The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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BarbA

 

 

Mending Walls

Morro Coyo turned a red-rimmed eye to the rising sun and muttered under its breath. Shadows had left the bottoms of storefronts by the time grumbles turned into quiet sighs over coffee—tequila dregs for some—and breakfast eggs to settle empty stomachs. Only then did the town reluctantly pull on its boots, rolling over to greet the day.

Benito Abreo Morado lay awake in his nest of straw cocooned within a thin blanket, listening to the burgeoning creaks and moans of morning. It had been said many times that listening was the only thing he was good for in his life. The smell of fried b uñuelos made his stomach rumble, cinnamon and slender hands came to mind with such a force that he had to catch his breath. Always she scolded him to let them cool beside the pot, always he burned his tongue.

A mission bell pealed twice signaling Lauds, but the horses dozed without concern. The saints looked down at him with their solemn frowns from the bench above his head. Get up! Get up , they said. He sat, waiting for his spine to fall back into place with each crick of tired bone. The Benedictus sprang to his lips and he repeated the words in a soft whisper. When he opened his eyes, the Señora de Guadalupe, wrapped in precious red linen, was staring at him, and Benito said an additional novena. He tried to count the days he'd been away, puzzled with great numbers before giving up. But soon! Soon the saints would point the way home.

Throwing off the blanket, he grasped the bench and pulled himself upwards, sending them tipping to and fro. The room swam before his eyes, making him wait before shoving feet into sandals without ties.   

He gathered the figures and wrapped them in soft cloths to put them into his leather bag. With the blanket tucked under one arm, he scratched each horse under the chin, saving his gentlest pats for the spotted mare on the end. It had been her company he held the longest, so she was favored. Biting his lower lip to distract himself from the pains in his legs and back, Benito walked carefully out the back door to the alley before the owner could complain.    
*
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Scott Lancer rode into the cacophony of slamming doors, the slap of brooms across wooden boardwalks, the huff and whoosh of a forge being fired up. Hungry, too, but not for eggs or tortillas. He had awoken at the murderous hour of three o'clock for no better reason than to catch his breath from the tail end of a dream. It had faded as soon as his eyes opened, leaving only traces of vivid whites, reds and yellows jumbled amongst a queasy feeling of anticipation. But for now he would settle on a newspaper. Preferably the Morning Chronicle out of San Francisco since the Boston Herald was two thousand miles away. Even the Sacramento Bee would do, although he'd have to sift through the liberal news lambasting Grant. Knowing sugar was traded at four cents more than last month or the Central Pacific finally—finally!—connected Sacramento to the Bay made Lancer seem less of a lone outpost.

He left his horse at the railing. The Alahambra was the venue of choice, the veritable hub of town, but it was closed until noon. A short respite between breakfast and lunch that allowed its mescal-soaked denizens to come out of the fog just long enough to realize they were approaching an alarming state of sobriety before gratefully tipping their bottles back again.

Weighing his options, Scott looked down the street and saw Mr. Baldemerro unlocking the mercantile. He remembered he wanted to ask the storeowner something. The idea had been buried under an avalanche of learning how cattle and cowboys work, but now there was time, albeit little enough, for it to come to the forefront. He knew a bit about them, spent enough summers balanced on their long spines to know a sturdy one. Still, he needed someone with real knowledge.

He stepped off the boardwalk and was starting across the road when he saw out of the corner of his eye a flash of dark brown. A man had come from the alleyway. Scott couldn't see his face, but his walk was hunched, right hand planted alongside the wall of the building next to him, scuffing one stuttering step at a time. The walk of a man unacquainted with his feet. The bag under his left arm had swung to his front, knocking his thigh. Probably drunk, Scott thought, and too early, the cantina wouldn't open for another few hours. He angled away, disheartenment sitting in the pit of his stomach like a brick.

To the casual observer, the mercantile was an explosion of color and shiny new things to be ooh-ed and ah-ed over while placing your order for the requisite three yards of brown calico and bag of flour. Scott found his mood lifting. He stopped at the hat stand, just out of sight of the counter, and fingered the brim of what he now knew to be a Panhandle Slim. Only for card sharps and pitch men, Teresa had warned the first time they'd visited the mercantile. It was a leap of faith Teresa knew what she talking about, she seemed to be sure about such things though evasive of exactly how the knowledge came about in the first place. The hat did have a rakish flair with its beaded band, but to be confused with a card sharp—an eastern one at that—well, it wouldn't be the thing. Besides, their little group already had one flashy dresser. 

