(Hackamore Story 8)
The sofa facing the fire was big and comfortable, and damned if it didn't mould itself around a man, soft and warm and welcoming as a whore's arms. Johnny stretched out his boots towards the warmth from the low flames and leaned back, wriggling to get the cushion in just the right place against his back.
He checked the room again. Scott and Murdoch reading, Teresa sitting beside him knitting something, his gun belt hanging over the arm of the sofa with the gun butt towards his hand. He let his shoulders relax. Everything was fine. The way it should be. No danger; not here, not yet.
He took a sip of tequila. That had been a surprise the other night, Murdoch handing him a glass of real good reposado when they'd all settled in the salón after supper.
"I saw that you didn't like the brandy and you don't seem to be much of a Scotch drinker. It's an acquired taste, maybe. I had the tequila picked up from Morro Coyo with the supplies." Murdoch had looked uncomfortable under Johnny's stare. "I don't usually keep it here. It's a young man's drink."
Scott joined in, laughing. "Need a good hard head for it, sir?"
"Even a good hard head raised on Scotch balks at tequila." And Murdoch had poured Johnny a generous glassful of the pale gold liquor. The firelight had glowed through it when he'd handed it over, golden as the sky at sunrise.
It was real good stuff, too; smooth as silk, and he could taste the smokiness behind it that came from the old barrels it was aged in. He didn't often get to drink a tequila this good, almost as good as an añejo. Now an añejo tequila, that was the stuff that God drank, but this quality tequila ora was fine. It was mighty fine. It must have cost Murdoch a fair few dollars. The only thing that could make it better would be a sangrita to sip along with it. Couldn't expect Murdoch to know about that, though.
Beside Johnny, Teresa hummed some tune, her eyes fixed on her knitting, the needles clacking and her foot tapping softly. She had a nice voice. Murdoch's newspaper rustled as he turned the page, making Johnny look up, but Murdoch didn't notice and read on. Scott was reading a fat red book, sipping now and again from his brandy glass. Looked like that book Scott had brought with him from San Francisco and read to him when he was sick, the one about some hombre left stranded on an island someplace. That'd teach him to go on a ship. No one'd ever catch Johnny Madrid on a ship.
It was quiet. Johnny liked it quiet.
He was never one for talking a lot, 'specially with people he didn't know. He never said much when they were eating or sitting in the salón at night after supper. He was always more of a watcher than a talker. You learned more about folks that way, watchin' and listening. Better to sip the tequila and watch Scott and Murdoch read and listen to the tick of the clock, or watch Teresa stabbing her needle in and out of a bit of cloth with bright flowers stitched onto it, or watch as Boston thought about which man to move in chess or checkers. Figuring folks out in the quiet, that was the way to do it.
Scott was different. It wasn't that Scott couldn't be quiet—he sure was now, lost in that fat little book, and he read a lot. A man could see that Scott had a real education behind him. But Scott liked to talk, too. Scott could talk for hours about near on anything at all. He talked about Boston whenever someone asked him, but after seeing Murdoch hunch himself up and glower a time or two, he stopped mentioning his grandfather where Murdoch could hear him. Instead, he talked books and politics with Murdoch, or about the contracts Murdoch kept in the safe behind the desk, or about town or the Ladies Aid or Church with Teresa, and he even asked Johnny about Mexico.
He never asked the questions that Johnny figured he wanted to ask. Why did you turn to your gun for a living? and Are you like Day Pardee; would you do what he did? and What sort of man kills other men for money? and How do you sleep at night, knowing that you're a killer? and How many men have you killed? And most of all, Can I trust you? and How can I accept what you've done? and How can someone like you be my brother?
Maybe that fancy education stopped him. Scott had real good manners and maybe he didn't want to be rude. Instead he'd wait until it was Johnny's turn to make his move at checkers, and then say something like: "One of the hands mentioned a corrida today. Have you been to one, Johnny? What's it like?"
All the time he listened to Johnny tell him about the processions and the matadors and the bulls, he had a look on his face, a considering look, like he was trying to make Johnny out and measure him up. Watchful. Those pale blue eyes of his saw too much. Like he was seein' or trying to see, right into what made Johnny who and what he was. As if what Johnny was saying about El Alguachil and the banderilleros and the bands playing La Virgen De La Macarena over and over like it was the only tune they knew, answered the questions about Why Madrid? and How many men? and Can I trust someone like you?
Johnny had seen that look often over the weeks since Pardee's raid, when Scott looked at Murdoch, or the ranch or, mostly, at Johnny. It was the look of a man considering the hand he'd been dealt, taking his time over working out if the cards he had would win him the game or not, or if he was staying in the game at all. And when Johnny stopped talking, about fiestas or markets or the corrida or whatever it was that Scott had asked about, Scott would start up again about something else. He sure could talk, and about 'most anything he put his mind to.
Maybe Boston was hiding in all that talk what Johnny hid in being real quiet, and all the time he considered and judged and kept his considering and his judgements to himself.
That was something to think about. Johnny settled down lower on the sofa, his eyes closing so he could do his thinking better, while Teresa's humming grew softer and softer. The loudest thing in the room was the long-case clock in the corner; taller than he was, and ticking his life away.
Murdoch folded his newspaper and cleared his throat. Everyone looked over to him. Maybe he wanted to talk some more. He and Scott had already had what Scott called 'a lively discussion' about some election due later in the year. They'd tried to pull Johnny into it, but he'd head right off to bed if they started up on that again. He'd never been to Washington and didn't want to go, and he sure as hell didn't give a damn who California sent. Scott and Murdoch cared. That'd have to be enough for all of them.
"I'm sending Hernán into Green River first thing tomorrow to tell James Randolph that we'll be coming in to sign the partnership deed. I just realised that neither of you have had the chance to read it. You ought to read it first and I'll answer any questions you have about what it means." Murdoch struggled up out of his big chair and limped to the desk. He took the folded papers from the top drawer and handed them to Scott. "I only have one copy here. Randolph has the original deed in his office, ready for us to sign, with copies for each of us."
Johnny watched from the deep, soft sofa, sipping on his tequila. Scott read through the deed, nodding. At one point he looked up, startled and a mite wild about the eyes, then smiled and shook his head, chuckling. Murdoch smiled a thin smile back at him. Well, something was real funny, looked like.
"It seems clear enough, sir. Admirably concise, actually, if a trifle… a trifle agricultural in some of its clauses. Here you go, Johnny."
Johnny took the deed with his left hand and glanced through it. It wasn't very long, a couple of pages. Just paper, but it roped and corralled the three of them, fencing them in with so many wheretofors and insomuchs that it made his head ache. Maybe it'd be easier to work out if the deed was in Spanish, but when he tried changing it in his head, then hell, some of those words didn't make much sense in Spanish either.
Scott was grinning. Yeah something was real funny. "See clause seven. It's about a particularly interesting… er, stock breeding programme."
Johnny read it. What the hell? He had to hold back a snort. So the old man was looking for grandkids to cluster around his knees, was he? Mierda, but he hadn't done too well with his sons. Who in hell would trust him with grandkids? Although maybe it was just that Murdoch was looking for wife number three. He glanced at his brother and Scott shook his head. Didn't look like Boston was any more ready for matrimony than he was.
"Randolph advised that we had to cover every eventuality, including inheritance issues. That's all." Murdoch was stiff and the thin smile was thinner and more tetchy than like he thought Scott was funny. He'd been Patrón of this place for so long he wasn't used to being challenged. Probably wasn't used to being joked with, either.
Boston, though, he was all relaxed and easy. It was a wonder how he could tease a man like that and always be that educated and polite. "That's very far-sighted of him, sir. And of you, of course. But I'm not intending to get leg shackled for a few years yet."
Hell, no! Johnny grinned and went back to puzzling the meaning out of the deed. At the end of the second page were three names, one on top of the other with a space beneath each one, room for them to sign.
Murdoch Angus Lancer. Angus? What the hell kind of name was Angus? Come to think on it, what the hell kind of name was Murdoch? Was the old man even from around here? Sometimes there was something in the way he talked, a softness to it and the way he said some words, that Johnny had never heard before and didn't recognise.
Scott Garrett Lancer. Gringos sometimes added their mother's name but not in the order it was done in Spanish, so was that what the Garrett was for? The first wife's name; the gringa first wife that Mama had never ever mentioned, the way she'd never ever mentioned Scott. He'd gone through all his life thinking he was the only kid Murdoch Lancer—Murdoch Angus Lancer—had abandoned. It was quite something to find out he was just the youngest.
And quite something to find out that Mama knew about the first wife and about Scott, and never told anyone. Made you wonder what else she hadn't told, and if what she had told was—
And there it was.
John Luis Lancer.
No mention of his mother's name. It wasn't John Luis Lancer Martínez, the way it should be. It was like Mama had never happened. Poor Mama. She wouldn't have liked that, and she'd have flown about the room, eyes flashing and hands waving, mouth going faster than a horse could gallop, telling him and Papa exactly what she thought about it and What are you going to do about this, Edgardo? Papa would have rested a big hand on Johnny's head, the fingers working through his hair, so Johnny wouldn't be scared by Mama's yelling. And then Papa would have laughed and called her querida and mi corazón and mi vida, and he'd kiss the palms of her hands and the inside of her wrists until she'd laugh along with him before pulling Johnny into a hug, and everything would be all right again.
He ducked his head. He'd been such a scrawny little nino when he'd lived in the little house with them, before they died and left him. It had been a good time, the life with Edgardo Madrid; the only time he'd ever lived in a house with familia.
So. No mention of Mama and Martínez, and there sure as hell was no mention of Madrid. It was like this was Lancer and Lancer alone, and the last twenty years had never happened.
Johnny folded up the papers and handed them back. He took a swig of tequila, letting the liquor burn its way down his throat. Something in him tightened.
Who the hell was John Luis Lancer?
There'd been a Juan Luis Lancer once, who'd been pushed into that orphanage in Tijuana after Papa died. Tadeo Madrid had taken Papa's farm but he hadn't wanted the mestizo bastard in the house, and Papa wasn't there to make him look after Johnny. Tadeo hadn’t even wanted to let Johnny keep Papa's name. Johnny had shown him, though. No one had ever heard of Tadeo Madrid, no one knew who he was. But Johnny Madrid? Well, one helluva lot of people had heard Johnny Madrid's name.
"Any questions? Apart from clause seven!" Murdoch was smiling now, wider and more liked he meant it, and he looked mellow when Johnny looked at him, sitting back with his whisky glass in hand, relaxed. He didn't look like a man with too many names to fit onto that deed of his. He looked right, like he belonged, like this was his place. He was Murdoch Lancer, the respectable rich ranchero, and he and everyone else knew it.
Johnny let himself slide down a little on the sofa. Sign as John Luis Lancer, because a man didn't get the chance to own something like Lancer every day and hell, it was just a name? Get the Martínez added, to honour Mama? Insist on signing as Madrid to honour Papa and to make Murdoch face up to who Johnny really was, the way he'd gone back and made Tadeo face it? Because if there was someone called John Luis Lancer, Johnny sure didn’t know the man.
He looked past Murdoch and out of the huge window behind Murdoch's desk. He couldn't see much but sky, and that was dim and grey in the twilight, but out there was the biggest ranch in this part of the San Joaquin valley; pasture, hills, streams and valleys stretching up into the foothills of the San Benito mountains. It was beautiful. Tomorrow, one third of it would be his. It should always have been his. If Mama had stayed.
The window darkened as he watched it, and he could see a star way off somewhere up above the mountains.
The star flickered.
Murdoch loomed over him. "Johnny?"
Pay attention! It's damned stupid to let your guard down like that. "What?"
"I said, you'd better go to bed as well. You'll be better off in your bed than sleeping here."
He started to say he wasn't sleeping but when he straightened up and looked around the room, Scott and the girl had already gone and someone had taken the tequila glass from his hand and put it on a side table where it wouldn't spill. There was a still a little bit of tequila in the bottom of the glass. He tossed it back, rubbed at the back of his neck and glanced at the window. There was nothing to see outside, now. The window glass was a dark mirror, reflecting the lamp-lit room.
He stood up, stretching to ease the kinks. His reflection in the window looked rumpled. He looped his gun belt over his arm and headed for the door.
Murdoch had gone
back to his chair and picked up his newspaper again. He gave it a little
flick to open out the pages and was tut-tutting at something in it. "Good
"Yeah." Johnny hesitated in the doorway. "Murdoch?"
Murdoch looked at him over the newspaper. Something must have shown, because the old man started frowning and lowered the paper to look at Johnny properly.
"About tomorrow, Murdoch. When I sign that deed, I don't know who you want to sign it."
"What are you talking about? I want you to sign it, of course. I want both my sons to sign it."
"And do you know who he is, Murdoch? This John Luis Lancer?"
Murdoch stared at him.
"I don’t know him. You might want to take some time to think about that." Johnny waited, but Murdoch just frowned. " 'Night, Murdoch."
He left Murdoch staring and went up the stairs two at a time, just to prove to himself that his back was healed enough to let him. Closing the door of his room meant he could let his guard back down and relax, away from eyes that saw too much and eyes that didn't see enough.
Murdoch had better think hard, because if Johnny was sure of one thing, it was that neither of them knew the John Luis Lancer who'd be signing the deed tomorrow.
He had to blink
hard when he walked into the lawyer's office. It was dark after the
brightness out in the street, the sun kept out by muslin blinds pulled right
down to the window sills. Only time he'd seen muslin blinds that thick,
he'd been in that solterona's parlour in Mexico City, holding his hat in his
hand, shuffling his feet and feeling the sweat trickling down the back of
his collar. He didn't know many old maids, but Dios, he'd got to know that
one. Johnny ducked his head to hide his smile, working on not laughing in
case anyone wanted to know why. He wasn't about to explain his dealings
with Señorita Edelmira Rodríguez de la Peña y de Ybarra. Scott would laugh
and maybe even slap him on the back in admiring envy, but it wasn't fit for
the girl's ears and Murdoch would likely burst something.
He looked around when his eyes grew used to the dim light. Like the salón back at the hacienda, every wall was panelled with dark wood, lined with cupboards and shelves. But these shelves didn't just hold books. These were loaded with tin boxes and rolls of parchment tied with dirty tape torn from dark red calico. Johnny sniffed, wrinkling his nose. Musty old paper and dust. It smelled like that time in El Paso jail, when his stuff had been put some place where the damp and mice had got at it.
James Randolph, the lawyer, was another wiry-looking Easterner, like Scott. He looked like an older, fussier Scott, too, and he talked like him: kind of clipped, like the words were sliced out with a knife. He held up the partnership deed. "This is a simple legal transaction, gentlemen, setting out a deed of ownership dividing the Lancer ranch and holdings into three equal parts. I'll recap the terms, so that we're all clear about the deed's content and ramifications."
Randolph cleared his throat and looked around at them, like he was checking they were all listening. Murdoch loomed up over the desk, nodding, but Johnny couldn't read his face. Murdoch would be one to watch at poker. Scott just looked real polite and the girl didn't count for this. She stood beside Johnny, her hands clasped together like she was praying. Maybe someone needed to pray: the Lord would sure be needed to keep this family thing on the level. Johnny eased his shoulders and stared back at the lawyer. The room was so quiet he could hear a clock ticking.
The lawyer took a deep breath and began. "This document divides the current ownership of the Lancer ranch, buildings and livestock and all appurtenances pertaining to the property—that is, all the existing rights of access, water rights, contracts and so on—into three shares of equal financial and legal value, one to be held by each of you. All three partners will draw top-hand rates of pay and the profits will be paid annually each December, after ranch expenses and agreed reinvestments are deducted. The profits will be divided equitably: this year's will be paid pro-rata, of course. Mister Murdoch Lancer is named as senior partner. Other provisions ensure the smooth transfer of any one share to the remaining partners in case of death or abandonment of the property, although the latter will have to be proved in a court of law and forfeiture may not be assumed for a grace period of six months."
Damn, but the man sounded just like Scott. They both talked liked they'd just swallowed a book.
"And, of course, there are provisions dealing with the effect on the partnership shares in the event of the marriage of any of the partners, to ensure provision for children and other dependants."
That had Scott grinning at him and mouthing Clause Seven, and rolling his eyes. Murdoch made a hmmphing noise and frowned at both of them. The lawyer took no notice.
"At its simplest, gentlemen: one ranch, three owners, three equal shares in the partnership."
"But one man calling the tune," warned Murdoch.
"Of course." Randolph made a queer little bow in Murdoch's direction. "The senior partner does have the deciding vote in discussions about the ranch's future and retains day to day command of operations."
It wasn't like they needed the reminder. Murdoch said it about every five minutes even though neither Johnny nor Scott were stupid enough to forget in-between times. Well, Murdoch could call as many tunes as he wanted. There was no law to say a man had to dance to any tune other than his own.
Johnny glanced at the deed in Randolph's hand. Sure, it was all about legal stuff, about a business partnership. But it didn't feel like it was just business. It couldn't be just business. What more it might be… well, he couldn't make that out yet. The way he couldn't make out Murdoch or Scott, or, sometimes, not even the girl, Teresa.
He caught the look Murdoch gave him, the one he'd been getting from the old man since breakfast, tense and unsmiling. Looked like Murdoch had done some thinking about what they'd talked about last night. He didn’t look like he'd done much sleeping, anyway. Scott was smiling, but he looked worried underneath it, glancing from one of them to the other. Looked like he'd picked up that something had happened, but hadn't worked out what. So. Didn't look like either of them were much better at making him out, then, if it came to it, than he was figuring out them. Well, keeping 'em guessing was always best, whatever the game.
When he was a kid he'd learned the jarabe, dancing it with a bunch of other kids in the village for a fiesta. This family thing was like dancing. But it was like dancing with his eyes closed so he couldn't see his partner's steps, and his ears blocked up so he couldn't hear the music. And for all the lawyer said it was simple and had laid it out on a page or two of parchment in plain, clear writing, the dance they were learning—him, Murdoch and Scott—was anything but clear or plain or simple. They were falling over each other all of the time, treading on each other's toes. Mama would have been shamed, him being so clumsy.
He needed new dancing shoes, maybe. Or a new dance.
handed the deed to his clerk, who inked in the date. Johnny couldn't see
any difference to the old writing. It was very neat.
Law hand, Boston had called it on the trip into town. He'd used a helluva lot of long words explaining it to Johnny. He'd said that the hand that lawyers used on legal documents was meant to be unbiguous or something, some fancy word Johnny had never heard of. Johnny hadn't asked about how lawyers wrote things and he didn't much care. But he'd let Scott tell him all about it anyway, listening to the flow of long words that came out of Scott's mouth like a creek in spate. His half-brother's mouth, and wasn't that a turn up?
Still, when Scott had spouted out those long words, Johnny had stared at him until his ears had gone red. "Sorry Johnny. I meant plain and clear, so everyone can read it."
"That so, Boston? I never had a lot to do with lawyers, but I never thought of them being plain and clear. The law, neither."
Scott had given him that look again and hitched up one eyebrow. "Not much experience of lawyers? I'd have thought—" And then he bit the words off hard. So that was one of the things he was considering, was it, when he looked Johnny over and wondered if it was a winning hand? Well, Johnny would be damned before he made it too easy.
After a moment, Johnny had nodded, letting him off the hook. "The ten commandments, now, they're pretty plain and clear. I guess that God didn't get himself a lawyer to draw them up for him in that law hand you're jawing on about."
Scott stared. "No. You're right, there." His smile, when it came, had been slow and warm. "You're full of surprises, little brother."
Yeah, right. Just being a little brother was the biggest surprise of all..
Yeah, Boston sure liked to talk.
Not much about
himself or things that were important, though. Scott only ever talked about
stuff that floated right at the top of things like leaves floating on the
creek, and not about the secret stuff in the mud and sand at the bottom.
If Scott could hear the music and knew the steps of this dance, he sure as hell wasn't saying.
Johnny leaned back against a cupboard, chewing on the stampede strap from his hat. Beside him Teresa bounced on her toes like a little girl and turned to give him a big smile. Hard to see why she was so happy and excited by it all. She wasn't getting anything out of this that Johnny could see.
Randolph's clerk finished up on adding dates and stuff to the deed and handed it back to the lawyer. And then they were signing up to… to whatever it was this deed meant. Scott signed it first, then Murdoch. When it was Johnny's turn and he took a step towards the table, Murdoch spoke up.
"Mister Randolph, I should have told you—"
Something in Johnny's gut went hard and tight, like it did when he stepped into a street with the sun at his back and maybe la muerte staring him in the face. His hand drifted down towards his gun. So the old man had done his thinking, had he? And maybe had made up his mind that he didn't want someone signing this deed who didn't know who John Lancer was.
"—that last name
should read John Madrid, not Lancer."
Johnny stared at him.
I don't know what to think of you, the Old Man had said the night before Pardee came, when he'd thought Johnny was taking Pardee's side. But Johnny had a pretty good idea of what Murdoch thought about pistoleros and he figured the Old Man didn’t think much different because the pistolero in question was a son he hadn't seen for twenty years. So what did this mean? Only yesterday Johnny had been shooting his mouth off as usual, being clever and trying to get them to stop asking him about the rurales.
What was it he'd said? Something about sometimes you strap on your gun for a third of a ranch and sometimes it's for beans; it's all work.
That's what he'd said. Maybe Murdoch agreed. Maybe Murdoch's offer to him and Scott was just business, so maybe it didn't matter, then, what name Johnny signed with. Maybe Murdoch had done as Johnny said and thought it all through, and what he was saying was that this was payment to Madrid for hiring out the gun the old man had wanted to defeat Pardee, or payment for taking a bullet in the back. Maybe Murdoch didn't know John Lancer, after all, and didn't care to.
The lawyer didn't so much as twitch. He took the deed back and bent over it. "Won't take me a minute."
Murdoch met Johnny's gaze. He looked… Johnny didn't know what Murdoch looked. Anxious, hopeful, wondering if he'd done the right thing, if he'd understood Johnny right, accepting that Madrid was there and always would be? Maybe some of that or all of that or none. He couldn't read the old man's face too well, not and be sure that what he thought he saw there was right. Johnny turned away. He looked at the deed. Maybe there was a clue there, in the name the lawyers had written on it.
Maybe it was time to meet John Luis Lancer.
"No." Johnny took a step forward, before the lawyer could make the change. "Let it stand."
Murdoch's mouth curved upwards a bit. He nodded at Johnny and looked at Scott.
Scott grinned at both of them. "Good." That sharp, chopped-off Easterner's voice was real soft. Satisfied.
Johnny looked down at the deed. Why was Boston so pleased about it? What did it matter to him what Johnny was called? It was just a name: Madrid, Lancer or Martínez, Johnny or Juan or Luis. So many names. And all of them him, all of them Johnny.
The lawyer had left a space for Johnny to sign underneath the others. Murdoch had signed his name with letters that were tall and straight, just as he was himself; a great barricada of spiky letters. Nothing would ever get through that. Boston's signature was real neat. It looked like the writing done by the clerk, what Scott had called the law hand. Maybe Scott should have been a lawyer.
Johnny picked up the pen, dipping it into the little porcelain pot of black ink before he could change his mind. He didn’t write that well. What was that old bruja back at the orphanage called, the one who'd used her switch across his fingers to teach him his lessons? Sister... Sister Aurelia. That was it. The character of a man is seen in how well he writes his name and that chicken-scratch of yours, Juan Lancer Martínez, is shameful enough to make a saint weep bitter stones.
Well, he didn't have much call to use a pen. He had no one to write to. He took a breath and held it a moment to keep his hand steady and took his time to form the letters so that he didn’t start with an M. The pen scratched its way across the parchment, sputtering ink behind it. He had to dip the pen back into the ink two or three times before he'd finished scrawling out the long L and the letters that followed to make the name of a stranger. He gave the L a big loop on the corner, for luck.
It looked like a noose.
Well, he couldn't do anything about it but live with it. Let it stand, he'd said, and he had to stand by it now.
Scott was still grinning when Johnny straightened up and dropped the pen onto the desk. "Now it's done."
Murdoch laughed, smirking like a cat in a dairy. "And well done."
Johnny only nodded and went back to where Teresa stood beside the wooden cupboards that lined one side of the room. He straightened his shoulders so no one would notice, stretching to ease the ache in his back, and tucked his right hand behind him, his fingers moving over the smooth wood of the cupboard door. No point in worrying about what Murdoch meant by that nod towards Madrid. He'd find out soon enough. He tapped his fingertips against the door, soft and quiet.
Sister Aurelia had liked that switch of hers. She'd often brought it stinging across his hands to teach little Juan Lancer to keep his restless fingers still. He rubbed his thumb against one very old scar on the side of his forefinger. The old hag was probably still there, tormenting the orphans in the Tijuana mission school. Hell, yes, he'd bet she was. Her kind didn't die; they just wizened up some more every year that passed, sour as old apples dipped in vinegar.
Still, she wasn't here to stop him now. He tapped out a new pattern, louder.
What had Murdoch meant by it?
Randolph and his clerk both signed to witness the signatures and put the deed into a black enamel deed box that had the Lancer name stencilled on it in white paint. Johnny rose onto his toes for a second to snatch a glimpse inside. It was full of papers and parchments, folded and docketed on the outside or rolled and tied with tape. Nothing much to see.
The lawyer had three copies of the deed, one for each of them, and called them back to the table. "Now, if you'll just initial the copies... thank you, Mister Lancer. There's one copy for each of you so initial all three please... that's all three witnessed and notarised… thank you, gentlemen. That's everything completed. My congratulations to you all."
JML, scratched out onto each of the copies beside his name. This time he didn’t bother with the noose. The M could be just as much for Martínez as Madrid, but Johnny could see that Murdoch frowned as he looked at his copy. Then Murdoch looked up and nodded. Maybe neither name really sat well with his father, but both of them were his, as much as Lancer was. He had to let them all stand together somehow: Lancer, Martínez, Madrid. Dios only knew which one would end up calling the tune, but he'd give this thing a try.
He took his copy of the deed as soon as the clerk had blotted it dry, and folded it. His fingers were very brown against the creamy-white paper as they smoothed down the creases. It was thick paper, and he had to press hard to get a clean, sharp fold.
When he looked up, Scott was grinning at him and folding up his own deed. "No getting out of it now, Johnny."
"Guess not, Boston."
"And now we're both respectable Californian ranchers."
"Do you gentlemen wish to keep your copies secure with us here?" Randolph waved a hand at the deed box.
Johnny's fingers tightened on the paper. He'd never thought to own anything like this. He'd never owned anything much before. Hell, he'd never owned even one third of anything much before. He pushed the folded paper into the inside breast pocket of his jacket. "No, I'll keep mine."
The grin on Scott's face got wider. "I'll… er… retain custody of mine too. But thank you, Mister Randolph. It was a very kind offer."
Murdoch looked pleased and shook the lawyer's hand. Nearly shook it clean off. He had big hands, did Murdoch. Get a crack on the jaw from those hands and a man would be eating mush for weeks. The lawyer had likely lost all feeling in his fingers.
Teresa put her hands on Johnny's arm and squeezed. She smiled at him. He smiled back, and eased away bit by bit until he was out of reach and she had to take her hands away. She went to clutch at Murdoch instead, but he didn't seem to mind. 'Course, Murdoch had helped bring her up and he was maybe used to it. Funny that she was the only one of them who'd grown up at Lancer, that she was the one closest to the old man and knew him better than Johnny and Boston put together.
Murdoch was far more her father than theirs. Something else to think about, maybe, along with everything else.
Randolph shook hands with everyone, even Teresa. He made a point of it when he got to Johnny. "It was very pleasant doing business with you, Mister Lancer."
It was going to be strange, going by Lancer all the time. And he'd have to get used to lawyers shaking him by the hand, now he was a respectable Californian rancher.
He followed Murdoch and Teresa out of the law office, Scott falling in beside him. He drew in a deep breath. Even the town smelled better than the office.
This was his first sight of Green River. It was a white man's town, built since California was taken by the Americanos. There wasn't anything here to remind the townsfolk that this land had once been Mexico. Morro Coyo had cool adobe buildings and a huge, towered church. Nothing like that here. Instead there were board-walks lined with offices or shop-fronts, some with plate glass windows and lamps hanging outside of them. There was even a fancy hotel standing catty-corner across the street from the lawyer's office.
And there was a saloon.
Johnny glanced down the street to the Bull Moose, and ran his tongue over his bottom lip. The first two or three weeks he had been so tired doing nothing but get over having Day Pardee's bullet dug out of his back, that he'd faded out soon after they'd eaten supper. Hell, but he hated sleeping so much. But the last few evenings he'd felt well enough to sit up longer, enjoy a glass or two of reposado before bed and play a couple of games of checkers with Scott. Gave him something to do, at any rate, other than sleep or count cows. But right then he wanted a cold beer so bad he could almost taste it, and if he was lucky there'd be enough players for a game or two of faro or poker. It felt like months since he'd had himself a good time in a saloon. He'd been cooped up in his sickroom too damned long.
"We did our hiring in the hotel." Scott fell in beside him as they followed Murdoch and Teresa on the board-walk outside the lawyer's office. "You know. When I came into town with Cipriano last week."
They'd have got more men in the saloon, but maybe Cipriano knew what he was doing. Weeded the drunks straight out if they couldn't stagger up Main Street as far as the hotel.
"That right? You on for a beer, Boston?" Did Scott know how to play faro? All he'd seen him play so far was checkers or chess.
"It's Scott, not Boston. I'm just from the place, Johnny. It isn’t my name."
Looked like they were all going to have to get used to being called something different, then. Johnny nodded. "You want a beer?"
"I think Murdoch has other plans."
Johnny cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Sam's joining us for a meal in the hotel dining room. Don’t you remem—oh, wait. You'd fallen asleep by the time Murdoch talked about it last night. I should have mentioned it at breakfast."
"And Murdoch wants us there."
Scott gave him an odd look. "Of course. It's a celebration."
Johnny came to a halt on the board-walk. Murdoch and Teresa had already stepped into the street and were halfway across to the hotel. He watched them go. "I'm not one for eatin' fancy meals in hotels. I'm more your beer and cantina kind of pistolero."
Since he'd meant to be funny, he wouldn't shoot Boston for laughing. He grinned back, instead.
"Well, come and see how the other half live, Johnny. Murdoch wants to mark the occasion, that's all. It's an important moment for all of us, don't you think?"
"He wants to celebrate giving away most of his ranch?"
"Of course not. He wants to celebrate getting his family back."
"That right, Boston?" Johnny stared at Murdoch's back. He smiled. "Is that what he thinks he's got?".
Sam Jenkins was waiting for them in the hotel lobby, dressed in his town suit as usual. That collar must have nearly choked him, but he just sat sipping on a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper like he didn't notice. A man could probably get used to most anything, but a collar like that would be something else. Johnny ran a finger around his own open collar, easing the linen away from the back of his neck, and smiled. Sam put down the newspaper when he saw them and kissed Teresa's cheek before he shook hands with everyone.
Green River was growing, Murdoch had said, and the hotel had just been built. It wasn't as fine as some Johnny had seen in bigger cities; in El Paso, say, or Mexico City or Santa Fe. Still pretty fancy for a little place like Green River, with big leather chairs in the lobby and lots of polished wood and fancy glass. It smelled of fresh pine boards and new leather.
The hotel manager seemed to think Murdoch was important. He bowed up and down and smiled a lot, and then he bowed up and down again. "Mister Lancer, Miss O'Brien."
Bob up, bow down. Bob up, bow down. Bob up...
Wonder his head didn't fall off with all that bowing and bobbing. He didn't look at Johnny much except out of the corner of his eye. He knew who Johnny was, then.
Teresa looked like she was in a real good mood. She gave the little man a big smile. "Good day, Mister Phipitt."
Phipitt? Johnny had to look down at his boots and grin. Damn, but that was close enough. He watched as Scott returned the greeting, real polite and gentleman-like. Did they have pipits back east, bobbing their tails up and down? Boston wasn't grinning, so maybe he'd never seen one or didn't see the resemblance. Johnny'd have to remember to point one out when they were riding about the ranch. He'd seen plenty of pipits flying about when he'd been out on Barranca.
Mr Phipitt ushered them into the dining room. A big room with one of those big candelabro colgante... what was it the gringos called it? A chandelier, that was it. Near on as big as the one in the hotel in Santa Fe. The chandelier in the salón back at the hacienda was a big round metal wheel for holding the candles and that was right; it matched the room. But this one was fancy glass, the hanging pieces moving in the draught and sending bright little rainbows dancing all over the walls. Real fine place, this. Murdoch was right. Green River was on the way up.
Murdoch stopped at the gun tree just inside the door, and took off his gun belt. He stared at Johnny like he was trying to send a message without opening his mouth. Huh. This was one tune Murdoch wasn't going to be calling. Johnny walked past Murdoch and the gun tree, to a table in the middle of the room under the chandelier. The silverware and glasses sparkled in the sun coming through the windows. It was fancy as the table Teresa had set for supper the very first night they'd got to Lancer. It was real pretty.
"No. Not here."
They all looked at him. Maybe he'd said it in Chiricahua or something, way they stared.
"Not this table."
Murdoch scowled at him. "What's wrong with it?"
They had no idea. Johnny looked around the room and walked to a table in the back corner. The room was so quiet that the jingle bobs on his spurs jangled real loud. They sounded just like the pandero in a Conjunto Jarocho band. Dios, but he missed good music. Maybe he'd get to the cantina in Morro Coyo one night for enchiladas and tequila, and proper music, and a dance with some pretty dark-eyed girl. Boston might like to come along. He might like beer and cantinas, too.
Johnny took the corner chair, one wall at his back and another to his left side, hanging his hat by its stampede strings on the back of his chair. Everyone stood in the middle of the room, staring at him. Murdoch was reddening and even from that distance, Johnny could see his mouth getting thin and tight. Murdoch likely wouldn't roar in public, but Scott jumped in before Murdoch could say anything. He gave Johnny one of those looks again, before coming to join him.
He took the chair opposite Johnny. "Nice view from here."
"Yeah." Johnny turned the bead bracelet on his wrist, round and round. He watched Murdoch.
"I remember what you said about always sitting with your back to a wall. I should have reminded Murdoch."
Oh. Yeah. That damned dime novel Scott had read to him when he was sick. He'd said something then about how he'd never walk into a saloon and stand at the bar, the way the writer had made 'Johnny Madrid' do in that book. Pile of horse shit, that book.
"Keeps me alive."
"I'm glad of it. Oh good. Here comes our respected Papa. Takes a while to catch a hint, sometimes, doesn't he?"
Respectable Californian ranchers didn't have to think about where they sat, or make sure that no one could sneak up behind them. Respectable ranchers likely never thought about anything except getting the best seat or the best table, didn’t matter what state they came from. Johnny grinned. He let the grin broaden when Murdoch loomed over him wanting to know why he was making such a fuss about moving tables.
"Like Boston says, the view's better." Johnny looked up to catch the hotel manager's eye. "Get me a glass of milk, por favor. You'd best get your people to move that stuff over here." And to Murdoch: "I don't sit in the middle of rooms, Murdoch."
