The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Clementine

 

 

Follow In Haste And Repent Later

Follow in Haste, Repent Later

“John!!!”

Jesus, when the ‘Ol Man hollered out my name I reckon every John in California looked our direction.  I wasn’t in no mood for his rousing on me, so I hasty as all gettout dropped the feed bucket and high-tailed it straight up the ladder into the hayloft.

I’d made it up with time to settle so that no hay or hay dust would be floating down to give away my hiding spot.  But that blasted damn dog of Scott’s arrived in the barn just ahead of Murdoch, and the blamed thing starting yipping out his huge pleasure in smelling out his third best partner, Johnny Lancer, up there in the loft above his stupid shaggy head.  I never stood a chance.

“Good boy.”  Murdoch sure weren’t addressin’ that to me.

“Alright, Son.  Down here – now.”  Yeah, that was to me…

Sonofabitch, I was going to kill that dog.

I reluctantly eased up and then backed down the ladder, glancing over my shoulder to check where Murdoch was exactly.  Not that he scared me or anything…Rusty was between us, jumping at me all excited, like he hadn’t seen me for a week when it had been about two minutes since I’d slammed the kitchen door in his face.  I’d left in a fit after having an argument with Maria, and I had no doubt that that was why Murdoch was now standin’ in the barn looking at me like I was his last tax bill.

“Well John, I’m waiting.”

I wrapped my arms ‘round myself and kicked the feed bucket which went skittering across the barn.  Rusty went after it and started playing with it, happy as a damn lark as usual.

“I’ll go in and talk to her.”

“You surely will.  And you’ll spend the next hour chopping kindling for her stove.  What I want to know is what’s got into you?  I’m quite accustomed to your recalcitrant demeanour, and so is Maria, but the last few days your sass has been more about being mean than just your usual flouting of everyone’s authority. “

“Jesus, Old Man – you could break your teeth on them words!”

Murdoch’s arms dropped from where they were folded against his chest, and he swiped a hand across his mouth.

“Johnny, you’re always back chatting, but your sass has turned mean – what is the matter?”

Jesus Mary and Joseph – there were about forty things the matter.  I was fifteen and only five foot eight when Scott was five eleven and Murdoch was eight fuckin’ feet.  Every man on the ranch was connubiating except me.  And because my pecker wasn’t happy it was rearing up every time I glimpsed a female, and twice an hour in between.  My cojones ached so much I was going cross-eyed. I thought my voice had broke for good, but for days now it had been cracking at the worst times.  There were so many things making me mad I got mad just thinking about them.  I took a riled up breath and kicked at the ground again and answered Murdoch.

“Nuthin’.”

He did his harrumping noise and dropped a hand on my shoulder.

“Go in and apologise to Maria.  Chop that wood and then hitch the buggy.  You and I are going in to Green River and you’re getting a haircut while I see Mr Steadman.  And I’d better see an improvement in your behaviour Boy, or I’ll see what I can do to change your attitude.”

“Dios Murdoch!  I don’t need a haircut!  And I sure as hell don’t want to go into town in the buggy! I don’t-“

“Do as you’re told!”

Mierda, if I’d felt bad since I’d woke up, I was now feeling worse by the minute.  I stomped off across the yard, relieved when the ‘Ol  Man didn’t send me packin’ with a swate across my culo like he was always doing when he was fired up by me just asking some reasonable question or pointing out something he should know already.   

Rusty went tearin’ past me, on a new quest to find Scott who he loved more than pig’s ears.

******

I decided to chop the kindling first so I could take it to Maria as a peace offering when I went in to face her.  We brangled all the time, but I knew I had been downright rude to her, telling her ‘Cuidado con su propio negocio, interfiere con la vieja. El burro sabe más que tú.’  (Mind your own business, you interfering old woman.  The donkey knows more than you.) 

She sure didn’t deserve me running my mouth at her when she was just trying to look out for me like usual.  She had told me to stay right away from Adela if I didn’t want her papa, Senor Hernando, to take a horsewhip to me.  I knew Maria well enough to know she wasn’t sayin’ Johnny Madrid wasn’t good enough for the Senor’s little girl – she knew no-one was good enough in his eyes. 

Adela had been just one of the ninos on the estancia until just lately when her shape had suddenly changed from looking like a broomstick to looking like a nice plump borrachito that had been cinched in the middle.  And Dios, did I want to get my mouth on that…

The day before I’d seen her heading for the wash line with a heavy basket of wet wash.  I’d insisted on carrying it for her, following her down the path and admiring the way her big new curves pressed against the back of her skirt with every step.  I’d had to close my eyes when my pecker started doing some pressing of its own.  Which meant when she stopped I bumped into her and she giggled.  I’d put down the basket and told her Maria needed a favour, and her eyes got big and serious.  I stepped in close and said that Maria needed to know did my shirt and pants need any buttons sewed back on.  Her eyes dropped straight to my shirt, but I quick turned my back to her and told her she should count them – all of them – with her hands.  I held my breath in the sudden silence, and then I heard another giggle, and her arms had come around me and her breath had been hot on my left shoulder blade. 

My heart started thumping as she curled her little brown fingers around the top button of my shirt.  By the time her hands were at my belly and she’d whispered ‘cinco’ I was having a hard time standing straight.  One of those tiny hands gave a soft tug to my shirt, pulling it up out of my pants, and she whispered ‘seis’.  When I felt one hand drop to my belt buckle, well, my knees just about buckled, and it was then – of course – damn and blast it all to fucking hell – that Maria’s voice shattered the hot and muzzy bubble me and Adela was lost in.

“Adelita!  Juanito! Qué conducta vergonzosa estoy viendo?!”  (What disgraceful behaviour am I seeing?)

Well, the two of us jumped apart so fast I lost my footing and landed ass first in the wet washing.  Adela had screamed and run for it.  When I saw that Maria was brandishin’ the wash stick I’d hauled out of there too, and five minutes later when Scott asked why my backside was wet, I nearly snotted him one.   I’d headed for him with my fists ready.  He was tall and got to tup girls – so of course I wanted to kill him.  My anger made me careless so he had me pinned down on my stomach in no time flat, and he didn’t let me up till I’d calmed down. 

It took nearly an hour for my pants to dry by which time every damn thing inside my pants was chafed all over as well as aching. I was not happy.

******

I dropped all the kindling in to Maria and made my peace with her.  All that took was downcast eyes, a trembly lip and a ‘lo siento’ - which at least I did really mean.  She straight away pulled my head down to her heaving chest and kissed my hair while telling me I was ‘un mucoso’ (a brat) but that I was ‘su propia mocosa hermosa’ (her own beautiful brat).  I knew I didn’t deserve all the cossetting she always gave me, but it still made me feel a bit better.  Dios, I didn’t really know why I felt all jangly.

Soon as I’d hitched Snowy to the buggy I went and found Murdoch where he was going over contracts with Scott.  He gathered up the paperwork and I tried again to get him to let me ride Pancho in.  I was taken aback when he folded.  Boston winked at me, and I guessed he must’ve put in a good word for me.  As annoying as he was lately, I still knew I could always count on him.  I gave him a grin and raced out to saddle up before Pa could change his mind again.  Old people are unreliable like that, likely to change their minds for no good reason that I could ever see.

Scott ambled into the barn and lounged against the centre post and folded his arms. 

“Something botherin’ you, Boston?” 

“You’re bothering me, Little Brother.  Is there something in particular that’s got you so cantankerous lately?  Something that you might need to ask your intelligent and perceptive older brother about?  That you would talk to me about rather than broaching the subject with our esteemed but sometimes unapproachable Father?”

Dios!  I’d spent too long around my ‘persative’ older brother ‘cause I was rattled to realise I’d understood the gist of just about everything he’d just said.  I looked over at him coolly.

“Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with me Scott.  I been used to handling myself –“

Jesus, I paused and felt the blood rush into my face as soon as those words left my mouth, and I felt purely foolish when I looked at Scott and saw his frown suddenly get replaced by a smirk, his eyebrows lifting.  My usual smooth talking left me, and I was so rough pulling the cinch on Pancho that he protested.

Scott laughed then.

“Johnny, it’s not an easy time I know.  I was at Phillips – at school, with hundreds of other boys when I was your age.  We had to take cold showers every morning, even in winter.  I thought it was to wake us up, but now I know it was to damp us down!  We all got through it and it will pass for you too-“

“Jesus, Scott, I ain’t interested in being damped down – me and my tackle is interested in getting nice and hot with some light-skirt.  If you were any sort of a brother you’d cover for me so’s  I could get some cooching at the bordello-“

“Johnny!”  Murdoch’s voice split the air.

Once again our ‘steemed father was yellin’ for me to dance to his tune.

Scott and I rolled our eyes at the same time, and I led Pancho out of the barn.

******

All the trouble I was having lately with my dick having a mind of its own, I did not want to be sittin’ on the vibratin’ buggy seat next to Pa.  Another time when I’d used my hat to cover my shame, I’d glanced at the Old Man and seen his mouth quirk. That had given me pause that he knew what was happenin’ and maybe had some experience of it himself.  And that horrific thought had been enough for me to nearly heave my whole breakfast.  So I was mighty glad to be ranging near and far on Pancho as we headed into town.  I didn’t think I’d be able to get outta havin’ the blasted haircut, but maybe later Pa would buy us a beer at the River Run Saloon or the Long Trail.  I preferred the Long Trail.  It had a picture over the bar of a lady who weren’t shy at all.

First place we went in town was to check for mail.  I went in and quickly went through what was there for us.  I’d been used to getting a letter from Val every second week, but it had been three weeks since he’d written and there was still nothin’.  I tried to ignore my disappointment.  Why should I care if he’d got tired of writing to some scutter he’d only really known years ago.  I bit my lip and shook myself.  That was bein’ childish.  He’d write when he had time.  I maybe couldn’t trust most people I’d ever had dealin’s with, but I had a good clutch of people I could trust now, and Val Crawford was one of ‘em.

I handed Murdoch the mess of mail and then led Pancho alongside the buggy till we got to the Gentlemen’s Bath House Barber Shop and Tooth Parlour.  Murdoch gave me my orders and flipped me a half dollar before he headed off for the lawyer’s office.  I stuck my head in the door and Clarrie looked out from the steam rising from the towel he’d just slapped over someone’s face.  He said he’d be five minutes, so I decided to take a turn around the boardwalk, maybe buy some candy.  Murdoch wouldn’t like me roaming town without him herding me, but he wouldn’t know.

******

I came to a dead stop just past the sheriff’s office.

Tied to the hitchin’ rail was a red roan with a white face.  He looked as though he’d been ridden hard.  He was standing there with the water still dripping from his mouth.  I stepped back against the wall and let someone pass, but I didn’t even see who it was.  My eyes ranged over the horse and then the saddle, which was well-used and had the square skirt common in Texas saddles.  I knew that saddle, and I knew that horse.

 

******

The door of the sheriff’s office had opened so as I spun around and rushed forward I collided with the man who stepped out.  A tall man with a battered hat and a scruffy blue shirt. 

It flashed through my mind that I’d never seen Val in any other colour shirt.

And it was Val.

He grabbed me by both arms and thrust me to arm’s length and the annoyed look on his face turned to open-mouthed surprise – and from that look to a big grin.

“Johnny!  Well hot dang!  Trust you to be helling around and nearly knock me off my feet – By God it’s just what I’d expect from you Boy!”

“Val – what in pearlation are you doin’ here?  Dios – you come to take Sheriff Creane’s job!”

Val turned me loose then and skimmed a look at Alan Creane who was standin’ right next to us.  As he did he stiffened up and his face went hard.

“Naw, Son, I’m on the trail of a fu- that is, of a low cur name of Beardsley.  I was just getting information from Alan here, and then coming out to see your Daddy.  You ain’t in town by yourself are ya?”

He started lookin around.  Seemed he knew about Murdoch’s rule that I wasn’t to go off the ranch by myself.  Shadowed all the time like a green stripling.  It was the Old Man’s intention to keep Johnny Madrid shielded as far as he could.

‘Murdoch’s at the lawyer’s office.  Come and we’ll meet him and take you home.”

I grabbed a handful of his sleeve and tugged, grinning my fool head off.

Val let me pull him off the boardwalk, touching his hat to Alan as he stepped backwards.

“Much obliged Sheriff.”

“I hope you find him Crawford.”

I gave the Sheriff a quick nod over my shoulder and then squawked as Val’s arm snaked around my neck and knocked off my hat.  He pulled me along with my head trapped and his other hand ruffling my hair real rough.

“Jesus it’s good to see you kid.  Looks to me like you growed some.  You’re still a scrawny devil though.  You lettin’ that big brother of yours steal all the food from your plate?”

“Quit it Val!”  I struggled loose, and punched his arm.  “How’s Jim?  All henpecked to death?”

Val’s face went hard and dark again.

“Jim’s going to live Johnny.  There was a wire waitin’ for me at the telegraph office.  He nearly didn’t make it.  That’s why I’m after Beardsley.”

I stopped dead in the middle of the street, real shocked.  Val turned and grabbed my arm and hauled me with him.

******

When I bust into the lawyer’s office, him and his clerk and Murdoch were all peevish as hell, but to give Murdoch his due, he left his ranch business for another time and came out to greet Val.  Val said as how he was trailing an outlaw and needed a fresh horse and didn’t want to leave Rip at the livery.  He would be obliged if we could sell him a mount and pasture Rip until he came back through.  He was in an awful hurry to get on his way. Lancer was on his way.

Murdoch understood and we all piled into the buggy and set off, Pancho and Rip trotting behind.  Val wanted to rest his wore out horse, and I wanted to hear what the hell had been happening in Bluffs Crossing.

******

What that was, was Jim was having a quiet beer on his night off.  He was playing cards with a drummer who came through every second month.  Two rough looking types had come into the saloon and the stupid drummer had recognised them as the japes who’d held up the stage he was on the previous visit.  Instead of using his brains, of which he had none, plus he’d been drinking and was half sprung, he stood up and flung an arm out and denounced the stage-robbers and demanded that Jim arrest them.

Val said he was sat at his desk and he’d just lifted a forkful of venison stew to his mouth when he heard a helluva ruckus.   Shots and screams and the like.  He’d run like the devil towards the trouble. 

Val got the whole story later. Jim had got the drop on the two skeesicks, but then a third one, Beardsley, had heard what was happenin’ as he approached the saloon door, so he’d burst in and shot Jim without a second thought.  Chester the barman had grabbed his shotgun and blasted one of the two at the bar, and Jim had shot the other before falling.  Beardsley started shooting at everyone, and one of the other saloon patrons had started firing back at him when Val burst in to a bloody melee.  Beardsley hightailed it out through the kitchen, with Val hot on his tracks.  The murdering scum had jumped on a horse and got away.  Val rushed back to the barroom and found Jim in a bad way, one saloon gal who had stopped a bullet into the thigh, a cowpuncher with one ear shot off, and the drummer with nothing but a blood nose.

“Well,” said Val, “he didn’t have a blood nose until I heard the story.”

Some of the men carried Jim to the docs, and Val talked to the bastard who Jim had shot, and who was dying.  He told Val that Obed Beardsley had led him astray from his mother’s teachings, and he hoped to make amends so’s he could enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  So he ratted out his partner.  He said Beardsley would head straight on for Millertown.  That was where his fancy woman lived and was holding his share of the last few jobs they’d done.  From there they’d disappear into the mountains, or Mexico.

