later. He's a Californio of the old school.”
Mrs Conway let out a little squeal and Charles turned his attention to the starting line. A man stood to one side with his arm upraised. The horses were lined up in more or less a straight line.
Mrs Conway danced on the spot. “They're off! They're off!”
A pistol barked once and the man's arm dropped. They were off, to a great roar from the watching crowd, to waving hats and people running and jumping up to get a better view. They were off in a cloud of dust and the hard, implacable drum of hooves on the dry ground.
It was a clean breakaway, but in a second or two the horses were already bunched, streaming out after the leaders. Charles could see the flash of gold up there. That looked like Johnny had got a good start, hugging the near side rope and pulling ahead of the bunch behind. Half a dozen others ranged across the track, keeping the others back. It was only a couple of yards at this stage, but the leaders pulled steadily on.
Charles could hear and feel the people around him, the shouts and cries, even a prayer, Murdoch Lancer's Come on, Johnny! Come on! when he saw the palomino had made a good start, Mrs Conway's quickened breathing and her heightened colour, her eyes widening with excitement. But these things were muted, distanced. He caught his breath and held it, his heart thumping as the hoofs sounded louder.
The pace was tremendous. Look at that! A small light coloured dun horse from the bunch behind had broken through the crush and was gaining on the leaders. Charles opened his mouth to yell. He didn't know what. Just to yell something as his heart hammered and his arms rose to wave, caught up in the same excitement as everyone around him. He couldn't see Scott, though, in the bunch of riders.
“Come on, Scott!” he roared it out as the front rank of the horses bore down on the finish line. He still couldn't see him amongst the dust and shapes of men and horses, but what did that matter? “Come on!”
“Yes!” Murdoch Lancer was laughing. “Come on, Scott! Come on, Johnny!”
The dun broke through into the front rank, stretching out its neck and lengthening its stride. Just look at that! Did you see that? Neck and neck with the golden horse, and past it. Neck and neck with a big black, and past it. Pushing hard, faster and faster. Now Charles could see the foam at the horses' mouths, the whites of eyes, and the little dun coloured horse was half a length ahead.
And here they come!
A smothering cloud of dust filled with harsh breathing, shouts and yells, and the little dun put on a spurt of speed that had him across the finishing line, a full length before the black. Johnny next on the palomino, a nose ahead of a bay. The whole meadow was a mass of arms waving frantically, shouts and yells and cheers, hats being waved around heads, groans, children screaming and jumping. The bunch thundered past, big dark shapes in the dust cloud. Barely twenty seconds after it started, the race was done.
Charles turned to watch as the horses pulled up in the meadow past the spectators. Out beyond the bunched up horses, Johnny brought the palomino to a halt, his hat hanging down his back on a string around his neck. Charles could see that he was laughing.
He still couldn't see Scott.
The crowd of also-rans were still bunched together in the meadow, dismounting from their lathered horses; some red-faced from their efforts, most laughing, all of them dusty. Scott was in the middle of them, rubbing a hand down Crusoe's long face and looking rueful. He grinned at Murdoch and Charles when they made their excuses to Mrs Conway, who was in lively discussion with Jenkins about the result, and joined him.
“Well, I'll never hear the end of this! Not quite last, but I thought to do a lot better.”
“Couldn't get clear of the pack?” Murdoch smoothed his palm down the horse's neck as Johnny pushed through to join them, Barranca following along behind. Johnny, of course, was grinning widely.
“Not that so much.” Scott broke off and turned the rueful look to Johnny. “All right. Crow away.”
Scott snorted. “Well done, anyway.”
“I got clear, that's all. Did you see that little dun of Beedie Simpson's? That was some surprise. I'll bet Toledano's none too happy right now.” Johnny's grin became thoughtful. “Texan, right? Him and Travis both, I mean. I reckon that dun's got some Copper Bottom in him somewhere. Or Steel Dust, maybe.”
Copper Bottom? Steel... oh. The names men gave to their horses. Ridiculous. Ships, now... ships were different. Charles could understand naming ships, but horses should all be called Dobbin, if only ironically. “Famous horses, I take it?”
Johnny nodded. “There's places in Texas where quarter mile racing's taken more serious than God, and those two stallions stand behind most of the good bloodlines. That's no ordinary cow pony Simpson has. Shame it's a gelding.”
“I expect the horse has his regrets, too,” said Charles, drily. The laughter was gratifying.
“So what happened, Boston? Get hemmed in?”
“No. As I was about to explain to Murdoch and Charles, it wasn't that. Crusoe just didn't want to run. I couldn't get him moving.”
“That doesn't sound right.” Johnny looked around and waved a hand towards a nearby group of ranch hands. “Wes! Hey, Wes! Take Barranca back to the barn for me, amigo, will you? I won't be riding him again today.”
“Sure thing, Johnny.” Wes took the bridle from Johnny's hand and touched his hat to Murdoch. “Mr Lancer. Fine race.”
“Yes. Yes, it was.” Murdoch gave Wes a cool nod. “Thank you, Rollins.”
Johnny waited until Wes had moved off with Barranca. He said nothing. The look he gave Murdoch was colder than the one Murdoch had given Wes, by several degrees.
It was a most unfilial stare. The tension was suddenly so thick that Charles could almost see it, almost taste it in the air. A gentleman who hadn't made it his business to find things out might make his excuses and wander politely out of earshot, blandly pretending nothing was wrong. Ah, social grace and etiquette! Where would civilisation be without them?
Charles took a step to one side to show willing.
A small step.
Murdoch's mouth set into a hard line; like a steel trap, if Charles were inclined to think in clichés. Charles could see the tough rancher underneath the skin, the man who'd built up this ranch from nothing, who'd thrown himself into it. A man, from what Charles had managed to piece together so far, who had apparently borne hard losses and made hard decisions along the way.
The steel trap opened a trifle. “I don't like him, Johnny.”
“Yeah.” Johnny hunched one shoulder, the one closest to Murdoch, and turned away to face Crusoe. He ran his hands over the horse's left shoulder. The brown skin twitched under his fingers, but the horse didn't start or tremble. Johnny touched a short straight scar and looked to Scott. “You think maybe it's bothering him where that bullet creased him in Blood Rock?”
“That was a few weeks ago, now. He was barely lame the next day, and it healed quickly.” Scott rubbed the horse's nose. “I wouldn't have run him so hard if I thought that was still a problem.”
“I thought he was okay too, but I can't see why else he wouldn't run, unl—whoa!”
Johnny jumped away as Crusoe grunted, straddled his back legs and let loose with a long, pungent stream. Laughing, Johnny backed off out of range. A hoot of laughter came from the nearby group of hands; Charles pivoted on one heel to see what the noise was about. They pointed and stared, and one or two of the looks were derisory. They surely weren't surprised to see a horse stale like that? The pointing had been to Scott, rather than the horse. He turned back to watch the Lancers.
Charles remarked that one felt very close to nature out here in the country.
Scott took off his gloves, slapping the dust off them and tucked them into his waistband. The tips of his ears were red. “Horses piss in the city streets every day, Charles.”
“I'm sure they do, but in this case I can only wonder at the animal's bladder capacity and be grateful that there were no ladies present whose eyes should be shielded.”
“Try and shield Aggie Conway's eyes and she may let you live to regret it.” Murdoch clapped Scott on the shoulder. “There's your answer, Scott. He was probably just too uncomfortable to run.”
“I know I would be, all that sloshing about.” Johnny grimaced and mimed the sloshing with one hand. They all winced.
A whoop and a cheer had them looking towards the Lancer hands. Beedie Simpson had joined the hands, the fast little dun horse stepping daintily along behind him. A disgruntled Mexican, stout and middle-aged, handed money over to Wilf Travis. Travis was doing the whooping, showing his winnings to Simpson.
Mrs Conway arrived, laughing. “Goodness, what a race! Did you ever see anything like that dun? Shame he's been gelded; I could have used a horse like that to improve my breeding stock. Good race, Johnny and well done.” She paused, and said, gently, “I don't suppose... after all, you aren't used to things out here, Scott, but it's best not to water your horse before a race starts.”
Scott went scarlet. He bowed slightly. “I'll bear that in mind for next time, Ma'am.”
“We can't expect you to get all our ways at once,” she said, and administered a comforting pat on the arm. “You're doing very well, considering. I'm going to look at that pony! Come along, Murdoch.”
“I'll be there in a moment, Aggie. You go on.”
They watched her go. Scott's neck was red now, too, and his mouth was so tight his lips had thinned and almost disappeared. It gave Scott a remarkable resemblance to Murdoch, but in this case, Charles couldn't tell if it were embarrassment or temper or the effort of not telling a lady when she was out of line. He didn't know which he'd feel either. He supposed Mrs Conway meant it kindly.
Murdoch rubbed his temple with one hand, looking from Scott to Mrs Conway. “Aggie didn't... well, I'd better go and present Simpson with his prize.” His sons nodded, neither looking as if they intended to go with him, and Murdoch hesitated. “Johnny…”
Johnny's glance flickered to Charles and back to Murdoch. “Not now. I know what you think.”
“I don't suppose you do at all,” said Murdoch, heavily. He nodded to Charles and walked away to join Mrs Conway, who was talking animatedly to Beedie Simpson and stroking the dun's nose.
Johnny watched him go, but spoke to Scott. “When did you say you got your first pony, Scott?”
Scott unclamped the mouth a little. “I don't recall ever saying, Johnny, but I was six. It was a birthday present from my grandparents.”
“And you were in the cavalry during that war of yours.”
“I know that.”
“A man who's been riding all his life and a cavalryman to boot... you know better than water a horse before you wanted it to run.”
“I do know better.” Scott's tone was bone dry. “I didn't water him.”
“I didn't reckon you did.”
They looked at each other, those two disparate brothers, and again Charles saw the likeness. Johnny's eyes were a deeper blue than Scott's, but narrowed like that, both pair of eyes were the same shape and held the same considering, thoughtful gaze.
Johnny ran a hand through already dusty hair. “No one who knows horses would do it.”
“Unless it was deliberate.” Scott walked Crusoe a few paces away from the wet spot on the grass. “Simpson and Travis were the last two hands in the barn when I went to collect Crusoe.”
“Wait a moment! Are you suggesting foul play?” Charles started forward to follow him. “Over a little race like this?”
“Travis had a bucket in his hand when we went into the barn.” Scott looked at Charles. “Remember?”
Charles frowned, thinking back. “I think so. Yes, I think he did. And you stepped over another one to get your horse out of the stall.”
“An empty one. I didn't really notice at the time, but you're right. I did. I remember they left in hurry.” Scott looked over to where Murdoch was handing over a bottle of the malt whisky he imported from Scotland for his own use– whisky, Murdoch had said the previous evening when giving Charles a generous measure, with no foolish extra 'e' and a taste the gods would die for. Frankly Charles thought that The Macallan would be wasted on ranch hands, 'e' or no 'e'.
“If that horse of theirs is as well bred as Johnny says, then they'd be confident of winning “ Charles looked from one to the other. “They wouldn't need to fix the race, would they?”
“Not for that reason, no.” Scott's hard mouth twitched. “Fish.”
Fish? What did the man mean, fish? Was his brain addled by losing the race such a wide margin, by losing to Johnny, by the laughter of the hands and Mrs Conway's irksome sympathy? Charles frowned. “I don't quite see what fish have to do with it.”
“The fish in my bedroll on the first night of the roundup.”
Oh, that fish. Charles glanced at Johnny, who grinned back, not looking in the least repentant.
Scott reached up to rub Crusoe's nose. “Like I said yesterday, Charles, it's a tradition. The newcomers to a ranch's crew and the greenhorns come in for a lot of teasing. You said it was to break them in, didn't you Johnny? Like you broke Barranca.”
“It's to test them, see.” Johnny explained to Charles. “The hands want to see what kind of fella they're ridin' the range with. Can he take a joke, will he get mad, will he get all sulky or will he try and get even. If he wants to pass their tests, then it's all about him standing the gaff like a man.”
Charles blinked. The strange speech of Arkansas appeared to be contagious.
“Scott stood it well at the roundup. He laughed along with 'em and he didn't get huffy, no matter what they did. The men respected that, how well he took it.”
Johnny stared at Charles, frowning. “Did I what?”
“Take the teasing well. Scott told me yesterday that you are as new to ranching as he is. I assume they play tricks on you, too?”
Scott choked and Johnny's slow smile widened. “No, they don't play tricks on me,” was all Johnny said, but he appeared to find Charles's question deeply amusing.
