The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Clementine

 

 

A Fine, Fractious Family

When Murdoch told us his Aunt Fenella was coming to visit, I imagined a tall old lady who looked like Murdoch would if he put a dress on. And Jesus, weren’t that a dreadful picture to have in my head. So when she turned out to be a cracker of a lady with a killer smile and a figure to make a man’s blood heat up – well, I couldn’t help but be knocked sideways. She looked a hell of a lot younger than the Ol’ Man - not what I was expecting at all.

She stood there leaning forward in the open doorway of the stagecoach and she looked happy enough to bust.

“Murdy!”

Murdy? I looked at Scott, and saw that his smile was falterin’. His eyebrows went up and he gave me an amused look.

She sure enough meant our Pa, because he surged forward and caught her up as she threw herself out of the coach and into his arms. I’d never seen him hugging anyone like that, and he was grinning happy as I’d ever seen him too.

“By God, Fenella – it’s so good to see you! You’re still the girl I remember!”

Another female had appeared in the doorway, and she was a looker too. Scott beat me to it as he stepped in to offer his hand. This girl must be Lorna, the seventeen-year-old daughter who me and Scott had been champing at the bit to meet.

This one was a younger version of her Mama. The same thick, shiny brown hair, the same fine face and the same fine-formed bubs that a man couldn’t help but admire. She wasn’t smiling though – she looked interested in who we were, but also had a cool way of running her eyes over us.

As she carefully stepped onto the box put down for ease of alightin’, Murdoch put his Aunty Fenella down.

“Why Fenella, this must be Lorna – she’s the image of you!”

Lorna quickly held out her hand to Murdoch – Murdy – as if she was afraid he might take it into his head to grab her up as well.

I edged closer, keen to be introduced to this pretty bit, but Murdoch followed his more calm welcome of her with a gentle shove of me as he told me to help Ainsley out of the stage.

I dragged my eyes away from Lorna and turned to see the next girl. This one was fourteen I knew, and she looked that, or even younger. She had the family hair, but she was just a kid, all gangly and freckly and wide-eyed.

As I held up my hand to her, all polite, she suddenly pitched forward and it was all I could do to catch her. She shrieked loud enough to deafen me. If Murdoch hadn’t stepped in we would both have ended up in a squelch on the ground. I quickly let go of her and stood back and she turned to the stagecoach, fuming.

“Hamish!” Aunt Fenella and Ainsley cried out together, angry and embarrassed.

This was the last of her kids, and he’d shoved his sister and now stood trying to look as if it had been an accident. He was the youngest - twelve, Murdoch had told us. This little mucoso (brat) had fair hair and freckles and looked like trouble wedded to disaster. He had a snub nose and blue eyes that appeared like they were gleaming with plans. He was not fazed at all by the squalling of the females, but one look at the size of Murdoch and he had the sense to actually take a step back.

“Out you come, Young Man.” It was a treat for me to hear that growl being directed at someone else.

Hamish jumped out of the coach and landed at our feet. His mouth dropped open as he looked up the huge long length of our Pa.

“Murdy, this is my youngest child. Hamish, try to remember your manners.”

“How do you do, Sir,” Hamish said quiet.

“I’m pleased to meet you, son.”

I didn’t doubt that Murdoch gave the kid’s hand a good, warning squeeze, before he turned and gathered me and Scott, one under each of his arms.

“Fenella, ladies, Hamish, I’d like you to meet my two sons, Scott and Johnny.”

“Why Murdy, I thought you were bragging when you wrote how bonny they both were – but I can see for myself that they’re both just as you described - handsome and sweet!”

I was flummoxed and really quite disbelievin’ that our Ol’ Man had ever described either of us that way.

She beamed at us as she held out her arms.

“I’m your Great-aunt, so I expect a kiss from both of my great-nephews.”

Scott was not slow to stand forward and drop a peck on her cheek, so I plunged in as well and planted one on her. She smelled like apple under all of the trail dust. Real fine. She had lightly held our arms while accepting our kisses, and as she dropped her hands from me her laugh rang out.

“Such tall, braw boys – you’re entitled to be so proud, Murdoch!”

I was some surpised that Murdoch had been writing nice things about us. I knew how many fits I’d given the Ol’ Man, and even my perfect older brother had done his share of trying to send Murdoch to an early grave. Pa was all smiles though, and he ran a hand up and down his auntie’s upper arm and chortled some more.

“It’s just so good to have you here – and your family. We finally get to be together after so many years. Now, let’s get your luggage transferred to the wagon. You’ve had a tiring trip – I thought we’d have lunch at the hotel before we head for the ranch. Give you a chance to freshen up.”

Good idea, I thought - they’d all be bustin’ to have a good leak I reckoned.

Murdoch had everything and everyone organized in two shakes.

Their luggage got sorted out as Hazy threw it down from atop the stage. Scott and me hauled it all – and there was a lot – down the street to where we had the buckboard which me and Scott had driven in to town. Murdoch had the buggy to transport our guests.

He’d herded them all over to the restaurant in the River Run Saloon by the time we caught up with them.

I strode ahead of Scott, hoping to snag the seat next to the enticin’ Lorna, but she was between Murdoch and her Mama, so me and Boston was sat together between the two youngsters. Scott was all pleasant to Ainsley, but I didn’t miss how often his eyes strayed to her sister. I had to answer all these questions from the kid, but at least that stopped me from eating too fast which Murdoch was always chiding me for.

I was starving, so the beef and kidney pie and sweet potatoes and fried Irish potatoes and bread pudding with stewed prunes and custard were all tasty and filling, and no-one even noticed that I scooped the three squash into my napkin and dumped the lot under the table. Well, Hamish did, but I gave him a wink and he grinned.

*****

Murdoch had only got the letter from Fenella two weeks before, asking could they visit. It had been sent weeks before that but had gone to Green River in Nevada by mistake before it reached us. He’d rushed into town and sent a wire to where they were all staying in San Francisco, telling them he couldn’t wait to see them.

He’d told us how his ‘seanamhair’, which came out like ‘shenavar’ and meant ‘old mother’ – so Grandmother - had had Fenella pretty late in life. Only a year later Murdoch had been born to his Granny’s youngest son Angus and his wife Iseabel, who already had Donal and Caillen. So Murdoch’s aunty was only a year older than he was.

“My Granny was mortified to be having a child at her age, but it was wonderful for me when Fenella and I got older. Having two older brothers who loved to plague me, it was always a nice change for me when this sweet girl visited and treated me as though I was a young prince. She was quite a tomboy so we could run wild together, but she didn’t torment me mercilessly like my brothers did.”

Pa went on to tell us that when she was eighteen Fenella met and married a visiting Canadian man, and she had moved to Toronto not long before Murdoch left Scotland for America.

“Her husband was a banker. Camden McQuillan, so Scots blood, which pleased our family. Unfortunately he developed a wasting sickness six years ago, and Fenella nursed him until he died two years ago.”

Once we heard back from San Francisco that the McQuillans were going to come, Pa told Maria we were gettin’ family visitors and she had a frenzy. She turned the house upside down, going into a cleaning and polishing fit that just about ruined our lives. She even suggested to Murdoch that the whole hacienda should have a fresh coat of whitewash on the outside, but he put his foot down at that. For two weeks we hardly got one decent meal, and if you dared drop a mote of dust on the floor, or anywhere, she was likely to lay the handle of her feather duster across your backside. Even Scott learned to step lively when she was armed. Usually she was putty in my hands, mostly, but Jesus, all she did was squall at me constant. It was a shocking nuisance to our calm and well-fed lives.

Me and Scott had also got all of these boring as hell lectures about proper behaviour and manners and the like. As Scott was like that always, and would’ve been proper and well-mannered even if he lived with monkeys in a zoo (which he’d told me about visiting), then all of us knew that those talks were all for me. Dios, all those instructions just made me feel contrary as all gettout and want to act disgraceful just to rile Murdoch. When I said that to Scott he said that was the response of a normal, recalcitrant adolescent. I knew full well what recalcitrant meant from Pa using it to me many times, but I tried to look up addle-esent and couldn’t find it. Addlepated meant confused, so I guess he meant something like that. Him and me liked nothing better than to insult each other.

*****

When us and our new kinfolk all finished the lunch at the hotel we made for the vehicles. I suggested that Lorna might enjoy riding with us two who were more her age, but wasn’t surprised when Pa asked Hamish did he want to ride with us. He was keen to do that so that’s how we all travelled. We couldn’t travel as fast as the buggy and the kid never stopped askin’ questions, so I ended up desertin’ Scott and having a snooze in the back. I just had to push the hard bags to the side and get comfortable on the soft ones.

*****

The next few days were a busy time of showing our guests the ranch and for us men to get used to havin’ all of these women in the house. The place usually smelled of polish and tobacco and leather but started to smell more of peaches and tingly soap and flowers – lots of flowers. Me and Scott took the girls about in the buggy and had to stop at every patch of wildflowers we came to so they could light and gather up great armfuls of the things. Now instead of one lot on the dining table and one in the middle of the Great Room, there were containers of them everywhere. Even in my room. They sure did smell a treat, it was true, but I put the pot from my room out in the hall. No gunfighter – ex-gunfighter, never had no pot of flowers in his room.

We took the girls all over in the buggy as neither one of ‘em wanted to ride. They were city girls and used to being pulled, not carried. Lorna thought our horses were ‘very pretty’, but she didn’t even want to pat them, and as for the cows, she was always putting her handkerchief up to her nose when we passed anywhere near them. Ainsley was happy to keep to the buggy too. I tried to get in the front with Lorna, but Scott was practisin’ some mighty fancy footwork to always be next to her, whether in the buggy or riding the couch.

That left me with Ainsley or Hamish. At least Hamish was hell for leather after riding, so me or Scott went on rides with him so he didn’t get himself lost. He’d ridden some at home so he was real disgusted that Murdoch gave him a couple of old lazy fellas as his mounts. I took pity on him and saddled Artie for him one day so’s he could run off Artie’s barn fat, but Murdoch saw us about to leave and made me switch all the tack back to old Grumbles. I did my own grumbling but Murdoch growled me down.

*****

 “Fen – the framed photograph of the boys on my desk – did you take it to show your children?”

“No Murdy, but if there’s a photographer in Green River I’d love to take a photograph home with me – of the three of you.”

“Maybe Maria is giving it a special clean. I’ll ask her.”

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> 

Aunt Fen liked to cook and was all for helping Maria and teaching her a few Scottish treats. We had things like ‘howtowdie with drappit eggs’ and ‘clapshot’ and ‘clootie dumplings’ and I downed the lot and enjoyed it all. Murdoch and her and our cousins all ate through mountains of ‘parritch’ for breakfast, but me and Scott stuck to our good ol’ bacon and eggs and biscuits – not like the potato scones which they all liked. But I ate those too.

We all trooped off to Miz Conway’s ranch on the Wednesday night and had a bang-up meal there.

Wash day was more interesting than I’d ever found it before. Maria had Jose string extra lines and they were heaving with all this ropa interior, (underclothes) like lacy and frilly ladies drawers and such, all pure white and fine to the touch. I was cutting through to the kitchen garden outhouse when I was pulled up short by the sight of all that stuff. I lingered a moment and was rubbing this silky material through my fingers when a dolly stick landed fair across my backside. I squidged out of there real fast. I was horrified that I’d been so taken up with my own thoughts that I hadn’t heard Maria sneak up on me. Mortifyin’ that she’d seen what I was doing and that she found it so amusin’. Jesus, she could be real annoying sometimes.

Scott didn’t find it so amusing when Ainsley waltzed into the bath-house when he was in the tub. She squealed like a stuck hog and in her hurry to turn and run she tangled herself and fell over. That brought Pauly and Lester to see what the hell was happened and so the whole ranch soon heard about it. We were very careful to lock that door from then on.

I don’t know whether it was on account of seeing a whole lot of naked Scott or not, but I came to notice how taken with him that girl was. It reminded me of Theadora Cheswick who couldn’t put two words together if Scott spoke to her. She’d been smitten with my brother since she’d set eyes on him, and now looked like he had another kid thinking he was the prettiest thing in pants she’d ever seen. If I tried looking at him like a girl would I saw a tallish, skinny stripling, (one of Pa’s words) with fair hair. He had all his teeth and his nose and eyes were in the right places, so I guess he had his good points. ‘Course his way was bound to be real appealin’ to ladies. All those manners… Like the way he’d listen to even the most boring as hell story from anyone without letting the teller know they should go drown themselves. The way he could palaver with anyone without being a dead bore himself. The way he took care of everyone around him before he took care of himself. And he sure could turn himself out pretty as a picture when he was all smarted up. All neat and shiny.