Val had nixed a posse, wanting to travel hard and fast, and being after only one man.  He’d left orders for a wire to be sent to Green River letting him know how Jim was.  Jim’s wife Della was with Jim when he left.

******

Murdoch insisted that Val borrow any horse he wanted.  He chose a buckskin mare which I knew would have the stamina he’d want from her.  Cip was away, so Murdoch got old Basilio to advise Val on the backways and shortcuts he could take on the way to Millertown.  Maria made Val sit down and eat a hot meal with us while she got provisions ready for him.  Me and Scott saddled the mare and packed his saddle bags.  I helped myself to a bottle of tequila and shoved that in as well.

Val came out still drinking coffee from his cup.  He handed the empty to Scott and thanked us all as he mounted.  The mare skittered around some but he cirlcled her tight and settled her down.

“Beardsley don’t know that I got his measure, so who knows how long he’ll take gettin’ to Millertown.  I hope to get there even before he does, but it could be some time before I get back.”

He looked at me and grinned. 

“After you done your evening chores Juanito, why’nt you sit and write a letter to Jim.  He’d like it fine, and you could do with the spellin’ practice.”

Before I could give him a mouthful of sass he called ‘Adios’ and headed out, pushing the mare to a gallop which Murdoch weren’t about to grouse about.  Pa dropped a hand on my shoulder and squeezed.

“The Sheriff has the right idea Johnny.”

“He’s only the sheriff in Bluffs Crossing Murdoch.  Didn’t you see he weren’t wearin’ his badge.’

“Damn!  You’re right!”  said Scott.

Murdoch’s comforting squeeze tightened again on my shoulder.

“I noticed, Son.  Come inside.”

******

I sat at Murdoch’s desk labouring over a sheet of paper.  Scott and Murdoch had played a game of chess and now both had their heads buried in books.  Scott was reading one about a fella who fought in the American Revolution, and Murdoch was reading about hard times, he said.

They thought I was doing what Val had said I should, writing to Jim.  What I was doing was writing a note to Pa telling him not to be mad but that Val was not as fast a gun as I was, and that I would be real careful and be back home before they knew it.

When Pa looked over at me I pretended I didn’t notice, and I made a bit of a show of opening the huge dictionary next to my elbow, and pretending to look up a word.  I should look up ‘hoodwinked’ I’d thought. 

 I’d felt a shave guilty, but I couldn’t see how I could just go about my new soft life while Val was out there trailin’ a no-account varlet.  If I hadn’tve known what he was doing it would be different.

But I did know, and even though I also knew Murdoch would skin me alive when I got back, I had to go help Val.

******

When I’d said I was going on up to bed, Murdoch had said Burke was goin’ in to town next day so did I want him to post my letter.  Cagey and deceitful, I’d said that I planned to finish the letter the next night.  That was ‘cause I knew Murdoch didn’t always trust me to do what he thought was the right thing, on account of I often didn’t.  So that was a ploy to make him relax, which it did.  So I got away that night without any trouble at all.  I moved through the house like a ghost, crammed my saddle bags full of food, and left my note on the kitchen table, under Pa’s coffee cup.

I’d listened hard to old Basilio’s advice to Val, and after walking Pancho quiet the rest of that night, all through the next day I found what I thought I would – the evidence of Val’s passing.  I’d made a cold camp the next night, sure I would catch Val up sometime next morning.  I did, but like another time when I’d followed Scott sneaky like, I hung right back, wanting to be far enough away from Lancer that Val would be uneasy sending me back all alone.  It griped me down to my gizzards that none of these older people in my life just didn’t seem to believe that I could travel from Mexico to Canada and back, and never need anyone to mind me.  But times like this it played into my hands.

******

That third night I waited till Val had set up camp and had his first mug of coffee before I hallooed the camp.

He rose slowly, but his gun was in his hand fast.

“It’s me, Val.  Johnny.”

Val kept his gun in his hand until I stepped forward into the circle of firelight.  He still had his hat on so his face was in shadow, but only for a moment.

He pushed his hat back with the barrel of his gun and then holstered the Colt.  I only had a moment to see how furious he looked before he swept his hat off and came at me and started to belt me back and forth with it.

“Christamighty!  I cain’t hardly believe it!  What in hell’s name are you doing here?  What’d we agree about you runnin’ off from home?  Why you blasted, wrong-headed damn-“

“Quit it Val!  Jesus!  Here I am coming to help ya-“

“Help me!” 

This strangled sort of groan came out of his mouth, but at least he stopped whackin’ at me and I could drop my arms from protecting myself.

“Yes!  Help you! You know full well how good I am with a gun and-”

“Jesus Mary and Joseph – your Pa must be having a conniption fit, wonderin’ where the hell you have got to-“

“He’s not!  He sent me to help you!“

I couldn’t go on and dropped my head, only looking up when Val took a step back.  He sailed his hat over to where his saddle was, crossed his arms and fixed me with a mean and considerin’ look.

“Ohhh, I see.  He sent his fifteen year old boy to help a lawman capture a dangerous outlaw.”

“That’s right.”  I said it real soft, feeling the weight of Val’s disapproval crush me down.

I looked at my boots like they was just fascinatin’.

“Weeell, that’s alright then.”

I was so surprised I looked up, just in time to see Val make his move.  He grabbed me and tucked me snug under one arm no trouble at all, and my struggling and cussin’ had no effect whatsoever.  He just held me tighter and yelled at me.

“Why you damnblasted little scutter!  Think you can lie to me do you?  Well, think again!”

Jesucristo – I thought Pa had a hard hand, but when Val’s hand connected with my ass I yelped in a real embarrassing way. 

 It had been about nine years since he’d given me a lickin’, but he hadn’t forgot how to hand one out at all, and by the time he set me loose I was suffering like the damned.

“Sonovabitch!  You tryin’ to kill me?”  I gasped as I limped here and there, trying to get a handle on my painin’.

Val just shook his hand out a few times as he headed for the coffee pot.

“Watch your fucking mouth!” he shot at me.  “You just got exactly what you deserve.  In fact – you got only half of what you deserve!  Wait till I see your Pa – he’s obviously bein’ way too soft on ya!  How that man hasn’t throttled you I do not know.  The man must be a saint.”

He sloshed some coffee in his mug and gulped some, glaring at me like he wanted to throttle me himself.

“Ahhh Val, I’ve come along to watch your back – you’d no call to whale on me.”

Val threw the rest of the coffee into the bushes.  He reached into one of his saddle bags and drew out the bottle of tequila.  After pulling the cork he poured a generous measure into the mug and scoffed it down.

“And thank you so much for the bottle of tequila Johnny!”  I taunted him, all grieved. 

He glared at me, and then didn’t even bother with the mug, just took a big glug straight from the bottle.

I wrapped my arms around myself and wondered was my backside permanently damaged.  Sure felt like it.  I felt very hard done by.  I heard Val cork the tequila, and then he grumped out some words.

“You ate?”

I barely looked up as I said I hadn’t.

Val sighed and squatted down and started rifling through his supplies.

“Go get your horse while I make us some grub.”

******

Just like I thought, Val wasn’t comfortable sending me back to Lancer on my own.  He said when we got to Millertown he’d be stashing me there while he bearded his prey.

“If they got a jail in that town then I’ll see you kept in a cell till I come back and get ya,” he groused as he pulled some tobacco out of an Even Change pack.  He rolled himself a quirley.  “I won’t be taking any chance on trusting that you’ll do what you’re told and stay out of it.”

When I complained that I hadn’t come all that way to stay out of it he gave me a mouthful about how no way in creation should I have taken it on myself to come after him, and did I need some more reminding of what he thought about me doin’ that.  Seein’ as I was lyin’ on my stomach to eat my supper, I grumbled that he could keep his reminders to himself.