"We'll be fine here." Sam Jenkins' old eyes saw a lot, and they were crinkling at the corners. Maybe he was laughing at Murdoch. Or maybe looking to see if Johnny had been doing what he'd been told about not riding half-broke palominos. Johnny straightened his shoulders again, as if the ache in his back wasn't there. Maybe Sam wouldn't see it. But Sam raised an eyebrow at him and all Johnny could do was smile back. Damn.
Murdoch humphed and huffed a bit, but he nodded to the manager and held out a chair for Teresa to Johnny's right. Johnny inched his chair away to give himself more room. It'd be pretty stupid getting killed because his gun hand got caught up in the girl's petticoats.
Scott, Sam and Teresa talked while he sat quiet and Murdoch got over his mad. Sam was from the East too, and he and Scott swapped tales of Boston while Teresa asked questions. A couple of the hotel's workers scurried about, bringing over the cloth and all the fixings. They wouldn't look straight at Johnny while they did it.
Murdoch had to have a dig at him, when the hotel staff had finished. "I hope this meets with your approval?"
Johnny let a grin through. "It's just fine, Murdoch."
Murdoch snorted. Scott choked a little, and his mouth twitched as if he was trying not to laugh. He started to talk instead and Dios, but nothing stopped him talking once he got going. It was a gift, or something. Boston kicked off this time by asking about Green River and Morro Coyo and the other local town, Spanish Wells, and the others joined in, talking about the folks and who was where and who did what and why. Towns were all the same for gossip. Johnny picked up his fork and twirled it between his fingers, listening.
The girl, though, was enjoying herself. Gossiping about folks was what girls did, weren't it? She had to miss chatting to folks, stuck out on the ranch all the time. "We don't go to Spanish Wells very often. It's not a very nice place."
Sam smiled and patted her hand. "No, it's not. It's a wild place; actually dangerous. There's no law in any of these towns, or even much of the valley. No town sheriffs, no jails, no courts. Since Pardee killed Joe Carbajal in Modesto, the nearest US marshals are in Stockton or San Jose, the better part of three days' journey away. It's too far."
Murdoch chimed in on the preaching. "Joe hasn't been replaced yet. He'll be missed. He was a good man and well-respected."
"The only lock-up in this part of the county is the old guardhouse at Lancer." Sam smiled at Murdoch. "It's seen some use over the years."
"That it has. It'll change, Scott. The land's getting more settled. People want safer towns to live in and I hope they'll soon have them. The Cattlegrowers Association has plans for some law around here, although it may take a few weeks yet to sort something out—"
Sam snorted. "You mean you do. You'll end up paying most of the salary."
"No matter. We need law closer than Modesto. We need lawmen of our own, keeping the towns safe. The change will come."
Yeah, spoiling things for everyone else. Johnny looked up from his fork twirling. "Why's Spanish Wells different?"
Murdoch looked like he'd bit on something sour. Johnny remembered that look. That was the 'I don’t know what to think about you' look. "It's an open town."
Scott frowned. "An open town? That's not a term I'm familiar with."
"Here and in Morro Coyo, there may not be any formal law but the citizens do keep some sort of standards. Not in Spanish Wells. They don't discourage lawless elements."
"Murdoch means folks like me, Boston."
"So I guessed," said Scott, but he grinned back at Johnny. No offence meant, then. "If Spanish Wells would have made it easier for Pardee, I'd have thought he would have operated out of there rather than Morro Coyo."
"He probably did." Johnny straightened up as the servers came with the food. Steak and a mound of golden fried potatoes, and a big pitcher of gravy. Hell, what wouldn't he give for chicken mole, or tamales and beans? "But Morro Coyo's the closest to Lancer, where the feed merchant and lumber yards are and where Lancer gets its supplies and does a lot of its business. If you're trying to scare some rancher stupid, you don't do it from a town ten miles away that he never goes to. Day would get supplies, maybe, in Spanish Wells, and drink and—" Damn but that girl was looking at him, real wide-eyed. She probably didn't know much about working girls and soiled doves, and Murdoch would kill him if she found out. "—and other things. But he had to make Morro Coyo walk small, try to close it off to Lancer."
"I suppose you’re speaking from experience, brother?"
Johnny copied the prissy way of talking. "I suppose I am."
Murdoch's mouth tightened right down. Likely Murdoch had been glad to have Johnny around when it came to a shooting war, but maybe now he was trying to work out what to do with a gunhawk now all the shooting had stopped. Scott gave them both that damn look of his, opened his mouth and talked some more. About something else, this time. Dios, was there nothing the man couldn't talk about? He barely gave himself time to eat what was on his plate.
Johnny didn't join in. He worked his way through the steak and potatoes instead, taking more when no one else wanted them. When he'd finished, he moistened one finger tip and got the last of the gravy on his plate. Boston was still talking.
Johnny lifted his glass to finish his milk. "Brother, do you ever run out of things to say?"
Boston shut up, real fast. He turned his head to look at Johnny—he'd been telling Teresa about a dancing troupe called the Bah-lay at some concert hall in Boston—and he looked like he'd just trodden in a heap of Barranca's leavings. After a minute or two's staring, he shook his head.
"Not all of us, Johnny, are taciturn and inarticulate. I'll have you know that I was noted throughout Boston as an accomplished deipnosophist."
A what? A dip-noss-off-what? "Uh-huh. Better warn you, Boston. Out here, that sort of thing's likely to get you shot."
Sam laughed out loud. Teresa looked puzzled and Murdoch… well who the hell could tell what Murdoch looked. But Murdoch wasn't mad, that much Johnny could tell. The corner of his mouth was twitching, like he was trying to remember how to smile.
Scott's grin got wider. "It's Greek. It means someone who's a good conversationalist, who's skilled in table talk."
Couple of years back, Johnny had met a man called Greek Spiro in a saloon in Nogales, who'd talked in some queer words Johnny had never heard before. Greek Spiro had braced him, but hadn't been so fast that Johnny had had to kill him. Mind you, he'd be surprised if Greek Spiro would ever be able to use his right arm much ever. After the shooting, Greek Spiro had lain on the saloon floor bleeding and yelling and spitting out a lot of things at Johnny that had sounded real interesting, but Johnny didn't remember any diss-noff-anything. Maybe he'd tell Boston about it, one day and see if Boston knew any of the words Greek Spiro had used. Better not ask in front of the girl. Murdoch would have a fit.
"So what you're saying is that you don't ever run out of things to say?"
Scott's shoulders shook. "I never have until now, no. Back home this is considered to be a welcome skill. People there appreciate it. It's an art. It helps grease Society's wheels."
Back home in Boston, maybe. Johnny shook his head. "People here'd say that you're talking through your hat."
Scott's grin widened so much that he was beaming. "Ah yes. I'm a pretty good perpilocutionist, at that."
Both Sam and Murdoch burst out laughing. Murdoch's eyes creased up and his face lightened until he didn't look stern anymore. He looked younger. Teresa giggled, but Johnny thought it was more because the others laughed. Johnny watched them and ducked his head, smiling. Boston grinned at him.
Maybe Johnny would be the one to shoot him.
"If it's all right with you, sir, perhaps Johnny and I could follow you back to the ranch later. I hoped that I might persuade Johnny to come to the gunsmith and help me pick out a handgun." Scott patted around his mouth with his napkin and put it down beside his plate, folded and smoothed so neat you wouldn't think he'd used it.
Johnny hadn't used his. Boston was as fine as this hotel, when you came down to it. He was at home in fancy places like this.
"You're welcome to keep using that spare." Murdoch's mouth turned down again.
"That's very good of you, sir, but I think I need to have one of my own. This one's a little heavy for my taste, and… well, it'd be good to get some professional advice about what would best suit me. And since we have an expert in the family, it seems stupid not to get his advice."
Murdoch scowled, most of it for Johnny.
Johnny ignored it and glanced at the gun belt Scott had hung over his chair. Better than where Murdoch's gun was on the gun-tree by the door, but Scott would still have to twist to get at the gun and if he needed it in a hurry, he'd be dead. He pictured Scott wearing it, remembering it had ridden high, but the holster was loose and was set all wrong. Greenhorn was likely to get killed before he could draw that thing or shoot his balls off, trying.
"That's a poor rig, Murdoch. I'd better go with him to make sure he doesn't pick out one just as bad."
Scott grinned. "Yes, that was the point of asking you. Cipriano told me there's a gunsmith in this town."
"Zimmermann," nodded Murdoch. "Down past Higgs's store."
"Zimmermann? He was in Laramie, last time I saw him." Johnny touched the butt of his gun. "Converted this for me."
"Converted?" Sam leaned forward, frowning at Johnny's gun. He didn't wear one himself. Probably because he mostly had to deal with all the crap that came with a gun.
"Getting it changed to take metal cartridges. I had to get a new working gun and bought this one off Zimmermann. A couple of years ago, maybe. Zimmermann's good. One of the best gunsmiths I've come across."
"And you've come across a few," guessed Scott.
What did that mean? Another hidden question about Madrid? "One or two. All right, Boston. I'll come and help you find a decent gun."
"Scott. Not Boston. Scott."
Johnny grinned and nodded. "Scott."
"I will train you, little brother."
"Well, you'll try."
Sam's smile broadened. He seemed to think that they were real funny. "How long will you be? I don't have any calls to make, so Murdoch and Teresa can visit here with me until you're done. I could do with another cup of coffee and maybe Phipitt has more of that pie."
"And maybe I could go and look at that new hat shop next door." Teresa's voice was bright and little-girly, but there was an edge to it. The good Dios knew she needed a new hat. That thing she had on her head wasn't up to much.
Murdoch grunted. "Maybe."
"I suppose we'll be an hour or so?" Scott looked to Johnny and lifted an eyebrow. Johnny shrugged. It would take as long as it took. "If it's going to take longer, one of us will come back and tell you, sir."
Murdoch nodded. His scowl hadn't gone away any. Maybe the apple in his slice of pie had been sour. Teresa smiled at them as they got up. Probably she'd twist Murdoch round her little finger so he'd let her go take a look at the hats. Couldn't blame her. Women spent all their time waiting on men, and Johnny couldn’t see that listening to Murdoch and Sam nattering would please her much. She'd have more fun with the hats.
Johnny waited until Scott had put the borrowed gun belt back on again. Yeah, it rode too high and didn't look right. He led the way out, stopping Scott at the hotel's double glass doors. The glass was cut with the pattern of some sort of big vase with flowers in it. Real fancy. Maybe Murdoch was right about folks wanting Green River to grow into something better. The hotel was a sign that it might.
Still, he could see through the fancy glass well enough. He studied the street. It was busy, but no more so than most small towns. A wagon was loading outside the Mercantile. Randolph's clerk came out of the law office and trotted down the street to a small eating house. A woman and child crossed the street over to his right. Two men walked from the livery to the saloon. Johnny watched them, but they didn't look at the hotel or see him behind the glass doors. It looked peaceful enough. He stepped out onto the board-walk.
Scott followed him. "You're a suspicious-minded character, you know that, don't you?"
"Keeps me from ending up in Boot Hill."
"As I said earlier, I'm glad of it." Scott threw his arm around Johnny's shoulders. "I'm very glad of it, little brother."
Johnny couldn't see why. But he let Scott's arm rest there for a moment or two before he slid to one side and got his shoulders free..
The name painted on the board outside the gunsmith's shop was Lukas Zimmermann. He wasn't the man Johnny knew.
"That would be my brother, Frederick. He's in Colorado Territory now." Zimmermann looked at Johnny over a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles. He spoke real good American with the accent that reminded Johnny of the gunsmith back in Laramie, only maybe not as thick. "I know that he did some work for you, Mister Madrid. He was very proud of it. You were his first famous customer."
"He told you that he converted a gun for me?"
"I haven't seen Frederick for more than eight years, but he's my brother and we're still close. We stay in touch. He writes often. An Army Colt, wasn't it?" Zimmermann gestured towards Johnny's gun. "May I?"
Johnny's fingers tap-tap-tapped on his holster. That old bruja at the mission would have had something to say about that, bringing her switch lashing across his sinful hand. He stared at Zimmermann and kept tapping.
Zimmermann waited, still looking over the top of those spectacles. He went to the main shop door and turned the key. No one would be able to walk in on them. "Professional interest, Mister Madrid. It’s the family trade, you see, and I'd like to see Fred's work."
Johnny drew his gun, reversed it and let Zimmermann take it from him. "It has a hair trigger."
Scott leaned over to watch as Zimmermann handled the gun. "Well, this is the closest I've seen your gun, Johnny. That barrel's cut short. It must be a good inch or so short."
"Yeah. It's my working gun. It has to clear the holster real fast."
"I see that you've cut the holster down, too."
Johnny watched everything Zimmermann did, not taking his eyes off him. Scott should stop talking. Johnny needed to watch the gunsmith and listen out for anyone trying to get into the shop. "It was made that way. Means there's not as much holster to clear. It's all about having an edge, Boston."
Zimmermann raised the gun and sighted down the barrel.
"There's no time to use sights when you're called out to a dance." Johnny paused, glanced at Scott. Keep it all on the low-down, that was the trick. Hell, but that's why he hated people like King Fisher or Jim Courtright, always shooting off their mouths and boasting. "There's no time to worry about it. You just have to hit what you aim at, first time."
Zimmermann gestured to his tools. "May I?"
Johnny hesitated. Beside him, Scott took off his gun belt and coiled it around the holster. He set it on the counter, the butt of the gun towards Johnny.
Johnny's mouth was
dry. How did Boston know? How in hell could he know?
He glanced at Scott, but Scott wasn't looking at him. He was watching Zimmermann, who sat with his tools poised, waiting for Johnny. Maybe it meant nothing. Boston couldn’t know, not really, so maybe it was just chance. Johnny rested his right hand on the counter near the butt of Scott's gun, his left hand curved ready to slam down over the holster to hold it in place if he needed to draw the gun fast.
He nodded. "Okay."
"Zwei minuten. Two minutes." Zimmermann broke the gun apart and looked at it for a few minutes. He pushed the spectacles to the top of his head and used a jeweller's eyepiece, peering down into the gun's innards. He looked very happy.
Johnny rolled his shoulders, watching what the man did.
"Schön. Sehr schön. Fred worked on the rachet housing. See? So precise and perfect. He handmade the spring on the locking bolt to give you the hair trigger—I'd know Fred's work anywhere. And that isn't a standard trigger and bolt pivot. It's one of his, too." Zimmermann sighed. "This is a very fine gun, Mister Madrid. A lovely piece of work. No wonder Fred was so proud of it."
"Yeah. Put it back together."
Zimmermann looked startled, but he did as he was told. Johnny watched every move and when the gunsmith had reassembled his gun and reloaded it, Johnny took it back and checked it over himself. It looked all right. It felt all right. He let it drop into the holster and rested his hand on it, curling his fingers over the butt. It was cool and smooth, fitting his hand just right.
"And this is what we've come to replace." Scott pushed his gun belt across the counter. "This is a borrowed gun, and I want one of my own."
Zimmermann unholstered Murdoch's spare gun for a second or two and glanced at it. He unlocked a cupboard and spread over the counter a dozen or so handguns, each wrapped in a square of oiled canvas. Johnny watched him unwrap them. He let his shoulders relax. His back ached and he had to stretch to ease it. Musta been standing too long.
"You'll find this one interesting, Mister Madrid." Zimmermann unwrapped the last gun and held it out.
Johnny took it. It looked ordinary enough at first look: ivory grips, a bit of fancy engraving on the frame, cylinder a bit fatter… well, damn. No ordinary gun had two hammers and two triggers. Hadn't seen one of these for a long time. He didn’t like the flat sided barrel much but this was still an interesting gun, a curiosity. "A Walch." He hefted it in his hand and nodded. "Nice piece."
"I've worked on it." Zimmermann looked pleased. "Improved it."
"What is it?" Scott leaned over to take a look.
"A Walch twelve shot pistol. There's a few of them around. Not many." Johnny hefted it again. A nice weight and the barrel was a good length. "Takes point-thirty-sixes. I like a heavier bullet myself." He looked at Zimmermann and nodded. "Maybe later, okay? We need to pick out a gun for Boston here, first." He looked over the handguns that Zimmermann set out. "Did you carry a pistol during the war, Boston?"
"The Cavalry wasn't all sabre work, you know. I started out with a Remington Navy pistol, but I lost that in a raid and had to find myself another. I bought a Colt Army from my sergeant, one he'd taken from a Rebel soldier. And it's Scott."
Johnny touched the grips of his own Army Colt. He'd have to test it, to be sure that Zimmermann had put it back together properly. "I'll remember."
"See that you do."
Johnny grinned. "So where's the Colt?"
"I lost that one, too, sadly."
"Pretty damn careless of you, losin' your guns like that."
"There were circumstances beyond my control, Johnny, especially regarding the Colt. I… I lost a lot, that day. I did buy a replacement when I got back to Boston after the war. Another Remington. I should kick myself the length of Main Street for not bringing it with me. I think it's in a trunk in the attic at ho— back in Boston, at my grandfather's." Scott laughed. "I remember saying to him when I was planning the journey, that maybe I ought to bring it. But I don't think I really believed the stories about what it was like out here, where every man carries a gun."
"Don't they in Boston?" Johnny picked up a long-barrelled Navy Colt with walnut grips and held it at arm's length, sighting down the barrel. This was one fancy gun—the cylinder had little ships engraved on it and the brass frame and flat-sided silver steel barrel, and even the ejection rod, were engraved with scrolls and stuff. Maybe they were supposed to be the sea. It was fancier than a brothel parlour. Not his style.
"No." Scott grinned at him. "You'd be the odd man out there, Johnny. You'd be the greenhorn in Boston."
"Good gun, that. I did some work on it for a customer, but he never came back to pick it up. Never will now." Zimmermann smiled at Scott. "I heard that you shot him, Mister Lancer."
Johnny laughed. "Day always did like fancy guns."
"Pardee?" Scott looked from Johnny to Zimmerman. "This was Day Pardee's gun?"
Zimmermann shrugged. "It was going to be. He never used it."
"It was a damn good shot you made, Boston, that morning." Johnny put down the Navy Colt. He eased his shoulders again against the twinge in his back. "This is too heavy for my hand and the barrel's too long. Feels off balance." He picked up an Army Colt with smooth walnut grips, just like his own gun, and hefted the weight of it. "This one's better."
He went back to looking through the pistols. That Walch was pulling at him, but Boston hadn't shown much interest in it and it was no use pushing it at him. Besides, Scott wouldn't get on with the double hammer and trigger, most likely. He hesitated over a neat .44 Smith and Wesson he hadn't seen before—a new model, called the Russian, said Zimmermann—but put the other Smith and Wesson pistols and the Remingtons to one side. The Le Mat wasn't worth looking at. Colts were his favourite gun. They were sturdier, didn't jam as often.
"This is a very decorative gun." Scott picked up the Navy Colt. "The engraving's very fine."
Johnny didn't bother looking at it again. "A man doesn’t need anything that fancy."
Scott chuckled "So says the man with the fanciest shirts I've ever seen."
"That's different." Johnny smoothed a hand down the front of his shirt. This one was almost plain, anyway, with nothing but a bit of embroidery on the front. Teresa hadn't let him wear his pink shirt. Not fancy enough for a lawyer's office, she said, making him wear one of the new white shirts Cipriano's wife had embroidered for him. "A gun's a tool, not a toy, It doesn’t need to be fancy. 'Sides, like I said, I like a heavier bullet and I don't like those flat sided barrels."
"The bore inside the octagon's still round. Er – an octagon is a shape with eight sides, Johnny."
Johnny looked at Scott for a minute before picking up another of the Army Colts. He sighted along the barrel at Scott, and grinned. "You know the Spanish for eight, Scott?"
"No." Scott looked wary.
"Didn’t think so." Johnny twirled the heavy Colt on his trigger finger and put it down. "Well, I'd say one of the Colts myself, brother, or that new Smith and Wesson. Your choice though."
"I'll take your advice. Which one would you have?"
"Well, that's not really the point, now is it? I don't like Day's pretty Navy Colt, but if it feels good in your hand we'll give it a try." Johnny sighted down the barrels of the other Colts, before laying two Army Colts and the Russian down beside the gun Scott liked. "These, for me. But what feels good and balanced in my hand, might not be right for you, Scott. Feel them for fit before we try them."
Scott obeyed. He held out one of the Army Colts with both hands, squinting down the sights. "What is the Spanish for eight?"
"Ocho," said Johnny. He grinned at the look on Scott's face.
Scott sighed and shook his head. "Of course it is. From the Latin. Remind me not to underestimate you, little brother." He smiled. "I expect you know Latin, too, just to confound me."
"Church Latin, anyway. Enough to follow Mass when I was a kid. Can't remember much now. Your range out back, Mister Zimmermann?"
"In the barn. I have paper targets set up on straw bales. There should be some tin cans, too."
"Okay. How do those other Colts feel, Scott?"
"Fine. Do we try them all?"
"Might as well."
Johnny took the boxes of bullets that Zimmermann offered and watched as the
gunsmith went to hang a red flag outside the shop and lock the door again
from the inside.
Scott looked the question at Johnny.
It was easy enough to explain. "The flag lets folks know that he's out back and the shooting's coming from his range, not some bandito robbing the bank."
"That makes sense."
Johnny laughed. "This is going to surprise you, big brother, but I usually do make sense."
Scott grinned back. "That would surprise me."
They spent a long time in the barn's shooting range.
Zimmermann had a real good set up there, maybe the best Johnny had come across. Even better than his brother's up in Laramie. A lot of small town gunsmiths just set up a few bottles and cans on a corral fence, but not Zimmerman. He'd built something better. The bale-shaped targets were canvas, very tightly packed with straw, stacked up against a double row of thick railway sleepers set close together on end. The targets had round papers pinned to them, marked off in rings and the sleepers were pockmarked with bullet holes. A long bench at the firing point made a place for loading the guns.
Yeah, a real good set-up. Neat.
While Zimmermann hung more red flags around the barn and Scott loaded the pistols, Johnny took a few practice shots himself to try out his gun. After reloading, he drew his black leather glove onto his left hand and fired again, real fast this time, fanning the hammer. He knew a lot of pistoleros whose claims to be fast guns rested on hip-shooting and fanning to recock the gun faster, making up for shitty aim by spitting out bullets faster. He didn’t rely on that. Fanning made the gun jerk around in the hand, and a man had to work hard to hit the target. Instead, Johnny relied on hitting what he aimed at, first time. But still, it never hurt to practice all the possible moves he might need.
His gun felt smooth in his hand. It was perfect. Beautiful, just like Zimmermann said. He reloaded straight off and dropped the gun into the holster, rubbing his fingers over the smooth walnut of the butt. He loved this gun. Best one he'd ever had.
He took a look at the targets. He hadn't missed, of course, but he needed to get back to his usual routine, to loosen up some. He'd been out of it too long already. More'n three weeks, now. He'd be slowing up.
Scott tried all four of the guns they'd brought out to the barn. He was good, better than Johnny had expected. He'd known Scott was more than fair with a rifle, pretty damn good in fact. Scott had a good eye with a handgun too, and he hit what he was aiming at. But he took too long setting up each shot, sighting carefully down the barrel before pulling the trigger. Whatever speed he'd had when he was in that war of his, he'd lost in the years since, when he stopped needing to be sudden to stay alive and lived in a place where a man could go unarmed. He needed to be faster than that, out here. Johnny chewed on his hat's stampede straps. How loud would Murdoch yell if Johnny offered Scott some lessons?
Scott decided on the Smith and Wesson Russian in the end, although he kept looking at the fancy Navy Colt like a man yearning after a long-legged saloon girl.
"Buy that one if you like it better."
"What? No, this one feels right." Scott picked up his new pistol. "It's just a bit plain."
"Dandy." And Johnny laughed, real soft, dodging the cuff Scott aimed at his head.
"Here." Zimmermann handed Johnny the Walch. "I've loaded it. Give it a try."
Some folks'd do anything for a sale. Johnny twirled the gun once or twice, feeling how it balanced as it moved. It felt fine in the hand, the barrel maybe a little too long to suit him, but the balance was good. The butt slapped into his palm and wouldn't need too much work to be moulded into the right shape; shorten the barrel a half-inch and it'd be nigh on perfect.
The third time he twirled it, he started firing the instant the butt slapped into place, not going for speed and pulling back the double hammers with his thumb, not fanning it with his left hand. The Walch settled into his hand like it had always been there. He gave it one more twirl and nodded.
"It's a fine gun."
"Ja. It needs more work, but I thought it would interest you."
"Show-off," murmured Scott.
Johnny just grinned and handed the gun back to Zimmermann. Probably didn't have enough on him right now for the Walch and he'd have to decide if he really wanted it. It'd make a good second gun and the extra shots would give him one helluva edge. And hell, a .36 in the gut stopped a man as dead as a .44 or .45.
They followed the gunsmith back into his shop, where Scott agreed the price. Thirty dollars wasn't bad for a brand new model; not here, anyway, where a man always paid more for new stuff brought out from the East. Johnny and Zimmermann between them broke down Scott's new gun. Johnny went over every part as if the gun were his.
Scott watched them work. "I appreciate the trouble you're taking, Johnny."
Johnny grinned. "Don't want you in Boot Hill neither, brother."
That got him a smile and a nod. "I can strip a gun and clean it, of course, but I've never attempted to take one to pieces before."
"You have to know what you're doing." It was a good gun. The loading lever needed some work to smooth it, and Zimmermann agreed to lighten the hammer action and the trigger a mite. Otherwise, a good gun. Johnny let the gunsmith gather up the parts.
Zimmermann rewrapped Day's fancy Navy Colt to put it away. "The Walch, Mister Madrid?".
"Put it on one side for me, while I think about it, okay? I could do with a second gun. If I do buy it, you'll need to make it over to suit me."
"I'd be honoured. I'll do a deal on the price for you, too." The gunsmith snickered. "I'd like to tell Fred I kept it in the family."
Johnny grinned. Zimmermann was a good man, good as his brother. He turned to Scott. "You’d best pick out a gun belt and holster while Mister Zimmermann works on your gun."
"Can't I just use the gun belt Murdoch lent me?"
"No. Well, you can. I wouldn't." Johnny touched the belt that Echevarría had made him. It had cost him a damn fortune and he'd been damned lucky to get it back after the trouble in Sonora. He wasn't going to be poking his nose into other people's revolutions, ever again. "Scott, the belt's almost as important as the gun. You need one that's the right weight, and the leather needs to be supple so it hangs just right on you, moulds itself to you. Sure, you ain't going to be standing out there in the street facing up to no gunhawk, but this is like any other tool. You get the best you can."
Zimmermann was nodding as he set out the gun parts on his workbench behind the counter. "Ja, that's right. Yes, I mean." He waved a hand at the belts hanging on a rack on a side wall. "All I have is there."
Scott looked at the rack and then at Johnny's belt. "Where did you get yours?"
"Manuel Echevarría hand made it for me. He's the best leatherworker in Mexico. He learned his trade in Córdoba, back in Spain."
"A famous place for leather working."
"That's what Echevarría said. Took me three months to earn enough to pay for it, and I'm an expensive gun to hire."
"You were an expensive gun. You're a rancher now." Scott's mouth twitched the way Murdoch's did when he was trying not to grin. "A respectable rancher."
"Sure." Johnny turned away and studied the rack.
Zimmermann had the belts ranked by price. Johnny went straight to the expensive end and spent a few minutes checking them out. He chose two, flexing them in his hands to make sure the leather was supple enough. He made Scott try them both before shaking his head and returning to the rack. The third belt was better: supple, but not so supple that the holster sagged on it, and the perfect width for the holster's loops. He'd want to work on it for himself, but Scott wasn't a professional, after all. The belt was well made from the best leather, the stitching was strong and even, and the leather would soon mould itself to Scott. There were holes enough to get it on tight. It was a good belt. He made Scott wear it a little lower than he'd worn the borrowed one, although not as low as he wore his own.
"This one. It's the best one."
Scott looked at the little label tied onto it with string. His eyebrow went up. Amazing how much the man could say just by moving his eyebrows. Maybe there was a long word for that as well. "At this price it ought to be."
"That was about the cost of my holster, Boston."
"Just the holster? Good Lord. Then you're right, I don't think I could afford your gun belt."
"You don't need to."
"And it's Scott, remember."
"Sure, Boston. I remember." Johnny picked up the new belt while Scott huffed. He sounded a lot like Murdoch when he did that. "This is a good rig."
Zimmermann kept leather tools as well. He handed Johnny a soft, rolled pouch. "I don't do much leather tooling myself but it's easier to have the means handy to adjust a gun belt than send you over to the saddler's."
Yeah. Some folks really liked to make a sale. "Keeps all the profit here, too."
"Oh, ja!" Zimmermann just grinned and nodded, and went back to his workbench. He looked real pleased with himself..
Johnny used an awl to make two small holes in the back of the stiff leather holster, near the bottom. Threading a long rawhide string through the holes was a tricky job. "¡Mierda!"
"Something wrong?" Scott was grinning when Johnny looked up. "I've not learned a lot of Spanish yet, Johnny-my-boy, but the hands were very good at teaching me how to swear. They definitely have their priorities right."
"Maldiciones." Johnny spoke clearly, for Scott's benefit. He pushed his fingers into the holster to catch the end of rawhide to feed it back out through the second hole, until he had two long tails hung from the holster. "It's just fiddly."
"Rather you than me, then."
Johnny knotted each tail so the string couldn’t slip loose. He slid the holster frog back onto the gun belt, fixed it into place, and handed it to Scott. "The thong's so you can tie it around your leg. It keeps the holster in place where you need it to be instead of it flapping about like a saloon gal's tongue."
"I'm serious about this, Scott. I saw that you didn't tie the holster on that belt you borrowed from Murdoch. Didn't it move around when you walked?"
"Sorry. Yes, it did, a bit."
"Yeah, well that's not good. If it's moving and you need to draw your gun, you could be a dead man ‘fore you can get your gun clear." Johnny glanced over to where Zimmermann was reassembling Scott's new gun. "Look, you're a good shot. You need to take less time setting up a shot, though. I need to start practisin’ again. Cipriano told me about a small box canyon a couple of miles from the house that he figured I could use. Ride out with me tomorrow and I'll—" He stopped. Scott might not want lessons from a gunhawk. 'Specially a gunhawk he wasn't sure of.
And Scott wasn't sure, not yet. Johnny got that considering look again, a long minute before Scott nodded.
"Thank you, Johnny. I appreciate that."
"Just make sure you do, Boston, cause Murdoch's gonna yell so loud they'll hear him in Stockton."
"Scott. Not Boston. Scott."
"Oh, pay for your gun, big brother, and stop worrying about what folks call you. It's just a name. You can buy me a box of bullets while you're at it. Call it my fee for today."
"I thought you said you were an expensive gun to hire. What's one box of bullets? Family rate?"
Johnny turned away. "Make the most of it. I'm not always this generous."
Dios, would Scott never stop talking? Johnny spun on his heel, grinning. "Whoo-ee, Scott! We've got you a gun and you almost ain't a tenderfoot no more. Wonder if Teresa talked the Old Man into buying her a hat?"
Scott looked kinda disappointed. "Sure, Johnny. Let's go and see."
And he still hadn't got his beer.
When it came to shooting lessons for Scott, Murdoch surprised Johnny by not yelling at all.
He looked up from those damn ledgers that he spent so much time on. "Why?"
Damned if Johnny
knew what Murdoch was going to think. He blew hot and cold, and never the
same two in a row.
Johnny perched on a corner of Murdoch's desk and played with a big glass paperweight, tossing it from hand to hand. Teresa was putting a celebratory supper together with Maria. Scott was Dios knew where. Talking to someone somewhere about something, probably; but only talking through his hat when he wanted to.
"He has to learn, Murdoch, if he's stayin' out here."
"There's a lot you
can help him with. He needs to learn to rope cows and put up fences, to
tame horses and drive cattle. He can help you learn the business side."
Murdoch sighed. "But I've been thinking about it, and I suppose you're
right and we need to teach him how to use a gun, too."
"He can already use a gun. He's pretty good with it, too. I just aim to show him how to use one better, not like an Eastern cavalryman but the way a man needs to use a gun out here. He's a good shot, but he hasn't carried a gun since that war he was in."
"I never touched a gun until I came to America, did you know that? Back in Scotland, nobody carries guns the way they do here."
Where the hell was Scotland? Was that where Murdoch was from? "Like in Boston. Scott told me."
"Yes. Like in Boston."
Johnny tossed the paperweight high, watching it spin and flash in the lamplight. He caught it one-handed, grinning as he watched Murdoch tense up and then relax. Before the old man could grumble at him, he said, "Where's Scotland? Is that where Scott's name comes from? Where you're from?"
Murdoch's mouth shut with a snap, like a trap closing on a grizzly. It was so tight his lips whitened. "Didn't she—? Your mother… didn't she tell you anything?"
Johnny studied the paperweight for a minute, turning it in his hands. It was full of twists of colour; red and green, blue and yellow. It was a pretty thing, though a stone would have done the job just as well. He put the glass globe down on Murdoch's papers, real careful, and stood up. "So, you're okay about Scott coming out with me tomorrow to do some shootin'?"
Murdoch gave him a long look, like he was trying to see right down into Johnny's insides. What was it with him and Scott, both measuring up a man all the time like this? "Yes. I can't think of anyone better qualified to help Scott get used to carrying a gun again."
"It's what I do best, Old Man." And ain't that the truth.
"Yes. I'm glad… " He stopped.
"Fine." Johnny flashed him a grin. "Think I'll go and see what's for supper. See you later, Murdoch."
"Yes." But before Johnny could get out of the room, Murdoch called after him. "Johnny?"
"Yeah?" Johnny paused in the doorway.
"Scotland's on the other side of the world. I can show you on the globe, if you like. I left there when I was about Scott's age to make a new life for myself, to make my own way. My ship docked in Boston, where I met Scott's mother. His name comes from a very great Scottish author. All the books are on the shelves there, if ever you want to look at them. You're half-Scottish, half-Mexican, Johnny, and that's probably not a common combination."
Mama had never said anything about Scotland. Mama had never said anything much. We weren't good enough, querido, so we had to go. It doesn't matter. He doesn't matter anymore. We have your Papa now—he will never make us leave. He nodded, almost feeling Murdoch's eyes on him.
"What you did today, Johnny, at the lawyer's office… well … . Well."
Johnny put up one hand on the door stanchion. His ears buzzed and he ducked his head down, shaking it to clear it. Just ahead of him, at the end of the passage, Maria came out of a storeroom tugging a sack of flour behind her.
"Yeah." He pushed away from the stanchion and went to help Maria with the flour.
The box canyon Cipriano had told him about was nigh on perfect. It wasn't too big. He could leave Barranca ground tied near the entrance and no one could come up on him without him knowing. Perfect. He set up the cans he'd begged from Maria onto a big boulder with a flattish top.