Charles looked to Scott for an explanation but all he got was Scott making a helpless gesture with his hands, his shoulders rising in a shrug.
“Usually it's all harmless,” said Scott. “More frustrating than malicious. Even when it's fish.”
“It sounds worse than being at school.” Charles had an all too lively memory of his first day at the senior school in Erwitte: the schoolmaster's wooden flute, an inkwell, a second-hand military cape, a dead mouse... the consequences of wanting to belong and be accepted had been regrettable. At least Scott's fish had been edible, which was rather more than could be said about the mouse.
“That's what I said, when Johnny first explained it. I had a few jokes played on me at the roundup, but that was weeks ago and they stopped. I thought I'd proved myself.” Scott looked across to the celebrations again, watching Murdoch admiring the winner under Beedie Simpson's gratified gaze. “Except this wasn't quite that, was it? This wasn't more good-natured teasing, but about making the Yankee look a fool in front of people like the other hands and Aggie Conway. She's always going to think that I'm too stupid to manage horses properly. This was about embarrassing me in public, simply because we fought on opposite sides in the war.”
Johnny lifted the cord that his hat was hanging from and chewed on it. “Likely.”
“Wonderful.” Scott blew out a sigh. “So now what? I don't see I have a lot of options here. Either I go over and start a fight, or I let them get away with it.”
A fight? Charles was reminded, sharply, that he was fifteen years older than Scott. The sort of thing he himself would now dismiss with philosophical acceptance as being of no importance, was a grievous affront to the amour propre of a young man like Scott. The young were always too conscious of what others thought of them.
“I can't start a fight about it, can I?” Scott's mouth thinned down again. “Not with so many women and children about. It'd just embarrass Murdoch and spoil the day for everyone, not to mention spoiling tomorrow for Jaime and Magdalena. It's just not done. It would be too irresponsible. Damn them!” His hands clenched and he must have jerked on the rein; Crusoe snorted and danced away a step, tossing his head.
“Not to mention that there are two of them,” pointed out Charles, purely in the interests of accuracy and to be sure Scott knew what he was contemplating.
“And not to mention that Wilf Travis is near on as big as Murdoch,” murmured Johnny.
“That wouldn't stop me.”
But the demands of polite society would? Charles, hiding his amusement at the travails and vicissitudes that assailed the perfect gentleman, glanced at Johnny. “You'll stand with him of course, if he does something unwise?”
“I might stand behind him, if it's Wilf Travis he's gonna be unwise with.” Johnny's grin was infectious and even Scott couldn't help but laugh. “I'll hold your hat, brother, and watch your back.”
“I'm touched.” Scott drew a deep breath. “All right. So they think that all I can do is treat it like I did the tricks that got played on me at the round up: show that I've got a sense of humour and take it on the chin.”
Johnny's grin broadened. “Well, you're the responsible one. The hands know that.”
“What I want to do is knock their teeth down their throats. But I can't. Not without making a bigger scene than they managed, and embarrassing myself for real. I just hate it that they're laughing at me and think they've got me beat.” Scott's chin set into a stubborn line. “But I'm damn well going to let them know I'm onto them. They might crow about me not fighting back, but they aren't going to crow about me being so stupid that I don't know what they did. They aren't going to get the last word on this, Johnny. We can't afford to let the hands to be so disrespectful. Not if we're going to make a success of this partnership.”
“We're just the Patrón's sons, not the Patrón.”
“Still, they'll learn to respect us.” Scott's grin was tight. “Me. They'll learn to respect me. They already respect you.”
“They're scared of me. There's a difference. Boston, why bother? Do you respect them enough to care what they think about you?”
“Personally,” observed Charles, fascinated, “I only worry about what people think when I esteem them and their opinion.”
“It's not that so much, Charles. Johnny and I have joint ownership of this place with Murdoch. I'm not stupid enough to think that means they'll automatically treat us with the same respect as they do him. I know we'll have to earn it, the way he did over the years . But if there was one thing I learned in the war, without discipline in the ranks we didn't have much chance. I couldn't allow my authority to be undermined then and I can't allow it now. Especially by two drifters.”
“They'll be gone at the end of the summer,” said Johnny.
Scott was unforgiving. “They might be gone long before then, if they don't watch their step. Here.”
Scott pushed Crusoe's reins into Johnny's hand, turned on his heel, and marched over to the group of people admiring the dun pony.
Charles looked helplessly at Johnny. He had never seen Scott angry before, at least not angry in this way. Scott had been beyond angry in the lobby of the hotel in San Francisco, but that had been cold and bitter; interesting that it took a blow to his self esteem to make his temper boil. “What if there's a fight?”
A flash of a brilliant smile. “He can handle it. He's got a temper and he sometimes lets her rip. He ain't always the responsible one trying to get out of a fracas.” Johnny rubbed his chin with his free hand. “He can throw a good punch, can Boston.”
For all the confidence Johnny expressed in Scott, Charles saw that he watched intently as Scott talked to the two Texans. Charles couldn't quite make out what Scott was saying, not from that distance, but the tone came over. Scott sounded cheerful and good-humoured, and the two Texans were smirking.
Charles frowned. “A fight would be a very bad thing.”
“Messing with a man's horse is a very bad thing, out here. Scott's got the right of it.” Johnny blew out a noisy sigh. “There won't be a fight, Charles. Scott's too responsible for that.”
Charles took a step towards Scott. Johnny didn't move.
“Aren't you coming?”
“Best not.” Johnny looked regretful. “This is one he has to win on his own and I'd just get in the way. I'll deputise you to do the hat holding and I'll take Crusoe back to the barn.”
Taken by surprise, Charles stared. Johnny got Crusoe moving, the big bay following him willingly. Charles watched him go. What did that mean? After all his talk of watching Scott's back, Johnny was just going to leave Scott without any support like that? Incredible! No time to worry over it now... Charles hurried over to join the crowd. Murdoch and Mrs Conway had gone. They were walking across the meadow to rejoin the doctor, leaving a small number of hands clustered around the winning horse.
Scott, of course, was amongst them. He had pushed his hat right to the back of his head. It made him look boyish. He gave Charles a brilliant smile. “I was just saying to Beedie here that was a good race, Charles. He's quite a rider, wouldn’t you say?”
“It was exciting, certainly.”
“A surprisingly fast little horse. Did you hear what Johnny said? He thought it had to have something good in its bloodline.”
“Well, yes. Not that I'm much of a judge—”
It was beautifully done. Simpson's smirk was fading but he'd be hard put to it to take umbrage from the words. It was all in the bright, admiring tone. The enthusiasm was so patently overdone that it hovered on the edge of an outright declaration of war. Impressive, really, how Scott used that eagerness as a weapon, wielding it as skilfully as a fencing epee. Charles would have to remember to ask if Scott fenced. He was willing to wager a month's salary on the answer.
“Has to be good. You can tell, neat little pony like this.” Scott ran a hand down the horse's nose, nodding. “Yes. You can see it in him. Can't you, Charles?”
“Not at all, I'm afraid, Scott. I'm better with boats than horses.”
Simpson's smirk was entirely gone, now. He looked uncertain, as if he weren't quite sure what was going on. He glanced at his friend and the other hands nearby. They all looked as uncertain as he did.
“You can't admit that out here in the West, Charles! Take a look at him. Good conformation, good muscles and the strong haunches of a sprinter... a good horse and a good rider eh? So well done, Beedie. Well done. A race well won and all that.” Neither Scott's bright smile or the enthusiastic tone wavered. “And thank you for watering my horse before the race, but the next time you touch Crusoe, you and that well-bred pony of yours will be abandoning the sprint for some long distance riding.”
Simpson blinked and took a step backwards.
“I don't mind a joke, Beedie, but not when you endanger my horse to do it. I hope we understand each other?”
“You can't fire me!”
“I think you'll find that I can. And I will if you don't get that the joke's over. You want to refight the war with me, then some other time and place, we'll do just that. Just you and me. Not here and not now, not at a fiesta. You want to settle it, Beedie, we'll do that. But you do not touch my horse.” Scott glanced over his shoulder and grinned at Charles. “There. I think we've got that all straightened out for now.”
One of the hands, the middle-aged Mexican who'd handed money over to a glowering Wilf Travis, frowned. “Señor?”
“He watered your horse before the race, Señor Scott?”
There was a discontented murmur from the hands and a few hard, unfriendly looks shot at Simpson and Travis. Simpson was brick red now under his tan. Even his ears were scarlet.
“It was a joke,” protested Wilf Travis.
“Of course it was. And very amusing, too.” Scott glanced at the Mexican. “Lose much, Toledano?”
Toledano's smile was distinctly unpleasant. “I do not think that I have lost at all, Señor Scott.” He waved a hand at the rest of hands. “I do not think that any of us have lost.”
“Excellent. Now, I think I'll go and see to Crusoe. I hope you all enjoy the rest of the fiesta.”
And Scott patted Simpson on the shoulder with perfect condescension, linked his arm through Charles's and drew him away. He was shaking slightly. Alarmed, Charles looked at him, and smiled himself.
Scott was laughing. Charles had never seen him look so contented.
The barn was warm and quiet, but for the occasional snort from one of its occupants. It took a moment for Charles's eyes to adjust to the dim light inside after the brightness of the morning. A shaft of light from the half open door to the hayloft slanted across the barn, glittering with dust and floating wisps of hay. The scent of hay was strongest, thankfully, but the barn smelled of horse and, yes, the distinctive tang of the fertiliser that enthusiastic gardeners everywhere swore was necessary to their roses. Charles was not an enthusiastic gardener and eternally grateful for having no more than eight window boxes on which to exercise his horticultural talents. Not even Elizabeth could demand roses in window boxes.
Crusoe was back in his stall. Johnny was sitting on a pile of hay bales, leaning back with legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, his hat over his eyes. He pushed up the brim with his left hand. He grinned. “Crusoe's fine, but I figured he maybe didn't need any more water for a while.”
Scott snorted out a laugh. “Damn right he doesn't!” He rubbed the bay's nose. “Poor old horse!”
“Simpson and Travis?” Johnny looked Scott over. “No fracas?”
“No. We avoided that, for the time being at least. I don't know what will happen when they get their breath back, but for now I've left them in Toledano's capable hands. He wasn't best pleased at them having cheated.” Scott leaned up against the stall's wooden wall, and folded his arms.
“Well, they didn't do it to win the race. It wouldn't have made any difference. I reckon that dun would've still won.”
“I'm sure of it. But it's the principle of the thing, and I'm pleased to say that Toledano, despite his off-colour jokes and his penchant for controlling every gambling operation in the San Joaquin Valley, is a very principled man.”
“He's getting his money back, then.”
“I'm sure he is.”
“Oh.” Diverted from the amusement of watching the brothers, Charles dug two crumpled bills from his pocket. “That reminds me. I still have yours.”
“Hey.” Johnny jumped up and before either Scott or Charles could react, he twitched the bills from Charles's fingers. “Almost forgot this.”
Charles stared. Surely Johnny wasn't intending to take the money? It hadn’t been a fair race...
“Ah—” started Scott, then he stopped and inclined his head. “Well. Barranca did beat Crusoe, I suppose.”
Johnny smiled. “I always aim to win, brother.”
Scott's head came up fast. He and Johnny stared at each other.
“It wasn't fair.” Charles looked from one to the other. “It wasn't a fair race.”
Johnny shrugged. His gaze didn't shift from Scott's. “A fair fight keeps a man from hangin', maybe, but winning counts more.”
Scott's eyes widened, and he frowned, watching Johnny. It was a moment before his expression cleared. He nodded. “Here endeth the lesson,” he said, softly.
Johnny ducked his head, grinning. “I'm not much of a preacher.”
“I remember what you said, though when you fixed this for me and gave me that refresher course in shooting.” Scott touched his gun holster. “It's the same philosophy: how to make sure you're the one who walks away.”
Gott im Himmel! What on earth were they talking about? They were talking in ciphers, as if they'd forgotten Charles were even there.
“You can't count it if you don't win, Boston. You can't count nothing. You bear that in mind with those two cobardes.” Johnny's hand was round the back of Scott's neck now. “But I'll tell you what. You want the chance to win this back?”
Scott nodded. “Of course.”
“Then we'll run the race again, just you and me, after the wedding sometime.”
“You're on. You're on, little brother. And you'd better look to your laurels, you and Barranca, because Crusoe and I will be burning to win.”