We barely spoke after that.  He was in a cantankerous as hell mood, and I was not too happy myself, seeing as I was so not appreciated, and still feeling real sore.  We sacked in early.  I was havin’ a lot of trouble getting in a comfortable position on the hard ground, and when I shuffled around, yet again, and a moan escaped me, he just snorted.

The fire was burning low and I watched some embers float away.  Val cleared his throat and then his voice came soft across to me.

“Johnny, you remember the last time I tanned your behind?”

I did.  But I did not really want to talk about it.

“No.” I lied.

“I’d took you with me when I checked the stream up near Dead Horse Pass.  We camped overnight.  When I built the fire you musta been watching me like a hawk.  Two days later I came riding into the yard and you were haring across the yard with a water bucket.  Spillin’ more than you were carryin’.  Then I saw the smoke.  Behind the barn.  You’d built the prettiest campfire – I couldn’t believe it.  But you weren’t allowed to touch matches, and somehow you’d set the barn on fire.  It was lucky I came home when I did.”

“Not lucky for me.” I muttered.

I heard his quiet laugh.  Not long after he started snoring low.

Papa.  The word sprung into my mind outta nowhere.  The lump in my throat came next.  And then I had to swipe at my eyes.

I bit my lip and dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands, and then I relaxed everything and just thought how good it was to be sharing a camp with Val, and I drifted off to sleep.

******

We were up before sunrise and had a solid breakfast, ‘cause Val said we wouldn’t be stopping for no picnic lunch.  Val was still mad at me, although he was often grumpy in the mornings – and other times – so it was hard to tell.

We saddled up and Val swung aboard Hera.

“Ain’t heard that name before” I offered.

“She’s a headstrong woman from Homer” he answered.

“You courtin’ her?”  I thought he meant ‘from home’.

“No, I ain’t courtin’ her!  She’s been dead a long time!  Now, come on, mount up.”

I shook my head and then kept standing there, one hand on the pommel, and dread in my heart.

There was a snigger from Val.

“Ain’t goin’ to get any easier, thinking about it” he chortled.

“Well what’re you waitin’ for?  You can move out!”  I was fumin’.

“What?  And miss the look on your face when your ass hits the saddle?  Boy, I been looking forward to that all morning.”

As mad as that made me, and as hard as I tried to keep my face rigid, I obviously didn’t succeed completely, because Val had himself a good old belly laugh.  So then I didn’t even bother, but stood up in my stirrups and ground out a strangled ‘sonofabitch’.

Val and Hera took off then, and one of them was still laughin’.

******

After we crossed the Chewehilla River we stopped to let the horses blow and to eat the last of Maria’s good food.  I thought we would press on, but Val said for me to go and tie our mounts off aways and to come back and keep quiet.

“You think we’re being followed?”

Val just nodded.  I did what he’d asked and came back and found him perched on a big smooth rock in amongst the white oaks.  I bellied up to it and it was warm through my clothes.  We had a good view of the crossing we’d just taken, but would be screened from view of anyone trailing us.

We were both chewing on twigs, and I was feeling the sun starting to dry my pant’s legs.

Half an hour passed, and sure enough, two riders emerged from the trees on the opposite shore.  I felt real uneasy.  I expected them to wade right in, but they had stopped and seemed to be having a parley.  One of them was pointing and gesturin’ and then the other one leaned over and shook his hand.  It was hard to make them out clear.  Then the one who had leaned to shake started down the bank and entered the river.  The other watched for a moment and turned and headed back the way he had come. 

I felt the tension go out of Val.  The man was too far away for me to see, ‘specially now he was down in the water, but Val had Cherokee blood and his eyes were like an eagles.

I was still squinting when Val’s quiet words made my stomach grinch up bad.

“Well, Juanito, looks like your Daddy has come avisitin’.”

******

When I’d first seen the two riders over the river I’d had a moment of panic that it was Pa and Scott.  When one had turned back I relaxed and thought they was just two travellers come to a splitting of the blanket.

Now Val’s words, and my own eyes, made me decide maybe I’d best scatter real fast.

‘Oh no you don’t.”  Val’s grip on my arm held me in place.  I looked at him and he grinned.

“Jesus – he’s never come after me before.”  Neither of us reacted to the fact that my voice cracked.

“Well, you caper-witted cully, he knew exactly where you was going this time.  I been expecting him along.”

Murdoch’s big part-Morgon was making its way up outta the shallows.  My big Pa was scanning the ground where he could no doubt see our horses’ tracks clear in the mud ahead.

“Mr Lancer!  Me and your rascal son are here – come ahead!”

Val dragged me out of our hiding spot and we stood twenty foot from my Pa.  He’d pulled up at Val’s greeting, and now sat there lookin’ relieved as could be.  He also looked beat and bedraggled.  Grey stubble all over his face, lines and dirt as well.  Our eyes met, and all that relief turned to grimness.

“Hi Pa.” 

Murdoch’s head dropped, and he used a finger and thumb to rub his eyes.

Val shoved me forward, and not too gently neither.

“Mr Lancer, I’ll just go and get our horses.”

Val deserted me, as Murdoch unforked, slow as could be.  The water was tricklin’ off him and Chief.

“John, now that I’ve caught up to you, I’m damned if I can say one word.”

“Well, Pa,” I was leanin’ heavy on the ‘Pa’ he loved to hear, I knew, “you just managed a few.”

That seemed to get him moving.  He strode forward, now not lookin’ one bit wore out, and he collared me where I stood rooted to the spot.  He dragged me with him as he stomped up the track, and he walked straight past Val and the horses and headed for a fallen tree which he pushed me over.

“Ahh – Mr Lancer…”

I held my breath, gripping hard at the tree bark under my hands.

“Yes, Sheriff?”  Pa was breathin’ heavy.

“It’s up to you of course, but I will just point out that I gave that boy a real sound lickin’ last night.”

Murdoch let me go.

“You did?”

“Yes Sir.  I was unable to contain my ire.”

I went to stand up, but Pa roared at me to stay right where I was.

“Well Sheriff Crawford, I sympathise.  I well know the feeling.  I will consider your action and will adjust my own.”

What the hell did that mean?  It obviously didn’t mean he was goin’ to spare me, ‘cause he turned back and planted one enormous hand in the centre of my back and the other landed like a thunderbolt on my already sufferin’ duff.  I was wonderin’ how I would survive another hiding, but after only about four licks he hauled me up. 

“Don’t think for one minute that this is over, Young Man.  I will not tolerate this complete disregard for your family’s wishes when you go tearing off to do just as you decide is best.  Now you get your backside onto your horse and follow me!  We’re going home!   And you stray even one yard from my side and you’ll have such a sore dowp you’ll be happy to return to Lancer tied face down across your saddle the entire way!”

Murdoch was red in the face and angry as a cut cat and he was pointing straight at Pancho.  I rubbed my ‘dowp’ and I gulped.

“No.”

“What did you say?”  Pa had taken a step closer to me, but I stood my ground.

“Johnny,” Val interjected, “for Christ’s sake, do what your Pa told you!”

“Old Man, you telling me that just ‘cause I got a family now I should forget what I owe to my friends?  To anyone who was the only family I might have once had?  That’s what bein’ part of your family means?”

“Juanito!”  Val’s voice sounded worried now.

“Well, Murdoch?  That what you’re telling me?  That how you feel?  “Cause I gotta say, that don’t sound like what I always hoped a family would be.”

Murdoch looked some like I’d struck him.  I did feel like hitting him, but I also felt like bustin’ into tears.

“Rider comin’.”

Me and Murdoch both jerked to look towards the back trail at Val’s words.  He’d drawn his pistol and was heading back to the river.  I drew my Colt and followed and Murdoch was right on my heels.