He hadn't been back to the store since what was referred to now as “the incident”. His old life rewound in bits and pieces, but he couldn't recall ever being pummeled so hard, without provocation. Although he was inclined to dismiss it outright, it did raise his awareness: wearing the Lancer name was akin to being the apple in the old William Tell legend, with crossbows sighted.

He looked up when Mr. Baldemerro cleared his throat.  

“B uenos días, Mr. Lancer. You're here early.” The storeowner glanced anxiously at him, then to the doorway as if he expected the other pugilistic two-thirds to come through. They wouldn't. Corley and his partner were long buried. They shook hands and discussed Lancer and the weather, trading poor Spanish for poor English, until Scott was ready to ask.

“Señor,” Scott said finally, “I wanted to see if you had a newspaper. Any one would do.” And he told part of the story about wanting to know what else was going on in the world—what the New York stock exchange was doing and the newest political news—everything.  

“I don't understand,” Baldemerro said with conviction and shrug, but after a few moments he ah-hahed enthusiastically and turned away to a back shelf. Shifting a few jars of canned vegetables to the side, he peeled off the shelf lining.

The Morning Chronicle was serving a new purpose in its short life. Scott flicked the dirt from the rings the jar bottoms had left and pieced together the top. It was from six months ago, before he even arrived at Lancer. He waved his fingers in the air. “It's all right. Doesn't matter.” He felt slightly foolish for making the request in the first place. “Do you know of anyone who…”  

There was a shuffling noise outside. Baldemerro looked up quickly and frowned. “No more, Benito, I have no work.”

Scott looked at the strange little man, still hunched and hesitant, his lean face pitted beneath a growth of grey beard. Full of so much pain, he had to look away.     

“You feed one and three more show up, like rats,” Baldemerro said, after the man had left. “There is something wrong with that one. Anything more, Señor?”

The question he was about to ask drifted away with his good mood. It was an impulse—a whimsy—no one would be the wiser if it was dropped, so he shook his head. A few steps into the street and he turned, seeing the old man sitting on the boardwalk. What Benito was doing was compelling enough to watch.

He reached into his bag and pulled out a small bundle. His fingers brushed his forehead then down to his chest, up to the shoulder, first left than right. Finally he opened the cloth, and that seemed to satisfy him, his mouth moving. The closer Scott got he could see that Benito's face was impassive, but the man's voice sounded tight with his wordless croon. He finished and rewrapped the cloth, storing it back into the bag.

Scott peered over Benito's shoulder. “Pretty day, going to be hot soon.”

Benito looked up and shook his head. Scott sighed; pulling the right words from the closet in his mind was much easier after listening to it all day long. Funny how the swear words he had picked up from the work crew came right to the forefront.

“It started out nice, but it's not looking so good now,” Scott continued, a bit of testiness creeping into his voice. One of these days he'd take a ride to San Francisco, see a proper city again. He missed the sounds, the chance to lose oneself in it without a care.

Today was not the day.  

Even as he looked, a vaquero walked out of the mercantile, hat pulled low against the sun, saw Benito and crossed over to the other side.

The old man, head in hand, slumped back against the wooden strut. How old was he? Sixty? Seventy? Ragged clothes bought or stolen, layers of cotton tick and linen. Beaten sandals. Hungry.

Scott pulled out his watch, checked the time. Another hour and he was supposed to be working with Johnny in the north pasture. This man was dancing on the edge of oblivion. He couldn't quite bring himself not to care.

He spoke, in achingly slow Spanish, “How about some coffee? I could certainly use another cup.” He reached out his hand and Benito studied the pink calluses across the palm, the new scar at the base of the thumb, the dirt still wedged under his nails. Something shifted in the old man's clear eyes and he placed his warm hand into Scott's.
*
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Morning sunlight so flooded the hacienda kitchen that it took on the quality of fire, heating the air. Murdoch's fine stubble glinted with speckles of red, his graying hair stood high on his head, bathed in yellow. Time was a relative thing, passing too fast or too slow for some people, but it seemed to have stopped moving at the hacienda altogether.  

As Murdoch saw it, there was no possible virtue in standing still.  