I’d seen the way ladies looked at him and knew they all found him agreeable to the eye, that was sure.

I knew myself that Scott was probably one of the best men that had ever been, but I knew that from dealings with him and what all we’d already been through as brothers. Maybe some of that shone out of his eyes or something, and ladies could also get a handle of that.

Whatever it was about him, Ainsley had it bad. I was looking forward to spurring Boston about it.

*****

“Scott – did you take your blue shirt from the washing line?”

“No Maria, I didn’t.”

“I’ll search the garden – it must have blown away.”

*****

Me and Scott loved hearing tales about our strict and no-nonsense Pa which showed that he hadn’t always been old and grumpy. Aunt Fen told us about scrapes he’d got in and Murdoch would try and stop her or change the past, but she wouldn’t let him get away with that.

Amongst other things we heard about him practising riding on the milk cows which upset them so that they stopped giving milk. He tried smoking his pa’s pipe and mighta got away with it but he was so sick he fell on the pipe and broke it and also burned a hole in his Sunday best jacket. He climbed up inside the church belltower but fell, and when he grabbed the bell-rope he clanged the whole town awake who thought it was a fire and all turned out. Jesus – he was nothin’ like the upstanding rancher he was now. His old man didn’t stand no nonsense from his three sons and was quick with a tawse to let them know it.

You’d think that might’ve made Murdoch grow up with the plan never to inflict a lickin’ on his own sons someday, but I well knew, as did Boston, that he seemed to think it was the sensible way to deal with any trouble his own sons might get into.

Murdoch was in heaven with the Scottish food and all of the talking with his aunt ‘aboot’ old times. Our hard and grumpy Ol’ Man was sweet as pie and truth to tell it was a trifle disconcertin’ to see him not getting riled every five minutes. Of course that couldn’t last…

*****

 “Johnny, give me back my comb. Go get it r ight now.”

“Your comb? What the hell would I want with your comb Boston?”

“Yes – what on earth was I thinking? You’ll need a curry comb if you ever decide to make your hair presentable.”

“Get fucked, Brother.”

*****

Everyone was happy to be together, and Hamish seemed to be too, but unlike the girls, who got on fine, he was cantankerous ‘round his sisters and his mama. He never gave her any backchat around us, so it was a surprise to me the first time I heard his sass. I liked nothin’ better than to spur Scott whenever I could, so Hamish doing his sisters that way didn’t bother me, but I was taken aback when he told his mama he’d do whatever he pleased. They were standing in the back portico, and I was tempted to say something, but didn’t have to as Murdoch stepped around the corner just then.

“Hamish, I believe you meant to say that you would be pleased to do whatever it is your mother asked of you.”

He said it mild, but there was no doubting that he sure didn’t expect Hamish to disagree one jot.

The kid had coloured up, and he studied his boots and then kicked some at the bricks under his feet.

I could see how uncomfortable Aunt Fen was, and how balky Hamish was, and how Murdoch was surprised that the shavetail was hesitating.

“Well?” rumbled the Ol’ Man.

I guess five days of seeing Pa being so mild had given Hamish a false idea of how dangerous a man he could be. When Pa leaned down and put a heavy hand on the kids shoulder though, he wised up a bit.

“I’ll go do my schoolwork now Ma.”

He mumbled it and I could hear he was resentful. Pa dropped his hand and stood up straight and smiled.

“Good man.” He was back to being nice. “Fen, Maria found some bolts of material up in the attic. She wondered if you and the girls would like them for dresses? She’s laid them out in the sitting-room – the room next to my study – see if they suit you.”

Hamish took off and so did Aunt Fen, twittering away about how much she and the girls loved dress material. Murdoch turned to me to ask where Scott was.

“He asked Aunt Fen if it was alright for him to take Lorna into Green River and they went off without even asking me-“

“Again? Didn’t he take her there not two days ago?” Pa had interrupted me and was frowning.

“Yeah – you don’t got to worry though – she ain’t givin’ him the time of day.”

Murdoch did a ‘hrrmph’ and crossed his arms.

“And her not giving him ‘the time of day’ – is that your assessment, or has your brother complained to you that he has attempted to initiate a flirtation with his cousin and not had his attentions encouraged?”

“If you’re askin’ has Scott tried to jump her and got levelled, he ain’t said, but I can see he sure would like to tumble her-“

“That’s enough! I was most certainly not asking if Scott had tried to – well – never mind! As soon as they get back tell your brother that I want to see him. And I suggest you take yourself off to my study and do some of your schoolwork – then you won’t have to do it after supper and you can join us all.”

Murdoch went striding off to check the progress two of the crews were making on a new windmill and tank house behind the hacienda. He’d been planning a well back there for a few years, and was proud to tell Fenella that next time she came to visit the hacienda it would have water piped straight into the house.

I dragged my feet off to the study but didn’t do much when I got there. Hamish had a lesson from his Mama every morning after breakfast, and Murdoch had suggested to me I could join them. One look at my face and he had rubbed a hand across his mouth and said as it was up to me. Aunt had given me a smile full of sunshine and told me she’d sure welcome me, but that smile had wavered plenty when I polite told her no thank you. As if I wanted to do any lessons at all, let alone sitting there with a twelve year-old kid! And it occurred to me too, that that kid just might have more learnin’ than me – Jesus!

*****

 “Cip – those yellow gloves of mine? Did I leave them on your portico yesterday?”

“I didn’t see them Scott, but I will ask at home.”

“Gracias.”

*****

I sat in the study doodling all over my writin’ book as I thought about the lovely shape of Lorna. She sure was a cracker, and Scott was real taken with her, no doubt.

The night before I’d been sprawled on Boston’s bed when he came in from visiting the outhouse. After squalling at me about my boots on his bed he’d eyed me in the mirror as he brushed his teeth.

“Bet if Lorna had busted into the bath house you wouldn’tve protested…bet you woulda been all polite and stood up to show her your fine manners – amongst other things.”

Scott bent to spit and he tried to not show he was rankled, but he could never control the blood mounting up his neck and into his face.

“Shut up, John.” He tried to sound not fussed but I knew him too well.

“Bet your pizzle woulda been standing all polite at full salute as-“

“You shut your dirty mouth Boy!” He was all rigid with disapproval as he turned and glared at me.

I grinned as I sat forward and folded my arms.

“Scotty there’s no need to be ashamed of your dick’s interest in-“

That had done it. Our brawl didn’t end till Murdoch came in and pulled Scott off the top of me and chucked him onto the bed. He grabbed me up and kept hold of my upper arm as he demanded to know what the hell we were about.

“He started it.” The lie tripped easy off my tongue and Boston’s outrage was funny to see.

“Wipe that smirk off your face, Young Man.” Murdoch shook me, exasperated.

He was always powerful irritated when even though I’d be dripping blood – this time from my nose – I’d still be tickled enough to grin.

I stopped grinning when Murdoch turned me sideways and landed a mighty smack to my ass and then pushed me towards the door.

“Go to your room and tend to your nose. Soon as it’s stopped, take your shirt down to the garden and drop it in a bucket of water. Then get to bed and stay there!”

As I’d left, scowling and holding an arm to my nose and rubbing at my backend, I heard him giving Scott a quiet but angry blast. Typical, I thought, disgusted. Boston gets a little scold and I get hit. The fuckin’ story of my life…

*****

I sat there in the study and grinned as I thought of Scott’s temper and the angry scowl on his clock the night before. I dropped the pencil I was doodlin’ with and gently prodded the bruise next to my eye. It made me smirk again to think how het up Scott had been, and how at breakfast he’d been sporting a fat lip.

Hamish had looked us both over, all interested. Ainsley though had asked ol’ Boston was he alright, sounding like she thought he was at death’s door and needed her to nurse him. Murdoch had answered for him short and then changed the subject. All the talk was of the new dresses the ladies were making from the material Maria had found, and of the party Murdoch had arranged for them all to meet some of his friends.

I pushed away the paper and primer, bored and restless. I hadn’t done any of my work and couldn’t be bothered with it. I left the study and rather than haul all the way out to the outhouse I took a sneaky leak on the pot in the corner of the patio. I was buttoning up when I heard Hamish in an argument with his Mama. I headed for them where they stood at the front door.

“-and you heard your Uncle tell you very clearly that none of us should leave the homestead unless we were escorted! I’m not-“

“Oh fiddle! If I can find my way around Toronto I can-“

“Hey Hamish!” I cut in, hoping Murdoch would arrive like he did last time. “My Pa will tell you he don’t ever talk just to hear himself speak – and I’ll tell you that he’s real big on what you might call ‘consequences’. This ain’t Toronto, and there ain’t the landmarks out there that a city kid could ever –“

“I have been in the woods many times! I certainly don’t need a damn minder to escort-“

“Hamish! How dare you use such language – and to your dear cousin! I should wash your mouth out!“

Fenella was real peeved.

Hamish had had enough of all his dear kinsmen it seemed, as he cussed an even worse word and spun on his heels and run off like the kid he was.

His mama gasped and held a hand to her mouth.

“Don’t be grieved Aunt – he’s just getting to an age where he don’t like being told what to do.”

I paused as it occurred to me that I had got to that attitude by the time I was four years old. Maybe even younger…

”I’m sorry you had to witness that Johnny. And hear that language! He’s been getting increasingly fractious, but this cursing is a new thing. I’m so ashamed.”

“Jesu- er, jiminy m’am, don’t worry yourself about that – out here we hear a good deal of…rough language, so that ain’t anything to get in a pucker about. But he sure shouldn’t use any in front of his mama, or any nice lady. I wouldn’t go mentioning it to Murd-, to Pa, else he will wash his mouth out. But if you like I’ll get Scott to set him straight. He’s a real polite fella, but he can be real forceful as well, and I reckon Hamish might listen to him.”

“Oh Johnny, you really are the sweetest boy! Your father told me how sensitive you are, and I have seen it myself. You and your brother are such a credit to your Fa-…well, to yourselves! Now I’d better go and check that obdurate young man of mine.”

She swept off and I was left there reeling, shocked at her words. Sensitive?! I was sensitive? What the hell did that mean? Weren’t only girls sensitive? Fuck me, that’s the last word I ever expected to hear applied to me, and for Murdoch to have said it about me knocked me sideways. Did he think I was sissified? Was it because I had lost control of myself when Val had been shot and I had broke down? Jesus…Johnny Madridsensitive?!

I was so rattled if Pa had appeared then I think I woulda punched his lights out in an attempt to show him what a man I was. Trouble with that was, one, I probably couldn’t even reach his jaw, and two, I couldn’t hit him even if I could reach, and I knew that.

Madre de Dios – did that prove I was sensitive? Mierda, the more I thought about it the more upset I got, and being upset made me think I was like a girl!

I went rushing towards the barn, needing to ride hard and fast and try and get away from my thoughts. It occurred to me that since the moment I met Pa he had always treated me like I was a kid – or I’d always thought he was treating me like a kid. Had he really always been treating me like a daughter???!!

Where was Scott when I needed to talk to him – although, come to think on it, this was something I would no way want to talk to him about. Not Lieutenant Lancer, who Pa always treated like an equal, like a real manly man. If I’d been thinking straight I’d have realized how ridiculous that thought was. It griped Scott powerful bad that he had been a lieutenant in the War between the States and yet Pa still treated him like a shavetail regular. But I was too caught up in my mad to think rational.

“Johnny – your Pa said if you’ve finished your schoolwork then Senorita Ainsley needs you to help with her sewing.”

Those words - just at that particular moment, were like throwing a stick of dynamite into a stove. They came from Matteo who had stepped right in front of me. The smirk on his clock was the lit match that followed the dynamite.

“What the fuckin’ hell did you just say, pendejo?”

My voice was quiet but I could see from Matteo’s expression that he could see I was kindling a rage. He looked real surprised, and he was suddenly wary, as he fuckin’ well shoulda been.

“I said-“

“You fuckin’ el carajo (prick)! Who the hell do you think you’re talkin’ to? You son of a bitch! You tell that fuckin’ old man that-“

“Juanito! Do not speak of your papa in such a way! And do not speak to me-“

“Don’t tell me how to speak! You bastard!”