Johnny laughed, gave Scott a little shake, and turned back to Charles. “You'd best hold onto this, Charles, until it's all settled. Mind, that's my money you got there.”
Charles took the money back. There had been so much going on in that conversation and he had no idea what. Scott and Crusoe might burn to win a race, but he was burning to understand these men, to get under the skin and see what they were. His fingers itched for his notebook. It was a damned shame that the proprieties of being a guest in their house prevented him. Scott gave him a smile and a quirked eyebrow. Yes, there was no doubt that his Boston Brahmin guessed his frustration and was amused by it.
“We'd best get back, before Murdoch misses having someone around to call the tune for.” Johnny straightened his shoulders.
“Good lord, yes!” Scott looked alarmed. “I promised Cipriano I'd help start the Conway Challenge race, and I'd better get a move on. Stick with Johnny, Charles, will you? I'll catch up with you as soon as I can. Excuse me!”
He left at a run. Charles and Johnny followed at a more sedate pace.
“He handled it well,” said Charles. “He avoided a fight, but he turned the tables on those men.”
“Avoided a fight for now.” Johnny shook his head. “Well, maybe. But likely, Simpson's going to have his bristles up now. To my mind, the only fight you walk away from whole, is the one you win.”
So, Johnny wouldn't have stopped at making Simpson look like a fool then? It sounded like he'd prefer the knocking-teeth-down-throat approach that had briefly tempted Scott before the veneer of civilisation had smothered the impulse.
“Would you have done what he did and make them look foolish? Or... well, you sound as though you'd have pushed for a fight. What would you have done in his place?”
“Me?” Johnny ushered Charles out into the sunlight, back towards the meadow where the crowds were gathering for another race. His smile was wide and charming, lighting up his whole face. “I'd just shoot 'em.”
The ladies served the midday meal al fresco.
The tables were set under a stand of oaks in a green meadow liberally dotted with little yellow flowers. The wide canopy of leaves cast a welcome shade. Every table was festive with a cheerful red checked cloth and a jug of wildflowers, every place had a plate set upside down over the silverware and a glass or tin mug ready, every seat was a hay bale. Very rustic. Idyllic, of course, but rustic.
Lunch was a mix of Mexican and American. The ladies ran back and forth with platters piled high with browned, fragrant steaks and fried potatoes or Mexican delicacies, plates of apple pie or the little fried Gebäck that Scott called churros, and jugs of fresh lemonade. Everyone had more than they could eat, and if the meal was wholesome and unsophisticated, the fresh air and excitement made everyone ravenous and appreciative and had them clamouring for second helpings.
Scott did his best to identify the Mexican dishes as platters arrived on the table but a certain amount of experimentation was in order, he said, since he was still learning his way with the Californian cuisine.
“And all Johnny will ever tell me about something I haven't tried yet is that it'll be hot.” Scott offered Charles a bowl of diced peppers and tomatoes. “He's been uncannily accurate so far.”
Loath to let any dish pass untasted, Charles learned early to share Scott's assessment of Johnny's veracity. The pitchers of cool water were a godsend. So refreshing! He liked the lemonade, too. With these nectars to hand, he could quench the sudden heat his experiments brought him and look upon the scene with a kindly, satisfied eye. All these fresh-cheeked ladies and maidens in their simple clothes and aprons and bright eyes; all these strong sons of the soil... it was so delightfully pastoral.
It seemed appropriate to burst into rhapsodies about the delights of the rural idyll. Charles had a lot to say about Schiller's golden words on the pastoral myths and was positively lyrical about Giorgione painting in bright, clear colours. He let his arms making large sweeping movements, like the brush against the canvas, as he spoke.
“Pastoral, eh?” agreed Scott. “Very true. Although if we're taking the literal meaning of the word, then I have to warn you that sheep are not at all welcome in cattle country.”
Scott nodded, solemn-faced. “And while I'm as fond as the next man of pastoral paintings, the ladies here might balk at serving the meal whilst clad only in a gauzy scarf and a bright smile.”
Scott tilted his head to one side and Charles followed his pointed gaze. Together, they considered the stout lady of indeterminate age who, at that precise moment, bustled past with a basket piled high with fresh baked bread in one hand and a jug of lemonade in the other.
“Hebe in flannel petticoats and a paisley shawl,” said Scott, and smiled.
Charles held up a hand in the fencer's gesture of defeat. “I concede the point. The current convention for all-enveloping-clothing has some benefits and advantages. Not all the ladies are nymphs and sylphs.”
Scott poked a disrespectful finger at Charles's middle waistcoat button. “Nor are all we gentlemen lithe young Adonises.”
Charles ignored the provocation. “Not to mention that the usual lack of clothing common in paintings of the pastoral genre carries obvious risks for those areas of the human form where an intruding hay wisp might inflict the most damage. The bright smiles painted onto Giorgione's ladies may mask an intense personal discomfort, don't you think? Hay is so very insidious.”
Scott laughed so much that he almost choked on his steak.
Gratified, Charles remarked that sitting on a hay bale wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as he'd anticipated. He'd have to brush himself down later but his suit, while perhaps more appropriate to the cool of an Eastern summer, at least protected him from errant wisps of hay. That his appetite was astonishing was a revelation he kept to himself, given Scott's malicious suggestion that he was growing a trifle stout. He might enjoy his victuals but he most certainly wasn't a glutton. His enthusiasm for the local cuisine must have been whetted by the fresh air, which was laden with the scents of good food and flowers and the sharp green smell of crushed grass.
“Hunger is the best sauce,” said Miss Teresa when she arrived, squired by Johnny, and Charles presented her with his compliments on the meal. Her eyes sparkled. “That's what Mrs Reagh said when she was trying to be modest about her apple pies. Please mention to her how very tasty you found them, would you? She says she has her doubts about the pastry and I'd hate her to be worried.”
“I ate three pieces,” said Johnny. “Nothing wrong with it that I could tell.”
“Expert opinion there, Teresa,” murmured Scott.
Teresa beamed. “Everything's going well, don't you think?”
Johnny eyed the pathways worn into the meadow by dozens of busy feet. “Except for that, carina,” he said, with a nod to the crushed grass and wildflowers. “There'll be a few grey hairs lost over that.”
Scott almost choked again.
Teresa's frown was very pretty. “What do you mean?”
“Nada, carina. Nada.” Johnny smiled that wide, charming smile again. “You're right. It's all going very well. You should be proud.”
“Oh, it wasn't me. The Señora did it all. All Maria and I had to do was whatever she suggested.” Teresa laughed. “She does it so gently and sweetly, but everyone rushes to do what she wants. I do love her, but I wouldn't dare argue with her.”
Charles looked from one to the other. “The Señora?”
“Señora Isabella Maria Dorotea Muñoz de Roldán,” said Johnny, rolling out the euphonious name with relish. “The Señora.”
“She's the wife of Cipriano Roldán, our foreman. And, of course, the mother of the groom at tomorrow's wedding.” Scott's mouth curved into a smile. “She is the grandest of Grande Dames in this part of the valley, Charles.”
“I remember Murdoch mentioning her husband earlier. Didn't Cipriano start off the racing?”
“Don't remind me of the morning's ignominy.” Scott glanced along the length of the table to where the Lancer hands sat in a group. Simpson and Travis were there, both looking sulky. “But yes, he did. Cipriano's as respected amongst the ranchers as the Señora is amongst their wives and the Californio community. They both add considerable lustre to the Lancer ranch.”
Johnny snorted. “That they do.” He knocked Scott's hat off, and ruffled his hair. “Which, you know, is one helluva lot more than the Lancer sons do.”
Scott tried to fend off Johnny's hands and rescue his hat. “You speak for yourself, John Luis Lancer. I'm as lustrous as they come.”
“I was, Boston.” Johnny gave Scott's hair one more vigorous ruffle. His smile was rueful. “I surely was.”
Johnny left them ten minutes later, saying that he needed to go and talk to Jaime, the bridegroom, who had, he said, “...some fool notion that he's going to ride in El Paso de la Muerte this afternoon.”
“That's riding an unbroken horse bareback, right? Good Lord.” Scott shook his head. “It's good of you to keep him out of trouble, Johnny.”
“Where'd you get that idea, Boston? I'm thinking about joining him.” And Johnny was gone before Scott could do more than splutter.
As one, they turned to watch Johnny walk the length of the table with a swagger that Charles felt—hoped—was assumed to further aggravate his brother. He paused by the Lancer hands to talk to them.
“He won't really, will he?” Teresa had paled and her eyes were wide. “Murdoch will be so worried.”
“Surely not,” murmured Scott. “I don't think Johnny is the right shade of green to produce grey hairs.”
“Not nearly enough chlorophyll.”
Really, this was intriguing. Scott had said something yesterday, too. Just what was behind the Lancer brothers' fascination with grass?
Teresa frowned and looked uncertain, but glanced away when Mrs Conway called her. “Coming, Ma'am!” She favoured Scott with a stern look. “Don't let him do anything that will upset Murdoch! You can't let him do anything dangerous.”
She darted off to see what another of the district's grand ladies wanted. At the other end of the long table, the object of her solicitude said something that had the Lancer hands roaring with laughter. Wes Rollins slapped the table with both hands in obvious glee and Beedie Simpson's face turned so deep a red that Charles could see the flush even at that distance. Tipping his hat at the hands, Johnny walked off, and if ever the human back could signal satisfaction, his did. Every step Johnny took was jaunty. Smug, even.
“Oh!” said Charles, reminded. “I must tell you what Johnny said earlier. We were talking about how you handled those two and I asked him how he'd have dealt with them.”
Which Scott ruined. “I expect he said he'd shoot them.”
“Oh,” repeated Charles.
“He was joking. Just like he was joking about riding in the charreada. I'm sure he was joking.”
Charles said nothing. But he hadn't forgotten that frisson of unease he'd felt when he'd met Johnny the previous day. He'd been charmed by Johnny's easy friendliness since, but, well, to his mind it seemed that Scott was protesting a little too much.
Scott got up, gesturing to the charreada ring where the men were beginning to gather and suggested that they head over to see what was going on. Charles had no objection.
Halfway there, Scott broke the companionable silence. “Well, I'm almost sure he was joking.”
Yes. Protesting a great deal too much. How interesting.
Threading their way through groups of hands and ranchers, they found Johnny talking with a young Mexican of about his own age. He beckoned them to join him, shaking his head as they approached. “Scott, you tell him, will you? Magdalena's not going to take kindly to him turnin' up for their wedding night, all stove up and not able to—” Johnny stopped and glanced sideways at Charles. “Well, all stove up.”
Charles remarked that his own wedding night might be fifteen years behind him, but he could still remember the duties and responsibilities required of the groom. “And, of course, the delights and privileges.”
Johnny grinned widely, no trace of the cold and watchful expression Charles had seen the day before. “A man better not forget those duties, 'less he wants to be reminded with a skillet around the ears. Come to think on it, that's a damn good reason to stay single. With Eugenia, I get all those delights you mention, Charles, and no fryin' pans.”
And Johnny sighed and smiled. The young Mexican sighed and smiled. Scott sighed and smiled. Charles stared.
Scott took pity on his bewilderment. “Eugenia is a very beautiful girl...” and the shape Scott drew in the air with both hands had Johnny grinning and the young Mexican sighing again. “And when she walks, she sways her hips.” Scott's hands yawed from side to side like a sloop in high seas. “She is a sight to behold, Charles, I promise you. A true delight.”
Somehow Charles sensed Elizabeth and Eugenia might not be kindred spirits. “I hope I have the opportunity to meet the young lady.”
Johnny looked smug again. “She's a friend of mine, Charles.”
So that was they called it these days, was it?
Scott returned the brotherly hair ruffling, and as Johnny danced out of his reach, he put a hand on the young Mexican's shoulder. “By the way, Charles, this is Jaime Roldán, who's getting married tomorrow. I don't think you've met.”
Jaime bowed politely. He and Charles exchanged expressions of mutual esteem and courtesy, before Jaime fired off another round of rapid Spanish in Johnny's direction.
Johnny threw up his hands. “Hell, Jaime, Lena'd be in the right of it if she skilleted your fool head flat to your shoulders.”
“Johnny's right,” said Scott, “And believe me I don't like having to admit to that. It's not the greatest idea you've had, Jaime.”
Jaime drew himself up into the sort of stiff necked pride Charles associated with young men of that tender, self conscious age. “I am the best horse breaker on the estancia, Scott. I am better than Eduardo. I am better than Toledano. I am better than Johnny. I am—”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Takes less time to name the ones you ain't better than. Fact is, we all know you're a damn good horse breaker, but that don't make it any the less knuckle-headed to ride this afternoon.”