He got up from his chair and opened the door for some air. California grit wafted in with the breeze and clung to his teeth, vying for a place beside his burnt taste buds. Burnt because he couldn't wait for the coffee to cool. Awakening in the dark, he had found it on the stove. Even more surprised to find the pot still hot. With a house of three, it was easy to narrow down the culprit and Johnny and Teresa's doors had still been closed.

Without a doubt, Scott was Catherine's son, but there were hard angles where she was soft. Maybe it was the formality built up over years of city living. Maybe it was something else. A niggle of doubt crept in where there wasn't any before: maybe he'd never understand the boy.    

In the distance, twenty-odd cattle milled about, snuffling grass in a large patch of green the high riders had left alone in their ravages across his land. The boys must have rounded them up to graze while he'd been to the neighbor's.

He had to stop—they weren't really boys were they?

He felt heavy, out of place. Something had shifted. Until this point it had been rote. Not easy, but weightless almost. Everything was flying up, pinging around in his skull, buzzing like a bee in the marigolds. There'd been the fallout from Pardee and enough distractions to keep him occupied. Johnny's fever. Burying the dead. Assessing the losses. Talking to the bank. He knew how many had died for Lancer, but didn't reckon on the wide swath of estancia widows who needed visiting. And after the bandages and the talks and the weeping, Murdoch was finally alone. Only really not alone.

It was puzzling. For months Murdoch had been fighting a battle, listening for the click of a trigger or shouted alarm. But now the danger was past, the rest of his life yawned before him. He stumbled about the ranch for the first time, listening to odd voices, to the house settle and creak, readjusting itself. 

The veranda's half walls were strewed about, lying in small puddles of rubble. He'd loved it once. Taught himself how to set the stones as they did back home without mortar, as a surprise. He rebuilt it in front of him with his eyes: the darker layer of granite on the left, the curious tilt of rock over the uneven spot on the far right, the rounded capstones. It reminded him of something—some memory, not of the building so many years ago, but farther back as to the why. He picked and sifted thoughts until the picture came fully alive.

He felt the long grasses under his feet, the burn of Inbhir Nis' salt air. He saw himself as a little boy, his hand lost in Aidan's great calloused one. His brother always attracted attention—trouble, luck, danger, desire—and Murdoch was happy to have Aidan home again, all to himself. The trip was a simple affair of following the Mackenzie's stone wall, walking past lowing milk cows and green pastures, into town.

Two men came from the tall brush. In his mind, he could hear his brother saying, “It's me you want, you'll not hurt him.” Murdoch looked up; saw the dark men and their ragged sneers. The flash of something silver as they came closer. His heart caught in his throat, beating a muffled roar through his head.   

Dirty hands scrabbled at his jacket. Aidan pulled him away, shoved him into the wall. He ducked into a niche, scraping his cheek, and cupped his hands around his ears against the curses. Then he was crushed against his brother's heaving chest, caught in the folds of Aidan's leather coat that smelled of tobacco smoke. He was shushing him, and Murdoch batted his hand away.    

He pulled other thoughts, stretched them out like caramel candy before him: Aidan's face so white it was almost blue, the feel of the hard stones behind his back.   

“I saw them, Aidan.”

“And even more I thank God they're gone, as this is my fault. Are you all right?”

“What did they want?”

“You're too young to know of such things. And I'm long a fool. I'll tell you when you're older. Are you sure you're all right? We'll wait here for a bit, the stones are warm. Feel them.”

They sank against the wall. He felt a rounded knob of stone, smooth and solid in his small hand. Clenching Aidan's arm with the other hand, the strong cords of muscle underneath the leather were taut and trembling.

“With their black eyes and wailing, they reminded me of Father's story about Black Donald.”

Aidan looked at him fully. “They weren't devils, Murdoch, just men. Hush, now. There'll be no more storytelling, here or home. We'll get the things for Ma, maybe stop at Jamieson's for a sweet drink.”

“Butter biscuits, too, Aidan?”

“Yes, but no more. You'll quit your begging now.”    

He'd forgotten the why all this time—until the walls were gone, just like Aidan. He shook his head; it was foolish for a man to keep hold of memories.   

“Hell of a way to keep things out.”

Murdoch twisted around and swallowed the first words that rose to his throat, ended up stuttering out a question, “Where did you come from?”

There was mirth in Johnny's eyes. “Didn't mean to cut in, wasn't sneaking up or anything.”

“Those walls were made before you and Scott were born.”