I shoved him, and he almost fell.

Matteo didn’t take kindly to that. He righted himself in an instant. He stepped in and grabbed two handfuls of my shirt and was about to yell right into my face when I punched him in the gut. He didn’t wait to even try and get his breath in - he swung his right fist and it smashed into my ear.

I was already returning a punch with my left as he tried to deliver an uppercut with his left.

The two of us went to the ground, both of us cussin’ and grunting and furious. We could’ve killed each other, our blood was so fired up, but only a minute into our fight we were ripped apart. Otis had Matt pinned and I struggled like fury to get out of Geraldo’s bear hug. Both men were yelling at us to settle down but neither of us was takin’ a blind bit of notice until Cip’s roar penetrated our thick heads.

Cip rode onto the scene and unforked uncommon fast for such a big man. As Matt had wilted completely at the sound of his daddy’s voice, Otis let go of him and went to take Rojo’s reins.

“What is the meaning of this?” Cipriano glared at us, hands on hips, the dust swirlin’ up around his legs.

“Nothing, Papa, just a small difference of opinion.” Matteo kept his head down.

I struggled against Geraldo some more, still in the throes of temper and my blood being up, and I didn’t know what else.

Cip took my arm in an iron grip and nodded to Geraldo to depart. Our Segundo gave me a shake and I was tempted to try and snot him one. But I wasn’t quite lost to all sense as to try that.

“Juanito, what have you to say?”

“Nothin’! Except your son is a fuckin’ bastard!”

Cip sighed and his grip tightened. He fixed his youngest with a stern eye.

“Hijo, the outhouse behind the bunkhouse is ready to be dug out. Go.”

As Matt took off I tried to aim a kick at his ass, but Cip gave me such a shakin’ my teeth rattled. He was also dragging me towards the hacienda, first having scooped up my hat which he none too gentle jammed on my head.

“Let me go! I’m going for a ride!” I was still struggling to free myself. Stupid, but I didn’t seem to be able to get ahold of my temper.

Cip stopped dead and growled low.

“Juanito, te dejaré caer en el abrevadero? “ (shall I drop you in the water trough?)

That cooled my embers, finally, as I knew from experience that he would do it without a qualm.

We skirted the house and I knew we were headed for my Ol’ Man. I cooled some more.

All of the men around Pa were busy working, except him and our Lead Hand, Derby. They were studying on the plans laid out before them on a table. They heard our approach and both looked up just as Cip let me go and sent me towards them with an almighty thwack across my breeks. I swung ‘round, mad, just in time to see grim-faced Cip touch the brim of his sombrero to Pa and turn and stride off. I kept my back turned to Pa.

It was his turn to sigh.

“Come here.”

I hesitated.

Now!”

I grudging headed to him. Head down, my hands on my hips and my boots kicking at the ground. At least Darby had the manners to slope off.

Pa grabbed my chin and studied my face. I kept my eyes down.

“You are supposed to be in the house, doing your lessons or helping the ladies, but instead you’ve been fighting. Again. With whom?”

“No-one.” I ground out, jerking my chin outta his hand.

“Answer me Boy! Unless you want another clout across your behind? I’ll accommodate you!”

I gave him the surliest look I could muster. All that did was hurt my eye. My ear was throbbing and I sleeved off my nose and noticed the blood. When Pa grabbed my arm I decided maybe I should answer.

“Weren’t a fight – just a bit of a scuffle. With Matt.” I grumbled.

“Cipriano would not have interfered in a scuffle, and it wouldn’t have caused this damage.”

Murdoch sighed again and his hand fell on the back of my neck as he guided me away from the worksite.

“Matteo was to ask you to try and fetch a bolt of fabric from the attic. It’s high on top of an old chiffonier and it’s wedged tight against the rafter. How did that simple request result in fisticuffs?”

Being a gunfighter I had always been good at hobbling my lip unless I was needling someone. Right now though, my lip was at the mercy of my thoughts and I was all over the shop with roiled up temper and being mightily offended. And I’d also been watching my manners for five whole days which had been some helluva strain on me, which I guess accounted for me spilling my innards like I was six.

“That scutter said you wanted me to help with the sewing and your aunt said how you told her I was sensitive and you treat me like a kid but worse you treat me like you think I’m some sissified damn fuckin’ foop!”

Even as the words left my mouth – spewed out loud as could be – I realized how I sounded exactly like what I was describing and I felt like fourteen kinds of a fool. I was trembling with rage, and I even felt tears too close for comfort and that made me groan and wrench myself away from Murdoch and grab hold of the trunk of the oak tree next to me. I was trying not to heave.

As I tried to steady my breathing the birds above me got over their fright and started twitting again, and the sounds of saws and hammers and metal clanging came from the worksite. Murdoch’s gigantic, warm hand settled on my neck again, his thumb gentling me. Nothin’ and no-one had ever got me boiling over like Murdoch and Scott could. It still was mystifyin’ to me.

“Son, I don’t know where this has come from, but if you were calm and not flying off the handle, and, er… if you would put some thought into your place in this family, I believe you would realize that I am so very, very thankful to have my sons back, that even if you – either of you – had turned out to be a, a, um, ‘sissified damn fucking foop’ - I still would have been relieved, that is, inordinately grateful - that you had both lived to return to me and turned out to be almost anything at all.”

I was still breathing hard, but I was listening just as hard to Pa’s halting words. His hand kept rubbing my neck, and Jesus, it sure was soothin’.

“I think if you look back at our time together, Son, you might also consider that hardly a day has passed when I haven’t been called upon to rein in my temper because I am dealing with two very headstrong and wilful young men. Neither of you , as it happens, turned out to be what you refer to as ‘sissified’, and I have no idea what a ‘foop’ is, but it doesn’t sound as though you consider that to be a flattering term, and I doubt that either of you is one of those.”

Murdoch turned me ‘round and pushed the hat back off my head so it hung by the storm-strings. He took me by both shoulders. I was calmer now, and hugging myself tight, head down so he couldn’t see how red-faced I was. What a fuckin’ fuss I’d made – just like a girl!

A little reddy-brown Goldy butterfly hovered around my hand, its’ orange and black spots blinking at me.

“Johnny, I don’t deny I described you as sensitive to Fenella. I have no wish to deny it. I’m so pleased that you have that quality – and it is a quality, believe me, which I thank God survived in you in spite all you’ve been through.”

He let me go, but ruffled up my hair rough before he grabbed my chin again and told me to look at him. I did, feeling the red flood my face. Which made all my damage hurt more.

“Are you alright now? Do you understand what I’ve told you?”

“Mmm..”

“Pardon?”

“Yessir,” I mumbled, still embarrassed at the fuss I’d made out of nothin’. Well, outta very little.

“Want to ask me anything?”

‘‘Nosir.”

“So Matteo can tease you – something you both are wont to do – without getting a mouthful of your knuckles?”

“I guess so.”

“You’d better know so, because you can go now and hitch up the manure-cart and the two of you can spend the afternoon spreading the composted ordure in the new alfalfa field.”

I’d been punished with that job before, so knew that Pa said ordure because he never said las cagada. (shit) How he knew that Matt was already at work digging out the old privy I did not know.

“Go on now. Go to the wash-house and clean your face first. And at the field make sure you wear gloves, like Sam told us to, and still scub your hands and under your nails when you’re done.”

I was disinclined to turn my back, expecting a hefty smack to go on with, but I was surprised not to get one. Cip’s whack was still stingin’, so I was grateful. I wanted to get by myself so’s I could mull over the things Pa had said.

I hadn’t gone ten feet when I saw Old Ced hobbling as fast as he could towards us.

“Boss! You best come quick! That durn little Canadian kid has gone and kidnapped Artie!”

*****

Ced had been happy to have a hand from Hamish out in the barn. He left the kid there working when he had to go for a leak. When he came back from the new bunkhouse privy he found the boy had disappeared with Artie.

“He was helping me creosote the stalls but the little pismire was just biding his time till he could get away with that horse – he bad needs his sitter dusted!”

Basileo was the best tracker on the ranch, so he had gone with Pa to find Hamish.

I’d gone to the kitchen to clean up my face thinking to get some sympathy from Maria, but got more of yellin’ than any sweetness. I at least got fed, after some doctorin’, and didn’t end up doing my rotten job with Matteo because Aunt had come looking for her kid and suspicioned out quickly that we were trying to cover up something. So I ended up hanging about to soothe her worries that her precious boy was lost forever. And by stayin’ there I got to eat more cake.

In the back of my mind Pa’s words were still drifting, but I would think more on them later.

About two hours later Basileo and Pa and Hamish arrived back, both Pa and Hamish looking grim. The search party came in from one direction and Scott and Lorna from the opposite, the buggy swinging through the arch at about the same time.

Aunt Fen didn’t even get to grab up and scold her mucoso (brat) of a son as Pa sent him straight to his room. Pa went to the kitchen and ate. He told us all gathered there that Hamish had not only taken the horse, but he’d borrowed a rifle from Scott’s room. He’d taken a shot at a rabbit, and the herd of yearlings over the other side of the hill had stampeded. The hands were still out rounding them up to move them to the Morro pastures.

Maria made a pot of coffee for Pa and Fen, and gave me and Scott a glass of lemonade each. The girls went back to their dress-making in the guest rooms. Pa and me and Scott all went into the Great Room.

“Hamish is waiting in his room Fen. I’m sure you agree he is in need of some guidance,” Pa said, frowning at her.

She looked worried and a bit uncertain, but then she nodded.

“I know. He has certainly become much more wilful the past year. This escapade is more evidence of that. I know he should be punished.”

She wrung her hands, all upset.

“What would his father have done?” Murdoch talked gentle, knowing how wrought up she was.

There was a long pause.

“Cam always seemed able to handle Hamish with a stern look or word. But for behaviour like this, for something as serious as this…Cam would have paddled him.”

Whenever she spoke of her dead husband she always had a soft look in her eyes and voice, but now there was such sadness I had to look down. Murdoch coughed a little before he spoke.

“The boy’s behaviour certainly warrants more than a scolding, Fen.”

“Of course you’re right. Leaving the homestead, taking the horse – that’s bad enough. But to take Scott’s rifle! I can hardly believe it! He does need a paddling! I haven’t done that since he was little, but I know it needs to be done and I have to do it. It would be remiss of me to let him get away with such reprehensible behaviour…”

She tried to sound firm but her voice faltered and she clasped her hands together and looked at them, looking so upset that I had to drop my gaze again.

“Fenella, Ma stopped skelping me when I was ten. She overheard Donal and I laughing about how her kisses were harder than her smacks.”

Fenella looked up at Murdoch and she looked relieved.

“So you don’t think I should? You don’t believe in physical chastisement of one’s children?”

Jesus! Scott and me had both just taken a swig of our lemonade and when she said that both of us near choked. Lemonade came out of my already hurtin’ nose and burned the whole way, and Boston was coughing violent. Through my watery eyes I saw the surprised look on Fenella’s face and the grimly amused one on Murdoch’s clock.

“I think perhaps that that little display answers your question,” he said, dry as a desert gulch. “No, what I meant Fenella, is that by the time I was ten it was ‘your Da will deal with you when he gets home’. And he most certainly did. It was me who Hamish disobeyed, and, with your permission, I will deliver the stern guidance which that young man needs - right to the seat of his pants. ”

Scott was still spluttering a little, and I had to blow my nose.

I could see Fenella’s worry as her lower lip trembled some and she twisted a bit of her skirt in her hand. Pa looked at her steady and determined, which she saw when she looked up at him. She took a big breath and closed her eyes, but then opened them and looked sort of steely. I knew then that Hamish was goin’ to get it.

“I’ve always trusted you Murdy, and I trust you now…to handle this as his father would have.”

Murdoch knocked back his coffee and put the cup and saucer down on the tray on the table.

“Scott, your Aunt expressed an interest in seeing the church in Morro Coyo. Would you take her for a drive there please? Senor Baldomero has some beautiful embroidered linens she would be interested in too.”

Scott moved quickly to her side and took her arm as she stood. She was looking at Pa, her bottom lip caught between her teeth. Pa just nodded kindly at her before she let Scott guide her out of the room, her telling him she needed to just get her hat and gloves.

Murdoch looked over at me as I got to my feet.