We got to where Val was once again hid and we all watched as some other caspar started splashing his mount into the shallows on the other side before getting into the deeper water.   A short time later Val laughed and holstered his gun.

“Well, I’ll be damned.  It’s Scott.”

******

When we all braced Scott he broke out in this huge smile.  Of course that disappeared right smart when Murdoch started yelling his head off.

Scott yelled right back, and of course I jumped in boots and all and yelled as loud as I could.  Murdoch was beratin’ Scott and askin’ him what the devil he was thinking to follow when he’d been told explicitly to stay home and mind the ranch.  Scott hollered at the top of his voice that no way on God’s green earth was he going to sit around nurse-maiding a bunch of cows when his Father might need protecting on this perilous journey ‘at his time of life’, and protecting from outlaws or God knew what else, and when his only brother, barely out of childhood as he was, might need the same protection, and definitely needed protecting from his enraged parent and-

Murdoch was furious about the crack about his age and I was furious about the crack about mine.  So I stopped defendin’ Scott and started givin’ him a mouthful, and then we all shut the fuck up when Val shot a bullet into the ground.

“Well, gents, as much as I’m enjoying this touchin’ family get-together, I got work to do.  So I’ll take my leave of y’all and hope to see you back at Lancer.  And Mr Lancer, if you want some advice for nuthin’, was I you I’d be using that belt of yours for more than just holding up my britches.  Good day to you all.”

Val touched his hat brim and strode off.

The three of us stood silent and watched him go.

I turned to look at Pa.  His eyes met mine and he slowly stretched his neck this way and that, rubbing it. 

And then he called after Val.

“Sheriff!  Hold up!”

Me and Boston hurried to keep up with Pa’s long strides.

Val was mounting when we got there.  Murdoch said as how we were almost to Millertown, and now he was here he wanted to offer his services to back Val in his apprehension of Beardsley.  The boys would start making their way home.

Of course Scott and me both fired up and Val got mad.

“I ain’t got time for this!”  He glared at me and Scott.

“Alright Lancer.  I’ll accept your offer if you agree to let me call the tune.  But you Scott – and you Johnny – I’ll only take help from your Pa if’n both of you yahoos swear that you’ll stay right out of it!  Have I made myself clear?”

Madre de Dios.  I wanted to help the man who’d once been my Pa, and the only way I could was to put my actual Pa in danger.  I opened my mouth to protest, and Val saw that that was comin’ and he leaned down from atop Hera and gritted the words out like iron and his brown eyes bored into mine.

I said Johnny – is that clear?”

I wanted more than anything to say no, but I felt Val’s will bend me right down into my bones.

I nodded.

Later I pondered on how I seemed to have no trouble at all in disobeying Pa left, right and centre, but disobeying Val seemed to be a lot more of a struggle somehow. 

It sure grated on me.

******

 “Now, Mr Lancer, this is how I want to proceed.“

Val outlined his plans.  I got to admit I was sullen as hell.  It must’ve shown, because when Val’s eyes lighted on mine I could see a glint of amusement that was real familiar to me.

He was sure that with Basilio’s shortcuts he’d arrived before Beardsley, but it was possible Beardsley knew some of his own.  So Val, who Beardsley might recognise, was going to slip into Millertown on the quiet and see someone he knew who he thought would know where Beardsley’s petticoat lived.  Then he wanted Murdoch to go into town and buy a few days grub for all of us.  He and Murdoch would stash us ‘yougsters’ somewhere off the beaten track while they staked out the Beardsley place.  If that skunk hadn’t showed in three days, then Scott could go into the store and restock for us all.

“I’m giving it a week before I start back-tracking.” Val finished.

Pa’s mouth was set in a hard line.  He had decided to help Val, but I could see him thinking about all the work there was waiting back at Lancer.

I was thinking on how I’d come all this way and lost some hide, just to end up sitting on my duff while Pa and Murdoch got the job done.

Scott looked happy as his blasted damn dog.

******

Boston and me could hunt and fish and swim, and have ourselves a fine old time.  Only we were both too worried about the old fellas to make the most of our time.

It grated me something powerful to be the most able man to be on Beardsley’s tail, and yet here I was being useless as snake shoes.

I heard all about when Murdoch had found the note I’d left him, and what a temper he’d been in.  How he and Scott had argued.  How riled they both were that they hadn’t posted a guard on the barn, because I’d gulled them both into thinking I hadn’t a thought in my head about following Val.  How Pa was fixing to buy a leg shackle for me and two of the biggest cowbells in creation to go on my bedroom window and door.  How he was going to strap me from here to Christmas.

He had set off early that morning and planned to call at the McMasters ranch, ‘Kincardine’, to see could he hire Sisquoc to do his tracking for him.  Sisquoc  was Chumash, and considered the best tracker in the San Joaquin Valley.  So that was who Val and me had seen saying his goodbyes to Pa at the river.

“It was easy for me to follow them” Scott said, “as I only left one hour after Pa did.”

“And Sisquoc never knew you was following?  That’s hard to believe.”

“He did know, but he kept mum.  After he left Pa he lay in wait for me, and he told me something like ‘young one follow father and learn many things.  Some good.  Some bad.  Father also learn.’”

******

 “Johnny, I’m not going to argue with you,” said Scott, who was arguing with me.  “Val’s instructions were for me to go in for supplies.  You wait here.”

“Boston no-one’s goin’ to recognise me as Madrid when I’m hangin’ on the shirt-tails of a dandy.  I’ll keep my head down.  I won’t say a word.  Hell, if it makes ya feel better you can buy me a pair of overalls and a straw hat!”

******

When we hitched outside the General Store there was a sign sayin’ ‘Bak in 1 our’.

“Well, that’s annoying!” Scott complained.  “We could go and have a beer except Val was adamant about me not going into the saloon.  He doesn’t want us talking to anyone.  Arousing any suspicion at all, in case Beardsley does have friends.  I guess we should make ourselves scarce, wait on the outskirts of town.”

“I think that’s the best idea,” I said, quiet and agreeable.

Scott looked at me suspiciously.

“You’re not going to try and talk me into a drink?”

I didn’t even answer, just walked brisk to Pancho  and mounted and walked him back the way we’d come.

******

 “A cat-house?!  You want me to take you into a cat-house?!”

“Ain’t no takin’ about it Boston. I’m goin’ in and you’re welcome to come along or you can sit out in some meadow and abuse yourself – It’s up to you!”

As we had ridden into town I’d noticed this neat little house with yellow curtains and lots of flowers in the garden.  A sign on the gate said ‘Willow Cottage’, and underneath that was ‘Gentlemen callers welcome’.

Now I pushed through the gate and tried to walk slow and casual up to the door.  What I wanted to do was run in, grab the first sportin’ girl I saw and rush her hell for leather up the stairs.

I knocked and entered.  On the left was a parlour where the door into it had curtains held back by yellow ribbons.  There were two girls in there, and one of them got up and swayed towards me. My eyes could hardly make it to her face, there being so much of her milkers to admire.

“Hey, sugar.”  She came real close, and I flicked a look at her face before giving up and going back to admiring her bubs which were bustin’ out of her corset.

“Like what you see, cowboy?”  She had a southern accent, and that and all the skin I could see was making my tallywhacker start to jingle.

The door at my back opened, and even though I knew it would be Scott, my hand dropped to my gun and I stepped to the side, just to be safe.

Scott swept off his hat which reminded me to do the same.

“Miss,” he said smooth as silk, “a pleasure to meet you.”

Her eyes went big and she actually coloured up some.

“Hey handsome, I could sure make it a pleasure for you to meet me!”