A shadow fell across him as Johnny came to stand close. “That old, huh?”

“The rubble will need to be taken away.”

“You sure about that? It seemed like you were pretty intent on those bricks. Pretty ugly now, though.”

The words hit home as surely as though bullets had been fired. “It didn't used to be.”

“Do you want me to start a couple of the men on it?”  

“After the haying is done,” Murdoch swiped his hand across stubble, “it can wait until then.” The past—bad or good—was gone. Maybe changes were needed. He honored the truth, even when it hurt. “What would you do with it?”

Johnny moaned. “That's like setting me up to an inside straight, Murdoch. There's no way I can bet on that and come out ahead.”

“I'm asking. Maybe I'm a fool for trying to keep it the way it was.”

“Murdoch, are you mad?”

“No. So tell me, what would you do?”

He heard some shuffling, a soft sigh. “I guess I'd clear it out. Leave it open for a while. Those half walls weren't good for anything. Too high to set stuff on, too low to keep the sun and other things out.”

There was a volley of hoof beats. Johnny's hand went to his belt, tugged on the leather. “That's probably Scott, I'd better get going. We'll be back in time for dinner.”

Murdoch watched him go. He'd asked for an honest opinion, got it in spades. His eyes wandered back out to the loose stones.
*
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Some days were so straightforward he could see the end result before he even began. For a man who lived hour to hour at times, there was comfort in that. Johnny had never questioned the before, it just was . Now there was time. Because even though he couldn't see the end of this particular venture, he knew there was one. But sometimes his old life pulled and picked, like an abuela at her threads.   

Johnny laughed for a while, finally petering out into silence, just the rattle of the spotted horse's bit and loose throatlatch providing music. The old man sat in the saddle with the back of a king, straight and loose jointed. His brown sash was tied at the shoulder, over a small leather bag, proof the bag held something of worth. Despite its scruffiness, the face was untroubled, almost like a young boy. Eyes roamed the hacienda and courtyard before settling directly on Johnny.

He swallowed a few times, spoke with a pinched up throat, “Scott, who'd you bring home?”

His brother dismounted, waited for the old man to get down before talking. “This is Señor Benito Morado.” 

Johnny stepped off the bricks guarding the front door. As he went closer, Morado's face became chiseled with hard planes; losing some of its innocence.

“He, and the horse, found me in Morro Coyo.”

Johnny's head came up. “Is that where you went this morning? I would've gone with you. Could've picked up the house list from Maria.”

He realized he was talking just to fill the air. He stopped and silence wormed it way into the cracks. Benito patted his bag once then twice. His eyes shown bright and Johnny shivered.

“What's wrong?” Scott had snuck close to him, almost brushing his elbow.

“Nothing. Nothin's wrong.”

“Do you know him?”

“Do you think I know every Mexican who shows up?”

“Well, do you know this one?”

“No,” and he saw Benito's eyes leap up and down and it seemed to him that his smile grew. Something had set him off, but Johnny didn't know what. What word or bit of sentence had caused it?

“He's not one for talking very much. Doesn't understand English.” Scott ducked his head. “But I couldn't leave him in Morro Coyo.”

Scott walked around, gathered the reins of both horses. It was worth it to see the expression on his face. Worry made a V between his eyebrows, thoughtful almost broody—always that. But also deeply, deeply pleased and somehow that penetrated the fog surrounding Johnny, tapped into a dark place that felt like guilt.

“Johnny, can you take him to the bunkhouse? I'd better go tell Murdoch we have a new hand.” No one laughed despite the fact they all knew it was big talk for a handout.

The old man set up a conniption fit, waved his hand around, flung out his Spanish like spitting watermelon seeds. It pulled Scott right up.   

“He says he wants to go with the horse,” Johnny offered.

“Does he mean the stable? Establo? He wants to sleep there?”

“Yeah.”

Scott leaned over, whispering, “Do you see anything wrong with that?”

“Only if the horses mind.”

Scott grinned and shook his head, waved them both off as he went inside the house.

The piebald went along easy, head drooping from the ride, flapjack-wide hooves nearly tripping her up a few times on the uneven ground. But she came alive at the barn doors and galumphed into a stall with little grace, stuffing her black nose into the feed bin. Benito hurried in with a hitching gait, not too different than his horse. It occurred to Johnny that animals and humans weren't that far apart after all.  