“That kid don’t know what he’s in for Pa,” I murmured low as I rubbed the fingertips of my right hand hard with my right thumb.

“Son, his mother trusts me so you can too. Now you go get on with your chores, and perhaps in about an hour you could visit with Hamish in the way Scott does with you after you’ve had a licking. See if he wants to talk. Off you go.”

Pa pushed me gentle towards the front door and I ambled out. I was pleased that with all the kerfuffle Murdoch had forgot all about the manure cart.

I thought about Hamish, waiting in his room. I agreed with Pa. That boy needed reining. I felt sorry for him, but really, he had brought it on himself.

*****

Later I knocked and entered Hamish’s room. He looked real glad to see it was me and not Pa. He looked red-eyed too, and turned back to look outta the window.

Scott always knew just what to say to me, so I wished he was the one visitin’ the kid. I chewed my lip and fiddled with the beads ‘round my wrist before I spoke.

“I did tell you my Pa was big on consequences didn’t I. He don’t take kindly to being disobeyed.”

“Well I guess I don’t need you to tell me that.”

He sounded right surly, but I could understand that.

“I can see how you might’ve been wantin’ to take off by yourself for a while. And I don’t blame you for wanting to ride Artie – you know that. But taking Scott’s rifle was damn foolish-“

“You wear a gun! And have a rifle – and you aren’t much older than me!”

He’s swung ‘round and was showing his mad. His hair was all askew and his eyes were flashing.

My history with guns and no family was too big to lay out before this kid. His life was miles away from what mine had been. I wondered if Murdoch had even talked about it to his kin, or had just told about the nice things – like how ‘bonny’ and ‘sensitive’ his sons were. I knew people did that all the time, but I sort’ve hoped Murdoch was straighter than that with Fenella. I guess even if he was she wouldn’tve necessarily shared my disgraceful past with her kids.

“I’ll tell you kid, if I’d grown up around my Pa I wouldn’tve started wearing an iron till I was sixteen. And I wouldn’tve been carrying a rifle at twelve neither. Might’ve started learning to use one then, but if I’d taken someone else’s I woulda got exactly what you got. So if you want me to talk to my Pa about you being able to ride Artie, and maybe having Scott start to teach you about handling a rifle sensible, then I suggest you man up. Don’t go to sulking about your tannin’, and tell Pa and your Mama that you’re sorry for what you done.”

“You’d do that?” He asked eager.

He had something to think about now. Something to take his mind off being whupped.

“Sure. And if you’d acted different instead of flying off the handle-“

I stopped dead when I realized I was echoing Pa’s words to me earlier. Jesus – was I turning into my Ol’ Man? Or being ‘sensitive’? I swallowed hard. Sometimes my thoughts were a fucking nightmare. The kid was looking at me expectant.

“Well, maybe you could’ve got what you wanted and also avoided Pa’s belt.”

“His belt?”

“Mierda! You got off light kid!”

*****

Hamish wasn’t allowed out of his room so had his supper in there. His Mama took the tray in and she came out looking relieved so I guessed the kid had followed my advice. After supper Pa told me to bring my workbook to him. Of course when he found nothing but scribble in it I was ordered to sit at his desk in the Great Room and do my fucking lessons. Seeing Ainsley’s big grin at me made me just as surly as Hamish had been.

They all gabbed away, and after coffee Aunt Fen played away on the piano while her girls sang along. The piano was out of tune because Scott only played it every now and then. One of the girls wasn’t all that tuneful either, but when they sang “Flower of Scotland’, ‘I Love a Lassie’ and ‘Little Jock Elliot”, well, Murdoch looked as mellow and happy as an old cow who had just dropped a new calf. Once he even looked like he was wiping his eye, and I looked over at Scott thunderstruck. Scott of course, was not noticing anything except the way Lorna’s milkers swelled up and down beautiful as she sang.

Hot dang! She could be dangerous with the equipment she packed…

*****

Hamish ate his breakfast standing up at the kitchen bench. Something I’d had to do countless times since I came home to Lancer.

None of the women could talk about nothing else than the party the next night, and the new dresses they would all be wearing. And the lace their Mama had brought home from Baldomero’s store in Morro Coyo. The two girls went off to the sitting-room which had become their sewing room. Aunt Fen stayed in the kitchen cooking up a storm with Maria. Hamish was to help put lanterns up all around the patio, and to carry all the boxes of dishes and such out of the storeroom.

I was told to get myself out to the new alfalfa field and spread manure like I was supposed to have done the day before. And Scott was told to go to the study as Murdoch wished to ‘have a word’. Scott had been talking all comfortable and sweet to Lorna right through the meal, but at Pa’s words all the slack went out of his rope.

I was real interested to hear what was going to pass between them so instead of sitting in the courtyard to put my spurs on, I chose to do that sitting next to the study door. Pa wasn’t yellin’, so I did have to strain to hear.

Murdoch was sayin’ as how he was pleased that Scott was being very obliging, escorting Lorna about, but what on earth could have kept them in Green River practically the whole day, twice in the last three days? Yeah, I thought, unless you were getting full as a tick at the saloon, or making a bundle playing cards – what the hell had they been doing?

“What are you implying, Sir?” Ol’ Boston was peeved right off – a sure sign that he was guilty.

“I’m not implying anything Scott – it’s a simple question and I would like an answer.”

“Nothing inappropriate has occurred, Sir, and frankly I’m surprised that you are suggesting that something has.”

I forgot all about my spurs. Scott wasn’t lying – he wasn’t one to do that – but I knew sure and certain that he was hiding something.

“You would do well to guard your tone, Young Man. I have not ‘suggested’ one thing. Green River is hardly San Francisco – or even Sacramento – so I would like to know what the attraction is. You are prevaricating and you know it. So do me the courtesy of answering my question – and do it now!”

Pa was starting to get wrathy. Knowing my stubborn and proud brother it could go either way. He’d see he was being unnecessarily uppity, or he would get his snooty Boston back right up. I would love to have been in there and watched the struggle on his face.

“Lorna is a city girl through and through, Sir. Much more so than her mother and little sister. She finds driving around the countryside around town, and sitting in the café and visiting the few shops far preferable to the sights and smells of a cattle ranch. Not everyone loves cows the way you do, Sir.”

Jesus! Scott was playing with fire. He’d answered the question alright, but he was skirting on being downright ‘impertinent’ with the sarcastical way he’d said that last bit!

“Scott I have already warned you about your tone. And that last remark was verging on being impertinent – as you intended!” The ire in Pa’s voice would have meeked down a buscadero, so I wasn’t surprised when Scott saw his danger. He answered with his straight, no-nonsense voice, dropping the mouthiness.

“I apologise, Sir. I am just attempting to clarify Lorna’s attitude to rural life as opposed to yours.”

There was a long pause, and then Pa’s voice came back soft. I was straining to hear.

“My attitude to rural life Scott? Not ‘our’ attitude?”

“Murdoch, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting our Lancer relatives. It’s been a change to have the ladies to talk to about city life, and Lorna is a delightful young lady. That’s all.”

Now I wished I could see Pa’s face. I could well imagine it though. His next words sounded heavy.

“Son, I’m well aware of how different your life is here – how much you must miss of all that the city offered as you grew up. Although I do not love my cattle, I most certainly love this ranch and this life. But as much as I want you boys to feel the same, I am not foolish enough to expect the two of you to feel just as I do. It is your home, Scott, and always will be, but I would never stand in your way if you wanted to spend time away – university perhaps, as we’ve discussed. Or if you wanted to forge out a different life for yourself.“

My heart was up in my throat. How had a rollicking for spending too much time gallivanting in Green River ended up being a discussion about Scott leaving? I got to my feet and bust into that room, fuming that my hard-headed Pa and brother were getting into dangerous waters.

“You fuckin’ bastard, Scott!”

Both of them leaped up, and I got yelled at by both of ‘em – ‘John!’ and ‘Johnny!’ resoundin’ in my ears.

“One pretty petticoat and you’re ready to leave us? Go back to the city so you can dress in dandy clothes and go to see Shakesbeard plays and go to fuckin’ swear-ays? That ain’t the life for a fella like you Brother-“

“For God’s sake Johnny!” Scott looked riled up. “I do like to do those things as it happens!“

He took me by my shoulders and started shaking me just as rough as Cip had, and as he did he finished what he was saying.

“But how many times do I have to reiterate that I’m happy here and have no intention of leaving Lancer?! For a short time – yes! But I can’t ever imagine living my life anywhere else!”

He finished by dumping me in the chair he’d been sitting in. I was breathing terse and trying to calm down. Not easy when you’ve just had the bejesus shook outta your head.

I flicked my eyes at him. He was all red in the face and his mouth was in a hard line. Sort of the exact look on Murdoch’s face as he glowered at me. But then Murdoch’s face got considerably soft when he looked at his older son.

Murdoch sat down, and Scott decided to say more.

“And since you’re both curious about my feelings for Lorna, I’ll admit that I would have liked to have found favour with her – she is delightful. Intelligent and independent – much more than just a ‘pretty petticoat’, Brother. She though, she…well, she doesn’t have romantic feelings for me, and even if she had she would never be happy outside of a city. So we’re both enjoying a brotherly-sisterly sort of friendship while she’s here. And Sir,” he turned his face to Murdoch, “after church and lunch in Green River on Sunday, I promised her I would take her to visit with Mrs Vaillant. Lorna has a French exam when she returns to Toronto and she is keen to practise. I wouldn’t mind brushing up on my French either. If you don’t want me to spend that time with her I’ll make my excuses. I don’t want to upset everyone.”

After that pretty, straight-talking speech there was no way Murdoch was goin’ to object. I was mollified now, and it was my turn to realize the danger I was in. I chanced a sneaky look up through my eyelashes just as the Ol’ Man swung his eyes to me. I quick jumped up and headed for the door.

“Well it’s good all that is clear now, so I’ll just head-“

‘Course that wasn’t going to wash.

“John Mackenzie Lancer, you turn around and sit your backside in that chair! You and I are going to have a discussion – yet again – about eavesdropping.”

Murdoch stood with his arms folded till I slowly stepped back to the chair and threw myself into it in a huff. He came around the desk and put a hand on Scott’s shoulder and guided him out of the room. He shut the door firmly behind them and I didn’t have the cojones to jump up and listen some more.

A few minutes later he came back in and I was the one in for a rollicking then. I was lucky to escape that room with my hide intact.

*****

I wasn’t much for any sort of shin-dig. Too many people to keep an eye on, and too many people expectin’ you to jaw with them about cows or be nice about their dresses or stuff like that. Murdoch always made me get spruced up like a pox doctor’s clerk. Scott enjoyed doing that, but not me. I wasn’t allowed to go heeled either, so had to be satisfied to just carry my boot knife and derringer and my slim Green River knife which was in a sheath tucked into the back of my pants. Funny how my knife was called that not from our local town but from a place back east.

The hacienda and the courtyard all looked pretty fancy, but they paled into nothin’ next to the sight of our aunt and cousins. Well, the girl cousins…

If Sheriff Creane had asked me to describe those three for a wanted poster I would’ve been hard pressed, but I did know that they all looked real impressive. There were flowery dresses and shiny hair and some jewels that caught the light and made the ladies look even more sparkling. I sure did love the way getting all fancied out and showing off some creamy shoulders and arms – and even the top of their bubs - made those ladies have shining eyes and flushed cheeks – you wanted to hug them ‘cause them being so happy made you feel happy too.

And if you forgot that Aunt was your aunt, and that Lorna didn’t like horses, and that Ains was still a kid, then you could get quite carried off and almost have impure thoughts. If you were that sort of jasper who hadn’t been brought up proper…

I skulked around the outskirts of the party all night. The only dance I had was with Aunt Fen when she tracked me and roped me as neat as a top hand. I didn’t enjoy it as I did not want to crunch her toes and I had to concentrate so hard on following her lead when I damn well knew it shoulda been the other way around. Also I was real self-conscious about keeping distance between her fine chest and mine. And with all that distraction I couldn’t keep an eye on what all was goin’ on around me. By the time the music stopped I was sweating like a hard-run horse. Aunt was smiling sweet as could be though, and she planted a smoosh on my face and thanked me.

“No need to thank me Aunt. Scott told me how much older ladies like to dance with younger men.”

Her eyes flew wide, but I didn’t have time to wonder why as I was hightailing it to the barn.