This came from the second girl who was now standing framed nice in the curtained doorway.  She was wearing a chemise with only the bottom ribbon done up, so her cleavage was a sight to see.  My eyes bugged out of my head when I saw how thin her drawers were, and how the sun coming in the front windows made them almost not there.

“Cool your embers, Daisy.”

I swung around when a woman old enough to be my mama bustled out of the room to the right of the entrance.

“And you too, Irene.  Both of you leave these young gentlemen to me.”

To my horror both those fine young whores quickly returned to the parlour.  I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the sight of their haunches walking away. 

“Young man, my name is Mrs Willow.  I run this establishment,” she clipped out at Boston.

Scott and me mumbled our ‘how do’s’ reluctantly, and I jammed my hat over the front of my pants. 

She looked like a schoolmarm, and she fixed us both with a disapproving eye like one too.  She looked Boston over like he was coming up real short in her estimation – something he sure was not accustomed to.

“Young man, do you think it is appropriate to bring a boy into a bawdy house?”

“Now see here-“I tried to protest.

She gave me such a severe look that I shut my mouth.

“Why, madam, I can assure you-“Scott tried, but she cut him off.

“I am not interested in the least of what you want to assure me.  Take your brother and take your leave.  None of my girls are available to you – and I advise you to look to the example you wish to set to those who are younger than you and who look to you for guidance on the perilous path to manhood.  Now get!”

She had opened the door and she glared at the two of us and we had no course but to slink out that door.  I felt as confused as hell, and Scott looked more flustered than I’d ever seen him. 

Jesus!  I couldn’t believe it. Thrown out of a whore house.  Not the first time that had happened to me either, damn and blast it all to hell. 

Me and Scott forked up and rode slowly out of town, both of us meeked down to nubbins.

It wasn’t till we were a way down the road that Scott suddenly hauled on the ribbons and came to a dead stop.

“Johnny, she knew that you were my brother.”

I looked at him and my temper rose further than my dick had got a chance to.

“Val didn’t say who he knew in Millertown, did he.”  Scott ground the words out.

I dropped my face in my hands and groaned.

That bastard!

******

We waited outside town till the store would be open.  I was miserable as the devil.  Instead of sitting up against a tree with Scott, I coulda spent that hour bouncing around on a bed with Daisy.  Mierda, I coulda been bouncing around on Daisy. And weren’t that a picture in my head to warm a man.

Why the fuck did all these old men want to stop me?  I felt murderous.  I don’t think Scott was too happy either.  Thinking about Daisy’s bubs and all what else she had under those scanty clothes, well, that took my mind off Pa and Val staked out waiting for that scum Beardsley to show. 

And stopped me wonderin’ just what those two would be talking about. 

Neither of them were exactly the type to prattle their heads off.  And neither of them would ask questions they mightn’t like to hear the answers to.  The fact was, both of them had history with Mama, and with me…history I hadn’t even shared with Scott, so sure hadn’t talked any on to Murdoch. 

******

Scott and me finally went back into town to get the supplies.  I did like I said I would and kept in the background.  At the General Store Scott held the door polite for a tall woman who nodded her thanks.  I saw that she had the buckiest teeth I’d ever seen apart from on a beaver.  The storekeeper greeted her as Primrose, and straight off asked how was her little girl.  We were right behind her so heard all this palaver.

“Alice, I been nursing her all week and was so low on vittles’, but o’course I couldn’t leave her alone.  But Mr Beardsley has returned home now, so he’s mindin’ Emmy.  Lordy - such a relief to have my man back!”

I didn’t move a muscle, but I felt Scott’s eyes on me.  

We squidged out of there right smart.

******

Murdoch and Val may have seen Beardsley arrive, they may have seen his wife leave.  But they had no way of knowing that the outlaw was nursing his sick child in that house. I prayed that they hadn’t smoked the cabin, or set it afire or anything. 

Scott and me followed the unsuspecting Primrose as she drove her light wagon home.  I just hoped we could stop her before she got there, but still find the house.  Scott must’ve been thinking along the same lines as he looked real tense.  We didn’t know the area or the local roads, and we didn’t have any time to waste searchin’ if she kept mum when we accosted her.

She turned down one track, and Boston suddenly took off at right angles.  Five minutes later I heard his voice yelling ‘hold up there’, and I forged ahead.

“M’am, we are not going to harm you, I assure you.”

“You’re holding a gun on me you varlet!  I got no money!  You want anything else and I’ll scratch your bloody eyes out! Just see if I don’t.”

I arrived and she squawked and clenched her fists to her chest.

“Oh Jaysus – I’m to be violated!  Oh God help me-“

“Madam!  I can assure you we have no intention of hurting you in any way.  It’s your husband we want – and we wish to avoid your child being hurt.  Please alight.”

“My husband!  Emmy!  Alight!  Oh, dear God.”

“He means get down from the cart, M’am.”

I leaned in towards her as I explained.  Then I saw stars.

******

Primrose had quite a right hook.  I had a black eye. 

She was now on foot, gagged and hands tied behind her.  Scott had scouted out the house and he led us towards it.  All was quiet, thank God.

When we were close enough we tied the woman to a tree.

“You stay with her Johnny.  I’ll find Pa and Val.”

Boston sloped off before I could protest. 

Half an hour later he and Val called a soft greeting and the three of us hunkered down.

“Where’s P-Murdoch?” I demanded.

“He went to your camp to get our share of the supplies.  Beardsley must have slipped in last night.  We didn’t see him.”

“What!  You let him get by the two of ya!”

“One of us was asleep.” 

Val’s voice was so dry I straight away knew Pa must have missed Beardsley’s arrival.  Well, I guess it had been a lot of years since he was a lawman.

******

I had tears running down my face I was laughin’ so hard.  Scott mighta thought it was funny that Primrose had blacked my eye, but him standing there in that woman’s dress and bonnet was making me sick with laughin’.  He was furious, and Val was doing his best to keep a straight face.

“Now Scott, we want this over with, and this will get him outta that cabin faster and safer for the child than anything else I can think of. And you’re the same height as that woman.”

Scott looked grim.

“Well, Son, it’s not like I’m asking you to sweet talk him – just faint!”

I pealed out another guffaw and Scott glared at me.

Val had thought on how to flush Beardsley out of the cabin and had come up with this plan.  Scott, dressed as Primrose, would drive into the yard, not too close to the house, and then fall to the ground and lie there.  Val would be in the cart, waiting for Beardsley to come out and see why his wife hadn’t come in to the house.  When he saw her on the ground and rushed to her, Val would brace him.  I’d have crept up and be ready behind the woodpile with my rifle.  Soon as Val had his gun on Beardsley, Scott was to rush in to the cabin and get the child.

I sure was glad that it was Val who had stripped the dress and bonnet from that woman.  He had talked reassuring the whole time, but even though she was gagged and still tethered to the tree she had fought and sworn enough to make a whore blush.  Now she was back there in the scrub in her chemise and bloomers.

******

Val’s plan worked perfect.  Scott did this fine acting fall so convincing he really did hurt his elbow, but ignored the pain and lay still as death. Three long minutes later Beardsley stepped out onto the porch peering around.   He spotted his ‘missus’ on the ground by the cart, and he rushed to her, just like we hoped.

Before he realised he’d been duped, I had called to him to put his hands up, and when he’d looked to be goin’ to go for his gun I’d shot a bullet at his feet.  Val had sat up at the same time and had him covered, and shortly after had jumped outta the wagon and relieved him of his gun.  Scott hot-footed it into the cabin and came out carrying a girl about five.  Soon as Beardsley saw her in Scott’s arms, all the lead went out of him.

“Yeah, time to hang up your fiddle.”  Val chided him.

“You that bastard sheriff from up north?  You come all this way?  How’d you know I was comin’ here?”

“One of your pards told me.”

“Fuck, I never had any luck.”

Scott went swishing past us heading for the kid’s mama.