He started off in easy Spanish as he swept his eyes across the interior looking for the old cot. “Did Scott feed you in town?”   

Benito nodded.

The cot was buried under horse blankets and tack. Spiders and rolly-pollys scattered when he swung out the wooden legs. Benito captured his arm and pointed to the straw on the floor.

“Can't say I blame you, bound to be easier on the back.” He shoved the cot back into its hidey hole and leaned over the stall to rub the mare's knobby sway back. “It looks like your horse could use some fattening up.”

“She's not my horse, I would be much kinder. We rented her from the man in town.”

“My brother picked this nag?”

“I wanted her.”

“That makes more sense.” He sat on a bale and watched as Benito first laid out a ratty blanket then dug into his bag. He reminded Johnny of someone, no one he knew—he wasn't lying about that earlier—but maybe someone he saw once, along the border.

“So you just tapped into Scott, thinking he was an easy mark for a meal and a bed?”

The old man looked downward at an angle into Johnny's face. “There is nothing to me. You can see for yourself. I don't ask for anything.” Pulling out a small bundle wrapped in red, he measured the width of the window sill between thumb and forefinger. Then unwrapped the cloth, placing a figure on top of the sill. He did the same with three more figures until they were all lined up on the wood, backlit in halos of hazy sunshine coming in through the dirty window. 

Johnny stood, went to the window. “Who are you?”

“No one. I am here because I was sent.” And he nodded to the figures lined up like so many blackbirds on a fence.    

His ease vanished, replaced by the same unsettledness as when they first met. “Sent for what?”

“I don't know.”

“That's no answer.” Aware that Benito was giving him more than enough time to study the figures while he finished his makeshift bed. A breeze wafted in, cooled the unexpected sweat on the back of Johnny's neck. 

“It's the only one I have, Mestizo.”

The slur had no bite, not like the old days. Merely a name, and spoken in sing-song as if to comfort. Anger was difficult to hold, which worried him. He needed it, a ledge to hold on to.

Benito chuckled, low and under his breath. “Why is it so difficult to believe? Do you not see impossible things with your eyes every day?”

In spite of Benito's size, he felt overwhelmed by him, pushed out of place. “Because life ain't that way.”

“You only believe what your eyes see. What you can touch.”

“It generally works out for the better that way, yeah.”

“I saw something last night; it woke me from my sleep. Many different colors. It was good.”

“And from there you got here.”

“Not so big a leap. Surely you dream, and you are here.” Benito crossed his arms in front of his faded sash. Might have been real fancy at one point in its life, but the yellow and white threads were coming loose in their patterns. “I see no difference.”

Scott called to them from outside.

Once again, Benito noticed Johnny's hesitance, pulled that quicksilver grin over the seamed terrain of his face, eyes glints of brown in the hard light. The breeze kicked up, sand swept across the stable floor. Grit forced Johnny to look away and he scrubbed his eyes.

“I'll be watching, old man.”

He followed Benito out the door, but not before stopping at the row of frowning faces. He reached out his hand to the Virgin, stopped just shy of touching her face and all the edges became blurry, coherent thought difficult to hold. She smelled of straw and incense and ancient things.
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It took an extra half day but the work was finally finished and Scott returned from the haying fields about one-thirty. ‘Farmer' was now part of his growing résumé. He could hear his grandfather's voice with forced joviality designed to stave off any complaining: “Scotty, it's not just a job, you're learning a profession!” He hadn't believed it then about accounting, he wasn't about to believe it now.

The vaqueros and cowboys had deigned to do it, regarding any job that didn't involve riding squarely on a horse's back a poor method of earning a living. They had several derogatory words to say exactly what they thought when forced into commission. But he had taken to it; found that his long length gave him greater leverage with a pitchfork.

They w ere getting in the last of the hay crop on land that had been partially crisscrossed by Pardee's fires. Murdoch had planted it in wheat but it had suffered from both the fires and a lack of rain. The growth had been cut for hay which ran just shy of a ton to the acre. He added the figures to his pad of paper, knowing he'd never remember them by the time he got back to the house to report. By two, he had the hay brushed from his trousers and the same pad and pencil in his hand to take measurements for the stone walls. The whimsy had not let go, merely intruded upon by real work.

He glanced in the direction of where they left the hay, feeling a warmth settle over him that wasn't due to the sun. The satisfaction of a job done well. It was a yardstick for the distance he had left behind, made him feel like he could do anything.