He looked Scott over and made him untie his holster and empty his gun. "Draw your gun."
Scott did as he was
told. Johnny could almost feel it himself, the way the leather clung to the
gun like a saloon girl hanging onto a man's wallet.
"Feel it? The holster's trying to come along with the gun. Slows you right down."
"Yes. Yes, I can now I know what to look for. I see how that could be risky."
"When it comes to gunplay, we aren't talking even seconds to get your gun clear. A holster like that could get you killed. Okay. Now tie it as tight as you can get it without it cutting into your leg. It needs to sit there snug and tight."
"It feels awkward."
"Yeah, it will for a few days. You'll get used to it. Try pulling the gun again, but don't try for fast, but for smooth. Feel the difference."
Scott grinned and nodded. "It is much smoother. The holster's staying put."
"Yeah." Johnny stepped back and studied Scott's gun belt. "You need to fasten that belt tighter."
"Surely it's tight enough?"
"Nope. Breathe in and hold it, and pull the buckle in another hole."
Scott followed orders real well. Must come from him being in the cavalry. He blew out the breath. "It's too tight, now."
"You'll get used to
that, too. Mine's tighter."
Scott snorted. "Along with those fancy pants of yours, brother."
Johnny laughed. "I never had any complaints about my pants."
"Not from the ladies, perhaps."
"Specially not from the ladies. All right, let's take one more look at you."
Scott struck a pose, one hand on his hip and the other flung out, grinning.
"Oh, you are pretty!" Johnny went to stand behind Scott, real close, and reached for Scott's gun. Even with the inch or two of height Scott had on him, that still wasn’t working. "That holster's still not right. Take the rig off for a minute."
Lucky he'd brought his leather-working tools. He pulled the drawstring pouch from inside his shirt. He'd had it a long, long time, from a time so far in his past he sometimes couldn't remember what it was like being a kid with Mama there and Edgardo Madrid, before everything got turned upside down and he was on his own. The pouch was about all he had left. Still, the past was dead and gone: the old man had said so, that first day. He'd barked out orders and offered them drinks and said stuff that didn't make no sense, that didn't gel with what Mama had said… . The past didn't matter to the old man, and it wouldn't have to matter to anyone else because the old man calls the tune.
"Did you borrow those from Zimmermann?"
"These are mine. I like working with leather, when I get the chance."
"May I?" Scott picked up the pouch and gave it the same long look he'd been giving Johnny for days. "Did Indians make it?"
"Kumiai. They range up and down the coastline, clear down into Mexico. They're mostly peaceful. Not that many of them left, these days."
"It's seen some service." Scott handed the pouch back.
Johnny shook the tools out onto his bandanna, spread on the cañon floor, holding the pouch with careful hands. Most of the beads were gone from the fringe now. The tanned buckskin was soft and warm against his fingers, the way it had been the day he'd dodged his Mama's clutchin' hands and pretended he didn't hear her frightened "Juanito!", and had gone skittering out of the house to watch Edgardo barter with a band of wandering Kumiai. Papa had been squatting on the ground in front of the old woman who led the band, talking. He'd looked up at Johnny and held out a hand to pull him close. He'd smiled, his eyes crinkling up against the sun.
It had been a good day. A damned good day.
"Johnny?" And damn it, but Scott was turning that look Johnny's way again.
"I've had it a long time. Got it from a family band; no warriors, just a couple of squaws wizened up by the sun, and a few kids." Johnny huffed out a laugh and reached for the holster. "The sun's always hot in Baja California and they looked so dried out that they must have rattled in the breeze. The old squaw – reckon she was the abuela, the grandmamma – took a fancy to me." Johnny fingered the beads threaded around his wrist. When the old squaw had tied them there, they'd gone twice around his skinny kid's wrist. They fit better now. He grinned. "All the ladies love me."
He checked again, then bored a hole in the leather holster frog that was above and to the left of the existing holes.
Scott watched him. "I saw some Indians on the trip over, on the plains somewhere. One of the men on the train said they were Crow."
"They run a bit north of my range. Had a run in with the Chiricahua once over in Arizona. They're Apache. They're warriors to the bone, like the Crow. Worse, maybe."
"They were different. I'd never seen anything like them."
"Uh-huh. They can be real dangerous."
"The man kept his rifle ready," nodded Scott. "I thought… I thought it was a matter of some regret that we can't reach some accommodation with them. It always ends in fighting."
"Well, Boston, that's in the Code of the West, too. It's dog eat dog. We want their land, so they have to go. They'll fight every inch, but they'll go."
"Hand me the belt." Johnny fastened the holster to its frog. It didn’t hang straight now, but tipped backwards a bit. That looked about right. He threaded the gun belt through the frog loops and handed the rig back to Scott. "Here you are. As tight as you can get it, remember."
Scott grumbled as he obeyed. "I don’t know why Murdoch bothered to have that clause put in the agreement. At this rate, he needn't expect grandchildren. I tell you, this is so tight it's going to cut off all the circulation to places I'm not going to mention even to you. Nothing's going to be working."
"Everything I have works just fine, brother, and my rig's tighter." Johnny laughed and Scott grinned at him, just like any other amigo would. The holster looked just right now. "That looks better."
"It's not as low as yours."
"Ain't ever going to be. Wearing your rig this low, Scott, well that's the sign of the professional. I need to draw, and the gun slaps straight into my hand, see?" Scott jumped when Johnny drew. Johnny let the grin widen. Scott saw, all right. "You wear it like this and folks'll think you're a gunfighter, and every kid from here to Texas will want to try and take you on."
"That is amazingly fast, Johnny. I could barely see it." Scott finished tying down his holster. "All right. If I understand you correctly, wearing your gun like that is a warning sign, but also tells everyone that you're fast with a gun. That has almost to invite people to take you on. Why keep wearing it that way if you're serious about giving it up and becoming a rancher? Maybe then every kid from here to Texas would leave you alone."
"I'd be dead. I only know how to draw this way. If I change how I draw, then I'll be too slow. I can't just walk away from this game, Scott; there'll always be someone who'll try to make their name outa taking mine. And yeah, having the gun this low is a warning. Keeps a few drunks and kids away, anyway, and lets other gunhawks know I can use this." Johnny let the gun twirl on his finger and holstered it, real smooth. Maybe it was time to answer some of those questions Scott had never actually asked him. "The other day, I told you that I strapped this gun on to stop people throwing down on me because I'm a mestizo and that both sides throw down on someone who's mixed. Remember?"
"I picked up the gun to stay alive, Scott, and to get out from under the shit people piled on me. They stopped beatin' up on me and walked small. They left me alone. That's all I wanted. But the other thing is that using a gun's a trade, like any other way for a man to make his living. I'm pretty damn good at it. Better than most."
Scott looked at him for a minute, his face serious, and those pale eyes missed nothing. All this measuring and considering was getting pretty damned old. "And range wars, like the one here with Pardee? Where do they fit into this trade of yours?"
Yeah. That was one question Scott must have been measuring and considering for a good long time.
Johnny shrugged. "Sam and Murdoch were right when they said there ain't much law out here." He drew his gun again. "This is about the only law there is. So when folks get into fights, this is what settles it. If you're goin' into a big fight, Boston, you take the best you can in with you so it gets settled the way you want it. So they hire people like me."
"To frighten the opposition." Scott paused. "Among other things."
He had to be thinking of what Day's men did to Gaspar and Maria. Made a man sick inside to see it. Day had been a mean cuss at best. Real mean, like a rattler, and just as deadly. Might have known that was what was stickin' in Boston's craw. Hell, it stuck in his. Boston had done a good job of dealing with it, so far, but he couldn't be blamed for wonderin'.
"Among other things." Johnny reholstered his gun. "Gunfightin' ain't illegal, Boston. I'm not wanted by the law, except maybe by the rurales, and that don't count. I'm not a back shooter. I don't bushwhack folks. I've never hurt a woman or a child. I shoot straight. The trick in a gun fight is to let the other man make the first move and still beat him to the draw, and never to miss. That's what I do and I won't hide that. I'm proud of bein' good at my trade."
"And Day Pardee, was he proud of his trade?"
"He was good at it."
Scott nodded. " I see." He took a deep breath. "I've been thinking about it. A lot."
Scott nodded again and took a few steps away, turning his back to Johnny. Johnny blew out a soft, quiet sigh. Took him long enough to ask and nothing now to do but wait. After a few minutes, Johnny sat down on a rock, looking down at his boots and scuffing a pattern in the dust.
Scott didn't turn around. "I keep telling myself that it's different here and that maybe morality isn't as immutable as I thought. I never expected to be in this situation again, where I have to go armed to stay alive." There was something sad in his voice. "And do things that I may later come to regret."
Scott nodded. "There were things…" He stopped, shook his head. "You do things in war that at other times would repel you... that do repel you, and remorse just isn’t enough. I did things…. I thought I'd left all that behind. I have to keep telling myself that this isn't Boston."
"Yeah? And are you listenin'?"
Scott made that funny hmphing sound that was like Murdoch, only less like he was mad and more like he was almost laughing. "I'm trying." He turned around to face Johnny. He didn't look mad, or anything. "I don't know what to think about it, really. You aren't what I'd have expected from the newspaper reports and the dime novels."
"Those dime novels are a pile of shit."
"I remember you said so, when I read that one to you." Scott shook his head. He took a deep breath. "So, what are we going to do today?"
"You want to go on with this?"
"I want to stay here in California, at least for a while, and see if we can make a go of this, you and me and Murdoch. If I'm going to stay then there are things I have to learn. Handling cattle is one thing; handling a gun is another. As you say, it's the only law around here right now." Scott paused. "You'll excuse me if I say that I hope that changes one day, and soon, even if it means everyone in your former trade goes out of business altogether."
"And if I am going to learn how to use a gun, western style, I can't ask for anyone better to teach me, can I? So what are we going to do first and why did you make me empty my gun?"
"You want to shoot a hole in your foot while you're practising your draw, you go right ahead. Only you get to explain why to Murdoch. I'll be too busy laughing." Johnny let his shoulders relax and stood up.
Scott's grin was twisted. "Of course."
"It's called bein' slow on the draw but too fast on the trigger. You start your draw, your finger starts pullin' on the trigger, the gun catches up on the holster, say, and stops momentarily and the trigger finger keeps going." Johnny grinned. "If you're lucky it'll be your foot. There was this hombre I knew once, tried practising his draw with a loaded gun. Shot himself in a real bad place. Let's just say he could sing real high after that, and Murdoch wouldn't be expecting grandchildren."
Scott let out a bark of laughter that might even be real. "That brings tears to the eyes, just hearing about it. So we're going to practice drawing the gun."
"And shooting the hell out of those tin cans later. You sure you want to do this, Scott?"
Scott nodded. "Yes. I'm sure." He stood up straighter and said it again, this time like he meant it. "I'm sure, Johnny."
"Fine." Johnny eyed the way Scott stood. "It's not just about pullin' the gun outa the holster. It’s everything: how you move, how you stand, how you think. You're standin' too stiff, too pokered up. You ain't in the army now, you know. No one's going to be shooting the hell out of you, just outa the cans, so relax. Just stand easy on your feet, and drop your shoulders so you ain't so stiff. Yeah, that's better. Swing your hand and feel how it will slap up against the gun butt. Do that a few times." He watched, nodding. The holster was in the right place now.
"I feel a little foolish doing this, you know."
"Better a fool than dead."
"A very good point, Johnny. You'd do well in a debating club, cutting straight to the chase."
"Well, it's important. It's about—" Johnny paused, seeking the right word. "Balance. Bein' ready for anything. Not lookin' for it, maybe, but bein' ready for it."
"Okay. Swing your hand again, and this time let the gun just slide into your hand. Your thumb should be up against the hammer spur, just right for pulling it back. That cocks the gun as it comes out of the holster, and your finger'll be on the trigger, ready. Got it?"
Scott grinned as the gun slid into his hand and came up, ready. Johnny made him do it over and over for ten, fifteen minutes before he nodded and let him stop. Not bad. Really not bad for a dandy of an Easterner who hadn't had a gun in his hands for more'n five years. He said so, and Scott grinned.
"Was it fast enough?"
Hell, no! There was no way Johnny was going to let him go down that road.
"Fast enough against a cowhand or a townsman on the prod? Yeah, I reckon so. It wasn't bad at all. Enough to give you a good chance, anyways. Fast enough against someone like Coley McHugh, say, or Day Pardee? No. Fast enough against someone like me? Hell, no."
"Oh." Scott's ears went red.
Johnny took a step towards him and put his hand on Scott's arm, blocking the next practice swing. "Listen to me, brother. There's a real difference between bein' fast, and bein' sudden. Fast don't mean shit unless you can hit what you aim for and you're willin' to kill the man who's bracing you. That matters more than bein' fast. Too many hombres have been in so much of a hurry to make a fast draw, the man facing them who's cooler and more determined… well, the cards are more likely to fall his way than theirs, even if his gun clears leather slower."
Scott watched him steadily, his head cocked a little to one side. Damned shame that he had to teach him this.
"It's maybe not what you're used to, Scott, facing up to a man with a gun in your hand, so listen good. You need to get to a place where you can draw, cock and fire without thinking about it, get faster on sighting and firing. Then all you have to worry about is hitting what you aim for. Well, from what I've seen, you've got a good eye so I ain't worried about that. A few weeks' practice here and you'll be hittin' the target without bringing your gun up to aim down the sights. You'll be shooting as soon as your gun's clear of the leather, like it's second nature." Johnny paused. "So that when it's a man, not a target, you're ready to do what you have to."
"I hope I never have to."
"This ain't Boston. And there are a lot of men like Day Pardee." Johnny hesitated, then shrugged. If he was going to stay here, Scott would have to face up to this. "Aim for the gut, Scott. You might not kill the man, but you sure as hell will stop him. He's not likely to be able to shoot back at you, rollin' around in the dust with lead eating his belly."
Scott winced. "That's pretty ruthless, Johnny."
"Yeah, I am. Hell, it's how a gunfighter thinks and lives, and makes sure he's the one who walks away." Johnny watched the expression on Scott's face, and sighed. Maybe that was too much for Scott, too much to take in right now. "But then, we aren’t out here to make you into a gunfighter. That's my trade, not yours."
"And you're very good at it."
Johnny looked at him steadily, this stranger from the East who was his brother. Scott was smart and capable, so honest that it took Johnny's breath away, and he knew a lot. But he didn't know everything, and what he didn't know could get him killed. Not if Johnny could help it though. Scott was all right. He deserved a chance.
He smiled. "I'm the best there is, Scott."
Scott didn't smile back. But he did nod, his face solemn, like he was in church.
Sam looked kinda funny with that thing hanging around his neck. It looked like a real ugly necklace, with the sides made from little tubes covered in green velvet and the big black bell dangling down in front. Sam lifted up the earpieces.
"Hope that's warm." Johnny had had a doc use one on him once, and the bell had been damned cold.
Sam's mouth was made for smiling. He did it a lot. "Not so tough after all, huh?" And he pushed in the little white earpieces and slapped the bottom of the bell against Johnny's bare chest before Johnny could make any sort of smart-alec comeback.
The bell was wood, cool against Johnny's bare skin but not so cold he'd jump. He took breaths when Sam told him to, coughed when Sam told him to and didn’t jump either when Sam went behind him and pressed the bell against his back near the bottom of the new scar across his shoulder.
"Good. Your lungs are nice and clear." Sam dropped the necklace thing onto a little table. "It’s healing very cleanly, Johnny." He traced a finger across Johnny's back, but not touching the shoulder. "The other marks you had are fading too. You know, I don't think they'll scar, after all."
"Yeah." Johnny pulled a face. The rurales had figured a good beating would stop him causing trouble. It'd slowed him down some, anyway.
"Murdoch told me about the revolution you got caught up in, and that they had you in prison for a few weeks."
Johnny said nothing, the way that Murdoch should have said nothing. Murdoch had no call to tell anyone else about it. It wasn't anyone else's business.
After a minute, when Johnny still said nothing at all, Sam sighed. "I'm your doctor, Johnny. It's helpful for me to know these things. It won't go any further, I promise you." Then he brisked up. "All right, let's get this finished. Raise your arm above your head and turn your hand in a circle… yes, just like that. Now the other way… good. That's very good. You've got more range of movement than I expected at this stage."
Sam's hands were cool and smooth on Johnny's back as they pressed along the scar on his left shoulder blade. Not a working man's hands. No calluses. Sam was strong though. Johnny let his mouth open in a soundless gasp when the fingers pressed too hard. Sam couldn't have seen that, not from behind him.
"Still painful? I thought it might be. Still, you're healing very well, even if you don't listen to what I tell you."
Johnny turned his head and stared at Sam. How in hell could he have known it was still aching?
Sam looked like a man sitting pretty on a royal flush when all that the other men around the table had were measly sets of pairs. "Your muscles tensed when I pressed around the wound site. Not a lot, but enough for me to see there was a reaction, that your shoulder's still catching at you."
"Yes, it is." Sam came around to Johnny's side of the examination table. "All right, you can put your shirt back on. How do you feel otherwise?"
"Fine. I'm just fine." Johnny shrugged into his shirt and did up the toggles. It still pulled on his left shoulder when he raised that arm, especially after five minutes of waving his hand around in the air, but he made darn sure nothing showed on his face. Sam was watching him too closely for that.
"Well, I saw for myself the other day that you're eating well and I think you've put on a much needed pound or two, so I don't doubt you." Sam nodded. "I told Murdoch at our lunch that I'd probably cut you free today, and I will. But muscle damage and deep-bruised bone take time to heal fully, Johnny, and you'll have to take it slow if you don't want a permanent problem with that shoulder. You have some strength to build up there. So there are conditions to me letting you start work."
Sam started ticking them off on his fingers. "No breaking wild horses. No bulldogging calves. No roping or branding. Stay off your feet as much as possible. Eat well and drink plenty of water. Sleep when you feel tired, no matter what time of day."
"It's the spring round up in a few days."
Sam smiled and wagged his forefinger at him. "Most of all, don’t argue with people who have your welfare at heart.”
"I'm not arguin', but Murdoch needs all the hands he can get."
"And he'll have them, with all the other ranches in the district there. But you won't be one of them, Johnny. Well, you can help herd the cattle, but that is all you can do. And whatever you do, you're to stop each day when you get tired, and head back to the ranch-house to rest if you need to."
Johnny slid off the table and reached for his gun belt. No point in arguing. Wasn't like the doc was going to be out there on the range to check up on him. "Right."
Sam chuckled. “Young man, it's very hard to fool me. I talked about it with Murdoch at our lunch. He knows exactly what I planned to tell you and he knows just what limits I'm setting. He has my permission to knock you over the head and force you back into bed if you don't follow my orders.”
Johnny took a deep breath and held it while he pulled the belt thong through the buckle, then a deeper breath to pull it tighter still. He bent to tie down the holster, before drawing his gun and letting it twirl on his trigger finger before sliding it home again. He made a show of it, trying not to grin when he saw the creases around Sam's eyes deepen.
"I've shot men for less."
"You'd better not shoot me. I'm the only doctor around here." Sam patted him on the shoulder. "I know you want this over with, but I'm the expert here and I'm going to be the one setting the pace for you for another couple of weeks at least. Do as you're told over the round up, and I'll let you fully loose when it's over. Did you ride that half-broke palomino in today, by the way?"
"I came in with Scott in the buckboard. He had some stuff to pick up. Murdoch has every rancher in the district coming for some meeting later today and Teresa sent us in with a list of stuff she wants."
"At least you’re doing what you're told about that horse. Leave Scott to load the wagon—you shouldn't be lifting heavy goods just yet."
Johnny had left Scott sweating over the loading all right, but he had plans to take Barranca out for a run as soon as he got back to the ranch. He smiled at Sam. "I hear you."
Sam laughed, and turned away to tidy away all the things he'd used. "I'm sure of it. Listening's another matter, though. Now get out of here, Johnny Lancer. I've got other patients to deal with."
Sam Jenkins wasn't so bad, for a sawbones. Johnny wouldn't shoot him. This time, anyway.
Scott was waiting for him in the Bull Moose.
Johnny hadn't expected to take so long, but once he'd left Sam's office he'd had to go and talk to Zimmermann about the twelve-shot Walch. Zimmermann spent a while measuring Johnny's hand and watching him draw and redraw his gun before nodding and agreeing how the Walch would be altered to suit him. Johnny bought another Army Colt as well. It never hurt to have more than one back-up gun. Zimmermann cut him a deal on both, but it didn't leave him with much from the couple of twenty dollar gold pieces Murdoch had left as guest money in their rooms, the night they'd got to Lancer.
Once he'd left Zimmermann's he'd had to find a way to send a package securely to a little village down south of the border; there was a gentle old priest down in Sonora who would be getting a surprise parcel in a week or so. Padre Gervasio would use the listening money that Johnny sent him wisely. He wouldn't spend it on revolutions that did nothing but cost lives. There were families in the village missing their menfolk now. The money wouldn't bring back the dead, but it would help the living.
Scott was at the table at the back of the room, against the wall, reading a letter. There were two glasses of beer on the table in front of him, one of them only half full. He'd left the chair in the corner for Johnny. Scott was smart, there was no two minds about that.
"Thanks." Johnny ran a finger over the cloud of coldness on the outside of the full glass that Scott pushed over to him, drawing a little pattern, before lifting the glass up and taking in half of the beer in one go. It tasted good. "That hits the spot."
"It's not bad." Scott folded up his letter. He caught the look Johnny gave him. "I picked up the mail and found a letter from my grandfather."
They must have just missed each other in the post office. "Uh-huh. I guess he has something to say about you staying out here."
"I only wrote to tell him a couple of weeks ago. He's probably only just got that letter." Scott pushed the folded letter into his pocket. "I don’t know what he'll say about all of this."
About Lancer, about Murdoch, about Scott not heading straight back to Boston, or about having a gunhawk for a brother? Scott had joined Johnny for gun practice every day, but he sure as hell was still wondering about whether having Johnny for a brother was a winning hand or not. He was friendly enough, though he didn't let much of what he really thinking show; even Johnny, who was used to watching folks and figuring them out, wasn't sure what Scott really thought about… what was it he'd said? About all of this.
Scott took a drink of beer and wiped the foam off his lip with a finger. "What did Sam say?"
"That I'm doing fine."
Scott grinned at him. Then he picked up his glass and saluted Johnny with it.
"Nice try, little brother. Very nice try. But Murdoch told me what Sam's instructions are." Scott pursed up his lips until he looked all prissy. "I think I'm going to enjoy being a big brother. Murdoch says that I get to give you orders and keep you in line during the round up. I like the sound of that."
Johnny took another mouthful of beer. Damn, but it was good. "And did he say what he'll do to you when you can't make me do it? I never was much good at taking orders. Murdoch knows that. I told him already."
Yeah. When Murdoch as good as accused him of running with Day. They still hadn't sorted that out. Murdoch had never mentioned it again and maybe he still thought Johnny had been with Pardee.
Scott looked kinda grieved and disappointed. "He left that bit out."
No point in chewing over Pardee and what Murdoch thought. Murdoch wasn't here to hash it out with. Johnny pushed it away to where he needn't think about it. What attention he had to spare from keeping an eye on who might come and go in the saloon, he gave to Scott. "Well, he knows he ain't given you the easy job there, Boston. Must think you're up to it."
"I'm more inclined to think that he's chuckling to himself over pulling a fast one on me. I suppose he's keeping the penalty for failure as a glad surprise for me. And it's Scott, not Boston."
"See, if you can't train me to get that right—"
"All right, all
right. I get it." Scott finished his beer. "And why don't you get me
another beer, little brother?"
"You reckon we have time for another one? Teresa was sure agitating about those supplies this morning."
"She can agitate for another ten minutes. If I'm going to get into trouble with Murdoch on your account, the least you can do is keep me in alcohol."
Johnny laughed. That was one order he'd take. He checked the room before he got up, but the barkeep hadn't taken much notice of him and Scott sitting quiet at the back and the only other customer was face down on a table on the other side of the room. Well, every town had to have at least one drunk. It was in the Code of the West somewhere.
When he got back with the beers, Scott had one leg stretched out, twisting his foot around and back again to admire the new boot on the end of it.
"I just picked them up from the boot maker." Scott huffed out a little laugh and there it was again: Scott sounded just like Murdoch when he did that. "When I decided to come out here I knew I'd probably end up doing some riding and I had a pair of new boots made in Boston."
Johnny glanced at Scott's feet. No. He had no idea about what Scott had been wearing before. He cocked an eyebrow at Scott. "Well if them plaid pants is anything to go by—"
"Beautiful black leather English hunting boots with low heels. Perfectly fine for riding around Massachusetts, but as I've already found out, no damn use at all when you've finally managed to get your rope around a calf and it's dragging you half way across California. It wasn't any good digging my heels in, and for the first time I realised just how much truth that little saying's based on." He sighed. "I was so proud of myself, roping that calf. Toledano almost burst something, laughing."
Johnny didn't choke on his beer. Took some doing, mind you. "Didn't Cip laugh too?"
"Cipriano is far too dignified for that. He just stroked his moustache and called me Señor Scott, very politely, and told me I needed new boots. So here I am, with my new Western boots." Scott chuckled suddenly. "Well, that was one thing I couldn't borrow from Murdoch!"
He held out his hands almost a yard apart and grinned. Johnny did choke this time, imagining Scott's feet, both of them, inside one of Murdoch's boots. And then he was pushing Scott's hands even further apart and they were laughing, Scott and him, and just for a minute everything was easy.
Maybe Scott could live with a gunhawk around. And maybe having a brother, even a dandy Easterner from Boston, was something Johnny could get used to.
The hacienda was in an uproar when they got back to it.
Teresa was flapping
about like a chicken about to get its neck wrung and making the same noisy
squawking. She'd been flapping and squawking for a few days now and Johnny
reckoned she'd cleaned and polished everything in the house five times
over. She'd have polished him if he'd stood still long enough. Maria was
very busy in the kitchen. Maybe she was trying to get away from Teresa as
much as to cook supper for all the ranchers who were coming for a final
meeting to plan the round up. Murdoch was out of sight. He must have found
somewhere safe to hole up.
Teresa wanted to know where they'd been. She wanted to know why they'd thought they could take all day about getting a few things from the Mercantile. She wanted to know why they'd put the stores in the storeroom when if they had an ounce of sense they'd have realised she and Maria needed the stuff in the kitchen since they'd been waiting for it for hours. She wanted to know why they were tracking dirt and dust over her clean floors. And she wanted to know why on earth they thought she'd have time to make them some lunch and why couldn't they just fend for themselves?
Maria gave them a small smile when they trailed into the kitchen, moving the stores for Teresa, but she didn't offer them anything to eat either. She was busy stirring pots on the stove and there was nothing on the counters worth stealing, not even a biscuit or two left over from breakfast. Huh. And Maria's smile grew sweeter when Teresa damn near chased them outa the kitchen with a broom. The door snapped shut so fast behind them that it almost caught their heels. That would have been a shame, with those fancy new boots of Boston's.
Johnny aimed a kick at the kitchen door, and thought better of it. The heavy, carved door was harder than his toes. "Damn, but I wouldn't mind Teresa wanting to know anything she likes, if she'd just stop that screeching."
Scott scowled. "We should have eaten in town. It's a long time until supper."
"We could go down to the bunkhouse and see what's cookin' there. You'll have to get used to whatever it is, anyway, because it's all you'll be eating on the round up."
"I could eat my old boots right now. I don't know what it is about this place, but I'm starving by noon." Scott must have been hungry, because he turned fast and neat, marching down to the bunkhouse like he was still on parade in front of that general of his, dragging Johnny along with him.
Johnny let him. He was hungry too. "It's all this getting up before dawn. Makes the days damn long."
"You're right there." Scott sighed. "I never got up much before ten in Boston. What'll be on the menu?"
It was always beans. The cook – Frank this week – handed each of them a big plate of frijoles refritos with fried eggs and crisp slices of bacon. Boston looked at it sideways until he tasted it, then dived right in like he really was starving. He'd sure be eating like that once the hard work started.
They had over forty hands now with the new ones Scott and Cip had hired in Green River, pretty much as many as they needed for the round up. The men were sitting at a long table in the middle of the bunkhouse, relaxed and chatting for a few minutes break in the long, hard day. They were like any ranch crew: mixed races, mixed ages, tall men and short bandy-legged ones, skinny ones and stocky ones, every colour hair and eyes going.
Johnny had seen every one of them around the place over the last few days and had probably spoken to most of them at least once, but still they were mostly just names and faces and not much more yet. He knew a couple of them better than the others: Cipriano's younger son, Jaime, and Toledano, who was stout and middle-aged and knew the dirtiest songs and jokes that Johnny had ever heard. Toledano was often the one to saddle Barranca for him. The heavy saddle had pulled on his shoulder the first time he'd lifted it, and Toledano had just taken it from him and slung it over the palomino's back, while the joke about the Dominican friar, the beautiful bandito queen and the ocarina lesson poured out of his wry, crooked mouth without him stopping to take a breath. The joke had been so vulgar it had surprised even Johnny and left him chuckling for hours afterwards. Damn, but a gal like that could blow his ocarina any time she chose to.
Most of the hands were Mexican and it sure was good to watch them and listen to them talk. The vaqueros were just like the men in the village he'd lived in when he was a kid; proud men, men of honour and tradition, who worked damn hard. But there were a few gringos too and Frank, the one black man, a freed slave who'd worked his way west when Scott's war was over. The gringos didn’t have much Spanish, and Scott had none, and the vaqueros were too polite to leave them out of it by talking Spanish for long. Shame. It sounded like home to hear it.
Johnny, watching them for a few minutes while Frank hunted up a couple of spare tin mugs for their coffee, saw that there was space between the old hands and the new. Maybe the vaqueros who'd stuck it out against Pardee were just cautious, waiting for the new men to show their hands, to show what sort of hombres they were – who worked hard and who didn't; who laughed and joked and who was sombre, who was quarrelsome and who smoothed things over. The new men still had to prove themselves. Likely by the end of the round up they'd have settled.
It took all the hands, new and old, a few minutes to get over the Patrón's sons joining them in the bunkhouse. It would probably take Johnny a lot longer to get over being the Patrón's son, come to think of it, and maybe the hands being jittery wasn't all down to that. They all knew Scott now since he'd started working on the range with them, and they mostly seemed to be okay around him, although one or two of the gringos talked quietly among themselves at the other end of the table and the glances they cast at Scott weren't altogether friendly. But it was Johnny who the hands didn't know.
They thought they did. They all thought they knew him and they all watched him, never looking at him direct. The men were real polite at first. They called Scott by name, but when Frank offered Johnny more coffee, it was Mr Madrid and eyes that wouldn't meet his.
"Just Johnny, Frank. Thanks." He put on his widest smile when Frank looked at him. The food had been pretty good and if they ate like this on the round up, Johnny would be happy. "That was pretty damn good. Me an' Boston'll have to come down here to eat more often."
Frank's mouth twitched, but he looked nervous. Johnny kept the smile going until Frank managed a nod.
Scott watched them over the rim of his coffee mug, his eyes thoughtful. What in hell was he thinking? Was he wondering what sort of brother he'd got, that men were scared of the name? "Are you always the cook, Frank?"
"No, sir. That's Miz Laura. But she's sick and livin' in town right now. We take it in turns until she comes back."
"If she does," muttered one of the gringo hands who'd stuck with Murdoch right through the trouble with Pardee. Walt Pearson. One of the few who'd stayed.
Miz Laura? Who the hell was Miz Laura? Johnny glanced at Scott, who shrugged at him. Didn’t look like he knew either.
Frank waved a hand at the stove and the pan of beans. "Anyone want more, just go get it." Then: "Cip said she won't be back for the round up, anyways."
Johnny gave him another smile, watching him relax. "I could live with you doing the cooking, Frank."
Scott mopped up the last of his beans. "How are preparations going for the round up?"
Jaime was the one who everyone looked to. He still lived with his parents in the Segundo's house in the meadow behind the hacienda, and everyone must reckon he knew more than anyone else. "We are almost ready, Señor Scott."
"Eduardo brought in another bunch of horses this morning. And Jaime is reminding them that they are good cow ponies." Toledano took a paper dollar from his pocket, rubbing it between his fingers. "Yes? Who will play?"
Eduardo was Cipriano's eldest son, older than Scott by a couple of years. Johnny didn't remember him from when he was here before… before his Mama had left. Murdoch had said—when? Johnny was hazy about when—but Murdoch had said something like When you were here, when you were a kid, you followed Eduardo around like a puppy.
Johnny didn't remember Eduardo. He didn't remember anything from then. But he'd stayed clear of Eduardo anyway while he worked out what to think about it all. Funny that he didn't have the same feeling about Jaime, even though Murdoch had said they'd fought as kids over some wooden horse. Jaime didn't remember that, any more than Johnny did. Johnny didn’t know what Eduardo remembered.
Toledano had everyone laughing. Most of the hands were shaking their heads.
Jaime was real positive about the head shaking. "I lost all mine this morning, betting on Eduardo. You can't get me twice in one day, amigo."
Frank brought another pot of coffee to the table and sat down beside Jaime. "We don't bet with Tol. It's not that he cheats—"
"¡Mierda! No!" Toledano was so innocent that he was sure to be lying.
"—but he never loses."
"It is because I have great skill and only wager when the odds are good, and the good Dios is smiling on me." Toledano put his hands together as if he was praying, rolling his eyes up, the dollar bill sticking up between his fingers. "I have faith in Jaime. He is almost as good a horse breaker as Isidore was."
"Isidore?" Johnny couldn't place the name or the face to go with it.
It surprised the hell out of Johnny that it was Scott who answered, "He was one of the men killed in Pardee's raid, Johnny."
A soft voice spoke into the sudden quiet. "Dios guarde su alma."
Johnny didn't know
who'd spoken, and when he looked at the hands, all the vaqueros were
The vaqueros, even
Toledano, wouldn't meet Johnny's gaze and the newer hands all looked
confused. They all looked like they'd rather be digging a new privy for the
backhouse right then. What stories had they been hearing about him and old
Day, then? They'd heard a few, seemed like.
Scott was the only one who would look at him. "Murdoch and I managed to get to the funerals. It was while you were sick."
Johnny nodded. He didn’t cross himself. Instead, he took a moment to drink his coffee, letting the flavour roll around his mouth. Frank made a good cup of coffee, strong and just sweet enough. It tasted real good. He watched Scott while Scott's face got redder and redder. Being as fair as that, Boston couldn't hide shit.
He glanced away, looking at the hands. "So what's the bet, Toledano?"
Toledano jumped a bit, but he was smiling again and stroking his short beard. He was one of the friendliest of the vaqueros and nothing seemed to keep him down long. Kinda cheerful. Always singing and laughing, and some of those songs… well, Teresa or Maria had better not hear him, that was for sure. Maria would blister his ears for him. "We wager on how long Jaime will take to tame them, Johnny."