Jaime folded his arms across his chest and huffed. “Lena will understand. It's not honourable for the estancia not to put forward its best and not to win. The Patrón's honour demands it. Our honour demands it.”
“Uh-huh.” Johnny raised his shoulders in an eloquent shrug. “Then are you going to tell your Mama or am I?”
How interesting to see the colour drain from a man's face like that.
“Johnny!” There was hurt there, and betrayal.
Johnny patted young Jaime on the shoulder. His smile was brilliant. “You're a brave man, amigo. I know I wouldn't want to do anything the Señora wouldn't like.”
“Too scared she'd find out, little brother?”
Jaime gave him a look of scorching reproach. His mouth tightened, lips thinning down until they whitened. “This is not playing fair, Johnny.”
“What the hell does that have to do with anything? If I play at all, I play to win.” Johnny threw his arm around Jaime's shoulders. “Come on, amigo. You know we're right and you'll just have to let today go by. Let's go and watch the charreada. You can pity all those poor fools who maybe get to fall off their horses in the ring—”
“For the glory of the estancia,” murmured Scott, sotto voce.
Johnny gave that a nod. “Sure, but remember they ain't the man who's marryin' Magdalena Ruiz tomorrow morning.”
Jaime's mouth twitched. “That is true. Lena is a very beautiful girl.”
“Yup,” agreed Johnny.
“I am the luckiest of men.”“
“She is beautiful and good and every man in the valley will be envying me tomorrow.”
“The Roldán men sure know how to pick 'em.”
“And you are right, amigo. She is probably a mean hand with a skillet. Mama will teach her how.” And Jaime laughed, allowing Johnny to pull him away to the edge of the charreada ring, so they could find the best viewpoint.
Charles sighed even as he and Scott shared an amused look. “That was like watching two schoolboys squabble. It's been many years since I could be curbed by a threat to tell my mother of my misdeeds...a lifetime of years. They are such very young men, those two, that they make me feel as ancient as Methuselah.”
Scott was silent for a moment, watching Johnny and Jaime from a distance as they rough-housed and joked. His expression grew grave and more than a little sad. “No. No, you're wrong there. Johnny only looks young. But in truth, I think it's been a lifetime of years since he was.”
According to the cartographer, Morro Coyo and Green River were separated by only fifteen miles of good road running through foothills and valleys green with sweet grass and early summer flowers. In reality, they were of two different worlds.
Green River was of the new world. The pine boards of its houses and shops were still heady with the scent of resin, just now silvering as the Californian sun bleached out the gold. It was an Anglo town, deliberately built without so much as a nod to the past. It was brash and a little too cocky; an adolescent town, reminding Charles of a boy trying, with swaggering aggression, to prove he had the right to walk with men.
Morro Coyo, on the other hand, was old. It was very old. This was a town that had settled into the land and merged with it, heavy with the weight of California's Spanish-Mexican heritage. Morro Coyo was all thick adobe walls, whitewashed and red-shuttered; secret, shadowy alleys overlooked by the blank-eyed stares of dark, fathomless windows; and a church in its main square that towered over the town with all the bulk and importance of a young cathedral.
“I think you get drunk on words,” said Scott when Charles shared his geographical observations. But he was smiling as he brought the buggy to a stop beneath the wide-topped trees of the town square. Half a dozen buggies and small carriages were already parked there, the horses dozing in the shade, hips cocked and tails swishing against the persistent flies. A dog crossed the street towards them, its coat a riot of brown curls, one ear flying disreputably and red tongue hanging.
“As does every sensible, educated man.” Charles clambered down as nimbly as he could. “Poetic inebriation means you're unlikely to wake the next morning with a head pounding so badly you wish you'd died in the night. Words are the glory of mankind, my boy.”
Scott laughed and stooped to scratch at the dog's ears as it sniffed at his boots. It curled its lip at him and managed a desultory tail wag before wandering off to throw itself into the shade under their buggy..
They joined the crowds on the church steps awaiting the arrival of the bride, working their way towards where Murdoch towered half a head above his nearest rival. Himmel, but the man was a giant. At least, he was easy to spot in the crowd. Gave them something to aim for. He had Mrs Conway on his arm again, Charles noted. He seemed to make a habit of appropriating the fascinating widow. Then again, Mrs Conway made a habit of allowing herself to be appropriated.
They watched the sacrificial lamb being hustled into the church, dressed in his best clothes and with a few of his friends, Johnny included, to keep him company and probably to keep him from bolting. The little group manhandling a pale young Jaime looked rather splendid in the formal clothes typical of the Mexican community: embroidered and braided jackets cropped to the waist, form-fitting pants, some in short breeches with gold or silver lace at the knee worn with fine leggings, and wide-brimmed hats so heavy with silver embroidery that the men glittered in the sunlight. Johnny was the least extravagantly dressed amongst them, while still outshining Charles and Scott in the sartorial stakes.
It amused Scott when Charles mentioned it. “I met Johnny on the stage to Morro Coyo. He was wearing that pink shirt of his and I'd never seen anyone quite so colourfully dressed. Indeed, I mentally called him the 'rose pink peacock' all the way into town, at which point I discovered that I should really have been calling him the 'rose pink fraternal surprise'.” Scott chuckled. “He looks almost underdressed in comparison to some of the others today.”
“Whereas we look positively drab.” It would be interesting to see Elizabeth's reaction to his returning home in an outfit such as Cipriano Roldán was wearing, complete with silk cords and tassels and one of those glittering wide-brimmed hats.
“It's a very traditional form of dress, Charles,” said Murdoch.
Mrs Conway looked rueful. “They all look very fine, don't they? I feel quite dowdy.”
Ha. She couldn't fool Charles. Fifteen years of marriage to Elizabeth had taught him to recognise a hint when he was bludgeoned about the head with one. He provided the required admiration of Mrs Conway's style and her choice of outfit and managed a spurious sincerity, not to mention a spontaneity of manner and a felicitous turn of phrase. Mrs Conway favoured him with an equally spurious blush and a gracious smile, but Murdoch looked thoughtful and drew her in closer, patting her arm in a proprietorial way. She could fool some, then.
Scott glanced from his father to Charles. The boy was born to be a diplomat, he was so discreet and tactful in the way he changed the subject. “I hope you're up to this, Charles. I'm told that Mass is hard on the knees.”
Murdoch unbent enough to laugh. “Damned hard! As I know to my cost.”
Scott grinned at him. “Did you go to Mass with Johnny's mother, sir?”
“No, with yours. Your mother and I turned Catholic when we came here. It was a requirement of buying the land, taking Mexican citizenship and the True Faith.”
“Really? Good lord! And me brought up a fine Presbyterian!”
“Technically, you're as Catholic as Johnny, since California was still under Mexican government and your mother and I were still attending Mass. You were born before we entered the Union, you know, just as the war with Mexico was starting.”
Scott blinked. “I never really thought about it, but of course I was. Does that mean I was born a Mexican citizen, too?”
Murdoch nodded. “You were.”
“Good lord,” said Scott, again. From his stunned expression, it took him a moment or two to digest this new idea, before he shook his head as if to clear it. He looked wry. “It's as well that one particular boyhood ambition didn't last beyond puberty, then! It's an insuperable bar to the Presidency, not being born an American.”
“I have American citizenship, too. I just didn't have it at the relevant time. So, since a wife and children take the citizenship of the husband, you're American now.”
“Then I suppose that should I lose my mind entirely and enter politics, if I can't grace the White House then it's at least some comfort that I can still aim for the Senate.”
“Maybe you should start small, son. How about the state senate and work your way up to the governorship?”
Scott sighed, but his chagrin did not seem genuine.
Charles patted his arm, consolingly. “You'd have had my vote.”
“Thank you! That's very comforting too.”
Murdoch looked amused. “Johnny, however, was born after the Mexican war. He's the only natural-born American in the family.”
“Then we'll have to put all our political ambitions on his shoulders.” Scott and his father exchanged looks, and it was several minutes before they could stop laughing long enough to continue. “I don't think I'll be the one to suggest it. He'd probably shoot both of us! I wonder what he'll say when he realises that I'm the Scottish Mexican at Lancer?”
“You can discuss it later.” Mrs Conway prodded Murdoch in the ribs and spoke over a rising murmur of voices. “Don't talk about politics at a wedding when there are more important things happening. The bride's here.”
If the groom and his attendants, and, indeed, all the Mexican men present, looked resplendent in their finery, it was as nothing compared to the gentleman riding slowly up the street. Silver and gold thread embroidery from head to toe, he glittered in the sunlight. Even the horse glittered, the saddle fittings as rich in gold embroidery as the rider. Dazzled, Charles shaded his eyes. Perhaps Elizabeth wouldn't object to the wide-brimmed hat?
The bride was carried before the rider, swathed in a cream cloak. Her feet rested in the loop of a length of pale green silk that had been twisted into a rope and tied to the saddlebow, the knot wreathed in flowers. Almost nothing could be seen of her. Even her head was covered in a veil against the dust.
“No carriage?” murmured Charles, under cover of the applause that greeted her appearance.
“More tradition.” Murdoch nodded towards the rider, who held his horse rock steady as the bride's father and brother lifted her down. “Magdalena's uncle. It's a great honour to bring the bride to her wedding.”
The bride's mother and attendants, Teresa among them, rushed forward to unwind her from her wrappings. Very romantic to be sure, but it was all too reminiscent of one of the illustrations of The Great Belzoni revealing one of those elaborately embalmed bodies he'd found in Egypt. Both Scott and Murdoch choked with gratifying amusement at this observation, but Mrs Conway fished a ridiculously small square of be-laced linen out of her reticule and applied it to her eyes.
“Oh! How pretty!”
There was no arguing with that sort of sentiment. They followed Mrs Conway and the crowd of well-wishers into the big old church, instead. It was a dark and mystic place, the light streaming in the high windows dimmed by the thickness of the green glass. The air was sharp with incense, thick to breathe and catching at the back of the throat. Sandalwood, Charles thought, with an undertone of the Damask roses his father used to grow; the red ones, whose heads always drooped in the sun with the burden of their rich scent. At the altar, a large marble affair with a gold canopy that was probably worth as much as the Lancer ranch and everything in it, Jaime Roldán turned a tense face towards the door. His pallor had a greenish caste. No escape now, poor boy.
Mrs Conway did a little more dabbing with her lace handkerchief.
Odd how women insisted on weeping at weddings, when every man present knew that they were secretly rejoicing and triumphant. Strange creatures. Charles sighed and turned his attention to the business starting at the altar, remembering when it had been him waiting on Elizabeth wafting down the aisle towards him. The fifteen years since had been happy, on the whole, if unremittingly domestic.
On reflection, he didn't think Elizabeth would take to the hat. Life would just have to remain unembroidered.
“So, did Dana get it right, do you think?”
“I don't suppose he was a bad reporter, for an amateur,” conceded Charles. “But there wasn't that much he didn't get wrong. No eggs full of scent, for a start, and the dancing is a little more energetic than he described.”
Murdoch had cleared the cluster of courtyards behind the hacienda to give what Johnny called a ‘fiesta’. Tables were set around three sides of the largest courtyard, groaning with food and drink, while a fire blazed in a pit in a smaller yard that led from it,with what looked like an entire cow turning on the spit. Dutch ovens set on trivets over the flames baked biscuits and potatoes. The central area of the main courtyard was their dancing floor, lit with strings of red and yellow Chinese lanterns The band, a smattering of local men with a little musical talent and a little more enthusiasm, belted out dance tunes that had the couples hoofing it at a much merrier pace than the stately measures witnessed by Richard Dana almost forty years before.
“I read that bit to Johnny last night.” Scott leaned up against a pillar, watching the dancing. One of the yellow lanterns swung perilously close to his ear.
Charles allowed an eyebrow to arch upwards. Couldn't Johnny have read it for himself, then? “What did he say?”
“That you only get cologne in eggs at carnivals and fiestas and only if you're rich. A poor working man can't afford to... er, spoil his clothes with perfume—”
“What I said was that a poor workin' man can't afford to have his only shirt smell like a two-bit whore looking for work on a Saturday night.”
Charles bit back a curse, his heart thumping, and Scott started visibly, staring at his younger brother in disapproval as Johnny drifted out of the shadows. “How do you manage to creep up on us like that every time?”