But with this, he didn't know where to begin. So he began at the beginning.

He started at the partial left two walls, the ones that stayed in the shadows until midday and gave the widest view of dark mountain pine. Stepped off counting each footfall until he reached the corner, then angled down the right side, where destruction was the worst. His back was to the hacienda when he heard a few accented words of English.    

“Why do you build the walls?”

Twisting around, he came elbow to nose with Benito. “You're speaking English.” He counted the number of horses in the corral—twice—before asking his next question, finally understanding that the old man wasn't going to offer more explanation than that without prompting.

“Why?” He used the word like a cattle prod.

Benito shifted, felt the jab. He put his bowl of potatoes and curled peelings on the chair outside the kitchen door.

“You knew how to speak English all the time?”  

“Why do you bother?” Benito repeated. Distracting him, Scott thought.

The clothes and sandals looked the same—tattered and frail—just like Benito himself. His eyes were bright, holding something back. He followed Benito's halting gait as he picked his way through the fallen stones, rubbing his fingers against the white and red streaks within the granite, assessing the jagged end of yellow sandstone. His shoulders were tight as though bracing himself for something. But he was going slowly through the rubble, patting the stones as one would an old friend.

So Scott easily caught up with him, standing there looking out to the shallow valley. Spread before them was the corral and barn, farther south on the horizon were dots of cattle and pastureland. Diego was on his way to the bunkhouse smoking a cigarette and tipped his hat. “The mare is doing better, but she'll need more green in her bin,” they were warned. He passed and the smoke lingered long after he ducked inside.

Scott fought off the betrayal. “I was tired of tripping over the stones every time I needed to saddle my horse.” He stood silently for a few heartbeats, which was all the permission Benito needed.

“Aren't there other ways to the stable?”

He tried to figure out if Benito was mocking him. The last few days he'd been thinking of a good way to broach the subject with Murdoch—that he was a Harvard-educated Lancer, albeit with no real working knowledge other than summer walks in the country, who wanted to rebuild a few walls for no discernible reason other than desire. Despite the fact there were plenty of able-bodied men around to do the labor.     

“I don't expect you to understand, maybe I don't either.” He took a deep breath. There were moments within the stone walls, under so many stars it seemed as if someone had taken a paintbrush and flung white across the sky in a pique. Moments where he could wrap himself in the pure quiet and let go.

Benito nodded as if Scott had spoken out loud. “Bueno.”

A thought came and he pointed to the pile of rocks the old man had touched. “Do you know how to work them into a wall? One that will last?”

The old man thrust out his hand, this time Scott looked closer. It was a working man's, thick skin over the palm and fingertips, studded with cracks and old calluses.  
*
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The valley before him was fertile; it would give years of good crops and fat cattle. So different than the land he left behind. Benito breathed in all the wondrous smells: yeasty bread, horses, cut hay. Any man would want for such a place, but he yearned for the sun-baked ground of his ancestors.

As old as Benito was now, he couldn't remember when he had first heard them. Perhaps the saints were always there, because listening to them was as simple as pulling on his shirt. Drawn here like it was a warm campfire to hold his hands to as if in prayer, to feel gentleness creep back into his veins, to smooth his worries and pain away.  

He was needed.  

Benito picked up his knife and bowl of potatoes and sat content to watch the young man measure the trench, estimating how many stones were needed.

“Mestizo,” he called out and watched as the dark one pulled away from his lean, a black shadow against the pale adobe. He'd been watching.

“What is it?” This one had a pointed tone, sounded prickly.

“Feel the stones; they are solid, just as the walls will be when fully built.”

“That piece Scott's working on will never keep anything out.” He turned so Benito only saw the clench of muscle in his cheek.

Men like the one standing next to him lived with one foot in the past. A year ago might as well have been last week. He chose his words carefully.

“Perhaps a wall like this isn't made to keep things out. It's to keep things in.”

Tired, Benito slumped back into the chair with his bowl and closed his eyes. He heard a scrape of boots, the ring of spur, the quiet slide and friction of hands against leather. And soon enough, through a tickle in his left ear, he heard the soft murmurings of two brothers:

“Scott, did you talk to Murdoch about this?

“No, why? Did he say anything?”

“Just that he was thinking of letting it stay the way it is now. Was kind of puny to hold off anything, don't you think?”

“And what would you build?”