Dios knew Johnny would rather work with horses than cows. If he never saw a cow again, except on a plate, he'd be happy. "I've worked with horses."
"Oh no!" Scott said it very fast, like that would make it not happen. He was laughing at the same time like he didn’t know what way Johnny would jump. Well, fair enough. He didn't. "Sam said you were not to try and break wild horses. C'mon, Johnny. Murdoch would kill me."
Johnny straightened up. The damned shoulder pulled but he didn't let it show. He took a moment to drain his coffee, watching Scott over the rim of the tin cup.
"Johnny." Dios, but when Scott wanted to coax, he was real soft and smooth.
Johnny let a small grin through. "Oh, maybe not today." He watched Scott sag with relief. He waited a beat. "Then again…"
Scott's face was a picture. Nope. He couldn't hide shit.
"You did well with the palomino." Toledano crinkled his dollar between his fingers again. "I made a few small wagers, Juanito, when you told Cipriano you wanted to try him. You made me a little profit that day."
Scott winced like something hurt. "Don’t encourage him, Toledano."
"We always need good men with the horses." Jaime winked at Johnny.
Scott put his head in his hands and groaned out loud. Everyone laughed, and just like that, it was all right. Isidore was forgotten again. Even Day Pardee was forgotten. All that mattered was right here and now, and the horses and Jaime riding them until they remembered they were cowponies and not wild mustangs, and the round up and work and play…. Johnny smiled to himself. Old Boston was real smart, handling the men like that.
Then Boston blew it. "Seems an odd time to bring in a herd of wild horses. I'd have thought everyone would be too busy to bother with them."
There was the silence again. Jaime looked away and Toledano rolled his eyes at Johnny, looking as pained as if one of the mustangs had just kicked him. At the other end of the table, one of the new hands brought his hand up to his mouth to hide his snicker. He didn't do it very well, but then Johnny reckoned he hadn't intended to. Another man, a gringo near on as big as Murdoch, grinned. The vaqueros mostly looked as embarrassed as Jaime and Toledano, but the new hands would bear watching.
Keep it calm and soft. Boston was going to be mad with himself, and yeah, there he goes, flushing red.
"Working a round up's pretty hard on the horses, Scott, and everyone here will get through three or four a day. Eduardo's bringing in the ranch's caballada—the remuda, the spare horses. They run free most of the time, until they're needed." Johnny stared down the table at the hand snickering at Scott until the man straightened his face, his eyes widening. Johnny gave him a slow smile, the one that he'd spent so long getting right, the one he wore when he stepped into the street with the sun at his back, pulling the black leather glove onto his left hand. What was his name, now? Beedie somethin'. Johnny raised his coffee cup in silent salute. The man sat back and his Adam's apple jiggled up and down as he swallowed. Funny, but Beedie Somethin' wasn't snickering now.
"Of course." Scott lifted up his coffee mug to hide his face. But his eyes looked more grey than blue and the tips of his ears were red.
Johnny dangled both arms over the corral rail watching as Jaime, Eduardo and Toledano brought out the first of the horses and hustled it to the snubbing post to get it saddled. Frank and one of the new hands were already mounted and waiting in the corral, ready to crowd the mustang if they needed to. Jaime knew what he was doing. He'd hobbled the stirrups to give himself a better hold on the horse, and he talked to it all the time as he saddled and bridled it, running his hands over its head and neck to calm it.
But Scott wasn't listening too good to what Johnny was telling him about horse breaking. They hadn't seen hide nor hair of Murdoch since he'd barked out their orders at breakfast, and Scott was more interested in where the old man had got to. "I suppose he has this all worked out, if it gets this hectic every year. He probably has some really good hiding places."
Guess the old man had years of practice hiding away when the women went on the rampage like that. "If Teresa often goes off half-cocked like she did today, you can see why the old man's learned to keep his head down below the skyline."
"She's only about sixteen! If that."
What in hell did that have to do with it? "She was brought up by Maria, mostly." At Scott's stare, Johnny shrugged. "Mexican women are real fiery, Scott. Teresa ain't stupid. She'll have learned the tricks."
Scott grinned, but his eyes were still greyish and angry. "Fiery, huh? You'd know all about that."
"Some." Johnny ducked his head to hide whatever might show on his face. Mama could have given Teresa points and a three minute lead, and still won by a country mile.
He watched Jaime gather up the reins and ease himself into the saddle. The buckskin stood stock still for a minute, probably surprised and half-remembering the feel of a saddle and rider, before it went into a frenzy of crow-hopping, bucking and jumping. It got its head down between its front legs, arching its back and bucking for all it was worth.
Jaime was good at this. He wasn't harsh with the mustang, which arched its back again then twisted to kick out with its hind legs, but he wasn't letting that horse think it was going to win. He rode well, setting the reins so that when the buckskin moved, its head was forced over to one side. That was a damn good way to stop the horse bucking too hard; showed that Jaime knew what he was doing. The hands lined the corral fences, whooping and cheering him on. Toledano was in the centre of a small group of vaqueros, and yeah, money was changing hands. Looked like there were fools born every minute.
"Cipriano told me that they broke Barranca for the first time at last year's round up. Wonder if it was Jaime did it. He's real good at this."
"You mean that Barranca wasn't completely wild when you broke him?" Scott stopped brooding enough to look interested.
"Green broke and gelded last year. He'd been running free since then, though and he'd got a bit... " Johnny paused, thought, and said, with a grin, "… unruly. Think that's what the nuns used to say about me in a school I went to once, right before they'd switch me to teach me some manners. Anyhow, Eduardo brought him in with a batch of horses the day before we got here. If I'd just broken him from wild, I wouldn't have let you take him over a fence that day, Boston."
Scott sniffed. "You didn't let me. I just took him." He brought his hands up on the corral fence and rested his forehead on them. His voice was muffled. "I should have known that we'd need more horses. It isn't like the Cavalry didn't have remounts."
Johnny scowled at the crow-hopping mustang. It was tiring now, and the jumps and twists didn't have as much zip in them. It stumbled, and when Jaime brought it back up again, it responded to the rein for a minute or two, remembering its training from the last time, before making another couple of half-hearted hops. Jaime was winning.
"It's like you said the other day. They'd all be the greenhorns in Boston."
Scott pushed away from the corral, turning and leaning his back against the fence so he faced away from where Jaime had the mustang tuckered out and starting to behave itself. "There's a time when you first start something, when you're learning…" He broke off. His mouth tightened right down. Scott didn't really look any more like Murdoch than Johnny did, but sometimes Johnny could really see he was Murdoch's son. "At least you know this stuff."
"Some of it. I know more about horses. I don't know that much about cows, 'cept that they're the dumbest animals on God's earth. They're too damn dumb to stay out of mud holes, or stay behind fences, or get not caught in the brush and mesquite."
Scott frowned at him. "Mesquite?"
"A bush. Grows all over the place further south alongside blackbrush and brasil, thick patches of the stuff you can't get through. Blackbrush is the worst. Thorns like this—" Johnny held finger and thumb far apart. "We're lucky we don't have it this far north. The damn stuff tears you right up. Stupid beeves get into it and get all tangled in the thorns if you don't chase them out. I used to do that. Worked the brush country when I was a kid, helping the hands move the herd and keeping the cows out of the blackbrush. I did it for a year or two in Texas, working some of the ranches in the Big Bend country. But they weren't cows like ours. Those spreads ran Texas longhorns, the biggest, meanest cows there is."
"So you've done ranch work before?"
"When I was a kid, yeah." Johnny grinned. "I wasn't very big then. I was a skinny little runt and the men would take bets on me against the cows. They said it was good as the preacher with the Bible, watching me chasing longhorns; like David and that Goliath feller."
"How old were you?" There was something funny in Scott's voice, like he was mad or something.
"I dunno. Twelve, thirteen, maybe."
Scott's mouth opened and closed with a snap. And now he looked real mad, too. "Ranches hire children? To do a dangerous job like herd cows six times their size? And then bet on the cows winning the confrontation?"
Johnny shrugged. What the hell did that matter? "It was a job. I got fed and I had somewhere to sleep and I got half a man's pay for it, so I had a few pesos to spend and some money put away." He grinned. "I was free as an alley cat, Boston. I could pay my own way, buy my own stuff. I wanted a gun that was all my own and not some old piece I'd picked up somewhere."
"Of course you did." Scott rolled his eyes.
"I learned to throw a rope there, too, but the lariats they use here in California are rawhide and longer, and I'll have to learn it all over. I guess that will set me back a mite, whenever Doc Jenkins lets me to do something other than sit on my backside watching you work." Johnny poked Scott in the ribs. ""You're getting ahead of me, Boston. You've roped cows."
"I have. I roped a calf all by myself." Scott used that dry tone of voice that made Johnny grin. "One calf. Once. And it was a calf of the dragging a man across the landscape variety."
"That's one calf ahead of me."
Scott laughed. He turned back to the corral, shaking his head and grinning.
The mustang was behaving itself now, just the tossing head showing how nervy it was. It jibbed when the breeze stirred up a dust devil at its feet but it was doin' what Jaime wanted it to. It'd do. By the end of the round up it might even be a decent cow pony. Jaime dismounted and let Eduardo take the buckskin out of the corral. Toledano and Felipe were already bringing the next in the string to the snubbing post.
"They respect Murdoch a lot, the vaqueros." Scott drummed his fingers on the top rail.
"He's the Patrón. From being kids, they're brought up to respect the Patrón."
"They respect you, too."
Was that what put the burr under Boston's saddle? "Naw. They're scared of me."
Scott laughed. "Well, I'll have to concede that point."
Jaime had come to their end of the corral, where there was a bucket of water with a tin dipper. He blew out a breath and grinned at them while he took some.
Johnny reached out and slapped his shoulder. "¡Bien hecho! That's a nice looking buckskin."
"Gracias, Johnny. Todo va bien." He glanced at Scott and grimaced. "Sorry, Señor Scott. I said that everything's going well."
Johnny swallowed down a sigh. From the start, the thing that had impressed him about Boston was that he was a real quiet man, but sure of himself; he carried himself real well. The man had dealt with Pardee and his gang only a couple of days after arriving at the estancia from the East and he was worrying about not knowing about the caballada?
He waited until Jaime had gone back to work, taking on a big mean-eyed paint, before speaking again. "You reckon Murdoch worked with cattle before he came here? Back in that place he came from?"
"Scotland, you mean? I don't know. The past is dead and gone, remember? He doesn’t seem to want to talk about it."
"Maybe we should set the Pinks on him."
Scott huffed out a laugh. "That seems only fair. It's probably the only way we'll ever find out anything about him. He's close-mouthed, is our father."
Yeah. Damned closed-mouthed.
Mind you, the past wasn't all it was cracked up to be. There was something to be said for not thinking about Mama and her We weren't good enough, cariño, for the high and mighty Murdoch Lancer and we had to leave. Or even not thinking about Papa and his You are my son now, Juanito, and that is all that matters. Between us we'll make your mama happy. Because nowadays he wasn't so sure about Mama's story, not if what Teresa had said that day down at the waterside was true. If Murdoch hadn't really tossed them the keys of the road, if Mama hadn't left for whatever reason was in her head, then maybe they would have been here on Lancer all that time, and things would have been better… been different, anyway, because there never would have been a Papa to help Johnny make her happy. Murdoch would have been there instead and he sure hadn't been up to the job.
Johnny blew out a silent breath, letting it all go for now. She wasn't around to ask and Papa was gone, too. She would never be able to tell him why she'd left. He'd never know if there had been a gambler he couldn't remember or if Murdoch really did throw them out then changed his mind when he needed a fast gun, because Murdoch was so damned closed-mouthed and probably wouldn't ever say. It was stupid worrying over it, like a dog with a dried up old bone. It was in the past. It was dead and gone. It didn't matter anymore.
Johnny pushed it all away. "He sure knows cattle. And this is one helluva place he's built up."
"Yes. He's not the sort of man to be patient with stupid mistakes."
"I dunno. I guess even if he did work cattle in Scotland, it might be different to here. He maybe had to learn it all too when he got here, make the same sort of mistakes." Johnny held his hands apart, just as Scott had done in the saloon. "The only boots that fit a man well are his own, Boston."
He waited for the wry grin and the nod as Scott got what he was saying, then Scott laughed and pushed Johnny's hands further apart, just as Johnny had done in the saloon.
"That's Scott to you!"
"Sure, Boston. Sure."
They grinned at each other and Johnny nodded before turning back to the corral and the work Jaime was doing in there. Scott was smart. He'd work this all out in his own way and in his own time. And in the meantime the paint was trying really hard to buck Jaime right over the corral fence and Toledano taking bets and shouting odds, his arms waving and his sombrero flapping about on his back hard enough to scare the horses. Johnny slid a hand into his pants pocket and fingered the few dollars he had on him. Maybe he should have taken Toledano's wager. Beside him, Scott sighed and relaxed, letting the stiffness go out of him. Johnny glanced at him, sidelong.
Cada cosa en su momento, brother. Cada cosa en su momento.
Everything in its own good time.
By the time Johnny had had enough it was the middle of the afternoon. The sun was slanting down and starting its slide behind the mountains west of the ranch. He and Scott had watched while Jaime worked his way through a string of six horses and Toledano had worked his way through the hands' wages. Scott said he was impressed with Jaime's skill; Johnny had been real impressed with Toledano's. He patted the coins in his pocket and grinned. Just as well he hadn't joined the betting. Toledano was a man to watch.
In between laughing over the hands' complaints at losin' their wages and cheering Jaime on, Johnny spent the time eyeing up the ponies to decide which one he'd look for when giving Barranca a rest. The paint, probably. It was strong and feisty and looked like it would be worth training as his second stringer. He'd had a paint once, years ago. Damn good horse that had been, too.
Eduardo had taken over then. Another string of mustangs were brought in and broken and by the time Jaime had rested enough to take on a third batch, Johnny didn’t want to watch anymore. Standing around doing nothing but watch someone else work was tiring him out. When Jaime swung himself up into the saddle of a neat-looking roan, Johnny touched Scott's arm and nodded towards the house.
"I'll come with you." Scott straightened up and stretched. "The other members of the Association will start to arrive soon. We'd better find out what Murdoch wants us to do."
Johnny snorted. "If he's come outa hiding."
Either he had, or Teresa had found him anyway. Johnny could hear his father's deep rumble trying to be heard over Teresa talkin' at him like there was no tomorrow. She sounded excited. They were in the salón when Johnny and Scott ambled in. Dios, but Murdoch looked glad to see them. Teresa must have been bending his ear about something he didn't want to listen to.
Murdoch looked a mite less glad when he saw that Johnny still wore his gun. He really didn't like Johnny wearing it in the house or sleeping with it hanging on the bed post near his hand. He kept trying to get Johnny into the habit of taking off his gun belt as he came through the door and hanging it on the gun tree just inside the salón door.
So Johnny tucked both hands into his gun belt and smiled. "Hey Murdoch, Teresa."
Murdoch humphed, but let it go. He looked them over from head to foot. "Boys." He took out his pocket watch and studied it. "You'll need to wash up and change. Our guests will start arriving soon."
Murdoch was in a fine white shirt, a going-to-church shirt, and wearing a string tie and a frown. Teresa was in a pink lace dress, a new one that Johnny hadn't seen before, and she had pink ribbons in her hair. There was no way that Johnny was going to get gussied up like that. It was only a bunch of ranchers coming.
Scott beat at the side of his pants with that queer hat of his. Best thing a man could do with a hat like that, use it to get rid of the dust. Looked stupid on his head, the way the brim turned up at the side. "We are a little dusty for a party. It'll be good to clean up."
"That reminds me." Teresa turned to Johnny. She looked like a kitten with its fur rubbed the wrong way. "Johnny Lancer, were you brought up in a barn?"
Johnny blinked. Well, Johnny Lancer maybe hadn't been, since he hadn't been around for a helluva long time, but Johnny Madrid and Juan Martínez sure knew that barns were good places to sleep: they were warm and dry, and the hay was softer than a blanket on the ground. He'd slept in loads of barns when he was a kid, or when he was on the trail. He didn't get the chance to say so.
"Because when I went to sort out your things for tonight, I found your white shirt. I had to hunt for it on the floor, mind you, in all that mess. Did you roll it around the hog pen?"
Mierda. He'd forgotten how women got about things like that. Mama had too, but that was a long time ago. And the nuns at the orphanage, they were the worst. He smiled at Teresa, but she wasn't having any of it. She looked just like a chicken fluffing out its feathers to make itself look bigger. Pecking like one, too.
"It looked like you cleaned your boots with it."
Which was right smart of her, because he had. Still, wasn't worth his hide to say so. "Well—"
Murdoch looked at him like he was sorry, but glad that it wasn't him in the firing line. Boston looked like he was trying not to laugh.
"Why can't you clean your boots downstairs without tracking dirt all through the house?" Peck. Peck. "Maria and I have enough to do without everyone making extra work. We can't keep running around after you all. It's not fair." Peck. "We have more than enough to do, keeping this house going…"
Murdoch cut in when Johnny narrowed his eyes at him in a warning to call her off. "All right, honey, we get the message. We know how hard you work to keep us comfortable and we'll all be more considerate. Johnny won't use his shirt to clean his boots again. Right, Johnny?"
"I guess." Johnny didn't put up a fight. Dios alone knew what had got into Teresa. She wasn't usually snippy. Dammit, she was downright cheerful, mostly. "I'll wear a different shirt."
Teresa sniffed. "Señora Isabella sent up another white shirt for you. It's on your bed."
Another shirt? How many damned shirts did a man need? Johnny already had four, more than he'd ever owned in his life before. He looked hard at Murdoch. They'd already had words about the old man talking to Cipriano's wife to get him clothes. He didn't need charity.
Murdoch went red at the tips of his ears. "You'll need plenty of shirts for when Sam clears you for working full time. I just thought you'd prefer charro style and the Señora likes to do fancy work."
Johnny looked at him harder. ¡Mierda! He didn't have much. He knew he didn't have much. He couldn't carry a lot in his saddlebags and most of what he'd had, the rurales had taken. Dammit, even his calzoneras and his favourite pink shirt had come from the priest down in Sonora who'd helped him get away from the rurales. Padre Gervasio had meant it with kindness, though, without expecting return for it. It hadn't been charity so much as the only pay he'd ended up getting for that job. He didn't know what Murdoch meant by it. He didn't want Murdoch buying him stuff. He'd thought the old man had got that.
"I'll pay for them." Johnny Madrid paid his own way and he paid his debts. He pulled his right hand free of the gun belt and tapped it against his holster. His back tensed up until his shoulder ached at him, as naggy as Teresa.
Murdoch grimaced. "I'll take the cost of them out of your wages, if that's what you want."
Johnny just nodded, and walked upstairs with Scott at his heels. Dios, but why in hell had the old man bought him more stuff? Hadn't he learned from the last time?
"Well, that was quieter than the last time Murdoch had the Señora embroider some shirts for you." Scott followed as far as the door to Johnny's room, leaning against the door post. "We're making progress."
"He doesn't learn." Johnny looked around the room. Teresa or Maria had been through it and put his things away again, hanging his jacket and shirts in the large press and putting his bedroll and saddlebags away in the big drawer underneath. Now he'd have to go hunting for his stuff every time he wanted something. "What was Teresa complaining about? It wasn't so bad in here. Most everything was in my saddlebags."
He wouldn't look at the new clothes lying on the bed. There was more than just one new shirt. He'd be paying for them for months, even at top-hand rates. If it wouldn't have offended Señora Isabella and make Cipriano mad, he'd go and dump them on Murdoch's desk and tell him where to hang them.
There was a funny look on Scott's face that Johnny couldn't quite get. There was no call for Scott to look sorry that he could see. "Johnny-my-boy, we are never tidy enough for the ladies. They really believe cleanliness is next to godliness, I think. We get in the way of good housekeeping."
"Well, it's her job to keep house, ain't it?"
"Of course it is. But it's only right we don't make more work for her than necessary. Everything they do is for us. They clean up after us, feed us, care for us when we're sick. It's not like it's a hotel, where nobody will much care what we do, because they're paid to clean the rooms. Here… well, life is a lot smoother if we find ways of making it easier for everyone. It's just about living with people, you know?"
Johnny just grunted.
"They're our angels in the house, Johnny."
Johnny stared. Dios, he knew angels had wings but the priests had never said anything about pecky little beaks. "Angels."
"It's from a poem I read at Harvard, about the perfect wife. I'll find you a copy."
"Wife?" Maybe Boston was going loco. Or wanted to give Murdoch those grandkids the old man had put into the partnership deed. "Not for me, brother. Gracias."
"What? Oh Good Lord, no! I don’t rob cradles. All I meant was that Teresa's practising on us until we can marry her off. If we're perfect, her husband will have a lot to live up to and it will give her something to hold over his head. She'll thank us for that, one day. In the meantime, she'll look after us better if we don't give her too much trouble and remember to compliment her on it now and again." Scott laughed. "Besides, it never pays to antagonise the cook, Johnny."
Johnny sighed. Poems. Boston read too many books. Still, Teresa and Maria had looked after him when he was sick. Teresa had been there whenever he woke up, with beef tea or water or willow-bark tea laced with honey to sweeten it. She'd made the bed, changed the sheets and plumped up pillows, had added quilts when he was cold or taken them away again when he was dripping with the fever sweat. Murdoch or Scott had usually been there too, but had left most of that to Teresa to do. Almost the first thing he could remember in this room was the knifing pain in his back, and the big shape of Murdoch at the window watching while Teresa bathed Johnny's hands and face with lavender water against the fever. She was only a kid, too, but she was cheerful and smiling. Maybe not today for some reason, but usually.
It had never happened to him before, that someone had bothered to do that for him. Most times he shivered through his fevers on his own in one of those barns she'd talked about. Scott maybe had a point about not making it harder for her. He owed her, and Johnny Madrid paid his debts.
He'd try to remember to clean his boots downstairs, then.
He sighed again, rubbed at his temples and sat down on his bed, glowering at the two new shirts and the black broadcloth bolero jacket. "Sam said I should rest up whenever I'm tired, sleep whenever I want. I think he's maybe right."
Scott's mouth twitched, like he was trying not to laugh. "It's probably very cynical of me, but somehow I feel that this sudden and unexpected willingness to defer to medical advice is deeply suspicious. And?"
Johnny shrugged. "And maybe I should give this fandango a miss."
Scott couldn't keep the laugh back this time. "Nice try, Johnny. But Murdoch really wants to introduce us to the neighbours. It's important to him and we can’t let him down. We owe him that much. I'm sure you can manage without needing a nap."
"More of this living with people stuff, brother?"
"Afraid so." Scott grinned and turned to leave. "See you downstairs."
The door closed behind him, the lock clicking real soft and gentle.
Johnny punched the pillows into shape, lay back and scowled at the ceiling. The bed was soft beneath him, the pillows plump with goose feathers and the sheets smelled nice. Lavender or dried rose petals or something, like Mama used to use. Smelled like spring. This place was clean and warm, comfortable. It was like nothing he'd ever known before.
It might even be safe.
It felt like it was closing him in, corralling him, breaking him to bridle like the horses that Jaime was taming.
He squirmed about a bit, punched the pillows again and switched the scowl to the new clothes. When all was said and done, there wasn't that much wrong with barns..
Johnny got downstairs again before Scott. The dandy was probably still primping and settling the ruffles on his silk shirt.
Teresa met him at the foot of the stairs and looked him over. He'd brushed off his calzoneras and put on the new white shirt with red and silver embroidery on the front panels and cuffs, and the black broadcloth bolero. He hadn't polished his boots with his shirt. It would have to do.
"You look nice." She was as pink as those darn ribbons. "Johnny, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so naggy but I'm so scared about this."
"Scared, cariña? What're you scared of?"
"I've never done this." Her hands twisted over each other until he put his own over them and held them still. "The last time the Association met here, I was still in school. Laura… Mrs Wallace looked after everything."
"Who?" Johnny squeezed her hands and let them go.
"She's a kind of housekeeper here. She's looked after the bunkhouse for years and worked here in the house sometimes too, with Maria. She's sick. She and Ben—that's her son. He's still a little boy, only ten. Anyhow, they moved to Green River to get away from Day Pardee and so she can be near Doctor Jenkins. She's real nice. She knows what to do to make a supper like this go well."
So that was Frank's Miz Laura. Odd that no one had mentioned her before and now everyone was talking about her. "You'll be fine, cariña. You've been workin' really hard on this, the house looks real good and you've got Maria."
Maybe Scott was right about keeping the ladies sweet when it came to the house, because her face lit up. "Do you really think the house looks nice? That's what's worrying me, you know, because all the ladies will visit with me while you're in your meeting, and they'll all be looking for cobwebs or dust or something. And they'll be watching me serve tea and they'll be commenting about the cakes, and my dress and the food."
Her hands plucked at her skirts now. He'd maybe best not reach down there to grab them. He patted her shoulder instead.
"It all looks real pretty, Teresa."
"It's so important that everything goes well. I don't want to let Murdoch down."
He smiled at her. It was just like Mama used to be, if something important was happening and she wanted to show how good a housekeeper she was, or how good a cook, or how good a dancer. "It'll be just fine. You keep this house real nice and look after us all, and you sure as h… as anythin' can make good cake. All those ladies will be askin' you how you do it. You don't need to worry about things like that."
She was smiling now. Damn, but he had to hand it to Boston about this angel thing. It was easier to keep her contented than Johnny had realised. All it needed was a soft word.
"I couldn't manage without Maria. And the Señora, Señora Isabella, is just wonderful. She's helping Maria right now. I should…" Teresa broke off, looking disappointed as Scott came down the stairs to join them. "Oh, Scott, that's a shame. I hoped you'd wear the suit you brought from Boston, the one you wore the first night you were here. It looked so elegant."
Johnny grinned, his hands moving in a wavering, fluttering line down his chest. "Yeah, Boston. Real elegant. I was looking forward to those ruffles myself."
Scott snorted. "Very amusing and, coming from the man whose favourite shirt is rose pink and covered in embroidered butterflies, very ironic. I'm not going to be that overdressed again. As you once said, little brother, that just ain't the style around here." He paused. "Although it's a little worrying that butterflies are."
"I guess all the neighbours will be real disappointed." Johnny shook his head, tried to look as cast down as Teresa did. "I heard those ruffles were the only reason folks were coming. They've been talking about nothing else for days. And dammit, I was thinking of charging them to take a look at you. We could have made a killing."
Teresa cut in. "You both still look very smart."
"As do you, Teresa." Scott bowed until she giggled. Darn, but he was a gentleman. He had real good manners. "That's a very pretty dress."
Damned if he was going to be outdone by a dandy from Boston. Mama had taught him how to kiss a lady's hand and he showed Scott how it was done in style and with a flourish. "Sure is, cariña. You look very… very pink."
Teresa blushed when he released her hand again and smiled at her. "I just want it all to be perfect." She waved a hand towards the salón door. "He probably won't say anything, but I know how proud and happy he is to show you both off to his friends. It's very important to him to have you here."
Johnny was pretty damn sure there was no probably about it. If Murdoch said one word about it, he'd eat his Stetson raw. Teresa smiled at them, twitched at their collars and patted shoulders before taking herself off to fuss over whatever it was needed more fussing over before the guests arrived. Johnny pulled his collar back to where it had been, to where it didn't press against a man's neck.
"Pink?" Scott raised an eyebrow. "She looks pink? Is that all you could think of?"
Johnny shrugged. "It worked."
A bellow came from the salón, sounding like a wounded buffalo caught in a mud-hole. "Scott! Johnny! Is that you? I want a word with you two."
"Ah." Scott rolled his eyes. "The dulcet tones of our dear Papa."
"We don't look like him. We ain't as big as him. We sure ain't as loud as him. Are you sure we're his sons?"
"He seems to be sure. All I'm sure about is that if we don't get ourselves in there, he'll be yelling again. This is a solid house, but he shakes the rafters." Scott headed for the room at a trot.
Grinning, Johnny followed. Murdoch was at his desk, wrapping himself around a glass of Scotch, maybe to help mellow him for when all the ranchers and their womenfolk arrived. If he was proud and happy to see his sons, he sure didn't say anything about it. He looked them over, and his eyes narrowed at Johnny.
"Not the gun belt, Johnny. Not in the house and not at a social event with our friends and neighbours."
"I don't know them."
"They're my friends. Some are very close and dear friends."
"Well, they ain't my close and dear friends, Murdoch."
"Johnny…" Murdoch's big hand closed around his glass until his fingers whitened. Looked like he needed a mite more mellowing. "Johnny, after Day Pardee and what he did here, people are understandably anxious about... well, about your intentions here."
"You mean they're scared, having Johnny Madrid around."
"Johnny." Scott spoke real quiet. He was shaking his head.
"Yes. Yes, they are. They'll be looking hard at you, son, to make sure that they can trust… Johnny, you know what I mean. The thing is that seeing you armed in your own home at a social gathering isn't going to reassure them. There's no danger here. They're all fine, upstanding members of the community and as I said, some are very close friends. I've known these people for years."
"I knew Day Pardee for years, but that didn't stop me trying to kill him up on that hill or him putting a bullet in my back."
"Yeah? How? And, Murdoch, we still don't know who hired Day to take Lancer. Whoever it was is probably still out there, could be waiting to make another move. It could be one of your fine upstanding ranchers."
"I refuse to believe that one of my fellow Association members had anything to do with Day Pardee. We don’t know that anyone hired him."
"Well, somebody did. Day was never interested in ranchin'. He was doin' this for somebody else and that somebody may not be finished with us yet."
Murdoch shook his head. His face was red, and his mouth tightened right down into a thin line.
"And there's another thing, Murdoch. Johnny Madrid ain't dead and gone. I'm standing right here. There'll be hombres who want to make their name by taking mine. I thought you got that." Damn it, was this so hard to understand? Why'd Murdoch offered to let Madrid sign the partnership deed if he didn't get that? "I'll always have to sit at the back of rooms. I'll always need to keep my gun hand free. I'll always need to practise. I'll always be wary about folks I don't know. Maybe the longer Johnny Lancer's around, then people will forget about Johnny Madrid and I won’t have to do all that so much. But not yet, Murdoch. Not yet."
"That's just not good enough, Johnny. You've got to make up your mind who you want to be and what you want."
Well, now. Didn't he think that was what the whole thing over the deed was about? The old man just wasn't listening. Or didn't want to hear.
"I decided to leave the game when I signed that deed as John Lancer, old man. But I'm not the only player. I can put the hand down and still get shot in the back as I walk away from the table." The Colt slid into Johnny's hand like it was made for it, the grips warm and smooth in his palm. For an instant, he wanted to push the barrel into the old man's face, but he held back. "This evens the odds, that's all."
"Put that gun away!" Murdoch got up and stamped over to the whiskey bottle. He knocked the slug straight back.
Scott blew out a noisy breath and shook his head at Johnny again. "I don't think we have enough time to thrash this out now, sir. Your guests will be arriving at any moment. I can see your point of view, of course, but I can also see Johnny's and I can understand his reluctance to take such a risk if it goes against all his instincts and experience. What is more, you must know—better than I do—what this change means for Johnny and how much adjustment will be needed. You can't seriously expect it to be overnight. We have to find a reasonable compromise."
"And can you come up with one?" snapped Murdoch.
"I hope so, sir. Johnny will have the opportunity at the Association meeting to form an opinion of our neighbours, just as they'll be forming an opinion of us. Hopefully, by the time we finish the meeting and join the ladies for supper, Johnny will feel able to put his gun away upstairs." Scott grinned at Johnny and added, voice soft, "And rely on his Derringer and the knife in his boot."
Johnny pulled at face at him. Damned if Scott didn't always sound level-headed and smart. Had to be that fancy schooling he'd had back East. He dropped the Colt back into the holster. "I ain't doing this just to kick up a row, Murdoch."
He got a glower but Murdoch did, in the end, nod and pull in his horns. This wasn't over, though, not by a long shot. It had taken longer than he'd reckoned on for Murdoch to buck about having a pistolero for a son. Likely wouldn't be the last time, either.
Scott relaxed and smiled. "Well, that's all settled."
Johnny was a heap less hopeful of that, even if Murdoch had backed down this time. He let Scott take the lead, though. He wasn't going to tangle again with Murdoch again if he could help it. Not today, anyway.
Scott was so darn polite, like nothing ever got him riled up. "Now, sir, you had another reason for calling us in here, I think?"
Murdoch huffed a bit and looked at the whiskey bottle before putting down his glass and turning away from it. Must have thought better of having another snort. "When we meet the Association today, we'll hammer out the last arrangements for the round up. Traditionally, the foreman of the host ranch is made round up captain."
"That's what I wanted to tell you. Cip's been acting foreman ever since Paul… well, ever since last November. He's done a damn good job. I'm going to make it permanent."
Scott nodded, smiling. "And you wanted our agreement as your partners? Of course. That's only reasonable, sir. I don't see a problem with appointing Cipriano, do you Johnny?"
Oh real smooth! Scott had real nice manners. Mighty fine.
Murdoch looked like he might burst something. His mouth was working like he was grinding his teeth down to the bone. "Good." He snapped it out like a man snapping out his lariat. "I'm glad you don't have any objections."
"Thank you for consulting us, sir." And still Scott smiled, sweet as honey. "I'll admit that I don't know a great deal about ranching yet, and Johnny and I will rely on your advice and judgement, of course. But Cipriano has impressed me a lot. He's impressed both of us, I think, Johnny?"
Damn, but if Scott didn't know about wrangling beeves, he sure could wrangle men, even big ornery men like Murdoch. He had the old man near-on steaming, and there was nothing Murdoch could do about it. Scott just looked back at him, real innocent and polite and smiling. Johnny smiled to himself. He'd have to watch Scott. Greenhorn Easterner he may be, but he was turning out to be an ace-high man to tie to. Sneaky too. Real sneaky. Damn, but this brother of his was turning out real well.
Murdoch's voice sounded funny, he had his jaw clenched so tight. "Cipriano is a very good man." He stomped back across the room to the big window and stood staring out of it. "I couldn't have built up Lancer without him." It was a minute or two before those huge shoulders relaxed. "That looks like Aggie arriving. I'm going out to meet her."
Scott waited until Murdoch had left the hacienda before turning that real innocent look on Johnny. Dios, but he needed watching, did Boston. He'd played Murdoch like a harp.
"Tell me, Johnny, do you ever take off your gun when you go into a house?"
This was the only one he got to go into, wasn't it? And no way would he take off his gun in a hotel or boarding house.
"In a bordello, maybe. It gets in the way when a man's busy." Johnny grinned when Scott choked and laughed and held up his hands in surrender.
"You'd better not say anything like that anywhere near Teresa." He stopped smiling then. "Did you mean what you said about Pardee?"
"Yeah." Johnny perched on the side of Murdoch's desk. "I've been trying to figure out what the hell Day was up to. Nothing makes much sense."
"Expound, little brother."