Johnny looked more innocent than the entire choir that had sung anthems all through the mass, and was just as untrustworthy. “I take off my spurs.” He turned to Charles. “That Dana fella was at a rich man's wedding, from what Scott told me. Lancer is doing Jaime and Lena proud, but this ain't as grand.”
As one, they all turned to watch the bride and groom dancing something that required a great deal of strutting, kicking and flashing eyes to an accompaniment of frantic guitar strumming and snapping fingers. They looked very happy.
“Well, it looks like it's more fun,” conceded Scott.
“It is.” Johnny took off his hat, weighing it in his hand. He nodded towards a group of Lancer hands. They were grinning and poking each other in the ribs, sharing some joke. “Leastways, it was until I found that fool Wes and half the hands at the cookhouse door, collecting pans and skillets. Like we thought, they're planning on a shivaree.”
Scott winced. “Did you stop them?”
Johnny laughed and shook his head. “Let 'em think they'll have their fun. I already arranged with Jaime to get him and Lena away. He's not dumb enough to take her to their new house tonight and none of the hands know where they're going. I'm goin' to get everyone looking at me, and let them slip out. Go over there, will you, and tell him the buggy's ready and waiting where we agreed? He'll know what to do.”
“Of course I'll tell him. What are you planning?”
“What do you call it, you military men, when someone calls out a dance right in the open in front of the enemy, so you and your men can sneak around and attack them while they're too busy lookin' the other way?”
“A diversionary tactic.”
Johnny nodded. “Well, me and Eugenia, we've planned out our own diversionary tactic. Jaime knows.”
“And no doubt I'll find out. I'll tell Jaime now.”
“Thanks, brother.” Johnny stalked off towards the dancers, his hat in his hand.
“Shivaree?” Charles trailed along behind Scott, reluctant to miss out on the fun.
“Rough music. Johnny said that crowds stand outside the newlywed couple's house and sing, bang pans and play drums. They have to be bribed to go away and sometimes things get very rough, even violent. Not the sort of refined, romantic atmosphere I'd want for my bride on her wedding night, I must say.”
“Elizabeth would have been more than a match for any number of pan-bangers.” And Charles felt a little glow of pride.
Jaime's happy expression soured for a moment when they told him, and he glanced at the rowdy Lancer hands with evident annoyance. “Thank you, Scott.” He pulled Lena's hand through his arm and patted it protectively. “Johnny has been a true friend about this. Thank him for me, will you?”
“With pleasure.” Scott bowed with a little flourish. “My felicitations, Señora Roldàn.”
Magdalena blushed a becoming pink, but she didn't have time to respond. Johnny had joined the dancers, dropping his hat onto the head of a very pretty girl in a move that was so perfectly in accordance with Dana's account that Charles was briefly enchanted by seeing it in action. The girl danced on, her hips flowing with such wonderful fluidity that Charles had a sudden difficulty swallowing. The redoubtable Eugenia, no doubt. Scott hadn't exaggerated about those hips one iota.
Eugenia danced for a moment or two, and just as Johnny was taking up position in front of her to join the dance, she reached up and plucked the hat from her head, flinging it across the dance floor to hit one of the fiddle players full in the face. Understandably, the fiddler was a little distracted. His already-strident instrument screeched like a banshee.
So did the beautiful Eugenia. Charles had almost no Spanish, but he didn't need it. The flushed face and flashing eyes, the arms thrown up in the air, the heaving bosom, the voice, full bodied and vibrant with passion, reaching an upper register that had roosting birds falling from trees all over the San Joaquin valley... this was so much like his own Elizabeth that he could only marvel at the essential truth: all women were sisters, under the skin.
Johnny flashed something back in equally vituperative Spanish. The dancers, already faltering, broke like a wave on the seashore and crowded in close with the other spectators. There was much laughter and raucous comment, the on-lookers taking sides and cheering on one or the other of the disputants. The Mexican vaquero, Toledano, appeared to be taking bets. Murdoch Lancer, laughing, was trying to cover Miss Teresa’s ears.
Charles would put money on Eugenia, himself. She had the look of a winner about her.
He was vaguely aware that he and Scott had been abandoned. Young Jaime had taken advantage of the furore to slip away into the shadows with his new wife. Scott gave them a few minutes to get away, then let out a shrill, piercing whistle. Johnny, with one glance at Scott, leaned in over the beautiful Eugenia and kissed her, full on the mouth.
The crowd breathed in as one, a sharp “Oh!” sounding in unison, fifty pairs of eyes fixed on the drama before them. Money slapped quickly into Toledano's outstretched palm.
Eugenia took two small steps backward, raising one hand to her mouth. She had a considering look on her face. Johnny waited, grinning that charming smile of his. She pursed her lips, flicked her long hair over her shoulders and moved those hips back in Johnny's direction.
The tension was near on unbearable. Would she accept his kiss or slap his face? Never taking his eyes from her, Johnny stretched out a hand towards the fiddler and snapped his fingers, accepting the return of his property with no more than a nod. He offered the hat to Eugenia...
...who laughed, took the hat and donned it. She grabbed Johnny's hand and pulled him out of the lamplight, into the shadows, to a chorus of jeers and cheers. Toledano folded the money in his hand and pocketed it with ostentatious care. The band started up again.
“I take it Jaime got safely away?” Murdoch Lancer loomed up out of the semi-darkness, Cipriano at his side.
“Several minutes ago, sir.”
“Bueno,” said Cipriano. “I am grateful, Señor Scott. I will assure Isabella that all is well. If you'll excuse me.” He bowed and left them.
Murdoch laughed, softly. “There'll be some chagrined people around here tonight, with no shivaree to occupy them. We'd better have supper, and take the edge off their disappointment.” He strode up to the band.
“He likes this,” said Scott, as they watched. “He's grown into this, being the Patrón. It suits him.”
“He seems rooted here. Settled.”
“He's rooted all right. Too rooted ever to travel East, anyway.”
Murdoch silenced the band. He faced the dance floor, standing there in the lamplight, genial and smiling, until everyone was facing him, and the chatter and laughter were dying down. “Friends...”
He stopped, frowning, staring over everyone's heads - not a difficult achievement considering his height. The crowd turned too, craning necks and murmuring. A young man stood uncertainly in the entrance to the courtyard, his hat in his hands.
“Buenas noches,” said Murdoch. “Can I help you?”
The young man took a step forward. His hands twisted the hat one way, and then the other. He spoke in careful English. “I am looking for the Rancho Lancer, señor. I think that this must be the right place?”
“It is. I'm Murdoch Lancer.”
The stranger ducked his head, smiling in obvious relief. “Bueno! I am glad, Jefe. I have travelled a long way to get here.”
“Well,” began Murdoch, but he didn't get the change to finish.
The young man took a step farther into the courtyard. “I am sorry to disturb your fiesta, but it is most important. I am looking for Señor Madrid, Jefe. Señor Johnny Madrid. I was told that I would find him here.”
Charles frowned. The name struck a chord, brought up a vague memory. He'd heard it before, he was sure. He didn't think that he'd met the man, but the name was familiar.
But it was everyone else's reaction that had him itching to reach inside his jacket pocket for his notebook. What an astounding effect the unexpected visitor had! Everyone fell silent, everyone froze in their place and stared. It was quite extraordinary, as if they'd spontaneously decided to create a theatrical tableau on the topic of Astonishment or Disconcertment. They'd win dramatic plaudits for it on any stage in the world.
Murdoch Lancer possibly did it best. He stood full in the lamplight and no one with eyes could have missed the way the tension had him stiffening where he stood. His arms were held rigidly down his sides, those big hands curling into fists. His mouth hardened and thinned down, and the amiable and scholarly man who'd chatted to Charles the previous evening about Homer's Iliad had vanished. What was left was a glimpse of the man who'd clawed his way up to be the district's pre-eminent landowner: there was something hard and ruthless there, as impervious and unbending as the granite of his native Scotland.
Beside Charles, Scott took in a sharp, audible breath. A sideways glance showed he was as tense as his father, leaning forward to stare at the young stranger. He pushed back his chair and flattened his hands on the table top, ready to push himself to his feet. Beyond him, Aggie Conway was pale and suddenly haggard, looking from Murdoch to the young Mexican visitor and back again. Teresa O’Brien sat beside Señora Roldàn, both hands over her mouth and her eyes were wide with fright and astonishment. Only Cipriano Roldàn wasn't locked into place. He moved swiftly to stand beside his employer.
Wes Rollins broke the tension. He sat with the rest of the hands, near a table set up against the high adobe wall that enclosed the courtyard. He twitched aside the red and white checked tablecloth, ducked down for an instant and came back up with holstered pistol in one hand, pulling away the holster and belt with the other. The sound of the hammer going back made everyone jump, unfreezing the tableau.
Wide eyed, the young Mexican looked down the barrel of Rollins's gun. “Señor!” he protested. “Lo hice sin mala intención...I mean no harm. I came only to talk to Señor Madrid.”
“I reckon Johnny's a mite particular about who he talks to.” Rollins glanced at Murdoch. “Mr Lancer?”
Johnny? Did Rollins mean Scott's brother Johnny? But his name was Lancer, surely. Not Madr—
That was where Charles had heard the name! The train journey and those ridiculous dime novels, with the moustachioed villain depicted on the cover. And... of course! He slipped a hand inside his pocket and closed his fingers over his notebook. The fragment he'd torn from the front page of the Sacramento newspaper was folded inside the back cover, the jagged tear running down through the report of the death of the notorious shootist, John Madrid. Charles had barely read it at the time. He'd been too intent on the article about the land war in the San Joaquin and on his journey south to make sure Scott Lancer was unharmed.
But that meant—
Großer Gott! A gunman? A killer?
Charles thought about the cold eyes that had weighed him up when Scott had first introduced him, the watchful gaze that had probed and analyzed him. He remembered Johnny’s joke about shooting the two men who had watered Scott’s horse before the race, and now he understood that it may not have been a joke at all and why Scott himself had been a touch uncertain about it.
Großer Gott. A gunman.
“Mr Lancer?” repeated Rollins. “Do you want me to run him off?”
Murdoch unstiffened slightly, found the impetus to move. He shook his head.
“¡Jefe, lo hice sin mala intención! Señor!” The young visitor looked upset. As well he might with Rollins holding a gun on him.
“Cipriano!” said Scott, tense and urgent. “What did he say?”
“That he means no harm,” said Cipriano, and Charles was so grateful for the translation that he would have cheered, if he hadn't been desperate not to disturb the unfolding drama and draw attention to the fact there was an audience.
The visitor turned to Cipriano in quite evident relief, although the whites of his eyes showed that he was looking sidelong at Rollins's gun all the while. He spoke carefully and slowly, but his grasp of the language was quite evidently shaken by Rollins's pistol. “Si! Si! Nothing bad... El cura... the priest sent me here. The priest said—”
“Sexton Joe, d'you mean?” Rollins made a slight movement with his gun that every eye followed with fascination. Their visitor couldn't take his gaze from it. “ 'Cause let me tell you, that ain't no recommendation. Joe ain't no real preacher, though I hear he does a prime job of wailin' and prayin' and callin' on the Lord afore he kills a man.”
The young man's mouth opened and closed again. He looked beseechingly at Cipriano, who obliged with a translation into Spanish. Charles was impressed. That made it three languages that Cipriano had mastered: Spanish, English and whatever it was that Wes Rollins spoke.
“I do not know this person, Señor,” protested the young man and came forth with another burst of indignant-sounding Spanish.
“He says that he is not a pistolero to know such men—”
A vehement headshake and “¡Yo no soy pistolero!”
“He insists that he is not a gunfighter, Patrón, but that the priest sent him and told him that he would find Johnny Madrid here at Lancer.”
“Si,” said the young man. “El cura. The priest.”
“What priest?” Murdoch's voice was hoarse, strengthening as he repeated the question. “What priest?”
“Padre Gervasio, por supuesto, Jefe.”
“Not Padre Pedro at Morro Coyo?”
“Yo no lo conozco bien, Jefe... Lo siento.” The young man continued in his careful English, “I do not know this Padre Pedro, Señor. I speak of Padre Gervasio, who is our priest in Cibuta.”
“Sonora,” said Cipriano, quietly. “I believe that Cibuta is in Sonora, just south of Nogales.”
“Si, Señor. Sonora. It was my village, where I was born.” He abandoned English altogether and directed a flood of Spanish at Cipriano. Cipriano listened, face grave and giving nothing away.
Murdoch grunted in evident exasperation. “I can’t keep up. I’m not getting all of that.”