“Maybe add another few feet, make it high. Hard to jump over, you know? Set it all in place with ‘dobe to make it strong, like the hacienda.”

“A fortress around the castle?”

“Something like that. This won't stand up to a breeze.”

“It'll hold.”

Benito fell asleep thinking of the warm sun .      
*
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Murdoch sat behind his desk, shifting papers from the left side to the right. With all the events of the past month, his correspondence, letters and newspapers—and wasn't Scott asking about them the other day?—lay sprawled across his desk like so many lazy cats. After a time, insistent tapping coupled with outright thunks from the back of the house trickled their way into his skull.

The notion that anyone was working on the veranda's walls caught him unaware, as if it was Friday already and he'd missed payroll, along with Wednesday and Thursday. But he did tell Johnny to clear away the rubble after haying was done. He would decide what do about it when the mess was cleared. Thinking that, he proceeded to put it out of his mind.

Until much later when the noise stopped, and curiosity got the best of him.

He walked outside the kitchen door. The wind came up like it did every afternoon and blew through the long grasses, making it look as though rolling waves of green would flood the house at any moment.

“It's a beautiful land.”

Benito, the man from town. He stood near the adobe of the hacienda, out of the dust. He had an easy grace about him, and in his prime would have been powerful, built as he was like a fighting dog, all sinew and muscle. His high-bridged nose reminded Murdoch of a framed painting hung on a church wall, all beams of light. The painting's serenity was marred somewhat when the subject yawned and rubbed his whiskers.

Bringing the man home presented an aspect of Scott he hadn't expected: kindness was hidden under that formal, hard exterior.       

Murdoch stepped out into the middle of the space, floundered with its openness. “Yes it is. Very much so.”    

“Like these walls were once.”

“This has its own beauty, I suppose. Change seems to be a necessary thing.”

“Why?”

“It keeps a man humble. I've kept my eye to the future and what potential this land has inside its fences. Maybe there shouldn't be any rebuilding, the past should stay past.”

“I think humbleness is learned from God.” Benito smiled at Murdoch. “And the past, what of it?”

Murdoch felt like a big hand might descend from the sky. His sons were home—fully grown and yet unknown to him—and maybe God had something to say about that, but Murdoch doubted it. The God he had believed in seemed to be far away.

He must have made some noise, a grunt maybe, because Benito roused himself from the wall, wind teasing strands of hair in a riot of white about his head. He stared at Murdoch, shuttered and unreadable.

Murdoch let his eyes roam over what was in front him, then walked to far side where the walls used to be, like he could hold back time. The past was stitched on the faces of Scott and John, all he had to do was look. It was tangled up with each blade of grass, every drop of sweat, each piece of wood.

He'd been in this position before, standing at a precipice, at a fork in the river, and he'd made a choice. He just didn't know why this one—so trivial after all the others—was different.

Two short sticks and a straight edge of twine caught his eye. He bent over and twanged the level, seeing the old trench he had dug twenty-five years earlier expanded and neatened. Gravel partially filled the opening almost the entire length of wall. He noticed other things as well. Stones were bunched in piles, but not through the randomness of destruction. They were set in purposeful bundles of color and size. A shovel and chisel leaned casually against a strut.      

The boys—men— his sons, had taken the decision from him this time. They were rebuilding the walls.

He didn't really know how he felt about that, but a part of him was pleased.
*
*
*
*
It was four days later and after working on them here and there between cattle, horse, paperwork and one wrenched back, the veranda's walls were finished and no one could recall what the fuss was in the first place.

It wasn't until the morning of the fifth day they discovered Señor Benito Abreo Morado had left the ranch. Disappeared as if he was never there, except for two things: the spotted mare and the Señora de Guadalupe.

Johnny was the first to comment. “When are you gonna take her back to town? Rental fees must be getting kinda high by now.”

The mare pushed her head into Scott's hand and he let her. She lipped the bandage wrapped around his palm, a little too much manual labor and not enough skin. “I think I'll keep her.”

“Won't be able to get any work out of her, but…” He had a soft tease in his voice.

“But what?”

“I thought you would.”

They both looked up to the window sill, either by rote or accident, and saw the four outlines in the dust where the saints had made their home for a short while. One of them, the Señora de Guadalupe, had somehow found her way into Johnny's coat pocket, wrapped in precious red linen. She still smelled of hay, incense and ancient things.





~end~
October 2012

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