Well, he guessed that meant Scott wanted to hear what was bothering him. All right, Boston; let's see what that fancy school makes you think about this. "Day and his boys weren't just after one ranch. Whatever he was doing, was over most of this part of the valley clear up to Modesto where he killed the marshal, right?"
"It's too big, Scott. It's too big to be about land and ranching. No one could hold an entire county, two counties, like that. It's too much. I know this is a small ugly world full of greedy people, but that's too much." Johnny leaned back, folding his arms over his chest while he thought it through. "Day hit here back in November—"
"November thirtieth, Teresa said."
"Still six months ago. He opened up by hitting here and stealing that stallion, killing Teresa's Pa and back-shooting Murdoch. He could've walked straight in here, right then, almost without a fight. With Murdoch down like that, who would stop him? But for some reason he backed off and headed north to spend three or four months up around Modesto, running the ranchers up there ragged and killing sheriffs. Then he comes back here, when Murdoch's back on his feet, to start up here all over again. Only this time Murdoch's expecting trouble and organises a fight back. It doesn't make any sense. Day gave Murdoch far too long to get ready for him. And if Day was after land, why didn't he hang onto the ranches near Modesto?"
"So, what you're saying is that you think someone was pulling Pardee's strings."
"Day didn't stay up north."
"No, I see that. So, he was working for someone whose priorities changed and for whom the deal at Modesto, whatever that was, was suddenly so important that Pardee dropped what was going on here to deal with it. Then when that was done, they turned their attention back here and sent Pardee back to pick up where he left off."
"Yeah. Day had to know what it would be like coming back here. It just wouldn't be easy, starting over. So whoever hired him must have been paying top dollar for Day to let himself be jerked around like that."
"That sounds feasible. I can't imagine what it was all about though, if not about trying to take over the ranch as a going concern, as a cattle business. They want the land for something." Scott frowned. "Gold?"
"Maybe. But mostly that was in the Sierras Nevada and north of Sacramento. I dunno what happened around here in the San Benito range. Nothing much I've ever heard of. We'll have to ask Murdoch."
"Well. It has to be something big." Scott wandered over to the window. "Perhaps Pardee did what he did at Modesto for whoever hired him, but wanted Lancer for himself?"
"Naw. Day was no rancher. If he was getting out of the game, he'd find himself a nice little town to run, somewhere like Spanish Wells. Ol' Day would've been right at home in a town like that. He'd get a couple of saloons and a bordello maybe; become a respectable businessman."
"The way you've become a respectable rancher?"
Johnny shrugged and huffed out a laugh. "Yeah. Maybe."
"If you're right about Pardee, then you're probably also right that whoever was paying him may not have given up. We need to find out who was behind Pardee and we don't have a lot to go on."
"No, nothin'. Day didn't tell me anything useful."
"So in the meantime, we'd better keep our ears and eyes open and watch for more threats. You're right, Johnny. In the circumstances, it behoves us to watch those close and dear friends Murdoch's known for so long." Scott glanced at him over his shoulder. "Was he a friend, Johnny? Pardee, I mean."
Day? Day didn't have much in the way of friends. None of them did, in their line of work. "Someone I worked with."
"A business associate, then."
Johnny grinned. "Well, you might say that, Boston. I’d just say that we worked the same side of a range war a few years back and met two or three times since. He always was a mean son-of-a-bitch, a bit of a blowhard."
"As we saw here with what he did at the farm. I remember you were put out with Murdoch suggesting all pistoleros were alike."
¡Mierda! Why does he always have to talk about stuff that it was better to keep on the low-down? "I done a lot of things, Boston, I already told you that. But I didn’t do them the way Day did."
And damn if that long, long look wasn't there again. Scott nodded, and turned his attention back to whatever was going on out of the window. Johnny stared down at his boots. He should've cleaned them. They were still dusty.
"Now that's interesting." Scott beckoned to Johnny to join him.
Aggie Conway's buggy had pulled up outside and Murdoch was lifting her down from it. His hands stayed around her waist for a moment or two longer than a man's hands should be on a woman like that, unless he was making his intentions clear. Aggie Conway laughed up at Murdoch when he released her, and Johnny could see her mouth goin' as she chatted to him while she dusted off her skirts. She had to be a real funny woman, because Murdoch threw back his head and laughed with her. That was a first, seeing Murdoch let out a big belly-laugh like that. He looked younger.
Scott leaned forward so close his breath misted up the window glass. "Well, well, well."
"Yeah. Very close and dear friends, huh?"
Well, hell. Maybe it wasn't just grandkids that Murdoch was after.
Johnny crossed his arms over his chest again, and hugged himself. Spring this far north seemed colder than he was used to..
No wonder Murdoch had learned to bellow like a bull near a cow in season. He sang his tune real loud and 'most everyone in the district danced to it.
That sounded real grand, the 'Morro Coyo District of the Cattle Growers Association of California'. It was only eight spreads, though, and they all got to kowtow to Murdoch since Lancer was easily the biggest. Aggie Conway's Hooped C ranch, running across Lancer's north-eastern border up towards Fresno, was probably next in size but didn't cover half the acres Lancer did. The other six went right down in size to Bob Driscoll's greasepot outfit that ran barely five hundred head. The Lancer ranch had the most land, the most cows, more hands than any other spread; more to gain and, surely, more to lose. Lancer was bigger and more powerful than any other ranch for miles around.
So, why had Ol' Day taken on the biggest spread, run by the District's biggest man, instead of pickin' off the little guys first? Have to see if Scott wanted to… what was it? Ex-pound. That was it. Have to see if Scott wanted to expound on that one, too.
Johnny watched Murdoch welcoming his friends. The old man might not be too great at this family business, the living together stuff that Scott talked about, but he sure knew how to build up a ranch. Lancer had to be one of the biggest spreads in the state, giving the old man a lot of say over how things were done.
And Murdoch had handed over two thirds of it, to a dandy and a gunhawk he didn't know; two strangers, for all they shared his blood.
Johnny kept coming back to that as he met those close friends and neighbours of Murdoch's, remembering names and faces. He'd bowed over Aggie Conway's hand when Murdoch brought her into the hacienda, and he'd smiled when he said that of course he remembered her visiting when he was sick, but she was the only one he'd seen before today and as the only woman owner of a ranch she stood out anyway. The rest were strangers.
They all acted the same way. They drove up with their wife in the buggy beside them and their foreman on horseback behind if they were married; rode up with the foreman if they weren't. Every time Murdoch said And this is my younger son, John, Johnny took the lady's hand in his left and kissed it, and murmured a Buenos Dios, Señora, then nodded at her husband with a Howdy, friend. The lady would blush and flutter and the man would stare at Johnny's gun. If the good friend and neighbour hadn't brought his wife or didn't have one, Johnny would skip straight to the nod and the howdy, and still the man would stare at Johnny's gun. One or two of them stared so hard that all Johnny saw was the tops of their heads, they were bent over so far.
Murdoch would likely jib if Johnny tapped those heads to remind the other Cattle Growers where he really was and that the mouth that was saying Howdy to them wasn't the little round black mouth that spat out the bullets. He glanced at Murdoch's face. Yeah. He'd jib.
He'd jibbed once already, when Henry Reagh had been the first to get there after Aggie. Mrs Reagh had blushed and laughed and said Oh my, how charming! when Johnny kissed her hand while Mr Reagh had done his gun-staring. Murdoch had pulled Johnny to one side, after.
"For pity's sake, can't you shake hands with the man?"
"Nope. I don't ever, 'less he wants to shake left handed. I don't tie up my gun hand, Murdoch."
Murdoch had spluttered and gone red, but just then the Adams folks drove up with Driscoll and Santee and their foremen just behind. Within the next half-hour, the Alcántars and the Stobarts arrived as well, and Murdoch was too busy being the gracious, welcoming patrón to do anything other than glare every time Johnny was introduced. He'd sure jib if Johnny had fun scaring folks with head tapping.
Teresa whisked the ladies away into the salón, while Murdoch welcomed the men onto the covered loggia where a long table had been set for their meeting. The men hung their guns up on the gun tree that had been dragged out onto the loggia earlier by Scott and Cipriano. Johnny caught the look Murdoch gave him and grinned. Murdoch wouldn't say anything, not with the folks there. Instead, Murdoch pretended not to see Johnny's gun and corralled all the men into their seats while Maria and Eduardo's wife, Eva, served coffee and pasteles, little sweet cakes dipped in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon.
"That was almost as good as a farce." Scott breathed the words into Johnny's ear. "I like your technique, little brother. You have them all as fascinated as mice hypnotised by a cobra"
"A snake. Not from around here, but from a place right across the world called India. It's supposed to sway and hypnotise its prey. Very exotic and dramatic."
"Uh-huh. Which bits of me are swayin'?"
Johnny grinned when Scott choked and laughed, and followed him to their seats, one each side of Murdoch who took the head of the table. Scott's shoulders shook the whole way. It was good to make old Boston laugh like that.
The ranchers took seats around the table. Aggie Conway, the only woman present at the cattlemen's meeting, sat at the foot opposite Murdoch, with her foreman, Bill Kerr, at her right. She smiled down the table at the three of them like she was seeing something real good, raising her coffee cup in a toast. Murdoch nodded back but he sure didn't look any different when Johnny looked at him sidelong, to see if he was bursting with that pride Teresa had talked about. Damn, but he was going to have to work harder at reading Murdoch's expression. You could sure tell when the old man was mad, but everything else was harder. Murdoch just looked like Murdoch. Couldn't see him being proud of a gunhawk who wouldn't shake hands with people, anyway. Still, trying to figure out Murdoch gave him something to do as the meeting went on and the ranchers decided everything for the late spring round up, without him or Scott needing to chip anything in.
The cattlemen agreed to make Cipriano the round up captain and Cip, sitting beside Johnny, stiffened with pride but only stroked his moustache and smiled a little at the decision. Cip was a man who knew the value of dignity. They named Santee's foreman, Joe Penn, as Cipriano's deputy—"Keeps the smaller ranches happy," said Murdoch, very quietly—but Bill Kerr looked to be a disappointed man when that decision was made. And then they decided where they'd meet first, and when. By then, Johnny was drifting despite the three cups of coffee and two little pasteles—damn, but he should really listen to Sam about taking a nap when he needed one and stop letting Boston talk him out of it—while the cattlemen got to making up their minds about how many hands would come from each ranch, how many horses they'd need and how they'd keep the ranches' caballadas separate, how many chuck wagons and who would bring them, how many bags of beans and coffee, how many eggs and sides of bacon and barrels of salt pork… .
Scott leaned back behind Murdoch at one point, to catch Johnny's attention. He spoke in a whisper. "It’s like planning a military campaign. Let's hope there's less bloodshed."
"A shootin' war would wake me up, Boston."
Even Murdoch had to grin at that one, the corner of his mouth tilting up, although he pretended like he hadn't heard.
All in all, it wasn't so exciting, planning a round up. Not as much fun as a range war, anyway. Johnny could've drifted off right then, but for Bob Driscoll getting himself in a tizzy about how they'd split up the orphaned calves and the unbranded cattle.
"I only ever get one or two." Hell, but did the man whine. There'd been no Mrs Driscoll come with him, and damn, but it would have been a surprise if one had. Driscoll whined, and he weren't too clean and he looked like a long-tailed weasel. No woman worth a cent would want that.
Murdoch's mouth hardened up in a way that, so far, Johnny had only ever seen aimed at him over Day Pardee. "It's the fairest way. If we divide the unbranded cattle in proportion to the size of our herds, then everyone gets their fair share."
"That means you get the most!"
Murdoch's brows drew down. "Lancer has the biggest herd. Proportionally, a larger number of the unbranded cattle are likely to be mine. If I have half the cattle in the district—and I do—then I get half the unbranded ones."
Driscoll opened his mouth to whine some more, but just then, Johnny shifted in his chair to ease the ache in his upper back, keeping his eyes on Driscoll. Driscoll's mouth shut with a snap. Johnny smiled at him. Driscoll swallowed and looked away quickly. "I guess you're right, Murdoch. We'll do it the usual way."
Murdoch turned and gave Johnny hard look, but the corner of his mouth twitched like he wanted to grin again. "Thank you, Bob. I think it is the fairest way for everyone."
Johnny settled back again and they were off again, talking of stuff right down to where they'd store the spare harnesses and tack. Scott leaned back behind Murdoch again to catch Johnny's attention. He was mouthing something.
Snake, it looked like. And Mice. .
Scott's hand touched Johnny's arm, to hold him back. "Well. What did you think of them? Anyone there a likely candidate to have hired Day Pardee?"
"Dunno." They all seemed to be what they looked: those fine upstanding respectable citizens that Murdoch talked about who'd never hire a gunhawk. "I don’t think any of them ever came across Day."
"Oh? What's the basis for that conclusion, then?"
"They're so damn upright and boring Day would have shot them, even if they were the ones who hired him. Didn’t matter how much they were paying him. I'd shoot 'em myself if it'd ginger them up a mite. How many barrels of salt pork did they fix on, in the end?"
Scott chuckled. They watched as Murdoch, Aggie on his arm, herded the meeting into the salón to rejoin the ladies, who'd all been busy setting out enough food to feed the entire round up crew three times over.
"So boring that you won't mind taking your gun upstairs out of the way, then, while we have supper and socialise, and give Murdoch a bit of peace of mind?"
"Dunno about that either, Boston. I was thinking of picking up my rifle and a shotgun or two, and leanin' 'em up against my chair at supper. Kinda making a point. D'you think Murdoch'd jib at that?"
The roar from the salón must have shaken the rafters. "Scott! Johnny!"
They both winced.
"Yes." Scott nodded, real solemn. "I do believe that he would."
Scott got the better deal out of the next few days, the final days before the round up.
He was out on the range most of the time, getting in as much practice as he could in cutting, roping and herding cattle and driving them from one place to another. He rode mostly with Toledano and Walt or Frank; Eduardo and Jaime were busy breaking the last of the horses and Cipriano… well, Cip was the most important hombre at the round up. He was everywhere, overseeing Lancer getting ready and the work on the first collection point by day, and sittin' looking at maps of the district with Murdoch every night after supper.
But Johnny? Johnny had been told he was responsible for the tack room. He had to make sure that every last bit of tack and harness had been gone over and repaired where needed. Someone, he reckoned, had blabbed about what he'd said about liking to work with leather. Apart from one trip into Green River to get his new guns, he'd been stuck in the barn for the past three days and only let out a couple of hours a day to school Barranca, and even then Murdoch watched over him like a broody hen.
"At least you're sitting down all day." Scott made a show at rubbing hard at his backside when Johnny complained about his big brother's big mouth.
"So're you." Johnny looked up from rebraiding the worn end of a rawhide reata.
"It's not the same. And while my rear end has gotten used to it, the rest of me can't believe what hard work it is chasing cows around the countryside." Scott leaned up against the saddle tree, watching Johnny work. "I have never worked so hard. I'm not sure that I expected it. My experience with cows back East was so very limited."
Dios, but Johnny was getting to love hearing this man talk. It was better than reading a book. He grinned up at Scott. "They have cows in Boston?"
"They certainly have them in the farms around. But cows in Massachusetts are nice, well behaved creatures, Johnny. They chew the cud and stay in their fields until they're wanted at milking time. It's all very pastoral and peaceful, and I'm very sure that farmers don't have to gallop all over the Commonwealth to find them."
"If by that you mean Herefords, then yes, I think so. There may be Jerseys involved as well, for all I know." Scott waved a hand, real grand and hoity-toity. "I was not much interested in agriculture before I came west. I think our cows here are Hereford crosses although the Lord alone knows what they're crossed with. Something large and monstrous, whatever it is; possibly even biblical in its malevolence."
Damn, but that
flood of fancy words was something. Dios alone knew what they all meant.
"Murdoch's running longhorn-whiteface crosses. There's not a lot of longhorn left in 'em, but what bit there is, is longhorn orneriness. Cip was tellin' me the other day that Murdoch got the first bulls from some hombre up near San Francisco ten or more years ago. They're easier to herd than longhorns and have more beef on 'em." Johnny thought about it. "Still as stupid."
Scott stared at him. "Have you suddenly developed a passion for breeding cattle?"
"Nope." Johnny finished the reata, coiled it, and stood to rehang it on the hooks on the wall, keeping it from snarling and tangling. "I went to see Señora Isabella while you and Murdoch were out chasing cows yesterday. I needed to thank her for those shirts. Cip came in to eat at midday and I stayed too. We talked, that's all."
"About Murdoch's cattle breeding plans?"
Johnny grunted. It was one helluva lot safer than talking about Murdoch. "She made enchiladas. And flan. Damn, it was good."
Scott stretched and groaned again. "Don’t talk about food. It's almost midday and I could eat one of our own cows. Raw. With the hide and hooves as garnish."
"That's what doing an honest job does for you, Boston. Works up an appetite on a man."
"Very true. If it wasn't that I'm working it all off, I'd be twice the man I was when I arrived. It's almost noon. Come on up to the house and eat. And Johnny, something tells me I'll tire of this long before you will, but can I remind you, yet again, that Boston is just where I come from?"
"Sure you can, Boston. You remind me of anything you like." Johnny dodged the slap Scott aimed at his head and grinned. Damn right that Boston would tire of that before he did.
They left the barn together. The sun was warm on Johnny's back, glaring off the hacienda's white adobe in front of him. He tipped his hat over his eyes. Teresa appeared on the loggia and waved, calling them to the midday meal.
"What work was it you did back there in Boston?"
"As little as I could get away with." Scott laughed, and shook his head as Murdoch hailed them from the smithy. "I don't think that would happen here, somehow. Murdoch isn’t anywhere near as indulgent as my grandfather."
"No." Johnny watched as their father walked towards them. Murdoch had been shoeing horses and hammering on the metal rimmed wheels from the chuck wagon all morning; he was dusty, grimy and despite the bad back that Day Pardee had left him with, looked as if he could work all day without a rest. And he'd likely expect his sons to be the same. "I don't reckon he is."
The day before the round up some of the men took the caballada up to the first meeting place, driving the herd of over a hundred horses to be ready to start work when the rest of Lancer's hands got there. That was a sight to see, all those horses running, with Frank and half a dozen hands keeping them bunched and moving north, heads tossing and manes flying, and hooves drumming on the ground.
The horses had run free once, goin' where they wanted to go and when. They'd moved to where the graze was better, or there was fresh water, or maybe just because they wanted to see what was over the next rise. Now they ran where Frank and the hands made them run.
Johnny was in the corral with Barranca when the horse herd left, taking some time to school the palomino now his work on the tack was finished. He sat on the corral fence to watch the caballada go and even Murdoch stopped work at the smithy, straightening up and shading his eyes with his hand. Barranca ran backwards and forwards in the corral behind Johnny, whinnying, half rearing and coming down hard on his front hooves, excited by the herd and wanting to run with them. Horses never did like bein' by themselves. Not like men.
The chuck wagon and the hoodlum wagon followed the caballada, moving slowly over the grass, pulled by the biggest draught horses Johnny had ever seen: short-backed, real powerful hindquarters and big shoulders. Murdoch had been shoeing the last of the draught horses that morning, and damned if he wasn't nigh on as big as they were. Good lookin' animals, but hell, they made Barranca look small and Johnny felt downright puny.
Murdoch came up to the corral fence to watch him take Barranca through his paces. "Don't overdo things today, Johnny."
It was stupid. Johnny wasn't a kid and he'd been looking after himself for a long, long time now. He knew when to push himself and when to lie down in the shade and let his hat brim slide down over his eyes. "I'm fine."
"Of course you are. Indulge me on this, John. We've got a very early start tomorrow, the next couple of weeks are going to be hard on everyone and you aren’t fully recovered yet." Murdoch leaned up against the corral fence, watching. "That's a good horse. He'll make a fine cow pony."
Yeah. Barranca was a good horse and he was takin' to the training, real well. Maybe he didn't remember runnin' free with the rest of the herd, to see what was over the next rise. All he knew now was being broken in, learning to do what Johnny wanted him to do, answering to spur and rein and voice; goin' when Johnny told him, stopping when Johnny told him, resting when Johnny let him. Bein' useful, not free. Dancing to Johnny's tune.
"You broke him really well." Murdoch straightened up and, with a nod, turned back to the smithy.
Johnny watched him go. Was that what Murdoch was doing, breaking him real well? Making Johnny Madrid into a fine cowhand, breakin' him in, making him useful, tellin' him when to work and when to rest, making him dance to Murdoch Lancer's tune?
Barranca shifted beneath him, dancing, impatient to be told what to do, waiting on spur and rein and voice but maybe wanting to run free with the other horses. Wonder if they'd ever get used to it, Barranca and him, bein' broke in real well.
"Dear Lord." Scott stumbled around beside Johnny in the barn. "Back in Boston I'd just be going to bed about now. This is an evil time to be starting work."
It was still hours before dawn. The sky was only beginning to lighten up a mite in the east, making everything grey. Without that, Johnny would hardly have been able to see the mountains as he'd crossed the yard to the barn; they were a deeper darkness against the dark sky, like shadows.
It was the middle of the damned night. Everyone in the barn was stumbling about, most of the hands cursin' and looking like a Sunday mornin' after Saturday night in the saloon, all blurred and aching and wondering how much rotgut they'd downed. But they weren't cursing too loud and their voices were muffled, like they were scared they'd wake something. Themselves, likely.
It was damned cold, even here in the barn. He could see little clouds on the air every time he breathed out. Barranca snorted, and tossed his head. Didn't look like he was any better pleased at being woken up this early than Johnny was. Johnny got him on cross ties to the stall walls and got the warm saddle blanket into place.
"Easy, boy." Johnny ran a hand down the palomino's long face. He pulled his jacket closed, shivering, and turned to pick up his saddle. "At least being a gun hawk, the workin' hours were more…" He paused and waved a hand. Boston was smart. He'd get it.
Knew Boston would get it. Johnny nodded. "Yeah, if that means I didn't have to get up in the middle of the night to herd cows."
"It most certainly does, in this context." Scott threw his saddle up on the big raw-boned bay he'd been using as his personal mount. The bay snuffled and danced a bit when the weight landed on his back. "Murdoch was disgustingly chipper at breakfast."
"Was he?" Johnny lifted his saddle onto Barranca's back, managing not to grunt with the effort. His shoulder didn't pull too bad. He could still feel it, though, and dammit it was four weeks, more'n four weeks, since Day'd backshot him. He shouldn't be feeling it now. He should be back on form. Getting too soft and comfortable, that was the trouble.
"Come on, Johnny! He was almost bouncing around the kitchen, he was so excited. He must love round ups or something." Scott slid his yellow-boy Winchester into the rifle boot and reached for the bay's bridle. "There was smiling involved and Murdoch trying to be jocular. You can't have missed that. It was very disturbing."
Barranca was real mad about being woken up this early. Damn horse took a deep breath and puffed his gut out.
"I was only makin' out like I was awake. Like play actin' or pretendin'. I slept through breakfast, brother. I just learned to do that with my eyes open." Johnny pressed one knee against Barranca's belly and waited for the horse to breathe out, then darted in to tighten the cinch harder. Barranca snorted, tossed his head and gave him a look. Johnny grinned and slapped the warm, sleek neck and whispered in the horse's ear. "You're a good old feller. But you don’t fool me."
Barranca snorted and twitched the ear at him, like Johnny was a pesky little fly bothering him.
"Good move," approved Scott. "I can spend the rest of the day only pretending to be a ranch-hand."
Johnny untied the crossties and slid the halter off, fitting the bridle into place. Barranca chomped on the bit for a minute or two, just to show Johnny he didn't give in too easy. Good horse, this. The best he'd had since the paint. "Between Murdoch and Sam fussin', I'm gonna be the one pretending. I don't know why in hell Murdoch rousted me outa bed this early if they ain't going to let me do anything."
Scott patted him on the shoulder like he was a horse about to shy. "It's only been a few weeks, Johnny. You'll feel that shoulder for a while yet."
Sure as hell will if folks keep patting at it like that.
Cipriano appeared behind them. "Ready, señors? Time to leave."
Scott just moaned, and led the bay to the barn doors. Johnny grinned and followed, Barranca grumbling behind him. Cipriano, damn him, just chuckled and stroked his moustache with one hand to hide his big grin. Nothing got to Cip. He'd seen it all. He was one helluva fine foreman, and a damned good man.
They gathered in the yard in the starlight. One or two of the men brought the lamps out of the barn, fastening them to poles to light their way to the meeting place. A horse danced, its rider cursing as he hopped along with one foot already in the stirrup. No one laughed. Everyone was too miserable and sleepy to laugh. The rest of the hands mounted up, more'n a few awake enough now to curse at the early start. Not even Toledano was singing, although he did grin at Johnny as he passed. Nothing could keep old Toledano down for long; he had a real cheerful nature.
It was damned cold. Johnny huddled into his jacket. Dios, but it'd be better to have a gringo's coat like Scott's or Murdoch's or the ones the gringo hands wore. Fine as charro style was, it was meant for Mexico, where the sun always shone and a man was always warm and comfortable. Why in hell hadn't someone warned him that it was so damned cold this far north?
Scott stared at the hands for a minute. Johnny turned to see what he was looking at. Nothing he could make out, just hands getting on their horses and swearing. Scott swung up into the bay's saddle.
"Did you get caught up in the war, Johnny?"
"Your war? No. We had our own war to keep us busy, what with El Presidente takin' against the French and all. Heard about it some now and again, when I came north of the border lookin' for work. It was easier getting ranchin' work then, with so many men away at the fighting."
"You were too young, anyway. I'm glad you missed it."
Huh. It wasn't as if he hadn't done some fightin' against the French before he and the Mexican Army had parted company. Johnny glanced sideways at Scott. "That was when you were in the cavalry, in that General's unit?"
"Yes." Scott's mouth twisted. "Briefly."
The hands were passing them now, following Cipriano. Scott watched them go. His eyes were on Beedie Simpson and his friend, Wilf Travis, in their grey overcoats. They'd seen a lot of wear, those old army coats. Neither man even glanced their way, but Johnny watched Scott watching them.
Scott couldn't have been very old in the gringos' war, riding with that general of his. Couldn't tell what he saw and what he did; though it probably wasn't good, not from the look on Boston's face. What was it he'd said, the day they'd gone to Zimmermann's? That he'd lost a whole lot the day he'd lost his gun; that was it. And then he said something else the first day they'd gone to the box canyon to practice, something about doing things you regret. Well, Scott couldn't have been all that old, either, to have losses and regrets like that. He was only about three years older than Johnny.
Johnny swung up into Barranca's saddle, letting the palomino shake the fidgets out. "Texans."
Scott gave him a sharp look.
"Simpson and Travis. They're not from around here. East Texas, 'less I miss my guess."
Scott reddened. "It was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter anymore." He put his heels to the bay and it sprang forward, moving to catch up to Murdoch at the front where he rode alongside Cipriano.
What was it Murdoch had said? Good or bad, right or wrong, the past didn't matter. It was over.
Sure it was.
The first round up camp was up well past the northeastern corner of Lancer, over on the Conway ranch.
They got there just after dawn. They passed a few groups of cattle on the way. Many of the cows were still down sleeping and it was funny to watch them get up, all bony legs and as clumsy as a kid at his first church dance, and lumber off into the darkness. The long-legged calves skittered away from the horses back to their Mamas, staring at them with big eyes in the gloom. The light grew stronger. All around them now the grasslands were alive with birds starting up from under their horses' feet, pipits and thrushes and little ground sparrows calling to each other and making the ponies dance. For little birds, they sure were loud. A lark flew up from beneath Barranca's hooves, already singing.
They rode into the round up camp as the pink and gold of the eastern sky was brightening into blue, and Johnny finally managed to make himself stop shivering. The new sun, big and red as it came up, was at last beginning to warm him. He tilted back his hat and looked up into the sky, closing his eyes and turning his face to the sun. Dios, it was nice that the sky was so pretty at dawn, but that warm sun was the best thing about it.
Cipriano had chosen the camp well. It was a sort of half-hollow, very wide and shallow but deep enough to drop them down below the rest of the valley floor, so that all they could see looking west was a rise of that good grass that had given Murdoch such grey hair, with the sky above. A creek, still rushing fast with the spring thaws, came into the bowl from the San Benito mountains to the west, dropping down in a flurry of little falls, and flowing out of the flatter eastern side where the land dropped away. Probably found its way down to the San Joaquin River someplace past the eastern boundary of Aggie Conway's spread. There was plenty of graze and plenty of water. It was a good spot. It was real pretty.
The day before, the men had built a dozen or so rope corrals for the horses and stone lined fire pits where the chuck wagons stood. Farther off were more fire pits for the branding teams, six or seven of them. The bigger rope corrals already held the ranches' caballadas. About twenty or so men, some from each of the ranches in the district, had spent the night guarding the horses and were waiting by the chuck wagons; some of the luckier ones were still wrapped in their bedrolls by the fires. Johnny reckoned he could hear them snoring. Wished he was, too.
Joe Penn spotted them and waved his hat around his head in greeting; he'd been in charge until Cipriano got there. The Alcántar and Stobart ranch-hands were coming into the meeting place at the same time as Lancer and Cipriano went off to meet them and tell them what needed to be done, Joe trailing along with him.
Johnny was near the back of the group of Lancer hands, riding with Jaime. It had been a long, cold ride. Damn, but it was good to get there and maybe get something to eat and some coffee. The cook fires were already alight and Johnny could smell breakfast. It smelled great. He nodded to Jaime and urged Barranca up to join Murdoch and Scott.
"We'll be here for a few days." Murdoch eased his back, stretching up in the saddle. That was a helluva big horse of his, probably crossed with a draught horse, it was so broad in the ass. Mind you, carrying Murdoch around must be like carrying the San Benito mountain. The horse needed a broad backside. "The round up crews will work their way through Aggie's ranch and the top of ours, bringing all the cattle here to be sorted and the calves branded. Then we'll move southwest to a place on the borders of Driscoll's and Alcantar's spreads and clear that area, and finally we'll move over to the Adams place and do that side of the district. We'll be at least a couple of weeks at this, all told. More than two, probably. It's a job that takes a while."
"It sounds like it." Scott grinned. "Cipriano said I'd be on cow herding duty. He said something about it just being for the morning?"
"We'll start here on Aggie's ranch where her hands will be waiting for us, and start herding the stock here, to this meeting place. We'll be spending the afternoons sorting the stock we bring in and branding the calves." Murdoch's mouth twitched up into a smile. "This will be a new experience for you, Scott. I think you'll enjoy it."
Johnny had brought Barranca up on the other side of Murdoch. "What will I be doing?"
"Watching the horses and managing the day herd."
Johnny pushed his hat back to stare at Murdoch. Dios, but the man put broody hens to shame. "Uh-huh."
Murdoch stared back. Hell, once the Madrid Stare would've had men running for cover. Murdoch didn't look any too scared. Johnny had to be losing it, getting too soft and comfortable.
"C'mon, Murdoch. That's not a real job. I can do more than that."
"Sam said not to overdo, John, and you won't. Scott and I'll see to that. You'll stay here this morning and keep an eye on things for me." Murdoch gave a nod and turned away before Johnny could figure out something to say. Scott was grinning and sniggering. "Frank!"
Frank had been in charge of the Lancer men overnight. He waved and jog-trotted over to them.
"Not a mite, Mister Lancer. The horses settled down fine in the main corral. We set up the smaller corral for our personal mounts over by the Hooped C's space. They’re sharing the smaller one with Lancer. Mister Kerr said Miz Conway's okayed that with you and Cip."
"She did. That's fine." Murdoch took another look around and nodded. "It all looks to be coming along well. Thank you, Frank." He twisted in his saddle to speak to the hands bunched up behind him. "All right, men, Frank will show you which corral's for your personal mounts. You've got time to grab some breakfast before saddling up from the remuda. We move out in half an hour."
The men cheered—that had to be for breakfast—and there was a lot of mumbling that might have been Si, Patrón. Most of the hands looked more awake now as they unsaddled their mounts and turned them into one of the smaller corrals. Toledano was singing again. The words made even Johnny's ears burn. Scott unsaddled his bay, but Murdoch stayed on his big-assed gelding and hell, what was the point of unsaddling Barranca if all Johnny was going to do was sit on him watching the horses eat grass? He swung down from Barranca when Scott came back to them, looping the reins over the hoodlum wagon tongue and giving Scott a hand with the heavy saddle.
Johnny watched the men head for the Lancer chuck wagon, where Hernán had cooked up a huge pan of fried salt pork. He could smell it, rich and fatty. His gut rumbled. "I could eat."
Murdoch laughed. "Then go and get something. Neither of you ate much breakfast earlier—"
"It was the middle of the night, sir." Scott stretched, spreading his arms wide. "I tend not to have much appetite when I'm supposed to be sleeping."
"Get used to it," was all the advice Murdoch offered before riding off to join Cipriano.
'Course, Boston not being a cowhand, he didn't have a nesting kit. Should have remembered to ask Murdoch before they left the hacienda, but Hernán had a spare one in the back of the chuck wagon and gave it to him. It was a lot better than the battered tin Johnny had had for years.
"Take care of it, señor. I do not have any more."
Johnny slid his fork from the holder inside the lid and let Hernán fill his tin with eggs and fried sliced pork. He joined Scott sitting on the ground a few yards from the chuck wagon and lit into his breakfast. It tasted as good as it looked, the crispy brown fat melting on his tongue.
Scott took a hunk of bread to sop up the yellow bits of his fried eggs. "I could have done with something like this when I was in the Cavalry. We had tin plates and mugs, of course, but these folding plates are neat. What'd you say they were called?"
"Nesting tins. I'd have thought you fancy officers ate off china plates and drank from silver cups."
"The General probably did. The most I had was a tin plate that I didn't have to share." Scott chuckled. "Grandfather wasn't keen on me fighting, but once I'd joined up and he realised he couldn't do anything to stop me, he started looking out for things that would be useful for me. He kept sending the oddest examples of Yankee ingenuity! My favourite was a combination knife, fork and spoon that folded up like a penknife." He prodded the salt pork with his fork. "I could do with that here."
"Get him to send you another one."
Scott sighed and shrugged and got stuck into his food. Johnny watched him for a minute, but he was too hungry to spend time on wondering what was bothering Scott now. They ate quickly. Johnny dropped the empty tin to the ground, gulped down his coffee and lay back in the grass, tilting his hat down to shade his eyes.
Everything smelled sort of green and fresh. The sun was starting to get hot and little flying things and crawlers buzzed in the grasses, sounding sleepy and lazy.
Scott lay down beside him, tucking one arm behind his head to cushion it. "If ranching was more like this, I could get to like it."
Scott chuckled and said nothing more for a minute or two. His breathing evened out, grew soft, but a shout had them both sitting up. Everyone was bustling about now, saddling up mounts from the caballada and gathering where Cipriano and Joe Penn were waiting.
Scott sighed and scrambled up. "Damn."