Scott muttered something. It sounded like curse about not getting any of it.
Cipriano held up a hand to stop the young man and turned to Murdoch. “I can translate, Patrón.” At Murdoch’s nod, he went on, “This is Javier Santillán. He says that he and his father asked Señor Johnny for help at around the turn of the year. The village was having trouble meeting the demands of their don, who sent both his own men and the rurales to punish the villagers...” He glanced at the young man and asked a question, nodding at the answer. “Si. The villagers were in great distress, and the don wouldn't listen either to them or to the priest. They knew they couldn't fight on their own, and that Johnny is known to be sympathetic to the poor who are oppressed by the haciendados.”
The young man said something in rapid Spanish that had even Cipriano looking a little concerned, and certainly had the rest of the Mexican vaqueros whispering to each other behind their hands, eyes wide.
“Cip?” Murdoch Lancer looked shocked, as if someone had had the bad taste to punch him when he wasn’t looking. “Cip, did he say what I thought he said?”
Cipriano grimaced slightly. “It is known that Señor Johnny dealt with Don Batista Quintanar in Baya California, some years ago.”
“Dealt with,” repeated Murdoch. It wasn't a question. His expression darkened. “Dealt with.”
Cipriano managed a graceful half-shrug. He gestured to the young man to continue. He was a good interpreter, translating almost simultaneously. “The priest counselled against revolution, but the villagers were desperate and the children were starving. Señor Madrid agreed to help them, but they were too few against too many, even with his help. Santillán thinks they were betrayed. The rurales caught them, in all events.”
Beside Charles, Scott tensed. “Sir,” he said, sharply, to Murdoch. He jerked his head towards the table where the hands and their families sat, all of them fascinated and listening avidly.
Murdoch's scowl was a thing of real majesty. It had a depth of malevolent fury that Charles had never seen bettered, not even by the most melodramatic of stage actors.
The scowl transformed itself into a grimace. It looked like Murdoch were having a tooth drawn, so keen was his expression of agony as he glanced about him for inspiration. His eye lit upon the fair Mrs Conway.
“Aggie, can I ask you to be my hostess while I deal with this matter? I'm sure it's unimportant and won't take long, but I'd be easier if I could leave my guests in your very capable hands while I deal with it. Take care of Teresa for me.”
Mrs Conway was only half the length of a hale bay from where Charles sat, with Scott between them. He was quite certain he heard her say something under her breath that would have had Elizabeth swooning and calling for the hartshorn. Not that Charles blamed her. He shared her chagrin. If the Lancers were going to move this entrancing encounter indoors, good manners would prevent him from following them. It would be an unpardonable breach of etiquette, knowing the Lancers’ own good manners would make them hesitate to hurl him out on his ear. He couldn’t take advantage like that.
Damn etiquette! There were times Charles regretted being a gentleman.
Good manners prevented Mrs Conway from repeating her remarks in a louder tone. She could no more show what she really felt at being excluded than could Charles. Instead she was all smiling complaisance.
“Thank you, Aggie. I'm in your debt. Cipriano, please take our... our guest to the porch.” Murdoch took a visibly deep breath and turned to his fascinated audience. “Carry on with the celebrations, friends. My sons and I will be back soon. Enjoy yourselves, please.” He signalled to an anxious Teresa and the hacienda women. “Supper is about to be served.”
Cipriano ushered the young man out of the courtyard and into the covered porch that ran the length of this wing of the house. There must have been lanterns kept there: a light sprang up a moment later.
In the courtyard, a great many mouths turned down with disappointment.
Toledano, the middle-aged vaquero who seemed to have all the gambling in the
San Joaquin valley under his control, looked glum and stuck a wad of notes
back into his jacket pocket. Surely he wasn't going to try and wager on the
outcome of this? Surely not.
Charles wondered what odds Toledano had been thinking of offering.
Wes Rollins got up, hefting his pistol. “You sure you don't want me to come and keep an eye on things, Mr Lancer?”
Murdoch glared at the pistol, but his tone remained even. “I don't think so, Rollins. But thank you.”
“You ain't armed. Leastways not until Johnny gets here, you ain't.”
Scott slid out of his seat to join Murdoch. “Johnny's not armed right now either, Wes. Maybe it'd be better—”
Wes snorted and gave him a scornful look. “G'long. Johnny's allus armed, Scott. Specially when you think he ain't.”
“I dare say. Still. If I may?” Scott took the proffered pistol and checked it, gingerly. He hesitated before shoving it into his belt. “Hair trigger?”
Wes sniggered. “I ain't that much of a shootist. I ain't no Johnny Madrid. I guess your balls are safe enough.”
“Rollins!” Murdoch was red to his ears.
Wes shrugged and grinned, unabashed. He winked at Mrs Conway, who sat chuckling and trying to look stern, and sauntered off back to his seat. He was met with hands clapping him on the back and wide grins. He was popularly deemed to have scored a point there, then.
Murdoch Lancer left the small courtyard, his long legs eating up the yards. Scott hurried in his wake. The silence they left behind them could have been slashed with the proverbial knife.
Charles frowned and sighed. Damn.
Mrs Conway frowned and sighed. She probably also said “Damn!” again under her breath, but a gentleman would never tell on her. She could, though, be a formidable ally. Or a formidable enemy. She gave Charles a very cool look, came a little closer along the hay bale to speak to him, lowering her voice. “I understand from what Mr Lancer and Scott have said that you are a newspaperman?”
“I am a journalist, yes.”
The cool look grew colder. Her eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened down, her lips whitening. She bore an uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth. “Mr Nordhoff, I don’t know what it is that you’re doing here in California, but you must understand that this is a private, family matter.”
Why did people think that admitting to being a journalist was equivalent to confessing to be an amoral opportunist who would stab his sainted grandmother in the back if it meant a good story? Journalism was entirely compatible with being a gentleman. As Charles demonstrated, although refraining from rolling his eyes took some effort. “I am a journalist, Mrs Conway. I write features and articles for Harpers and the New York Times. It’s many years since I was involved in the news side of the profession. But of course, I haven’t lost the eye for a good story and what sells. This is a good story. But—and this is important—I also count myself as Scott Lancer’s friend.”
He held her gaze until she reddened along her cheekbones. “Forgive me, I didn’t intend offence. Murdoch Lancer befriended my late husband and I when we first came to California, more than twenty five years ago, and without his help, the Conway ranch would not be in the good order it is today. I value my friendships, Mr Nordhoff, and I value loyalty.” She put her hand on his arm in mute apology. “As do you, I see.”
She took the reproof well. She took it like a gentleman, which, given that she was a woman in what was most definitely a man’s world, she would probably appreciate for the compliment it was and prefer to be noted for that rather than womanish wiles and vapours.
Charles forbore to say so, of course, but he patted her hand vigorously to
show that she was forgiven. “I don’t know very much about some of the… er
personalities here in the West, but I saw one or two of those dime novels. I
gather that Johnny is a shootist of some note.”
“He was.” She spoke emphatically, and he was the recipient of the cool stare again until he inclined his head to acknowledge the correction. “Little as we may like it, guns are part of our way of life out here. We are well settled here in California, but many parts of the west are dangerous and facility with a gun is valued. Johnny is one of the best, if not the best. His skill is… was much sought after. But that was then. He’s a rancher now.”
Mmn. And who was she trying to convince? Charles nodded and murmured agreement.
She looked towards the porch. They couldn’t see very much apart from the faint glow of lamplight above the courtyard walls, and once someone walked briskly past the courtyard gateway, a darker shade in the grey shadows. From the height alone, it had to be Murdoch Lancer. Mrs Conway sighed. She looked quickly at Charles and away again. Her fingers tapped on the rough boards of the tabletop. “I wish I knew what was going on and what that young man wants. We need to recover from Pardee, not be plunged into more trouble.”
Her curiosity burned with a cold, cold flame compared to the fire consuming Charles. But perhaps she’d be willing to connive at dousing the blaze. He looked from her to the courtyard gate and back again. The porch was just beyond it, and it would make an excellent vantage point. “I wonder… perhaps the air would clearer and the breeze fresher over by the courtyard gate. It’s a warm evening. The courtyard walls trap the air here, I’ve noticed, and it’s rather stale and unpleasant after a while. You look a little faint, if you don’t mind me saying so. Would you accept my arm in support, ma’am, and we’ll walk to the gateway and see if we can catch the breeze. For your refreshment and recovery, of course.”
Aggie Conway stared an instant before the smile started. It grew into a wide beam. She really was a rather attractive woman when she smiled like that. Most attractive. “Mr Nordhoff, has anyone ever told you that you are an extraordinarily resourceful man?”
“I believe it’s a trait much prized in journalists.”
“I’m sure of it and that you are a master in your profession.” Mrs Conway rose to her feet and said something to Cipriano’s stately wife in Spanish.
Señora Roldàn’s dark-eyed glance rested on Charles for a second or two. Her calm expression didn’t falter. Charles swallowed. His collar felt too tight and he shuffled his feet. His stepmother had looked like that whenever the young Karl Friedrich did something to disturb her sense of order and cleanliness. He ran a finger inside his collar to loosen it and the Señora’s mouth may have given the minutest twitch of amusement. She nodded.
“Teresa, perhaps you could get the ladies started on serving up the food?” Mrs Conway grasped Charles’s arm with more force than was strictly necessary, half dragging him to the courtyard gate. “Señora Isabella will see that everyone remains here in the courtyard. We won’t be able to see the porch very well from the gateway, of course, so we aren’t at all invading their privacy.”
“Of course not,” agreed Charles. “Merely taking the air where the breeze—”
“Is freshest. Yes, quite.” But she stopped, hesitated. “I don’t know…” she said, doubtfully, disengaging her arm. “I don’t really think I should. It doesn’t…Murdoch trusts me to take care of things here…”
Verdammt! Why on earth couldn’t she just make a decision and stick to it? It would drive him mad not to know what was going on. “Mrs Conway…”
She shook her head. “No. No, I won’t.” She took a deep breath. “But I would be grateful if you would stand guard near the gateway and ensure no one tries to leave the courtyard. They might disturb Mr Lancer.” She gave him a solemn nod, but her mouth kept trying to smile. “I don’t suppose for a moment that anyone will try to leave, but we can’t be too careful, can we?”
Really, Mrs Conway was a very attractive woman. Charles was delighted to bow over her hand and slip away to the edge of the courtyard while she went back to supervise everyone else and keep them out of his way.
The courtyard walls were above head height and cast a deep shadow, allowing Charles to lurk near the gateway to take the air with all the innocence in the world. There was a pretty good chance he wouldn’t be much noticed. He couldn’t see anything, of course, and good manners forbade that he try. But he could hear quite well. It was quite astonishing how well sound travelled in the clear Californian air.
Charles leaned up against the adobe, and settled in to hear something to his advantage.
Murdoch’s voice was tinged with anger and impatience, the words clipped and fast. “Where is Johnny? Is it too much to ask that when… when his acquaintances turn up here”—and the sneer was so marked that Charles blinked—”he deal with them himself? Bad enough that we have Wes Rollins hanging round our necks like Coleridge’s albatross, without every character from along the bord—Johnny! There you are! Where have you been?”
“Busy, Murdoch, and I’d kinda like to get back to what I was busy with. What’s all this about? Javier? Javier Santillán? What are you doing here?”
“Johnny! At last! It has taken many days to find you, amigo. Estoy encantado… I am very much pleased to see you. I am sorry to cause problems here.” And the visitor burst into a torrent of Spanish that had Charles grimacing with frustration.
“Hold up, Javier! English, por favor. Not everyone here speaks Spanish.”
Johnny Madrid might be a shootist, with all that implied of mercenaries and the sort of small land wars that Charles suspected were nasty, ruthless and lawless, but at the moment Charles was his greatest admirer. The young man’s consideration for others was exemplary. A diamond in the rough, obviously.
Scott Lancer appeared to agree. “Thank you, Johnny.”
“Lo siento, señors. I am sorry. I come from Padre Gervasio, Johnny. He told me where to find you. He sends his most loving greetings and blessings to you.” The young Mexican suddenly sounded uncertain. “He asked me to give you the kiss of peace when we met.”
Johnny chuffed out a laugh. “I’ve been kissed plenty tonight, amigo, and she sure is prettier than you. It’s okay. We’ll skip that part, ’cos she’s waiting on me getting back and doing it some more.”
“John!” Murdoch’s tone was sharp.