“My wife alright?”  The outlaw sounded real maudlin’.

“Yeah, she’s fine.  Maybe just a bit chilly.”

******

We was awfully busy after that.  Val tied Beardsley to a chair and by the time he’d done that Scott arrived back with Primrose who was carrying the kid.  They were both crying.

She howled more when she saw her husband tied up.

“Oh Jaysus, Mr Beardsley, what have you done?  What’s to become of us?”

He hung his head and she went into the back room and started laying the kid in its bed.

 Scott was carrying the woman’s clothes.

“What’s the matter, Boston – that dress too modest for you – you hussy!”

I was getting pretty good at reading Scott’s every look and I saw his temper flare and then how he tamped it down and got all dignified.  I guess this wasn’t the time and place to jump me and make me sorry.

“Your smart mouth will dig your grave one day Boy.”  Val gave me a smack on the back of my head.  “Shut your trap before your big brother blacks your other eye.  Now get in there and watch that woman while your brother and me searches.”

I did like I was told.  Scott came in and dropped the woman’s clothes on a chair by the bed.  I gave him an innocent smile, and he gave me a look which could kill.

******

They searched everywhere for the stolen money, and when Pa turned up later he helped.

He asked how I got my black eye and I told him Scott did it and he looked mad, but then said as how Scott was ‘no doubt provoked beyond endurance’ and that was something he well understood.  He still went and had words with Scott.

The next time Pa passed me he clipped the back of my head.

We never found the money.  We went with Val to deliver Beardsley to Baltimore where he’d found out there was a Marshall he could hand him over to.  I was pretty certain that if Jim had died then there wouldn’t be enough of Beardsley to hand over to anyone.

I was surprised that Pa didn’t drag Scott and me home by our ears rather than go to Baltimore, but he said we would finish the job we started, and travel back to Lancer with Val.

******

It took a couple of days to get to Baltimore. 

Before we set out Val went in to Millertown and got supplies for us.  I wanted to ask did he have a nice farewell at his friend’s place, but I didn’t want to stir Pa’s interest and have him asking any questions. 

We camped out, and Beardsley was no trouble with four of us to guard him.  He was quiet and nothin’ like you would expect of a regular desperado.  When I said that, Murdoch said as how there were very few people in the world who were all good or all bad.

“Havin’ a wife and kid like that, you’d think he’d think more on them than runnin’ around the country like he was, getting in serious trouble.”

“Don’t think he had the brains to think too much about anything.”  Val growled.

“Do you think his wife knew what he was up to?  About the money he had supposedly hidden there?”  Scott asked as we sat around the campfire. 

Our prisoner was handcuffed and tied to a tree a distance from us.

Val just shrugged.

“That woman had the most prominent teeth I’ve ever seen.”  Scott said quietly.

‘She probably sucked her thumb throughout her childhood.”  Pa said.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Val said as he stirred his coffee with a stick.  “Johnny was a thumb sucker and his teeth turned out just fine.”

I looked up at Val real taken aback.  I could see he had spoke without thinking.  But then in the heavy silence he did look up, and he realised all three of us were staring at him.  He coloured up and started sort of coughing.

I took a sneaked look at Murdoch and Scott, who were both looking at him, before they both looked at me.  Scott looked tickled, but Pa looked troubled, and he dropped his head and concentrated on his mug.

Val was coughing and choking and even redder in the face.

“I’m goin’ to check the horses,” he strangled out, and went stomping off.

******

Once Val and Pa had signed Beardsley over to the Marshall they both made a beeline for the telegraph office.  Val had wired Bella from Millertown to send him news to Baltimore, and sure enough there was a wire waiting for him.  Jim was improving.  Murdoch wanted to wire home to check how the ranch was going, and say we would be home soon. 

Scott and me had booked us all into the hotel and ordered baths there for the old men.  I was the only one who hadn’t packed a change of clothes – ‘typical’ – as Scott had scoffed.  So Pa had given us fifteen dollars and me and Scott went to the store.  He bought just some coffee and such for the journey home, and I bought a shirt and pants and two pairs of drawers and socks.  The clerk wrapped the lot up in brown paper.

We went to the bath house and it sure was good to have hot water and ‘to shave off your twelve whiskers’ as my smart mouth brother chided me.  I took longer than him to soak, so he was out the front waiting for me when I finally stepped out onto the boardwalk settling my hat on my head with one hand and tucking the parcel of my old duds under my other arm.

Scott glanced at me and looked away – and then his head swivelled back so fast it was comical.

“What?”  I dared him.

He slowly looked me up and down, and whistled low.

“What on earth?”

“What’s the matter with you Boston?  Half the men at Lancer wear calzoneras.”  I clipped out.

“Why, yes, they do.  And they often wear colourful shirts like that too.  I guess I’m just used to seeing you in work clothes like mine – and Pa’s.”

I’d chosen a dark blue shirt with two bands of lighter blue embroidery right down the front.  It had wood toggles instead of buttons.  I thought that Adela would like it because it looked like the material in her skirt, I seemed to remember.

“Yeah, well, last thing I’d want to do is look anything like you two pale-face gringos!  ” I answered.

And I strutted off towards the hotel, enjoying the feel of the first clothes I’d chosen myself since I’d lighted at Lancer.

Once I’d put some distance between us I called back over my shoulder.

“’Course, I know you’d druther wear a pretty dress than any sort of pants!”

Then I ran.

******

When we got to our hotel room Scott was still whacking me and I was laughing and trying to fend him off.  Pa came in when he heard the ruckus and told us to settle down.  Scott got up from the floor where he’d got me pinned, and Murdoch got his first look at me.  He was doing up the top button on his shirt, and he stopped and his eyebrows rose about a foot.

I slowly got up off the floor, feeling awkward. 

“You can take the money outta my pay” I said as I sat back on one of the beds, and I tossed my head to get the hair outta my eyes.

“No, you’ve grown, and needed new pants.  And perhaps you won’t tear those as easily – Maria will be pleased to have less mending.”

He finished buttoning up as he turned to Scott and asked about the supplies, and Scott handed over some change.  Pa turned back to me and said to follow him.  If I wanted to sit at the supper table downstairs then first he and I would visit the barber and I would get a long overdue haircut.

There was no getting out of it this time.  Murdoch went with me and sat there reading the local newspaper while I got scalped.  I felt like a damn sprout havin’ my daddy sit and wait, but Murdoch said I fussed like one and you reap what you sow.  And he made me pay with the money he’d given me back in Green River.  My neck and ears felt cold with about three inches of hair gone.

Val was waiting at a table in the dining room at the hotel when we all trooped in.  When he saw me his eyebrows shot up too, but he got a big toothy grin on his clock and of course he spouted off straight away.

“Why Johnny, or I should oughta say, Juanito!  You look like ‘un fino haciendado joven’ “(a fine young owner of a hacienda)

“And you look like a horse’s a-“

“Johnny!”  Murdoch and Scott both scolded at me.

Val just laughed.

“Let’s eat – and Mr Lancer I’m claiming this meal as expenses and you three are my guests for assistin’ me in the capture of a wanted man.”

Murdoch thanked him but said how it wasn’t necessary, but Val insisted.

We had the best meal since leaving Lancer, and then we went to the saloon and had some drinks and Murdoch, Val and Scott all got me a beer.  I’d rather have had tequila, but when I asked they all just ignored me.  Apart from that it was a real fine night.

******

Making our way home to the ranch was a lot of hours in the saddle, but also some of what Boston called ‘pleasant interludes’.  The only time I’d travelled with Murdoch and Scott both was when they’d brought me home to Lancer.  I’d been recovering from bein’ shot, and I did not want to be with them or going where they wanted, so it had been a troubled trip.

This time my only injury was a black eye.  Well, two black eyes the last part.