"Yeah. Damn. I was kinda enjoyin' ranching myself there. Leave your tin. I'll clean it up and put it in with your bedroll in the hoodlum wagon." Johnny nodded at Scott's grin of thanks and watched him run off to saddle up. Jaime had picked out a big dun gelding for him. Nice lookin' horse, well put together. The ranch had some good horses, better than some of the stocky little cayuses he'd used when he was a kid working on ranches in Texas.
It only took a couple of minutes to swish the tins in the creek—why did the women make such a fuss about keeping house?—and he stowed them away. Scott's bedroll was brand new and easy to spot; most of the other bedrolls were raggedy and one or two were downright grubby, they'd been used for so long. He slid the tin under the leather strap. Barranca tossed his head at Johnny and whickered. "Not you and me, boy. Damned if I know why Murdoch rousted us out so early."
Murdoch rode up to him. "We're off to join Aggie's crew. Don't overdo. If you get bored, you could always give Hernán a hand. I'm sure he'd thank you."
"The hands wouldn't, if they had to eat what I fixed." Dios, but Murdoch was tall enough without sitting in the saddle of a damned big horse and looking down at a man. It was like bein' a little kid, staring up at his Pa. "Murdoch, did you warn Scott?"
"He's a greenhorn. They'll want their fun." Johnny rubbed the back of his neck. It was aching, from lookin' up all the time.
Murdoch pulled a face. "I didn't think of that. He'll be with me or Cip all morning."
Damn. He should have mentioned it when they were eating. "But not all the time. Better if you let them get it over with, Murdoch. I'll warn him later, tell him what to look out for."
"Fine. Stay out of trouble."
What sort of trouble could anyone get into with nothing but a few horses to look at? "You too."
He watched as
Murdoch rode over to join Scott and Cipriano. Scott took off his hat and
waved it at Johnny as they left; that damned stupid hat with the brim turned
up at one side.
The feather on it was kinda neat, though.
Johnny took Barranca back over the Lancer line, away from where the hands were starting the round up, riding uphill until he found a quiet little dip in the grasslands that looked like the old buffalo wallows he'd seen in the plains back east over the mountains. It was full of wild flowers, blue as the sky.
Hernán had given him a tin can. He stood it on a low rock and set about practising. It was the first day for a week that Scott hadn't been with him, and the first where he could just work through what he needed to do rather than watch what Scott was doing. He'd done this so many times that he went through it all without having to think about it. He unloaded his gun but for one bullet—there was no way anyone would ever catch Johnny Madrid with an empty gun—and spent the first half hour doing dry draws, again and again and again, aiming for speed and ease until it was smoother than a whore's silk chemise. And when he'd done that, he took the Walch and the other Army Colt and worked them until he could draw them as silky smooth as his main gun.
Shooting from the hip, even the slightest shift of his left foot tightened the aim. He shot the hell outa that tin can from every possible angle, making sure that he hit it every time, even if it was from his left side or he was twisted to make the shot more difficult, or shootin' on the move. Because sure as hell, anyone he went up against wouldn't be looking to make things easy for him. They'd take advantage of anything they could: for some men, for cobardes not worth a shit, straight shootin' wasn't how they tried to get the job done.
He finished up with one of his best tricks. He balanced a half-dollar on the back of his right hand, holding it out straight and level at shoulder level. Now some men, they figured to just tip their hand and let the coin fall, then go for their gun to draw, aim and shoot before the coin hit the ground. But see, that was for beginners.
Johnny gave the coin a little flip into the air, not much above shoulder height. He drew, fired and reholstered his gun, and snatched the coin out of the air before it fell as far as his waist. The can bounced off the rock. He hadn't missed. He never did.
He tossed the coin up again. It flashed in the sunlight as it turned and spun in the air, flipping over and over. He drew, shooting it on the fly. It was knocked away by the bullet, disappearing into the grass.
Johnny reloaded his gun and reholstered it, grinning.
Madrid was back on form.
Scott kicked gently at the sole of Johnny's foot. "I can see you've had a hard morning."
"Sam told me to rest when I needed to."
"How very virtuous of you. I'll make sure Murdoch notices, shall I?"
"If it'll stop him fussin' like a wet hen, you go right ahead."
Johnny lifted his hat off his face and grinned. After his gun practice, he'd taken a ride onto the Conway ranch and then wandered around the campsite. Despite what he'd said to Murdoch, he had given Hernán a hand, mainly by fixing the door of one of the Dutch ovens while the cook set a fish trap under a low waterfall. But he'd spent most of the morning getting to know the mean-eyed paint mustang in the caballada. Jaime had passed the word that Johnny was interested in it, and none of the men had chosen it as a mount that day. He'd had a good morning; the paint was feisty and smart. But when the horse was tired, then there'd been nothing else to do but catch up on lost sleep.
Boston, now, looked like he'd been working. Johnny looked him over. "Have fun out there in all that dust?"
Scott took off his hat, beating it against his pants legs to get the dust out of them. "Very funny. How could you sleep through us getting here with all those cows?"
Johnny got to his feet in his own time, and stretched. "Who says I was asleep?" He glanced over at the growing herd. Damn, but a hundred men could sure as hell herd a lot of cattle even in just a few hours. "¡Dios! Are there any cows left on Conway land?"
Scott just laughed. "Hundreds, Cip says. We just skimmed off the first batch. I have to say I'm impressed by how Cip's approaching this, sweeping through each section in turn. He even has it all planned out on maps, like a military campaign."
Johnny nodded to the chuck wagons. The men were already crowded around the one belonging to their own ranch. Hernán was busy ladling out what should have the midday meal, although, from the glance Johnny gave to the sun, he figured it was past the midday point. "Well you're the military man, so you would know. They say an army marches on its stomach, don't they? I could eat."
"You can always eat. I don't know where you put it." Scott followed Johnny over to the hoodlum wagon. "Where did you put my… what did you call it? My nesting tin? I can't find it."
Johnny turned over his bedroll and pulled his tin from under the pigging strings. "In your bedroll."
"No. It's not."
Johnny blew out a sigh. "Hell, that was quick." He scrabbled in the hoodlum wagon, looking under the other bedrolls and stuff in there, but Scott was right. No nesting tin. "Damn. I meant to warn you. They were faster than I thought they'd be."
"Yeah. Look, you're new at this. The old hands, they like to… " Johnny paused, pulled a face. "Well, they don't mean anything by it, but they tease a greenhorn a bit. Sort of break him in. I promised Murdoch I'd warn you, but I didn't get the chance. Sorry, Boston."
Scott had both hands on the wagon side. He rested his forehead on them, muffling his voice. "Oh joy. This is going to be like being a freshman at Harvard all over again, isn't it?"
Johnny shrugged. How the hell should he know? "That the fancy school you went to?"
"Yes, that's the fancy school I went to." Scott pushed away from the wagon. "What will they have done with it?"
"Hidden it somewhere. It'll turn up. Maybe not today. Or this week. But it will turn up."
"Wonderful." Scott looked up to the sky, raising his hands. "Why me, Lord?"
Hell, he'd never shown sign of gettin' religion before the round up. Strange what working beeves could do to a man.
Johnny sniggered and punched him gently on the arm. "They just want to know what sort of hombre they’re riding with, big brother. See if you can take a joke, a bit of teasing; see whether you laugh it off or get mad. And sometimes a greenhorn gets all above himself, thinks he knows it all, and needs takin' down a peg or two. It's not usually mean, though. Just a bit of fun."
"It's not that much fun when you're as hungry as I am. Am I supposed to eat out of my hands or something?"
Johnny grinned. "C'mon. Hernán will have a tin plate you can borrow until yours turns up. He'll likely yell at you, though."
Hernán did. Not much and not too loud, because Scott was the Patrón's son, but Scott's ears were burning red by the time Hernán handed over a battered tin plate loaded with pork and beans. It was worse when Scott had to go back to borrow a fork. The sniggers from the hands were so loud it was a wonder they didn't spook the cows into a stampede. But Boston… well, Boston took it like a man. He grinned and nodded and said *Oh yes, very funny, all of you*, and if his eyes were narrowed and his mouth thinned down like Murdoch's when Murdoch was mad about somethin', then maybe only Johnny could see it. What the men saw was Boston passin' the first test, standing the gaff like a man.
Johnny joined him in the shade of a bush, a little way off, away from the hands. Hernán's food wasn't as good as the meal Frank had made, but it sure as hell beat anything Johnny could put together.
Scott, though, poked at the beans with his fork and looked disappointed. "You know, I am hungry, but I'm already tired of beans. Is there ever anything else?"
Scott blew out a long breath, making a sort of puh-ing noise that sounded kind of sad. "Right now I'd give anything to have my grandfather's chef out here. His le tourin d'ail doux, followed poulet basquaise with carrotes Vichy, and maybe tulipes avec sorbet framboise for dessert… good lord, Johnny, but eat that and you'd think you'd died and gone to Paradise. Anton is an artist with food. He's French. You'd love the dinners he cooks."
Uh-huh. Johnny had come across the French right at the start of Juarez's war against Maximilian, learning a few words of their language here and there from the odd prisoner who'd parly-vu-fransayed at him. He'd not come across much in the way of good cooking. Anyway, who the hell wanted anything French after what those bastards did? "I don't like the French much."
Scott looked up, looking puzzled. "Oh? Of course it's only three years since Maximilian was executed, but I understood from Murdoch… I mean, you were a gunfighter then, weren't you? I wouldn't have thought you were caught up in the war with the French."
Well now. Scott and Murdoch had been talking had they? Maybe Boston had been reading those Pinkerton reports too. Johnny chewed on a piece of pork, watching Scott get red in the face. Nope, Boston really couldn't hide shit.
Scott pulled a face. "He didn't say much, Johnny. Just that you'd been a gunfighter for about five years."
Scott waited out the silence. He looked real sorry. It wasn't no blame, that he wanted to know what he was getting into. No point in blaming Boston for trying to scope out the deal; it's what any man with sense would do. Not that Murdoch could tell him that much, if all he had were the reports from the damn Pinks. Still, a man didn't like being talked about. 'Least, not that way.
After a minute or two, once Scott knew he wasn't to do that again, Johnny let up on him. "I was in the Mexican Army for a while, mostly wrangling horses for their cavalry. Long time ago now. We had a couple of run-ins with the French. It had to be seven, eight years ago when they first came to Mexico."
Scott stared. "You can't have been more than fourteen or fifteen."
"About that, yeah. Maybe a bit younger."
"I was a school boy at that age. My biggest worry when I was fourteen was mastering Latin declensions, not being in the army. You should have been in school."
"I went to school once, for about a year." Johnny rubbed at the scar on his finger, the one Sister Aurelia had left there. "I didn't like the nuns."
"A year. That's all?" Scott sighed. "You've had an interesting life, little brother. Were you in battle?"
Johnny shrugged and nodded. The long scar across the left side of his chest, so faded now it could hardly be seen, came from a French bullet. He'd been lucky. It had only glanced off his ribs and ploughed a long furrow over them. It'd hurt like hell at the time and he'd panicked, thinking he was going to die. It had been the first time he'd been shot.
Scott sighed again. "Too many children get pulled into wars."
Johnny only grinned. Hell, it was better than jail and that was all the choice he'd had at the time, until he'd managed to get away. He was probably still posted as a deserter, come to think on it. Maybe he'd better not mention that to a man who'd been an officer.
Scott frowned down at his plate and started picking at his beans and pork. After a minute or two he must've stopped thinking about his granddaddy's fine French cook and more about how hungry being a ranch hand made him. He ate like he was starved, but still he was real polite about it. Didn't belch once. He waited until he'd put away most of the plateful. "So, what else should I look out for in this breaking-in process?"
Johnny chewed on a tough bit of fried pork as he thought about it. "A few things. If a man offers real kindly-like to get your food for you so you don't have to wait in line at the chuck wagon, don't let him unless you want chilli peppers added that'll burn your lips off." He forked up beans. "I don’t think they'd be dumb enough to stir in ipecac or chitticum bark, but maybe one or two would laugh themselves stupid at watching you having to go behind a bush every ten minutes."
"I know ipecac's an emetic, but what's chitticum bark?"
"Cascara. We call it cascara sagrada in Spanish; sacred cascara." Johnny grinned at him. "You come across it, Boston, or are you always regular and don't need it?"
"I've heard of it." Scott's ears were red again. "Although I'm wondering why anyone out here would need it if all they ever eat is beans. They'd dose the food like that? That's not funny at all."
"I've seen it done, back when I was a kid working in the Panhandle. But the hombre who got it, well he kinda deserved it. He was lazy and nothin' was ever his fault, he was a braggart and always usin' his fists, 'specially if the other feller was littler than him. A four-flusher too; you sure as hell wouldn't trust him in poker or anythin' else. Well, the hands got real tired of his jawin' and someone slipped him a real good dose of chitticum from out of the medicine chest in the chuck wagon. He spent the whole of the next day shitting behind a bush, moanin' and groanin' that he was dyin', and all the time the hands were killin' themselves laughing and the round up boss was yelling at him for bein' the most useless, coffee-boilin' deadbeat in the entire state of Texas. Couldn't hardly sit his horse the next day, his ass was so sore. He was mad as hell, too."
"I do find myself feeling a little sympathy for his suffering. Of course, that could just be apprehension that they'll try it on me."
"I had to stay out of his way for days." Johnny grinned at the look on Scott's face. "Well, who the hell else was small enough to sneak into the chuck wagon and get to the medicine chest without bein' noticed? He knew it had to be me. The hands paid me five dollars to do it. A dollar was a lot of money for me back then; five dollars was a helluva lot."
"And he wanted to strangle you? I can't imagine why." Scott laughed, shaking his head. "I'm astonished you've lived this long. Can we put a lock on the medicine chest? I don't want anyone, especially you, getting at it."
"I wouldn't do that to you. Honest."
"Hmmph. I should hope not."
"Specially if you give me five dollars."
Scott laughed. "Family rate again, brother? Thank you. I'll bear it in mind. In the meantime, what other delight might they have planned for me?"
"We aren’t in a dry country, so maybe they'll fool with your water bottle, thinking there'd be no harm in it. That's not real likely, but keep the bottle by you just in case. No one would cut another man's lariat, but it might make 'em laugh to get it tangled up and you with it. Watch it if someone offers to saddle a horse for you. Check the cinch. And then check it again." Johnny put down his empty tin, licking the fork clean. "What else? Oh yeah, watch out when you go and wash in the creek, because someone'll most likely take your clothes and you'll have to walk back, buck naked."
"Dear God. That brings an entirely new meaning to the phrase about the wild and woolly front—" Scott paused. "—ier."
Johnny laughed. That was kinda funny.
Scott smirked back. "Anything else?"
"Yep. When a man's done his stint of night herdin' and comes back to his bedroll, he likely dreams of sharing it with a plump little armful like that red-haired gal in the Green River saloon. But you'll be sharing yours with a toad or a snake, most likely."
"A snake," repeated Scott. He shook his head.
"A striped racer, maybe, or a gopher snake. Nothin' poisonous."
"Well, that's reassuring." Scott put down his empty plate. For all his moaning about fancy French cooking, he'd eaten everything Hernán had put on his dish. "How long will this go on, Johnny? I'm not sure I can hold out from yelling if it's more than a day or two."
"A few days, maybe. You'd better let them win one or two things and laugh and show you're willin' to take a joke. You can eucher 'em on the rest, now you're warned."
"Yes. I see that." Scott glowered. "You know, I was beginning to think that I'm going to like ranching. Now I'm not so sure. I suppose that they won't bother you with all this nonsense."
"Naw, they won't."
"Because you've done work as a ranch hand and you aren't a greenhorn?"
"Nope." Johnny touched the butt of his gun and grinned. "Because I scare the shit outa them."
"Indeed?" Scott snorted. "On a diet of beans and cascara, I doubt there'll be any shit left to scare."
Scott washed the plates this time and took his borrowed one back to Hernán, with thanks. Can't think what happened to mine, he said, eyeing all the hands and grinning. He got a lot of grins back, but no nesting tin. Not yet.
They saddled up their personal mounts after they'd eaten. Barranca must have caught up on his sleep while Johnny had tried out the paint. He was less bad-tempered this time and only flicked his ears and tossed his head up and down a couple of times as Johnny talked to him.
And that reminded him. "You ever going to give that horse of yours a name?"
Scott looked up from tightening the bay's cinch. "I hadn't thought about it. I haven't owned a horse of my own for years and I've got out of the habit. I did name the first horse I had in the in the war. He was called Copenhagen, after the Duke of Wellington's horse."
"The Iron Duke. He was a famous British general, over in Europe. You'd like him, I think. He defeated the French at the Battle of Waterloo about fifty years or so ago."
Johnny had never heard of it, but anything that caused the French grief was fine by him. "Good for him."
"It was one of the world's great military engagements. I'll see if I can find an account of it for you. Anyhow, Copenhagen — my Copenhagen — was a damn good horse. He was shot from under me one day, though, and after that I never bothered naming the horses. They made too good a target for the Reb riflemen and it didn't pay to get too attached." Scott rubbed the bay's neck. "But, you know, this is a good horse and he deserves a name. I'll give it some thought. I'm sure I can come up with something that fits him."
Johnny nodded, and swung up into Barranca's saddle. "What now?"
"Murdoch said to join him when we'd eaten."
Murdoch was sitting in a surrey parked in the shade of a big California oak, eating with Aggie Conway. She'd brought a covered basket with her. Didn’t look like Murdoch was eating beans and pork, not if those chicken legs were anything to go by. He nodded as they rode up. He didn't even look guilty.
They looked real friendly together. Looked like she could cook, too.
"Ma'am." Scott took off his hat and bowed in the saddle. "It's a pleasure to see you again."
Mama had always said he was to be polite to everyone. Johnny touched his hat brim. "Miz Conway."
He leaned forward. Was that apple pie? Looked like it might be apple pie, and it had those little brown dried up grapes that tasted so sweet mixed into it. What were they called, now? And that sure seemed like it was cinnamon that he could smell.
"I'm delighted to see you both." The Widow Conway had a real nice smile, to go with that real nice-lookin' apple pie. "I thought I'd drive out here and see how things are going. It looks as if you've made a good start."
So she was here to see how things were goin', and bring Murdoch chicken and apple pie? Next thing you know, she'd be offerin' to sew buttons on shirts.
Barranca snorted and danced a bit just then, feisty after standing all morning doing nothing. Johnny took a minute to settle him back down again.
Scott was real polite and so far as Johnny could see, he didn't even look at the pie. "It's been quite a day so far, Ma'am."
"I'm sure it has, Scott, and I hope you're enjoying a new experience." She smiled at Johnny. "That's a very fine palomino, Johnny. Murdoch told me that you broke him and how you're training him." She turned the smile to Murdoch. "We have a rivalry, he and I, about horses."
"A friendly one." The old man sounded gruff.
And what was he supposed to say to that? Johnny gave her a small smile back.
Murdoch wiped his mouth on a big red-checked square of cloth, like the ones Teresa made them use back at the hacienda. If he was trying to hide the crumbs, it was too late for that. "There's still a lot to do before we're finished for the day. Why don't you two join Cipriano? I'll be along in a few minutes."
"Of course." Scott touched his hat and bowed again. "Ma'am."
She smiled and nodded, real gracious, like a grand lady. Johnny nodded back, turned Barranca and followed Scott to where the herd was gathered. He knew better than ask for some pie—when he was a kid, Mama would have whaled him for not waiting to be offered a piece, and damn it, but he remembered the manners she'd taught him. Mostly. But a piece of pie would have tasted real fine. He sighed.
"One of the privileges of ownership, I guess." Scott must have heard him. He twisted in the saddle to face Johnny and grinned. "Owners get to sit in the shade, and eat chicken and pie. We have to make do with beans."
"Reckon we should each get a third of that pie, then, if we're supposed to be partners with the old man these days."
Scott snorted. "Good luck with that. A man may give up two thirds of his ranch, but he'll defend to the death his rights to a pretty widow and apple pie."
Johnny stared at him. What? He shook his head. "Naw, brother, you got me all wrong, there." He waited a beat. "I just wanted the pie."
Scott let out such a great crack of laughter that his horse jittered and hopped about with surprise.
Johnny grinned. "You'd better look to your horse, Boston. You almost fell outa the saddle."
Scott spluttered out something that didn't sound too complimentary. He said he'd been in the cavalry and didn't need riding advice, thank you very much and "I respectfully suggest, Johnny, that you shouldn't try teaching your grandmother to suck eggs." But he was still laughing.
So far as he knew, Johnny didn't have a grandmother. He didn't know if Scott did, but all he had ever mentioned was the abuelo back in Boston. Murdoch had never said anything. "You reckon we got kin back in that place Murdoch comes from? In Scotland?"
"Wha—?" Scott stared for a moment, then grinned. "Oh, you mean grandparents we can offer eggs to? I have no idea." He looked real thoughtful. "Do you want to ask Murdoch?"
Hell no! Johnny shrugged. "I'll reckon he'll tell us if he wants us to know."
Scott's mouth twisted up the way Murdoch's did sometimes. "In that case, I wouldn't expect to find out any time soon. As I think we've mentioned before, he's close-mouthed, is our father."
They were at the herd by then, and riding around it to where Cipriano sat his horse. Cip must have eaten in the saddle. He was drinking coffee, real relaxed and slouching against the cantle, his reins dallied around the horn. His horse, a big grey, stood like a stone, only its ears flicking when they joined him.
"Hola, Cip." Johnny nodded a greeting. "Murdoch sent us. He'll be along when he's finished with those… what did you call them, Boston? Ownership privileges, wasn't it?"
"I might call it that. You called it pie."
"Señors." Cipriano drained the tin cup and tossed it to a waiting vaquero. He straightened up in the saddle and waved his sombrero over his head to get Joe Penn moving. "We are ready to begin. Joe has the first cutting teams ready." He glanced at Scott. "This is not something you can do yet, señors. That is not a matter for blame, but for experience. The Patrón wants you to watch today. Most of the cattle will be Senora Conway's, so we will cut out everything else first and herd them over to those branding fires there. The rest, the Conway cattle, we will brand last when all the others are done. It will take the rest of the day."
It was years since Johnny had seen this dance, the one done by the hands on their trained horses, the personal mounts they rode summer and winter. They flitted in and out of that great herd of cattle and calves, the sea of horns moving as the cows moved, cattle and calves closing in on each other and then breaking apart to keep away from the fast horses, dodging and twisting, every calf real close on its Mama's heels. The men on their sharp little ponies dodged and twisted faster and better, cutting out each cow that didn't carry the Hooped C brand, edging her to the edge of the herd and chivvying her and her calf away. Cows didn't like being away from the herd, no more than horses did. The cows wheeled and ran one way, and then the other, trying to get back to the main herd, their calves doggedly running at their heels like little shadows. The men and the tough cow ponies were there at every turn to keep them from getting through.
Scott looked at Johnny and his mouth twisted. "Dear God. I'll never be able to do that!"
"You will. You're a good rider. This takes practice, is all." Johnny leaned forward in the saddle, crossing his arms on the horn. "Practice, and a horse with some cow sense."
Murdoch had ridden up to them while the men cut the herd. He looked real relaxed and cheerful, as cheerful as a man should be who was chock full of a pretty widow's apple pie. "Johnny's right, Scott. It'll come. I love watching this. They're a damn good bunch. Cip, is that Eduardo chasing that cow?"
It looked like it was Eduardo, dodging around and getting a balky cow clear. Every time she dodged right, he was waiting for her, and when she dodged left, until she gave up and he got her to the smaller herd. That was some damned good riding, like Eduardo and the dun he was riding were one animal.
"It is, Patrón."
"He's a fine horseman. A very fine horseman." Murdoch nodded. He twisted in the saddle to look at Johnny and Scott. "He's been at this for a long time, of course, since he left school. Eduardo is a top hand, one of the best we have."
Cip stroked a hand over his moustache. Dios, but he looked like he'd burst. Johnny ducked his head to hide a smile. He wouldn't want the proud Papa thinking he was laughing at him.
Scott was real polite. "I'll have to work very hard to emulate that level of skill." He looked at Johnny. "Have you done this before, Johnny? Did you learn to cut a herd like this when you worked in Texas?"
Johnny straightened in his saddle. He glanced at the old man, seeing him stiffen. Johnny took his time answering, pushing back his hat and settling it on the back of his head where it was real comfortable.
"I done it some, yeah."
Scott gave him a sharp look and nodded. He got the message, anyhow, and seemed to make a point of turning away to watch the cutting.
Murdoch didn't let it go that easy. "You've worked on a ranch? When?"
Dios, did the man always have a tune to call?
The men were in with their ropes now, catching the calves by the two back legs, dallying the rope around the saddle horns, and dragging them over to the branding fires. At the nearest fire, a couple of hands threw themselves over the calf to hold it still while another touched its rump with the red-hot iron. The calf bawled, kicking and bucking, when a fourth man stooped in fast, a penknife in his hand. Johnny winced. The tallyman's shout of "Lancer steer!" cut through the bawling, and then the calf was up and free, running to its mother and the ranch hand with the knife threw the balls into a bucket. The men laughed, cheering the first new-branded calf, waving branding irons and hats in the air. They were already grimy with dirt and sweat.
Half-hidden under the shade of his hat, Murdoch's mouth thinned right down. "Johnny? Have you done ranch work?"
"Didn’t that Pinkerton report of yours tell you?"
"No. It doesn't tell me that."
Johnny blew out a quiet breath. "Seems to me you got cheated, old man, if all it tells you is how many men people say I've killed."
He touched his spurs to Barranca's sides and rode off towards another of the branding fires, putting some distance between them. Behind him, another scared, bawling calf was dragged to the fire to get his balls cut off and a brand burned into his hide.
A man had to think about that. What it meant, to be tamed like that.
By the end of the day, Johnny finally had some work to do. The branding was over and the day herd had been cut out to be handed over to him. He'd spent the afternoon staying out of Murdoch's way and wandering from fire-pit to fire-pit. He stayed out of the way of the branding teams too, mostly, although he took the chance to have a word with one or two of the hands.
It had been a long day. The sun was almost gone behind the mountains when Scott and Jaime hazed the cattle over to him.
Johnny tipped his hat to them in derision. "That's all I get? ¡Dios! So far the hardest thing about ranchin' is going to be stayin' awake."
"Most of them are unbranded, Johnny. There are three earmarked cows from one of the small ranches around here and two beeves from the Conejo district, and we'll likely find more. We'll send a rider around to the little ranches and the Conejo rep will be here tomorrow or the day after to take their cows back." Jaime bowed in the saddle, saluting Johnny with a flourish of his hat. "Until then, they're all yours, amigo.
"Oh, thanks." Johnny looked the beeves over. Fourteen head of cattle and their calves and two lone little dogies. "I do appreciate the kindness."
Scott sniggered, damn him.
Jaime didn’t bother trying to hide that he thought this was the funniest thing since Toledano's last joke. "My father said to tell you that he'd send someone over to take the first night watch in a couple of hours. Hernán will keep back some food for you."
Scott looked like he was trying not to laugh out loud. "The job isn't too big for you, then, Johnny?"
"I've had some tough jobs to do in my life, Boston. I think I can handle this one." Johnny waved a hand at his little herd. "All these sorry critters are goin' to do is stand there and eat grass." He waved at himself. "And all this sorry critter is goin' to do, is sit here and watch 'em and think about how warm an' pretty Mexico is this time of year."
Jaime laughed. "Ah, amigo. It's not Mexico I miss, but the señoritas."
"That's what I
meant. I'm gonna sit here and look at them beeves an' think about how warm
an' pretty the Mexican señoritas are, this time of year."
Scott choked, he was laughing so hard. This time, he didn't look like he was about to fall out of his saddle, but if Johnny moved real fast, maybe he could spook the bay and change that. He could do with a laugh, himself.
Instead, he let Scott slap him on the shoulder—the right one, this time, so at least it didn't hurt – and got their help to herd the cows over to the spot Cip had pointed out to him for the day herd. Cip had chosen a place on the far side of the camp, well away from the main herd and the campfires themselves but with good graze and water.
They rode off together to eat, leaving him with the cows. Jaime had worked on one of the branding fires all afternoon, bulldogging the calves down to let the brander at them, and for all his foolin' around, he was almost asleep in the saddle. Like most of the men, he'd be hitting his bedroll as soon as he'd eaten supper. Boston had ended up as tallyman at one of the branding fires. That wasn't too hard, maybe, not as hard as bulldogging calves that was for sure; but he'd spent the morning since before dawn chasing and herding cows. He was new to this kind of work and it'd take him a day or two to get used to it. For all his laughing, he looked tired and hungry.
Johnny wasn't that tired, but he was hungry. He glared at his little herd of straggly cattle. Bedding them down for the night might take a whole five minutes. Dios, but Murdoch had better let up on the coddling soon or Johnny'd be bucking harder than a broom-tailed bronc.
Scott was still awake when Johnny handed over his herd to a couple of hands for the night and got back to the campsite for some supper. It was full dark by the time he'd turned Barranca into the rope corral, rubbed him down some and let him loose to graze. He'd expected Boston to be asleep. He put his saddle down beside Scott's.
Scott was yawning so hard his jaw was cracking. "I had to use your nesting tin, Johnny. Sorry. Mine hasn't turned up yet. I cleaned it up though."
Johnny took it from him, frowning. "That's okay, Boston. I thought you'd be asleep by now."
"Well, I might have been, but for the fish in my bedroll."
As well as the pot of beans on the stove top, Hernán had left a plate of fried potatoes inside a Dutch oven for him, and pork chops on the bone, brown and glistening. Johnny snagged two, stared at them for a minute, then snagged another two. Pork three times a day was about his limit, but hell, he was hungry. There was a big slice of apple pie, too, warm and smelling of cinnamon.
Johnny glanced at Scott. Boston was leaning up against his saddle with his horse's saddle pad and a ratty lookin' blanket around his knees. He didn't look too happy.
Johnny forked up some potatoes. The crispy bits melted on his tongue. "Fish?"
"Floppy, silver, cold-blooded things with no legs." Scott's hand made floppy-fish movements. "They live in water. They're wet, usually. Mine were."
Johnny sat down beside the fire and tucked into his supper. "Were they still alive?"
Scott took a deep breath. His voice was real controlled. Dios, but he was a cool one. "They were very dead." He paused. "My bedroll smells like a fishing boat."
"I guess it would, at that."
"I'd braced myself for toads or snakes. I was prepared for those. You didn't warn me about fish." Scott looked sad and sorry. "I'd rather have had a snake."
"Puttin' in fish is a new one on me. How did they do it? I warned you about critters so's you'd keep an eye on your bedroll."
"I had to go to the latrine."
Johnny grunted and turned his attention to the pork. The chops were chewy, but the browned fat tasted real good. "Take your bedroll with you, next time."
"I left Jaime to keep an eye on it." Scott glared at a blanket-wrapped shape a couple of yards away, closer to the fire. "He was asleep when I got back and my bedroll was full of fish."
Somewhere in the darkness, more than one of the men were sniggering. If Jaime was awake he wasn't letting on, but those blankets he was wrapped in were shaking a bit. Johnny wouldn't snigger himself, though. Wasn't dignified.
"Fish." Johnny shook his head.
Scott raised his voice a mite. "If I weren't such a nice guy, I'd be trying to find the man whose hands smell fishy."
The sniggers were louder. Jaime rolled over and sat up, grinning. "We got you good this time, Scott."
"I knew you weren't
asleep." Scott sighed, but he managed a grin. "I'll get you back for
"Si, si." Jaime waved a hand and lay back down, still grinning.
"I've got the blankets out over some bushes to air. Hopefully that'll get the smell out by morning, although I'd better get up early to grab them before someone decides they'd look good tied around some cow's neck." Scott's grin looked like almost like he meant it.
"I hadn't thought of that one, Señor Scott." Toledano sounded real regretful. Johnny couldn't see Toledano in the dark, but he'd stake any amount of money that the vaquero was laughing himself silly.
"I thought it was probably you." Scott rolled his eyes. Toledano just laughed.
It grew quiet around the fire again. All the men had to be bone-weary. It had been a damned long day and not even laughing at the Patrón's sons would keep them awake long.
Scott sighed and spoke soft. "Do you think I passed their test?"
"Yeah. I think you did. You stood the gaff and they'll respect that. They'll likely leave you alone now. Ease off, anyway." Johnny scooped up the last of his beans. "It's gonna be a cold night, Boston."
Scott pulled on the ratty blanket. "It already is. I've got this blanket I scrounged from Hernán—who's beginning to look a bit harassed every time I see him—and I've got my coat. I'll manage. I'm warm enough, with the fire. And Johnny—"
"I know, Boston. Your name's not Boston."
Scott chuffed out a laugh. He yawned again, slid down against the saddle a mite and pulled the ratty blanket up around his shoulders. "Missus Conway came back with pies enough for everyone, by the way. She must have been baking them for days. There's some for you in the Dutch oven."
"I saw it."
The pie was every bit as good as it looked, as good as the one Murdoch was eating earlier. Come to think on it, he hadn't seen Murdoch for hours and the Conway ranch was less'n an hour's ride away. He turned to mention this to Scott, but he was asleep. If he snored, Johnny was likely to shoot him.
He yawned. Doin' nothing was awful tiring.
His own bedroll was untouched. He always tied the pigging strings holding the roll together with a fiador knot, the one that Papa had helped him learn years ago now. It was a real mean bitch to tie and not many people could do it. Meant that he always knew if anyone had been messing with his gear and most people wouldn’t bother, knowing they couldn't fool him by retying it. There wouldn't be any fish in his bedroll, if he could help it.
He unrolled the blankets near where Scott was sleeping, and settled in to be comfortable. Scott snored, just a little bit. His head had fallen to one side and his mouth was open. Johnny smiled.
He let the smile broaden. It had worked like a dream, mentioning Hernán's fish trap to the right man to do something with it. Looked like he owed Toledano five dollars.
Damn, but this brother of his was turning out to be a man worth riding the river with. And maybe this ranching thing might just work out, too. There were worse ways of earning a living, that was certain.
He lay on his back, head against his saddle, looking up at the sky. The stars were very bright, so close that they looked like he could reach right out and touch them. One of the men on the other side of the fire moved. Johnny looked up sharply, hand reaching for his gun; but the man, Beedie, was only putting more wood on the fire. He relaxed, watching the sparks fly upwards, all glittery gold and red. He could hear the creek rush in the distance, sounding like two or three old biddies murmuring and gossiping to themselves a ways off. He couldn't see the main herd from the camp-site, but he could just hear the nighthawks singing, keeping the cattle quiet and making sure they didn't spook.
It was a nice night. .
They ended the round up down past Lancer's southern border, on Henry Reagh's land.
It had taken more than two weeks; getting up before the sun and eating in the dark, spending long, long days in the saddle gathering up the cattle, and hours bulldogging down calves for the branders and tallymen. Hell, but it was harder than Johnny had remembered. Maybe it wouldn't have been so hard if he'd been let to do any real work, but the most days all he'd done was haze the day herd from one place to another and train his horses. He'd fixed on keeping Pecos, the paint, as his second stringer and hell, but training the gelding and Barranca had been all that kept Johnny from exploding, some days. At least Murdoch was finally starting to let up and let Johnny do some of the gathering work, the last couple of days. He still hadn’t been let to do any branding though.