I’d seen Ambrose Cotter headed that way before Fen had snagged me, and I knew what he’d be up to.

Sure enough, he and Will Cheswick and Scott and Sandy were passing a bottle around. We were all outside the barn’s back door, and half the bottle was already gone. I had a couple of swigs and we all joshed each other and discussed the shape of some of the girls. Not our cousins or Theodora of course, that weren’t done. Scott made us all laugh when he told us that Ivy Phillips must have prepared for the party by getting into her father’s whisky, because when he’d danced with her hand had dropped to his ass and he’d been so shocked he’d nearly stumbled, and then was ‘astounded beyond belief’ when she had left it there!

“I looked at her and she gave me this beatific smile and her eyes closed. I couldn’t do anything without drawing attention to it, and I hoped my jacket would cover her impropriety, and prayed that the music would stop. But she was suddenly jerked away from me by her father. He glared at me as though it was my fault, and he hustled her out the door very smartly!”

“M-m-m-mercy, Sc-sco-scott!” Sandy wasn’t havin’ trouble speakin’ because he was all corned up. He had a bad stutter.

“Best you don’t tell anyone what happened, Scott – she’s such a peach of a girl and that’s most unlike her,” said Will.

“I didn’t intend saying a word, Will, but Elsie Thistlethwaites shrieked the information to the whole room. She squealed ‘Ivy had her hand on Scott Lancer’s bottom!’ and then started giggling uncontrollably. That’s when I made my abrupt exit. I needed this drink to fortify myself!”

The bottle we’d shared was empty, so we drifted back towards the courtyard. And none too soon. There was a ruckus commenced and we could hear raised voices.

As we neared the light that was shed from the hacienda, Murdoch emerged with Floyd Grover from the Trabuco Ranch. Mr Grover was angry.

“I knew that kid of yours would be trouble from the moment I set eyes on him!”

I was shocked that he was blaming Scott about the Phillips girl, but his next words cleared that up real quick.

“You thought you could straighten him out Murdoch, but he was too long on the shoot and he’s never goin’ to amount to nothing!”

“You’re drunk, Floyd – drunker than any of those girls! You need to go home and sober up because I won’t have you maligning my son whether you’re drunk or not!”

“I can handle my liquor! I don’t blame you Murdoch – although it is your fault that the kid’s tainted! Mexes are fine to work for you man – but you should never-“

The punch the Ol’ Man laid on Mr Grover’s mouth stopped the rest of his words. The sound of it cracked across the night and two of the men who’d milled out from the party stepped forward until Murdoch turned their way, holding himself rigid. They both halted.

I was rooted to the spot. I felt like I’d stopped breathing.

Mr Grover had staggered back and had a hand over his mouth. Murdoch turned back to him and spoke low.

“You need to leave Floyd. Right now.”

Floyd pulled a kerchief from his top pocket. After turning his head and spitting out a mouthful of blood he pressed the kerchief to his lips and turned and strode off.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and knew it was Scott.

Scott’s movement must have caught Murdoch’s eye as he turned and peered through the gloom. Before coming over to us he told the two spectators that the ‘kerfuffle’ was over and they should return to the party. One of them was Mr Talbot, and before he scarpered he told Murdoch not to worry about anything foolish old Floyd said.

When Murdoch pulled up in front of us he folded his arms and looked gruff as an old billy goat.

“Mr Grover avoids drink as he knows it’s caused him a lot of trouble in the past. He’s slightly tipsy because he’s been drinking the ladies punch. Do any of you boys know anything about that punch being full of cheap scamper juice?”

Murdoch was looking close at our faces as he asked.

*****

Miz Conway liked a stiff drink, but she’d tried a glass of the ladies punch and realized it had been gullied with some hard liquor. As she’d been taking a glass over to Murdoch to tell him, the Thistlethwaites girl had squealed something and started making an event of herself. And Miz McMasters had tangled her feet up while dancing with her husband and the two of them had fallen over. While people were helping them up, and Miz McMasters was giggling and fussin’ at the same time, Murdoch had tasted the punch Aggie offered him and straight away gone and removed the bowl. That’s when Mr Grover had seen what they were doing and twigged to why he was feeling so damn fine when most of the time he felt like doom was his tight hat. Instead of keeping mum about it he’d had enough of the good stuff to get himself all self-righteous and had yelled that ‘some varmint has gullied that punch and got our womenfolk half-sprung – and I’ll betcha ten eagles that it was that no-good little scullion Johnny Madrid’.

Murdoch had hustled him outta there and we’d seen the rest.

Pa had been satisfied that none of us five had interfered with the punch, and he’d been too fixed on trying to keep the party from turning into a rout to worry about what me and the others had been drinking out by the barn.

Now we knew why some of the ladies and girls were having such an extra merry time of it. It was a hoot watching them with their lopsided smiles and not quite straight dancing and walking and them bein’ a tad more affectionate in public than they was used to be. Murdoch spoke to Tim Phillips before he took his family home. He wanted his friend Tim to know why his daughter had been so fresh with Scott’s ‘bottom’. Every time I pictured her doing that I bust out laughing.

And every time I thought of Pa defendin’ me I just about bust out grizzlin’ like a nino. It sure had been fine.

Pa did some enquirin’ around and little Silas Aubrey cried rope on his older brother Idris for daring Hamish to empty a half bottle of forty-rod into the ladies punch. So Hamish was sent to bed in disgrace, and Idris was banished to the Aubrey wagon for the rest of the party.

In the end though, I thought it was probably the best party Murdoch ever hosted.

*****

After the last guest had trailed away we all –‘cept Hamish – gathered in the kitchen. If anything the ladies looked even more fetchin’ now that their eyes wasn’t flashing but had gone content and soft. And threads of their hair had got loose and the dresses which had been a bit stiff was now moulded fine against them. They smelled allurin’ too, all peach and lilac and warm skin.

As everyone palavered on I raised my hot milk to my mouth and imagined having Lorna lying on top of me with those trails of hair brushing against my ears. And with maybe her shift working its way down off her bubs…Dios, I felt the familiar stirring in my pants but the kick to my shin brought my lustful thoughts right back to the kitchen. Scott was glarin’ at me and I felt the blood rise up in my face instead of elsewhere.

Maria looked pretty as a pony too. She’d splashed a belt of brandy into our milk but not into Ainsley’s. That made Ainsley pout which made her look pretty as well. Murdoch downed his milk and set off to escort Maria home and we all called it a night.

*****

In the morning Murdoch and Fen cooked up a delicious breakfast before they were all to set off for church. Hamish was sulking up a storm because Murdoch had set him a task to do when they got home. It was an essay on some jasper called Robert the Bruce. Until it was done he wasn’t to leave the house. He shoulda been thankful that’s all he got.

When his Mama chid him for bein’ a brat he decided to switch the fussin’ from himself to someone else.

“All I did was take a dare. I didn’t really have a choice, but Ainsley had a choice whether to steal or not and she chose to steal Scott’s belongings. She’s been doing it since we got here and no-one has bothered her about that.”

The kid was eating as he said it and it took him a few seconds to twig to how the whole table had gone deathly quiet. After Ainsley had gasped, that is.

I looked at her, interested, and of course every other person was looking at her too. She was going so red I thought she might blow the top of her head off. Sudden as anything she jumped up, only to have her Mama snap out for her to stay right where she was. I’d never heard Aunt Fen sound riled like that.

“Ainsley, I most certainly hope that your brother is mistaken. Surely you have not taken anything that doesn’t belong to you?”

I looked from the girl to Scott. He was tugging at his string tie and looking pretty damn uncomfortable.

“Ainsley, I expect an answer!”

The girl was positively squirming in her seat, and her eyes flicked at Scott. He was staring at his dirty plate like it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen.

“I only bo-borrowed a-a a couple of little things, Mama. I wasn’t meaning to keep them – I was going to put them back when – er – when the opportunity presented itself. Ohhhhh…!!!” and with that she bust out crying. She dragged a kerchief from her sleeve and started bawling into it. Damn if it didn’t look like one of Boston’s!

“What on earth?” Aunt Fen looked at Murdoch and she looked all at sea.

“Don’t look to me for answers Fen!” Pa protested. “I am at a loss when it comes to girls I’m afraid!”

“Oh for goodness sake, Mama,” Lorna weighed in next. “Ainsley has just started to grow up and she’s formed an attachment to Scott and done something silly. Don’t you remember six months ago when all of the girls in her class were taking flowers from the gardens of boys they liked? They were pressing the flowers and filling little books with them – it’s just a passing fancy and nothing to make a fuss about. Scott is far too sophisticated to be upset by schoolgirl foolishness– aren’t you, Scott?”

Before he could answer, Ains wailed like she was being knifed by a Commanch, and she flew outta her chair so abrupt the chair went flying. She bolted outta the room. Lorna hadn’t finished with her explainin’ about girls which I was interested to hear. I maybe would learn something.

“Young girls like to have something that belongs to boys they take a particular liking to. Ainsley has just got carried away. It is silly, but nothing to make a big fuss about.”

She fixed a disapproving eye on her brother.

‘Hamish you need your ears boxed! Sneaking about and spying and going through Ainsley’s things. And mine too, no doubt.”

Hamish looked shifty as an alley rat. Aunt rose up and took a big breath.

“Murdy, Scott, I don’t know what to say-“

Pa cut off her mortified speechifying.

“Fen, there’s nothing to say. No harm done. Believe me, I am often a good deal challenged by the vagaries and misdemeanours of my own children and am not inclined to judge those of anyone else’s. I suggest we all make ready for church.” He threw down his napkin and stood up.

“Yes – the sooner we are sitting in church and my two younger children are listening to a sermon the better. And I need the solace of contemplation myself! Hamish – march!”

The McQuillan’s all vamoosed and Pa went and righted the upturned chair. He leaned on the back of it, a bemused look on his clock. Scott was getting ready to stand as well so I decided to spur him some.

“Jesus, Boston, seems you are just irresistible to every fourteen year old girl in California! Ain’t it a pity that soon as they turn fifteen they come to their senses and realize what a homely, caper-witted owlhoot you really are!”

The cold biscuit hit me fair in the nose and then slew off and Pa’s reflexes worked a treat and he caught it and then growled at us.

“That’s enough. Johnny if you’re not joining us at church I suggest you go and find yourself something intellectually or spiritually elevating to do.”

I had no idea what he was talking about with those words you could break your teeth on. It was enough to see that Scott was smirking. I could sure put a stop to that. I stood up slow and leaned on the table toward him and spoke all concerned.

“Scotty, you’d best go and check your room. Better check where you keep your long-johns and such and count your underdrawers – wouldn’t surprise me if that poor girl don’t have a pair of ‘em tucked under her pillow – unless maybe she’s wearin’ ‘em!”

Yep, the smirk disappeared and Scott looked so appalled I spluttered out a laugh. Murdoch’s swate across my ass didn’t spoil my amusement but it sent me off hasty.

*****

Murdoch, Fen, Ains and Hamish had set of for church in the spring wagon. Because Scott and Lorna would be coming back later they went in the buggy. I ambled off and found Adela Hernando and continued my quest to get a kiss out of her. She showed some signs of getting warm and willing, I was sure, but her papa came out of their house and told her to go inside. So I was left frustrated as hell, as fuckin’ usual. I went off to the bath-house for some alone time and then I went and saddled Pancho and rode off some of my mad. The ride was good and did help.

*****

When Scotty and Lorna weren’t back in time for supper Fenella was gettin’ fussy and even Murdoch was starting to worry. Once again he saddled up and went in search of one of her young’uns. He told his aunt that most likely the buggy had lost a wheel or something simple like that.

We all chowed down and I tried to keep Aunt cheerful. I told her how good a driver Scott was, only excepting that one time he didn’t take the road Pa had told him to and he wrecked a wheel and lost a load of timber. I realized too late that she probably didn’t need to hear that story.

Ainsley and Hamish both got sent to bed early, so it was just me and Aunty waiting.

When Pa returned and didn’t have them with him, Aunt Fen really took a turn for the worse. She sunk down onto the sofa and looked at him with big eyes. She was breathin’ hard and looked like she couldn’t talk. Pa went and got himself a scotch and he poured a second one for her. She took it and gulped some. Pa downed his and put the glass on the low table. He sat next to her and took her hand.

“Fenella I visited Mrs Vaillant and they had been there. But they barely stayed half an hour. Scott told her they had another call to make. She went out to her front gate to see them off and…”

“Yes?”