“Hold your fire, Murdoch. This isn’t trouble. Javier’s a friend and you couldn’t get a finer priest than Padre Gervasio anywhere. How is he, Javier?”
“Old. Very old. He says it will not be long before the good Dios gathers him in. But still he works for us to protect us and care for us. He is a good man.”
“The best,” agreed Johnny.
“He gave me many words to pass on to you, but some things in particular I was to be sure of saying and not to forget. First, his blessings for the money you sent him. He says he can do such good with your gift. The don has been harsh, very harsh, and what you sent him will feed the entire village for the next year or more.” The young man’s voice took on a wondering tone. “Tanto dinero! It must be a very great sum.”
Johnny muttered something inaudible that sounded embarrassed.
“Johnny!” said Scott. “You didn’t send all of it?”
“All of what?” demanded Murdoch.
“Did you send all the money?” Scott sounded awed.
“What money?” huffed Murdoch. “Wait! Not the listening money?”
“It was mine.” There was an edge to Johnny’s voice, as if he were losing patience. “¡Suficiente! Padre Gervasio got it and will do some good with it.”
“You didn’t think to use it to do some good here?” Murdoch snapped back.
“Last I looked, you aren’t starving.”
Javier cut in with more messages from this mysterious priest who sent blessings to gunmen. “He says you have such a good heart, Johnny, that you should not fear to look the good Dios in the eye when your time comes.”
“I don’t think a thousand dollars’ll buy me much there,” said Johnny. “There’s a whole heap more God’ll have an opinion on, that’s for certain, and I don’t expect he’ll be as gentle as the padre. Javier, it’s not that I ain’t glad to see you, but why did Padre Gervasio send you here?”
“To ask for your help, of course.”
“Of course,” murmured Scott, sounding amused.
“What sort of help?” demanded Murdoch. “Isn’t a thousand dollars enough?”
“The don has been very harsh. I cannot go back. The rurales come often to the village and if they found me… things would go hard with my family and with the village. The rurales, they always look for my family. My abuelo sent my sister to safety in the convent at Nogales, to keep her away from the capitán. He is not a good man, that capitán. Now my sister is safe, he looks to my mother. So Padre Gervasio took her into his house. She is safe there. Not even that cabrón dares to go to the house of un cura, a priest, to force her.”
“Damn,” said Johnny, softly.
“That is bad, but maybe not the worst. My two brothers… you remember them, Johnny? They are but niños, but ¡ai! ¡son unas idiotas! They plan and plot revenge on the rurales for papá, and I am not there to stop them. They will do something so… so… tan estúpido! No sé qué hacer… I do not know…what am I to do? It will kill my mother if they are shot, too. I need your help.”
“Damn it! I told him. I told Padre Gervasio they’d need watching. I… damn it! They’re hurting and they’re angry, amigo. Stands to reason after what happened to your papá.”
“Wait a minute, Johnny,” said Scott. “Back up a yard or two and explain. Javier, is it? Javier said that he’s from the village you were helping just before you came here, is that right? The one where you got involved in the revolution?”
Charles stared towards the dark gateway. A revolution. A revolution?
“The one where you were almost shot by firing squad?” Scott’s voice took on that note of sardonic amusement that Charles recognized so well. “One would have thought that was more than enough help!”
“They shot Pablo, Javier’s father.”
Scott choked. “What? Shot him? But I thought the Pinkerton got there and stopped everything?”
“They’d just gunned down Pablo. I was next up.”
The silence was so sharp, it felt like walking barefoot on broken glass. Charles hardly dared breathe in case they heard him. This sounded so wildly dramatic that it might have been penned by Keane or… or any other melodramatist that Charles couldn’t quite think of right then because, really, revolutions were totally distracting. Shootings and firing squads? Großer Gott! What an uncivilised place the West was!
“Johnny. It was that close?” There was no amusement in Scott’s tone now. “You only mentioned the prison, and I assumed the Pinkerton got you out from there… I mean, I know the letter Murdoch got said something about a firing squad but I’d thought it was threatened, not actual. I wouldn’t have joked about it otherwise, brother … But really, it was that close?”
“Another minute and you’d be an only son again, Boston. Less than a minute.”
“Dear God!” Murdoch spat out. “You never said anything!”
“What was there to say? It didn’t happen. There’s no sense in dwelling on what didn’t happen.”
“No, Murdoch. It’s done. There’s nothing to talk about. Nada. The Santillán boys, though. That needs some thinking on.” Johnny’s voice, always soft, quieted further. “I don’t want them walking the road I walked on. Anger and hate do that, and I grew up hating. And for the same damn reason.”
“That’s what Padre Gervasio said,” Javier said. “You would know better than anyone, he thought, what to do.”
“The whole damn family needs something doing,” muttered Johnny. “Damned if I know what, ’cept bring them all north of the border where the rurales can’t reach them and I can maybe knock some sense into those fool boys’ heads.”
“I had that thought, Johnny, but bring them to what?” Javier sighed, his anxiety obvious. “We need work. That I could find, perhaps, but how to live in the meantime? And where?”
Cipriano Roldàn spoke up. “Perdóneme, Señor Johnny, but the family, they are farmers?”
“Yeah. Pablo was one of the best farmers in their village, but not even he could feed his family on what the don left them.”
“With Pardee dead and his men scattered, and then the spring roundup so soon after, we have given no thought to the farm on the ranchero. With the Bocanegras gone, Patrón, you will need someone to take on the farm.” Cipriano’s tone was measured and reasonable, as if suggesting that young men beating their revolutionary swords into literal ploughshares was normal ranch business and hardly worthy of remark.
But for all that, there was a moment’s silence. Johnny broke it with a whoop and a “¡Dios, Cip, but you are one damn smart man! I never thought of that.” followed in very close order by a chuckle from Scott and a “Hold on a minute!” from Murdoch before he lost himself in some incoherent spluttering.
“A farm? You have a farm?” Javier’s voice was hushed.
“I see your reservations, of course, Patrón,” said Cipriano, “They are most reasonable. But Señor Johnny will vouch for his friends, no doubt, and the farm could be offered on condition at first, to allow Señor Santillán the opportunity to prove himself.”
“A farm,” said Javier. “Johnny, a farm!”
“I don’t call the tune around here, Javier. What do you say, Murdoch? We need a farmer, Javier here needs a farm to give his family a new start and get them out of danger. I can vouch for it that they’re honest and hard working.” Johnny’s voice took on a sardonic note. “If that’s worth anything, of course.”
“This is not the time to discuss it,” said Murdoch Lancer, stiffly. “You can’t expect me to make an instant decision under these circumstances!”
“The decision’s for all of us to make, ain’t it? Me and Scott get a say, too. You’ll think it over?”
“I won’t make a decision now,” repeated Murdoch. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow, Santillán. This is not the time.”
“Of course, Jefe. Of course. I am very grateful that you should consider it. Perhaps”—and in his mind’s eye, Charles saw the young man draw himself up with pride and great dignity, speaking to Murdoch man to man—”perhaps I may call on you tomorrow, Señor, to discuss it and present myself properly.”
“Yes. Alright.” It was grudging, but it was an acknowledgement that young Santillán would be given a hearing. “Now, if we can assume there will be no other revolutionaries interrupting us tonight, can we return to the wedding feast? I hope you don’t have any more messages from this priest of yours, Santillán.”
“Just one, Señor.”
Murdoch’s sigh was a gusty as a gale. “Well, get it over with, man. This is supposed to be a celebration, and I want to get back to it.”
“Of course, Jefe. Johnny, Padre Gervasio said that as padre to the village, he has many sons of his heart. But you he keeps close in his thoughts, and prays for you every day—”
“I suspect you’re likely to need divine intervention, little brother,” murmured Scott. “Our esteemed parent is fulminating here.”
“Scott,” warned Murdoch, while Johnny chuckled.
“He said he knows it weighs on you, that there was no proper Mass for your papá when the rurales killed him, so he said, ‘Tell Johnny I have said Masses for the soul of Edgardo Madrid in the name of Edgardo’s son, and will continue to do so as long as there in breath in me.’ He was most insistent that I tell you that. He wanted me to be sure to tell you that he has kept his promise.”
“What?” said Murdoch Lancer, so stony that it might have been granite speaking. Charles imagined he wore the same hard look he’d worn earlier. “What?”
“My papá, Murdoch.” Johnny sounded insouciant enough. “Or didn’t that Pinkerton report tell you anything worth knowin’ about me? Is it all just shootings and range wars?”
“Johnny,” said Scott. “Johnny.”
“Oh, it told me.” The sneer was so pronounced that Charles winced. “It told me that you ended up in an orphanage. They assumed your mother was dead and that your stepfather dumped you in there. And you’re worrying about masses for him?” A snort. “Generous of you!”
The silence was so thick it felt solid. Charles drew in a quiet breath, reaching out a hand to support himself on the rough adobe wall. It anchored him in the quiet darkness.
Surely a storm was rolling in from the ocean to the west? The air was heavy, oppressive. Charles looked up, half-expecting to see thunderheads massing over the mountains. But the sky was almost clear, with only wisps of cloud hiding the stars so they winked in and out of sight as the clouds moved.
Johnny spoke with such softness, such gentleness, that Charles had to strain to hear him. “I hope you didn’t pay the Pinks very much for that crap, Old Man. Because they bilked you good.”
“Are you saying it isn’t true?”
Murdoch breathed so heavily each exhalation was a snort. “There was no orphanage?”
“No,” said Johnny slowly. “There was an orphanage. The one in Cantamar.”
“And your mother? Your mother was…” Murdoch hesitated, and to give him his due, his hard tone lessened and there was more than a tinge of some softer emotion there: sorrow, maybe, or regret. “She died?”
“When I was ten.”
“Murdoch,” said Scott. “Not now, you two. Cip, get Santillán out of he—”
“The rest is crap, Murdoch. Look, I dunno what line the Pinks sold you, but you want to know about stuff, you better just ask.”
“Would you answer?”
Johnny laughed, but it wasn’t a joyous sound. It wasn’t joyous at all. “Well, now, that depends.”
“Who’s askin’, and why.”
Murdoch snorted. “I thought as much. You’ve kept very quiet so far. You’ve said nothing about yourself. What else am I to think if you don’t say anything?”
“It’s dead and gone, that’s what you said. That first day, when me and Scott got here. The past is dead and gone, you said. And there’d be no apologies from you about the way things turned out. ‘I don’t care what you heard’—you said that too. So no, I haven’t talked about it, but then I didn’t figure a man who ignores the past nudgin’ up at him would want to listen.”
“Look,” said Scott, “I don’t think this is the time or place—”
“It never is, brother. It never is.” Johnny’s tone was acid. “Hell, the old man don’t want to talk about anything. He’ll just offer us a damn drink.”
“Johnny. Please.” Scott sounded desperate. “Cip, please—”
“Of course, Señor Scott. Santillán, ven comigo…”
Charles would be beyond frustrated to be sent away. Cipriano’s tone was expressionless.
“You remember Ben Wallace, Scott, when his ma died last month and what Murdoch said about him and that no-good bastard, Morgan Price?”
“What does Ben have to do with anything?” demanded Murdoch, and the harsh note was back in his voice with a vengeance.
“A boy’s got the right to know his father. That’s what you said about Ben.”
Murdoch choked, and muttered something Charles couldn’t catch at all.
“Damn,” said Scott, softly. “Damn it, Johnny. Not now.”
Johnny laughed again, and this time it was chilling. “Well, I’m gonna tell you this much, Old Man. We kept her happy, Papá and me. He said it was his responsibility but I could help. He was good at it. He was up to the job. And when she died, he was right there. When we put her in the ground, it wasn’t no stranger’s hand on me, holding me up, like it was with Ben. It was my papá’s. He hurt like hell about it and he was angry, because there was no doctor where we lived and because there was no money for one anyway, with that old bastard, Quintanar, takin’ every damn thing that weren’t nailed down. Quintanar didn’t like angry men who try to make things better. He had Papá shot down in the village square. I was there, Murdoch. I saw it. And the one who pushed me into the orphanage after? Tadeo, Papá’s brother. He hated mestizos.” Johnny stopped, and drew a shaky breath, almost the first one since he’d started speaking. “A boy has the right to know his father. Well, I did, Murdoch. Only it wasn’t you. You weren’t there.”
Murdoch roared something wordless. Choked. Forced out words, tone so curt and angry that Charles took a step back. “He was not your father!”