But Boston, now! Well, Boston had made a hand.
He was leaner and browner than Johnny had ever seen him, his hair lightened to a real dusty blond, and he roped cows with the best of them. By the end of the round up, he said he was ready to try bulldogging at one of the branding fires and wouldn't be gainsaid. Murdoch had sat that big-assed bay of his, stiff-backed and watching, and keeping his face hidden by his hat. The old man didn't say anything, but his hands on the reins were clenched so tight that his fingers were white. Johnny had watched with one hand on his gun, ready to put a bullet through the fool calf's brain if it got the better of the fracas, but Boston and Jaime worked together real well. Between them, they brought down over twenty beeves before Scott had taken a break. He came to stand beside Barranca, dripping with sweat and so covered in dirt and mud that Johnny could hardly see the man underneath, stinking of cow shit and calf piss and burnt hide. He was grinning. Reckon that granddaddy of his wouldn't know him if he saw him.
Johnny leaned down from the saddle to tousle Scott's dirty, sweaty hair. "Not much of a dandy now, eh?"
Scott threw back his head and laughed, a great big laugh, like he was real happy. He swatted Johnny off with his hat until Barranca skittered away, snorting, and Johnny had to gather up his reins. Then the shout went up— "Last calf and it’s a Santee steer!"— and Johnny jumped down from Barranca to grab at Scott, and like every other man on the round up, they were hollering and laughing and cheering while the cattle bawled and the horses danced and snorted and tossed their heads.
Scott tossed that stupid hat with the feather up in the air and threw an arm around Johnny's shoulders, grinning. Johnny let him.
He edged Barranca over a foot or two and well, whaddya know, Barranca's big feet ended up all over that hat where it fell to the ground. Scott just laughed and his arm around Johnny's shoulders tightened.
Yeah, this brother of his would do to ride the river with.
Accordin' to Murdoch, Laura Wallace was one of the most considerate women he'd ever met. She knew how much work went into a round up, how little time the ranchers and their hands had for anything that didn't have hide and horns. She never wanted to cause what Boston called inconvenience.
Yeah, real considerate. She waited until the Spring round up was done before she was done herself.
They buried her in the graveyard on the outskirts of Green River; in the proper part, where there were trees and markers and even a stone angel, and not the little corner that was Boot Hill where Day Pardee had his six feet of Californian ground. Johnny didn't go over to pay his respects. Day wouldn't expect it of him and there was no tellin' which of the graves was Ol' Day's anyway. There wouldn't be much of a marker. Day sure as hell didn't rate no angel.
Murdoch paid for everything. He paid Sam Jenkins, the undertaker and the minister, just like a Patrón should. Murdoch said that that wasn't what mattered, though. What mattered was that Lancer hands dug the grave and Lancer hands carried her to it. Along with a few people from the town, all the hands were there, even the newer ones who'd never met her. It was about respect, said Murdoch, and what was due to her.
Toledano said it best. Like Johnny, he was a bystander, although Scott was one of the pall-bearers, taking the place Murdoch might have if it hadn't been for his back and him being so big. Even Toledano was quiet and solemn as he helped settle the coffin on the shoulders of the six men who carried her.
"She was a part of the estancia, Juanito, and will be much missed." He gave the coffin a little pat as it started towards the grave. "I am too short to carry her and the Patrón is too tall, but Lancer looks after its own."
It was a real nice day. Everything was green and pretty. The grasses were laced through with little flowers, pink and yellow and blue. Teresa picked a handful of them and laid them on the coffin. Crickets jumped out of the grasses around their feet as they followed the pine box to the grave, bees and flies buzzed past their ears, and over by the trees there was a bird singing and fluttering. The sun was hot enough to make a man lazy and slow. It was the kind of day to think about a cantina and a tall glass of beer and maybe a pretty dark-eyed girl to share it with; it was too nice a day to think about pine boxes and holes in the ground.
The preacher talked for a long time. The afternoon sun burned against the back of Johnny's neck, with no hat there to shade him. He held onto the storm strap with his left hand while he listened to the old man's voice tell them how Laura Wallace was a good woman and a good mother; how the church and the Ladies Aid would be lost without her; how hard she'd worked to raise her son alone. How she was quiet, kept herself to herself; but never hesitated to help a neighbour or a soul in need. How she was a good Christian, assured of the Life Eternal.
"Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed…"
The old preacher's voice droned like one of them big pesky horseflies. Listening to him didn't make a man think that the Life Eternal would be a whole mess of fun.
Toledano's simple words were better.
Dammit, but Johnny hated funerals. He looked across the grave to where the boy, Ben, stood in a town suit. Ten years old and on his own. Well hell, Johnny knew what that was like. The kid looked lost. He kept liftin' one hand to his mouth, and even from several yards away, Johnny could see how much Ben's hand shook and that his mouth worked all the time. A brave kid, too; and proud. He set his chin and wouldn't let people see him cry.
He really knew what that was like, watching them put your Mama in the ground. He knew how it felt, trying not to let the tears show because boys didn't cry and big boys of ten sure as hell didn't cry. But he'd had Papa behind him, big broad hands on Johnny's shoulders, and even though Papa's hands had been shaking and Papa's mouth had worked, just like Ben's was now, still somehow the weight of Papa's hands hadn't pushed Johnny down but held him up.
Ben didn't have a Papa to hold him up, poor little cuss.
'Course, Murdoch would see the kid was all right. The day the round up was over, when they got back to the hacienda that night, tired and sore and hungry, Teresa told them that word had just come from Sam in Green River. She was red-eyed and sad, poor little girl, and cried when she mentioned the Wallace kid. Must have made her think of her Pa, thinking of a kid left all alone the way Paul O'Brien had left her. Murdoch had to have been as tired as hell, but he'd gone straight into town that night and brought Ben out to the ranch. Must have felt obligated. Laura Wallace had worked on Lancer for the past ten years, cooking and sewin' for the bunkhouse and helping out in the main house. Guess that Murdoch owed her that much, taking care of her son.
Funny how good he was at takin' care of other folks' kids.
Scott went straight to Ben when the preacher was finished. He hadn't been happy about leaving the kid to stand by the preacher in the first place, and hell, Ben could have done with Boston there beside him. Scott had taken to Ben, the last few days. He'd taken the kid about with him on the range, he let Ben help with the barn work every night, he listened when Ben talked about his worries about what was going to happen to him and he probably let the kid cry if Ben had a mind to. He'd even taken to reading to Ben in the salón every night after supper. He read from that fat red book about the feller left all alone on the island when his ship wrecked. Scott was damned fond of that book. He'd read it to Johnny, too, when Johnny was sick. That was something, Boston thinking the same book would do for the both of them. Johnny was still reckoning out what he thought about that one.
But right now he was thinking more about the men up on the ridge above town. He'd noticed them about half way through the service. Murdoch had looked too, and Scott. They'd all seen them. Three… no, four of 'em, all on horseback, all just sitting up there, watching. Johnny had watched them back, his hand resting on his gun butt, until the service was over and the horsemen rode over the ridge and out of sight.
Teresa tugged at his sleeve. "Who are those men?"
How in tarnation should he know? He'd been around a lot of places but he still didn’t know every damn drifter in the west. Johnny shrugged. "Whoever they are, they aren't too sociable."
"Well, it can't hurt Laura now, I guess." Murdoch nodded to Cipriano to get the hands rounded up and back to the ranch, but for Frank and Walt who'd volunteered to fill the grave. He helped Teresa up into the buggy. "Ten years ago when she came to me for a job to support herself and Ben—he was just a baby then—she was running away from the man she'd thought she was in love with. I think he was up there on the ridge today. I think that one of those men was Ben's father."
Johnny looked around, but Scott had taken Ben away from the graveside and was talking to Sam Jenkins and the Tafts, friends of Laura Wallace's who had no kids and wanted to take Ben as their own. Mr Taft had a hand on Ben's shoulder. His hand was brown and callused, like he worked hard, but it sat gentle on the kid, not weighing him down. He looked kind. Mrs Taft, too. Ben would be okay with them.
The boy was out of earshot and wouldn't hear anything to stir him up more than he needed to be on the day he buried his Mama. The kid had enough to worry him, even with the Tafts bein' kind. Johnny turned back to Murdoch, not sure he had really heard right. If he had… well, wasn't that something.
Looked like Murdoch knew more than one woman who'd grabbed her son and run away from her man.
Strange, that Murdoch had helped her to do it. Maybe Murdoch hadn't seen how he and the man on the ridge could use each other for a mirror. Maybe he hadn't ever considered, when he helped Laura Wallace, that he was keeping a man from his son.
Murdoch's voice was real calm. "Yes, I think that was Morgan Price."
Teresa's eyes were wide. She was still dabbing at them with a bit of cloth with lace edging. "The Morgan Price?"
Murdoch nodded and climbed up into the buggy.
Johnny looked back up at the ridge. There was nothing to see there now. "Never heard of him."
"He's an outlaw." Murdoch answered Johnny's shrug with a tight grin. "He's quite famous in this part of California and the Cattleman's Association has put a price on his head—a very large price. He's thought to have a hideout somewhere around Blood Rock and Lost Hills."
"That's what… about seventy or eighty miles south of here?"
"About that. Down Bakersfield way." Murdoch gathered up the reins but didn't start the horses. His pale blue eyes, paler than Johnny's own, narrowed. "What is it?"
"I dunno, Murdoch." Johnny tugged on his hat's stampede strings to pull it up far enough for him to catch at it and put it back on. "I was just thinkin', that's all."
"You say she ran away from this man Price, takin' the kid with her?"
"Well, I was just thinkin' that she didn't run very far."
Murdoch's mouth tightened right down. He glanced up at the ridge, then at the still-open grave and the mound of dirt beside it. Ben was in the Tafts' buckboard on his way back into town and Scott and Sam were walking towards them, talking. Frank and Walt started in on the dirt and Johnny heard the thud as the first spadeful hit the coffin lid.
"No." Murdoch's eyes were cold, real cold. He added, with a harsh emphasis that told Johnny everything he wanted to know: "She didn't."
Johnny was the first into the salón that night. He could hear Teresa talking to Maria in the kitchen and the faint clash of pans on the stove. He didn't know where Murdoch and Scott were.
He'd managed this a few times before the round up, snatching a minute or two when no one was around. The big globe stood in front of the bookcases on a polished wooden frame, hung on a rod like a wheel on an axle, so he could twirl it around and look at it. It was a handsome thing.
He'd heard of these things, but the mission school in Cantamar had been poor and hadn't run to globes. He'd never seen one before coming to Lancer. The first time he'd looked, it had taken him a few minutes to figure it out and find Mexico on it. He'd traced the Baja California coastline with his finger until he found Colinas de Rosarito. The farm had been somewhere around there. He couldn't work out exactly where, not on this queer map pasted onto the globe. And yet if he had to go there, he'd find it in a heartbeat. He didn't need a map.
He might go back,
one day, and pay Tadeo Madrid a visit, him being family and all. Call him
Tio, maybe, and see him sweat. He sure did sweat the last time Johnny was
down that way. Couldn't ever remember Tio Tadeo bein' so polite or makin'
him so welcome. Tio couldn't do enough to make Johnny's stay a pleasant
He grinned and twirled the globe, stopping it when it reached the part he wanted. Every time he sneaked in here to look, he started by rubbing his fingertip over Colinas de Rosarito before turning the globe to keep looking. Maybe he did it for luck; Dios knew, he needed it. He hadn't realised there were so many places in the world. Didn't help that the writing on the globe was small and sort of crabbed-looking – nothing here like that clear lawhand Boston had jawed about once.
The last time he'd looked he'd thought he'd found what he was looking for, but then he'd heard Murdoch's heavy tread on the tiled floor and he'd had to leave it and be over by the fireplace before Murdoch got through the door. Yeah, there it was, across all the blue spaces that had to mean seas and oceans. The country was coloured green.
Looked a real small place, Scotland did. Didn't look like a man would have enough room to stretch out his arms and claim space for his own.
He glanced out of the window. The sun was dropping down behind the mountains and everything out there—pasture, meadows, mountains—was shadowed with a dark purple in the dusk, like the bloom on a grape. He could just see a star above the mountains. This was a real pretty land, with lots of open space and room for a man to breathe.
He could see why Murdoch came here. What he couldn't see, not to be certain, was why his mother left. He knew what she'd said was the reason, but… well.
The globe wouldn't help him there.
Scott came into the room. He walked softer than Murdoch, but still Johnny heard him and gave the globe one more twirl for luck, and so Scott wouldn't see which bit he'd been looking at. "Taking up geography?"
Johnny turned, grinning. "I never saw one before coming here. It's a fine looking thing."
"It certainly is." Scott came to stand beside him. "It's a remarkably good one. Better than the one I had in my schoolroom, I can tell you." He gave Johnny a moody look. "Round about the time you were fighting the French, I expect."
Johnny shrugged. "Different schools, that's all, Boston."
Scott nodded, still a bit solemn, like he was in church or still at Laura Wallace's funeral. He reached out and gave the globe another spin, grinned and headed for the gun tree to hang up his fancy new Russian revolver. He looked at Johnny and raised an eyebrow, and jerked his head towards the gun tree.
"Is there a long fancy word for that, brother, for doing what you do there?" Johnny waggled his eyebrows at him.
Scott chuffed out a laugh. He frowned, thought about it and shook his head. "You know, Johnny, I don't believe there is."
Well, that was kinda disappointing. He'd got used to Boston having a word for everything. "Seems to me that education of yours ain't all it's cracked up to be, then."
Johnny walked over to the table and unbuckled his gun belt. Since they'd got back to the hacienda after the round up, he'd given in to Murdoch about taking off his gun while they ate supper. He didn't like it, but he did it. He hooked the belt around his chair. He might as well put it on the gun tree with Scott's for all the good it would do him, but that was as far as he'd go, just yet, and he still kept it with him when they sat in the salón after the meal. Murdoch just sort of grunted when he saw it the first time, but Johnny thought he was pleased and it stopped the old man from jawin' on about it—and that pleased Johnny.
What was it Boston had called it? Oh yeah. A reasonable compromise, or something like that. Strange that he had a fancy word for Johnny taking off his gun in the house to please Murdoch, but didn't have one for that thing he did with his eyebrows.
Murdoch looked tired when he finally joined them in the salón. He'd spent the rest of the afternoon out at the smithy, banging the hell outa long bits of metal and scowling a lot. Johnny ducked his head and watched him while everyone ate and talked about the funeral and Ben. The smithy had to be a good place for a man to hammer out his mad until he was too tired to think about the past that maybe wasn't as dead and gone as he'd like. Maybe Laura Wallace's story had had cut closer to the bone than Murdoch was willin' to let on.
He was still watching Murdoch when the door slammed open and two men burst in, waving their pistols around. Johnny didn't have time even to curse, before he was on his feet, hand clawing for the gun butt that wasn't there, dammit.
It damn well wasn't there.
Across the table from him, Scott was halfway out of his chair, before realising what Johnny already had. They were helpless. ¡Chingalo, but they were helpless! ¡Mierda!
"Don't move. Don't anybody make a move." One of the men took a step forward. His gun was cocked and ready, finger on the trigger.
The big pinche cabron was smirking so much that Johnny ached to hit something. Maybe the man, maybe Murdoch for making him take off his gun, maybe himself for being so stupid as to do it. He took a deep breath, letting it calm him. He'd have to twist to get at his gun on the chair back. They'd likely get at least one slug into him before he could reach it. He'd have to move fast…
"All right." Murdoch was real calm. "Settle down."
The other man spoke direct to Murdoch. "These two hotheads yours?"
Murdoch nodded. "Yes."
The man grinned. "Well, let's try to make this a friendly visit, huh?"
It had to be Morgan Price; him and one of his men and another two at the French windows behind Johnny. The two were waiting outside, said Price—and he grinned when he said it in a way that made Johnny itch to knock his teeth in— because he wasn't too sure of Murdoch's hospitality. Four of them. Johnny couldn't take on four of them, not unarmed and having to twist to even get at his gun belt. They'd gun him down before he could even touch the leather.
Johnny dropped back in his chair. While Price made a show of putting a big bag of money on the table in front of Murdoch, the other man walked behind Johnny, twitched the gun belt off the chair back and tossed it onto the floor against the wall. There wasn't a hope in hell of him reaching it there. The bastard grinned at him.
Beside him, Teresa was shaking. She'd barely squeaked when Price and his friend had burst in, but she was shaking now. Maybe she'd been too shocked before, but now she was just plain scared. Johnny put his hand over hers and squeezed. She gripped back so hard his fingers ached. They'd have to shoot him down to get to her, if that was on their minds.
Murdoch looked down at the money bag. "What's this?"
Price leaned up against the empty chair beside Scott. "Five thousand dollars. That's the amount of reward they've got posted on me."
"I heard." Murdoch damn near snorted like a bull. He didn’t sound too impressed.
"Seems like a fair amount of money for a kid to get started with."
"Ben doesn't need your money, Price. He'll be well taken care of."
"But not the way I want him to be taken care of. You see that he gets it, Lancer. You see he buys what he needs."
Murdoch frowned. "Why?"
Price shrugged at him. "Why? Because he's my son. Maybe I owe him. Whatever. I always pay my debts."
Murdoch snorted again. "Money doesn't pay that debt, Price. You weren't around all those times when he needed your help."
Johnny almost gasped out loud. It took everything he had to show nothing. It took every damned minute of years of living down on the border, where to let a man get to you meant giving him an edge that could kill you, to stare down at the table and sit still and quiet. He lost the next few minutes. He could only sit there and stare at the white tablecloth while Murdoch pretended he knew what being a father was and Price talked about winning the money at faro.
There was a darn in the tablecloth. It was real neat, the stitches so tiny he could hardly see them. His mother's fancy work, the decoration she'd put on Johnny's clothes when he was a kid, was as fine as that. Couldn't have been Teresa's doing here, not given the stitchin' she did most nights after supper in the salón. Maria, maybe.
He took a deep breath. And another. Murdoch, ese maldito hipócrita, agreed to get the money to the kid.
When he could look up again, Price was halfway out the door. "The kid's still mine. He'll always be mine. You remember that."
The door slammed shut. Johnny surged to his feet and dived for his gun, catching up the belt and yanking the Colt out of the holster. He pulled open the door. Too late. Just dark shapes in the moonlight and the sound of horses galloping away. He raised his gun, staring down the short barrel for a moment, but Price and his men were already out of reach."
Scot appeared beside him. "Johnny! It's too late, they've gone."
He took another deep breath, and lowered the gun. "I fuckin' well know they've gone, Boston. I ain't blind. Just stupid." He stood for a minute, breathing hard, trying to make his heart stop thumping so hard. "Cipriano."
He ran for Cip's house, taking no notice of Scott's shout behind him, or of Murdoch's deeper voice wanting to know where he was going. Round the side of the house and through Teresa's garden at the back, over the adobe wall and into the meadow where the married hands lived in a tiny pueblo of adobe houses. Cip's was the biggest, set in its own little garden. He banged on the door with the butt of his gun.
Cipriano jerked the door open, gun in hand. Jaime was behind him, lifting a rifle into his hands, and behind him stood the Señora, Señora Isabella, just rising from her chair at the supper table.
She looked frightened. "Juanito?"
"We had visitors, Cip. Morgan Price just came callin' and it weren't to spark Teresa. Get someone up onto the tower, will you? And keep a guard up there all night." Johnny took a step into the room. "Lo siente, Señora; lo siente. I didn't mean to frighten you."
The Señora was a very gracious lady. She held out a hand to draw Johnny to her, and she stood tall and straight. "You did not frighten me, niño. I was just a little startled."
"Morgan Price? This far north?" Cipriano nodded to Jaime. "Walt is good with a rifle. Get him up there, hijo mio, and we'll send someone else at midnight."
"Bueno. We've got too soft, too fast. It ain't that long since Pardee, too soon to be lettin' our guard down this far." Johnny shook his head, so angry he was buzzing with it. "Estúpidez! Muy estúpidez! We have no idea who was payin' Day; if they're still around. We need to be a helluva lot sharper than this."
"Si." Cipriano rubbed at the back of his neck. "Si, I agree, niño. You're right."
"What would a man like Price want here?" The Señora's hands closed on Johnny's arm. She took no notice of the gun in his hand.
Johnny moved a little to one side to let Jaime pass him. He opened his mouth to explain, then closed it. It wasn't his tale to tell. "From what he said, it was family business."
She frowned at him and spoke soft and kind. "And why does that anger you, niño?"
Johnny just shook his head. He folded his arms across his chest, but she didn't let go, just came a little closer. She didn't press for an answer. Her hands on his arm were small and soft and warm, just like Mama's. She was very beautiful, too, just like Mama.
Murdoch and Scott were behind him now. He glanced at them once. Fat lot of good it was now, them turning up with guns in their hands.
Murdoch was panting, and had one hand on his back. Sam would have something to say about a man with a back gone sour on him, runnin' like that. "Where's Jaime going?"
Cip put his own gun onto the table. "To get a guard on the roof, Patrón."
"I don't think that will be necessary. Price isn't likely to come back."
Johnny spun around, despite the Senora's soft protests. "Tell that to Teresa. She was shaking to bits up there."
"She's with Maria."
Johnny snorted. "Yeah, that'll scare the likes of Price white-headed. Maria can hold him off with her fryin' pan, maybe. She'll likely do better than we did."
Scott came up and bowed a polite greeting to the Señora. "Take it easy, Johnny. They didn't mean us any harm. There's no reason to be so agitated."
"Well, hell, I dunno, Boston. Maybe it’s having people with guns bust in on me when I'm sittin' there and can't get at my pistol because that old man don't like me wearin' it in the house—that kinda thing gets me real agitated."
"And maybe it's having to listen to that shit." Johnny glared at Murdoch. "I dunno about you, but there's only so much of that I can take." He had to stop, and take another deep breath to calm himself. "I'm goin' into Morro Coyo."
Scott looked confused. "Right now?"
"Right now. Right now afore I shoot someone."
They all looked shocked. Scott spoke, real careful: "Johnny, I get that you're mad—"
"Damn right I am. Damn right." And he had to take another deep breath, slow everything down.
"You are going to come back? I mea—"
"Oh, I'll be back, Boston. Maybe not tonight, but yeah, I'll be back. I own a third of this place, now, don't I? And damn, but we better hang onto it, you and me, because it's all we're ever goin' to get. The debt's been paid." Johnny grinned at Murdoch. "I'll bet you're mad as a hornet right now, ain't you, old man? You paid well over the goin' rate for that sort of debt in this part of California. I reckon one third of the estancia's worth way more than five thousand dollars."
Murdoch just looked surprised, like he didn't know what he'd said. "Johnny—"
"You should have
held out, old man, and then you wouldn't have had to give away any of that
ground out there that you love more than anything else God ever created.
That's what you said, right?"
Murdoch's eyes widened. "Johnny, it wasn't like that—"
"Oh yes, it was." Johnny sighed, and scrubbed at his face with his left hand. He loosened the Señora's grip and bowed over her hand, raising it to his lips. "Lo siente, Señora. Buenas noches."
"Niño." Her voice was soft as honey, cajoling and like she was trying to calm him. But he was calm. He really was calm. He shook his head at her.
"Johnny, we need to talk about this." Murdoch was looking worried now.
Well, good. Damn good. He deserved to be worried.
"There's nothing to talk about. Scott and me, we get a third of the ranch each and you get an easy conscience." Johnny stuck his gun into his waistband and turned to the door. Scott was wincing, shaking his head at him, and Murdoch was white-faced and stern. "The debt's paid, Murdoch. That's all there is."
Johnny had been meaning to go to the Morro Coyo cantina for weeks. He hadn't been in there since the day after he'd arrived in California, when he'd taken a drink with Day Pardee and weighed up which side of the range war he was going to throw in on. Some days he wondered if he'd made the right choice.
It wasn't a very big place, and even on a weekday, it was full and noisy. A canción ranchero singer was trying to be heard over the noise, twanging hard on his guitar strings between every line. Johnny tilted his head to catch the words and grinned. Usual stuff, about bein' patriotic and dying cheerfully for Mexico. Hell, but there was no way he was going to die cheerfully for anything. He'd go out fightin' and griping about it, all the way.
Johnny edged his way in past a group of vaqueros standing in front of the bar. They barred the way, not outa orneriness, but because they were laughing and chatting and not giving a damn until one of them glanced at him and stared. Johnny gave him a big smile.
It got quiet then, voices trailing off. Even the singer let a few chords hang in the air like smoke. Johnny turned the smile on them all, real kind and gentle, and they parted in front of him to let him through like that sea did for Moses when he upped stakes and shinned out of Egypt.
He walked up to the bar, his right hand resting on his gun. There were a helluva lot more people in here than he liked, but these were his people, the sort of people he'd lived with when he was a kid. He felt safer with them here in this crowded cantina than he did walking the empty streets of Nogales, or Santa Fe, or Tucson. He didn't think they'd gun for him.
Behind the polished wood bar, the cantina owner looked a mite nervous. He swallowed so hard that Johnny saw his Adam's apple bob up and down. "Señor Madrid."
Well hell, yeah. He was, wasn't he?
Johnny smiled. "Si. That's me."
The cantina fed him on wild turkey in a mole poblano sauce, washed down with tequila. They served damn good tequila, better than he'd expected. Maybe this was where Murdoch bought the bottle that he'd got for Johnny to drink in the salón each night.
The girl who brought him his supper was very pretty. When she walked through the crowd, the men parted for her the way they'd parted to let Johnny through, but it only took one look at the girl for him to realise they had different reasons. They'd better have. Leastways, he wasn't as pretty, or the same shape, and he didn't reckon his hips moved just like hers. A man looked at Johnny's hip because of the gun strapped on it and maybe he thought about la muerte, the ugly fate that waited for all of them. But a man looked at hers swaying from side to side under the dark cotton skirt, and his thoughts had to be sinful, the sort of sinful that had the padres shaking their heads and damning souls. When she leaned down to put more turkey onto Johnny's plate, the neck of her blouse slipped down and her bosom bounced up. It was right across from his eyes, so close that he could see the sheen of sweat covering her smooth skin as everything moved. She took a breath and it all rose up in front of him, and man, but that was a sight to see. There was a lot to take in and he looked his fill.
Dios, she was pretty. Her eyes were bright, her dark hair gleamed in the lamplight and her mouth red and full. She had a tiny little beauty spot on the curve of her right breast. Every time her blouse dipped and she took a breath, the little beauty spot bobbed up, just beggin' for a man to kiss it.
He was having a few sinful thoughts himself. More than a few.
She ducked her head so she could look up at him through her lashes, and ran her tongue over her lips. Maybe she was thinkin' the same things he was. A saucy smile, and she was walking back to the kitchen and he was seeing those hips from the other side. The back view might even be finer. Hell, there was so much moving under that skirt that it looked like a couple of cats wrigglin' about in a burlap sack.
He was grinning as he ate. Most of the customers were grinning right along with him and the smiles he was getting were sly and knowing. There were many murmurs of Ah, esa Eugenia! Una niña preciosa! She sure was. She was a very beautiful girl. Johnny ate his supper with a smile on his face and one eye on the kitchen. If he was lucky, he'd get seconds and maybe even dessert.
She came back a few times to check that he was satisfied. "You have everything you need, Señor Madrid?" "More mole, Señor Madrid?" "Café, Señor Madrid?" "A pastel to go with your coffee, Señor Madrid? I baked them fresh today. Cinnamon or honey?"
And every time she came back she managed to wiggle things that probably shouldn't be wiggled around a man who hadn't been with a girl in weeks, and she'd lean over him and breathe hard so he could see that smooth bosom bounce and eye the little beauty spot he wanted to kiss.
It put a keen edge on a man's appetite, that was for sure, seein' that banquet spread out in front of him.
When it was late and the cantina was emptying, and he was wondering about asking about a room, she brought him a café de olla in a clay bowl. Now Johnny liked his coffee strong, but this stuff? This was the coffee that God drank. She offered him a bowl of piloncillo, and when he picked up a piece and bit into it, her smile was as sweet as the taste of the sugar on his tongue.
"You know my name, Señor Madrid." She looked pleased.
"Seems only fair. You know mine." He dropped a couple of pieces of piloncillo into the coffee and stirred it.
She laughed. "Everyone knows your name."
She looked from him to the empty chair beside him and smiled. He pulled out the chair for her.
"Then we know each other, Señorita."
She sat down, sweeping those full skirts under her and making him think about what they covered, and how what they covered swayed and wriggled when she walked. Dios, but he wanted her to be swaying and moving under him so bad, he could taste it. She leaned forward, and the front of her blouse dipped again.
Johnny took a good look, and then took a mouthful of coffee to stop himself from puttin' his hands where they shouldn't go without she gave him leave. And she hadn't done that yet. The coffee de olla was thick and black, and spiced with cinnamon and cloves. It was wonderful. She was pretty damn wonderful, too. Damn it, but he'd been trapped on that ranch for so long. It had been far too long since he'd last seen a girl as pretty as Eugenia.
"But there is one thing I do not know, Señor." She looked at him, all wide-eyed; wickedness dressed up as innocence. "Is it true what they say about a pistolero and the size of his—" she paused and licked her lips "—gun?"
Johnny Madrid never choked on his coffee. It wouldn't be seemly.
He grinned back instead. "I sure hope not, Señorita. My gun's been cut down and shortened."
"Ah." She ducked her head again and damn it, but there were dimples goin' along with that smile. That wasn't playin' fair, not using dimples like that on a man. "And you are a good pistolero, no? These men say you are the best. You do not, as the gringos say, go off half-cocked?"
Dios, but she was gettin' things all stirred up. Johnny took her hand and raised it, brushing the backs of her fingers with his lips. "No, cariña. I promise that I'm only sudden with guns."
"Ah." Another little smile. "People say I should not believe all I hear about pistoleros. And perhaps they are right and that would not be very wise, and I should rely only on what I learn for myself to be true."
"Well, I'd admire to help you learn, Señorita, seein' as how I'm the only pistolero in town. How do you think we might do it?"
She opened her eyes very wide and hell, but a man could lose himself in those dimples. "Perhaps you could show me, Señor Madrid?"
It was good to know he hadn't been wrong when he'd thought he might get offered dessert.
Cipriano came looking for him a couple of days later.
Johnny had thought about going back to the ranch the day after leaving it, but he was still as mad as hell with Murdoch, and Eugenia was soft and warm and wriggled those hips so well when he was thrusting up into her that he saw stars. He spent a lot of time kissing that little beauty spot on her right breast until she was helpless with laughing and both of them were out of breath. So instead of going back to Lancer, he spent the day in bed, kissing Eugenia's breast and making her twist and moan. She'd only got up in the evening because César, the cantina owner, had banged on her door complaining that there was work to be done and customers to be served. César had begged Johnny's pardon for the interruption, but, as he said, he wasn't much of a cook himself and he had customers demanding to be fed.
Johnny had laughed and had spent the evening in the cantina. He'd worked up quite an appetite and looked forward to an another really tasty supper. He had a long and interesting discussion about Mexico City with Señor Baldomero, who kept the biggest Emporium in Morro Coyo (there wasn't, as Johnny figured it, much competition); and retired, after the cantina closed, for another night in which he, Eugenia and her beauty mark didn’t get a lot of sleep. It was one helluva lot more fun than punchin' cows all day and sitting quiet in the salón at night, wonderin' what to talk about.
He was surprised to see Cipriano, though, in Morro Coyo in the early afternoon of the second day. He was surprised to see anyone from Lancer. He hadn't thought that Murdoch would bother sending anyone looking for him. Murdoch had never bothered before, seemed to him, to be there when he was needed or even when he wasn't. From what Johnny could see, all he did was pay a few Pinks now and again to nose around the border towns asking for a woman named Maria. The very thought of that made him laugh.
"Raúl was in town yesterday and heard you were here at the cantina." Cipriano's calm eyes watched Eugenia bring coffee and pasteles, and watched her run a hand through Johnny's hair before she swayed her way back to the kitchen. He stayed calm, even seein' Eugenia's hips. Must come from being married to Señora Isabella, who was more beautiful even than Eugenia, although not as… well, just not the same. "It does not surprise me that you have made Eugenia's acquaintance."
Cipriano sipped at his coffee and tasted one of the cinnamon pasteles. "No. Most young men around Morro Coyo are under her spell, and you… well, niño, you are more of a catch than most vaqueros. Eugenia is a beautiful girl. She likes admiration. And she deserves it." He brushed cinnamon sugar from his moustache. "The Patrón sent me to find you. There has been trouble."
Johnny looked up. There would be no prizes for guessing where that came from. "Price?"
"We think so. Señor Scott went over to the Tafts' farm this morning to see Ben." Cip watched him, not showing much of what he was thinking. "He intended to come by here to speak to you on his way back to the estancia, to bring you home with him. But while he was with Ben, two men came. Scott was knocked out and when he woke again, Ben and the men were gone. The Tafts saw nothing, but Scott is sure that the men were two of those with Price the other night."
The sharp stab he felt surprised him. "Is Scott all right?"
"Si. He was not badly hurt, and only unconscious for a few minutes. He rode back to the estancia himself to tell the Patrón. The trail leads south, towards Price's country down near Blood Rock. The Patrón and Señor Scott have started out to track the men and find Ben, and sent me to find you and tell you."
Johnny frowned. "That don't make any sense, Cip. Price… well, you'll have guessed that he's Ben's father?"
Cipriano shrugged. "Si. The Patrón told me today when Señor Scott got home."
"Well, Price didn't come to the estancia to take Ben and raise him. He came to give Murdoch money for Ben, to pay for whatever the kid might need while he lived with the Tafts. Didn’t seem to want more or speak to Ben himself, or anythin'." There was a light dusting of sugar from the pasteles on the tabletop and Johnny traced a pattern in it with one finger. "Why send his men to take Ben and not get the money as well? It don't make any sense at all."
"No, not if Price left money for Ben. A great deal of money?"
"Well, it weren't a third of a ranch, but yeah. A lot." Johnny brushed out the pattern before Cip could see what it was. He could feel his mouth twisting and he had to look away.
"Perhaps it was all he could do, offer money for the son he did not know."
"Or all he wanted to do. Murdoch made some crack about that, about money not making up for Price not bein' there when Ben needed it, and Price just took it. Didn't put up a fight or nothing. Didn't look like that it hit home at all."
"Ah." Cipriano was stroking his moustache again when Johnny looked up at this.
"Ah, so that is why you were so angry? Not just being caught without your pistol, but at what the Patrón said about something that touched you so closely? I thought that was it, from what you said at my house." Cipriano paused, then said, quiet and solemn, "It is not my place to tell you this, but I will say this much. When your mother, the Señora de Lancer, left and took you with her, there was much heartache. No—" He held up a hand when Johnny opened his mouth. "I will not speak of the rights and wrongs of it, Juanito, because I know no more of them than you do. But of the grief your Mama left behind, that I know. I was there. I remember it. The whole estancia mourned, but the Patrón… something changed in him, I think. He has never been the same man, since. A weight presses on him."