I kept riding ol’ Boston about how pretty he looked in a dress, and usually he would just give me a disdainful look or a mouthful of sharp advice.  When Murdoch overheard me he said I should keep my breath to cool my porridge, which was Scottish for shut my mouth.  And he said not to come cryin’ to him when Scott got tired of me and retaliated.  As if I would!

But then I did rile Scott past patience.  We were in Merced and Boston had got chatting to this giggly girl who was stayin’ at the hotel we’d booked in.  They were standing on the boardwalk, and I could tell that my brother was trying to charm the drawers off this pretty piece.  So I joined them naturally, and flung my arm around Scott who then had to introduce me.  He made a point of saying ‘my little brother’ because he knew that would grit me.  I gave her my best smile and said howdo, and then I narrowed my eyes.

“Why Scott, I do believe Miss Hallmont is wearing exactly the same dress you were wearing last week,” I dropped my arm and started my retreat as I added, “but at least your bonnet was quite different.”

A glance at the girl showed me she looked so surprised that her sweet little mouth formed into a big ‘O’ and she looked at Scott with wonder.

If he’d had any sense he would have stayed cool and told the girl to ignore his dumb brother, but instead the colour started to rise up his neck and I knew I had him.

I took off but the bastard caught me before I could make a clean getaway.  He was yellin’ that he’d absolutely had enough of my cute remarks and my constant needlin’ and he was going to teach me some manners by pounding me into the ground.  He just about did, pummelling me very thorough but not trying too hard to really hurt me, until he misjudged a blow and got me fair in the eye.  That made him quit, just as the local sheriff dragged him off me and wanted to know what the hell we were doing, brawling in the street.

“And him smaller and younger than you.”  The sheriff said to Scott with disapproval.

Scott was all red from ire and from our fight, and he was straightening his clothes and hair as he answered.

“I wasn’t really trying to hurt him – just teach him a lesson.  He’s my younger brother, Sir.”

“I never seen him before in my life!” I protested, holding onto my new black eye.

Scott’s hand lashed out and boxed my ear and I glared at him.

“You damned brat, Johnny!” he fumed at me.  His eyes flashed like fury too.

The sheriff looked from one of us to the other.

“Well, you sure don’t look like brothers, but I got two of my own and I recognise the tie.  I won’t have this disturbing of the peace – where are you two staying?  In town?”

“We’re at the Temple with our-“

Scott stopped speaking, not wanting to tip the sheriff that our Pa was nearby.  But this sheriff was the type who noticed everything going on in his town.

“You with those two older men – they family, son?”

“One is our Father.”  Scott admitted.

“I see.  Well lets us all trot along to the hotel and see your daddy, shall we?”

******

The sheriff told Murdoch to keep his pups in line or there’d be a fine for disturbing of the peace.  So soon as the sheriff went off Murdoch tore strips off the two of us.  He said as we couldn’t ‘comport ourselves like gentlemen’ then we weren’t welcome to join him and Val for supper in the dining room.  We could have sandwiches in our room instead.  And to not bother showing our faces in the bar – or any bar in town – and see if by spending some time together we could learn how to get along.

We were both balky as hell at being treated like peckerwoods, but both of us had learned to walk soft around the Ol’ Man when he was mad.

“Sir, it was just a friendly scrap.” Scott bravely tried.

“Yes – I can see that by your brother’s eye.”  Pa ground out.

He went off to have a bang-up supper with Val, and all we got was the sandwiches and one sliver of raw steak for my eye.  Scott spent the evening reading while I got the glums.  I suggested we scarper out of there just for a little while.  Scott said he would, but he had no intention of seeing me get caught – and that was bound to happen – and Pa would rawhide me and have Scott digging privies for the rest of his life.

“I’m goin’ anyway.  I won’t get caught.”

“You have no money, and you have no gun.”

My eyes went straight to the holster hanging on my bedhead.  It was empty.  Scott’s eyes appeared over the top of his book.  The bastard!  I cussed a blue streak, but that fuckin’ skitterbug just ignored me and went back to reading, calm as you please.  I thought about jumping him, and I thought about goin’ out with just my hidden gun and my knife, and I thought about searching the room.  Knowing my damn smart alec big brother, my gun was probably hid in Murdoch’s room – and I was not nervy enough to ransack that.

Jesus, I’d been corralled good and proper.

I went to bed and sulked myself to sleep.

******

Val hadn’t stayed at the hotel with us.  He’d found a boarding house which was cheaper and had had breakfast there.  He joined us in the hotel dining room for coffee.  He just raised his eyebrows when he sat down and looked over my face.  He had that all too familiar look of finding me and Scott kind of amusin’.  He was quite chipper, but Murdoch looked a bit squinty-eyed and he was irritable as hell.  I thought maybe he’d had a skinful the night before.

He and Val got on fine, but I could always sense a bit of uneasiness between them.  They still called each other Mr and Sheriff, friendly but polite, and just a touch wary.

I hoed right into my grub and Murdoch told me to slow down and I grumped back that I was half-starved, being denied a proper meal the night before, and Pa just ‘hmphed’ and told me when he’d misbehaved as a child he often was sent to bed without any supper.  So I flared up sayin’ I wasn’t a child and, well, it all went downhill from there and Scott put one hand over his eyes and Val looked like he was enjoying himself immense and Pa said one more word out of me and he would dose me with castor oil like Maria had suggested but he would also dust my britches for me and I could ride home standing in my stirrups and-

“Well,” Val got noisily to his feet, “I’ll meet you gents at the livery.”

Pa and me stopped brangling and looked up.  Val took his hat from the back of the chair and slapped it on his leg, and then asked Pa something.

“Ah, Mr Lancer, you heard of this lady writer name of something Bronte?”

Pa nodded as he put his coffee cup back in its saucer.

“She said something like ‘boys are full of faults’.  I guess we all know that’s for sure, don’t we.”

He rested his eyes on Scott and next on me, and turned and left.

“That man is a puzzle” Murdoch said, keeping his eyes on Val’s departing back.

He sighed and shook his head.

******

It was a fine day for travelling and we kept up a steady pace.  We would be home right on dark we thought.

Scott bagged a fat rabbit mid-morning, so we cooked that when we stopped not long after noon.  Murdoch brewed up the coffee.  He’d discovered that it was best not to let Val have that job.  I was feeling quite calm for a change.  Lately whenever I didn’t have something vigorous or dangerous facing me then I felt all restless and mopey.  But sitting there around the fire having a good coffee with Val and Murdoch and Scott, I felt peaceful.  My stomach was full and the sun was warm on my face.  It made the studs down the sides of my calzoneras shine real pretty.  The sound of birds and the horses munching and their bits jingling – it was a nice background.  Val was talking to us about Jim, and how tough he was, and what a grouch he was going to be when Val got back.

‘I’m plum tempted to not go anywhere near the cranky old fool at all,” he grumbled.

“Ah Val, you can’t wait to see him and start cossetting him and insulting him – you don’t fool me.”

Val tried to look disgruntled at me like he often did, but his eyes had a smile in them as he paused with his mug near his mouth.

“You know me,” he huffed out.

I had to smile back, and us smiling at each other felt warmer than the sun.

I heard a crack then, and before I recognised the sound for what it was, I saw the mild surprise in Val’s eyes, and then as I heard the next rifle report I was lunging for Val as he keeled sideways.  Scott and Murdoch were shouting about getting down, and the horses were snorting and one squealed.  I flattened myself on top of Val, yelling his name, and I saw the puddle of blood that was forming from under his head.

Fuck no!  Please God no!  Not Val!

 

 

 

~end~

July, 2017

NOTE :  Just a reminder that Johnny and Val’s history in my stories is based on that created by Kit Prate in “The Gringo”.  I am very grateful that she has been kind enough to let me use it.

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