“Well, when I questioned her, she said that they took the road east.” Pa looked real uneasy.

“The road east? Is that significant?”

It was significant alright. I stood up, my hands clenched.

“The only place on that east road from her house is Cross Creek. That is the train stop for these parts. That’s all that is there, and I can’t understand why the devil Scott would have taken Lorna there.”

Fenella’s hands flew to her face and she looked wild-eyed at Pa.

“Oh! Dear God! They’ve eloped!”

*****

Jesus Mary and Joseph. I leapt up ready to go and saddle up and ride down that train and drag my fucking dumb brother off it and out of Lorna’s arms. I liked her fine, more than fine, but she was not a girl who’d live on a ranch so she could not no way in the world have Scott.

“Sit down, John!” Pa’s holler cut across my thoughts and I sat, without even meaning to.

“Fenella there must be some other explanation. I know the two of them have become great friends, but Scott told me plainly that Lorna was not interested in anything more than that-“

“Good Lord, Murdy! Mercy! He’s deceived you! They’ve deceived us!”

I thought so too, and was ready to kill that no-account sonofabitch as soon as I got him home to Lancer where he belonged. But Jesus, it occurred to me that any man would be sore tempted by Lorna. Imagine being married to her and being able to bed her three times a day and all night long…it made me weak to think of it and I sort of melted back into the chair.

Aunt Fen flew off to her girls’ room. She came back a few minutes later with Ains and the news that sure enough, Lorna’s portmanteau and half of her clothes were gone.

When he heard that Murdoch went and downed another scotch and then sat down in his favourite chair. He leaned forward and cradled his face in his hands and sighed before speaking.

“Fen, the Sunday train goes through Cross Creek at three-twenty. It won’t reach Stockton until eleven tomorrow. If they don’t turn up here by sunrise I’ll go into Green River and wire the Pinkertons and arrange for an agent to meet that train. But let’s not-“

Murdoch stopped speaking. I heard what he’d heard – buggy wheels crunching on the caliche outside.

Murdoch and me both rushed to the nearest of the French doors leading to the verandah out front. Much to our relief, and Fenella’s, who ran straight into Pa’s back when he came to a dead stop, there was Scott and Lorna just pulling up.

We all erupted through the door and Pa was the first to speak. Or quietly holler…

“Scott – where the d- -- where on earth have you two been?”

My big brother had the wits to look a bit alarmed, even though he tried not to.

“I’m sorry, Pa, Aunt Fenella – I know you must have been worried.“

“Of course we’ve been damn well worried. Come inside! Are you both alright?”

Scott looked down at the reins he was holding, and Lorna peeped around him. She was usually so calm – ‘serene’, Scott called it, but she sure looked rattled now.

“Murdoch,” (seems Scott didn’t think the ‘Pa’ had worked) “we three are fine.”

Three?

Scott stepped out of the buggy and went and helped Lorna down, and as he did that this tall streak stepped out of the shadows of the back seat, and jumped lightly to the ground. He straightened up his rumpled clothes as he warily looked at us. He was dressed like an easterner.

Aunt Fenella gasped.

“Ardell!”

*****

No sooner had we got back inside than all the womenfolk were talking and weepin’ and hugging each other and apologising and Jesus wept – it was an unholy jabbering which made us men all look at each other very trepidated. Including Ardell.

Pa picked up only on one statement. “Scott was helping us to elope’ and that was all he needed to know.

“Scott Garrett Lancer! Is that true? You were helping Lorna – who is underage – to elope with this boy?”

The women all stopped gabbing at that hollering from Pa.

Boston looked mighty ill at ease, but he faced Pa and bravely answered.

“Yes Sir, I did agree to assist her – but not without serious qualms!”

Ardell was fumin’ at being called a boy and he stepped forward, all puffed up.

“Sir! I beg your pardon, but I am not a boy – I’m nineteen!” He took another step towards Pa and held out his hand.

“Mr Lancer, I presume. Mr Ardell Winslow, Sir. At your service.”

Pa looked at the hand without moving, and then the quelling eye he raised to Mr Ardell Winslow would’ve levelled a General. The kid did look meeked down, but give him his due, he slow dropped his hand but still met Pa’s eye very staunch.

Jesus, he mighta been nineteen but he did look like a shavetail, albeing a very tall and pretty dressed one with those nice manners that Scott could roll out in any situation. Pa was still quellin’ him when Lorna rushed to the kid’s side and linked arms with him. Ardell turned eyes on her that were full of mush, and he placed a hand over the one she had on his arm. She gazed back into his face with soft eyes, but the look was more like the soft and indulgin’ look I’d seen whenever Aunt looked at Hamish. Lorna cleared her throat and she spoke up.

“Uncle Murdoch – Mama – I wish you would both cease treating us as though we were children. I’m only six months younger that you were when you married Papa, Mama, and you know Ardell is almost the same age Papa was then!”

Pa and Aunty both protested much in the same line together, saying how that ‘was different’. The usual guff old people always prate when anyone under fifty says anything.

“Mama at least give us credit for not going through with the elopement. I – that is, we, decided not to go ahead with it, but to come here and show you how serious we are and how reasonable it is that we marry soon. And do it with your blessing.”

Fenella was looking frazzled to death, and at her girl’s calm and determined sounding words, she sunk down onto the sofa.

“And Uncle Murdoch, I beg you won’t be vexed with Scott. He has been unfailingly supportive and helpful. Why, he has chaperoned every one of our meetings as though we were still in Toronto, and –“

“Every one of your meetings – just how many meetings were there?” Aunt asked with a fainting voice.

“Why, each trip to Green River-“

“Swick the devil, Scott!” Pa looked and sounded like he was at the end of his rope. He looked sore tempted to lay hands on his eldest. I did relish seeing that, seeing it was usually me he was itchin’ to hit.

“Sir-“ Ol’ Boston tried to talk but he wasn’t getting one word in. Murdoch ripped into him.

“You Young Man, have been deceitful and underhanded and I am shocked and disappointed that-“

Now Lorna did her own interruptin’.

“Oh please Uncle! Scott may have misled you a trifle, and from a person who we all know is a thorough gentleman, I know that that is tantamount to appallingly bad behaviour in your eyes. But I assure you he has not once uttered an untruth to you. And his unswerving purpose in helping me has always been to dissuade me from eloping. You and Mama need to thank him for the fact that Ardell and I are here with you, and not halfway to Stockton!”

*****

What the whole story was came out that night, and some the next day. Lorna and Ardell had first met in Toronto and started walking out. Before hardly any time had passed they were soft down on each other and wanting to get married. Aunt Fenella thought they were being real impetuous and said she weren’t going to allow it until they knew each other a full year. Lorna had hoped to change her mind while they were away travelling to New York and San Francisco and so on. After they left Toronto Ardell was given a small promotion at his bank. It was for a position in San Francisco. He wrote to Lorna constant, so he was able to tell her ‘bout him leaving Canada. The two of them decided they couldn’t be so far apart so they worked out the scheme for him to come get her. Lorna was with us by the time he caught up so he laid low in Green River. Once she and Scott got to be friends she told him all about it. He was dead against it until he met Ardell himself and found him to be ‘sincere and determined’, just like Lorna was. So when he couldn’t change their minds about eloping he agreed to deliver her to the Cross Creek train halt where Ardell would be waiting. When she got there all the things that Scott had been sayin’ finally hit her and she decided to return to Lancer.

Lorna spouted off to us about how Scott had the ‘soul of a poet’ and the heart and mind ‘of a man of action and conviction’, so he had recognized their genuine love and been willing to act on their behalf and ‘risk the narrow-minded censure of his inferiors’ for them. It sounded like a big heap of bellywash to me. When she said those words about ‘narrow-minded inferiors’, Pa’s face was something to remember all my days. During that particular passage of the hoorawing Scott had sunk down onto the ottoman and dropped his head in his hands.

It had been about midnight by then and as everyone had calmed down somewhat, Pa had said it was late and we should all retire and save any further discussion for the morning.

Aunt had placed a hand on Murdoch’s arm and he’d patted it. Then she’d ushered her two pesky daughters ahead of her out of the room. Only Lorna looked back, her eyes lighting on Ardell before she turned away.

Pa had sent Scott and Ardell out to tend to the buggy and horses, and told Scott to show ‘our guest’ to a bed in the bunkhouse. I would wager my horse that that fancy dan had never slept in a bunkhouse his whole life. Boston’s face had showed he thought that too, but one look at Pa’s face and he’d decided it was perhaps time Ardell had that new experience.

*****

Come the morning we had breakfast in the dining-room, and Ardell was invited.

He was wearing a different set of fancy duds and didn’t look any the worse the wear for sleeping out with the hands.

Everyone was damped down except Hamish who was asking a thousand questions until his Mama hushed him and Pa asked him how he was getting on with his essay. That shut the kid up.

Ardell and Lorna were seated on the same side of the table, with Ains in between. They were even quieter than the rest of us. I saw how many times Maria softly touched Lorna and Fenella’s shoulders, and the pruney look her mouth got when her eyes swept over Scott and Ardell. Ardell was not aware but Scott looked right uncomfortable. And even more so when he locked eyes with Pa.

I gave Scott a big grin. He knew it was because I was thorough enjoying him being in disgrace. He glared at me which made me smile even bigger.

When the meal was nearly finished, Pa asked Ardell and Lorna to join him and Aunt in the study. He told Scott that the goat enclosure needed a thorough clean out and that the goats were due for dosing and hoof trimming. Scott tried his best to be ‘serene’ about the punishment, but I could read his eyes good and knew he was pretty disgusted.

I was told to hitch up the buggy and take Ainsley to the Conway ranch to see the twin foals that had been born the week before.

I was tickled six ways to Sunday. I was achin’ to see those babies, and also I hadn’t been allowed to drive the buggy since I’d near wrecked it not that long ago.

“John, I am trusting that you will drive the buggy in a slow and very sensible way. And you will not veer one inch from the main road to and from Mrs Conway’s. All four wheels will be on the road at all times. Is that clear?”

The frown on Pa’s clock woulda been enough, but the steely look in his eyes borin’ into mine was the icing on the cake. If I’d had any idea of tooling along at a pace enough to make Ainsley squeal, well, it died right then.

“Yessir.”

*****

Aggie Conway’s hand Burl drove me and Ainsley back to Lancer. She sat up prim in the front. I was stretched out in the back with a pillow under my head and a soft blanket tucked ‘round me. It smelled of lemon. Burl’s horse was tethered behind, trotting along all carefree.

I wished I was.

Everything had gone fine until I’d got sick of hearing about what a fine horseman Scott was. It was a real nice day to be goin’ to Aggie’s. Sunny and just a bit windy, enough to make all the trees dance and whip up Beulah’s pretty dark brown mane. Ainsley looked pretty too, with her mane tossing in the breeze and her cheeks all flushed. She filled me in on how Lorna and Ardell met and such. Of course she thought that him chasin’ after her sister and the almost elopement was ‘so uncommonly romantic’ and just like something she’d read in a book. Scott helping was romantical too, and he was like a knight. I knew about them knights from a book Scott had read to me when I was laid up one time. Once she started talking about my brother she never stopped. Couple of days before he’d mounted a green-broke horse which had played up some. Ainsley couldn’t believe how amazing he was to stay aboard. Ol’ Boston wasn’t above showing off if a pretty girl was watching, even one as young as Ains, and once he’d settled that roan mare he’d run her around the corral a time or two and then put her to the far fence and sailed over it.

Ainsley had bored us to tears that night telling it at supper. Murdoch had growled at him some about taking a jump on an untried mount and that had wiped the pleased look off his face.

Now Ainsley was on about it again.

At Aggie’s we’d made our how-dos and she’d straight off taken us to see Briar’s two beautiful little foals. Briar was a sleek, grey but her two little fillies were black; often how they came out. Ains wasn’t much interested in horses, but I never met a female of any age who didn’t go all to mush when any sort of baby was in front of them. I just about went to mush myself, and I woulda spent the whole visit out in the barn. Briar started getting a bit antsy though, so Aggie dragged us off inside for lemonade and cake. Aggie’s cook Estralita made fine lemonade and this delicious tres leches cake with peaches on top. I only had three slices because I was watching my manners.