Johnny shrugged. What in hell was he supposed to say to that?
"I think you should consider the possibility that what the Patrón said to Price was perhaps not about any guilt Price should feel, but more about his own."
Cipriano Roldán was one hell of a vaquero, one of the best horsemen Johnny had ever seen and a genius with beeves. He was the perfect choice to be foreman of a ranch as big as Lancer. But more than that, he was a formal, honourable man; old fashioned, of the old school, courteous, and more honest than daylight. He did what was proper; but Cip was a man who was more concerned with what was right and true. He wouldn't speak of things like this lightly and he wouldn't say what he didn't think was true.
He reminded Johnny of his Papa, grown older. He trusted him. And what Cip had to say… well, Johnny hadn't thought of that.
He hadn't thought of Murdoch carrying around the weight of Mama's leaving.
But now he had, he didn’t know what he was supposed to make of it. He knew what Teresa had said: When he was shot, when we thought that he might die, he was calling her name, Johnny! But Murdoch never talked about her, never ever mentioned her. Only on that first day, when Johnny and Scott had got to Lancer, when there'd been that flat out denial that Murdoch had sent Mama and him packing: I don’t care what you heard! Dios, had Murdoch been one angry, unwelcoming man. And a man who'd said the past wasn't important. Bad or good, right or wrong, it's past and gone. We're talking about now.
Trouble was, the past had a real bad habit of sneaking up on a man, and nudging him. Sometimes it nudged real hard. It weighed him down and pressed on him, like Cip said.
It pressed even harder when a man wasn't sure what the past was, anymore.
Johnny didn't know how to fit Mama's tale of the past with Murdoch getting so riled that day and keepin' his silence about it since. He didn’t know where to start working it out. He sure as hell didn't know where he stood between Murdoch's I don't care and Teresa's He called her name, Johnny.
Cipriano sat quiet, drinking his coffee and eating Eugenia's little cakes and looking around the cantina. He didn't look at Johnny. He let what he said rest there between them, to be thought about. He was a clever man, was Cip.
There wasn't time to talk about it now, not with Murdoch and Scott riding south, maybe into some trap of Price's making. Johnny pushed it aside to think about later. "What does Murdoch want me to do?"
Cipriano looked at him and brought his hand up to stroke his moustache. He did that a lot, hiding what was on his face that way. But his hand couldn't hide the way his mouth was turning up. "He said that he'd like you back on the estancia and that you should care for the little Teresa and Maria. I told him that I thought that you would not do that, but would follow him and your hermano."
"I'll bet he was real pleased about that."
"The Patrón seemed to think that I had a point. He changed his mind and said to tell you that they'd meet you in Blood Rock. He wants you to get there as soon as you can." Cipriano let the grin through. "I will care for the little Teresa myself, in your absence. As for Maria Morales… well, as you said in my house the night Price came to Lancer, Maria would be the match of any bandito."
Johnny glanced at the kitchen door, and nodded. He didn't want to waste time going back to the estancia for his things. Eugenia would likely make him up some food to take with him, and maybe he could borrow a blanket. "Thanks, Cip. I'll leave now. If I push hard, I'll be in Blood Rock tomorrow night."
"They will welcome your help, I think. Price may not be the worst bandito you have come across, Juanito, but he is dangerous enough. They will need you."
Johnny pushed back his chair. He knew they would. Damn fools, goin' up against a man like Price without him.
Barranca was going to be a great horse to work with, maybe the finest Johnny had ever owned. He was smart and feisty, and he kept on going, giving Johnny another mile and then another, long after they should have stopped and rested. He kept on giving, that horse did.
Barranca wasn't completely blown when they finally reached Blood Rock late the next day, but he was one tired pony. He'd need a few days rest before Johnny rode him again. Whatever was going on with Price, Johnny would need to hire a horse to handle it. He wasn't going to ride Barranca until the gelding foundered, not for the likes of Morgan Price.
Blood Rock was like any other town—a long main street that swelled itself into a sad-lookin' dusty little square in front of the saloon and the bank, lined with wooden buildings with false fronts meant to make them look bigger and fancier than they really were. It was dark when he rode into town but the moon was near the full, hanging huge and white above the mountains. The light from it was so strong that it cast a faint shadow of the big oak tree in the middle of the square. The town was empty. It was late for workin' folks, maybe nine or ten; but not so late that the streets shouldn't have a few people moving about, going in and out of the saloon and the stores. There was no one. The lights were on in the saloon, but everything else was dark and quiet.
Too damned quiet.
Johnny felt like his skin was itching, like he was covered in ants or something. He slowed Barranca down to a walk, hearing the gelding blow out a couple of harsh snorts as its breathing evened, and listened hard for anything that would tell him why this town was as tense and nervy as a cat on the prowl. He rested his hand on the smooth walnut grips of his gun. Something was going to happen, he could feel it.
There were men on the boardwalk, crouching in the shadows. But hell, a man would have to be blind not to know they were there. Johnny's grip tightened on the gun, but then he saw the moonlight flash on silver on the chests of a couple of them. Lawmen? They had to be lawmen. At least six of them and one or more behind him, across the street.
¡Mierda! He was boxed in. Still, they couldn't be after him and the safest thing to do would be to act as any law-abidin' citizen would act; the way Murdoch or Boston would act.
He rode straight up to them like he didn't have a care in the world. One of them stood up, a stocky, bearded man in a town suit and a law badge on his chest. He looked a mite foolish at bein' caught crouching down behind a rockin' chair with half a dozen deputies. Who the hell hid behind a rocking chair, anyway? When bullets started to fly, a man would need something better than that. A good stout barrel, maybe.
That was a lot of deputies for a little town this size. Four or five too many. Something was up. Something was up in this nothing of a town, and Murdoch and Scott were here somewhere.
Johnny walked Barranca along past the men, making real sure they could see him looking at them, and came to a halt. He nodded to the lawman. "Evening, Sheriff. You've got a real quiet town here."
The rest of the men stood up and ranged themselves beside the sheriff, all holding guns. No one said anything. They just peered at him through the gloom, waitin' on the sheriff's word. They were all armed, and all had guns out and ready. One or two held scatterguns. Johnny eyed those with respect—hell, there was no arguing with a scattergun—and swung down out of the saddle. None of them raised their guns at him, just held them ready. Whoever they were looking for, it wasn't him or anyone like him.
He looped Barranca's reins over the hitching post and ran a hand down the horse's neck in thanks. It would be good to get him to the livery as soon as he found Murdoch and Scott. The horse needed a good rub down and some rest, but he'd be all right here for a little while.
Johnny eyed the men on the boardwalk. "I'll bet it's not even ten o'clock and you're all boarded up. What's got you all lined up here like a firing squad?"
And where in hell did that come from? It was weeks since Sonora and the nice people he'd led a revolution for; weeks since he'd been the next one up in front of the guns, within a minute of being shot when the Pink caught up with them and bought him out of there. He swallowed hard. Hell. He'd almost forgotten about it.
He clenched his right hand around his stirrup leather, the thin straps biting into his palm. Hell, that had been close. If it hadn't been for the Pink…
The sheriff spoke at last. He had the sort of voice Johnny didn't like, sort of smarmy, and with a drawl that made Johnny think of somewhere over Arkansas way maybe, or Tennessee. And he still hadn't put his gun away. He'd uncocked the hammer, but it was ready in his hand. "Who are you and what's your business here?"
Johnny kept it light. The deputies were all watching him, but he didn't get the feel that they were on the prod, looking for trouble. The main man here was the sheriff; he was the one to watch. "I just came into town looking for Murdoch. Murdoch Lancer."
The sheriff didn't look any too impressed. "You one of the Lancer boys?"
Well now. That was the question, wasn't it?
I don't care what you heard.
But He called her name, Johnny!
And What the Patrón said to Price was perhaps not about any guilt Price should feel, but more about his own.
Johnny blew out a tiny sigh and released the stirrup leather. "That's right." He glanced around. "What kind of a mousetrap have you got going here anyway?"
"Well, that's no concern of yours." The sheriff gestured to one of his deputies. "Tucker."
The man stepped forward and reached for Johnny's gun. Johnny froze. But the sheriff gave him the sort of cold smile that wouldn't look wrong on Wes Hardin's face, or Bill Longley's, and Dios alone knew that both of them acted like they'd been chewing on locoweed since they were weaned from their mother's milk. Hardin had shot a man once because he didn't like the colour of his shirt and Longley, when he weren't drunk, was always outa his head on peyote. Neither one of 'em had the morals of a rattler in a huff. This damn sheriff looked like he was out of the same mould. And against six of them, all of 'em gun in hand and ready to shoot, and two of them totin' shotguns… well, those weren't odds to make a man take risks.
All the deputies had tensed up, guns rising. Johnny looked down the barrels of one of the shotguns, mouths as wide as cannons, took a deep breath and let the man have his gun. No choice. ¡Chingao! No gun again. Dios be thanked that they didn't know who he was. They only thought they did.
The sheriff nodded, looking satisfied. "We're going to be taking you into protective custody."
"And what does that mean?"
"It means we have a pretty good thing going here and we're not going to let you spoil it." The sheriff glanced at Deputy Tucker. "It'll be about half an hour. Take him over to the saloon and buy him a drink."
Tucker waved his gun towards the saloon, grinned, and tucked Johnny's pistol into his belt. Now would be a good time for it to go off and blow that bastard's balls off. Given the chance, he'd blow that loco sheriff's balls off, too.
Dammit, but the sheriff knew Murdoch's name all right. You one of the Lancer boys? So he had to know about Scott, as well. They were here, then, somewhere. Something was goin' down with the law. Something that the sheriff reckoned the Lancers would spoil if they could, maybe? Price had to be all tangled up in there as well, then. That five thousand dollar reward would tempt a man far less loco than this cold-eyed lawman.
The saloon was all right. Not too crowded and the girls were pretty. Deputy Tucker complained when Johnny told him where he could stick the beer he offered, but he gave in and sent one of the girls for tequila. He took a table near the door.
Johnny didn't like that. His skin was back to crawling, even though it looked like no one had recognised him. He couldn't tip his hand, though, and say something about moving tables. The deputy had no idea who he was and Johnny wasn't about to say anything to get him wondering. Dammit, but Madrid was the only decent card he held. Everything else was a stone-cold bluff on a hand any sensible man would fold on. It felt like a cold deck he was playing here, with someone else—that bastard of a sheriff maybe?—holding the royal flush.
Johnny downed his first tequila in a single shot, feeling the liquor burn home. He hoped to hell and gone that the deck hadn't been stacked against Murdoch and Scott. He didn't much care if it was stacked against Price.
He poured himself a second tequila. "What's going on?"
The deputy took his gaze off the saloon doors. The sheriff was pacing up and down out there and every minute or so when he went past the doors, the deputy looked up, real perky and eager, like a hound pup waitin' for its master to ruffle its ears. "Like Sheriff Norton said, it ain't none of your concern."
"It is when you're keeping me from findin' my… from findin' Murdoch and Scott."
Tucker shrugged. "Won't be long. Then you can go look for them."
He wouldn't say any more and went back to staring at the saloon doors. Johnny sat quiet for a few minutes, listening to the piano player and watching a couple of cowboys on the tiny dance floor with some of the saloon girls. The polka was a real feisty dance to see.
There was a clock on the wall behind the bar, a big wooden one with a face twice as wide as the clock in the salón at Lancer. Johnny twisted to look at it. About a quarter before ten. He reckoned they'd been in there about a quarter hour. Whatever the sheriff was waitin' for was expected around ten. Not long to wait then.
When one of the girls came over, he pulled out a chair for her and got her a drink. She'd rather have a whiskey than tequila, she said, and came back from the bar with a shot glass full of red-eye. He let her talk to him while he sipped his tequila, watched the deputy watch the sheriff pace the boardwalk outside and listened to the steady sound of the sheriff's footsteps pacing back and forth.
She was just glad to sit down, she said, and with such good lookin' company, too, sugar. Dancin' with a feller, that was pure hell on the feet. You'd think it'd be a girl's back that ached the most, given how much time she spent on it, but no, that was real restful, mostly. It was her feet ached the worst. Some nights she could hardly stand to put them into her boots. See how tight the boots are?
She turned in her chair to lift one black-stockinged leg and waved the pretty little high-heeled boots at him, giving him a good look at the promised land. There was more'n a glimpse of creamy white thigh above the stocking tops. She wasn't wearin' drawers.
Johnny grinned at her. What was it about whores that made them so sweet and confidin' when they met a man? "You maybe need to lie down, cariña. Put those pretty feet up and take a rest."
She leaned forward and if what she had on her chest didn't measure up to Eugenia, it was still pretty nice to look at. "Oh, you're so right, sugar. A rest is just what I need. A girl likes company, though, specially when it's a handsome man." She smiled, running her tongue over her bottom lip and showing nice teeth. "And honey, you're a very handsome man."
Johnny glanced at the clock. Almost ten. He shook his head with regret, and slid a couple of dollars into her hand. "Maybe later, cariña. I don't have time right now."
She looked disappointed. He gave her a quick kiss, got up and moved to the saloon doors, knowing that the deputy had tensed up behind him and was watching, real careful. The sheriff had stopped his pacin' just outside the doors, looking at his watch and tilting the face towards the light spilling out onto the boardwalk from the saloon's lamps. He was making a tch-ing sound to himself. The man had himself and the whole town wound up as tight as that watch of his.
"Sure looks like you've been stood up, Sheriff." Johnny leaned on the batwing doors and grinned as the man turned to glare at him. Johnny Lancer would probably have been a law-abidin' young man who wouldn't have the first clue about bandits and loco sheriffs, someone kinda innocent. Johnny didn't remember ever bein' as innocent as Johnny Lancer would be, but he could put on an act and make his bluff. "Who're you waiting for?"
The sheriff opened his mouth to say something, and from the look on his face, it wouldn't be real friendly. But before he could speak, there was the sound of hooves. A horse was coming in, fast.
Moving fast, the sheriff ducked into the saloon. Johnny stared out into the moonlight, frowning. Maybe it was Price, riding into a trap. Little as he cared about the outlaw, it was a shitty way to be brought down. This sheriff was no better than a back-shootin' bushwhacker.
The deputy, Tucker, came up behind Johnny, breathing hard with the excitement.
A horse came into view, a dark horse in the gloom, no knowing what its colour really was. Its rider was just a shadow shape, sitting in the saddle proud and straight.
Real straight. The way a soldier sat.
The deputy caught his breath and yelled That's him, Sheriff! at the same time that the sheriff shoulder-blocked Johnny and pushed him out of the way.
"That's Scott!" Johnny returned the favour with interest as the sheriff took a shot. He knocked the bastard so that his gun jerked up and the bullet ploughed into the saloon ceiling. With one hand, he wrenched the man away by the shoulder, sending him staggering into the room. A quick step and he threw a punch at Tucker that knocked the deputy off his feet.
Johnny surged out
of the saloon. "Scott!"
One of the other deputies was firing, and Scott was having trouble. The horse squealed, a God-awful sound, and reared; and then Scott was down and the horse was limping away, snorting. Johnny hurled himself out into the square to grab at Scott. He caught an arm and a handful of Scott's jacket, a bullet singing past his ear, and somehow he had a good enough grip to pull Scott to one side so the next bullet hit the oak tree instead of them. He hauled Scott behind the oak. It was all the shelter there was, but it was puny and thin and hell! why didn't he have his damn gun? and Scott was down and was he hurt bad? and no gun, he needed his damn—
Johnny choked out a ¡Dios! as Scott coughed and spluttered, coughing out dust. Scott was alive. He was alive and gasping for breath and muttering something Johnny couldn't catch. The sheriff shouted and ran out into the street, waving his arms at the deputies and yelling for them to hold their fire. Another bullet kicked at the dust only an inch or two from Johnny's side. He cursed, reaching for Scott's gun.
And then it was done. The firing stopped. It was over and he had Scott safe, and they were both alive. Scott's breathing still hitched some, but he put a hand out and closed it over Johnny's. Their eyes met. Scott grinned and nodded. Johnny, panting, managed a grin back.
"Lancer!" Hell, but that bastard sheriff sounded wrathy.
Scott's grin widened. He pushed himself to his feet, holding onto his right arm with his left hand. Johnny got up with him, keeping one hand out in case he needed it. But Scott straightened his shoulders, flexing his arm a few times, and evened out his breathing. He stared the sheriff in the eye. "You're too late, Sheriff. Price came to town an hour ago."
Just for a second, Johnny thought the man would shoot them both where they stood. The sheriff's face worked and his hands clenched, and damned if he didn't show his teeth. The man could give Wes Hardin a head start in the loco stakes and maybe still win.
The sheriff turned to his men. "I told you to keep an eye on that hotel! Check it out! Move! Move!"
They all charged off, yelling. If Price was still around, it wasn't like he didn't know now that the sheriff was gunning for him. Johnny let his hand skim down Scott's right arm, smoothing the sleeve. No blood.
"I landed hard, but nothing's broken." Scott flexed the arm again. "I am really glad to see you, little brother."
"Yeah. Glad to be here." Johnny gave Scott's forearm a gentle pat. "Ben?"
"Safe with Murdoch. And maybe with Price. He was coming in to see the kid."
"Uh-huh." The less said about fathers and sons, the better. Johnny gave Scott one more pat, and turned to look at the horse. It was only a few yards away, reins trailing. It was favouring its right foreleg, lifting the hoof. It whickered with fright and pain.
Scott was still working the hurt out of his arm. "Check Crusoe for me, would you? I think they hit him."
The horse limped a step away as Johnny came up to it, but was too well trained to try and run with the reins trailing. It was trembling, and in the moonlight the streak of blood down its right shoulder gleamed black. Johnny made soothing noises, and gathered the reins, getting close enough to see. The gelding's head drooped. The trembling was worse as Johnny felt the shoulder and pressed his bandanna against the shallow wound. The blood was already slowing.
"Creased him, I think, that's all. It's bleeding some, but it's not bad. You'll not be riding him for a couple of weeks, though." He rubbed the gelding's neck. "You're a good old feller," he told the horse. "You'll be just fine."
"Thanks." Scott looked down the street to the hotel where the sheriff and his band of deputies were running about and yelling. "I hope Price got out."
"I don't give a shit about him." Johnny frowned. "You called your horse Crusoe? The hombre who was on the island in that fat red book of yours?"
"It's my favourite book."
Johnny shook his head and took Crusoe over the hitching rail where Barranca waited. The horse limped after him. He didn’t hurry it, but let it pick its own pace. It was calming, snuffling a bit as it nosed Johnny's shoulder. Barranca rolled his eyes towards Johnny, showing the whites, and snorted, tossing his head. He'd be unsettled by all the gunfire too, poor old feller. Johnny ran a hand over Barranca's neck to gentle him.
He went back to Scott. "Do we find Murdoch or see what the loco sheriff is up to?"
"Murdoch." They started down the street. "Why do I get the impression you aren't impressed by Robinson Crusoe?"
"You'd never get me on a boat—they get wrecked. And that Crusoe feller kept on getting on boats. You'd think he'd learn. I ain't comfortable about a man who doesn't learn from his mistakes."
Scott laughed. "I had this idea when I was a kid that Murdoch was like Crusoe. My grandfather's view of the West is that it's savage and wild and he always told me that Murdoch had taken my mother to live in a mud hut. Robinson Crusoe had a mud hut too, so I thought Murdoch must have a beard like Crusoe's and dress in skins… well, you get the idea. Who knows why kids think what they do?"
"Well, the hacienda is adobe." Johnny caught the sidelong look Scott was giving him and they grinned at each other. "It's a good name for your horse, though."
There was a shout, another flurry of shots, and way down past the livery a man staggered out into the street to fall on his face in the middle of it.
"Damn!" Scott set off running, Johnny beside him.
It was Price. Shot in the back, just like Johnny expected, and with one of the saloon girls holding him and sobbin' on his chest like a grievin' widow. A few feet away the sheriff was on the ground as well, but dammit he was alive. Shame, that. Murdoch was there, looming out of the dark real sudden, so damned tall and grave; and then little Ben was beside him, standing with his mouth open with surprise, his eyes wide. Scott let out an oath and went for the kid, to get him out of the way.
That smarmy, Arkansas voice grated like hell on a man. The sheriff sounded so full of himself that Johnny would be happy to shoot him. "To be famous, Tucker, you got to do something famous."
Johnny left Scott and Murdoch to it. He walked up to Tucker, who was helping the sheriff up, and jerked his gun out of the deputy's belt.
Johnny ignored him. He looked at the sheriff, right in the eyes. "You want to be famous for bushwhackin' and backshootin' a man, that's your look out. And hell, I'll make damn sure that's what you're known for." He spun the gun on his finger and holstered it.
Price said something to Ben and closed his eyes. The saloon girl wailed and Ben, tears starting, turned to hide his face in Murdoch's side. Murdoch put his arms around the child's thin shoulders, and looked over his head to where Johnny stood. He looked stern and watchful for a moment, then he smiled a little and nodded, like he was glad Johnny was there.
Hell, but some days Johnny thought he never would be able to read that man, and know what he was thinking and why he did what he did, or if he meant what he said.
The sheriff got to his feet. If Price had shot him, and not one of his own stupid deputies, the bullet had only creased him. "And who'll listen to you?"
Johnny had almost forgotten the lawman. He looked away from Murdoch for a moment. "Oh, there's a few people will listen to me when I put the word out. Because I'm already famous, Sheriff, and you puttin' down one two-bit outlaw don't even come close."
The sheriff snorted. "Oh yeah. Sure you are, Lancer."
Johnny smiled. He loved this. He loved the slow smile and makin' his voice soft and smooth, like honey dripping off a spoon, and seeing a man's eyes widen when he realised who he was faced with. "Yeah, I'm Johnny Lancer. But that's not all I am. Most folks know me by another name. And that name's Madrid, Sheriff. Johnny Madrid."
He tipped his hat, grinned, and walked over to join his… to join Murdoch and Scott, leaving the sheriff staring.
Dios, but that felt
"You are coming back with us, right?"
Scott's arm was just bruised, not broken, but he let Johnny put on another cold, wet cloth to take the bruising down. Murdoch was in the next-door room with Ben. Johnny could hear the rumble of that deep voice as Murdoch said whatever it was that needed to be said to a kid who never knew the father he'd just seen shot down and who didn't know what he'd lost. Be a miracle if Murdoch knew what that was, though.
It had been different for him. He'd known it when the rurales had shot Papa. He'd surely known what he was losing there. His right hand curled into a fist, to match the curl of pain in his gut.
"Johnny?" Scott sounded anxious. "You are coming back to Lancer?"
"Sure." Johnny sat back. He tapped Scott's arm. "That okay?"
"It's fine. And stop changing the subject. I know how mad you were the other night. I hoped you weren't going to leave over it."
Johnny sat back against the foot of the bed Scott was lying on. "No. I wouldn't do that. I was pretty mad at what Murdoch said, though. Near on took my breath away."
"The irony did strike me."
Whatever the hell that meant. Johnny shrugged.
Scott rubbed a hand over his face. He looked tired. "He put a hell of a lot of effort into making sure Price got the chance to meet Ben. I've been wondering about that; about how much he wished, perhaps, that someone had done the same for him." He looked down at the quilt, his finger tracing the pattern. "Ben said something earlier that's been on my mind a bit. He said that he deserved a chance to know his father, otherwise how else would he ever know if his father would have even liked him." He looked up. "Did you ever wonder that, when you were Ben's age?"
Johnny huffed out a quiet sigh. "The story I got, Boston, meant I thought I already knew the answer."
"Ah. Of course." Scott leaned his head back against the headboard and closed his eyes. "I remember what you said to Teresa that day when I flattened you."
Johnny grinned. "You hit hard that day."
"I meant to." Scott opened his eyes and grinned at him. "Well, I found that I understood Ben's point of view all too well. I wondered the same thing when I was his age."
"And do you reckon that you'll ever get an answer?"
"I don't know. I think, though, it's worthwhile staying to find out, to try and see if there's something there to build on. Beyond the partnership in the ranch, I mean." Those pale blue eyes fixed on Johnny's. "And it's very worthwhile staying to get to know the brother I didn't know I had."
Johnny nodded. After a long minute, Scott's eyes slid closed again. Because he owed Scott for telling him about what Crusoe meant to him, he said, so soft that he wasn't sure Scott would hear him: "I won't leave because of what Murdoch said to Price. I was mad—who in hell wouldn't be mad?—but the more I worked through it, the more I figured it didn't matter, not in the end. I had someone to be there when he was needed, when I was like Ben and when Mama… when Mama went. It just wasn't Murdoch."
Maybe Murdoch had wanted to be there, and Cip was right. And maybe he didn't. But Papa had wanted to be there, holdin' Johnny up. Johnny still wasn't sure about Murdoch and what Murdoch wanted. Cip might believe what he said about Murdoch, but Johnny couldn't tell. He kinda thought Murdoch had got used to the past pressing on him and maybe didn't know how to make it any different now. And maybe didn't want to.
I don't care what you heard.
All that boiled down to was not carin'. How much of that was a man talking in anger at being challenged and how much something else? Who knew?
He called her name, Johnny. And His own guilt.
"I'm glad you did, Johnny." Scott sounded sleepy. "So why are you staying?"
Johnny didn't answer. For a moment or two neither of them said anything, then Scott's head tilted over to one side, his breathing deep and even. His mouth fell open a little bit.
Johnny looked at him and grinned. He reached down to snag one of the pillows and wriggled down the bed until he was stretched out and could jam the pillow under his head. He took his gun out from the holster and slid it under the pillow. A quick easing of his shoulders, and he could relax, let himself sink into the mattress, pushing Scott's feet off to one side a bit to make more room. A light snore came from somewhere near his own feet.
Well, finding out if the answer he'd had as kid was right or not wasn't a bad reason for staying, not when he thought it out. He could live with the answer either way, though finding out that Teresa and Cip were right would take some getting used to. Maybe he could work out how he fitted into all of this, and how Mama's tale and Murdoch's silence fitted into it.
Then maybe, the past wouldn't nudge so hard.
But most of all, Boston wasn't the only man on Lancer who had a brother to get to know. That was a damn good reason for staying.
Johnny patted his brother's leg and settled down to sleep.
Johnny talked Scott into going to the cantina with him, the Saturday night after they got back from Blood Rock. A few of the Lancer hands went into Morro Coyo each Saturday, mainly the Mexican hands; the rest headed into Green River and the saloon there so, said Johnny, they could lose their pay at faro and come home drunk and grousin'. The cantina, added Johnny, offered a mean game of dominoes instead.
"Dominoes." Scott didn’t look too keen. "You want me to spend Saturday night playing dominoes?"
"You've never seen a Californio play dominoes. Hang onto your wallet, big brother, or you'll be going home as drunk and grousin' as the hands."
Scott laughed and gave in. He said it'd be another new experience, to add to his list, and he was cheerful and happy as they rode into town with Jaime, Toledano and three or four others. The cantina was hot and crowded and the mournful singer from Johnny's last visit wasn't there. There was a band instead, playing cheerful Sonoran folksongs. Helluva lot better than patriotic songs against the French. Johnny told Scott so.
"I believe you, although since I can't speak much Spanish yet, they could be singing the instructions for digging a backhouse for all I know. In four part harmony, at that." Scott followed him in, looking apprehensive. "Am I going to be able to eat anything in here?"
"They make damn good enchiladas. And mole."
"What Johnny means is that Eugenia makes damn good enchiladas and mole." Jaime slapped Johnny on the shoulder and pushed through the crowd to reach the bar. "But then, Johnny would eat anything Eugenia made. He's her latest."
Johnny prodded Jaime in the back. "Shouldn't you be over at the Ruis place talkin' sweet nothin's in your sweetheart's ear?"
"Magdalena's down in Sonora visiting her abuela before the wedding. I'm a free man tonight. Tequila, Scott?"
"Thank you, Jaime, yes. But Johnny, I didn't ask if this food was good, but if I could eat it. What are enchiladas like?"
Johnny grinned. "Hot." He nodded at the cantina owner. "Hola, César."
"Señor Madrid." César grinned. "Eugenia will be happy that you're back."
Johnny let the grin widen, and went over to the corner table. Señor Baldomero was there, but he rose with a polite bow and moved to the next table with his compadres, which was real obliging of him. Johnny paused to thank him and signalled César to give the Señor a bottle.
Toledano joined Señor Baldomero and sure enough, the dominoes were coming out and Tol had that gleam in his eye that made Johnny feel pretty sure that he was keeping his own money safely in his pocket.
Scott was still worrying about his supper. Dios, but he'd developed one helluva appetite since moving West. "And mole? What's that?"
"Very funny." Scott took a seat after greeting Señor Baldomero, and looked around. He sipped at his tequila like he thought it was a grizzly about to bite him. "Busy place."
"It's a good place. César serves good tequila and good food. A lot of people come for that."
Jaime leaned in, grinning. "And to look at Eugenia. Ai, what a girl!"
Johnny remembered a little beauty mark and sighed a very happy sigh. With luck he'd be seeing it again real soon. "Oh, very pretty."
"Maybe she has some pretty friends." Scott looked hopeful. Well, hell, unless he'd been holding out on Johnny, it'd been a while for Scott, too.
"Ain't Jaime and me pretty enough for you?"
Scott laughed. "Not even close. And forgive me for saying so, gentlemen, but you're both entirely the wrong shape." He got a funny look on his face, looking at something off to the right. "Now that's the sort of shape I had in mind."
Johnny turned his head to watch Eugenia sashay across the room. The crowd parted to let her through and to a man, they all turned as she passed to watch those hips sway. She was smiling when she got to the table, and so was every single man in the room who wasn't blind or older than that Methsomething-or-other feller in the bible.
"Juanito." She leaned down so he could take a good look at what he'd left behind to go running off down to Blood Rock to save Boston's worthless hide, and jiggled things about a bit to remind him. He heard both Scott and Jaime sigh and he was grinning when she kissed him. He had to shift in his chair to ease himself, but he was definitely grinning. Her mouth tasted of honey.
Her smile was like a promissory note for later. She patted his cheek, then became all business and demanded to know what they wanted to eat. Tamales or pozole?
Scott sighed again. "What's pozole?"
Johnny grinned. "Hot."
Jaime sniggered. Scott just shook his head and reckoned that since everything was going to burn his tongue out, it didn't matter what he had. Johnny hadn't eaten a good pozole in months. Jaime would eat anything. Eugenia smiled, swooped in for another kiss and went off to get three bowls of pozole.
Scott watched Eugenia leave, his mouth falling open slightly.
Johnny spared a thought for what those hips would be doing later. "Looks even better from the back, right? You ever see anything like how she moves?" He made little round movements with his hands. He sighed. "It's a good handful. Each hand."
Ol' Boston choked and shook his head again, struck dumb.
Jaime shouldn't even have been looking, him bein' almost a married man and all. "Ai, esa Eugenia. You're a lucky man, amigo. She is much admired."
"Admired?" Scott laughed. "Jaime, you have a talent for understatement that so far I've only seen equalled by my little brother here. That woman is glorious and so dangerous she should come with warnings and an armed guard."
"More dangerous than any man I've ever stacked up against." Johnny sipped his tequila and sat back. Yeah, he was lucky; until Eugenia got tired and moved on. He shrugged. "But I tell you, you go down and no complainin'."
Jaime sniggered so hard that he almost choked. Scott opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say got lost as someone came up behind him and butted in.
"Johnny? Johnny Madrid, is that you?"
Johnny's hand was on his gun. He looked up at the man. Hell, it couldn't be. "Wes?"
Beside him Scott stiffened, but Johnny grinned and let go of the gun's grips. It was Wes. Johnny hadn't seen him for at least a couple of years.
Wes shook hands eagerly. "Well, hell, Johnny, I heard you was dead down in Sonora. Some revolution or other, folks said. Hell, I even had a drink in your honour."
"Wes, you'd have a drink in honour of a dead dog. Don't tell me you had a wake for me."
Wes laughed, nodded, and dropped into the chair that Johnny waved at. "Well, I did, Johnny, an' that's a fact. What you doin' this far north?"
"Well, I'm part owner of a ranch around here, Wes. I'm outa the game these days." Johnny looked at Scott, surprised that Scott looked like he was facin' up to a riled rattler. "Scott, Jaime—this here's Wes Rollins. Him and me met up in some fracas or other down in … where was it Wes? Sutton County?"
"Sure was, Johnny. Sutton County, Texas in '68 it were. Dang it, but that was quite some fandango. Leastways, we were on the same side."
"Wes Rollins." Scott blew out a breath and passed a hand over his face. "I thought for a minute… " He stopped and grinned. "When you said Wes, I thought…"
Wes just stared. He was a nice enough feller, but the good Dios hadn't blessed the man with too many brains. He was more than a mite slow on the uptake. Johnny though, almost choked on his tequila. He started laughing.
"Hell, no, Boston. Wes Hardin's one helluva lot faster than this Wes here, and he's only about seventeen. Maybe eighteen."
Boston stared. "Only seventeen and he's already famous?"
"Well, he ain't exactly right in the head and he started young." Johnny grinned at Wes. Hell, Scott's mistake was funny. Wes Rollins was no Hardin. The Lord knew that if Day Pardee was a second string gunhawk, then Wes Rollins was somewhere around fourth string, or fifth. He wasn't up to much as a gunfighter, but the Lord also knew he was a straight shooter, and a stout man to have at your back. Wes wasn't flashy, but he was one helluva scrappy fighter.
Wes shrugged. "You talking about Hardin? You was his age when you made your name, Johnny. Younger."
"Sure, but everything in here—" and Johnny tapped his head "—works just fine. Wes Hardin's plumb loco. Wes, this here is my brother and partner, Scott Lancer, and an amigo, Jaime Roldán. Boston, this ain't the famous Wes, but he's good man for all that."
"I'm right proud to know you." Wes shook hands all round. "Your brother?" He sounded real taken aback at that. Well, Johnny had been real taken aback by it once.
"I'm pleased to meet you too, Wes." Scott was polite, like always. A man could always be proud of Scott's company manners.
"He don't look nothing like you." Wes leaned in like he was going to tell Johnny a secret. "He ain't from around here, Johnny."
"I'm from Boston, Wes. Back east. And Johnny, how long will it be, do you think, before I've trained you to remember that I'm just from Boston, and it isn't my name?"
"I dunno, Boston. How long you got?"
Scott laughed, and he leaned forward to tousle Johnny's hair. Johnny grinned back at him. "As long as it takes, I guess, little brother. As long as it takes."
Well, hell. A good long time, then.
Johnny sat back and lifted his glass. This being a rancher thing with a brother and a… and Murdoch, well maybe a man could get used to it. It wasn't such a bad thing, after all.
Not bad at all.