“He’s the only one I knew.” Johnny drew another audible breath. “No, I’m done, brother. I’m done. I have better things to do than talk about the past with an old man who doesn’t care what I heard. Because that just comes down to him not caring. I’m done. I’m goin’ back to Eugenia. Leastways, when she offers me a drink, it don’t come with a dose of lies told like they were gospel.”
“Johnny! Johnny, you come back here! John!” It didn’t seem possible that Murdoch could yell louder, but he did it. Glancing over his shoulder at the courtyard, Charles saw several people turn their heads towards the sound. Mrs Conway’s face was a picture of consternation, her eyes and mouth forming perfect Os.
“Murdoch, leave it! Leave it.” Scott sounded tired. “Just leave it. You can’t have a yelling fight with Johnny now. Not with all our guests here. Let him go.”
Murdoch spluttered, snorted out hard breaths, spat out hard-edged words that eventually softened into “No!” and “Not his father!” and then all Charles could hear was the heavy, dull thud of his feet as he left. Maybe to follow Johnny, who knew?
“Dear God,” said Scott. “Damn it all to hell and back. Damn it.”
Charles slid away, walking along the wall to the corner and keeping in the shadow until he was far enough from the gateway to slip into the crowd and pretend he’d been there all along, that, like them, he had turned his head at Murdoch’s anger and he, too, knew no more. Except Wes Rollins gave him a knowing look, a half grin and the tap of a finger against his long nose. And Aggie Conway caught up her skirts with one hand and hurried to his side, her half-boots gleaming where the torchlight caught the polished leather.
“Well? Is it trouble?” She put her free hand on his arm and her grip was as hard and strong as a man’s. “Is it trouble?”
Charles bowed his head, thinking about it. Families were complicated things at the best of times, and his poor Scott seemed to be embroiled in something that was, most definitely, not at its best. He glanced at the gateway where Scott had appeared and was walking slowly towards them. Scott’s head was down, and he’d pushed his hands into his jacket pockets, his shoulders hunched.
Atlas, with the world weighing him down.
Charles turned back to Mrs Conway. “Yes. It’s trouble. But not, I think, of
the kind you and Mr Lancer were expecting.”
“Not gun trouble?” She sighed. “That’s a relief.”
“No,” said Charles. “Not really.”
To say that breakfast next morning was quiet was the wildest of understatements. It was thunderously, ponderously, oppressively quiet.
Murdoch sat at the head of the table, back very straight and shoulders squared. He ate and drank as if he were the only person there, staring ahead and, after a cold glance and an unsmiling nod at Charles, acknowledged no one. Teresa sat huddled in her chair, both hands around her coffee cup, and Scott was abstracted and quiet. Everyone avoided looking at the empty chair at Teresa’s side.
Johnny might be late but there was no cautious reconnoitre of the kitchen for him, in an effort to avoid the thundercloud that was his father. He breezed into the kitchen like a whirlwind to shake them out of their silence. He didn’t sit down and every inch of him was thrumming with energy.
“I’m taking Wes with me to start fencing the east meadows. We’ll start by the Spanish Wells road,” he announced, grabbing a cup of coffee and gulping it down. He winked at Teresa. She stared back at him, her bottom lip trembling. “Don’t forget Javier’s coming by today to talk about the farm, Murdoch. I’d take it kindly if you’d give him a hearing.”
Murdoch appeared to take an age to bring his gaze around to meet Johnny’s. He and Johnny stared at each other, neither one giving an inch. Murdoch’s face was expressionless, but Johnny let a little smile show that was at odds with the watchful, cold blue eyes. The fingers of his right hand, Charles noticed, tapped out swift, silent patterns on his gun holster. Finally, Murdoch inclined his head in a magisterial gesture.
“Bueno.” Johnny grinned at everyone and was gone out the back door into the yard, Murdoch staring after him with narrowed eyes.
A sound strategy, not giving Murdoch time to return to the attack, Charles thought. Johnny was no fool.
Murdoch’s mouth twitched slightly and the corners turned down. He took a deep breath and Charles was fascinated to see his nostrils whiten and flare as he breathed out through them heavily. He stood up so abruptly that Teresa squeaked in alarm. “I’ll be at my desk.”
It wasn’t an observation that invited comment. No one responded. Scott didn’t look up from his plate, but Teresa watched Murdoch go, looked beseechingly at Scott and got up herself. She muttered something about helping Maria with the clean up in the courtyard, and fled.
“I’m told,” said Charles, gently, when the door closed, “that rival bulls will snort at each other and paw the ground before they charge and lock horns. I can’t confirm this from personal observation—New York not having a great many large angry bovines in residence—but that was an impressive display. I quite got the analogy.”
It surprised a crack of laughter out of Scott. He looked up, grinning faintly. “I am sorry, Charles. They’re impossible, aren’t they? But it’s dreadfully rag-mannered of us to wash the family linen in your presence.” The grin faded. “The thing is… I’m sorry that I didn’t really have the opportunity to talk to you last night, to explain a little. As you’ll appreciate, young Santillán put quite a spoke in our celebratory wheel.”
“It caused some disruption to the festivities, certainly.” Charles sipped his coffee. It was stronger than anything he’d ever had back East, but he was developing a taste for it. “Did you know?”
“Know?” Scott avoided Charles’s gaze.
Charles refrained from rolling his eyes. Scott was a little old to play the ingénue. “About Johnny.”
Scott’s mouth twitched in almost exactly the same way that Murdoch’s had. Fascinating. “I didn’t think that would get by you.”
“No. Most unlikely I’d let it. When a young man walks into a gathering like that and announces he’s there to see a notorious shootist, then of course not even the Easterner misses the significance of that. Especially since Murdoch’s reaction was so marked.”
Scott huffed out a mirthless laugh. “Indeed. Were you shocked?”
“A little. I have a good memory for those dime novels and the Border Hawk’s trouble along some river or other somewhere. One gets an idea about those men. Perhaps exaggerated—after all, Johnny looks nothing like the moustachioed villain depicted on the cover—but most men out here don’t have novels written about them. That he does says something about him that is disturbing to my Eastern sensibilities. Did you know?”
“And did it disturb me, you mean? Yes, I knew. I got to know a few days after we arrived here. The day he was injured in Pardee’s attack on the ranch.” Scott tried to smile but it was a lamentable failure. “I remembered that dreadful dime novel too. I read it to Johnny while he was ill. He told me it was… let’s say I translate what he said to ‘inaccurate rubbish’. He threatened to shoot me if I read him any more.” Scott managed a shaky laugh. “We switched to Robinson Crusoe, but I’m not sure he liked that any better.”
“No. He says Crusoe should’ve known better. Going on one voyage that ended badly was unfortunate; going on three or four meant the man couldn’t be trusted to find his way to the outhouse when he had the trots… well, perhaps that doesn’t translate too well in polite society. From which you may gather that Johnny doesn’t trust people who don’t learn from their mistakes.”
Charles smiled. A very neat attempt by Scott to divert him, but Charles was far too wily a journalistic fox to be caught by it. “Quite the philosopher, then. For a gunman.”
Scott’s mouth twitched again, hardening into a thin-lipped line.
“And a reputedly dead gunman, at that.” Charles sat back. It was a shame to toy with the man. It wasn’t the action of a friend, or a gentleman. Especially when the reason for his anxiety had just breezed out of the door as if nothing were wrong. “I told you in Green River, Scott, that I’m not a biographer and I’m not here for a story. I came here to see a friend. It pains me to have to say this, but I will, so there’s no misunderstanding between us. If I didn’t know you and care for your friendship and value it, then the story of the return to life of a notorious gunman and the tale of my two or three days in his company… then yes, that might be a story to sell, to add colour to the magazine. There’s an endless curiosity in our readers for stories of the frontier and they adore a personality. Such a story about Johnny would find a ready audience.” He paused and added, gently, “But I do value your friendship, Scott. I value it greatly.”
Scott’s gaze fixed on Charles’s face. After a moment he relaxed, and held out his hand. Charles, face warm with the excess of emotion, took it and gave it a hearty shake between both his own.
“Thank you, Charles. I’m more grateful than I can say. Thank you for Johnny’s sake—and my own.”
“It’s nothing. I have a brief from Harper for my time here in California and I have articles and a book to write. I don’t see Johnny Madrid sitting easily on the same page as the Big Four.”
“I can’t imagine it would intimidate him much,” said Scott in a dry tone. “He wouldn’t be the uneasy one. You know, it’s inevitable that people will eventually discover that the report of his death was a trifle premature, but the longer we can delay that, the better chance Johnny Lancer has of surviving, I think.”
“Well, Johnny’s story is safe from me.” Charles patted his notebook. “At least, in its raw form. As I once said to you, I use the elements of what I see and hear, and the people I meet, and one day that may transform itself to something.”
Scott nodded and his smile was wry. “No one knows Johnny’s story. There are only dribs and drabs of it here and there, and only Johnny knows which are true and which aren’t. And he’s not really very talkative.”
“Oh, I don’t know. He seems at ease with you.” Charles sat back. Scott looked easier, but if Charles had read the previous evening’s discussion correctly, the Lancers were not in for calm seas and a prosperous voyage. The barometer had dropped and squalls were definitely forecast. Poor Scott. “The timing is infuriating, because I am desperate to know the end of the story, but I must go tomorrow.”
“I’m not sure the story has an end, yet. But I’ll be sorry to lose your company, Charles.”
“I’ll be sorry, too. You’ve been a most entertaining travelling companion. But I must be in San Francisco by Sunday to take the train home on Monday. I’ve almost forgotten what home is like! And I doubt very much I’ll find anyone of your calibre to make the journey east more bearable. Will you take me to Green River tomorrow? I must get the stage at noon.”
Scott nodded. “Of course. I’m supposed to do some surveying for Murdoch, but I’m sure it can wait another day. I’ll get Johnny to help me get it done faster.” He sat back, looking more relaxed, the shadow lifted. “You know, Charles, I’m not a sentimental man. But I am very glad I took that particular train west. You’ve been a good friend.”
“And always will be, I hope.”
Scott smiled and once again extended his hand for Charles to take. “I’m sure of it.”
New York in high summer was an unpleasant sort of place and every window of Harper’s offices was open in the hope that a breeze—any breeze, however small and errant—would find its way in and relieve the poor sufferers drooping in the heavy, hot air. Charles found it hard to get his full breath.
Henry M Alden stared at him over gold-rimmed spectacles, frowning, as if he were trying to remember who Charles was. Charles waited, more or less politely. He could almost see the cogs and wheels whirring inside that overly high forehead, the furrows forming between the weak eyes. Großer Gott, but the man was a weak physical specimen of the human race. If the Aldens of this world bred true, then one day, perhaps, all humanity would be little more than huge brains housed inside large heads that showed all too much forehead and all too little chin.
“What,” said Alden, by way of greeting after Charles’s three month absence, “is that?”
Elizabeth hadn’t taken to it either. Despite the ornate design and the workmanship, she had an unaccountable aversion to it, and Charles had either to bring it to the office or risk that it would have a terrible accident while he was out of the apartment at work.
“It was a goodbye present from some friends in California when I left them after a visit to their extensive estates in the San Joaquin,” he said. “Did you get my articles?”
Alden forgot everything else. His thin face lit up and he took the proofs from the pile of papers on his desk, settling in for what he would undoubtedly find an almost orgiastically exciting period of crawling, metaphorically, over every word, comma and line. The man could be reduced to a mass of quivering nerve ends over a misplaced semicolon. Charles had put in several, for the entertainment value of each of Alden’s crows of triumph when he found them.
The articles were excellent, of course, for all that they said nothing at all about the most fascinating aspects of California. Charles left Alden to it and let his gaze wander around the familiar office with its smell of paper and ink, taking in the piles of proofs, the heavy iron and brass Sholes and Gliddon type-writer on the desk, the books and magazine editions stacked haphazardly one on top of the other in the corners of the rooms.
Once it had been his ambition to rule supreme in this room or one like it. Now… well, now he’d had his horizons stretched a little. The room felt small, confined.
Charles glanced down at the hat resting on his knees. Scott had laughed when he presented it on the eve of Charles’s departure from Lancer, its brushed black surface covered in delicate silver embroidery. Murdoch and Johnny had been there, a smouldering silence between them although they at least had exchanged a few words at dinner and refrained from open hostilities. Teresa had kissed his cheek. A memento of California, Scott had said, gripping Charles’s hand. To remember us by.
Charles smiled. He lifted the sombrero and settled it at a jaunty angle on his head. He didn’t think he’d forget, somehow.
No. He didn’t think he would.