Soon Ainsley started telling Aggie all about the exciting elopement that never happened. I didn’t want to hear any more about it so I scarpered out to the kitchen to tell Estralita what a jo-fired cook she was. She was pleased, even though she always was strict with her words and looks at me. Me and Estralita had some history and she made no secret of thinking I was un mocoso poco indisciplinado (an undisciplined little brat). She gave me some cookies but I was full as a boot so I wrapped them in my kerchief and put them in my back pocket intending to put them out on the buggy seat for the trip home.

Next I wandered out to the corral next to the barn. Two of Aggie’s wranglers, Ronaldo and some other jasper, were breaking a string of horses. I did love watching Ronaldo ride up a storm on a bay which was feisty as hell, but sooner than I thought he would that bay gave up and started to settle. Ronaldo rode him round and round about six times before letting the other man hold the bridle while he lit down. He came over and we had a word while he drank from the bucket ladle on my side of the fence. He told me he’d softened the bay up a few days before.

He next had a real hard ride on a dapple grey which I loved the look of. I was itchin’ to be up there myself. Also wishing I had a thousand dollars so I could buy that horse and Briar and her two babies. And head in to Green River and get some cooching from ten of the girls at the Long Trail Saloon’s rooms upstairs. Jesus, it was hard being only fifteen. I sniggered to myself when I thought how often and how hard ‘it’ was…

I heard talking behind me and out came Miz Conway and Ains. No sooner did they join me than Ainsley started on again to Aggie about what an ‘impressive’ horseman Scott was. Madre de Dios, I was sick of hearing his name.

“Senora! Lupita se ha desmayado de nuevo. Necesitaremos que Ronaldo la levante, por favor.” (Lupita has fainted again. We will need Ronaldo to lift her, please.)

Estralita’s voice interrupted Ainsley’s guff.

Miz Conway quickly explained that one of her house-girls, Lupita, was in a delicate condition. She was a rather big girl and so a man’s help was required to lift her. I offered to help but Aggie said she’d let us get off home and she called out to Ronaldo. We said a hasty goodbye and she and Ronaldo vamoosed off into the house.

I looked at the dapple grey which was standing tied to the snub post. The other man had disappeared. Ainsley was standing next to me pulling out her hair which was tied up in a horse tail. The grey shook his head and snorted. He looked over at me and I saw the question in his eyes.

Murdoch had forbid me from breaking horses. But it wouldn’t be like I was breaking a wild horse. He was already broke by Ronaldo. But Ains didn’t know that. Afterwards I’d tell her to keep her trap shut and Pa wouldn’t hear about it.

I was sore tempted and only hesitated a moment before I gave in. I couldn’t be blamed – it was everyone else’s doing that put me in that position. If Lupita hadn’t been a big, plump girl who liked her vittles and hadn’t got herself caught with a baby and hadn’t fainted then Ronaldo wouldn’tve left and the other man would’ve stayed. So giving in to temptation wasn’t really my fault when you considered all that.

I leapt the fence, ignoring Ains and her worried questions.

I approached the grey and talked easy and gentle and undid the reins and ever so light I stepped into the stirrup and was in the saddle before the gelding knew it. It soon occurred to him though, and he commenced to arc up and misbehave. I thought if he didn’t put on enough of a show I would spur him just a little. Ainsley was yelling, sounding all worried, but I was having no trouble staying put at all, and just thinking of giving the horse a little touch of the spur when I suddenly didn’t need to.

Ainsley’s hair had been tied up with a bright blue ribbon before she unleashed her pony-tail, and she must’ve lost her grip on the ribbon as she stood there. Unfortunate for me, the wind grabbed it and plastered it right across the grey’s nose.

The gelding spooked completely and had a full conniption. He not only reared back like he’d been bit on the nose by a rattler, but in the next instant he launched himself and spun in the air. When he landed - like an avalanche - he straight away pitched his whole back end straight up in the air. Me and that horse came to a fuckin’ fast parting.

*****

So here I was lyin’ in the back of the buggy instead of drivin’ it.

Mierda, that horse’s pitching a fit would be nothin’ compared to Murdoch’s. I must’ve groaned, because Ainsley whipped around to check on me.

“Johnny, are you alright?” She sounded real upset.

“M’fine”, I shot back between clenched teeth.

She turned back and reached up to give that fucking ribbon a tug to make sure it was tight.

*****

Burl and me tried to reassure Murdoch and Aunty Fen that I was not at death’s door. Hell, I’d only been knocked out for a couple of minutes and Aggie was sure I wasn’t hardly concussed, else she would never have let me leave her place.

But oh no, Murdoch saw the bump on my forehead and how pale I was and I was ordered to bed. If I hadn’t protested loud and long I know he woulda carried me up there like a damn baby.

He’d have nothin’ but me undressed and in bed, and I had to do some more protestin’ for Aunt to leave the room while I shed my duds. Murdoch was exasperated when a whole mess of cookie crumbs covered his boots when he hauled off my pants. Jesus, what a waste! I was barely into bed when Maria came in and did the eye check on me that Pa only just had done, and she was feeling the bump and fussing at me so hard it was bound to make my headache worse. She closed the curtains and fired orders all over the shop.

Soon I had a cold cloth over my bump and eyes and had been dosed with a headache powder. All this fuss for one small tumble – it was mortifyin’.

Best thing I could do was go to sleep and avoid everyone carryin’ on.

*****

The creak of someone sitting in a chair at the end of my bed woke me. I kept my eyes closed, even though the cloth still covered them. The cloth was cold so had been replaced, I knew. Aunt Fen’s voice was so soft I barely caught the words.

“Has he stirred at all?”

“Not since I woke him half an hour past,” Murdoch answered.

“Did he know the President’s name?”

“On a previous occasion he gave me the name of the President of Mexico. They change so often I can’t keep up, so it’s easier if I ask him the name of his horse.”

There was a soft laugh.

“How is Lorna?”

Pa’s question made me wonder had she decided to try breaking a horse too.

“She’s so happy that she’s soon to be married that a short separation from Ardell is not upsetting her. She’s always been a pretty level-headed girl, Murdy. Probably more grown than I was at her age, so I’m coming to terms with the marriage. As much as losing her company saddens me. We have to let our children go though, don’t we.”

There was a long silence before she sudden spoke in a little rush.

“Oh Murdy, how tactless of me-“

“Not at all, Fen. I didn’t let mine go – they were ripped from me. I intend to be thoroughly selfish and hold onto them as long as I possibly can now. I know the time will come when they marry and have families of their own, but I pray every night that they stay at Lancer when they do that. They might not want to live in the hacienda, but it’s my fervent desire that they stay on this land. I have the feeling that they will, but we have no knowledge of what the future holds, do we.”

I wanted to go back to sleep, but this talk was too interesting to miss out on, so I kept listenin’.

“Young Ardell-“

Whatever Pa intended sayin’ about ‘young Ardell’ was interrupted when the door opened and I heard Scott’s strangled voice.

“Is he alright? He was breaking a horse? He-“

Pa getting up was a lot noisier than Aunt sitting down.

“Shhhh! He’s sleeping off a bumped head, not serious at all, but I’m being cautious until Sam checks him. Look at the state of you! If Maria sees you inside covered in goat muck she’ll have your hide! And mine too!”

“I took off my boots.” Scott sounded real peeved.

“You go back to work and once Sam’s been I’ll come and talk to you.”

“Why didn’t anyone come and tell me what had happened? No-one’s come near me since Ardell came to say goodbye.”

“I sent little Luis to tell you, and to tell you to stay put as the injury isn’t bad – luckily for your disobedient little brother. It’s just serious enough that I didn’t drag him straight to the barn and tan the hide off him.”

“I haven’t seen Luis.”

“Well, there’s another youngster who’ll be getting a smack to his rear end,” Pa growled. “I’m surrounded by young men who are in serious need of getting their backsides warmed.”

“Alright, I’m going. But please come and tell me yourself what Sam says.”

Pa musta nodded as the door closed soft and the chair right next to my bed protested as he sat.

“Murdy I had expected this visit to be pleasant and relaxing. It’s been anything but! I’m so sorry-“

“Fen don’t say another word about being sorry – it’s been wonderful having you and your children with us. I’m still learning to be a father, but one thing I learned very quickly is that there is absolutely nothing relaxing about being a parent. Perhaps there are some relaxed parents out there in the world – but I’m damn sure none of them has offspring with Lancer blood in their veins!”

The door opened again as Aunt Fen smothered a laugh.

This time it was Maria. I heard the clinking of china and knew she’d brought a tray up.

“How is Juanito? Did he know Pancho’s name?”

I had to be real careful to fool Maria as she changed the cloth on my head, dropping a soft kiss on my cheek as she did so. She straightened my quilt and ran her hand over my hair.

Pa and Fen thanked her for the coffee and she murmured something before the door soft closed behind her. The coffee smelled so good I was tempted to sit up and ask for some. I’ll bet there were small spice cakes on that tray – I got the whiff of spice under the coffee smell.

“You’re right about how close your boys are Murdy. It’s truly a blessing after all of those years they were separated.”

“I’m very thankful for it. When they do fall out they are not averse to brawling, but it’s soon forgotten. They’re both thran (stubborn) and hot-tempered – a lot like Donal and Caillen were.”

“And you and Hamish… As you remarked – Lancer blood!”

Murdoch did his ‘hmmph’ scoffing sound as they had the coffee.

“Both of your boys are going to break some hearts, Murdy. Scott’s finely boned features and beautiful way of carrying himself. His clear blue eyes. And this young scamp’s eyes - and those eyelashes, Murdy! The envy of any woman! And he has that boyish charm and heart-melting smile which is going to conquer any woman’s defences!”

“Yes, both their mothers had exactly those features. I try not to think about my sons running riot through the female population of the San Joaquin. More to worry about.”

Pa said this with a moan, but Fen was softly chortling. Soon as my huge bump was gone from my forehead I decided to put in some practice on my ‘heart-melting smile’. I’d heard ladies talk about my eyelashes before. I sure hoped they didn’t fall out before I got to use them to conquer as many females as I could.

It was all quiet for a while then, apart from the muffled clink of cups and saucers. I felt sleep creeping over me again. But then Fen asked something I was real concerned to hear the answer to.

“Murdy, you’re not going to tan him, are you?”

I held my breath as Pa put his cup back into the saucer. In my head I could see the stern look on his clock.

“He certainly deserves a good hiding! He’ll try and tell me the horse was already broken, so he hadn’t disobeyed me. But he knew Ronaldo hadn’t finished with that horse and he just gave into the temptation. That, and the opportunity to show off!”

“But the other night, after you dealt with Hamish, you said you’d lost count of the lickings you’ve given Johnny. Doesn’t that suggest that they aren’t working?”

I decided right then that Aunt Fenella was my favourite kin in the whole world. Once I was allowed up I’d have to make a big push to get her to live with us.

“Fen, it’s true that walloping that young man has not done a great deal to deter him from any course of action he decides on. Hard-headed! But as far as I know, Johnny had only about eighteen months of proper guidance – I told you about Val Crawford – in his whole life. He grew up doing what he pleased and running wild. When he wasn’t outright neglected he was treated very badly. How he retained that underlying kindness and sensitivity I don’t know. Now I’m determined to give him a solid base to try and redress those years of being rootless and uncared for. He needs discipline – rules and consequences – and he needs that to be consistent. He doesn’t like it one bit – you should have met him when I brought him home! But I can see him changing. He knows that he matters to me and Scott, and he knows that his behaviour matters to us as well. He bucks all the time, and wants to buck even more, but now he’s come to realize that he can depend on his home and his brother and his family. Depend on being loved and cared for. And provided for. And depend on getting pulled into line if he flouts the rules that have been imposed on him for his and our protection. So giving him a licking may not be the deterrent I would like it to be, but it’s a punishment for wrongdoing which he knows he’ll get if he breaks certain rules. To me, that’s part of the consistency he needs.”

All was quiet as the three of us all thought about Pa’s long speech. The only thing he didn’t know anything about was my time with my ‘step-father’, Javier Delgado Herrera. Mierda! Everything else rang true – way too true. It appalled me to think that maybe Pa was right? Or maybe there was no ‘maybe’ about it.

“Fenella? Many a night I’ve thought about how best to handle Johnny, but I’ve never actually put it into words like that. I would really value your opinion?”

The silence stretched out, but she finally replied.

“Murdoch, any parent who thinks they know the best way to raise a child is living in a fool’s paradise. Mercy, I’m doing the best I can and God knows, Cam was the most wonderful father - yet you’ve seen each of my children giving me grief this week! Vexing us all! Far be it for me to advise you, and I’m not going to. I think you’ve risen to challenges all of your life, my dear, dear, Murdy, and I admire your home and your ranch. But what I admire most is you with your sons. They’re fine young men, and you mightn’t have been in their lives a long time, but I believe I see your influence in them. I certainly see the feeling between the three of you. That is genuine and something to be so proud of. That feeling is all you need to guide you in raising those boys.”

Maybe Pa was busy swallowin’ a lump in his throat. I know I was.

“Thank you, Fenella. It’s been good to talk to you. I haven’t talked this way in years…this personal way. It’s been a sort of relief to have you to talk to.”

“It’s been the same for me – when your spouse is gone then talking to family is such a comfort.”

In the quiet that followed I listened to some yelling coming from the corral. A crash came from downstairs somewhere. I flinched when Murdoch’s hand unexpected ran down the back of my hair.

“I’ll say one more thing Fen and then I’m going to make myself a scotch, and bring you one, too. It’s this. I loved my wives, both of them, but it was a long time ago and maybe my memory of it has faded. I know I love this land more than anything God ever created, but by God, the way I feel about my boys! I remember this feeling from the eighteen months I had with Johnny after he was born, but I think that faded from my memory too – or I pushed it away to protect myself. But it came back strongly the very moment I saw each of them, and now it’s here all the time. Sometimes I worry that a man shouldn’t feel this way - I think it’s more proper in a woman – but I can’t deny it is the way I feel. God – I need that drink.”

“Murdoch, you have every right to feel that way about your sons! Never doubt it.”

Pa didn’t answer as he made for the door and it closed behind him.

Pa had said so much that I wanted to think about deep, but my head was aching so I knew I’d have to think more on it later. How it gathered all of these feelings in my chest was another thing, and it flooded up in me so much that my head went to throbbing again.

For a minute the only sound was a couple of blue jays in the branch outside my window. Blue jays were known for taking little shiny things, a bit like Ainsley had been doing with Scott’s stuff. When Aunt’s voice broke the silence in my room the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

“Johnny Lancer, how long have you been awake?”

I thought on keeping pretending, but then she gave me a light smack on my leg. Slowly I rolled over and I took a peek out from under the wet cloth. She was sat there with her arms folded. She had a stern look around her mouth but I saw that her eyes were amused.

“Couldn’t fool you, huh?”

I pulled myself up in the bed a bit and she rushed to fluff out the pillow and set it right for me.

“I have a twelve year-old, dear, so I am wise to the ploys of boys.”

“I can’t usually fool Scott neither.”

My voice cracked which made me real irate. It hadn’t cracked in a while and I’d hoped that was finished with.

“No,” Aunt said, “that’s because Scott’s not really out of boyhood himself.” She had a big grin on her face.

Dios, I couldn’t wait to tell Ol’ Boston that.

She’d taken the cloth and swirled it in the basin on my bedside table. The green, flowery basin had a chunk of ice in it. She wrung out the cloth and then folded it and placed it around my forehead. She lightly patted my cheek before offering me a glass of water. I gave her a big smile.

She laughed so big she almost choked. That confused the hell out of me and the smile sure disappeared as I scowled.

“Oh Johnny – you are an absolute treasure!” She was laughing so much she needed a kerchief to dab her eyes. And when she looked at me and saw my scowl she laughed more.

“Darling, the ‘heart-melting’ smile only works when it’s genuine! You’ll understand that as you get a bit older!”

Murdoch came in scowling himself.

“What on earth? You’re awake, I see.”

That made Fen peal out another laugh and made me scowl more and hunker down. I pulled at threads in the cuff of my undershirt to relieve my mad. Pa handed Fen her drink and put his down so he could repeat everything his aunt had just done.

“How do you feel, Son? You’re pouting rather fiercely, but that’s nothing new. How’s the headache?”

“Real bad.” I groused.

Murdoch was some shocked at me sayin’ that when I never usually said anything but that I was fine. And he looked real perplexed at Fenella who was still giggling away like a drunk schoolgirl at a Lancer party.

*****

The next few days went by real quick.

After Sam had got out to the ranch he’d said I was to stay in bed till the next mornin’ and then wasn’t to ride for three days. What with not being able to ride, and having to spend every morning doing lessons and the ledgers in Pa’s study, and every afternoon raking manure, I was kept firmly in Pa’s sights. I’d rather have had the licking.

Ardell had been driven into Green River after his and Lorna’s talk in the study with Pa and Fen. Aunt had agreed they could marry when the McQuillans reached San Francisco. He was put on the stage to start his journey back to San Francisco and take up his new position at the bank. ‘Course he and Lorna was as happy as fat pigs in a mucky hog-wallow. He was one lucky fella, to get to unwrap that peach of a girl on their wedding night. Brussels sprouts…Brussels sprouts…Brussels…

We all trooped over to the Conway ranch for a farewell dinner and Aggie chafed me about riding the grey. The whole passel of us went out to see those fine little fillies again, and I asked Murdoch to buy ‘em. He and Aggie started dickering which they loved to do over any horseflesh. Randy Bass took me aside and asked did I get a leathering and was surprised I hadn’t.

A few neighbours called in to say farewells. I was astounded to see the way Mr Cheswick held Aunty Fen’s hand and looked at her. And she looked back at him the same way. I mentioned it to Scott and he laughed and said if I didn’t avoid everyone at every party I would have seen how taken Mr Cheswick was with Fenella and how much she’d enjoyed the attention. It made me feel all dauncy in the gizzards. Old people behaving like that…

Soon as Hamish handed Pa the essay on Bruce and Robert, he was allowed out of the house again. The next two days Scott took him out to behind the guard house and gave him a lesson on handling a rifle. The kid was lucky to get the second one after putting a huge frog in Ainsley’s bed and making her scream the place down. All the ladies was miffed with him but Pa actually smiled and gave him a wink. When the females weren’t looking of course.

Scott beckoned me into his room the night before the family left us. On his bed was a neat folded blue shirt, his comb, the yellow gloves and the framed photo of us two.

He grinned at me and I rolled my eyes. I didn’t mention that there should’ve also been one white handkerchief with the initials S.G.L. sewn pretty in the corner. Maybe I’d tell him after the family had left.

When they left I’d tell him too, about some of the things Pa had said to Fenella in my room. I thought Scott should hear those things.

*****

The morning the McQuillans left we had a mighty good morning tea to fortify them all for the travel ahead. Maria loaded them up with enough food to take them all the way to Canada, not just San Francisco.

Murdoch drove the wagon which was heaving with McQuillan ladies and luggage. Me and Scott rode, and Hamish was allowed to ride Artie. We took our time, by-passing Green River and getting on to the Cross Creek Road and eventually reaching the train halt. It was a tidy step to get there by road, a lot faster if you went cross-country. There was no platform like a big town might have. Leonard Dunstable lived there in two rooms at the back of a large porch which had walls halfway across both ends for some shelter. There were benches each side. If there were passengers Leonard would swing out a long timber arm called a vane, I think. It had a blue square to tell the oncoming driving ‘caution’ which also meant for him to stop and get the people who were waiting.

Mr Dunstable swung that out as soon as he saw the train’s smoke in the distance. He collected all of the cups he’d given us water in and disappeared inside. He was a small, wiry man who combed his sparse hair from one ear across his bald head and down to the other ear. Some people do some mighty strange things.

We said our goodbyes to our kinfolk, shaking hands with Hamish and joshing him about returning to live with just a mess of women. I gave Lorna and Ains a peck. I saw that Ainsley couldn’t even look at Scot as she held her hand out to him. Kind as ever, he ignored the hand and took her shoulders in both his hands and gave her a kiss on her cheek, saying as how he looked forward to seeing her soon. That made her go to the blush and pull out a handkerchief from her sleeve and start snuffling as she turned away. Scott saw it was his handkerchief and quickly covered half his face to hide his laugh.

Aunt Fenella crushed the breath out of us two, planting a kisses on us and telling us she would miss us more than she could say.

It was quite affectin’, and I shoved my hat on down to my eyes and kicked at the boards.

Murdoch and her hugged each other so long I wondered if the train would come and go before they left off. Fen was clinging to Pa like he was the only tree in a gale.

She finally let go as the train made its great steaming, clanking, whistling slide into the halt. She and Pa didn’t say nothing, but she was weeping. Pa helped her and the kids aboard while me and Scott and Mr Dunstable and the railway man all worked fast to get the bags all chucked up into the baggage car.

Soon as the baggage door slid shut Mr D grabbed his flag and swung it about. Me and Scott joined Pa and the train started to pull out. Through the windows we saw the McQuillans all waving madly as they moved down the carriage, holding on to the backs of seats.

We waved back but within a few seconds they were gone.

We all stood quiet looking at the caboose getting smaller. I brushed some cinders off my shirt as Murdoch and Scott checked themselves.

“Sure will be quiet with all of them gone,” I said, as the train became smaller in the distance.

“Quiet? I can’t recall one quiet day since you two n’er-do-wells arrived home.”

While speaking them words Murdoch grabbed us each by the back of the neck and gave us a small shake. He guided us away from the tracks and we started heading for where the horses and wagon were. As he dropped his hands down I gave my brother a long look.

“Well, Scotty, Lorna ain’t the only pretty girl in California. Maybe you’ll have better luck with someone else.”

“Shut up, Little Brother.” Scott said it quite mild as we all waved to Mr Dunstable.

“She mighta thought you were as plain as a pound of candles, and boresome to boot, but her comely Mama sure did admire your fine bony old face and your clear eyes.”

I grinned at him as he frowned at me.

“What on earth are you talking about?” he quizzed me.

I’ll tell you exactly what he’s talking about.”

Pa’s voice came from a step behind us. It was furious. Red hot furious.

Too late I thought about just exactly when I’d heard Fenella making those compliments about Scott. Dios! Fuck!

Before I could take off like a bullet Pa’s hand landed on my backside so hard I shot forward about six feet. It sounded just like a gunshot too, when his hand connected, and Pancho and Kirk and the wagon horses all shied away from the noise.

Though I was almost killed by that whack I didn’t waste that six feet of advantage because the Ol’ Man was hollering for me to get back there. No good would come of that, I knew, so I kept running. I loosed Pancho from the hitch rail and did a flying leap into the saddle.

Pa and Scott were both stopped. Scott looked amused. Amused and pleased, the bastard. Pa looked fuming and had his hands on his hips and was yelling.

“Eavesdropping! Again! And playing possum!”

One of his hands swept up to his mouth and he looked frazzled as hell. I guessed he was thinking of all of the private things he’d been palavering about with Fenella. His arm flung out straight with his hand motioning me back and then pointing at the ground in front of his feet. He was yelling even louder.

“You unmitigated little spalpeen (rascal)! Come back here immediately!”

I wheeled Pancho and didn’t waste no time. As I dug my heels into Pancho’s sides and he leapt forward I could still hear Pa’s bellowing.

“Just wait till I get my hands on you – you’ll not sit for a month – I’ll tan the hide off you!”

Jesus! When was I goin’ to learn to keep my big mouth shut? If I’d only waited to score Boston in private this wouldn’tve happened. I urged Pancho on and he surged ahead.

As Pancho and I hightailed it a feeling of freedom swept through me.

It had been interesting and, I had to admit, enjoyable, meeting all this new family that I once never knew nothing about. I’d learned a lot about Murdoch and some about myself and Scott. Hearing about how Murdoch felt about us two – well, I’d come to feel those feelings he had, but hearing him say such things out loud sure had been a powerful thing. Sometimes I still got these cold little worries trickle through me about my disgraceful old life and my new life. Times like those I would bring out those words like the ones he’d said to Fenella, and those words would warm and dry up those icy trickles.

It would be quieter back at the hacienda, but I was looking forward to a bit of quieter too. More time to laze in front of the fire at night, and to tussle with Boston, and to rile up Pa some more.

It felt good to be tearing across the land and my blood leapt in me and I yelled, full of happiness at being in the sun and streaking away – escaping - on a good horse across a pretty land.

I put Pa and his threats out of my mind. Didn’t do any good to think about that now. I’d think about dealing with Pa later, when he might’ve calmed down some.

Yeah, like that was goin’ to happen…

 

 

~end~
January, 2019

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